Friday, December 15, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: Noah's Ark and Salvation through Christ

One of the most compelling Old Testament allegories of Christ is the classic old Sunday School story of Noah's Ark. (Just as a reminder, when I call the Old Testament stories "allegories," I'm not implying that they are non-historical; rather, the historical and allegorical dimensions were overlapping categories for the thinkers of the early church.) We usually present the story of Noah's Ark as a cute tale about a floating zoo, which doesn't do it justice at all. It's really a story about God saving humanity (and the rest of his creation) from the terrible fate brought on by their own sin. So when the early church talked about Noah and his ark, they presented it as the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, prefigured in events thousands of years before his time.

Noah himself was taken as a foreshadowing of Christ. We are first introduced to Noah in Gen. 5:28-29, in which Lamech names his newborn son Noah, saying, "He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed." The word that's translated here as "comfort," however, actually more literally means "bring rest" or "bring relief." In Lamech's saying, then (notable because it is the only such specific saying in the whole genealogy of ch. 5), he's actually prophesying that Noah is the one who will bring rest from the toil of the Curse. That is, Noah's story will be the story of God's plan for the undoing of the Curse that sin brought upon us. This is exactly what we believe was accomplished in Jesus Christ: we were brought relief from the fate of our Fall.

It's not too hard at this point to take a quick glance at the story of Noah's Ark and see the parallels line up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of humanity was facing the just wrath of God because of their sin. Everybody was sinful, and everybody was subject to suffering the punishment for their sins: "the wages of sin is death," as the Scripture says. Yet despite this, there was one righteous man, and through his faithful obedience, salvation was offered to all who belonged to him. This was true of Noah, whose faithful obedience brought salvation from the flood to all the members of his family, and it is true of Christ, too--all who belong to him, all who are called by his name, share in the salvation he wrought for us through his faithful obedience on the Cross. It didn't escape the notice of the early church fathers, either, that the number of persons saved in the Ark was eight--and remember, in the early church tradition, eight was a number that hinted towards the New Creation in Christ Jesus (see my earlier post on God's Sabbath-rest for more on this). 

It's interesting to note that it really was Noah's faithfulness that saved the members of his family; we hear no emphasis placed on their role as the instruments of God's salvation--only Noah. In the same way, the New Testament teaches us that it is only because of what Christ did on our behalf that we are saved. In fact, scholars in recent decades have made a compelling case that the many places where the New Testament says that we are saved "by faith in Jesus Christ" should probably actually be read as saying that we are saved "by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" (both are equally valid translations of the Greek phrase, but theological context may point more strongly to the latter). So Noah stands as a prefiguration of Jesus: the faithful servant of God, who through his obedience saved humanity from the consequences of their sin.

There are many more distinct parallels between the story of Noah's Ark and our salvation in Christ, and over the next few weeks we'll look into them in some depth. But to give you a quick preview: it's worth asking why we call Noah's boat an "ark," even though that was never actually a word for a boat (hint: it has to do with another prominent symbol of the God-with-us foreshadowing of the Old Testament); we'll also notice the parallels between the Flood and the ordinance of baptism; between the Ark's salvation of the animals and what Paul says about all creation eventually participating in Christ's redemption; and we'll look at the wind and the dove, both of which appear prominently in the Flood story, as symbols of the Holy Spirit.