Chesterton said that there could be no argument with the most fundamental of Christian claims that the world is held captive and that all are born under the grip of sin. Just look at the world, he said. One need not even turn his eyes outside the windows. In scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday it was more than I could bear to see the bombings of Egyptian Christians and a Syrian father holding his suffocated babies from the chemical attack. It broke me down. I shut my computer screen and begged God to reveal where He was.
In essence, that’s where Holy Week meditations begin, on our sin that put Him there as the hymn says it. Leithart’s book, which I am using to reflect on what exactly happened this week some 2000 years again, begins there—though in all of sin’s cosmic and universal dimensions—by looking at the somewhat mystifying expression of Paul: Τα στοιχεία του κόσμου which translates into “the elements of the world” and gives Leithart his title. It’s a hotly debated phrase in Paul though it occurs only in two letters, Galatians 4 and Colossians 2. Even though its used very little, the phrase lies at the heart of Paul’s thinking, because it describes in its most basic elements the essence of the old order, of creation groaning and humanity bound to its fetters of death in the power of sin.
What happens when we contextualize Paul’s use of the phrase “the elements of the world” in the context of the philosophical thought of the time? Leithart’s treatment makes for fascinating reading for those captivated by how Paul uses the culture of his time to shape his message about this risen Son of David. “Elements” (Τα στοιχεία) most commonly referred to the basic constituents of the world, the basic elements of matter. “In Greek texts, generally, the term does not connote simplicity but the foundational character of what is being described, with a further hint that the particulars form an interlocking system” (30). What’s so striking given this cultural background and then turning to the specific ways in which Paul uses the phrase is how “[i]nstead of being permanent features of the physical world [for Paul], as they are in Greek philosophy and science, the elements are redescribed as features of an old creation that Christ has in some way brought to an end” (25).
The term that Scripture uses to further compress all that has been brought to an end through God’s vindication of Jesus is “flesh”, σάρξ in the Greek (sarx). Sarx is used 149 times in the New Testament and is a loaded and important theological word. Flesh is much more than muscle and bone for the biblical writers—it is the description of humanity following the fall. Like the biblical writers, Leithart’s book uses sarx as a catch all for describing the stoicheic grip on the old order of things. He says things like, “stoicheic structures and the associated practices were fundamentally intertwined with fleshly life” and “flesh denotes the vulnerability and weakness of human beings and especially our vulnerability to death” and “if human groups are going to function peaceably and justly, if the justice of God is to take root in creation and humanity, flesh must be defeated.” Sarx is a placeholder for all creation cursed by sin, culminating in exile from the garden, from perfect union with God. In order to be able to reenter the garden and walk in the coolness of the day with God, our fleshly life, with all of its sin and decay that leads to death, must be removed. But given that the stoicheic elements are what constitutes the basis of reality and that they birth flesh, where can we possibly turn? We know that Good Friday begins the climactic, mystifying, triumphant answer to that claim. But we cannot start there. We must begin from the beginning.
N.T. Wright likes to quote a passage from the Rabbinic literature (Genesis Rabbah 14:6) which says, “I will make Adam and if he goes astray I will send Abraham to sort it out.” That’s where we must first go then in looking for an answer to the question. An especially brilliant “aha” moment that I got from Leithart was his treatment of circumcision. He treats circumcision as both the symbolic representation and literal removal of sarx in the cutting of the foreskin. That makes no sense in itself, but it is brilliant insight when it is placed within the context of the call of Abraham and the people of God., beginning in the Lech-Lecha of Genesis 12.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God commissioned Abraham and his “seed” (single line of descent, the family of God in Galatians 3:29) to be the people through whom humanity would be liberated from its slavery to sarx. Through Abraham, all of the people of the world would be drawn back to YHWH, the God whose very Spirit and Word had shaped the formless void into the diverse spots of the cheetah and the cry of the hungry baby and the roar of the Niagara Falls. Through Abraham and the child of the promise, humanity would turn back to its Creator; through Abraham, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The first sign of that promise was circumcision from Genesis 17:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
The body of flesh and its slavery to sin was and is what stands between restored relationship between our heart, skin and bones and God. Humanity would only be able to live as God intended when flesh was (is) put to death. There is much talk about salvation Circumcision was the advance sign that through God’s gracious election, flesh would be dealt with and salvation would come. But before final salvation, another man of flesh would be crucified. That is our meditation during Holy Week.
Praise Be to God!