Catechumenate: God Comes to Meet Man
Session One: God Comes to Meet Man
- -Human Reason and Divine Revelation
- -Stages of Divine Revelation
- -The Chosen People of Israel
- -Christ Jesus: The Definitive Word of the Father
Unapologetically and without ambiguity we can state that the Christian life is based “on an appeal to divine revelation” (The Light of Christ, Joseph Thomas White, p. 8). The foundation of Christianity is God’s own self-disclosure to humanity. He revealed or unveiled himself to us, not just that he exists, but precisely who he is in himself and what he has accomplished for us in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh (Cf. John 1:14).
There is a war today, played out in media, politics and academia, between religion and science, between faith and reason. Reason, we are told, is enough for us. We are too grown up to need silly myths and fables of ancient and ignorant men and women. Why have revelation, why rely on one man’s testimony, such as John the Baptist or a prophet, when we can turn to the testimony of reason that all human beings hold in common?
The Church teaches and St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (1:19-21) declares that unaided human reason (without any revelation from God) can start from creation reason back to a Creator. We can know some attributes of his divine nature and his powerful. But reason has its limits. None of us are omniscient. Reason might get us to the reality of God’s existence, but it cannot truly penetrate into that reality. We cannot know the mind of God, for to be God means He by nature transcends all of our human experience and the human condition.
REASON: POWER AND LIMITS
Reason tells us that God is and tells us what God is not. God is not a body, thus we need to retire the notion some people have that he is the supreme being, an old man with a big beard floating in the heavens with cosmic powers. God is pure spirit, pure knowing and loving. God is not present in any one space, for he is infinite (literally “without end”). God is not limited by a succession of moments that we call time, for he is timelessly eternal, experiencing all of what we call time as an simultaneous present moment. Reason tells us that God cannot be divided into little gods and goddesses, for how does one divide Spirit, which has no parts? Reason also tells us that God can have no opposite equal, for the idea of a good god and an evil god mean two infinities that are divided up, which is a contradiction. Reason tells us that, if God created the universe from nothing, then this God must have no limits to his power, for to cross the void from nothingness into something, even just one atom, would take an infinitely creative power to do so. Reason tells us that this God is not the same thing as the universe He created, for then the universe would be equally God. Pantheism, the belief that creatures combined make up all the parts of God, falls apart.
Reason cannot tell us that God, in himself, is the union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reason, belonging to mere creatures, cannot probe the inner life of God. For us to know any of this inside information, God himself would have to take the initiative and reveal it to us. This is precisely what we mean by divine revelation. The word mystery in the Christian understanding is not something that needs a detective to solve, but rather is something that is beyond human reason to comprehend.
Reason cooperates with revelation, though. Reason approaches divine claims of knowledge with healthy skepticism. Reason demands proof of one’s divine credentials. The Bible is filled with men demanding to know if this or that prophet is truly speaking on God’s behalf. Moses laid down principles for ancient Israel to discern if a man is a prophet of the Most High or not in Deuteronomy 18:21ff. No one should believe what a person says about ultimate questions without establishing their credibility first. "Credibility" comes from the Latin word credo, which means to believe. Is this person a truth-teller or a liar? Is this person morally good or a known to be a bad person? What experience or expertise does this person have that makes sense for be to believe him or her? Reason works for auto mechanics as well as prophets and heralds of purportedly divine oracles.
The Bible is not a single book, but is a collection of books spanning centuries and cultures. It is just as much history as it is theology and as a work of human authorship, it contains the whole width of literary genres like poetry, narrative, historical chronicle, parables, allegory, fable, saga, fiction, proverbs, and apocalyptic prose. Hundreds of men and women have contributed to its authorship, editing, and compiling, all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which we will touch upon later.
The Bible, through all the different biblical types and genres, is really telling the the grand story of God and his election of the people of Israel. Through a succession of covenants, or ancient religious and political family bonds, God begins to build his kingdom on earth. In the words of Saint Paul, speaking of “my kinsmen by race” he said, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen” (Rm. 9:4-5).
The story of ancient Israel can be told through five major covenants with God: the marital covenant of Adam and Eve, the household covenant with Noah, the tribal covenant that God makes with Abraham, the national covenant God makes with Moses and the 12 tribes of Israel, and the royal covenant God makes with the House of King David. Eventually, the momentum of biblical covenants would climax with the worldwide (catholic) covenant of Jesus Christ.
Covenants are family bonds where family bonds previously did not exist. A powerful king would conquer a neighboring kingdom and would enter into a covenant with the less powerful king, who now was called “son” and called the conqueror “father”. This is one reason why kings had so many wives, for they often intermarried with the nations they entered into covenants with, intermingling the bloodlines into natural families.
Covenants were done through a public ritual that was binding both legally and religiously. The lesser swore an oath to keep the covenant. In Near Eastern societies, the gods were called upon to witness the oath and curse the man if he broke it or bless the man if he kept it. And since it was religious in nature, the oaths were made sacred by a ritual sacrifice of an animal while speaking prayers. Today, really only one form of ancient covenant rites still exist, which is marriage. Two peers, a man and a woman, unite their families to each other through the swearing of sacred oaths, the wedding vows, which as religious as they are public. In Hebrews, a book in the New Testament arguing that Christ Jesus is the fulfillment of all the covenants in the Old Testament, would put it this way.
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.Men indeed swear by a greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath” (Hebrews 6:13-17).
You will find what we call “covenant theology” in the whole background of the Bible. This is why God is often described in His relationship with Israel in two ways: Father to Son and Husband to Wife. Idolatry, the worship of false gods, is regarded as adultery. Trying to be like the other nations, a constant temptation for Israel, is seen as a son’s rebellion against his own father. Covenant language is relational. The covenant representatives are regarded as the father of faith over the people he represents. The one stands in the place of, and on behalf of, the many. Adam stands for all humanity. Abraham stands for all who have faith in God. Moses is the great mediator for Israel, interceding on their behalf. The king in David’s line is called God’s son in the Psalms with his coronation being like a divine adoption ceremony (“You are my son, this day I have begotten you.”).
This family language is crucial for you to understand what God has been up with in salvation history, leading up to you. Covenants establish family bonds where there wasn’t one to begin with. You were born with the inheritance of Adam and Eve and the stain of what we call original sin. In a sense, though made for covenant relationship with God, sin drove us to of that relationship and into exile. But the good news is that God has made a way in Christ Jesus for us to return home, restored into a life of grace again.
The first three covenants are recorded all in the book of Genesis, the beginnings of God’s dealings with his people, Israel. Adam and Noah are both covenants of creation. Adam, which we will deal with at length in later sessions, tells of God’s original blessings of humanity and of the Fall of humanity from God’s covenant. Noah gives us a new re-creation account, but one where sin is demonstrably interwoven with even God’s covenant representatives. Abraham, one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible, is the covenant of faith. God swears to Abraham that through his offspring he would give his people a land (fulfilled by Moses), a name (fulfilled by the dynasty of King David), and would be ultimately a worldwide blessing (fulfilled by Jesus Christ in the New Covenant). Abraham’s story and his bloodline carries the narrative of Genesis all the way to the nation of Israel’s bondage in Egypt.
The covenant that God makes with Israel through Moses spans the next four books, from Exodus to Deuteronomy. God establishes himself as the Father over Israel and sees the People of Israel as “my firstborn son”. The drama of Exodus is the great liberation from slavery to the Egyptians of God’s people, while the next three books unfold the wandering in the desert and the establishment of the Law, or Torah, over God’s people. The two books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, along with chunks of Exodus, contain the hundreds of laws that compose the Jewish life and religious practice. Leviticus is concerned principally with the rules of the Temple priesthood, which after the worship of the Golden Calf at Mount Sinai was restricted entirely to only tribe, that of Levi. Deuteronomy, a name which means “the second law”, was given by Moses not on Mount Sinai, but on the plains of Moab shortly before his death and Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land.
The final covenant God makes with ancient Israel is that with King David, or more precisely with the “son of David.” This covenant establishes the house of David, that is, his family dynasty, over Israel forever. The priesthood belonged to the Tribe of Levi and the throne belonged to the Tribe of Judah and the House of David. David and his son, Solomon the Wise, ruled over a united nation, the Kingdom of Israel, with Jerusalem as the capital. Under them the Temple was built and the great liturgies of the Hebrew people was created, what we today have in the large Book of Psalms.
But all would soon fall apart, as sin is in the blood of kings and queens, too. After Solomon’s nearly tyrannical final days, the kingdom would split under his immature son into two new kingdoms: the northern Kingdom of Israel composed of the 10 tribes, and the southern Kingdom of Judah, composed of the remaining 2 tribes, Judah and Benjamin. This brokenness would continue until the Assyrian Empire would utterly destroy the kingdom of Israel and the 10 tribes would be lost to human history forever. The southern kingdom fo Judah would endure another 200 years, until the Babylonian Empire would smash it to pieces, tearing down the temple, the palace, and taking the people into exile.
During the reign of the kings we have the rise of the prophets, men and women to were powerful voices of God’s saving truth against corruption of the royalty and of the priesthood. No modern atheist has harsher words for religious hypocrites than the prophets, which are unquestionably unique in world literature. But these prophets often would speak not just of events of their time, but would prophesy of a future new covenant where God himself would shepherd his people, taking up the throne of his servant, David.
This is the broken history of God’s firstborn son among the nations. It is the story of God’s divine election of a small people amidst the political powers of the gentiles. It is the story of humanity that testifies to both the glory and poverty of human achievement. It is Cain vs Abel, David vs Goliath as well as David and Bathsheba. The genealogies so important to an ancient person’s identity with history and tradition, with family and property, tell of God’s saving actions and man’s damning actions, commingled in the narrative, poetry, wisdom, and prose of the Bible. But there is also something more.
JESUS: THE DEFINITIVE WORD OF THE FATHER
The whole Bible points, ultimately, to Jesus, which is revealed to us in the gospels. The sixth and final covenant that God has made with humanity takes up all of the previous covenants and fulfills them perfectly. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is the New Adam who undoes the disobedience of the first Adam. Jesus is the New Noah, who does not punish the world for its sins by a flood, but rather receives the sins of the world into himself and releases mercy through the outpouring of his precious blood upon all those who have faith. Jesus is the New Isaac, who carried the wood of the sacrifice of his own life up the mountain. Jesus is the New Moses who gives us a New Law of grace and the Holy Spirit, won for us by being the New Paschal Lamb sacrificed so that the many could live. Jesus is the New Son of David, the true and everlasting king of Israel, the one “greater than Solomon” and “greater than the Temple”, whose own body is the true Temple of God among humanity.
Jesus reveals that God is not just called father in a metaphorical sense, but that God really is the Eternal Father because Jesus, he reveals, is the Eternal Son of God. He’s not just another prophet in a line of prophets. He is not another Jeremiah, Elijah, or John the Baptist. His miracles of healing and exorcism are merely signs confirming the truth about himself. He has a paralytic rise, take up his mat, and walk away so that he can demonstrate to the hearers that the “Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” He makes incredible claims about himself - “before Abraham was, I am”; “the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath”; “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by me.” These claims are backed up, made credible, by the signs and wonders that he performed.
When Jesus teaches the disciples about this new way of life it is always framed in covenant language. Christianity is a religion of sonship, of divine adoption. The new covenant that Jesus gives us in his blood is to bring us wayward, prodigal sons and daughters home to the His Father. When Jesus teaches us how to pray, he gives us the “Our Father”. When Jesus teaches us how to give alms, he says that our Father “who sees in secret will reward you.” And again, when praying alone in one’s room, our Father “who hears in secret will reward you.” Again and again, Jesus reveals to us that He alone is by nature the divine Son of God, but that following after Him, by being faithful to the new covenant he inaugurates by the Cross, we become sons and daughters in the Son through “the Spirit of adoption.”
THE ONE AND THE MANY
Salvation history shows us how the one can represent the many. This is called “vicarious representation” in theological circles. The head represents the body before God. Abraham, in a dramatic story from Genesis 18, stands in the gap between God and the city of Sodom, interceding for the righteous remnant of that city.
"...Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
If God is just, would he destroy the city if a 50 righteous people were in it? What about 40? 30? 20? 10? Abraham stops there, fearful he is presuming upon the Almighty’s patience, but he is not. Abraham, as one man, stands on behalf of the many in the city. Abraham himself is the father of all who have faith, becoming a blessing to the whole world.
Moses stood between God and Israel, but not as a obstacle blocking Israel from getting to God. Moses was the mediator, representing God to the people as well as the people to God. The Bible repeatedly shows the people afraid of drawing near to God, pushing Moses forward as their representative. Moses would bring the needs of the people to God and would bring the words of God back to the people. God’s divine election of ancient Israel was to single out one nation for the salvation of many nations. Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s vocation is expressed as a mission to and for the nations, to be a light and guide.
But the ultimate problem with the vicarious representatives of the past is that they were all led by men who broke the covenant and, though God was faithful, proved to be as rebellious as Adam in the Garden or Israel at Mount Sinai. Unique and privileged encounters between God and humanity constantly reveals humanity’s sinfulness towards the covenant. Time and again we fail our Father. Time and again sin wrecks what God would have built up. Salvation history smacks up against damnation history as men, the sons of Adam, sin and break faith with God.
Yet, God remains faithful. God freed the Israelites from Egypt, but they longed for the food they ate while in slavery. It would seem that sin is more than politics, economics, and education can handle. David was called “a man after God’s own heart”, but would end up an adulterer and murderer. This is because sin is in the blood. It is woven like a thread through not just human cities and neighborhoods, but right down the middle of every person’s heart, whether or not they are God’s chosen representative to humanity. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one is righteous. Not one. Jew and Greek alike have departed from God’s grace, broke the covenant, and failed our Heavenly Father.
So God the Father, in the fullness of time, sent his only Son, born of a woman, to be our salvation. Jesus, coming in likeness of sinful flesh, bearing upon himself our faults and transgressions, our lies and our arrogance, would ransom us from the devil and the powers of darkness. God’s human covenant representatives, though great, were all failures to some degree or another. They all broke their own covenant, though God remained faithful. Therefore God entered into the history of Israel as an Israelite. “He came to what was his own [people]” (John 1:11) for “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). The corrupt high priest Caiaphas who would prophesy, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50).
The one for the many, Jesus entered into the history of his own people. Israel was called to be the light to the nations. Jesus would be the light of the world. The eternal Son of God became a member of God’s firstborn son among the nations. But in Jesus, the true and everlasting Messiah, there would be no covenant breaking, no sin, no faithlessness. Thus, as our vicarious representative, as the cornerstone of a new covenant, Jesus would make it possible for you and me to regain the sonship and grace that Adam lost. The new covenant would be far greater than what we dreamed of in the Garden of Eden, for then we would have all been in Adam, a finite son of God, but through faith and baptism we are now in Jesus Christ, we are a new creation, born again by the power of the Holy Spirit that has been poured into our hearts.
This new creation, this new Israel, is the Church of God, called both the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ, with Jesus always as our Head and Husband. This new covenant is not by the law of Moses, symbolized by circumcision, nor is it by the genetic lottery of belonging to the families or bloodlines of the 12 tribes, but it is by grace and faith, open to every human person regardless of tribe, nation, or tongue, as St. Paul says to the Church in Ephesus:
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh... remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility...” (Ephesians 2:11-14)
The Son shows us how to be sons and daughters of the Father by keeping the covenant. This faithful Son takes into himself the curses of covenant breaking that we have all merited through our faithlessness and pays the price for us by being hung on a tree. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which can only bring death is embraced by the Son, who then transforms it into the Tree of Life so that all those who bear the disinheritance of Adam and Eve can again lay hold of its fruit and live forever. And what is this food of the new covenant?
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)