It is hard for us to fully comprehend how, even at the dawn of creation, God already knew that the human race would rebel and sin and that he would initiate a cosmic plan of redemption. According to 1 Peter 1:20, Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” The book of Revelation is even more specific, declaring that Jesus Christ was “slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), meaning that Christ’s death and resurrection was an ever-present plan in God’s mind from all eternity.
God dwells in the eternal now. The Christian use of the phrase “eternal now” means more than the simple belief that God knows the future, though from our human perspective this is true. Rather, the phrase “eternal now” asserts that all events, in all of history, across all time, are ever present to him since he does not dwell in time. God is the very author of time and therefore is not limited by our chronological orientation and perspective. But when the second person of the Trinity enters the world through the incarnation, he is entering flesh and blood as a full descendant from Adam, and from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and from Ruth, David, and Mary. He truly becomes part of the created cosmos (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.2, trans. G. W. Bromiley [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010], 37)
At creation, the plan of redemption (as well as the final conclusion of that plan, which is still future for us) is fully present in God’s mind. And at creation God designed the human body as the most appropriate receptacle for God’s grand redemptive plan of sending his Son into the world in human flesh as a man. This is commonly known in Christian theology as the incarnation, a word derived from two Latin words “in” and “carno,” meaning “in the flesh.”
God created the body as an icon of the future incarnation. The word icon comes from a Greek word (eikōn) meaning “image” or “resemblance.” In chapter 1, we defined an icon as a person or a thing that serves as a representative symbol. In this case, we are saying that God’s creation of the body is a physical, representative, and anticipatory preparation of God’s grand work in and through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The body points to the deep mystery of God’s redemptive plan, known from before time began, to send his Son into the world in human flesh and, ultimately, to raise up that body to life in a bodily resurrection. Our created bodies all point to Christ’s incarnation, and in turn, his resurrected body points to our physical, bodily (not just spiritual) resurrection at the end of time.
If, as the Gnostics claimed, God could not be sullied by coming into contact with creation because he was “pure spirit,” then, from the outset, the incarnation would not have been possible. If our bodies are untrustworthy and only serve to mask the true self that is within, then the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity as Jesus of Nazareth cannot be trusted as a reliable means for God’s most profound self-disclosure in history.
In chapter 1, we established the goodness of the created order and the underlying unity between body and spirit. Now, we are applying this insight to the incarnation as we encounter it in the New Testament. In an early creedal hymn that Paul quotes in 1 Timothy 3:16, we have a testimony to the early church’s understanding of the revolutionary implications of the second person of the Trinity entering into human flesh:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
This hymn is both poem and creed, giving a short overview of the life of Christ. It begins with the incarnation, where he “appeared in the flesh,” and moves to his baptism, when he was “vindicated by the Spirit” as the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. The next phrase celebrates the resurrection, when he was “seen by angels,” who first proclaimed the resurrection to the disciples, and then the post-resurrection period, when Jesus Christ gave us the Great Commission, which set into motion the current phase of the plan of redemption in which Christ is “preached among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” It culminates in the ascension of Christ, when he was “taken up in glory.” The creedal hymn is also embedded with binaries or pairs, as we observed when we looked at the creation account earlier. Here, some of those same binaries—flesh and spirit, and heaven and earth (incarnation and ascension)—are united in the person of Jesus Christ. You can picture Jesus as the knot that ties heaven and earth together.3 After reciting this hymn, Paul declares a few verses later that “everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:4).
The New Testament reintroduces the creation theme of the “image of God.” It may surprise you to learn this, but the phrase “image of God,” which is so foundational to the creation account, is last mentioned in Genesis 9:6 and never appears again in the Old Testament. Yet here, in the writings of the New Testament, it reemerges with powerful force and is applied supremely to Jesus Christ, who is the perfect visible representation of the invisible God of the universe (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; 2:9). All through history, men and women had created visible images of God, which Scripture declared to be “false images” or “idols” because they had no life. Jeremiah 10:5 compares idols to scarecrows, and Isaiah 44 declares these idols are nothing but a block of wood. Psalms 115 and 135 describe idols as having eyes but being unable to see. In contrast to these false idols, God sent his Son as the perfect image—a tangible, visible, and physical representation of himself in the world.
The New Testament narrative makes it clear that Jesus bodily and physically manifests the true, unbroken “image of God.” It’s as if the world had been waiting through the long centuries since the creation to finally see an unblemished expression of the image of God. And it is in Christ that the broken world can now be refashioned and once again restored to reflect God’s image. As the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ “completes the original vocation of humankind and thereby shows humankind who they were originally intended to be.”4 This is why the apostle John tells us, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and now is already in the world” (1 John 4:2–3, italics added). In his letter, John is directly addressing the gnostics of his day, who posed a major threat to the teaching of the church. Most of the central doctrines of Christianity, such as the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension, were repugnant to the first-century gnostics because the doctrines assumed the goodness of the creation, the divine harmony between the physical and spiritual, and the initiative of God to enter into human flesh and to reveal himself through it. So John reaffirms that the incarnation, contrary to gnostic claims, is one of the central beliefs God wants us to accept and understand.
If the incarnation is the knot that ties together heaven and earth, then contemporary attitudes about the body are determined to untie that knot. A robust theology of the body must necessarily resist the modern encroachments of new gnostic beliefs in the church—namely, anything that pits the feelings of the inner life against the clear message of our embodied material creation, a creation God has called good and holy.
And this has implications for our future hope as well. The incarnation is theologically linked to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is connected to our own bodily resurrection. Christ is the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection at the end of time (1 Cor. 15:20). According to Paul, if Jesus has only been raised “spiritually,” then “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Then we are fools, our “preaching is useless,” and our “faith is futile.” Paul’s argument is that our bodily resurrection is tied to the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection. The human body has always served as a physical icon pointing to the mystery of Christ, which is fulfilled through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and bodily ascension.
This is an excerpt from Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Seedbed, Zondervan). Through these pages, you will:
- Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues
- Discover a positive vision for human sexuality
- Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture
The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.
In For the Body, author Timothy Tennent looks at what it means to be created in the image of God and how our bodies serve as icons that illuminate God’s purposes. Tennent examines topics like marriage, family, singleness, and friendship, and he looks at how the human body has been objectified in art and media today. He also offers a framework for discipling people today in a Christian theology of the body. Get it from our store here. Video and companion study for groups releases January 2021.