In my reading of Sean McDonough’s brilliant new book Christ as Creator: Origins of a New Testament Doctrine (see my forthcoming review in the next issue of the Ichthus), I was alerted to an important pattern in the Gospels that is so obvious and striking, I am stunned that I never noticed it in a coherent way before. In his historical investigation of how belief in Jesus’ pre-existent agency in the creation of the universe arose in early Christianity, McDonough discusses at length how the four Gospel writers shape their narratives (in various ways) to highlight creation themes as the appropriate backdrop for understanding Jesus’ identity and mission. In particular, McDonough points out that all four Gospels—for all of their profound differences from each other—begin in the same way:
“Each of the evangelists arguably begins his Gospel by connecting the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the beginning of the cosmos…the evangelists saw the doctrine of creation as meaningfully tied to the stories of Jesus that follow.” (p. 19)
Consider the following introductions to each Gospel in this light:
Matthew 1:1—“The book of the genesis/origin of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (cf. Genesis 2:4 and 5:1, in which the same Greek phrase—biblos geneseos–is used to describe the beginnings of the world and of humanity, respectively)
Mark 1:1—“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Luke 1:1-4—“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
John 1:1-5—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“Like much else in the Gospels, the ‘beginnings’ (in every sense of the word) are questions to be pondered as much as they are statements to be affirmed, and insight may only emerge after multiple readings or hearings. The gospel stories of Jesus’ redemptive acts prompt the question ‘Who is this man?’ The gospel introductions serve to underscore the point: ‘Who indeed?’ What, then, had been reported about Jesus that made them frame their gospels this way?” (p. 22)
The implications of this narrative clue are enormous for how we read the stories of Jesus that follow in each Gospel. I’ll highlight only a few of the many ways that “creation” themes are present throughout the Gospel narratives:
*Jesus is the new Adam: in Mark 1:12-13, Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by the serpent, and the “wild animals” (same word from Genesis 3:1) were with him. In Luke’s version (4:1ff), Jesus’ temptation, which is so full of allusions to the original temptation story, is immediately preceded by the claim that Jesus is the “son of Adam” (3:38). What creation (in general) and humanity (in particular) were intended to be, Jesus enacts and restores through his life. Jesus is the true image-bearer of God, as God’s self-representation to the world and the one through whom He rules it.
*Jesus consistently manifests power over the created order in a way that is deeply analogous to statements made about God’s control over His creation in the OT.
*Jesus is the Lord, the giver of life: through his healings, through his miracles and teaching, through the forgiveness of sins, and—most of all—through his death and resurrection. Indeed, the “God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
*The power of his words: Jesus speaks, and things happen. Life springs forth out of death, the light is separated from the darkness, the chaos is tamed and subdued in the waters.
*In John 9, Jesus heals the blind man through the mud or clay of the ground (9:6). Irenaeus argued that this is an intentional allusion to God’s original formation of human beings from the dust of the earth, and that Jesus is inserted into the role of (re)creator. McDonough thinks Irenaeus’ exegetical intuitions were spot on.
While this list could be multiplied almost endlessly, the main point should not be missed. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has accomplished a salvation that not only offers individuals the forgiveness of their sins; it ushers in a new creation of cosmic proportions. Easter is about the birth of a new world out of nothing (creation ex nihilo once again), emerging right now in the midst of this present evil age. And Jesus is the one through whom God the Father is creating it, just as He did earlier at the beginning of all things (John 1:18, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-4). And once more, this “new humanity” which exists as the pinnacle and point of the “new creation” has been given a commission (cf. Genesis 1:26-28) to extend God’s reign over all that He has made, to enact His dominion over the moral chaos and darkness that remains (Matthew 28:18-20), and to “bear fruit and multiply” (Colossians 1:6, 10, 23) in the faith and proclamation of the gospel. This is what it means to be fully, truly human on the other side of the resurrection from the dead. The rest of the story is still to be written.