Irenaeus is famous for his doctrine of recapitulation, but since his thinking was largely eclipsed by Augustine of Hippo recapitulation has almost disappeared from the church’s if not from the scientist’s view. (1* That recapitulation is integral to Scripture is illustrated by the following: “In terms of the whole way it functions in the book of Judges, the story of Samson is the story of Israel recapitulated and focused for us in the life of a single man. As Samson was a “holy”, Israel was a “holy” nation (Exod. 19:6). As Samson desired to be as other men, Israel desired to be as other nations. As Samson went after foreign women, Israel went after foreign gods. As Samson cried to God in his extremity and was answered, so did Israel. And finally … as Samson had to be blinded and given over to the bitter pain of Gaza before he came to terms with his destiny, so too would Israel have to be given over to the bitter suffering of exile in Babylon (cf. Judg 16:21; 2 Kings 25:7). The Samson story mirrors the story of Israel …. In the epilogue we are told that in the time of the Judges “every man did what was good in his eyes” (17:6; 21:25) (and so did Samson, 14:3b). Barry Webb, The Book of Judges, 1987, p.116, quoted by B.K.Waltke, And Old Testament Theology, 2007, p.613.) Yet the simple fact that we all follow physically in the steps of our Adamic forefathers as first embryos, babies, infants, children, adolescents, adults and finally corpses would suggest that recapitulation is part of the essence of life as we know it here on this temporal earth. The same is true on the mental, moral and spiritual levels. Unsurprisingly, there is a doctrine of perfection (or maturation) in Scripture in which Jesus himself participated and in fact uniquely fully effected (Heb. 2:10; 5:9). Again, because the worldview of Augustine appears inconsistent with it, it is usually muted.
However, as I have already suggested, recapitulation is basic to creation and is clearly implied in Genesis 1 where our attention is drawn to seed-bearing flora and fauna which reproduce according to kind. In light of this it is worth spending a short time seeking to understand recapitulation in the process of human salvation.
First, God created Adam from the earth and, since we all stem from him and are created in his image (Gen. 5:1-3), we are all flesh which is rightly regarded in Scripture as dust (Ps. 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:47-49). Thus in direct contrast with our eternal, immortal and incorruptible Creator we, as both individual and community, are naturally temporal, mortal and corruptible (cf. Rom. 1:23).
Second, along with the entire animal creation we are born like Adam in ignorance and unaware of good and evil. Knowing nothing we are innocent (Dt. 1:39, cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24).
However, third, in contrast with the animal creation we are made in the image of God. Thus in the process of our development like that of Adam we gain knowledge of law (or the commandment of our parents or guardians, cf. Prov. 1:8; 6:20) which threatens death if we break it but life if we keep it (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:15-20; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12, etc.). Again like Adam (Gen. 3:1-7) because as flesh we are weak (Rom. 7:14), we break it and become sinners by nature (Eph. 2:1-3, cf. Rom. 7:9f.).
Fourth, in pursuit of his plan of salvation, God gives us faith to believe his promises of life (cf. Gen. 3:15). When we do believe, we become the spiritual children of Abraham (Gen. 15:6; Gal. 3).
Fifth, for Gentiles brought up without access to the revelation of Scripture faith is based only on inferences from creation and the impulses of the Spirit. Where it exists in isolation from inherited and erroneous cultural norms, it is like that of Noah (cf. Heb. 11:1-7; Rom. 2:14). Even for them a lawless licentious life is without excuse (Rom. 1:18-32). For Jews who know the law of Moses accountability is greater (Amos 3:2; Rom. 3:2) but because they also sin (Rom. 3:9) they too need justifying faith. For modern Gentiles brought up where there is access to Scripture and under the influence of cultures informed by Jewish and/or Christian belief repentance and faith are basic requirements (Acts 17:30f., cf. Rom. 3:25).
Sixth, where Christ is proclaimed in the power of the Spirit, faith leads not merely to justification as under the old covenant but to regeneration or eternal life (John 3:16). Deliberate rejection or denial of the gospel leads ultimately to condemnation.
Seventh, as Christians we are like Jesus himself the beneficiaries of the fullness of God’s covenant grace as depicted in the covenants with Noah, Moses and Christ (Gal. 4:4f.). Just as Jesus recapitulated in his own experience heathen life in Egypt as a slave under Noah (cf. Mt. 2:15), Jewish life as a servant under the Mosaic covenant (Luke 2:40-52) and pioneered “Christian” or regenerate life as a son, the Son, under the Spirit (Mt. 3:13-17), so do we who follow him. (See further my Following Jesus.)
Jesus told Martha that though we die yet we shall live (John 11:25, cf. Rom. 8:10). What did he mean? Is the resurrection of Jesus the model of our own? Many in these days seem to think so. Indeed, on the basis of it, though against all the evidence, they assume a new or renewed material universe arguing that since Jesus is the first-fruits of a physical resurrection, so we shall all be given new physical bodies which were only ruined in the first place by sin! This in essence is Old Testament restorationism and it cannot be the ultimate truth. If the entire physical universe is temporal (Gen. 1:1; Heb. 1:10-12), destructible (2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) and corruptible (Rom. 8:18-25), physicality or materiality is not a viable proposition in the age to come (cf. Luke 20:34-36). So what does Scripture really teach?
First, Jesus, the man, kept the law. Having committed no sin (1 Pet. 2:22) he met the condition and gained life (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5, etc.). As his baptism signified, he received the approbation of his Father and was acknowledged as his true or regenerate (spiritual) Son (Mt. 3:13-17). As such he was immune to death. In the event, however, he died the just for the unjust to bring those who believed in him to God (1 Pet. 3:18; Heb. 2:10, cf. Eph. 2:18). However, since he had eternal life and had not personally earned the wages of sin, death had no permanent claim on him. He was therefore raised from the dead (Acts 2:23f.) and resumed the fleshly life he had laid down (John 2:19f.; 10:17f.; Luke 24:39, etc.). As Scripture expresses the matter, though he truly died, he did not experience corruption (Acts 2:27; 13:35-37). This is clearly in striking contrast with David who died and did in fact decay.
It is obvious then that the model or paradigm of all believers who die before the return of Christ is David. In our case it is a question of dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Our physical bodies (flesh) are permanently destroyed like that of Adam (Gen. 3:19; 2 Cor. 5:1f.). In light of this we conclude that our resurrection is not physical like that of Jesus but spiritual. In other words, we are endowed at the general resurrection with spiritual bodies of glory like that of Christ (Phil. 3:21, cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-49).
The Body of Jesus
But this raises the question of Jesus’ fleshly body which, as already noted, did not submit to final decay. It is obvious that Jesus, though a child of Adam (Luke 3:38) and still corruptible flesh, was raised physically whole from the grave. Since he himself by implication (John 3:1-8) and Paul emphatically deny that he could go to heaven in the flesh (1 Cor. 15:50), we are forced to infer that he underwent change or glorification at his ascension. Jesus implies this when he asks Mary in view of his approaching ascension not to hang on to him (John 20:17). In other words, the transformation of Jesus at his ascension serves as the paradigm or template of that of the saints at the end who do not die and therefore do not experience physical resurrection. They are transformed and go directly to heaven (1 Cor. 15:51f., cf. 1 Thes. 4:13-17).
Two Natural Necessities
In order to go to heaven into the presence of God there are two basic necessities for man who is born naturally mortal and subject to decay (Rom. 1:23): (1) he must gain eternal life by keeping the law, and (2) he must undergo bodily (somatic) change involving replacement. In other words, regeneration and transformation are paramount ‘natural’ necessities, not imperatives.
So, as our trail-blazer, Jesus gained life on the one hand and was changed on the other. So far as the majority of believers are concerned, as sinners we die physically and like David are subject to decay. Yet because Christ conquered death we shall live. We shall be raised from the dead and eventually be accorded new bodies.
There is a sense then in which the vast majority of believers do not strictly speaking recapitulate the life of Jesus. While he did not experience decay, we, the end-time saints apart, do. However, Jesus’ victory as the pioneer of our salvation and first-born of many brethren (cf. Heb. 2:11) ensures that we shall be with him (John 14:3,19; 17:24) conformed to his image at the last day (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:21). We shall all together be the children of God (Rom. 8:15-17; 1 John 3:1f.), true sons of the resurrection (Luke 20:36) no more to return to corruption (Acts 13:34).
So, to sum up, as a true (incarnate) man (Heb. 2:10-18), Jesus lived the perfect(ed) human life (Heb. 2:10; 5:9) as God intended it to be lived (Mt. 5:48; 19:21). He began recapitulating to perfection first Adamic life by fulfilling the law, then he provided the model of regenerate or second Adamic life by fulfilling all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) as he pioneered our way into the presence of the Father under the leading of the Spirit (cf. John 14:6). While it may be true that when he died he did not experience decay, his resurrection, which defeated death, will lead to the transformation of all who are glorified with him (1 Cor. 15:51f.). Truly is he the first fruits of the resurrection of all those who die believing in him (1 Cor. 15:20,23).
(See further my I Believe in Recapitulation)