Features, Highlights

A tale of two histories

The old history of Adam and the new of Jesus

AS WE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS, we must get to know one word.

That word was important in the early church, but its significance has largely been forgotten. The word is Recapitulation.

The word was used by the second century church father Irenaeus, for whom it became a central feature of his theology. Referring to Jesus, he wrote: “When He became incarnate and was made man, He recapitulated in Himself the long history of man, summing up and giving us salvation in order that we might receive again in Christ Jesus what we had lost in Adam, that is, the image and likeness of God.”

Irenaeus took his cue and inspiration from the apostle Paul who wrote in Eph. 1:10 that God’s plan was “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head”. The original Greek word for “bring … together” was anakephalaiosasthai, liter-ally meaning “re-heading” – thus the English word recapitulation, which means the same thing.

Today we use the abbreviated word “recap” to indicate a summing up, a rehearsing of the main points. And that is what Paul meant and how Irenaeus saw it when he explained the idea. For Irenaeus, the doctrine of recapitulation has to do with what Christ has done in human history and beyond – Jesus sums up a new history for humankind.

In his various writings, Paul has indicated this idea by refer-ring to the first Adam and how through him sin and death came to this world, and everyone has been affected by it (Rom. 5:12). This has become our human history. But God sent His Son Jesus to reverse that story.

Paul puts it this way: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-19). Jesus came to write and pioneer a new history.

The old history of Adam can be summarised as: tree → temp-tation → sin → death → destruction. The new history of Jesus renews and reverses that history: tree → temptation → righteous-ness → death → new eternal life. Irenaeus puts it this way: “So the Lord now manifestly came to his own, and born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree … Indeed, the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.”

The cross of Jesus reverses the effects of the fall in the Garden. One tree changes the history of the other.

For this to effectively happen, God had to come in the Person of Jesus to go through all the stages of human life, to re-trace the steps of the old Adam, and to reverse the old miserable story. And that He did in such a wonderful way, saving us with His life and death and resurrection.

What Jesus did was of great cosmic significance, something that is echoed in the eighth chapter of Romans. All of creation, including the human race, is groaning for release into a new story of redemption and freedom. Christmas is the story of how God set about to do this – through the “summing up” of our story in Jesus, the new Man. Through His sinless life, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection, Jesus pioneered a new story for us and invites us to be united with Him and His story through faith and obedience. He has changed our destiny and history and will change us through and through as we walk united with Him.

Irenaeus further explains the doctrine of recapitulation: “Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit; and placing the Spirit in man, he himself is made the head of the Spirit and gives the Spirit to be the head of man … He therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam, trampling on his head … ”

Irenaeus mentions the word “head” several times. Jesus heads the Spirit who heads redeemed and renewed human beings, and He does this by crushing the head of the ancient serpent on the cross, as promised by God in Gen. 3. Through His recapitulation, Jesus has properly re-headed all things. And this is God’s eternal purpose.

The mystery of it all is that divinity should enter humanity in order to bring humanity into divinity. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He brought our humanity with Him. As A. W. Tozer said in a sermon, Jesus took up human nature “into the Godhead”. There, in God’s presence, human nature is “received, embraced, welcomed and enthroned at the right hand of the Father”.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR US who celebrate Christmas? Firstly, we must stand in awe as we consider the incarnation – the coming of Jesus as a man into our human history. It is of such great significance and glory – far beyond anything we can use to celebrate it. It means that we are part of something far larger than any of us or even all of us together. We must realise we are, unfortunately, often like the ignorant man who is excited by a matchstick more than the live volcano on which he is standing.

Secondly we must realise that there are two histories at play in our world – the old history of Adam and the new history of Jesus. Much of what goes on in our hectic and fallen world has to do with the old history (never mind the new gadgets and ideas). There is no real future in the old history. We are called to be people of the new history.

Thirdly, we can be part of the new history if we are united with Jesus who came to retrace, renew and reverse our human history. We do so by believing in Him as our Saviour, and submitting our lives to Him as our Lord, and letting His life and new history be made manifest in our lives. As He came to recap our lives to reverse their courses, we must recap His life to find our way Home. A blessed Christmas to one and all!