The biblical story, from beginning to end, can rightly be described as an epic of new creation. As its prologue opens with God’s creation of heaven and earth, so its epilogue closes with the dramatic appearance of the new heaven and the new earth—a place where sorrow and death are no more, and where the dwelling place of God is with his people. But this grand inclusio, while hopeful in its preface and jubilant in its finale, brackets a history of pain and toil, agony and tears. As early as Genesis 3 the battle lines are firmly fixed. The creature has shunned the creator, the creation groans in bondage to decay and posterity is left with a legacy of despair. It is worth recalling, however, that the biblical story is a drama of redemption. And while the plot is not without its twists and turns, it does reach a fitting and moving climax in the passion narratives.
The story of God’s new creative work is hardly confined to the opening and closing chapters of our Bible. The prophets, the psalms, the gospels, etc., all exhibit a robust faith in the creative activity of God, and this faith was not focused solely on the remote past or the distant future. The prayer of the penitent sinner that God would “create a pure heart, and grant a new spirit” (Ps. 51:10), as well as the bold declaration of the prophet that Yahweh was, even now, “making something new” (Isa. 43:18), reflect a deep-seated belief in the continuing new-creative work of God, and form part of the vibrant, if variegated, biblical witness to new creation.
Paul too makes a contribution to this theme (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), though what exactly he intended has been a disputed issue recently. Historically, Paul’s new creation statements, particularly 2 Cor. 5:17, have been understood to refer to the renewal of the individual in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”(NIV 1984). Some scholars however, interpret Paul’s thought in terms of the advent of the new age and prefer the rendering of the more recent version of the NIV: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” The Greek phrase itself is ambiguous, though the details of this debate can be safely left to one side. Suffice it to say that Paul’s line of thought in 2 Corinthians 3-5 render it virtually certain that his intention in 2 Cor. 5:17 was to describe the inner renewal wrought by the Spirit in the lives of those who have put their faith in Christ.
Chapters 3-5 of 2 Corinthians represent something of a digression on Paul’s part, a profound theological excursus on the nature of his ministry as one of life revealed in death and strength displayed through weakness. Crucial to his argument is the motif of transformation, which is introduced in 2:16 with the phrase “from life unto life”. Paul unfolds this thought by emphasizing the life-giving work of the Spirit (3:6) who illumines all who turn to Christ (3:16-17), transforming them to the image of Christ (3:18) through God’s glory which radiates to the very center of human personhood, the heart (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Paul’s dramatic announcement that anyone in Christ is a “new creation” brings this motif to a thundering climax and provides the theological basis for the apostle’s equally arresting statement in 5:21 that “in him we become the righteousness of God.”
Although Paul is the one who introduced this “new creation” vocabulary into the primitive Christian assemblies, this language was being used by Paul’s Jewish contemporaries in a variety of ways. Following Isaiah, the prophetic visionaries responsible for the Jewish apocalypses written during this era looked forward to God’s “new creation” of heaven and earth, when Israel would be vindicated and the oppressing Gentile nations would be finally overthrown (e.g. Jubilees 1:29; see Isa. 66:22). Closer to Paul’s usage here is the imagery found in Joseph and Aseneth, a Hellenistic romance of Diaspora Judaism. In this fictitious work roughly contemporary with the New Testament, the patriarch Joseph prays for the conversion of the beautiful Aseneth, whom he would later marry (Gen. 41:45). The words of Joseph’s prayer bear a striking resemblance to the themes found in 2 Cor. 3-5:
You O Lord, bless this virgin,
make her new through your Spirit
re-create her by your hidden hand
give her new life through your life …
and number her with your people (Jos.As. 8:9)
It is possible that depicting conversion to Judaism as God’s new creation of the proselyte was common in Paul’s day, and is retained by Paul in his own description of conversion to Christ. In any event, the significance of this imagery should not be missed. Portraying conversion as a dramatic new creation underscores a complete and irrevocable break with the past, and so is an ideal expression to apply to converts from a pagan environment, like Corinth. Paul’s point is to remind the Corinthians who they are in Christ: a renewed humanity, already being transformed into the image of Christ through the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18).
This language is also significant in that it bears witness to Paul’s conviction that the inner renewal promised long ago by Jeremiah and Ezekiel was now being brought to fulfillment through the transforming work of the Spirit in the lives those who accepted the Gospel. At the outset of his argument, Paul refers to Ezekiel’s “tablets of stone verses tablets of the human heart” (2 Cor 3:3; see Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:26-27) and of course Jeremiah’s New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6; see Jer. 31:31-34).
Facing the hardened hearts and intractable idolatry of Israel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel abandoned any hope that God’s people would ever be able to reform their ways and live lives pleasing to God:
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard is spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil (Jer. 13:33)
Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people (Ezek. 12:2)
According to these prophets, Israel’s problem was so severe that God would have to perform a radical heart transplant: “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you are heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19). In promising a day when God would write his law on their hearts (Jer. 31:33), and give them a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 36:26-27) Jeremiah and Ezekiel were acknowledging that true obedience could only come about if God himself stepped in and did through his people what they could not do themselves: “I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees” (Ezek. 36:27). Gehard von Rad summarizes Jeremiah and Ezekiel on this point well:
If God’s will ceases to confront and judge man from outside themselves, if God puts his will directly into their hearts, then, properly speaking, the rendering of obedience is completely done away with, for the problem of obedience only arises when man’s will is confronted by an alien will … What is outlined is the picture of a new man. (Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 [London Oliver & Boyd, 1965], 213-14).
In describing the effects of his New Covenant ministry (2 Cor 3:6) in terms of transformation by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18), illumination of the heart (2 Cor 4:6), and “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), Paul is saying in effect, “this is that”. The promise heralded long ago by Jeremiah and Ezekiel that God would renew the hearts of his people is brought to fulfillment through the transforming power of the Gospel: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!”