Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “July, 2014”

The Third Building Block of Human Identity: Priestly Kingdom, Holy Nation

At the end of Genesis, God takes one of Abraham’s descendants, Joseph, on a winding path to prominence in Egypt. Although Joseph had been betrayed and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he is able to forgive them and welcome his family into safety in Egypt because he had come to see God’s sovereign hand at work for the saving of life (Genesis 45:7-8).

In keeping with his covenant with Abraham, God blesses Abraham’s descendants by protecting them from the famine through Joseph and extending the blessings to the Egyptians and the surrounding nations by storing up food for them as well.

By the beginning of Exodus the Egyptians have forgotten God’s life-saving work through Joseph. The Egyptians cannot deny, however, the fulfillment of God’s promise to multiply the line of Abraham. Rather than bless the Israelites in light of God’s favor, the Egyptians choose to curse them instead with the bondage of slavery. These efforts fail to negate God’s promises. In fact, like the evil intent of Joseph’s brothers, they serve as a means of accomplishing God’s larger purpose through Israel.

Now Abraham’s descendants have evolved from a clan to a nation. Once God delivers them from Egypt and begins to establish his covenant with the new nation in the wilderness, we find the third key text that further defines and refines God’s intention for humanity:

This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then our of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Exodus 19:3-6

God has already blessed Israel, as he reminds them, but he goes on to offer them a highly exalted status. This further promise requires Israel’s commitment to be faithful covenant partners with God, for only then can they fulfill God’s purpose through them on behalf of the world.

The image of priesthood provides a classic representation of mediation. Israel possessed a priesthood to mediate between the people and God. At the same time, Israel provided priestly service between the other nations and God. God called Israel “out of all nations” to fulfill a sacred role on behalf of “the whole earth.” Later, God will describe this role through the prophet Isaiah as follows:

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Isaiah 49:6

The expression “a kingdom of priests” can also be rendered “a royal priesthood.” In other words, Israel’s priesthood points back to humanity’s original role to rule over God’s creation. We see here that God’s intent for human reign does not promote tyranny or exploitation, but the fulfillment of God’s gracious purpose.

We should not be surprised to find the descriptor “holy” in relation to Israel’s national priesthood, but this concept frequently calls to mind strange rituals or condescending self-righteousness. Instead, we should associate it with being set apart from that which comes between us and God so that we can be set apart for relationship with him and service through him on behalf of the world.

While reflecting God’s image and transmitting God’s blessings do not necessarily suggest an individualistic focus, this third text clarifies beyond a doubt the corporate nature of God’s work through humanity. Many applications of our calling reveal themselves best through our life in covenant community rather than as isolated individuals.

As with the first two foundations of human identity in the Bible, the third one continues to find expression in the New Testament:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by humans but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possessions, that you may proclaim the virtues of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10

We have been called to allow God’s likeness to shine through us so that the whole world can know his light, to experience his blessings so that the whole world world can receive them as well, and to live out our chosenness so that the whole world can share in that status.

Praise God for such a glorious, humbling, unselfish calling!

The Second Building Block of Human Identity: Blessed to Be a Blessing

After the human rebellion recorded in Genesis 3, God’s role for humanity undergoes a transition. Human beings continue to exist with the capacity and calling to be the image of God (see Genesis 9:6), but now some seek Yahweh, the God of creation, while others resist and reject Yahweh’s purpose for humanity. We find the best representation of the former in Enoch, the one who “walked with God.” We see the latter reflected in Cain, Lamech, the generation that provoked the flood, and the builders at Babel who determined above all else to make a name for themselves.

God originally intended to bless humanity, through whom his blessings would extend throughout his creation. As a result of the division within humanity, however, those who have experienced the richest blessings through relationship with God also serve to “image” God on behalf of those who do not know him. This new dimension of covenant becomes formalized in the following words from Yahweh to Abram/Abraham:

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3

Several important insights emerge from this text. God’s promises to Abraham affirm more explicitly two aspects of human identity already mentioned with regard to creation: mediation and universality. God will bless Abraham and his descendants, and through them he will mediate those blessings to “all peoples on earth.”

This text also demonstrates God’s gracious relationship both to humanity and through humanity. He continues to seek a relationship of blessing with those created to image him in spite of their rebellion. Moreover, he refuses to give up on his intention to work within the creation through humanity. The rest of Scripture records God’s relentless commitment to humanity even though rebellion continues to rear its ugly head.

We encounter a dramatic example of this newly modified role of humanity when God determines the need for judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. (This incident also demonstrates, as in the flood, that those created with the capacity to bless creation can also destroy creation when this capacity turns too far in the wrong direction. A tension thus exists between God’s intent to bless and the need to restrain evil.)

In a remarkable statement, God says that since all nations on earth will be blessed through Abraham, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 19:17-18). When God announces his intention, Abraham asks, in return, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Abraham expresses his concern for the reputation of God, fearing that he will destroy the righteous along with the wicked. He thus attempts to intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Here we see the biblical mediator’s role, standing between God and those estranged from him (this relationship also take a more positive form when, for example, leaders help those who seek God to know him better). The mediator represents God and God’s interests to others, while also interceding for others before God. In order to fulfill this complex role well, the mediator must grow deeper in love and knowledge of God and the divine will, while also loving and understanding the needs of humanity.

Jesus, of course, becomes the ultimate mediator for humanity, yet God continues to honor followers of Jesus with a role in this mediation. Notice how the following passages extend the covenant with Abraham to Christians, who inherit the ancient promises:

And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, “Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.” When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.

Acts 3:25-26

 

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, . . . .

Galatians 3:14

How would it transform the lives of Christians and churches – and as a result, the world – if we fully embraced our identity as those blessed by God to be a blessing to others? How would it transform the way we view others?    

The First Building Block of Human Identity: Creation as the Image of God

In attempting to establish a biblical basis for human identity, we begin, appropriately, at the beginning:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind as our image, as our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind as his own image,
as the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26-27

The text above contains a slight variation on these well-known verses. We are accustomed to seeing references to our creation “in” rather than “as” God’s image. I offer this alternative for two reasons. First, the preposition allows for either translation. A significant example of this translation occurs in Exodus 6:3, in which God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, . . .”

The second reason for choosing this alternative has to do with the distracting path upon which the translation “in” often takes us. We speculate as to which human traits reflect God’s image: our physical appearance, our larger brains, our power of communication, our opposable thumbs, etc. The creation account has greater interest, however, in our function rather than our attributes. Any or all of the qualities above may contribute to our ability to fulfill our role as God’s image, but the bigger issue involves the nature of this calling.

Before considering what it means to be God’s image, we should note the remarkable nature of such an identity, especially against the backdrop of Israel’s world. While some interpreters have focused on the similarities between the biblical creation account and its contemporary alternatives, the true significance appears in its differences. Not only do we find the distinctive notion of a single sovereign deity who exists independently from the creation, but we also find a radically different view of humanity.

The other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts portray human beings as lowly creatures designed to serve the needs of the gods and to handle menial tasks the gods don’t want to take care of for themselves. In the Bible, however, God possesses no needs, meaning that humans cannot manipulate God in any way (another significant contrast). At the same time, the Bible elevates all humanity to the exalted place of sharing in the exercise of God’s governance of all creation.

This high purpose helps us understand at least part of the serious danger the Bible attaches to human attempts to portray God by making images of him. In doing so we inevitably lower God and increase the temptation to think that we can control or manipulate him, while at the same time forfeiting our role to be the image of God.

Think of the irony of the relationship between those two dangers. In an attempt to shrink God down to a manageable size so that we can control and manipulate him, we give up our high calling to share in his rule by living out the likeness of God that he has embedded within us.

We should mention another distinctive feature of the biblical creation account: woman’s essential role in imaging God. This fact challenges the frequently abusive and dismissive treatment of women throughout human history.

The mistreatment of women represents only one example of human failure to exercise God’s rule as his image within the creation. The central biblical descriptions of human identity share two vital traits when lived out properly. First, they reflect our role as mediators: we stand between God and his purpose within the creation. As such we must identify with God or we will abuse our exalted role for self-serving ends. At the same time, we must sympathetically identify with the creation of which we are a part and in which we serve. The second common trait of our biblical identity involves its universal scope, requiring us to rise above individual or tribal interests.

As our mediating role calls us to identify with the needs present within God’s creation, we must take care not to orient ourselves more to the creation than the Creator. Failure to exercise this caution causes us to become enslaved in toilsome labor because we attempt to find meaning in what God made or what we make rather than the One who made all. We become servants of the creation rather than God’s image reigning over it.

We will consider the nature of sin/failure in more detail later, as well as God’s work to redeem our failure. In closing this section, however, consider the following New Testament passages that connect Christ and his followers back to the creation calling to image God:

Colossians 1:15
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

 

Colossians 3:9
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

 

2 Corinthians 3:18
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.

In addition, the New Testament presents followers of Jesus as the inauguration of God’s new/renewed creation even now:

2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

 

James 1:18
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

God has been at work since the corruption of his original creation to restore what was lost. In his promised future we will return to full participation in God’s reign, but even now we are called to bear witness to God’s reign in our individual lives and in community.

2 Timothy 2:12a
If we endure,
we will also reign with him.

 

Revelation 5:10
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.

 

Revelation 22:5b
And they will reign for ever and ever.

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