Thursday, October 11, 2007

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING: Address 5: Immortal or Eternal Life? (Gen 5)

Address 5: Immortal Life or Eternal Life? (Genesis 5)

We saw at the end of chapter 4 that Adam and Eve did the most natural thing: they came together and Eve conceived and bore another son, Seth. I say their coming together was natural in one sense: the sexual instinct backs up God’s command to increase and multiply and fill the earth.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. 3 When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. 4 The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. (verses 1-4)

The Hebrew word translated “generations” (toledot) is also used to mean history. Many ancient cultures recorded history by counting the ancestors. In Africa, the ancestors are even thought to live on in the spirit after their physical death. Adam and Eve, however, may have had quite a different idea of the human life than we do. They had been warned by God that they would die, and they had seen one death at least, the murder of Abel. But so far, no one in Adam’s direct line had died. Indeed, Adam himself had seen his grandsons and great-grandsons born to several generations. So it is possible his idea of history, as involving cycles of birth and death was quite unlike our own – until one day “Adam died.” “Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died” (verse 5).

The Urge for Immortality

One of the most common stories of the ancient world is about “demigods,” human beings who by their prowess achieved immortality. Greek legends tell of Hercules, a man who was made divine: “apotheosis” is the technical term for this. Again, the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh tells of a man who sought to become divine, but failed. In Genesis we have two examples of the mixing of the human and divine, one positive the other negative.

The positive example is Enoch.

When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.(verses 21-24)

While living 365 years may seem long to us, Enoch’s sudden departure must have seemed very striking to all his relatives. However, his was not an untimely death; rather it was a spiritual rapture. Enoch is one of those few individuals – only Elijah and maybe Moses – who did not pass through a normal death. Whatever this means, it is clear that Enoch’s apotheosis was the result of his spirituality – he “walked with God.” It is possible that there are a few such spiritual heroes, not muscle men like Hercules, whom God has granted a special honor to sit with him in Paradise. But the means of achieving this is not the human quest for immortality but the grace of God in taking one up.

The negative example involves the so-called “sons of God” in Genesis 6:

When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-- and also afterward-- when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (verses 1-4)

There has been a lot of discussion as to who these “sons of God” were. Some see them as the sons of Cain’s line, some the sons of Seth’s line; still others see them as spiritual beings, fallen angels. I am in the latter camp, but in any case some kind of violation of boundaries seems to have been involved. The sons of God, whoever they were, were seeking a kind of immortality, whether of beauty or power or renown, that is not God’s lot for the human race. And hence God determined to destroy them.

Thanks be to God, there was one Enoch-like figure, Noah whose stature was based on his righteousness before God. Noah was not taken into heaven, but he was taken into the ark and hence the human race survived.

What are we to learn from this history? I think we are to realize that our hope is not for immortality but for eternity. Immortality is a mere extension of this world – more years, more power, more beauty. Eternity is to share the very character of God.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

This character does not come by our efforts and strength but through His divine power and gracious promises in Jesus Christ.

Learning to Accept Mortality

As I grow older, I find myself increasingly interested in genealogy. Fortunately, someone on both sides of my family left lots of information and even old photos of various relatives. I purchased a computer program that neatly organizes my ancestors in graphic charts. I can even scan in the photographs.

How is genealogy relevant for a Christian? Many of us have heard the saying: "God has no grandchildren," that is to say, each individual must be personally adopted into God's family by faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:13). And there are those hard sayings of Jesus about one's natural family: "Who are my mother and brothers?"

There is a deep truth underlying the New Testament conviction that the birth from above is far more important than birth from below. At the same time, there are also biblical reasons to honor our earthly family and earthly lineage.

First of all, God is the creator of the earth and its history. The Old Testament, verse one, describes God as the author of a "genealogy" of all things in heaven and earth (cf. Genesis 2:4). The families of oak trees and ants and supernovas and great blue whales and chickadees and anteaters are all offspring of this great creative act. Each produces "seed after its kind," i.e., they are not direct offspring of God or each other but are nevertheless kinsfolk in his beautiful earthly home.

The Old Testament story is the tangled skein of the line of Adam and Abraham and David. The particular calling of the people of Israel was to preserve the chosen lineage. The so-called purity codes of the Law were meant to help families be faithful to God's plan for the generations. The last Old Testament prophet we meet before Jesus' birth comments: "Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed for yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth" (Malachi 2:15).

The New Testament, verse one, also begins with "the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). Luke takes the geneaology back even to Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:23-38). Jesus is a son of God both according to the flesh through Adam and Abraham and David, and he is also the great prototype of Adam and Abraham and David according to the Spirit (John 3:13; 8:53-58; Matthew 22:41-45). Even in his resurrection in power, Jesus remains our human brother, ever eager to sympathize with our weakness (Romans 1:3-4; Hebrews 4:15).

The Great Commission of Christ cuts across all ethnic and family lines: "Make disciples of all nations..." But this does not exclude a special promise to the children of believers. On the Day of Pentecost, St. Peter assures believers that the salvation promised in baptism "is to you and your children and to all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord God calls to him" (Acts 2:39).

I know the grief of having a child baptized into the Church but not walking with Christ. Were these words about "receiving him or her into the household of God" all in vain? O the mysteries of the human will that two children from the same womb and smae household may go in opposite directions.

But I also take hope from the "presumption" of Scripture that God will bring the children of believers to himself. Writing to Timothy, St. Paul speaks of the faith that dwelt first in grandmother Lois and mother Eunice and "now, I am sure, dwells in you" (2 Timothy 3:5). This is not a magical faith. Paul goes on to urge Timothy to rekindle it. But he presumes it is there at least in seed form.

During the Mission Week here at Uganda Christian University each year, we hear students and staff give their testimonies of how they came to faith. Frequently, they have had dramatic moments of being born again in their later years. But I have also noticed that in many, many cases, those who later came to faith had in their youth a godly parent or role model (this is the idea behind godparents) whom they later came to identify as the Lois or Eunice of their Christian life.

I do not know exactly how we will straighten out our genealogies in heaven. The Book of Revelation describes "a great multitude in heaven which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (7:9-10). Will we recognize our parents and our children? I think so. But even more, we may also recognize that we are all one Body, one family in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man.

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