Bible Day: Waiting for the Lord
A Study Day in Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah
Antony Billington, 12th May 2014.
Download the handout here
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This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the LICC website on 7 July 2010.
‘I will be your God, and you will be my people’ are words that resonate across the pages of Scripture (see, e.g., Exodus 6:6-8; Leviticus 26:12). They capture in a short-hand formula the essence of the covenant relationship between God and his people.
And when it comes to themes that span the whole Bible, there are none nearly so prominent as covenant. Apart from anything else, its importance is seen in the designation we give to the two parts of the Christian Bible – the Old and New testaments, or covenants.
The word itself occurs over 300 times in English translations of the Bible, as well as being bound up with other significant terms like ‘steadfast love’, and even the covenant name for God himself – Yahweh, the Lord God.
Beyond the use of words, the biblical story itself can be seen as a series of covenants that God makes and renews with his people, binding him and them together. We can see that God administers his kingdom through various covenants, and to trace the covenants is to trace his unfolding rule over, and relationship with, his people.
So significant is the concept that some Christian traditions have held that we must see God in covenant with creation itself, and Adam and Eve – since, even though the word ‘covenant’ itself is not used in the first chapters of Genesis, it is clear that God enters into a special relationship with men and women, giving them designated authority as those created in his image. Some have even suggested that we should understand the members of the godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as ‘covenanting’ together in saving men and women, working on the assumption that all of God’s actions must be understood from the perspective of covenant.
Even if we decide that’s a step beyond the evidence, there’s no getting away from the fact that covenant is a core theme in Scripture.
The language of ‘covenant’ may seem slightly strange to us today, but it would have communicated powerfully in its original context. In fact, it’s possible to see that many of the biblical covenants are structured in a similar way to treaties made between individuals or between nation-states in the ancient Near East – showing how God speaks and acts in ways his people would understand.
The first mention of the word ‘covenant’ in the Bible is in the account of Noah in Genesis 6:18, which anticipates the promise God makes later with all creatures that ‘never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood’ (Genesis 8:20-9:17). Here’s a covenant which reaffirms God’s original intention for humanity, but which involves not just a nation or people but the earth itself! It’s a lovely reminder that the biblical story is about the whole of God’s world, that God’s goal of redemption will embrace not just one nation, nor even just humanity, but the whole earth.
God’s plan to restore his world is then kicked off in the making of a covenant with Abraham, beginning in Genesis 12, when God promises him descendants and land, and promises to bless all nations through him. God himself guarantees to do this in Genesis 15, and requires the circumcision of males in Genesis 17 as a sign of the covenant. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the covenant with Abraham is extended to Isaac and then to Jacob, and then to the whole nation in the Sinai covenant.
Sinai doesn’t do away with the Abrahamic covenant, but maintains the relationship between the Lord and Israel, with his people marked out as representing him to the nations. In Exodus 19, God tells them that the whole earth is his, but reminds them they have been singled out to be a kingdom of priests and holy nation, for the blessing of all, in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham (Exodus 19:4-6). As part of that deal, God gives them the law to guide their relationship with him and with each other as they live in the land, in order to show themselves as the special nation God intended them to be – a reminder that with privilege comes responsibility. And, as Deuteronomy tells us, this covenant is renewed in a different context, where a new generation commits themselves to the Mosaic covenant before taking possession of the land.
Then, later on (in 2 Samuel 7:18-29), within the family of Israel, God singles out the king from whom Messiah would come, promising an everlasting line from David. The word ‘covenant’ is not used in 2 Samuel 7, but it is commonly held that the language used in that chapter and elsewhere (such as Psalm 89) shows that a covenant relationship has been formed. The promises made to Abraham become more focused, as the means through which God will bring blessing to the nations is through David’s royal line.
Alas, however, through the whole biblical story, we are confronted with the failure of the people and the failure of the monarchy. The fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and David would have to be met by a true Son of Abraham and Son of David.
And so it is that God promises through the prophets a new covenant, one that he alone will establish. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the most well-known passage which speaks of a new covenant, but other passages in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah use covenant language as the people anticipate what God will do beyond exile – looking forward to a new covenant which will remove sin, transform the heart, and restore relationship with God; which will transcend national boundaries and extend to the ends of the earth, to all nations, and ultimately (as promised in Isaiah 65-66) to creation itself.
And then comes Jesus – the goal of the covenantal promises, the one in whom the promises made to Abraham and David find their fulfilment, the one in whom the obligations of the Sinai covenant are fulfilled. If the anticipated end of the covenant is the establishment of the kingdom of God, it is clear from the gospels that this gets bound up with the cross as the means by which God will inaugurate the new covenant – where covenant has to do not just with redemption from Egypt or return from exile, but with release from sin. So, if Jeremiah looked forward to a time when God would remember the sins of the people no more, that new covenant is ratified by the death of Jesus, the one through whom salvation will come to all nations.
It’s no surprise, then, in the rest of the New Testament, that the new covenant people is made up of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, as Paul makes clear – notably in Romans, Galatians, and the central chapters of 2 Corinthians. The covenantal promises are fulfilled in spiritual descendants of Abraham who enjoy relationship with God through faith. The law of God is no longer written on tablets of stone, but written by the Spirit on human hearts. No wonder, then, that the letter to the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 at length (in 8:8-12 and 10:16-17), delighting in the fact that in Jesus God has made a new covenant with his people.
Moreover, we look forward to the final ratification of the covenant in the new heavens and the new earth, as Revelation 21:3 echoes the ancient covenant formula: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”.’
Of course, as you can imagine or might well know, there’s a lot of discussion as to whether the Bible describes one covenant extending throughout salvation history, which is renewed at various points, or whether we should see distinctions between the covenants. Indeed, some appear unconditional and some conditional, some unilateral and some bilateral, some permanent and some temporary. Some thinkers distinguish between ‘promise’ covenants (like the ones made with Abraham and David) and ‘law’ covenants (like the one made with Israel at Sinai); some distinguish between covenants for new relationships and covenant renewals for renewed relationships.
But this ongoing discussion only shows just how significant the theme of covenant is, providing lenses for understanding who God is and who his people are.
It has important things to say about God himself, about his love and faithfulness, his promises and initiative. And it says something about the value that God places on us, about our nature and destiny, that we are created to enjoy relationship with him. It reminds us that salvation is the restoration of fellowship with God. It tells us that the church can see itself as God’s covenant-partner, created not just to be in relationship with God but with each other too.
And it has implications for lifestyle and mission, because God still calls his covenant people to live in alignment with his will and character, and to display that to men and women in the whole of our lives, as we walk according to his design for human existence, as we live according to the pattern of the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.
The following books and chapters of books – written at the different levels indicated – provide opportunities to explore a biblical theology of covenant in more detail.
David L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible: The Theological Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, 3rd edn. (Nottingham: Apollos, 2010), 237-64.
An academic textbook exploring the relationship between the two testaments with, as you might expect, a treatment of ‘covenant’ as one of the themes which provides a framework for understanding the unity of the two testaments.
Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi, Storylines: Tracing the Threads that Run Through the Bible (Eastbourne: Survivor, 2008), 65-81.
This is one of the best books for those who are new to the study of biblical themes; the pages cited deal with the covenant.
James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 10-19.
A brief treatment.
William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (Exeter: Paternoster, 1984).
An older treatment of the topic, but still significant for the way it connects the different covenants back to God’s purpose for humanity from creation onwards.
Jamie A. Grant & Alistair I. Wilson (eds.), The God of Covenant: Biblical, Theological and Contemporary Perspectives (Leicester: Apollos, 2005).
A collection of papers by scholars on different aspects of the covenant.
Scott J. Hafemann, ‘The Covenant Relationship’, in Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (eds.), Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 20-65.
A long essay, presenting a strong argument for the view that ‘Scripture testifies to one, constant relationship between God and his people throughout redemptive history that is formalized and embodies in its successive covenants’ (30).
Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
A significant academic work from an evangelical-turned-Roman-Catholic theologian, arguing that the various covenants described in Scripture form a father-son bond (hence the ‘kinship’ of the title) between God and his people.
Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 75-135.
A chapter-length treatment from a New Testament perspective.
Michael Scott Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
Writing from a Reformed tradition which has made much of the biblical covenants, Horton seeks to identify the essential ingredients of ‘covenant theology’.
W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 12-22.
A brief overview at an accessible level.
Thomas Edward McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985).
Makes a distinction between ‘promise’ covenants (like the one made with Abraham) which are eternally valid, and ‘administrative’ covenants (like the one made at Sinai) which are not.
O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980).
A classic work, emphasising the unity of the different covenants in Scripture as coming to their fulfilment in Jesus.
Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 159-74, 233-36.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.
H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 27-47.
Like March (above), Croft and Pilavachi (above), and Davison and Juengst (also above), a brief overview at an accessible level.
Paul R. Williamson, Sealed With an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007).
A stimulating treatment of the individual covenants and the covenant theme in Scripture. Williamson’s most distinctive point is to argue that Genesis 15 and 17 are two separate distinct but related covenants with Abraham which take up different aspects of the promises in Genesis 12:1-3 – descendants and land (taken up in Genesis 15) and international blessing (taken up in Genesis 17), the promise of national blessing to Abraham and the promise of international blessing through Abraham. Williamson also contributed the entry on ‘covenant’ in T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (eds.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 419-29, which is well worth reading.
This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the LICC website on 1 February 2010.
In 1973, the American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, published a book called Whatever Became of Sin? Menninger was voicing a widespread suspicion that the idea of ‘sin’ was slowly evaporating from everyday life. Over a generation later, there’s very little evidence that that trend has reversed.
Interestingly, we’re acutely aware of evil in the world – brutal regimes, harsh dictatorships, extensive famine, social injustices – but there appears to be much less talk about personal morality. We see it mostly in the headlines of the tabloids as the course of the latest celebrity affair is tracked, or we see it in something like the sense of outrage expressed over MPs’ expenses – someone else’s failings, not mine.
But, almost from the very first page, the Bible everywhere assumes the reality of sin, and that it is not only real but also pervasive, affecting every part of life. Men and women whose worldview is formed by Scripture know that something is broken in the universe – us, apart from anything else – so that everything is marred, cracked, damaged, and distorted in some way. So yes, it is seen in the examples of evil we’ve just mentioned. But it’s also seen in the way our bodies get diseased and eventually give way to death. And it’s seen in the way we relate to each other – from the petty squabbles between kids in the playground to the emotional manipulations in the bedroom to the snide innuendoes around the water cooler to the power politics of massive nations.
Beyond all these, most importantly of all, is our relationship with God…
Sin is described in various ways in Scripture – as rebellion, infidelity, disloyalty, ingratitude, getting dirty, wandering, breaking the alw, transgression, failure, and more besides. And the Bible also provides many examples of specific sins. Writing about men and women in Romans 1, Paul says that ‘they have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity’, that ‘they are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice’, that ‘they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy’ (1:29-31). Like other biblical writers, Paul is aware that sin is seen not just in particular acts, but in our very being, with the whole of life tainted. So, as much as these acts are often directed against fellow human beings, they are fundamentally a mark of our ruptured and rebellious relationship with God.
And sin leads to judgment. At the end of that catalogue of acts in Romans 1, Paul says that ‘although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them’ (1:32). Paul makes it clear several times, not just in Romans 6:23, that ‘the wages of sin is death’.
That’s completely of a piece with the rest of the Bible – whether we immerse ourselves in the stories told in Genesis or Judges or Samuel, or wrestle with the laws in Leviticus, or reflect on the folly of living without God in Proverbs, or listen to the preaching of the prophets, or pray with David, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge’ (Psalm 51:4).
It’s perhaps seen most clearly of all in Genesis 3, which nicely describes the dynamics of sin, the move from temptation to disobedience to consequences.
We have the crafty serpent who begins by questioning God’s word – ‘Did God really say…?’ (Genesis 3:1) – before contradicting God’s word – ‘You will not surely die’ (3:4). Not only does he remove the threat of judgment, but puts something positive in its place: ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:5).
It’s not easy to say exactly what is meant by that phrase, ‘knowing good and evil’. The best guess is that it means not merely knowing, but deciding what is good and evil. God made things and pronounced them good. But now, humans make their choice as to what will be good and evil, and so take on themselves the prerogatives of God. They are tempted to be like God, to put themselves in the place where they decide what is good and evil, so that they can follow their own direction rather than God’s direction. Adam and Eve were created to be God’s vice-regents, to exercise rule over creation on God’s behalf. But now they rebel against that commission, asserting their own authority to rule as they see fit.
And there are consequences to that as the passage goes on to show. With their objective guilt before God comes the subjective sense or consequence of guilt – shame (3:7). There is broken relationship with God (3:8-10), and they adopt a victim mentality, trying to duck responsibility for what’s happened (3:11-13).
God curses the serpent (3:14), but not Adam and Eve – although they do suffer the judgment and consequences of sin, including death itself (3:15-19).
Of course, on the whole biblical landscape, their sin was not an isolated act; it carried consequences for the rest of humanity. Romans 5:12-21 shows that Adam has passed on his sin to his posterity, bringing death not just on himself but on the entire human race. Romans 5:19 seems quite clear, where Paul says that ‘through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners’.
We see that even in the stories that follow Genesis 3 – in sibling rivalry, murder, warfare, and the wickedness that leads to the judgment of the flood, the pride of the builders of Babel.
That’s why Christians have said that sin is not merely this or that bad thing we do, which perhaps can be removed by more knowledge or moral effort; rather, it is the whole orientation of human existence. Sinful men and women are hopelessly lost, incapable of doing anything to save themselves. We are ‘enemies’ of God, as Romans 5:8 says, and so grace comes completely from the outside, and is done for us, not by us.
But there is grace!
There is grace from the garden of Eden onwards as God promises that the serpent will be destroyed, as he supplies Adam and Eve with clothes, puts a protective mark on Cain, establishes a covenant with the whole of creation after the flood, begins his plan of salvation with Abraham, liberates his people and provides a system of sacrifices so that he might dwell with them, shows himself determined throughout the history of Israel to keep his promise to bless all nations, a plan which comes to its culmination in Jesus, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19, ‘that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them’.
Repentance and faith are necessary, of course, but these too are only possible because of God’s grace. We come to our senses, turn around and make the journey home, to discover the lavishly rich welcome of a loving father, along with the promise of Jesus that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15).
So, God does not leave humans or the world in sin. He promises to restore them and it, and he acts to restore them and it. And it’s a restoration which extends to the whole of creation. As Paul says in Romans 8:21, ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God’.
Where sin pollutes and distorts and destroys our relationships with God, with others, and with the created world, God will – on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross – make all things new (cf. Revelation 21:5). Meanwhile, we look forward to that new heaven and new earth where there will be ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).
Most books on Christian doctrine will contain a chapter or section on the doctrine of sin, and these could be worth checking out. In addition, the following books, written at different levels, will allow those interested to explore a biblical theology of sin in more detail.
G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008).
A full and focused study of idolatry in Scripture, arguing that we take on the characteristics of what we worship.
Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Leicester: Apollos, 1997).
Densely argued, but a significant work.
James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 29-36.
A brief treatment.
John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology Volume 2: Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 254-349.
A lengthy chapter (under the title of ‘The Nightmare’) in a lengthy book by a significant Old Testament scholar.
Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, the Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
An academic work and a demanding read, which takes up the task of showing how a theology of sin can help explain the reality of contemporary society and the self-understanding of Christians in ways that secular analyses of social relationships cannot manage.
Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 147-58.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.
W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 34-44.
A brief overview at an accessible level.
Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 509-45.
A helpful discussion of what the New Testament says about ‘the problem of sin’.
Mike Starkey, What’s Wrong? Understanding Sin Today (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2001).
Probably the best overall introduction to the area; light, but well written and closely argued.
This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the LICC website on 2 November 2009.
‘When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?’
So asks the poet of Psalm 8, reminding us that the quest to discover the significance of human existence didn’t begin with disaffected philosophers in the 1960s, but reaches back through the centuries. So long as humans have been asking questions, it seems, we have asked the question, What does it mean to be human?
And it should come as no surprise that the Bible has something to say about this – not just on its first few pages, but all the way through.
It’s a humbling picture, actually, as we read in Genesis 2:7 that ‘the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’. That’s a powerful reminder of the connection between us and the ground, that we are – quite literally – ‘earthlings’, designed by God to live in the world he made as living beings, embodied beings, personal beings, relational beings. It also says something about our total dependence on God. And in different places, the Bible has much to say about the stuff of human life – work, marriage, family, sex, suffering, death and the hope for what comes after.
But if there is humility, there is honour too, as we are also told in Genesis 1:26-27 that we are made in the image of God. In this image-saturated world, we ourselves are the images that really count – images made according to the specifications of our Creator.
Of all God’s creation, only humans are singled out as made in the image of God, created to be like God in some sense – but like God in what sense?
It used to be common to think that the image of God meant factors like the ability to think, to reason, or even to speak. And of course, we give thanks that we have the capacity for emotion and imagination, for intellect and communication – like God himself – although it’s not apparent that his ‘image’ should be identified with these things.
What is clear in Genesis is that men and women together constitute the image of God, that humans are made for relationship with each other as well as with God, such that relationship with God and relationship with others is fundamental to true humanity, and we are less than human without it. And this relational aspect is important at a time when there has been a heavy focus on the inward self (the me who knows things) or the fragmentary self (the me who doesn’t really know who I am anymore) rather than the relational self (the me who relates to others).
But even so, we cannot limit what it means to be created in the image of God simply to being made male and female – because it’s clear that animals are also created as male and female. Gender distinction is not limited to humanity, but extends to dolphins and chickens and elephants as well. This doesn’t mean gender is unimportant or incidental. On the contrary, if anything, it makes it even more significant. It shows gender distinction is part of the warp and woof of God’s creation – but not necessarily the most significant point about being made in his image.
More significant is that being made in the image of God has to do with the vocation of men and women to rule creation, to reflect something of God’s own rule. That seems to be clear in Genesis 1:26, where God says, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in 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 creatures that move along the ground’. Humans are charged with the task of ‘dominion’ on behalf of other creatures as God’s representatives or stewards.
And, that’s reinforced in verse 28, which says that ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”’.
Cultures surrounding Israel told stories of people being made as slaves of the gods, with the language of ‘image’ applied only to kings. In Genesis, however, all human beings are created in the image of God, giving all men and women a status and responsibility not found in other worldviews. The delegation of God’s rule over the world is given not to a king or to a select class of people, but to humanity. All humans are God’s living images on earth, called on to exercise his loving rule.
As the poet of Psalm 8 says, in response to his own question about human beings:
‘You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet…’
Which, of course, raises all sorts of questions about how exercise our stewardship appropriately, in a way that involves exploration not exploitation, dominion not dominance.
And although they are now distorted by sin, men and women still bear God’s image, and those tasks of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’ and ‘ruling’ have not been taken away. In the first place, of course, it refers to the building of families, the growing of crops and breeding of animals, the tending of the garden. Creation requires cultivation.
But such cultivation provides the basis for the organisation of society, and includes by extension the development of culture and civilisation – building houses, designing clothes, writing poetry, playing chess. These are the ‘mundane’ ways in which we exercise our creation mandate, as we represent God’s rule over every type of cultural activity, in relationship with others, and in a way that reflects God’s own nurturing, creative hand.
But then, when we come to the New Testament, whatever we say about humanity now has to take account of Christ, not least because the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, reminding us once again – by the way – of the importance of bodily existence.
Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (as Paul puts it in Colossians 1:15), the one who exercises complete rule over all aspects of the created world. He is the new Adam (as Paul says elsewhere, in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). And in 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul can speak of ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, reminding us of Hebrews 1:3, where Jesus is said to be ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’.
At the very least, Christ as the image of God means he now truly represents God to creation in the way the first humans were called upon to do so. But beyond that it becomes clear that Jesus establishes a new humanity of those who are conformed according to that image, in fulfilment of what God intended from the very beginning.
And there are past, present and future dimensions to this. In Colossians 3:9-10, Paul tells us that we have put off an old mode of humanity, an old self, and ‘have put on the new self’. But the same passage goes on to speak of a continuous aspect to this transformation, as that new self ‘is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’. We are, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’. And this transformation awaits a point in the future when, at the resurrection, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:49, ‘just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man’.
But it’s also apparent in Paul’s letters that this transformation takes place within a network of relationships in the church.
The vision of Ephesians makes clear that what’s at stake is the re-formation of humanity into a new people of God. In 2:1-10, Paul reminds us that when we were dead in trespasses and sins, God made us alive in Christ, and we are saved by grace through faith, brought back into relationship with God. But then, as he goes on in 2:11-22, he tells us that not only is the vertical dimension with God dealt with, so is the horizontal one. Where Jews and Gentiles were once alienated from one another, Christ has broken down that dividing wall and made them into ‘one new humanity’. Formerly, we were enemies of God and alienated from one another; but now, through Christ’s death, we have been made one new person – reconciled to God and to each other.
Then it becomes clear in Ephesians 4:17 onwards (as it does in Colossians too) that this change in status requires a corresponding change in character – that we are to live in a way that matches our calling, putting off our old self and putting on the new self (4:22-24). Those who have been made alive in Christ are now renewed in the likeness of Christ.
So, not only does Jesus bear the image of God in perfect form, but those who are incorporated into Christ are in a process of being restored in God’s image, so that only through Christ are we able to fulfil our destiny as human beings – which means patterning ourselves on Jesus, but doing so together as the body of Christ, looking forward to our complete transformation at the end.
All of which means that the image of God ties together the uniqueness of humanity in creation, the incarnation of Christ, our ongoing formation in the church, and the future resurrection body.
In all this, we begin and end with God himself, like the writer of Psalm 8 does – ‘Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.’
Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 169-85
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from a New Testament perspective, focusing especially on ‘the ecclesiological structure’ and ‘the ethical structure’ of the new man.
Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 138-47.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.
W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 23-33.
A brief overview at an accessible level.
J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).
A full and illuminating discussion of the notion of ‘the image of God’ in Genesis 1 against its ancient Near Eastern background and an exploration of its ethical implications for today.
This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the LICC website on 3 August 2009.
To start with the theme of creation is to begin where the Bible itself begins, in Genesis – with God creating the heavens and the earth – and where the Bible ends, in Revelation – with a new heaven and a new earth.
In its very first verse, the Bible identifies God as creator. On the very first page, God speaks and it happens – he creates through his word. But God is also portrayed as crafting creation. We read in Genesis 2:7 that he formed Adam from the dust of the ground, in the way a potter or a sculptor makes something with clay.
And all of it is declared good, as having value – an important reminder that Scripture is not merely concerned with Israel, nor merely with God saving a people for himself, but that his work embraces the entire creation.
So, it’s no surprise that the topic of creation is not left behind in Genesis 1. It becomes a theme which stretches through the whole Bible.
A strong creation theology undergirds many of the Psalms, for instance, where God is praised as Creator – ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’, ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made’ – all sung in celebration – where it’s clear that creation is a result of God’s direct action rather than some accident. Several psalms combine the theme of worship with creation. Because he is the Creator, he is worthy of our worship. In other psalms, God’s act of creation is remembered alongside his saving of his people.
The biblical wisdom literature reminds us that God formed the world through wisdom, with wisdom at his side as a craftsperson, as it were. And that same wisdom is foundational for how we live in the world. God, who possesses wisdom and who created the world through wisdom, gives wisdom back to us for everyday living in his creation.
But neither Psalms nor Wisdom have the future dimension which comes out in the prophets, in Isaiah especially, when God’s work of salvation is spoken of as a new creation. The language of creation is used as God’s people look forward to what God will do in the future, not just what he’s done in the past.
Isaiah understands that God’s work as redeemer, as saviour, and God’s work as creator, are bound to each other. In Isaiah 43:1 we read that the Lord, the one who created Jacob, the one who formed Israel, says: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you’. God redeems because he has created, and in the act of creation is a commitment to redeem. As Isaiah addresses the people of God in exile in Babylon, he reminds them that if God can bring order out of chaos at creation, then he can bring his people back home.
Then, at the end of his prophecy, when Isaiah promises a new Jerusalem, the promise is bound up with the renewal of the whole cosmos; in 65:17 we read: ‘Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.’ The people come back from the Babylonian exile not just to a transformed land and a rebuilt city, but to a Jerusalem which is the centre of a new heaven and a new earth! The salvation of the people is portrayed in terms of a ‘new creation’. That’s the image used.
And that relationship between creation and salvation is highlighted in the New Testament, where it’s focused on Christ – the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the agent of creation, the source of life – the one through whom God made all things, and the one in whom God’s purposes of restoration for the creation will be brought to fulfilment – as John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 all make clear.
So, in Colossians 1:15-20, in language that reminds us of God creating the world through wisdom in Proverbs 8, Paul says that all things were created in Christ, all things made through him and for him – with reference to him, in relation to him. But not only the origin of the universe, also its goal – as God will reconcile to himself all things on earth and in heaven. How? By making peace through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross.
It’s no surprise, then, that in the gospels, Jesus asserts God’s authority over creation – in nature miracles, like walking on water or stilling the storm – the forces of chaos – with a word of his mouth, in multiplying loaves, in cleansing lepers, in raising the dead.
And his resurrection is a reaffirmation of the created order, something which Paul makes very clear in his letters, and which becomes foundational when he writes about sex and idolatry in Romans 1, for instance, where his argument is grounded in the creation narrative – where Paul doesn’t start with what’s going on in the world and try to make Scripture fit that; rather, he starts with Scripture, understands how it sees the world, and how the world functions best according to God’s original design.
All this means that when Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, that if anyone is in Christ, that person is a ‘new creation’, his language of ‘creation’ doesn’t appear in a vacuum; it’s part of a rich texture which is woven right through Scripture. Literally, ‘If anyone is in Christ – new creation.’ Those who are incorporated in Christ as the head of the new humanity belong to God’s new creation.
This new creation is bound up with the promise of the new covenant which Paul has already written about in chapters 3 and 4 of 2 Corinthians. Earlier, in 4:6, Paul refers back to creation when he writes, ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ’.
So, the same God who created all things at the beginning is now bringing about a new creation in the lives of men and women through Jesus Christ. All those who through faith embrace Christ are heirs of God’s new creation.
The new creation which Isaiah looked forward to has had its fulfilment not in Israel coming back from exile but in all those who have been remade by God. If Isaiah 65:17 promises that the ‘former things’ will pass away, Paul tells us here that in Christ the ‘old things’ have gone and the ‘new things’ have come; the old order has passed; the new order has arrived in the reconciling work of Christ on the cross.
Elsewhere, Paul is very clear (in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, for instance) that God’s creation will not be done away with, but will be made new.
And that is confirmed in the final chapters of Revelation with its vision of the new Jerusalem at the heart of a new heaven and a new earth. Christians have become a part of the process of the re-creation of the world, which God will bring about. Deliberately echoing Isaiah’s language, Revelation 21:1 speaks of a ‘new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’.
All this goes to show us that creation is not merely the backdrop for the story of salvation. In fact, it’s bound up with the story of salvation – created, fallen, currently subject to groaning, awaiting its liberation with us, the children of God, new creations in Christ, living in hope for the final restoration of the whole of creation, God’s great work fully restored on that final day.
T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: Exploring God’s Plan for Life on Earth (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 13-73.
Well worth reading for an illuminating consideration of the links in Scripture between creation and the temple and the city of Jerusalem.
James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 1-9.
Like Williams (below), a brief overview at an accessible level.
Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).
The most academic book in this list, offering a full discussion of the topic, though focused on the Old Testament.
Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 147-67.
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from a New Testament perspective, focusing especially on 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15.
Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 124-58.
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.
David Wilkinson, The Message of Creation, The Bible Speaks Today: Themes Series (Leicester: IVP, 2002).
A book-length treatment of biblical passages looking at the beginning of creation, the songs of creation, the Lord of creation, the lessons of creation, and the fulfilment of creation.
H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 13-26.
Like Davison and Juengst (above), a brief overview at an accessible level.
This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the LICC website on 6 July 2009.
Many of us are struggling with the Bible.
It’s not that we don’t hold it in high regard, for we do. Evidence suggests that most church leaders and people who call themselves Christians believe the Bible is God’s loving self-disclosure of himself, his trustworthy word to men and women – but we’re struggling at every level to understand it and apply it, even to read it in the first place.
And what we intuitively know to be the case has been confirmed by more formal research commissioned by the Bible Society into levels of biblical literacy in the UK church. Findings there have demonstrated that it’s not only our contemporary culture that is biblically illiterate, but that the church is suffering too – its people and its leaders.
Our knowledge of the Bible is a little like some people’s knowledge of London. We might visit London by train, arriving at Euston station. We want to do some shopping, so we get the tube to Oxford Circus or Bond Street; or maybe the shops on Oxford Street don’t have quite what we want, so we need to catch a tube to Knightsbridge to go to Harrods. Then, because we’ve booked ourselves on the London Eye in the afternoon, we catch another tube to Westminster. It may well be that we’re planning to meet a friend later in the day for a meal. We arrange to meet at Trafalgar Square, so we take the tube to Charing Cross. Then at the end of our evening, we catch the tube back to Euston to get our train home.
We have surfaced into London from three or four tube stations during the day, but might not have any idea how those places are linked to one another. Even for some people who live in Greater London, their knowledge of the capital is limited to a few key places they visit by the underground with no real understanding of the connections between those places above ground.
And that’s the experience some of us have with the Bible. We have a London Underground equivalent view of Scripture. We pop out into the fresh air of creation, dive back underground again, and pop up at the exodus or in Ruth or David and Goliath, down again and then back up again at Psalm 23 or Isaiah 53, but with very little idea, perhaps, whether and how these places in the Bible’s big picture are connected.
One of the ways we can start to see the big picture of the Bible is to understand the story the Bible tells, from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation.
This year (2009), LICC’s ‘Word for the Week’ email service is taking subscribers through the main contours of the biblical story, in 50 emails, seeking to show how a whole-life discipleship perspective is woven through Scripture as a whole. That story element is crucial, because it gives us the wide-screen version of the Bible, how the director wants us to see the whole thing.
But a look at the big story the Bible tells can be complemented by looking at the major themes the Bible presents – the overarching thematic strands or threads that move through the Bible.
These are the themes that arise from the Bible itself. For instance, as we read the biblical story, we come to Solomon and the building of the temple with its dedication in 1 Kings 8. But, 1 Kings 8 is itself part of a theme about God’s presence with his people which moves from the garden of Genesis to the city of Revelation.
The major turns in the plot of the biblical story – like creation, sin, covenant, salvation, temple – set up themes, or are a part of themes, which are then woven through the rest of the story, and the themes themselves then help us understand the story more fully, in a mutually-reinforcing way. The themes allow us to see how the whole Bible hangs together, Old and New Testament, and makes sense as the one word of God, drawing the connections between its various parts.
Perhaps the best way to show what we’re talking about is to offer a brief example.
If we were studying Psalm 23 – the Shepherd Psalm – for instance, of course we should study it in its own right. But it may also be helpful to see, even in broad terms, how the shepherd/sheep motif is drawn on elsewhere in the big picture of Scripture.
The word ‘Shepherd’ was widely used in different ancient Near Eastern cultures to describe rulers. Kings, for instance, were described as shepherds over their people who were said to be their flock. And the Bible says a number of times – not just in Psalm 23 – that God himself is the shepherd of his people, protecting his sheep, providing for them, guiding them, gathering them together.
And, when David becomes king, 2 Samuel 5 and Psalm 78 speak of him as shepherding the people. But centuries later, God promises through Micah (in 5:2) that one will come from Bethlehem who will shepherd the people of Israel, which, of course, is picked up by Matthew in chapter 2 of his gospel, where it’s applied to Jesus, great David’s greater son.
Then we have passages like Ezekiel 34 and Zechariah 11-13 where false shepherds are judged, and where the Lord promises that he will shepherd his people – that he will seek the lost, and will bring them home; he will feed the hungry; he will heal all the injured and sick – and he will send his servant David to be a shepherd to the people.
So, if we read John 10 against the background of Ezekiel 34, it becomes clear that here is Jesus, the son of David, stepping into that role for God’s people, being their good shepherd, and laying down his life for the sheep. That resonates with other passages in the gospels about people being lost and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and parables about sheep being lost and found.
And then, in John 21, Jesus commissions Peter to ‘feed my sheep’. That links nicely with 1 Peter 5:1-4 with its reference to ‘undershepherds’ of the Chief Shepherd. And then we have Revelation 7:17, with its bizarre image of the lamb of God shepherding the flock of God!
So, when Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd’, he does not do so out of a clear blue sky; he does so in a context of cherished, authoritative, centuries-old traditions, which reach backwards and move forwards.
Now, it might not be fully appropriate to read all that back into Psalm 23, but we can see how helpful it might be for us to understand 2 Samuel 5 or Psalm 23 or John 10 or 1 Peter 5 against the larger biblical theme.
A book by Timothy Laniak, published by Apollos in 2006, does this. It’s called Shepherds After My Own Heart, and it looks at the shepherd metaphor against its ancient Near Eastern context, and throughout Scripture as a whole, not just in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament, in terms of understanding the significance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and its implications for pastoral ministry and leadership among God’s people today. What Laniak offers, effectively, is a biblical theology of shepherding, its implications for understanding how God and Christ care for us, and for how we should care for others.
But here’s a thing… if we can do that with something relatively peripheral in Scripture, like the ‘shepherd’ image, how much more can we do it with major themes like creation, covenant, land, salvation, temple, kingship, and so on?
So, it’s illuminating and beneficial to trace trajectories like this through the various parts of the Bible – the themes that draw the Bible together in a unity.
And we do so not just as an intellectual exercise, but because it is God’s word, through which we get to know his mind and through which we hear his voice as it speaks to us.
Ronald J. Allen, Wholly Scripture: Preaching Biblical Themes (St Louis: Chalice, 2004).
Although intended primarily for preachers, others who have already done some work in the area may find the discussion and worked examples useful.
Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer: Approaching the Throne of Grace, The Bible Speaks Today: Bible Themes Series (Leicester: IVP, 2003).
The two parts of this book are devoted to the foundations of prayer and the practice of prayer. Although the book itself is a helpful treatment of the topic of prayer, it’s mentioned here because of the series it belongs to – Bible Themes – which explores key biblical passages related to a particular theme. So far, volumes have been published on creation, the cross, evil and suffering, heaven and hell, the living God, the resurrection, mission, salvation, and the trinity.
Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi, Storylines: Tracing the Threads that Run Through the Bible (Eastbourne: Survivor, 2008).
Topped with a brief overview of the biblical story, and tailed with a chapter on ‘the what, why and how of the Bible’, this looks at several threads: Jesus, covenant, presence, kingdom, salvation, and worship. One of the best (with Vaughan Roberts below) for a beginner to this area.
James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).
Short chapter treatments (including lesson plans for Bible study groups) on creation, covenant, the people of God, sin, righteousness, hope, compassion, and discipleship.
Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (eds.), Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007).
A full textbook by key scholars, with long essays devoted to the covenant relationship, the commands of God, the atonement, the servant of the Lord, the day of the Lord, the people of God, and the history of redemption. More academic than most of the items in this list.
Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Leicester: Apollos, 2006).
This is the book mentioned above, exploring the ‘shepherd’ motif in Scripture. Many of the books in the ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’ series explore other biblical themes.
Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008).
More challenging than most of the books in this list, exploring select themes with the added dimension of tracing parallels between the biblical texts (especially Old Testament) and the ancient Near East.
Vaughan Roberts, Life’s Big Questions: Six Major Themes Traced Through the Bible (Leicester: IVP, 2004).
An introductory exploration of how the single story of the Bible, told in different types of literature, answers six questions: who is the king? what does it mean to be human? how should we view money? what does God say about marriage? how does the Holy Spirit work in the world and in our lives? what part does mission play in the Christian life? One of the best (with Andy Croft and Mike Pilavach above) for a beginner to this area.
H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006).
A middle-level treatment of the themes of creation, covenant, idolatry, Messiah, law, salvation, kingdom, Holy Spirit, people of God, prophecy and fulfilment.
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