We have been studying Genesis and have come to the point of the flood. Normally, when I talk about a certain passage, I try to go through the passage, opening up windows of thought on specific verses—specific events. And then have the meaning of the entire passage congeal as we consider all these parts as a whole. For our consideration of the flood, I’m going to do this a bit differently. I’m going to start with talking about what it shows us as a whole, and then we will dig into its specific parts to see how they support that concept we understand as a whole.
In Genesis 1, we have a synopsis of God creating everything. And we see in that chapter as well the purpose in image bearing for which God made everything. In chapter 2, we see the more intimate creation details showing the purpose of everlasting love relationship, not only of image bearers individually with God but also among image bearers in community.
Genesis 3 revealed the fall when God’s creation, led by image bearers, turned creation from love relationship with God to individual focus away from God. And then chapters 4 and 5 gave us the general result of that turning away—some would immediately seek the primacy of self while others, even though having hearts more intent toward God, would eventually be overwhelmed by the force of their lust, succumbing to their cursed physical essence in choosing evil. And all of it ends with the beginning of chapter 6 as we read in verses 5 through 7, “When the Lord saw that man’s wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. Then the Lord said, ‘I will wipe off from the face of the earth mankind, whom I created, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them.’” And so the flood came to do just that. It is a scene of tremendous sadness and discouragement, but significantly it does not reach down to despair. Even in his regret, God provides a wisp of hope, a catch of breath, that even still he may work toward repair, toward rescue, toward restoration.
God’s proclamation of destruction is given to humankind—in their spirits (which is also represented by the animal kingdom). It is the human spirits that will die and the animals, those representatives of the spirit. But God is not intending to destroy the physical essence itself. And that is an interesting point. It is the physical essence that received the curse in the Garden. It is the cursed physical essence that is enslaving the human spirit in sin. Yet God spares the physical essence and actually uses it in his judgment on those who have turned away from him—which, in this case, is everybody except Noah. Noah, alone, still calls on God. And so Noah—and his family, those who complete the communal image of love intended by God to continue—will be protected, will come through the judgment, protected by God.
Immediately we can see how this flood story depicts the fuller story of God’s judgment and redemption plan. All God’s creation was lost in evil. In the grand story of this world, God will judge all creation—the individual existence (the spirits) of humankind, in a judgment of eternal death, and the essence (the shared physicality) of humankind, in a judgment of refining fire (the eradication of the sin curse). That is the story of the Bible in its whole. And that is the picture imaged by the flood. The ark being built pictures the OT preparation for redemption. The ark in the flood pictures the redemptive care of those in this age while the rest of the world succumbs to the cursed creation. And Noah, stepping out of the ark after the flood is gone, pictures the children of God in the new heavens and the new earth.
So then, the ark is a picture of salvation—of Jesus, the Savior. And it is on this one that I want to focus today because, after all, it is Christmas. We all here understand Jesus is Savior. We understand that he came to this earth to die, bringing life through his death and resurrection. But we are celebrating at this season his birth in particular, so let’s not jump ahead to Easter just yet. His coming to earth was purposed for his death, but we don’t set up cross images at his birth celebration because the specific purpose of his birth must be recognized, even celebrated, before we get to the end of his time on earth in his crucifixion.
Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God “made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This verse is much misunderstood. And its misunderstanding has led us away not only from the correct view of Jesus’s death but also of his birth. While I’ve talked much more in other venues about Christ’s atonement—what he accomplished in his death and resurrection—I have mentioned it only briefly on occasion in our Genesis series here so far. But to refresh our memories, let me review that once more because it leads to the correct look at his birth.
The misunderstanding of 2 Cor 5:21 is that some kind of Great Exchange (as it has come to be known) took place: to Jesus was imputed our sin and to us was imputed Jesus’s righteousness (understood as sinlessness to adherents of this view). First of all, Jesus could never have been guilty of any sin (his or ours) and still qualified as a redeemer. If the sin becomes his so that he is guilty in his spirit, and death is the only way to remove sin guilt, Jesus would have had to die—not just physically but spiritually and forever. Death is the penalty for sin. Death means separation from God. So sin doesn’t get paid for or worked down based on a certain amount of torture inflicted on the spirit. It is also not a thing that slowly gets reduced in size based on the amount of time of the separation from God. The punishment for sin is simple and complete: separation from God—forever. Jesus died physically but there was no spiritual death. Jesus in his Spirit was never separated from God in his Spirit. To say there was such a separation is to deny the Trinity—the necessary oneness of our God that must be maintained for God to be God. And if Jesus did not die spiritually, he could not have paid for the guilt of a particular sin of mine or yours or anybody’s. So the modern understanding of 2 Cor 5:21 as describing an imputation of our sin to Jesus is impossible. (Of course, there are many other reasons for seeing it as impossible, the other most obvious of which is the total lack of justice that God would have to embrace to decide one person must be punished for another person’s sin. The whole Bible argues against such a philosophy—Ps 62:12; Ro 2:6.)
But if our sin is not imputed to Jesus, what then does Paul mean in 2 Cor 5:21 when he states that God made Jesus “to be sin for us”? Many people (who reject the penal substitution imputation of sin as I just described) choose to argue that Paul meant Jesus became a sin sacrifice. This understanding appears much closer to the truth. The OT Hebrew labels both actual sin and the sin sacrifice (or offering) with the Hebrew word for sin. And so, in the Hebrew OT, we read that the “sin” (rather than “sin sacrifice”) was placed on the altar to be burned. The Septuagint (the 2nd century BC translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek) also translated sin sacrifice with merely the Greek word for sin. Thus, as Paul, who quotes mostly from the Septuagint, refers to a sin sacrifice, he would naturally write the term as he has read it—simply, sin. Therefore, the idea Paul is conveying in the verse is that God made Jesus “to be a sin sacrifice for us,” therefore, removing any notion of actual guilt being somehow transferred over to stain Jesus’s soul.
However, while this explanation is consistent with the purity of Jesus as he died on the cross, I think there still is a sense in which Jesus not only was a sin sacrifice but could be said to have been made sin (and yet still preserve the necessary notion that his spirit was not guilty of any sin—his or ours). Sin can be both action—the missing of the mark, the doing of evil, for which we become guilty and are in need of forgiveness—and also a state of being. Jeremiah asks in 8:22 of his book, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? So why has the healing of my dear people not come about?” The view of sin there is of an affliction, a state of sickness in which the people exist. Even Paul’s description of us as dead in our sins offers a state of being (separated from God) condition of sin. And Paul doesn’t ask in Romans 6:1 whether we should “continue to sin.” Rather, he asks whether we should “continue in sin.”
What is this state of sin that we can be in? It is the wrapping of our spirits in this cursed essence. We, as David said in Psalm 51:5, are born in sin—in other words, into this cursed physical essence that we share. So Jesus was made to be sin for us. Jesus was made to be wrapped in this cursed physical essence for us. And it is all because his physical death would put to death that cursed physical essence. And his resurrection would take back (redeem) that physical essence then without its curse and slave-hold over the human spirit.
So when did Jesus become sin for us? When did he take on that cursed physical essence? It was not when he was approaching his death, but rather he took on the cursed physical essence at his birth. He became sin (though his spirit was not guilty of any sin) when he took on flesh. And that is the particular notion we celebrate at his birth—at Christmas. At Easter, there is always a bit of uneasiness in our celebration because of the horror Jesus suffered in death to achieve that glorious resurrection. And so it is at Christmas that while we celebrate Jesus’s birth for us, we recognize the horror of Jesus voluntarily placing himself in the depths of this cursed physical essence for us. That is why we have the picture of the lowly birth in a stable. And that is also why we see the baby Jesus being wrapped in swaddling clothes. Swaddling clothes were pieces of cloth carried with the traveler for many purposes of which one of the major ones was for wrapping the body of a family member/co-traveler if that person died on the trip. The picture of being wrapped in a dead person’s cloths is what we see of Jesus as he is born. It does speak to his mission that he would die for us, but it also speaks immediately to the state in the sinful flesh in which he was born—also necessary for us.
So in this Christmas season, let’s celebrate the birth of Jesus who came into sinful flesh, who came to be with us, who is Immanuel—God with us, so that he could put that sinful flesh to death and give us everlasting life.