The pillars of cloud and fire revisited

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

“By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)

Some people turn themselves into pretzels trying to interpret Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man (Mk 10:13-31). One reason is the form his initial question takes: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus’ answer—the command to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor and he would “have treasure in heaven”—sounds like a salvation invitation with a works requirement attached. It is no such thing.

Theologians explain Jesus’ teaching here and in many other episodes as preaching a gospel of the kingdom that differs from what Paul and the other apostles preached, a gospel of grace. (Here is just one explanation of the difference. The link doesn’t imply my endorsement; it’s just an example.)

As you can imagine, there have been books written about this, books that I will mostly like never read (and not because I disdain theology or “book knowledge”). But more importantly, they’re books that were never available to the people who saw the Word become flesh and dwell with them.

If that sounds like a strange segue, I assure you it isn’t. But when Jesus emerged from the wilderness and declared that the kingdom of God was at hand, this created an immediate need.

Jesus later said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). OK, but if it’s ‘not of this world,’ can you give me the address and directions to get there? Because Google Maps is not helping.

The prophet Jeremiah gave us the term jeremiad (actually the people who write dictionary entries did, but that’s beside the point), which is a borderline slander on the prophet’s character IMO, because he also delivered one of the most important OT promises about the kingdom Jesus ushered in:

“’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,’ declares the Lord.
‘I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, “Know the Lord,”
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,’
declares the Lord.
‘For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.’” (Jer 31:33-34)

If “they will all know me”—and this is what we are living today, a fulfillment of that promise—they will need to be taught somehow, especially since the change is a lot more than clean sheets and fresh towels and business-card-size bars of soap.

We have the benefit of 20 centuries of scholarship, interpretation, commentary and a cottage industry of eager-beaver scholars and theologians to plumb the depths and show us selfies from every place they went. The people of 1st-century Judea had—well, what?

“The Word made flesh,” yes, but that’s a little abstract. I think they had, in a different form, what the children of Israel had as they crossed the wilderness—an unmistakable, could-not-be-missed source of guidance like the pillars of cloud and fire (cited above).

In broad terms, the children of Israel had to go from what they knew (life in Egypt, as slaves) to a “Promised Land” described as “a good land” (Dt 6:18), a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Dt 27:3), but also (maybe not so good), “the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites” (Ex 3:8)–2 out of 3 sounded good, but they didn’t know anything other than these descriptions.

And it wasn’t just how do we get there? that was God’s concern. It was also how do people live in the kingdom of God?

That’s another thing they really didn’t know. Their C.V. ended with “made bricks without straw with no iPhone to break up the monotony.” Which is why the people later received a reminder about the second how and what it involved:

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years” (Dt 8:2). Each method employed had spiritual formation in view: “humble” and “test you” to see if you would obey when push came to shove; “causing you to hunger” and satisfying that hunger by “feeding you with manna,” which had to be gathered daily just as he expected the people to live by “every word” from God.

By the time they reached the Jordan, the pillars of cloud and fire were no longer necessary. The voids in the knowledge of what it meant to be the people of God had been filled in by these clear forms of guidance as well as the giving of the law, whereupon the pillars disappeared.

The pillars may have been the visible means of guidance, but the outcome was meant to be a transformed people–slaves no longer, but now “holy to the Lord.” “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Ex 19:5). 

The culmination of this long process was crossing the Jordan and driving out the nations that were already there. The Lord had promised to give them into their hands, but they didn’t possess their possession until this expropriation was complete.

There is being made ready for the kingdom (the gospel of the kingdom theologians have formulated) and there is “taking the land” and living in it, which of course is by grace (the gospel of grace). Not a discontinuity, but one process harmonized from two different stages in becoming the people of God. (Which I’ll pick up on in the next post.)

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