From Flame to Flesh

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Christian faith has always been a biblical faith. The role of scripture in shaping faith is one of the most enduring characteristics of Christianity. Calling Christians a people of the Book or followers of the Word is perfectly appropriate; the Bible is the source of our belief. Scripture is where we meet God. From the theological statements of church leaders to the daily and weekly practices of believers worldwide, the Bible remains central to our Christian identity and to our relationship with God.

But the book isn’t everything.[1]

There is a book about a thing, and then there is the thing itself. There is a book that bears witness to a becoming, and then there is the transforming. The Bible is such a book.

As beautiful and significant as Holy Scripture is to the church, it is not an end in itself. It is rather a bridge that points both before and beyond itself to twin realities much greater than itself: before to the Word of revelation — that is, its source and strength — and beyond to the Word made flesh — that is, its aim and aspiration.

Before there was the written word — the word recorded, the story put to paper — before there was anything like a Bible or our myriad of Bible translations, there was the flame, the fiery Spirit-breath of God, the event and experience of revelation itself.

And beyond the inscribed Word — the Word documented, the report put to page — beyond the existence of the Scripture or our myriad doctrinal debates, there is the flesh, the living Spirit-embodiment of God, the event and experience of incarnation itself.

The Bible tethers us to this reality, never content with possessing the mere paper and ink of it alone but always concerned with carrying the story, transferring as a conduit these two central truths: that God’s Word speaks and reveals Himself to His people in history. He does this so that He might achieve His ultimate goal: that His people might embody, become that very Word in history. The whole process from flame to flesh is the work of God’s Spirit, just as Scripture itself is the work of His Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20, 21).

 

Moses: example of flame to flesh

The newly delivered Israelites experienced this process as they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. They were delivered from captivity so that they might worship their Creator and Redeemer in the wilderness. Here, in their total dependency, they would learn what it meant to be servants of God rather than of Pharaoh. At the foot of Horeb they received the Ten Commandments and encountered God’s trifold plan to form a people from revelation to inscription to incarnation by the Holy Spirit. Let’s examine this progression in the text.

Flaming Revelation: “You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven” (Exodus 20:22b).

Inscription of the Event: “I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them” (24:12b).

Fleshly Incarnation: “You shall observe all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:37b).

The Ten Commandments began as a “flame of revelation,” a God-breathed event that Israel experienced directly and personally. The God who gave the event also preserved it by engraving its content on two stone tables so that it would continue to speak for generations to come. And lastly, the purpose of this revelation, and its inscription, was so that Israel would embody in their flesh — incarnate — the message spoken by God that day.

The Exodus story is a microcosm of the whole Bible. The two stone tables then, like the Bible itself, were not an end but a means. They pointed back to the revelation that arose before it and beyond to the Incarnation that would hopefully follow after.

However, the generation of Israelites who received this truth couldn’t live up to its holiness and so, through rebellion, fell in the wilderness. Despite the gift of revelation and inscription, they did not complete what God had intended for them; they did not incarnate it. Since the Word spoken and recorded did not become flesh, what was intended as gift became a curse — a testimony not of what they were but of what they were not.

As Israel languished in sin, the Spirit still moved, but the fulfillment of God’s plan remained ahead of them.

 

Prophets: promises of flame to flesh

Another generation would arise up: the children of those who stood at Mount Sinai. They would enter the Promised Land but not before Moses reminded them of God’s triune plan of the Spirit: revelation, inscription, and incarnation.

Flaming Revelation: “The Lord talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:4).

Inscription of the Event: “Then the Lord delivered to me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly” (9:10).

Fleshly Incarnation: “Therefore keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do” (29:9).

 

And so it was that generation after generation received this story, this truth, of a God who revealed and recorded Himself in order that His people might become like Him. Yet, left to themselves, these generations failed to embody the gift they had been given. This tragic failure would be the great crises that Israel’s prophets would confront as Israel fell again into bondage and exile.

Within the futile darkness of Israel’s distress, the prophets were given a new revelation, and a new record was inscribed. Israel’s failure would not be the last word; God’s will would not be thwarted. Though Israel failed due to the deep sting of sin, God himself would act again to incarnate His Word in His people. This song of the prophets became Israel’s anthem. A new covenant was coming:

I will not rest until her righteousness goes forth as brightness . . .” (Isaiah 62:1).

I will put My law in their minds, and write it in their hearts . . .” (Jeremiah 31:33).

I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh. . . . I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes . . .” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).

Where Israel had failed to obey and embody His recorded revelation by their own strength, God’s resounding Word via the prophets is “I will!”

 

Jesus: fulfilling flame to flesh

When Jesus began His ministry, He recapitulated the old Exodus paradigm: delivering a host of captive Israelites from their sins and sicknesses in order to lead them to a mountaintop to hear God’s word (Matthew 4-7). Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai was interpreted anew with Jesus’ in the Sermon on the Mount. He had come to fulfill the law and called His disciples to fulfill it too (5:17-20).

The Sermon begins with Jesus declaring the revelation of God, and it ends with Him calling His followers to incarnate it.

Flaming Revelation: “And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain   . . . Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying . . .” (Matthew 5:1, 2).

Fleshly Incarnation: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (7:24).

Here, once more the people of God experienced the fiery breath of God, the revelation of the Word raining down upon them from the mountaintop. The Word was an event experienced up close and personal. And just as Israel was called to obey, to become the Word spoken, Jesus called His disciples to not just hear them but also do them.

Inscription of the Event: And once more God preserved the moment and the message, not on tables of stone this time but on papyrus so that later generations can read and pass down the revelation to others. The Holy Spirit moved Matthew to the task. Just as God engraved the Word into words on stone, so Matthew scratched the Word into words on another material so that the Sermon on the Mount might reach our ears for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Although the church has sometimes fared no better than Israel in faithfully incarnating the Word, the triune promise of revelation, inscription, and incarnation lies before the body of Christ as a live hope, for we have a better way than Israel of old. We find that where they, and we, have failed to complete the journey from revelation to incarnation due to the sting of sin, Jesus Christ has accomplished that movement perfectly.

In the gospel we discover that Jesus is not just another prophet like Moses; He is not just one more restoration ministry among others. Yes, Jesus was a prophet and had a ministry, but more than that, He is the Only Begotten of the Father, God’s “I will,” and the Word made flesh:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).

 

Church: destiny of flame to flesh

In the Spirit-conceived and raised Jesus Christ we meet in person the Word who stands behind and beyond the Scripture that we honor. He is Alpha and Omega, the Flame that reveals, and the flesh that incarnates all that the Bible records. Now in Him we have a better hope and begin to make this journey from revelation to incarnation as well. The New Testament records the promise that by Jesus, and through the Spirit, we are in fact participants in this new covenant process.

“You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men,” Paul says to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 3:2). They are a walking, talking word of God to the world. Paul draws upon the voice of the prophets to describe this miracle to them: “Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (v. 3). Paul’s confident that his churches will indeed incarnate the revelation of God, because he knows it is not our own work but God’s work in us: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as being from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God” (v. 5). And as we, by faith, behold the glory of the Lord we are “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (v. 18).

The Bible tells an amazing story, but the Bible is not the story itself. It is rather a bearer of that story to the world. But ultimately, it is not with paper and ink that God desires to transmit His revelation to the world: it is upon you and me. The story is best told when it is lived.

There is a book about revelation, and then there is the revealing itself. There is a book that bears witness to incarnation, and then there is the incarnating. The Bible is such a book, and we are the people of the Book — a people called to be the Book, by the Spirit!

Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

 

[1] Jon L. Berquist, Incarnation (Chalice Press, 1999), 1.

 

Jason Overman

Jason Overman is Editor of Publications of the Bible Advocate Press. After 24 years in the publishing industry (in sales and management) with the Harrison Daily Times, Jason left his general manager’s position to join the BAP family in 2015. He has served in ministry for 30 years and currently pastors the Church of God (Seventh Day) in Jasper, Arkansas, with his wife, Stephanie, and two children, Tabitha and Isaac. Jason enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling, reading theology, playing his guitar, and taking in the beautiful Ozark Mountains he calls home.

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Jason Overman is Editor of Publications of the Bible Advocate Press. After 24 years in the publishing industry (in sales and management) with the Harrison Daily Times, Jason left his general manager’s position to join the BAP family in 2015. He has served in ministry for 30 years and currently pastors the Church of God (Seventh Day) in Jasper, Arkansas, with his wife, Stephanie, and two children, Tabitha and Isaac. Jason enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling, reading theology, playing his guitar, and taking in the beautiful Ozark Mountains he calls home.

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