In Ezekiel chapter one, the prophet relates to us a bizarre and compelling vision he has of Yahweh enthroned on his chariot by the rivers of Babylon.
I’ve been reading through Ezekiel recently, with Robert Jenson’s commentary as a guide. The commentary is idiosyncratic and moves from flashes of brilliance to Jenson’s seeming admission that he doesn’t know what’s going on chapter by chapter. I haven’t been able to shake Jenson’s surprising conclusions about chapter one from my mind, though.
He contends that Ezekiel’s vision is a vision of Jesus.
So far, so obvious. I understand that some readers may be uncomfortable with a fully throated conviction that everything in the Old Testament is ultimately about Christ, and that this conviction is not pasted on as a later addition but is a natural and correct reading of the text as it is. But, if you are uncomfortable with that, I’m surprised you’ve stuck around—I’ve contended elsewhere that the first word of the Bible is about Jesus, so this is less out there than that.
Here’s the bit that got me though, you tell me Ezekiel has a vision of Jesus and what I think is: yes, Old Testament theophanies—direct encounters with God—are visions of the preincarnate second person of the Trinity or of Yahweh in his Triune glory, so we can use the shorthand ‘Jesus’ for that even if a pedantic theologian would pick us up on it.
That’s not what Jenson means. He means this is Jesus in the chariot. The incarnate Jesus. In Babylon during the exile.
I told you it was wild.
Jenson suggests that broadly the vision is a vision of incarnation because the division between the heavens and the earth—God’s place and ours—is overcome as the heavenly throne has been literally mounted on wheels (well, cherubim, wheeled eye covered winged lightening serpents that are lions with the face of men: or angels to you and I).
He goes further though. Ezekiel’s vision homes in on the figure in the chariot, above the throne. One with the “appearance”, “the figure of a man,” or as the ESV has it “a likeness with a human appearance.” This is a human figure who is lit with the brightness and fire of the whole vision, and it seems the brightness even emanates from him.
Ezekiel then ends with a sentence that I had always understood to be saying “it looked something a bit like that but not really anything like that at all, I saw something, ok!?”
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
It’s as though Ezekiel is putting a deliberately great distance between God and himself—the Lord is simply unknowable.
Jenson suggests he might mean something else. In Ezekiel’s usage of the term “the glory of the Lord” it refers to the felt demand for honour caused by Yahweh’s presence—like the impact of an unbearably bright light. He argues that since both God, and a mediator, the glory of God are present, we should read these terms in a Trinitarian way—therefore the glory of the Lord seen should be read as the second person of the Trinity.
This is where Jenson makes the surprising move:
Why does the second person of the Trinity, appearing above the throne in Ezekiel’s vision, look like a man? Christian theology must answer: because the second person of the Trinity is a man—Jesus of Nazareth.
There are no images of God other than the Son.
You might not think this is strange, but here’s where it got me. Jesus is not yet incarnate, as I understand time passing. That’s the important bit I think—if our claims about the eternality of God are true, then God does not experience time like I do, because the phrase ‘God experiences time’ doesn’t mean very much.
Jenson would contend that my previous phrase ‘The preincarnate Christ’ doesn’t mean very much either—he would say that we can and should and must say that God the Son is Jesus.
This raises some big metaphysical questions, which Jenson neatly sidesteps in his commentary by doing the usual trick of saying there isn’t space for it, but he does suggest that talking about ‘before’ in relation to the eternal God is silly. As Lewis has it, “nonsense about God is still nonsense.”
I am not really equipped to approach some of these questions in a full way—I’m a pastor with a biblical studies background and a fulltime job doing something else. But the idea that the eternal God is incarnate is mind-boggling, and should lift our hearts to worship.
Perhaps this leaves you cold, I would understand that. Here’s a parting shot to induce some warmth: the Lord Jesus, almighty God, took on your flesh to lift you into the heavens. He took on our flesh to do what not one human had done—wait to receive the fruit of the tree rather than take it for himself. As he hung on that tree dying, he waited to receive the fruit of the tree of wisdom on the far side of death, and then crushed its fruit to make wine freely given to all his friends.
He did all that, the unchanging eternal God, in such a way that we cannot meaningfully speak of a time before he did that. It isn’t a concept we can in our time-bound finitude even intellectually approach. This is too high a thing for us.
And if there is no before, then God has always been the one who steps into your world to rescue you—he acted before you needed him to, the very character of God is gift.
Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash
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