New Creation Communities

waiting-with-candles-srgbOne of the consequences of the over-simplified biblical story is the distortion it creates regarding Christian community. If the story that is told and retold is “Jesus died so that God would forgive my sins so I can go to heaven when I die,” then the Christian community is virtually stripped of its true biblical purpose. The simplified story only addresses conversion and after-life, leaving an “awkward middle” between baptism and grave.

When paired with our consumerist and narcissistic culture, Christians become “consumers of religious goods,” to borrow a popular phrase from Dallas Willard. And our local churches quickly alter their true purpose to fulfill the perceived need.

When I left professional ministry in 2003, I wrote a rather scathing and non-nuanced critique of this phenomenon called “Detoxing from church.” While I would probably say things differently today, I still believe the critique stands. The shrunken popular story contributes to the average Christian viewing the local church as they would a supermarket or restaurant — shopping for programs and services that “meet their needs.”

In contrast the full biblical story as we have been exploring compels Christians to form communities as we see in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus has faithfully fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and thereby rescuing the nations into the renewed Abrahamic family and their vocation as God’s royal priests within his inaugurated New Creation. The early Christians understood that through Jesus, God had rescued them into a family and that family’s business. They were part of a community with a vocational purpose.

The local church is to be a colony of God’s New Creation. Remember that Paul states in 2Cor 5:17 that if anyone is in the Messiah, that person is the New Creation. So the local church’s members share their lives — the meaning of koinonia or “fellowship” — as both the benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation in the world. They live together with the singular purpose of LEARNING to be like Christ in order to actually BE Christ together in community and in the world.

This purpose should then shape the church’s practices. The local church should be a community of worship, key to the biblical human vocation of God’s image-bearers. It should be a community of sacrament, experiencing God’s presence and grace in special ways. It should be a community of apprenticeship to Jesus, learning from him how to be like him in both virtue and vocation. It should be a community of vision, telling and retelling the biblical story so that the community is continually renewed in this counter-cultural vision of God’s kingdom. It should be a community of unity, where all human sociological boundaries are eclipsed by membership in God’s covenantal family. It should be a community trained to rush into the places of the world’s pain as both the prayer and presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

And all of the church’s practices should be in the life and power of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ presence in every individual member of the community. The Spirit is the animating force of all the church’s work toward God’s New Creation.

The natural outflowing of the local community’s life should be a community of royal priests, bearing God’s image into the world for the sake of the world. This outflowing of the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all.

New Creation Wounds

hands-bw-srgbOur vocation as God’s renewed people is to embody Christ’s covenantal-faithfulness for the sake of the wider world. Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate revelation of that faithfulness — fully loving God and fully loving people through sacrifice. Jesus’ cross and resurrection launched the New Creation. Therefore, Jesus’ cross becomes the pattern for our New Creation lives.

But what does that look like? Romans 8 offers us a mysterious, yet crucial answer. Here is the basic flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 8.

As people who are enlivened and led by God’s Spirit, we are adopted as God’s children. Being God’s children was Israel’s vocation. So Paul is saying we are now part of Abraham’s renewed family entrusted with their renewed vocation. As God’s children, we are co-heirs with Christ. This inheritance is our vocation. It is to share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may share in his glory, which is his renewing and restorative reign over God’s world as the true image-bearer, the true human being.

We are adopted into Abraham’s renewed family as God’s children in order that we may share in Christ’s vocation — creation’s renewal through Christ’s and our suffering and his and our consequent glory and reign.

Creation waits for its liberation as the New Creation, groaning with labor pains. Within groaning creation, the children of God live and groan as well. And within God’s children, God’s Spirit — given as the firstfruits of their glory and reign — intercedes with groans. Creation groans. God’s children groans within creation. God’s Spirit groans within God’s children.

This is the core commission of Abraham’s renewed family as God’s royal priesthood — living in the midst of the world’s pain, suffering and groaning with the world, and transforming it into prayer that is in sync with the Spirit’s own groaning.

The image of Romans 8 is the cross. But rather than Jesus being on the cross, Paul is depicting God’s people on the cross, suspended in the groaning world, ourselves groaning and the Spirit groaning within us. All for the sake and renewal of God’s world.

And here’s the clincher:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

In all things, especially through our groaning, suffering and pain, God is working for the good of those who love him. We are being conformed into the image of his Son, living cross-shaped New Creation lives, knowing that the ultimate goal is to be glorified — sharing in Christ’s renewing and restorative reign over God’s creation.

In other words, we — who are adopted into Abraham’s family, who are enlivened and led by the Spirit, and who are patterning our lives after Christ’s covenantal-faithfulness through sacrificial love to God and others — are the umbilical between the groaning world and the groaning Spirit. The New Creation is birthed from this creation as we join groaning creation with the groaning Spirit through our own suffering and groaning.

As revealed on the cross, New Creation is birthed through suffering and sacrificial love. So the answer to Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” required the wounds of the cross. Likewise, as we take up our cross and become the living laboring link between the world around us and the Spirit in us, we will be wounded in order that God’s New Creation may be birthed.

So, What’s The Point?

bookstore“What would be the good of learning without love — it would puff us up. And love without learning — it would go astray.” -St Bernard of Clairvaux

So why spend the last several posts exploring the biblical story in contrast to the popular story? Regardless of the theological details, isn’t the bottom-line of either story to “love God and love people”?

Let’s imagine you wanted to travel from New York to Los Angeles via plane. Wouldn’t you expect the pilot to make necessary in-flight course corrections in order to keep the plane on course? In a similar way, we need to tell and retell the biblical story to avoid “drift” in our lives.

Or even more drastic, what if you boarded a plane heading in a similar direction but bound for a completely different destination than expected? What if you thought you were flying from New York to Los Angeles only to discover that you were actually heading to Las Vegas. You would be flying in the same direction but would fall short of your intended destination by a few hundred miles.

This was my experience almost 20 years ago when I realized the popular version of Christianity that I embraced was forming me into a person far short of the biblical vision of humanness.

So let’s look at a quick summary of both stories. First the popular, yet distorted version:

“Jesus died for my sins and gave me his righteousness so I can go to heaven when I die.”

Now the fuller biblical version:

“Jesus lived and died to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel in order to rescue humanity from enslavement to idolatry and sin and restore us back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers within God’s renewed creation that launched at Jesus’ resurrection and will be ultimately completed at his appearing.”

If you live by the first story, you will miss the second story. But if you live by the second story, then you will get most of the first story as well. That’s because the first story shrinks the actual biblical story and only highlights certain aspects.

shrinkRemember, shrinky-dinks? They were plastic art pieces that one would color and then bake in the oven. They would shrink as they baked and their colors would become more vibrant in the process. That’s what the popular version of the biblical story does. It colors certain parts of the story while ignoring others and then shrinks so the highlighted parts become more emphasized, thus distorting the actual story.

So from a very general perspective, the goal of both stories is to “love God and love people.” But the actual biblical story provides the proper context and definition.

In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus has a conversation with one of the teachers of the law. Asked by the teacher “Of all of the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replies:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is not simplifying or abstracting Israel’s ethical code to “just love God and love people so you’ll be okay with God.” Rather, Jesus is summarizing with pinpoint accuracy the covenant God made with Abraham. This is Israel’s vocation in a concentrated amplified form. This is how Israel was to be faithful to the covenant for the sake of the world. If one would worship God with every aspect of human life, pouring everything into glad worship of God and if one would love his or her neighbor with the same respect, care and devotion we show ourselves, then heaven would come to earth!

Jesus condenses the entire Abrahamic covenant, Israel’s vocation as God’s royal priesthood, into a dual-edged purpose that would actually merge heaven and earth.

If we want an example of what this kind of “love” looks like, then we need to look at the cross. For on the cross, Jesus, as Israel’s human representative king, did for Israel what Israel couldn’t do. He fully loved God and fully loved his neighbor as THE Faithful Israelite. He fulfilled Israel’s covenant with God and died in Israel’s place so that they would be rescued and renewed. And through the fulfilled covenant, the rest of the nations and ultimately all of creation would be rescued and renewed.

And on the cross we see Israel’s God, embodied as a human, expressing his full love and faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham and his family. He is faithful despite their unfaithfulness and rescues and renews them so he can rescue and renew the nations and the creation he so loves.

On the cross we see:

The true Image-Bearer

The true Royal Priest

The true King of Israel

Israel being faithful to their covenant with God

God being faithful to his covenant with Israel

The forgiveness of sins

The end of exile

The redemption from idolatry

The vanquishing of evil

The trampling of death

Creation reborn

Humanity is now restored to its original vocation by being received into Abraham’s family and thus God’s fulfilled covenant with Abraham. We are now part of Abraham’s renewed family. As such, we are God’s royal priesthood. We are God’s true image-bearers. We are truly human. We are both benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation. Our vocation is now to follow Jesus into his virtue and vocation — into his faithfulness to the covenant. We are people in whom God is at work according to the pattern of the Messiah for the sake of the wider world. We are learning to live and love like Christ, so we too can embody the covenant-faithfulness of God. To borrow imagery from Revelation, we follow the Lion of Judah (Israel’s and thus the world’s True King) who is also the slain lamb (patterning our lives after his sacrificial life).

In this light, Jesus’ statement, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” is actually about our vocation more than self-denial. His cross is the pattern for our New Creation lives.

Every act of loving God and loving people that embodies Christ’s love as revealed on the cross builds the material through which God will ultimately fashion his New Creation at Jesus’ ultimate appearing. We are like vegetation that merges the carbon dioxide of this creation and the chlorophyll of Christ’s love, transforming it into the oxygen that God will use as the very atmosphere for his New Creation.

This is why after a lengthy discussion of the resurrection, which is the inaugural moment of God’s New Creation, Paul encourages us with, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Shrinky Dinks image from

Understanding The “Forgiveness Of Sins”

flowers-through-a-fenceIn light of last week’s post, how do we understand “forgiveness of sins”? Jesus says in Matthew 26, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This is a prime example of the importance of reading an ancient text from the original audience’s context.

In popular Christian parlance, “forgiveness of sins” usually refers to the personal experience an individual has when one repents and asks God’s forgiveness for wicked deeds committed or good deeds omitted. The modern understanding of “forgiveness of sins” is primarily about one’s personal morality and relationship with God.

Within the biblical narrative, “forgiveness of sins” includes this aspect, but is far, far more.

First, “forgiveness of sins” has a primarily Jewish dimension. God’s covenant with Israel warned that idolatry and sin would eventually lead to their exile from the Land he had given them. Israel’s continued idolatry and sin lead to an invasion by Assyria and the northern Kingdom of Israel being led away into captivity by 722 BC. Around 586 BC, Babylon invaded the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple and leading the rest of Israel away into captivity. Like Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden, Israel is exiled from their Land and Temple.

A generation later, a small remnant returns to the Land and eventually rebuilds the Temple. But God’s glory never returns to the Temple as promised and Israel remains under foreign domination. By the time of Jesus, most Jews understood that while they had physically returned to their land, they were still in exile.

God’s covenant with Israel clearly expressed that exile was the result of Israel’s sins. So the return from exile would be God’s “forgiveness of sins.” This phrase virtually became a technical term for Israel’s return from exile. The phrase meant God’s faithfulness to his covenant as he would restore Israel by forgiving their national sins, driving out their foreign oppressors, and returning personally to their Temple. This is how Jesus’ audience heard the phrase.

Second, “forgiveness of sins” has a global dimension. Within God’s covenant with Israel, Israel’s vocation was to be God’s royal priesthood. Through this amplified and restorative version of humanity’s vocation as God’s image-bearer, Israel was to ultimately undo Adam’s sins and rescue the nations from their enslavement to idolatry. So with Israel’s restoration, the “forgiveness of sins” also has a global dimension as the nations are now free to turn from their idolatry, turn to Israel’s God, and be included in God’s restored people. As Psalm 47:9 states, “The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.”

It is within this Israel-centric and global understanding that “forgiveness of sins” has a personal dimension. Because God has forgiven Israel and therefore forgiven humanity, we may now experience God’s forgiveness of our personal sins. That means Jesus has rescued you and me from our idolatry and sins that continue to enslave and dehumanize us. Jesus has rescued you and me back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers. Our enslavement and exile are over so we may turn from our idolatry and sins and serve the living God as his royal priests in his New Creation.

All of this and more are contained in the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” I’m going to quote heavily from N.T. Wright’s book, The Day The Revolution Began, since he says it far better than I could:

“The larger reality is that something has happened within the actual space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different. By six o’clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically. Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic ‘new temple’: ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah’ (2Cor 5:19)…

“Within that new reality, the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name of a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailer has already been overpowered. As Paul said, if the Messiah is not raised, ‘your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins’ (1Cor 15:17).

“‘Forgiveness of sins,’ for the first disciples, was now to be seen as a fact about the way the world was, a fact rooted in the one-off accomplishment of Jesus’ death, then revealed in his resurrection, and then put to work through the Spirit in the transformed lives of his followers. Forgiveness of sins became another way of saying ‘Passover’ or ‘new Exodus.’ Or, as in Isaiah 54-55, following hard on the heels of the kingdom announcement of chapter 52 and the ‘servant’s’ work in chapter 53, it would come to mean ‘new covenant’ and ‘new creation.’ The gospel was the announcement of this new reality.”

Wright continues to say that this new reality, was designed to find its ultimate fulfillment in the imminent new creation, the new heavens and new earth in which Ephesians 1:10 describes as God’s plan to unite all things in the Messiah, things in heaven and on earth. He then continues:

“The final scene in Revelation (chaps. 21–22) spells it out: the new heavens and new earth function as the ultimate Temple, the new world in which God will wipe away all tears from all eyes. First Corinthians 15 describes the accomplishment of this final reality under the image of the messianic battle: Jesus, having already conquered sin and death, will reign until these and all other enemies are totally destroyed. Romans 8 describes it as the birth of the new creation from the womb of the old, weaving into that great metaphor a powerful allusion to the events of the Exodus, so that creation itself will have its own ‘Exodus’ at last, being set free from its slavery to corruption and sharing the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified. That is the ultimate hope.

“All of this is the ‘goal’ of God’s rescue operation accomplished through Jesus. All of this is in direct fulfillment of the ancient hopes of Israel: it is all ‘according to the Bible’—though it was quite unexpected.”

So while forgiveness of sin has an extremely important personal dimension, it is wrapped up in a new reality that is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Israel and transforms the cosmos. And thus our personal lives are swept up into the God’s larger story and purpose for his creation.

Biblical Soteriology-Our Vocation Restored

one-dayBiblical soteriology is a huge topic, one that we cannot begin to fully address in a single post. Suffice it to say, it is utterly essential that we keep the entire biblical narrative in mind when studying soteriology. As we’ve addressed in previous posts, when extracted from the biblical narrative, and especially from Israel’s story within that narrative, salvation becomes terribly distorted.

We must keep in mind that Jesus is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. This is key — God’s only plan to put the world right is to do so through Abraham and his family. God called Abraham to reverse Adam’s sin and all of its effects. Abraham and his family were to undo the problem of Adam and therefore the problem of evil within the world. They would do this by being God’s royal priesthood, an amplified version of humanity’s vocation as his image-bearers.

Even though Israel fails in their vocation and is unfaithful to the covenant, God remains faithful to his covenant. Through Jesus, God rescues Israel, through which the rest of the world would also be rescued. This is why Paul says in Romans 1:16 that salvation comes “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” Jesus is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and then as a result, rescuing the world.

But Jesus is also Israel’s faithfulness to God. Jesus is Israel’s King, their Messiah, their representative. While Israel as a nation had failed, Jesus as Israel’s representative King was completely faithful to the covenant. He was THE faithful Israelite. So when he proclaimed on the cross, “It is finished!” he was declaring that Israel’s long story was finally fulfilled and completed. Through Jesus, God was faithful to Israel and through Jesus, Israel was faithful to God.

God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel climaxes with rescuing Israel from their exile. In turn through Israel, God was now blessing the nations by rescuing humanity from their exile and allowing all to enter into Abraham’s family. As Paul states in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ (Israel’s King), then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”

All of this, and more, are essential to understanding God’s salvation for us as part of the true biblical story. Remember, in Genesis 1 and 2 God created this world to be his temple in which he would dwell and flood with his glory. He created humans as his image-bearers — reflecting worship to him and reflecting his wise care and rule into the world. But humans rejected this vocation. Thus, the primary human failure is a failure of worship. Humans began worshipping aspects of the created world rather than God. This “feedback loop” of idolatry gave the power and authority of our God-given vocation to those created forces.

Because image-bearing is our very humanness, idolatry causes our humanness to unravel. Sin, then, is the ongoing dehumanizing process in which we try to live within and benefit from this corrupted environment. But our sins only enslave us further to these forces. Idolatry and sin lead to subhuman and eventually nonhuman existence, which the Bible calls death.

As discussed in previous posts, God’s ultimate goal for his creation is the New Creation. This is the renewal and merging of heaven and earth into his ultimate temple, which he would flood with his glory and presence. And within his New Creation, humans would once again be God’s image, his royal priesthood, through whom he would run the world.

Jesus’ death, as the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham, accomplishes all of this! His death completely defeats all of the dark forces, sin and evil that enslaved Israel and humanity. Free from its enslavement and exile, humanity is restored back to its vocation! This is our salvation! John declares in Revelation 1:5-6 that Jesus “has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father” (cf Rev 5:9-10). And Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates God’s New Creation in which we may now serve.

Unlike Jesus, who fully embodied God’s New Creation in human form, God’s New Creation in the world as well as our renewed vocation have been inaugurated, but are not fully completed. We must learn to embody God’s image. Since Jesus fully embodied God’s New Creation, he was the true Royal Priest and Image-Bearer. Therefore, our salvation is an ongoing process, a journey of growth into Jesus’ likeness — into his virtue and vocation. By worshipping him, following him and learning from him, we may grow into and ultimately embody his character and ministry.

Both virtue and vocation are key. Our vocation as image-bearers relies upon our growth into Jesus’ virtues. The virtues are the load-bearing character-strength necessary to engage in and sustain the image-bearing vocation. God has revealed himself as a self-giving, sacrificial, loving God. As his royal priests, we cannot adequately reflect this into the world in a renewing and transforming way without actually embodying it.

I view the interrelation between virtue and vocation in the following way: Imagine heaven and earth as two pieces of fabric. The healing and transforming image-bearing vocation is to stitch heaven and earth together within the areas of our influence in the world. The thread that binds together these two aspects of creation, as revealed and embodied by Jesus upon the cross, is self-giving, sacrificial love. Our lives are the needle that winds this thread through the two realms of heaven and earth and brings them together. Learning from Jesus how to embody his virtues is what sharpens and strengthens the needle of our lives so it can adequately stitch heaven and earth together.

Thus our salvation is continually growing into Christ’s likeness — his virtue and vocation as image-bearers and royal priests in God’s New Creation — so we can worship him and reflect his sacrificial, self-giving love in all we do.

Biblical Anthropology-Our Human Vocation

In “The Day the Revolution Began,” NT Wright states:

“In most popular Christianity, ‘heaven’ (and ‘fellowship with God’ in the present) is the goal, and ‘sin’ (bad behavior, deserving punishment) is the problem. A Platonized goal and a moralizing diagnosis—and together they lead, as I have been suggesting, to a paganized ‘solution’ in which an angry divinity is pacified by human sacrifice.”

In the previous post, we looked at how the biblical goal is not “heaven” but God’s New Creation, where the two current dimensions of heaven and earth are fully renewed, joined and filled with God’s presence. Creation was intended to be God’s Temple, the place where he dwells and heaven and earth are merged. The New Creation is the ultimate goal of God’s purpose for his creation.

Within his creation, his temple, God fashioned men and women to be his image-bearers. We are to be the living embodiment where heaven and earth interact. Image-bearing is a royal priestly duty of reflecting the world’s worship to God (priestly duty) and God’s order and care to the world (royal duty). As such, image-bearing is to serve, protect and expand “sacred space” throughout the world. Fr Thomas Hopko states:

“As the image of God, ruler over creation and co-creator with the Uncreated Maker, man has the task to “reflect” God in creation; to make His presence, His will and His powers spread throughout the universe; to transform all that exists into the paradise of God.” -Fr Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Vol 1 – Doctrine and Scripture

Only through worship of God are humans able to bring God’s care and order to his world. Humanity’s failure then is the failure at this vocation, namely idolatry. Rather than reflecting worship to God, humans reflect worship back upon creation and then become enslaved to the created forces they worship. Sin is the result as enslaved humans attempt to live and prosper within this corrupted and distorted reality. Sin then produces injustice, introducing further distortion and corruption into creation.

All of this leads to the deconstruction of one’s humanness. Humans are humans only as they are God’s image-bearers. When a human stops bearing God’s image through idolatry and the subsequent sin and injustice, they undergo the process of becoming non-human. So while there is a moral dimension to humanity’s failure, the moral failure is symptomatic of a greater failure, the failure of vocation.

This is Paul’s diagnosis in Romans 1:18-25, which he summarizes in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” His word choice  for “sinned” means “to miss the mark.” All have missed the mark and fallen short of God’s glory, which is genuine humanness as his image-bearers. Paul’s diagnosis, while containing a moral dimension, is primarily vocational. In other words, humanity’s moral problem (idolatry and the consequential sins) is wrapped up in our larger vocational problem (failure to be God’s image-bearers).

youre-so-negativeThis stands in stark contrast to the popular version of biblical anthropology. In this version, God tells humans to keep a moral code (don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil). Humans fail morally and are punished with death.

In this story, Israel repeats this failure. They are given a moral code, the Law, but fail at keeping it. As a result of their moral failure, humans are destined for death and hell. However, Jesus is able to obey the moral law perfectly. Therefore, his death pays the penalty for the rest of humankind. Now Jesus’ moral righteousness is imputed to any who believe in him.

Contrary to this popular version, humans are created to live within God’s heaven-and-earth creation as worshipping stewards, image-bearers, a royal priesthood. New Testament passages such as 1Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:5-6, Revelation 5:9-10, and Revelation 20:6 press this point.

Paul also addresses this biblical anthropology in his own life and ministry. In 2Corinthians 5:18-21, Paul states that Jesus’ death has restored the human vocation, which he eagerly embraces and embodies through the “ministry of reconciliation.” This ministry is the royal priesthood in action.

This vocational focus helps us understand large portions of the New Testament that has been popularly viewed as moral or ethical teachings. Again, while there is a moral dimension, the primary focus is vocation.

For example, Paul states in 1Timothy 6:11-16:

“But you belong to God, so you must run away from all this. Instead, chase after justice, godliness, faith, love, patience and gentleness. Fight the noble fight of the faith, get a firm grasp on the life of the coming age, the life you were called to when you made the noble public profession before many witnesses. I give you this charge before God, who gives life to all things, and King Jesus, who made the noble profession before Pontius Pilate: be undefiled and blameless as you keep the commandment, until the royal appearing of our Lord King Jesus, which the blessed and only Sovereign One, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at its proper time. He is the only one who possesses immortality; he lives in unapproachable light; no human being has seen him, or can see him. To him be eternal honor and power, Amen!”

Or 2Peter 1:3-8:

“God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. The result is that he has given us, through these things, his precious and wonderful promises; and the purpose of all this is so that you may run away from the corruption of lust that is in the world, and may become partakers of the divine nature. So, because of this, you should strain every nerve to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge, and your knowledge with self-control, and your self-control with patience, and your patience with piety, and your piety with family affection, and your family affection with love. If you have these things in plentiful supply, you see, you will not be wasting your time, or failing to bear fruit, in relation to your know ledge of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Such passages seem to focus on “ethics.” But, rather, they are addressing our vocation as royal priests, the living embodiment of heaven-and-earth interaction. The point of passages like these  is not simply to learn to be good and moral people since Jesus has forgiven our sins. Transformed character matters not as an end to itself, but because it’s required to reflect God into the world. So “ethical” passages exhort us to prepare for and engage in one’s vocation as the royal priesthood in service to Jesus the King.

Our restored human vocation is to be formed into Christ’s likeness so we can live our lives as though Christ were living our life. Jesus is the true Image-bearer and the true Royal Priest. So we learn and train into his likeness — his character and power — so we can reflect God into our world as he did through beauty, justice, compassion, reconciliation and healing.

This is why we were created and, as we’ll see next time, this is why Jesus died.

Biblical Eschatology – Our World Renewed

blessing-of-the-watersPerhaps one of the life-altering discoveries I encountered in biblical theology is in eschatology, or the study of “last things.” For years I accepted the popular version of Christian eschatology — Jesus’ followers would go to heaven when they died or when he raptured them to heaven while God would punish the rebellious and destroy the physical world.

In other words, in the popular version of Christian eschatology, the ultimate hope was a place away from this world called heaven.

However, Jesus summarizes the biblical eschatology in the Lord’s prayer — Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the Bible, heaven is not a future destiny, but the other hidden dimension of our current ordinary life. So in biblical eschatology, God will renew both dimensions of heaven and earth and fully join them together as the New Creation.

So, true biblical eschatology is in this world, not away from it. Simply put, true biblical eschatology is the New Creation, the renewed heaven and earth that were launched by Jesus at his resurrection, implemented in the present by his followers and fully established at his appearing in the future. At Jesus’ appearing, the same power that resurrected and transformed his physical body will do the same for ours as well as all of creation. And within this New Creation, Jesus’ followers will physically live and serve as God’s royal priesthood. For the New Creation, this world renewed, is the place where heaven and earth are joined — God’s Temple.

This biblical eschatology is a major theme begun in Genesis and continuing through to the last chapters of Revelation.

The first chapter of Genesis describes God fashioning the material world into his temple, a place in which he dwells and where the two dimensions of heaven and earth merge. Within this “cosmic” temple, God creates humans as his image, to be the points where the two dimensions of heaven and earth interacted.

Despite humanity’s failure in their vocation, God continues his project of fashioning this world to be his temple. After calling Israel, he gifts them with the tabernacle (and subsequently the temple). The tabernacle was a mini version of what creation is to be. God dwells upon the mercy seat, the place where heaven and earth merge. And Israel is called to be God’s royal priesthood, a nation commissioned with an amplified image-bearing vocation.

Ultimately, Israel fails in their vocation, God’s presence leaves the temple and Israel is exiled from their land. Later a remnant of Israel eventually returns to the land and rebuilds the temple. But God’s presence never returns.

Generations later, Jesus begins his ministry as Israel’s Messiah, their king. He realizes that his vocation is to replace the temple. He is the embodiment of God. He is the place where heaven and earth merge.

Jesus trains his followers to be living embodiments of the temple. He teaches them to pray and live their lives as the place where heave and earth interact — where God’s name is hallowed, God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is the climactic moment in history where God’s New Creation is launched in the midst of this present creation.

The Book of Acts documents Jesus’ followers as they learn to be the royal priesthood in God’s inaugurated New Creation. They create communities where heaven and earth merge through their worship and witness.

God’s New Creation is a constant theme in Paul’s writings. He declares in Ephesians 1:10 that God’s purpose is to sum up all things in Christ, things both in heaven and on earth. In Philippians 3:20-21, he states that we await a Savior from heaven, who will come to earth to transform his people. In 1Corinthians 15:28, Paul declares the ultimate goal is that God will be “all in all.” He also states in Galatians 6:15 that the New Creation trumps the now-irrelevant discussion of ethnic boundary markers.

Finally, Revelation 21 and 22 depict the ultimate Christian hope as the New Creation that began at Jesus resurrection is fully and finally completed. Heaven and earth are renewed. The New Jerusalem, which is the Church, links together the dimensions of heaven and earth. Absent in the New Creation is a physical temple, for the New Creation is God’s Temple as he fully dwells within this renewed world. And God’s people continue their vocation as the royal priesthood, God’s image-bearers, taking God’s life and healing to the nations.

An Attempt At Summarizing The Biblical Story

church-windowLast time, I likened understanding the Bible’s story to piecing together a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. In order to properly assemble the puzzle, we need to work from the correct image on the puzzle’s box cover.

Here’s my attempt at providing the correct box cover from which we can assemble the multitudinous pieces of the biblical story arching Genesis to Revelation:

God designed the world to function as his “cosmic” temple, a place where the two dimensions of creation — heaven and earth — would merge and interact. Into this temple, God created mortal human beings, tasked with the vocation of bearing his image — reflecting the world’s worship to God and reflecting God’s loving care and order into the world. Through his image-bearers, God would reign within his cosmic temple for the sake and care of the temple’s inhabitants.

God placed Adam and Eve within a sacred space, the place where God interacted with them. The image-bearing vocation was to serve and protect this sacred space, so that its order would ultimately expand into all the earth.

Unfortunately, humanity failed in their vocation. They relinquished their vocation through idolatry, turning their worship of and dependence on God toward creation. By doing so, they handed over the power and authority of their vocation to forces within creation, enslaving themselves to these forces. The consequence of their vocational breach was exile from the sacred space. As humanity lived enslaved to idolatry, sin and disorder filled their lives and their world, corrupting and devolving their own humanity and creation.

In order to rescue his creation, God calls Abraham into a covenant of vocation. The purpose of the covenant was so that through Abraham’s family God would rescue humans and then through humans God would rescue creation. Through Abraham, God would undo what Adam had done. Israel was blessed with an unique covenant of vocation to be God’s royal priesthood — an amplified version of humanity’s image-bearing vocation. As part of this covenant, God gifted Israel with the Law, guiding people and society to become the royal priesthood. God also gifted Israel with the tabernacle/Temple, which was a microcosm of the cosmic temple — the actual place where God dwelt and heaven and earth merged. Within this tabernacle was the mercy seat, the sacred space where God would interact with his royal priesthood. God also gifted Israel with the Land, a base of operations where the royal priesthood would grow and from which God’s presence and life, similar to the original Garden, would expand to the nations. God’s life within the land would ultimately be the remedy to the death resulting from humanity’s expulsion from the Garden. Through his royal priesthood, God would rescue the rest of humanity, bringing them into Abraham’s family and thus Abraham’s covenant and vocation. Then through this restored Jew-plus-Gentile humanity God would rescue creation and ultimately come to renew and reign within his cosmic temple. As part of his covenant of vocation, God encourages Israel to choose life over death, warning them that sin would ultimately result in exile.

Israel grew and experienced its heyday under King David. King David intended to build God a permanent house, a Temple. But in a remarkable switch, God tells David that rather than David building a house for God, God would build a house for David through one of his royal descendants, who God would call his son.

Unfortunately, Israel falls into the same plight as humanity and fails as God’s rescue party. Their story parallels humanity’s original story. They breach their vocation as God’s royal priesthood through idolatry and become enslaved to dark forces. Enslaved, Israel devolves into further sin, ultimately resulting in exile from their Land and Temple. Israel’s idolatry and exile radically deepen the human plight as the rescuers now also need rescuing.

Decades later, a remnant returns to the Land and rebuilds the Temple. But God’s presence never returns to his Temple. And Israel remains oppressed under a series of foreign powers. The Old Testament ends with a dark shadow hanging over Israel.

By Jesus’ time, Israel was longing for their Messiah, the promised King from David’s lineage. They believed this mighty King of Israel would valiantly drive the foreign oppressors from the Land, return God’s presence to the Temple, and establish Israel as a great nation once again. These accomplishments would mean that Israel’s sins were forgiven and their exile had ended and that Israel’s God had been fully established as King. When all this happened, this corrupt old age would end and God’s New Creation, where heaven and earth are finally renewed and merge, would begin with the inaugural event of the resurrection of God’s faithful.

As Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins, backed by the powerful signs and wonders of healing and restoration, it seemed Israel’s Messiah had finally come. But enslaved to idolatry, Israel continued turning their vocation inward upon themselves. Their expectation of God’s presence, the end of exile and the coming of God’s Kingdom was perceived to make them great again over and above the other nations. God would rule the world as Israel would rule over the nations.

So where Israel expected Jesus to confront the Roman oppressors, Jesus knew he had to confront the dark enslaving powers behind all of humanity — n0t only behind oppressive Rome but also behind misguided Israel. But he would do so in a startling twist from Israel’s nationalistic expectations. Jesus understood from Israel’s scriptures that the end of Israel’s exile and ultimately humanity’s exile (i.e. the forgiveness of sins) must be accomplished by means of suffering, sacrificial love and death. This was ultimately Israel’s vocation and calling. So as Israel’s representative King, Jesus knew it was his vocation on behalf of his nation. So everything Jesus did was to call and convince Israel to repent of their nationalistic agenda and to follow him as their Representative king back to Israel’s true vocation to bless the nations. After Jesus’ initial accomplishment, Israel and those who would ultimately join Abraham’s family from among the nations would continue to implement this vocation in the same manner.

Jesus was the true embodiment of Israel, the true Royal Priest, who would suffer and die as Israel’s representative in order to rescue them and the rest of humanity they were commissioned with rescuing. And being the embodiment of Israel, which in turn represented humanity, Jesus was the true embodiment of humanity, the true Image-Bearer. But Jesus was also something much more. He was not only the fulfillment of Israel’s story, but also the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness to his covenant. Jesus was also the true embodiment of Israel’s God, able to do what only Israel’s God could do!

Jesus, the embodiment of humanity, the embodiment of Israel and the embodiment of Israel’s God, walks the lonely road to his death in order to confront all the dark powers enslaving God’s creation and all the evil and sin they can amass. In that darkest moment, we see God’s love shining forth brighter than a thousand suns. And they kill him.

And at 6pm on that day, as Jesus’ corpse hung on the cross, the world would never be the same. Just before dying, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.” He knew that with his death, Israel’s story was finally fulfilled. Israel’s and humanity’s exile had finally ended. The enslaving dark forces were defeated. Humanity could step out of its idolatry, sin, exile, and death and into their renewed image-bearing vocation, communion with God, and life.

Exile was over. God was finally established as King.

So the next logical step would be the end of this present age and the beginning of God’s New Creation, starting with the resurrection of God’s faithful Israel. And three days later, another startling twist occurs. God launches his New Creation with the resurrection of THE Faithful Israelite. But what was expected to have happened fully at the end of this present age to all of God’s faithful, occurs partially within this present age to God’s Faithful One.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurates God’s New Creation in the midst of this present age. Forty days later, Jesus returns to the hidden dimension of heaven in his earthly body. Ten days later, God’s Spirit comes from the dimension of heaven to powerfully fill the earthly bodies of Jesus’ followers. And the renewed vocation of merging heaven and earth begins! Paul declares that those who are in the Messiah, are the New Creation!

What Jesus inaugurated, his followers are to now implement as the renewed image-bearers and royal priesthood within God’s cosmic temple.

Revelation declares that Jesus “has freed us from our sins by his blood [ended our enslavement and exile] and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father [renewed our vocation].” -Rev 1:5-6

Peter links our renewed vocation with the covenant of vocation God created with Israel, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” – 1Pet 2:9

And the final chapters of Revelation depict the hope and goal to which the entire biblical story has been moving — heaven and earth are renewed and merged, God fills and dwells within his New Creation, and God’s people reign and serve as God’s royal priesthood in his new world.

From this summary, we can now begin reassembling the pieces that the popular version of the story has tweaked — eschatology, anthropology and soteriology.

Piecing Together The Story

img_0472I ended my last post by stating that the consequence of the three-layered mistake outlined by NT Wright — a Platonized eschatology, a moralized anthropology and a paganized soteriology — is that we live in a distorted story that seems to be supported by portions of Scripture, but that is actually not the biblical story at all.

Understanding the Bible’s overarching narrative and its details is similar to assembling a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It can be a daunting task for most people. Inside the box are hundreds of small pieces, all seemingly interrelated, yet frustratingly disconnected.

The common strategy most of us use is first to spread out all the pieces on the table. That’s a good start. If we only worked with 25-30 pieces at a time, we would never move forward. So putting the entire mess before us is good.

Next, we usually gather up all of the “edge” pieces we can find to assemble the border. Again, that’s a good move since it’s fairly simple. Having a border gives us some context upon which to assemble the remaining puzzle.

Then using the photo on the box, we try to gather related pieces by color, texture or transition. One pile of pieces seem to depict the roof of a house. Another group resembles the flowers in the garden. Another pile are pieces to the clouds.

But what happens if someone has accidentally replaced the box cover with a similar-looking, yet altogether different box cover? Look at these two similar box covers for jigsaw puzzles:


In this analogy, the puzzle’s box cover is the story we tell and retell. And the actual puzzle pieces are the details to that story. But when we attempt to assemble the detailed puzzle pieces based on a similar-looking yet completely different box cover, we end up with a frustrating mess. We try to jam pieces together that shouldn’t be together. Or we may assemble small portions of the puzzle, but try placing them in the wrong sections of the overall puzzle, misled by the wrong box cover. Or we simply ignore pieces that just don’t seem to fit the picture with which we’re working.

We can usually tell when we or someone else is not living in the correct biblical story. Years ago, this happened to me as I realized that I had to ignore portions of Scripture or extract certain passages from their original context to support my version of the biblical story. At that time, I remember coming to the realization that my version of Christianity was foreign to what the Church of the first several centuries had believed and practiced.

So I began a long journey of trying to understand the biblical story and its supporting texts within the original writers’ and audiences’ worldview. For the past 15 years, primarily as a “hobbyist” theologian since I’m no longer in professional ministry, I have tried to learn the correct biblical story so that it can reshape my theology, my worship and my life. The effort has been worthwhile. The full biblical story now makes sense and all the pieces of Scripture actually fit nicely together.

A Distorted Story

colored-reflectionsIn last week’s post, I tried to retell the popular, yet distorted, version of the Christian story as I have heard it since my conversion into Christianity. Unfortunately, virtually all of that story is wrong.

I’m currently rereading NT Wright’s latest book, “The Day The Revolution Began.” This book is a treasure trove of theological resources and will probably be one of my theological “go-to” books for years to come.

Wright summarizes why the popular Christian story in general and specifically the popular understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion is wrong:

“In other words, in much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore.”

In other words, the popular version of the Christian story makes three crucial errors that distorts the actual biblical story. First, it substitutes the biblical goal of God’s New Creation with “going to heaven when we die.” Second, it substitutes the biblical human vocation of being God’s image-bearers in his cosmic temple with being morally righteous or unrighteous. And it substitutes the biblical salvation of being rescued from idolatry and restored to our human vocation with Jesus dying to satisfy God’s wrath for our personal sin so we can be considered righteous and ultimately go to heaven.

I also believe that these three mistakes lead to a fourth mistake — we have consumerized our ecclesiology. We have replaced the biblical community of being shaped into Christ’s likeness in order to bless the world with organizations programmed primarily to cater to the community’s expectations and needs.

Please take a moment to watch this introductory video featuring Dr. John Walton:

To steal Dr Walton’s words, I believe one of the primary causes for our distortion of the biblical story is that we continue to “impose our own questions, our own culture, our own agendas, our own issues on the biblical text and demand that it address our situation.”

Our questions, culture, agendas and issues that we impose on the biblical text focus on how to be right with God and ultimately get to heaven. This then reads the biblical text in a way foreign to the original authors and audience and forces the text to say things it never tried to say.

Because each of the mistakes that Wright mentions — eschatology, anthropology and soteriology — are intimately entwined, a tweak of one torques the other two, resulting in a comprehensive distortion of the biblical story.

Consequently, we try to live in a story that seems to be supported by portions of Scripture, but is actually not the biblical story.

The Way I Heard It

fanaticThe title of this posts steals the title from one my favorite podcasts called “The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe.” If you haven’t listened to his podcast, do yourself a favor and head over to Mike Rowe’s website  and have a listen. Each episode is short and is an interesting story about a historical figure.

While I’m stealing the title from Mike’s podcast, this post is neither short nor as interesting as his material.

Having converted into Christianity during my last year in high school, I was immediately immersed in the popular version of the Christian story.

So this is the way I heard it:

God created the physical world. Into that world, God created a man in his image named Adam. God gave Adam the responsibility to rule over the world. To help with this endeavor, God made a woman named Eve from one of Adam’s ribs in order to be a helper for Adam. God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and to rule over the earth.

God placed Adam and Eve in a Garden. Within this Garden, God placed two trees — the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God gave Adam and Eve one moral instruction — don’t eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But the devil, in the form of a snake, tempted Eve, who then tempted Adam. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. At that moment, spiritual and physical death entered creation. Now under a curse, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. They and the all of their descendants were forever guilty of their transgression and would be unrighteous. Being morally bankrupt, there was nothing they or the rest of mankind could do to change their standing before God and were destined to hell and eternal separation from God.

The rest of the Old Testament was a lengthy example of humanity’s unrighteousness, focused primarily on Israel. God chose Israel to be his special people. But Israel continued to demonstrate their unrighteousness through sin and idolatry. Eventually their sins brought them to the point where God had to expel them from the Promised Land.

But through Israel’s sordid history, God dropped occasional prophecies to them about how he would come and rescue mankind from their sins.

And he ultimately did! God became Jesus. He was born to a virgin named Mary, who was randomly selected by God’s grace to bear God in her body. Jesus, being God, performed amazing miracles and told people that through his death, everyone could have their sins forgiven, have communion with God again, and eventually go to heaven when they died. He also taught people how to live after they received forgiveness from their sins.

The New Testament reveals that God cannot stand sin. Therefore, only righteous people can go to heaven when they die and unrighteous people are destined for hell when they die. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, every human is guilty of sin and objects of God’s wrath. It’s like each of us has a huge moral debt in our heavenly bank accounts. Therefore, every human being is unrighteous and destined for hell and there’s absolutely nothing any human could do about it. Any good a person could muster wouldn’t satisfy his or her moral debt let alone anyone else’s. In addition, the consequence of sin is death. Death is part of the punishment for sins. So each person is condemned to die for their own sins and then go to hell, forever separated from God.

In order for a person to go to heaven, someone else without sins would have to die in that person’s place. So a sinless human had to die in order to rescue all of humanity. But there’s no such thing as a sinless human because everyone is guilty of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and also have committed their own sins in their lives.

But Jesus overcame this obstacle because being God, he could become a sinless human being. Being sinless allowed him to take God’s wrath on our behalf. So Jesus endures death on a cross for each of us, taking the “spiritual bullet” meant for us. He then returns to life three days later as proof that he was God. Shortly after that, he returns to heaven to await the time he would return and take his people to heaven in the Rapture and finish God’s plan.

From Jesus’ death onward, any person who accepts his gift of forgiveness is now saved. They are fully forgiven, no matter what they’ve ever done or will ever do. Jesus’ righteousness is now their righteousness. This allows them to have communion with God and to go to heaven. In addition, they can also be filled with the Holy Spirit so they can worship God, live a good life, and share with everyone else the good news that if they also accept Jesus’ gift of forgiveness, they can be forgiven and go to heaven.

And Jesus’ people are commissioned to do this until they die or until the Rapture, when Jesus will rescue his people to heaven and complete the final events of God’s plan which is to punish evil-doers, destroy this earth and take those who are saved after the Rapture to heaven as well.

And that’s the way I heard it.

The problem is that virtually all of it is wrong.

P.S. I’ve tried my best to retell the story as i would have genuinely told it 20 years ago and not as a caricature. To make my point, the day I wrote the first draft of this post, I went out to lunch and found the following tract at my table in the restaurant: