When you think of the word “messiah,” what comes to mind?
Most people have a basic sense of the concept. Our culture provides plenty of examples, since messiahs are among the most oft-used character types in all of fiction, so there’s no shortage of literature and movies about them: “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Avatar,” “Terminator,” almost any given Keanu Reeves movie, and countless others most of us could name off the top of our head.
A messiah is someone chosen, guided, anointed by a higher power to lead, to save, to be an agent of transformation and renewal, an avenger of evil and redeemer from oppression, the “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – the original superhero, actually – and a liminal figure to usher in a new age. He’s foretold in prophecy and destined to embody some legendary archetype. His own are apt to reject him, though the world itself hangs in the balance, desperate for him to rise to his preordained role.
But let’s put a pin in that for a minute and come back to it later.
Switching gears for a moment, what comes to mind when you think of the word “church”?
If you’re like many you probably think of a building of some kind: a chapel or a cathedral or a modern, stadium-sized megachurch replete with a coffee shop and a bookstore. A one-stop shop for weddings, funerals, baby dedications, seasonal holiday observances – a piece of cultural furniture for believers and nonbelievers alike.
You might also think of early-morning rock concerts, or little old ladies singing hymns off-key. Restless kids fidgeting in pews. And sermons – some inspiring, some insipid, few with much lasting impact.
You might also think of schisms, sex scandals, swindling televangelists, celebrity preachers exposed and disgraced for some hypocrisy or another, and fanatical cultists foaming at the mouth as they picket military funerals or pass around the cyanide-laden Kool-Aid.
The word “church” likely conjures up a wide range of connotations, some good, some bad, but mostly in the middle, I suspect, because decades of repeating the weekly Sunday-morning routine have reduced the word to a synonym for the banal and the mundane, at least for many.
But what if I told you that all of those connotations we attach to the word “messiah” should apply just as much to the word “church”?
‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High’
The Church, we are told, is the “Body of Christ” – God’s temple, His presence on Earth.
According to the Bible, God is present in the world through the Messiah, and the Messiah is present in the world through his Church.
“Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them,” Jesus said (Matthew 18:20).
Paul understood the Church, the gathering of Jesus’ followers on Earth, to be Christ’s hands and feet – the vessel through whom he continues the work he began 2,000 years ago, exercising gifts and powers bestowed through the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1-16).
In fact, Jesus – the One who walked on water, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead back to life – told his disciples they would do greater things, even, than he did (John 14:12-14).
And we can see how the Church lived up to its messianic role in the early days of Christian history:
“And now the Lord says – He who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to Him and gather Israel to Himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – He says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’”
This is an oracle by the prophet Isaiah (49:5-6) about the promised Anointed One: that the God of Jacob would, through the Messiah, become also the God of the Gentiles – the non-Jewish nations of the world, bringing salvation to the far-flung corners of the earth.
And now, in fact, “monotheism” is generally synonymous worldwide with worship of the God of Israel, precisely because Christianity – within a single generation – grew from a small sect from a backwater province of the Roman Empire into a major world religion, and is today the largest religion in the world.
Yet, Jesus never personally stepped foot outside of Israel during his earthly ministry. It was a prophecy about the Messiah, and the Messiah fulfilled it because the Church, as “the Body of Christ,” is in essence identical to Christ himself.
In short, we are the Messiah.
And that’s the entire point of the Christian plan of salvation:
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24-27)
Being a “Christian” doesn’t just mean we believe in Christ or follow Christ – it means, in a very real sense, we become Christ. We mature into his likeness, because the Divine Life that was in him now animates and motivates and grows within us.
As the apostle Peter wrote:
“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (Greek arête). Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them, you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by appetite (Greek epithumia).” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
That, in a nutshell, is What Salvation Is: our participation in the very Nature of God. Throughout the New Testament (as well as the Old, albeit less explicitly), we read about God’s own Nature descending to dwell within the believer in the Person of the Holy Spirit, remaking him or her from within, and it is this indwelling and regeneration by the Spirit of God that constitutes “salvation.”
This was accomplished, we read, by the Second Person of the Godhead becoming incarnate as a human mortal in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, so that he could die for the sins of all humanity. Having made atonement, God raised him to life again. After appearing to his disciples over a period of 40 days to instruct and prepare them to continue his work, he ascended back to God, resuming his place within the Godhead “at the right hand of the Father.”
Paul understood the significance of the ascension to mean that, through the person of Jesus, the human race itself was now represented within the Godhead – man now dwells within God:
“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)
It is because our sins no longer separate us from God that humanity is now represented within the Godhead and, in turn, a Member of the Godhead has also descended to dwell within humanity, and it is the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us that renews us, transforming us from fallen, bestial creatures into the sons and daughters of God Himself.
By being “born again,” we actually participate in the Trinity as adopted members of the Godhead. As Ireneaus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria after him wrote: “The Word became Man that men might become gods.”
We are not “gods” in the sense that we are worshiped or become infinite, eternal spirits ruling over our own universes one day (as the Mormons heretically teach) – we’re “gods” in the sense meant by Jesus when he quoted the Psalms, which referred to those to whom the revelation was given as “gods.” (John 10:34-36; Psalm 82:6)
That’s how God saves the world: not by sending a Messiah, but by sending a multitude of messiahs. Jesus is Messiah Prime, and we are proxy messiahs individually, but collectively are indistinguishable from and identical to Christ himself – he is the Head and we are the Body.
As Paul summarized:
“For in Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:10-12)
Messiahs In Training
We read also in the New Testament that merely receiving the New Nature isn’t the finish line. That’s just the starting pistol.
What we receive is the Christ-Nature in seed form (1 Peter 1:23; Luke 8:4-8; 11-15). It falls to us to cultivate it, and there is an ongoing process to doing so.
After Peter spoke of our “participation in the divine nature,” he went on to exhort Christians, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence/virtue (Greek arête); and to arête, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection (Greek philadelphia, “brotherly love”); and to philadelphia, love (Greek agape). For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:6-8, which should be considered alongside John 15:1-10)
Faith is the sole condition of all of God’s promises: trusting His promises is the requisite of claiming them, and it’s through His promises that we “participate in the divine nature,” which consists of “making every effort” to add to our faith all the qualities consistent with His nature, the ultimate of which is the quality rendered in Greek as agape, which is the definitive characteristic by which disciples of Jesus Christ are distinguished (John 13:35).
Agape is typically translated into English simply as “love,” which is unfortunate because we tend to oversimplify it to the point of being misleading when we take it as just “love” and look no further.
“Love” can mean a wide range of things in English: “I love hot dogs!” “I love God!” “I love The Who!” “I love ‘The Walking Dead’!” It’s the same word there, but it means different things in different contexts, which leaves it wide open to a range of different and contradictory interpretations when it comes to its definition as the ultimate goal of Christian spirituality.
In Greek, there are four words we typically translate as “love,” and knowing what they are makes a tremendous difference in what various passages of Scripture actually mean. Eros, of course, being sexual and romantic love; Storge is familial love; Philos is affection, as between friends; while Agape, in the sense often used in Scripture to describe the love between God and His people, is the ultimate and highest form of love.
It’s the word used in John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world…” – and elsewhere in the New Testament and the Septuagint where God’s love for humanity is in view. It’s different from the other loves in that it isn’t based on the object of love – on what he or she or it can do for the one bearing the love. It isn’t like eros and storge, which are loves experienced and expressed by animals and humans alike, which spring from natural instincts and appetites and psychosocial need. Rather, it’s based on the nature of the one bearing the love.
In other words, God doesn’t agapeo us because we’re so lovable and we fill a hole in His life or because He is biologically-programmed to affection toward us; God loves us because He is love – it’s a love that emanates from His own Nature rather than a love that responds to ours.
In John 21:15-19 – the passage that records Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after his three denials on the night of his arrest – we miss the real conversation when we read only the English translation. As we read it, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, Peter answers in the affirmative three times, but for some reason, Peter is especially hurt by Jesus’ third inquiry, and that’s that.
In the original Greek, referencing Peter’s earlier insistence that he, and he alone, loved Jesus more than all the other disciples (John 13:36-38; Matthew 26:33; Luke 22:33), Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly agapeo me more than these?”
“Yes Lord, you know that I phileo you,” Peter answers, downgrading his previous declaration of absolute devotion to mere affection.
Jesus repeats the question. Peter repeats the answer.
Then Jesus asks him, “Simon, do you phileo me?” – questioning even his affection, hence Peter’s emotional injury.
This is important because Peter himself later distinguishes between the two in his epistle, where he lists philadelphia as a lesser quality on the way to agape. Philadelphia isn’t uniquely Christian, nor are the other loves of eros and storge – street gangs, fraternities, wolves, howler monkeys, fans of the same football team, and innumerable other subcultures and animal species all display eros, storge and philos, simply as a matter of being alive and needing others of their kind to survive and thrive. There isn’t anything necessarily spiritual or transcendent about those loves. They’re merely the product of glands, stomachs and loneliness, not enlightenment or spiritual quickening.
Agape requires a new nature, though, which entails an ongoing process of transformation into Christ-likeness, which is why there are several other passages in the New Testament with similar exhortations calling us to strive, to work (Philippians 2:12), to spare no effort, lest we “believe in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2), because that transformation into the divine nature isn’t just important to salvation – it is salvation.
We are initiated into the process through faith, and our maturation continues from that starting point by making every effort to add to our faith other qualities consistent with the divine nature, beginning with arête, which was a quality attributed to God Himself (2 Peter 1:3), as well as a broadly-nuanced concept in Greek culture: the word means “excellence” and “moral virtue” and it was the ultimate goal of a classic Greek education and a recurring preoccupation within Greek philosophy.
As Christians, in our effort to cultivate the divine nature within ourselves, we are to spare no effort in the pursuit of arête, along with all of the other qualities mentioned, which lead toward the attainment of agape, which ultimately culminates in our resurrection from the dead when Jesus returns.
And this is the gist of much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
The famous “love” passage is chapter 13, which follows chapter 11, where he began by speaking about “the Body of Christ” in a different, albeit related sense by instructing them about the Lord’s Supper, which led into instruction about the proper use of spiritual gifts within the Church (chapter 12), all of which culminated in Paul showing them the “still more excellent way” of agape, because that was the purpose of everything that came before. Having put everything into perspective, he offers some final instructions about speaking in tongues and engaging in orderly worship before instructing them about the ultimate goal of it all: resurrection from the dead.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” he concluded (1 Corinthians 15:58).
As he wrote elsewhere:
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14)
All of this, of course, is a difficult, demanding process, and it’s nothing anyone can undertake alone.
This is why the Church exists.
In fact, if it’s not facilitating this process by initiating and mentoring people in that personal transformation into Christ-likeness, there is no reason for the Church to exist.
Consider the following from Paul:
“The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16)