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: