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Reflecting on the Incarnation with Sanctuary Christology in John — Excerpt from "Christology, Ancient and Modern"

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On this day after Christmas we continue our reflection on the incarnation this week with an excerpt from the new book, Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. This Christological resource brings together proceedings from the first annual Los Angeles Theology Conference. This work surveys the field and articulates the sources, norms, and criteria for constructive theological work in Christology.

Our particular excerpt comes from Peter J. Leithart's essay "We Saw His Glory: Implications of the Sanctuary Christology in John's Gospel." It is a tour of the sanctuary typology employed by the apostle John is his gospel, connecting it to Israel's form and theology of sanctuaries and showing how it radically shapes John's presentation of Jesus and His work.

It is a beautiful reminder of the God who "tabernacled among" us in full humility, assuming our weakness, frailty, need, and mortality in order to save us from them and more.

Virtually all commentators agree that John alludes to the tabernacle in the beginning of his gospel. When the word becomes flesh, He “pitches a tent” (σκῆνοw) among us, and the arresting force of that verb is reinforced by the tabernacle-fraught terminology that surrounds it. In the tabernacled Word, John says “we beheld his glory” (John 1:14), which reminds us of the glistening glory-cloud that rested in the tabernacle at Sinai. John mentions Moses by name and contrasts the gifts of the law with the gifts that the Word brings (1:14, 17). The Torah institutes a tabernacle and a liturgical system, but that is not the full realization of grace and truth, which arrive fully only when the Word tabernacles in flesh. “No one has seen God at any time” (1:18), John says, alluding to the dense narrative of Exodus 32-34. On Sinai, Moses lone sees God’s glory, and then only his back. In the Word made flesh, however, God opens the tabernacle displaying glory to all who believe. At Sinai, Yahweh reveals His glory by proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6), which, translated Johanninely, is “full of grace and truth.”

For our later discussion, it is important to not a few details of the prologue. First, what “becomes flesh” is the Word, God’s own self-communication, the Word that “exegetes” the Father. This Word is simultaneously distinguished from and identified with God (1:1). He is toward God and He is God. The Word is God’s self-communication that is already differentiatedly united, unitedly differentiated from the Father prior to His coming. He, this Word, takes on flesh.

Second, while “flesh” can refer in Scripture to material bodiliness, it more often carries connotations of weakness, frailty, need, mortality. In Paul’s understanding, the resurrection is a translation from flesh to Spirit, the former characterized by mutability, dishonor, and weakness. John’s “the Word became flesh” accents not merely the embodiment of Gods self-communication, but God’s entry into that human condition characterized by “fleshliness.”

Third, commentators often assume that the analogy works like this: the Word is the Lord who comes into His tent; the tent is the flesh in which He dwells and in which He displays His glory. That matches John’s later aside that Jesus spoke of “the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21), but it seems preferable to take 1:14 more broadly. The Word takes on a body, also a soul and everything that an individual human being possesses, but more generally the Word pitches His tent in the midst of human need and weakness, so that He can share it all, just as Yahweh pitches His tent in the midst ofIsrael, in spit of Israel’s repeated rebellions.

Fourth, we should feel the full force of John’s ἐγένετο “became.” When the Holy One took up residence in the tabernacle, the space and its furnishings were infused with his sanctity. Only men sanctified by ordination dare tread on holy ground, minister at holy altars, or manipulate holy things. But the spread of Yahweh’s holiness to the tent is a dim shadow of the Word’s relation to His flesh. Yahweh comes and goes in his house; He does not become tabernacle or temple. In the incarnation the Word “became” the fleshly house, identifying Himself with flesh, taking flesh as the mode of his own existence so that He could raise it to Spirit. (This is the one point of superiority to Moses.) Yet, in becoming flesh the Word does not cease to be toward God and God, as Jesus’ “I am” statements testify. Finally, the Word pitches his tent in order to display the glory of God in flesh. The force of this point becomes clearer in Jesus’ later statements about glory. His hour of crucifixion is His hour of glory-giving. In the cross, we see the glory of the Son, which is the glory of his self-dedication to the Father; in the cross too, we see the glory of the Father, which in the glory of the eternal truth and lovingkindness that sends the Son. John’s Christology is a theology of glory, but of a glory refracted through a tent of flesh, and so cruciform. (124-126)



Christology, Ancient and Modern

Edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders

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