Creation and New Creation in the New Testament
The following is based on some lectures that Tom Wright gave in Oxford. His basic argument is that the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. It was not simply death being overthrown, which would be huge, in and of itself, but the beginning of the liberation of the whole created order.
Wright sees resurrection as the creator’s affirmation of the essential goodness of the created order. The death of Jesus was God’s judgment on what had gone wrong in the creation and his resurrection the inauguration of a renewed cosmos. The resurrection of Jesus means that the liberation of creation, while only being ultimately consummated by the return of Jesus, is not just a future event. It has already begun. It is now breaking in on this present age.
In order to understand his argument we need to briefly survey some of the Old Testament background and isolate of the significant landmarks that he uses. The narrative of the OT has many allusions to the original creation story outside of Genesis because it is an account of the stages of redemptive history that are heading towards the new creation, which will redeem and restore it. The gospels then become the continuation and the climax of the Old Testament story and describe how God’s project to rescue the original creation has now being inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus.
Let me give some examples of how the trajectory of the OT narrative is that of new creation:
1. Abraham—The rabbis said that Adam failed, so God started again with Abraham. The rabbis saw Abraham and his seed as being raised up to heal the wound of the world. The covenant with Abraham was to undo what had gone wrong in Genesis 3 so that the original project of creation set forth in Genesis 1 and 2 could go forward to its climax and consummation.
2. The Exodus—At the Red Sea God’s victory over the mighty waters remind us of the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters in Genesis 1 bringing cosmos out of chaos, and the Exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea, reflects this as Israel comes out of Egypt, out of chaos and death into freedom and life. And their exodus simply foreshadows the greater exodus of human kind that will be realized by Jesus in his victory over the mighty waters of sin and death on the cross through the resurrection.
3. The conquest under Joshua—As Israel moves into the Promised Land we are seeing, in part, a small segment of humanity, Israel, returning to the Garden of Eden. What did not bear fruit because of the fall in Genesis 3 and the expulsion from the Garden is now abundantly fruitful as Israel inhabits a land flowing with milk and honey that is described as the garden of the Lord.
4. The Prophets—The desert blossoming as a rose, the myrtle replacing the briar, and the lion lying down with the lamb, are among dozens of metaphors speaking of the renewal of the
creation that will be achieved through Israel and its Messiah. However, the prophets did not see this as being achieved over the temporal horizon in another world but rather that the great reversal would take place within this world, the creation project that began in Genesis one, which is why their descriptions of the new age are of a restoration of the creatorial order that we are all familiar with. Lions and lambs are components of the creation that was declared to be very good in Genesis 1 and 2.
5. The Exile—Israel’s exile from the land because of their disobedience parallels the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden, which, of course, according to Romans 5, was the exile of the whole human race who were in solidarity with Adam.
6. The Return from exile—When the prophets describe the return from exile, it is described in lavish terms as the renewal of creation. This can be seen in Isaiah 35, 55, 65, and a multitude of similar prophetic statements. But, much to everyone’s surprise, this did not happen in 538 BC when the remnant returned from Babylon. This physical return only foreshadowed the greater return from the exile from sin and death of the whole human race that will be achieved by resurrection and new creation in Jesus.
7. The inter-testamental period—Daniel says that the real exile did not last for seventy years, but seventy times seven, which if we work out the chronology, brings us up to the Cross. He sees that only with the vindication of the Son of Man over the anti-creation monsters that have come up out of the sea (You will remember that Daniel ch 9 describes them) will the creation be renewed and come under the rule of God’s justice. Daniel is using apocalyptic images but his message of global justice and restoration through the vindication, the resurrection of the Son of man could not be clearer.
So on the basis of this Old Testament narrative that is inexorably moving towards new creation, the covenant comes to its climax in the four gospels and the story of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.
This means that the gospels are the fulfillment of a narrative that runs right back to the creation in Genesis 1 and that the incarnation is the culmination of this story. We mustn’t simply see the gospels as an account of the life, teachings, and death of Christ, but rather as the climax of the promise of new creation that is embedded in the whole Old Testament story.
Wright then goes on to illustrate this in some detail from all four gospels and Acts and makes the following important points.
1. Many of the miracles of Jesus were harbingers of the new creation—The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was the Messianic banquet promised in Isaiah that would celebrate the inauguration of the new age. The stilling of the storm and the walking on the sea echoed the Psalms, which speak of Yahweh’s victory over the mighty waters, over the ancient demonic powers that rise up like great waves threatening to engulf God’s purposes for the renewal of creation. The casting out of demons pointed to the day when Satan himself would be bound. The raising of Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widows son in Nain, all pointed towards the new cosmos in which death would be swallowed up by life. In fact, all the healing miracles are the
firstfruits of the new age in which the lame man will leap as a hart and in which there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain, as the old things will have passed away.
2. Each of the four gospels concludes (and this is so easy for us to miss) by presenting resurrection of Jesus as the initiation of the new creation—Wright does a beautiful job of pointing this out, but because of time I will only mention his remarks on the Gospel of John. He believes that the seven signs in John’s gospel that climax with the cross, function as the week of the old creation. Easter Sunday then becomes the beginning of the new creation, the eighth day, the first day of the new week. And this is why the church fathers always saw the eighth day as symbolic of new creation.
The Word who was in the beginning with God and through whom all things were made (John chapter 1), is now by resurrection, the Word through whom all things are remade, the prototype of what God is going to accomplish in the created order.
In John 20 Mary believes Jesus is the gardener and this is not a bad mistake for her to make. Just as the first Adam was a gardener in Eden, so now Jesus, the last Adam, is now the gardener, the steward, of God’s new creation. . He comes to uproot the thorns and the thistles in Isaiah 55 and is mandated to bring God’s new order into harmony, beauty, and fruitfulness. John’s desire is to conclude his gospel by depicting Jesus as the new Adam, who is even now beginning to steward the new creation.
3. The resurrection is not announced in the gospels and Acts primarily as a new way to get to heaven—We are so accustomed to immediately jumping from resurrection to personal salvation that we overlook the fact that the first announcement of the resurrection was not subjective (what the resurrection means for my life), but objective. The resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed as the climax of Israel’s history and as that which validated him as the new Lord of the world.
The emphasis at the conclusion of the Gospels and in the early apostolic preaching in Acts, is not that Jesus has conquered death to pioneer a new way to heaven, which, of course, he did, but that his resurrection is the dawn of the new age. It is only later in the New Testament epistles that the implications of the resurrection for every believer after death, is taught in any detail. Then the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus is linked to our personal immortality, but this is not the initial application of the Gospels writers and early apostolic preaching. Their announcement is that by resurrection Jesus is now the new “kurious”, the new Lord of the cosmos, and that the new age has been inaugurated in him.
Their message and passion is not that Jesus has been raised and, therefore, there is life after death, but rather that Jesus has been raised and is now Israel’s Messiah and the new ruler of the world.
The Roman emperor was only officially proclaimed as divine by his successor when he was believed to ascend into heaven after death. This is how the Caesars were deified. Now, in a similar manner, immediately following the giving of the great commission, our Lord ascends into heaven. The ascension of Jesus had overtones in the in Roman world that were immediately
recognized and, in fact, were treasonous. Caesar now had a rival. Jesus is enthroned as Lord of the empire and, indeed, of the world. (Wright–55, 56, 228, 232, 568, 656).
So, as the disciples move out into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and into the Roman world, their primary message is not telling people how to get to heaven. The good news is that by resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth is now the new Lord of both heaven and earth. When a new Roman emperor was enthroned, this was described as good news, the gospel, the euangellion, that was taken out by couriers and heralded to the furthermost limits of the empire: and this is exactly what the disciples were doing. They knew it and so did their enemies.
4. In the resurrection the future has invaded the present—We tend to view the events of the incarnation and the resurrection as the upper world invading the lower world, and indeed, there is some truth in this. But the deeper reality is not so much vertical, the upper invading the lower, but horizontal, in that God’s future is now being brought into the present through the resurrection of Christ. It is a horizontal construct.
We have to resist seeing the resurrection as only as a fresh invasion of the power of God from the outside, as it were. Rather, we should view it as God’s affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the original created order. It is the reiteration of the “very good” that was spoken by God in Genesis one and a sign of his continuing loyalty to the creation project. The resurrection is God claiming back his handiwork by defeating death and the demonic that usurped and polluted it. What went wrong in Genesis 3 is now being reversed by the resurrection of Christ.
But there is more. By resurrection Jesus does not just take us back to Genesis 1 and 2 and the garden, but rather forward into the renewal and the perfection of what was only initiated in the beginning.
Wright, along with many others, does not believe the scriptures teach the destruction of the cosmos at the end of the age. The resurrection means the renewal, not the replacement of creation. God is making all things new, not all new things. 2 Peter 3:10 (the elements shall be destroyed by fire, etc.) sounds like destruction in many of our English translations, but the text can equally be translated to imply the cleansing of the earth by fire rather than its incineration. The destruction of the earth was a Gnostic, not a Hebraic concept, and therefore it would be strange for Peter to be picking up a concept that was Gnostic, rather than Hebraic, in his second epistle.
While we recognize that there is some discontinuity between this age and the age to come, Wright affirms that at the end of the age creation will be purified and renewed, not annihilated and then recreated. Creation is not garbage that will be dumped in some cosmic trash can. This is consistent with many scriptures, not the least with 2 Cor 5:17 (“if any man is in Christ he is a new creation”). Here, the believer (who is a tiny piece of the old cosmos) has already become a new creation. God has initiated in microcosm, in the believer, what will be consummated in macrocosm, in the wider created order. Just as he did not incinerate me when he made me a new creation, in the same way, he will renew the creation, not annihilate it.
Because the resurrection has inaugurated the new age, we are now workers together with God in advancing towards its consummation. Because God’s future has invaded the present, I now work for social justice, protect the environment, value the creation, discover its secrets, celebrate its wonders, and enhance its beauty.
5. The announcement of new creation needs to be carried forward by the church in the power of the Spirit—The great redemptive narrative began with God’s promise that through Abraham’s seed all the nations would be blessed, and it and comes to it in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As I mentioned, as a new Caesar would rise to the empiral throne, heralds would go out across the empire, announcing his coronation. By resurrection and ascension, Jesus has sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, he is the new Caesar, the new Lord of the world, and his disciples are now commissioned as ambassadors and heralds to go out into the empire and announce to the citizens their new rightful Lord.
The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, under Caesar’s nose, continuing to announce the good news of the lordship of Christ over the world and this is the climax of the Gospel story. The announcement of resurrection and new creation has been taken to the center of the empire.
In conclusion, it is important to say the Wright’s perspective of resurrection as the initiation of the new creation in the Gospels and Acts in no way belittles personal salvation or the gospel promise of immortality for the individual believer (in his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God he takes this up in depth), however what it does do is see the Gospel as that which is intended to now have a profound impact all aspects of human life: politics, economics, law, education, ecology, justice and peace. It is indeed the new order, the new age, the new creation, God’s future invading history (not fully and finally) but still with the power to redeem, restore, and renew every dimension of human life.
I can’t do any better than close with a quote from Chesterton in his book, The Everlasting Man. Reflecting on the end of John’s gospel, he says, “on the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place, found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening, but the dawn.”
(H.T. Wright—Oxford, l993)