"Let's mentally transport ourselves back to Medieval Europe. We embark upon a great journey, and we see many kings, and princesses, and castles, and villages, and towns, and the most amazing countryside that you have ever seen . . ."
Fr. Joseph takes us on a tour of a medieval blacksmith's shop, explaining the New Testament doctrine of theosis, considering the words of St. Peter the apostle, and his promise that we can become partakers of the divine nature . . .
Welcome to the St. Benedict Podcast! Your host is Fr. Joseph Gleason, an Orthodox priest who served for years in the American midwest, and then moved to Russia with his wife and eight children.
In this episode, we take an introductory look at the traditional Christian teaching of Theosis. What is it? In the New Testament, St. Peter the apostle says that men and women can become partakers of the divine nature. How is this possible? What does it mean? Listen to the podcast in the following link, or read the full transcript below.
St. Benedict Podcast — episode 1:
Just for a moment, let's open up our imaginations and think back in time. Let's mentally transport ourselves back to Medieval Europe. We embark upon a great journey, and we see many kings, and princesses, and castles, and villages, and towns, and the most amazing countryside that you have ever seen.
And not only in the little towns, but also in the big cities we're amazed, because the sanitation is not what you would expect; it's not what we have today in modern times. We see horses and cattle and chickens just going right through the streets, and down the sidewalks, and the alleys, and the smells that we encounter are not always pleasant.
We also find that there are not any Walmarts, and not any strip malls. We have to go to the butcher shop to get a slab of steak. If we need somebody to work on our shoes, we go down to the cobbler, and the baker has some fresh bread, and maybe even some doughnuts cooked up that we can pick up and take home with us.
And then, after our long journeys we realize that the time has come for our vehicle to have some maintenance. Of course, there are no cars, so we do not need to go in for a lube, oil change, and filter. Our vehicle is our horse, and the maintenance he needs is new horseshoes.
So we go in to the blacksmith. Now, it's late in the winter, and has not quite turned to spring, so there's still a chill in the air, and we shiver just a little bit. But then we go into the blacksmith shop and the chill goes away, for he is hard at work. He doesn't even have long sleeves on, there's actually sweat pouring down his forehead, and we ourselves begin to feel uncomfortably warm because the furnace is blazing so hot. We see him working hard at the billows, blowing and blowing on that fire, and the coals and the heat just come out of there unbelievably. We see the light of the fire, glowing with an intense and amazing heat.
Then he goes over to the side of his shop, and we see these long, dark, hard pieces of iron. He picks one of them up — and it is so dark, so black, so hard, so cold — but picks up one of them and he actually puts it directly into the furnace. He turns it over a little bit, and pushes it in, and pulls it out, and when he feels like it has been in there just the right amount of time, from his experience he knows that the time has come to pull it out. So he pulls it out, and in amazement you look at what was once cold, and hard, and dark, and just sitting off in the corner by itself. Now it actually glows with this intense, fervent heat, and the light is pouring off of it, just as the light pours off the fire in the furnace itself. And now that the metal has been heated up, now that it has been softened, now that it is no longer hard and cold, he is able to put this iron on the anvil, and the blacksmith lifts this hammer with his mighty arm, and he brings it down, and you see the sparks fly. He takes this cold, hard, almost worthless piece of iron, and he turns it into a masterpiece through his skill.
Now what happened to this iron? What is it that happened that took it and changed it from this cold, hard, dark, useless piece of metal sitting off in the blacksmith's shop doing nothing, and converted it into something that was actually hot, and blazing, and glowing with the same fire that was blazing in that furnace? This, my friends, is a picture of theosis.
Now as you've listened, there are some of you that may have wondered, what is theosis? Why in the world do you call this Theosis Radio? [This was the name of Fr. Joseph's AM radio show in southern Illinois. This recording is an excerpt from his show.] Well, this is a term that is very popular in Eastern Christianity, but among Western Christians this term 'theosis' has been used less. However, other phrases, other terms are used throughout Scripture, that you probably are more familiar with.
If we go to 2 Peter 1:4, we see God Himself promising us that we can become partakers of the divine nature. Partakers of the divine nature. Now, of course this done not mean that we can become God Himself. That would be blasphemy. God is God, and we are not. He is uncreated, we are created, and nothing is ever going to change that.
But what does this mean, 'partakers of the divine nature'? Well, we have a word for this, and it's called theosis. Theosis is where we are like that iron off in the back of the blacksmith shop: cold, dark, hard, and in our current state, almost useless. You'd almost think that we were worthless! But the blacksmith knows better. He knows that there is great value there that just needs to be drawn out. It may be useless on its own, but under the skill of the blacksmith it can be turned into a masterpiece.
So how does this happen? Well, in the book of Hebrews we are told that God Himself is a consuming fire, and we even see God present Himself this way in the Old Testament when He appears to Moses and the Israelites during the Exodus. Remember how God appears as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day? Our God is a consuming fire. He shines with a brightness and a light that is unimaginable to us now.
So think of God as the fire in the furnace of the blacksmith, and think of us as that cold, dark, hard iron off to the edge of the blacksmith's shop. They seem so utterly different from one another, so utterly incompatible, and yet what happens when the blacksmith takes one of those pieces of iron, and inserts it, skillfully, directly into the furnace, into that heat, and into that light? Well, the furnace does not become like the iron. The furnace does not become cold, it does not become dark, it does not become hard. But the opposite does take place. If you keep the iron in there long enough, the heat of the furnace heats up that iron, and heats up the iron, and the iron just continues to absorb this heat until all of the sudden something fantastic happens! It's no longer hard and cold and dark, but the iron itself begins to light up with the light of the furnace, it begins to glow, it begins to put off heat! So much to the point that when the blacksmith in his skill pulls that iron out of the fire, and you look at it, you see light coming from the iron itself. You see the iron itself glowing with this fervent heat.
Now where did the iron get that light and get that heat? It didn't get it from inside itself. It didn't create that light, it didn't create that heat. It got it from the furnace, it got it from the fire. And that's the way we are. On our own, we cannot put out any light, we cannot put out any heat. On our own we're just a cold, dark, hard piece of iron lying off in the side of the room. Ah, but once Jesus gets a hold of us, once God puts us into the furnace of His divine energies, and shows us Himself, and fills us with Himself, just like the iron we start absorbing this divine heat, we start absorbing this divine light, and before we know it something absolutely fantastic happens. We ourselves start to glow with the same light and the same heat as God Himself.
Now, He is still God, and we are not. He is still the Creator, and we are still the creatures. But just like the iron with the furnace, we start to take on these attributes, we start to look like God. We start to appear like God.
Now does Scripture back up this idea? We already looked at 2 Peter 1:4, that says that we can become partakers of the divine nature. But that's not the only passage of Scripture that says that we can look like God. We can actually rewind all the way to Genesis and look at the way that God created us in the first place! You see, He created lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my! He created all kinds of animals, dogs and cats and fish, and monkeys, and orangutans, and whales. But all of these were just animals. He did not create any of these with the divine spark of His image. Man was special. God took dust, and He formed a man from the dust, and He breathed the breath of life into this man, Adam. And Adam became a living soul. And God took flesh from his side and He made Eve, the first woman. And if you read carefully, in the first chapters of Genesis, God clearly says, "Let Us make man in Our image."
God doesn't say that about the whales, God doesn't say that about the cats and the dogs, or even the chimpanzees. God only says that about man. From the very beginning, before sin entered the world, before any of the things happened that men have done, when God first created man, it was with the purpose of us being created in His image. In other words, in some sense God wants us to look like Him.
Now that doesn't mean that God is six feet tall and Caucasian, or that He's seven feet tall and African-American, or that He's five foot tall and curly-haired and has olive skin. What is the image of God? What does it mean to look like God? What does it mean to be like Him?
Well here is what we do know for sure. We know that in the New Testament, in the book of 1 John, chapter three, verse two, the ultimate culmination of theosis is finally realized when "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." Listen to that verse from 1 John chapter three. It says, "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." There's something about seeing the face of God, there's something about being in His presence that causes us to become like Him. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
Now this obviously is very hard to imagine, it's something very hard to comprehend. How is it that by seeing the face of God, by seeing Him, that we shall become like Him? We can actually see a picture of this take place in history, even before Christ, even before the Apostles. If we rewind all the way to the time of Moses, something fantastic happened.
Now in the book of Exodus, chapter thirty-three, we read that God spoke with Moses, face to face. Now that just blows my mind, I can hardly even imagine what that could have been like, in fact I'm sure I can't imagine it. And yet we read that all of us are going to experience this, all of us who are in Christ, all of us who truly serve Him. We are going to see Jesus, and we are going to be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And yet here, thousands of years before that, even before Christ and the Apostles, all the way back in the days of Moses, we see here in the Bible that it says God spoke with Moses face to face.
Now for us, in the future, Scripture says that seeing God face to face is going to bring about our likeness to Him. We are going to look like Him, we're going to be like Him, because we see Him as He is. And so we have to ask, did the same thing happen to Moses? When God spoke with Moses face to face, what happened to Moses?
Well, it's absolutely fantastic. One chapter later, in Exodus, chapter thirty-four, we read that the face of Moses shined with the Uncreated Light of God. Think about it. The face of Moses was shining with the very light of God. We read about it again in the book of 2 Corinthians, chapter three, in the New Testament. Just imagine it: Moses goes, and he gets to speak with God face to face, he gets to talk with God one on one. And after this magnificent encounter, the very flesh of Moses begins to shine, begins to glow with this brightness, that it had to have been unearthly, it had to have been just absolutely amazing.
In fact, it was so amazing that it scared the people. It frightened the people so badly that Moses actually had to put a veil on. He talked to God face to face, his face started glowing, and so Moses actually went around with a veil to cover up this light that was coming off of him, so that he didn't scare the people.
So, I have a good friend of mine, and he says, "God loves you, and He has a wonderful plan for you. He wants you to glow in the dark." Well, it sounds pretty funny, but now when we start to think of Moses, and when we start to think of this passage in 1 John 3, that tells us that all of us who are in Christ, all of us who serve Him faithfully to the end, are going to be like Him when we see Him as He is, well, we start thinking that maybe it's not so funny after all, maybe that is God's plan for us. We are going to glow with the light of Christ. We are going to glow with the light of God the same way that Moses did.
But then, on second thought, we may start to imagine some of the accounts of Christ in the New Testament, and think about the fact that He walked on earth for over thirty years. Now, surely Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, He didn't walk around all those years shining with this ethereal light from heaven. I mean, if He had, it would have drawn a lot of attention, and surely somebody would have mentioned it in the Scriptures, and we don't read about anything like that. So, we might imagine that, oh, that thing that happened with Moses was just a one-time thing, it was just there to teach us something. When we become like Christ it'll just be in our hearts, and all this glowing and this changing is not going to have anything to do with it.
But think again. Think about the Mount of Transfiguration. Think about the time in Scripture when Jesus goes up to this mountain, and He only has three of His disciples with Him, and all of the sudden they see Jesus transfigured. They see this light, this bright, white light coming off of Him. And they see even His clothes change to be so white that according to the Bible, it says that the best bleach in the world couldn't have whitened it this white. So this was literally unlike anything the disciples had ever seen. This was not just an off-white, this was not just kind-of white, this was not even as good as you get from the professional clothes washers back in those days. This was an unearthly, brilliant, bright white, perfect light that was coming off of Jesus' clothes, it was coming off of His face, it was coming off of His fingertips, He was literally glowing with the Uncreated Light of God.
And not only was Jesus there, but they saw Moses with Him, and they saw Elijah there with Him. And then after a few moments Elijah and Moses disappeared, and Jesus remained. God spoke from Heaven and said, "This is my Son in Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him."
So you see, what happened here was that Jesus actually spent most of His time walking around on earth veiled. Much like Moses had to veil his face to keep the light from shining and scaring people, Jesus supernaturally veiled that light. It was within Him the whole time. It never left Him, but on the Mount of Transfiguration the veil went away. The covers were pulled back, and finally they were able to see Jesus as He really is, and as He will really appear when we see Him in the future.
So now let's put all these things together. We know that in the Old Testament that Moses spoke with God face to face, and after these encounters he shined with this holy light. We know that Jesus, when He decided to pull back the veil and truly show His glory to His disciples, that Jesus Himself on the Mount of Transfiguration shined with a holy light. And then we see in 1 John, we see this promise that we ourselves who are Christians, in the future, when we see Jesus as He is, then we shall be like Him. Therefore we ourselves can look forward to partaking of the divine nature in this way.
So we really are like that piece of iron in the hand of the blacksmith. We start out cold, we start out hard, we start out dark, we start out isolated in the back room of a place that we don't want to be. But if we will work together with God, if we will let Him do His work in us, like a skilled blacksmith He picks us up and He puts us into the fire of His love, and over time, through the skillful work of His hands, and through the blazing of His love, that same heat, that same light, fills us until we ourselves begin to glow with the same light and the same heat as He does.
Now this is also a warning, because what happens to the iron when you pull it away from the fire, and you leave it away from the fire for too long? Well the iron cannot create any light on its own, it cannot create any heat on its own, so little by little the warmth dissipates, and the iron cools, and the light disappears, and the iron turns dark once more.
See, that's what happens with a human soul that is disconnected from God. When a man or a woman turns their back on their Creator, and rejects the fire of His love, then once again they become cold, hard, dark, and isolated just like the iron left off in the corner of the blacksmith's shop. But all it takes to fix that is simply to let yourself be immersed back into His love, be put back into the furnace of His majesty, and His glory, and His presence, and let Him change you, let Him fill you with His Spirit, let Him fill you with His love. Let Him remake you in His image, let Him drive out every impurity, let Him fill you with Himself, and let Him shine His light through you.
This is what theosis means, this is what theosis is. This is what it means to partake of the divine nature. It does not mean that you stop being iron and you become the furnace. It does not mean that you stop being a human and that you become God. It does not mean that you stop being a creature and become the Creator. Theosis means that you let yourself come into such a close fellowship, and intimacy, and contact with God, that you allow Him to shine through you, that you allow Him to purify you, that you allow Him to recreate you in His image, to such an extent that you actually begin to look just like Him, that you begin to shine with that same light that He shines with, that you begin to exude the same warmth and heat of love that He shines with, until finally somebody looks at God, and then they look at you, and they say, "Wow, what a fantastic resemblance to your Maker! How much you look like Christ!"
This is theosis.
Basking in the sunlight of God's righteousness, knowing Him, glorifying Him with every thought, every movement, every heartbeat, and every breath: this is theosis. When God causes the Uncreated Light of His face to shine upon us, we become like that piece of iron which is skillfully placed into the blacksmith's furnace. The heat of that holy fire warms our hearts and our minds, until we ourselves begin to glow with the very same light. Just like the face of Moses shined when He talked face to face with God, just like the countenance of Jesus shined when He revealed His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, someday we ourselves will be like Christ, for we shall see Him as He is. This is how we are remade into the image of Christ. This is how we become partakers of the divine nature. This is how we come to experience theosis.
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