Gospel Foundations: The True Story of the Church
Preached at Main Street Church on May 26, 2019
A Tame Story
If a wild bear’s instinct is to hunt and forage for food, then why don’t bears in a wildlife sanctuary break through the fence to do that? The answer is that tame bears in a wildlife sanctuary have been raised with a different story than bears in the wild. A bear in a wildlife sanctuary lives out a different narrative than a bear in the wild. A tame bear is taught a story that says everything will be furnished without fear of scarcity, life will be marked by safety and security, there will be no struggle or competition to breed, eat, or find shelter. Everything will be provided as long as they follow the rules of captivity. Theirs is to live out what it means to be tame. This story is not sought after, it is simply given; it is a consequence of existing in that time and place. Animals in captivity are an apt example of living out a received story. There is no bear overlord who sits all the cubs down and informs them how their life will go. They learn their story simply by living it. It isn’t taught, it’s caught. It is passively received by them through their context. A tame story results in a tame life. In a similar manner, many in the American church have been content to accept not only a tame cultural story, but the tame life it produces. Rather than question the status quo, numerous Christians have complacently become characters in a rival narrative.
Our Culture Tells Us A Story
Robert Webber said, “…the most pressing spiritual issue of our time” is the question “who gets to narrate the world?” The question for Christians is: Which story shapes your life? The cultural story, or the biblical story? Everyone lives out a story. Our recognition of this fact is found in common conversation. People regularly ask, “What’s your story?” And they implicitly mean, “What events have occurred in your life and how have they shaped you?” Personal stories such as this are shaped by even larger cultural narratives. Every culture has a narrative that informs people where they came from, where they are headed, and everything in between. We receive these stories through media, institutions, and societal structures. Newbigin says, “The way we understand human life depends on what conception we have of the human story. What is the real story of which my life story is a part?” Our greatest difficulty is we are usually not conscious of the cultural story’s influence on our lives.
The stories of our culture tell us how life is—or at least how it ought to be. This is what makes them so powerful. Cultural stories shape what we think life ought to look like and how we should live. A recent cry has gone out against classic Disney movies that always present the primary female character in the movie as a powerless damsel in distress simply awaiting a capable male to come and rescue her. The argument against these kinds of stories is that they present a narrative to little girls that they are helpless to improve their situation or overcome challenges, and they must look to men to solve all their problems. Whether you agree or not, they accurately understand the power of story.
More and more secular media in print and on screens tell stories of life that are contrary to Scripture. Casual sexual relationships outside of marriage have long been normalized through various entertainment mediums, and now added to that are representations of families with two fathers or two mothers, and the unnatural procreative processes which they must undergo to have children. The more these kinds of stories are put before us, the more normal they seem, and the more normal they seem, the less we question them. It’s just ‘the way things are.’ Cultural stories possess the most power not when they merely paint a picture of the way things are, but when they present a portrait of how things might be, or how things ought to be. These are the stories that shape a societies morals, priorities, and entire way of life.
The ‘American Dream’ is one example of a cultural story that tells us how life ought to look. We know how the story goes and we want to play our role in it. We are supposed to work ferociously in the American marketplace in order to have a big house, a nice car, and expensive clothes. The ultimate goal of all this is to retire early and enjoy a life of leisure and freedom from obligation. Speaking of this American consumerist mentality Susan White has said, “Most of us have made this so thoroughly ‘our story’ that we are hardly aware of its influence.”
The Biblical Story vs. Biblical Principles
As demonstrated last week, one reason many Christians live out a tame story is because they are ignorant of their true purpose. Lesslie Newbigin said, “If I do not know the purpose for which human life was designed, I have no basis for saying that any kind of human lifestyle is good or bad.” The fact remains, however, that simply knowing our purpose does not inoculate us from our cultural story. The only antidote to our cultural story is an alternative one. We need a story that prescribes and informs a different way of life. The story of Scripture—taken as a whole—gives us that alternative. The important thing, however, is that we take Scripture as a whole story with one unified direction and conclusion, and not as fragments of theological truth. Breaking the Bible up into “biblical principles” or “salvation formulas” is not just sub-optimal, it is dangerous. Goheen decisively illustrates this danger in his book, The Drama of Scripture:
If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should. Idolatry has twisted the dominant cultural story of the secular Western world. If as believers we allow this story (rather than the Bible) to become the foundation of our thought and action, then our lives will manifest not the truths of Scripture, but the lies of an idolatrous culture. Hence, the unity of Scripture is no minor matter: a fragmented Bible may actually produce theologically orthodox, morally upright, warmly pious idol worshippers!
This is a powerful warning against the hazard of failing to see the Bible as one cohesive story. A large part of the taming of the North American church has been its reception of a fragmented Bible. A fragmented Bible does not narrate all of life for us, it merely interjects bits of moral advice into an otherwise tame story. It is like teaching a tame bear to roar wildly, even though he does not live in the wild. Bits and pieces of the bear’s wildness remain—you can’t domesticate a bear, you can simply tame it—but the bear’s wildness fits nicely within the confines and rhythms of the wildlife sanctuary. The reason this is so perilous is because we are experts at synthesizing detached biblical values with our cultural narrative.
A fragmented Bible synthesized with culture is what taught American slave owners to “love their neighbors” but somehow had nothing to say about treating their fellow man like property for financial gain. It teaches the modern businessman that he can relentlessly pursue greater wealth as long as he goes to church and tithes. It teaches the unbeliever that salvation is a simple prayer to get a ticket to heaven. It turned the Pharisees into legalists who thought healing on the Sabbath was sinful. This fragmented Bible makes many American Christians believe they have more in common with unbelievers who share their political ideology than they do with believers who adhere to a different political persuasion. A disjointed approach to the biblical story fractures the Bible into devastating shrapnel. Biblical principles alone will not shape our lives, only the biblical story can do that.
Scripture Tells the True Story
As N. T. Wright has said, the narrative found in Scripture is the true story of the whole world. Our culture gives us false stories of reality, but the Bible presents not just the truth about how things actually are, but the true story of how things ought to be. God is not just the author of Scripture, but of reality. He is the only one qualified to narrate cosmic history. He gives every event its meaning, not us.
The world offers a plethora of rival narratives that seek to tame us and keep us in captivity to our culture, but we must not become co-authors of them. We must learn God’s story so we can enter into it and embody it, that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we might “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Our Story Begins with Redemption
There is a sense in which our story does not begin in Genesis, but in Exodus. It is not wrong to use Genesis as a jumping off point for understanding reality—indeed, it is the ideal place for such a thing. But the story of God’s redeemed people commences, not with their coming into existence, but with their redemption from Egypt. It is not until after God liberates his people from Egyptian slavery that he supplies them with the Genesis account. This was no accident. As Mike Williams said, “God first saves his people, and then he gives them his word.” The reason for this is, “Outside of God’s gracious redemption, we will not read aright his revelation in his creation.” Until God saves someone they will not know Him or see Him as the author of their existence. The story of God’s people begins with salvation and is succeeded by explanation. The story of God’s people begins in Exodus because it begins with redemption.
Redemption: Coming Out and Going In
It is crucial that we see ourselves as redeemed before anything else because our redemption shapes our identity. 1 Peter 2:10 says, “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.” This verse sounds like it could be applied to Moses and the Hebrews even though it was written to first century believers. The point is that God distinguishes His people by redeeming them, and the Exodus is the archetype of God’s saving activity. Williams says, “The exodus was not the first act of divine redemption in Scripture, but it was the event that set the pattern.” God’s pattern of redemption, very simply put, is this: coming out and going in. God brings his people out of oppression into liberty. He rescues them out of bondage and brings them into blessing. He takes them out of a land of idolatry, and ushers them into true worship. God calls his people, “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Redeemed for the Purpose of Worship
God’s point in rescuing His people from Egypt was not merely to free them from political oppression and a difficult life. He did it so they could worship Him. This is clearly seen in the fact that each time God sent Moses before Pharaoh he was commanded to say the same thing, “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Ex. 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1; 9:13, 10:3, 10:7). These purpose statements are interspersed with the alternative, “that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God” (Ex. 3:18, 5:3, 10:25). The point comes across resoundingly. There is no question as to why God is redeeming his people; he is redeeming them to worship Him. The purpose of their redemption, as ours, was that they might rejoice in the glory of God displayed in His powerful acts of salvation. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us God redeemed us, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God’s goal in the Exodus was the same: for his people to rejoice in His glory—His worth. In Exodus 9:14 God says He redeemed Israel with the plagues, “so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.” There is none like the Lord. No one can compare to Him in his otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness. He is to be treasured above every trinket, prized over every person, and worshiped exclusively over every false god.
Our Story of Redemption Defines Our Identity
Israel’s story gave them their identity and was intended to shape the way they lived. God was constantly reminding them of this. Whenever God instated a festival for his people the purpose of it was to rehearse their story. God always commanded them to remember what he had done for them. “And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever” (Ex. 12:17). Also, any time God gave his people laws he reminded them of their story of redemption, as with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Israel’s story of redemption was the defining factor of their existence as a people, and it was the story intended to characterize everything about their life. This is illustrated concisely in Leviticus 11:45, “‘For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.’” God’s logic demonstrated here is plain: “Since I redeemed you, you must be holy.” God is saying, “Your story is different from all the other nations, so your lives must be different from all the other nations.”
Everything about Israel was defined by their story of redemption. God had brought them out in order to bring them in. Their festivals, their customs, their laws—in effect, their entire culture—was to be formed by and in harmony with the story God gave them. In the same way, we the church are God’s people who have a different story from the world around us, and our lives are to be different as a result. We are not meant to live tame lives in confinement to cultural captivity, but to live in a way consistent with how God designed us. God has brought us out of darkness, into his marvelous light in order to worship Him; to magnify His worth; to rejoice in His glory. Ours is not a story of self-sufficiency or self-actualization in the free market through autonomy and individualism. Ours is a story of redemption by the supernatural power of the living God.
Redemption Takes Us Back to God’s Original Intent
The word ‘redeem’ means to ‘buy back.’ The fact that God has redeemed us implies that we are going back to something that once was. It implies a return to an original state. When God redeems us He brings us back to His original design for humanity. Redemption is God’s making us what we are meant to be. It is His restoring us to fulfill His original mandate not just for humanity, but for all of creation.
The Creation Mandate
God’s original commission to our first human parents, Adam and Eve, was, summarily, to fill the earth with His glory. Genesis 1:26-28 (a passage tragically neglected in many churches) says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” Here God announces that the human race is designed to bear God’s image in the world by exhibiting His dominion over creation. Bearing God’s image means bearing His otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness. Bearing God’s image means bearing His holiness, and as a result, displaying His glory.
The next two verses follow, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Here we have God’s first commission to the human race. This is known as ‘The Creation Mandate.’ This mandate was twofold: 1) increase in number (so as to fill the earth) 2) rule over creation. Mankind ruling over creation is reflective of God ruling over all things. Mankind increasing in number reflects God’s ability to intentionally create life and multiplies the number of people who reflect his image in the world. God revealed the Creation Mandate to his redeemed people (through Moses penning the book of Genesis after being delivered from Egyptian tyranny) to show them what his original intention for humanity was. This mandate has not been annulled or weakened by sin; it was God’s purpose then and it is God’s purpose now. With respect to this renowned Old Testament scholar C. John Collins says,
There is no indication at all that God ever revoked the mandate to fill the earth and subdue it; in fact, God expects man to continue to do just that (as in Gen. 11:1-9, the judgment on Babel). Further, as Paul argued, God ‘made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, … that they should seek God, in hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him’ (Acts 17:26-27).
Adam and Eve were commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The point of their multiplication was to fill the earth with more people who bear God’s image. More people bearing God’s image means more people displaying the glory of God in their dominion over creation. More people displaying the glory of God by exhibiting His holiness through their obedience means the earth will be filled with the glory of God. As Collins affirms, “Each human being fully expresses his humanity when his life is in tune with the creation ordinances.” God’s redemption of a people is not intended to remove them from their humanity, but to restore them to it. God’s redemption restores us to participate in the creation mandate: to fill the earth with the glory of God. The church is the redeemed humanity that God is using to fulfill His purpose in the world.
Sin Disrupted God’s Original Purpose
Sin disrupted God’s purpose to fill the earth with His glory. This disruption was not just the breaking of human relationship with God, but it was the pervasive curse of sin permeating every facet of humanity.
All that God originally declared as good was tarnished. The creation of mankind in God’s image, which God had called very good (Gen. 1:31), was equally corrupted. God’s image in His human creatures had been smeared, blurred, dimmed, and broken. Mankind and all of creation would no longer reflect God’s glory throughout the earth as they ought, because humanity had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Rom. 1:23). Rather than reflect God’s image and God’s glory in all the earth, they would seek to reflect their own, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). Due to the deadly rebellion of Adam and Eve, all of humanity would fall short of God’s ultimate purpose to fill the earth with his glory. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
An Important Point:
We must affirm that God could have elected to fill the earth with His glory without people. Nature displays the glory of God, so God could have retained a universe devoid of humanity that still showed His glory. We must remember that creation did not sin and fall short of the glory of God, mankind did—creation is merely a victim of the curse. But God seeks a glory not just from nature’s reflection of His character, but from human worship.
This means the kind of glory with which redeemed humanity can honor God is altogether different from the glory of God displayed in creation. Nature cannot worship God, but redeemed humanity can. The reason for this is the worship of people who have been redeemed by God shows a different aspect of God’s glory. For redeemed humanity, worship means showing the full range of God’s glory, including His mercy, love, and grace as revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:7 says God redeemed us through Christ’s work on the cross, “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” God saved us to show his glory in the work of Christ. Neither nature nor angels can know this glory; only those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 14:3). Nature is not familiar with the glory of being showered with infinite mercy. Angels do not know what it feels like to be redeemed by the blood of Christ. Only those made in God’s image, bound by the curse of sin, and then liberated by divine power know that kind of glory, and we display it through worship. Because of God’s infinite grace manifest on the cross, He has revealed this glory to us so that we have the privilege of worship and are included in His cosmic plan to fill the earth with His glory.
God Never Wavered
Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God’s goodness made it seem as though God’s plan to fill the earth with His glory could never be achieved. How could God fill the earth with His glory if those made in His image were enslaved to sin? How could He accomplish His mission if every aspect of His glorious creation were “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:20) because of the curse of sin? The gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to this question, and we find the first trace of it in Genesis 3:15.
To the Deceiver in the Garden God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In the very moment that God pronounces the curse to befall creation because of sin, he announces the triumph over sin that He Himself will bring. Not only does God communicate that Adam and Eve would live to see another day in spite of their sin, but He declares that they would produce more human life through their offspring, and one day, one of those offspring would trample on the head of the Deceiver. One would come who would stand victorious over sin and its consequences.
In the same breath that God pronounces a curse, He promises a blessing. And in like paradoxical manner, the promised offspring would reverse the curse by becoming a curse himself; “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” There is double bruising, but a singular fatality. One wound is lethal, the other is negligible. One bruise results in eternal destruction, the other results in just a few scars. The offspring who would descend from Eve to accomplish this was Jesus of Nazareth. God “made (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Corinthians 5:21). Though all creation would suffer under the curse of sin, the worst curse of all would befall Jesus Christ on the cross as God’s wrath against sin thundered in full force against him. Yet after dying for our sins, he would emerge with only a few scars, while leaving sin and its consequences completely vanquished. The Lamb who was slain has slain death. At Calvary the world witnessed the death of death in the death of Christ. His heel was bruised as he crushed sin, but sin and its consequences were decisively defeated.
The salient point is even in Genesis 3 God did not give up on His plan for His creation. Even when Adam and Eve sinned, God declared that they would still bear offspring in keeping with his initial commission to the human race: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Even in conveying what the curse of sin would be, God disclosed that His purpose for the world would prevail.
Original Sin, The Flood, and The Tower of Babel
Even when mankind’s wickedness became so great on the earth that God “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6), he did not turn from his plan, but sent a flood to cleanse the earth of man’s evil. Instead, God made a promise to Noah that he would preserve him and his family in order to fulfill his ultimate purpose of one day filling the earth with his glory (Gen. 6:18). While Noah had a fresh start on the earth after it had been cleansed of mankind’s evil, there remained the stain of sin in his own heart. He planted a vineyard—evocative of the garden—and he sinned by getting drunk. While the fruit of the tree was the object of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, the fruit of the vine led to Noah’s. And like Adam and Eve’s nakedness was their shame, Noah’s nakedness and shame were discovered by his sons. God’s plan to fill the earth with his glory looked bleak, but he would bring it to pass.
Even when mankind banded together around the Tower of Babel to glorify themselves rather than God and contradict the Creation Mandate, God would have his way. At that time they said “‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’” (Gen. 11:4). But God would cause his image bearers to “fill the earth and subdue it,” as He originally intended. So God came down to see their tower, and “the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city…And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:8-9).
Though sin made it appear as though God’s mission to fill the earth with his glory would never be achieved, His holiness would be displayed, and he would do it through the creatures He made in his image. No human limitation, weakness, or sin would shake God from his unswerving purpose. Not even the most unlikely candidate for fulfilling God’s plan: Abraham.
The very first time we learn of Abraham (at this point, Abram) is in Genesis 12, and God makes it very clear from the outset that his goal is to use Abram to fulfill his original plan for humanity. He says to Abram, “I will make you a great nation…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Later God says to him, “I will surely bless you, and I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:17-18). Not only does this promise bring to mind God’s first commission to Adam and Eve, but it is reminiscent of His declaration in Genesis 3:15 that Eve’s offspring would vanquish the Deceiver of humanity. Next to Jesus, Abraham is the most important person in the biblical story.
I think many people wonder why God’s promise that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the stars of heaven or “the sand that is on the seashore” would be desirable. Why would Abraham care about that? The fact is that God didn’t promise Abraham offspring because he thought Abraham would really appreciate it—he did it in keeping with His own original purpose for the human race to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Abraham was simply the one God chose to fulfill His purpose. The newly liberated Israelites receiving this revelation through the writings of Moses would have understood themselves to be the very descendants God had promised. They would have seen where they were supposed to fit in the bigger story of what God was doing in the world. God’s promise to Abraham was proof to the whole world—particularly God’s redeemed people—that God would bring His purpose to pass, and nothing would stop Him, not even Abram and Sarai’s inability to have children.
Despite Abraham’s old age (Romans 4:19 says he “was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old))” and Sarai’s barrenness, God blessed them with a son: Isaac. Isaac was the son God had promised to give Abraham, and it was Isaac through whom God’s promise of blessing would continue. Genesis 21:12 says, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” with the grammatical emphasis being on the words “through Isaac.” Isaac was the son of promise, and through him God would remain faithful to his covenant with Abraham.
For many modern day Christians who grew up learning Bible stories in Sunday school (or not), the connection of these Old Testament saints to Jesus is anything but clear. For this reason these Old Testament stories are often turned into the equivalent of moralistic fables used to teach a ‘lesson’ such as why we ought to be patient (unlike Esau who couldn’t wait for the stew) or why we shouldn’t be deceptive (like Jacob who tricked his Father). However, the divine purpose and placement of these accounts in the biblical narrative is not to teach us how we ought to be, but to teach us who God is. The goal of these stories is not to show us how we should act, but to show us how God acts. There is a world of difference in how we read them. The key is God’s faithfulness to his plan in spite of their sinfulness.
God placed Joseph in his unique circumstance to preserve his people, the one’s with whom he had made a covenant. Eventually, Joseph’s family would move to Egypt and multiply in number, reminiscent of God’s original promise to Abraham and his commission to Adam and Eve in the garden. All seemed to be going well, but the story was far from over.
Moses: God’s Instrument of Redemption
The number of Abraham’s descendants grew enormously in Egypt. Exodus 1:7 says, “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” The usage of the same words from God’s Creation Mandate and his covenant with Abraham is no coincidence. God wants us to see that he remains faithful to his promise and faithful to his plan. He makes it happen.
God’s ‘People’ for the First Time
It is imperative to notice that up to this point in the biblical narrative none of the characters are yet described as God’s ‘people.’ They are simply people with whom God interacts. And they certainly are not considered a ‘nation.’ In Exodus 1:7 we see the first instance of Abraham’s descendants being called ‘the people of Israel’ after Jacob, who was also called ‘Israel.’ But the designation ‘people of Israel’ is an anachronistic identification included by Moses since he wrote the book of Exodus after Abraham’s descendants had been liberated from Egypt and were given the their classification as a ‘people’ by God. It would be something akin to calling the pilgrims on the Mayflower ‘Americans.’ It is not totally wrong, but we must see that the identification as a people is actually formed by the struggle, not before it.
The most profound moment for Abraham’s descendants comes in Exodus 3 when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. First God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). God is connecting Moses with his promise through his forefathers. God doesn’t break promises, and he wants to make that plain. But the stunner comes next: God said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt…I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Ex. 3:7, 10). This is the first time that the descendants of Abraham are identified as ‘God’s people’ by God himself. The significance of this description cannot be overstated. This shows us that not only is God going to fill the earth with the blessing of his glory, but he is going to do it through a ‘people.’ God had already announced this in Genesis 26:4 when he said to Abraham, “And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” The offspring of Abraham were the people of Israel, and God designates them as ‘His people’ for the first time in Exodus 3. God’s plan to fill the earth with his glory involves his people, and He would bring his people out of Egypt to continue his grand story of filling the earth with his glory.
The Tabernacle: God With Us
In Exodus 25:8 God said, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” God wanted to physically, spatially, and conspicuously dwell among his people—in their midst.
The Tabernacle (along with the Temple, which we well get to) is an object of confusion for many Christians today. I suspect most people simply equate it to a large space where worship gatherings took place similar to a modern-day church building but with less technology. This perception completely misses the ultimate purpose of the Tabernacle (and is indicative of many Christians’ misunderstanding of their purpose as the people of God). The Tabernacle was not merely a meeting place for primitive worship gatherings, but it was a divinely designated structure that simultaneously pointed back to God’s original dwelling with mankind in the garden, while also pointing forward to God’s future dwelling with mankind in the New Creation. The Tabernacle was a physical representation and picture of God’s plan to fill the earth with his glory through restored relationship with his people—that’s why the Tabernacle was such a big deal.
One quarter of the book of Exodus is dedicated to the Tabernacle, not because God was interested in needlessly relaying architectural minutia, but because it pointed to God’s ultimate purpose for the world. God intentionally designed these elements of the Tabernacle to illustrate his ultimate purpose and plan to his people. The book of Hebrews calls the things in the Tabernacle ‘shadows’ of the real which are above (Heb. 8:5), and the author of Hebrews goes on to argue that that is precisely the reason God gave such particular instructions regarding the the construction of it (Heb. 8:5).
The book of Exodus ends in dramatic fashion by describing how God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Ex. 40:17) just in time for the people to celebrate the first anniversary of their deliverance from Egypt (Num. 9:1-5).
Just as God’s glory filled the garden of Eden in all that he made, and just as his glory will fill the New Creation, “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34). The Tabernacle was a physical picture of what God had done, and one day would do again: fill his dwelling place with his glory in the midst of his people. Just as God communed with Adam in the garden, and will dwell again with man in the new Creation, the high priest communed with God in the Most Holy Place. The Tabernacle was God’s way of directing his people’s gaze towards the future, where they would commune with him in a place filled with his glory. This beautiful future is demonstrated even more decisively in the Temple.
The Temple: The Dwelling Place of God
The Temple was virtually the same as the Tabernacle, except it was a permanent Structure. Like the Tabernacle, painstaking attention to detail, quality, craftsmanship, and symbolism went into its construction. In fact, the Temple took seven years to build (1 Kings 6:38). The first Temple (built by Solomon) was destroyed in 722 BC, and the second time the Temple was built it took forty-six years (John 2:20)! Again, God did not commission his people to a half-century building project simply because he likes impressive architecture, he did it because it was a symbol of their task to expand God’s presence to all nations; it was a symbolic model pointing to the new heavens and earth that would be perfectly filled with His presence. Here is what I mean: the Temple served as a little earthly model of God’s temple in heaven which would eventually encompass the whole earth. Like the Tabernacle, it pointed back to the garden of Eden and forward to the new creation, but in an even more profound way.
Ezekiel 28 paints a picture of the garden of Eden as the first Temple. First, the Bible refers to both the garden of Eden and the Temple/Tabernacle as ‘sanctuaries’ of God. Ezekiel 28:13-14, 16, 18 refer to “Eden, the garden of God…the holy mountain of God,” and alludes to it as containing ‘sanctuaries,’ which elsewhere in the Bible is a plural way of referring to Israel’s Tabernacle (Lev. 21:23) and Temple (Ezek. 7:24; Jer. 51:51), because both the Temple and Tabernacle contained multiple spaces. In addition to this, Ezekiel 28:13 pictures Adam donning the vestments of a priest, serving in Eden as a holy sanctuary. If Adam were to be faithful to God’s commission, it would mean gradually expanding the borders of Eden to encompass the whole earth so that God’s glory would be reflected not just in one small area, but in all the earth. By bearing God’s image in the world, Adam was to mediate God’s blessing to all creation by subduing it as God had commanded him, and as a result God’s presence would be extended throughout the whole earth.
Although Adam failed in this, God’s establishment of the Temple and a priesthood reintroduced this original commission. God’s special presence in the Temple was mediated by priests to the Israelites and the surrounding nations in a way that called back to Adam’s initial task to expand Eden’s boundaries. This role was not limited to the Levites (the official priests), but was for God’s people as a whole. In Exodus 19:5-6 God said, “‘You shall be my treasured possession among all people, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” If the Temple was a type of Eden—the special place of God’s presence—then the Israelites were those commissioned by God to expand it’s boundaries and mediate the blessing of his presence to all nations on the earth.
G. K. Beale concisely demonstrates that the divine task to expand God’s temple throughout the whole earth was actually passed on first to Noah, then to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before God assigned it to Israel. This commission is restated numerous times in subsequent Old Testament passages to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each time involving 1) God blessing them 2) the command to be fruitful and multiply 3) the command to fill the earth 4) the command to subdue the earth 5) the command to rule over all the earth.
Again, God’s purpose for mankind found in Genesis 1 didn’t stay there. It was restated to Noah, then to Abraham, then to Isaac, Jacob, and ultimately the nation of Israel. Through repetition God is making it obvious what his mission is.
Even more significant is the fact that each time the Creation Mandate is repeated and given to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), it always involved the building of small sanctuaries (or tabernacles). According to Beale God’s restatement of the commission to Israel’s patriarchs typically included these five elements: 1) God appears to them (except Gen. 12:8 and 13:3-4 with Abram) 2) They ‘pitch a tent’ (literally ‘tabernacle’ in Hebrew) 3) They are on a mountain 4) They build altars and worship God at the place of restatement 5) The place is often located at ‘Bethel’—the ‘House of God’ (The only case of altar building not containing these elements nor linked to the Genesis 1 Commission is Gen. 33:20). Beale then points out, “Any time these five elements occur elsewhere in the Old Testament it is in describing Israel’s Tabernacle or Temple!”
The continuity in God’s mission is glaring. Through His constant relationship and work in the people whom He chose, He was gradually unfolding his magnificent plan to achieve his ultimate purpose. His people were to multiply and bear His image in all the earth. Most importantly, this duty was not merely for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. God blessed them so that they would be a blessing, not just to each other, but to every nation—every family—on the earth.
Regardless of the clarity of God’s commission, the incessant declaration of his mission, and the unmistakable symbolism of the Tabernacle and Temple, the people of Israel failed to participate faithfully in God’s global vision. Beale sums it up this way: “Instead of seeing the temple as a symbol of their task to expand God’s presence to all nations, Israel wrongly viewed the temple to be symbolic of their election as God’s only true people and that God’s presence was to be restricted only to them as an ethnic nation.”
[Slide] They forgot the story
I submit that the reason they viewed the temple wrongly is because they forgot the story. They forgot the Creation Mandate that had been repeated not only as a commission, but a covenant promise to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They lost the unfolding story of God’s plan to fulfill his purpose for the world. Instead they had fragmented and disjointed “biblical principles” telling them how to honor the temple, how they should dress, what they should eat, and how to perform ceremonial tasks. The Pharisees were experts in “biblical principles,” but they had adopted a tame story, the story of an ethnocentric culture characterized by religious performance rather than the mission of God.
Because of their failure to participate in his mission God sent Israel into exile and darkness, and the darkness of their exile in Isaiah 45 is compared to “the darkness and chaos of the first chaos before creation in Genesis 1 (cf. Isa 45:18–19).” In a sense, God would start over, and he would do it with a different kind of temple. God would accomplish his mission and have his glory fill the whole earth despite his peoples failure to extend his temple’s boundaries. He would send a messiah who would build a new temple, not built with human hands. In Zechariah 6:12-13 God says, “It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne.” And this temple would not be built by him alone: “And those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the Lord” (Zech. 6:15). This temple would be founded on the offspring God had promised in Genesis 3:15. It would not be a physical temple, but a spiritual temple comprised of a holy priesthood for the purpose of offering spiritual sacrifices. The apostle Peter said to believers, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual temple, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4).
The Temple pointed to something greater, but the people of Israel lost sight of what it was. It was never about the building, but what the building represented: God dwelling with mankind in a place filled with his glory. Paul wrote, “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16). We are living stones constituting the new spiritual temple, Jesus Christ is the cornerstone on which we are founded, and the Spirit lives in us (1 Cor. 3:16; 1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5; Rev. 3:12; 11:1-2).
Jesus Established A New Kind of Temple
When Jesus came to the earth, John 1:14 literally says he ‘tabernacled’ among us, and that we have seen his glory. In the Old Testament, God tabernacled in the midst of his people and revealed his glory with a view to their extending the blessing of his presence to the surrounding nations. Jesus becoming a man and tabernacling amongst mankind had the same end in view. He took on Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world—to bring back God’s original good intention to his creation. Jesus re-established the Creation Mandate, but gave a new iteration of it. Just as God demonstrated his authority in the garden with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and then commissioned his image bearers with the Creation Mandate, at the end of his earthly ministry Jesus confirmed his own authority and then commissioned those who would be conformed to his image with what we might call a ‘New Creation Mandate.’ “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18-20).
God’s covenant with his people in the Old Testament was so that they would be a blessing to all nations in the earth, and God’s covenant with us now through Jesus Christ is so that we might be a blessing to all nations, by making disciples. The glory of God no longer fills a physical temple, but a spiritual temple made up of believers. We are called to fill the earth with the glory of God, and God has made this possible in Jesus Christ and is in the process of bringing it to pass. In Christ, God has accomplished the redemption of all things, and has made a way for a new, redeemed creation to encompass his glory.
The Temple of the New Creation
Revelation 21:1-22:5 describes the new, redeemed heavens and earth as a temple. The reason for this is because the temple signifies God’s presence. Revelation 21 promises us that at the end of time the true temple will descend from heaven and fill the whole creation (Rev. 21:1-3, 10, 22). This special presence of God had been limited to the tabernacle, then the temple, and now the church, but will one day fill all of creation and become coextensive with it. It is at this point that “the eschatological goal of the temple of the Garden of Eden dominating the entire creation will finally be fulfilled.” In fact what we see in the description of the redeemed creation in Revelation 21-22 is a striking likeness to the Garden of Eden.
The new creation is described as “pure gold” (Rev. 21:18), calling us back to the Holy of Holies in the Temple which was covered with gold on the walls, floor, and ceiling. The point is that now, the Holy of Holies is not limited to a confined space with access granted only to a high priest, but it has been expanded to cover the whole earth. The Holy of Holies in the Temple was perfectly cubic in it’s shape, and we are told that the whole city of the new creation is “square” (Rev. 21:16), with its length the same as its width. Again, the point is that now, in a new redeemed world, God’s ultimate plan has come to pass, and the entire creation has become the Holy of Holies.
This fact is even more evident in 22:4, which says, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” In the Old Testament only the High Priest would wear God’s name on his forehead and once a year be in God’s presence, but in the future, “all of God’s people will have become high priests with God’s name on their foreheads, and standing not one day a year, but forever in God’s presence.” When Jesus died on the cross the thick, cherubim-interlaced veil that separated the Holy of Holies was split down the middle (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This represented a removal of the cherubim who blocked access to the true life found in Eden. Although the way to the Tree of Life had been restricted, in the new creation the Tree of Life is in the middle of the city, bearing fruit for all who dwell there. Not only did the tearing of the temple veil signify the access to God’s presence granted to believers, but it pointed to the future when God’s manifest glory would not be bound to the small space that was the Holy of Holies, but would fill the earth. In reference to this the prophet Haggai said, “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9).
This is the marvelous future destined for the people of God. From the beginning of time God has been moving us toward this glorious destiny. God’s ultimate purpose is to fill the earth with his glory, and in the new creation, he will do just that. Just as God’s glory used to fill the Holy of Holies with the high priest, his glory will encompass all creation with a kingdom of priests. “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God…And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:3,22-23).
This is the story of which we are a part. We know where we have come from, and we know where we are going, our role is to participate with God in it. The Church in the West has been given a tame story that has robbed its hope, misappropriated its power, and subdued its spirituality. But we have a story that guides our expectations. We possess an overarching narrative that tells us who we are and whose we are, and we have divine confidence in the triumph of our King. Our story tells us we are the Bride, not a bridesmaid, and we must act accordingly.