~ Conformed To Which Image Of Christ? ~
"For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his son" (Romans 8:29a, KJV).
"This is true because he already knew his people and had already appointed them to have the same form as the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29a, GW).
"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son" (Romans 8:29a, NIV).
God, living out of human time and knowing all things, of course knows who His children will be. His children also know the promises and plans the Father instituted (predestined) for us. Conformity to the image of Christ is central to these plans, since we lost the grace of being born with the image of God as the children of the fallen Adam (Genesis 5:3). Thus Christ is called the "last Adam," restoring to us Adam's pre-fallen state.
Reading a statement to the point of familiarity often causes brain freeze. Let's throw some light on this "conformed to the image of the Son" and thaw the brain a bit.
Christ provided us with many images. Beautiful and tender is the image of a baby Jesus in the most humble of birth environments, totally dependent on humans whom He would later redeem. Inspiring and admirable is the image of a 12 year old Jesus independent enough to live by himself for 3 days and nights in a dangerously crowded city, holding His own and even mystifying the most learned scholars in His culture with His discourse.
You may be particularly intrigued with the image of Jesus the miracle worker and healer, or loved to have been at His side as 5000 people crowded to hear Him teach. How about the blinding image of Jesus in a transfigured state on Mt. Tabor? Or the image of Him washing dirty feet? How about the powerful image of His ascension into glory or His ruling from the heavenly throne?
Would you like to wear the image of a popular rabbi at the equivalent of a state dinner packed with dignitaries with the local prostitute crying over your feet and lovingly caressing them with her long hair? Would you carry the image of a peaceful holy man angrily knocking over tables of retailers in the central House of Worship in your city yelling at them to get out? Or being in a barren, dangerous wilderness of rocks and sand for 40 days, refusing to eat, wrestling with the most alluring temptations of worldly power and wealth, preferring to pray and listen to God calling you to a life of sacrificial supreme suffering and self-denied?
How about being conformed to the likeness of a man barely recognizable due to whip-shredded skin and muscle oozing with blood, hanging, nailed to a cross in the mid-day sun? Or the image of sustained love without bitterness even though your closest friends abandoned you? Or the weight of all the screaming pain, despair, evil of sin-tortured people that ever lived or will ever live sharply focused on your heart and spirit like a magnifying glass gathering and concentrating the sun's rays to a burning point?
As a Christian, a Christ-one, which image have you thought of being your conformation? From an ego-centered, save-yourself-from-hell gospel, the glorified images are attractive. From a self-denying, love-God-with-all-your-being gospel, all the images are embraced. Do you pick and choose, grasping one and shunning another? Does your minister preach the total image of Christ, or does he pick one over another?
St. Paul teaches the total image of Christ: "Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ; if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Romans 8:17, NIV). The word "children" is translated from the Greek word teknon meaning "one born into," differing from the "sons" of God in verse 14, whose Greek word is hurios, which pertains to adoption. By spiritual regeneration we are born as children from God, and we have inherited, with Christ as co-heirs, His sufferings and His glories. It is not possible to choose one and refuse the other. The "communion of saints" is not one great happy party, but a community , a family, who love, rejoice, suffer, work and grow together. And like a loving biological family, its members would not have it any other way.
Hearing a totally false gospel and rejecting it because it is obviously untrue is better than hearing only part of the real Gospel and embracing only that. A half-truth is no more redeeming than a falsehood, but more deceiving. If you were never instructed in the high cost of being Christian, in what is meant by the "narrow gate," of the cross we must bear without which, Christ Himself said, we cannot be His followers, then you heard only part of the Gospel. No doubt it was the attractive part, the part that packs churches. The other part would reduce the body count in the churches and not "look good," but the soul count would increase.
Saints throughout church history would simultaneously project the full image of Christ. While being stoned, Steven was gazing into the heavens in ecstasy. While chained in prison, St. Paul sang hymns and wrote edifying letters to the churches. Thousands of martyrs sang while being burned while others danced with 50 pound leg irons in Communist prisons. Equal numbers of present day and past Christians born in freedom and affluence divest themselves of wealth and comfort to carry the burdens of the communion of saints wherever they are found, from local prisons and churches to the corporate empires and government offices. Theirs are the faces of those whose images are conformed to that of Christ.
In these days of an increased interest in end times prophecies, I hear most preachers rhetorically ask, "What if you get killed today? Would you be destined for heaven or hell? Better decide for Jesus right now!" I haven't heard, "Are you ready to share in Christ's sufferings? Are you carrying your crosses with joy?" Yes, Jesus is your Savior from sin, that which keeps you separated from God. Jesus is not your Savior from suffering, for that is needed to bring you in conformity in Him. He assured us of that, along with His other many graces and glories.
I hear many preachers announce the fate of damnation for the rejecters of Christ in a tone of triumph, or, at least, in a matter of fact manner devoid of sorrow. Did you ever see your minister's lips quiver and eyes tear as he taught about the depth of the sorrows and sufferings of those who do not enter the narrow gate to the Kingdom? The disciples of Christ did. Jesus cried bitterly over Jerusalem, lamenting how He wanted so much to gather His people to Him like a hen gathers her chicks, but they refused. Christ is wailing in sorrow now, in the hearts of His children in whom He abides as promised. Don't you hear our Beloved Savior and Master? Why are so few of the altars and pulpits in our Western churches water-stained with the tears of our priests and ministers? Don't we also embrace and conform to the image of the weeping Christ?
The image of Jesus at Gethsemane is bitter and tragic. In Hebrew, Gethsemane means "oil press," the means by which oil was squeezed from olives. A sacred symbol of sanctification, olive oil was used for the anointing of both kings and the sickly poor. How appropriate a sacrament pointing to the squeezing of Jesus' blood that would anoint the world! Jesus told His apostles, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me" (Matthew 26:38, NIV). "Keeping watch" is akin, in this context, to keeping a prayerful vigil beside the bed of a sick and suffering loved one. Jesus prayed so intensely that He needed to rest, and He sought rest with His beloved apostles. They were asleep. "Couldn't you keep watch with me for one hour?" Jesus rhetorically and mournfully asked. What if they had been awake and on watch? Perhaps Jesus would have had shared the most profound and heartfelt words from the deepest recesses of His sacred heart in this very private and painful time. If so, we have been denied that treasure, twice, for Jesus found them sleeping again after more prayer. They were not yet conformed to His image. Instead, they were images of sleeping men oblivious to the supreme suffering of their Lord and God. We see these same images all day long at work, on the street, and, mournfully, even in our churches.
St. Paul wakes us up with statements such as, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Colossians 1:24, NAS); "For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:5, NAS); "…always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body" (4:10, NAS); "…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death" (Philippians 3:10, NAS).
Just before I began writing this Reflection, I was graced with a beautiful image of the body of Christ. A flock of birds were flying randomly, yet as one body. They settled quickly on a roof top, taking off again. Like a school of fish, they had no leader, maintained no particular position in relation to one another, yet flew as one entity in wondrous harmony. Which bird made the decision to land? Who chose the place? How was it decided to take off again and in what direction? Individual birds, one body.
Individual Christians, one body of Christ. But we don't move as one with such grace, harmony and elegance as those birds. Our free wills distort the harmonious form and direction of the body. The solution? Surrendering our individual wills to that of God's. Emptying ourselves as Christ did for us, suffering and glorifying as one body. Being one in the same Spirit, conformed to the full and total image of Christ.
One bird held his ground as the flock moved on. Poor creature, on his own now. I hope the body of birds don't yell proclamations of judgment at him concerning his fate. Even if they succeed in scaring him back into the one body of birds, his will won't be lovingly surrendered to the body and he will have no inclination to share in its sufferings, just in its glory and protection. I hope the body of birds mourn for the rebellious brother, and love him back into communion.
Please, let the altars, pulpits and church floors be anointed with the tears of Christ's suffering from the eyes of His body, His people, for the souls who despise Him and refuse His love. Jesus cried over His people in Jerusalem. Listen to the weeping of Christ over those outside the heavenly New Jerusalem. Let us allow the Spirit to conform us to His image, even if it hurts. Let us keep watch with our beloved Lord, and not sleep.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © December 8, 2001
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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