Lessons from Israel
The first two chapters of Genesis tell us of the creation of the universe and God’s vision for his extended family of humans, created in his own image, whom he has appointed as his vice-regents to care for the planet he so much delights in. However, over the next nine chapters it looks as if this vision has turned to custard. We read of murder (4:8) and its glorification (4:23,24), violence that had reached such an extent that God felt he had to have a fresh start (6-9), the misuse of God’s gifts (9:20,21) and attempts to build civilisation by human effort apart from God (10). However, God is not prepared to give up on his grand design, which, according to modern science, he had been working on for over thirteen billion years. His rescue plan, somewhat surprisingly, is to start with one man, Abraham.
The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 is the beginning of the story of Israel, and in this call we catch a glimpse of the scope of God’s plan for the saving of mankind and the renewal of creation. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”(Genesis 12:2,3). As Abraham travels to the land of Canaan in obedience to God’s command, he is given an additional promise, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). Later still comes the promise, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me(Genesis 22:18).
So the story goes something like this: God’s plan was to build a people loyal to himself who would inherit the land of Canaan, a people whose values, laws, and style of living would be an example to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8) and through whom eventually all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This people came to be known as Israel, named after Abraham’s grandson. This thought, that it was God’s intention to bless all the nations through Abraham and his descendants, is pivotal in the book of Genesis. So important is it that it occurs five times with minor variations of phraseology (12:3, 18:18; 22:18; 26:4,5; 28:14).
This emphasis is particularly prominent in the Psalms. George Peters, in A Biblical Theology of Missions, counts “more than 175 references for a universalistic note relating to the nations of the world. Many of them bring hope of salvation to the nations … . Indeed, the Psalter is one of the greatest missionary books in the world, though seldom seen from that point of view.” Isaiah spells out clearly God’s ultimate intention, “In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill the world with fruit” (27:6). Though these blessings would ultimately come through God’s personal intervention in the coming of Jesus (as Paul explains in Romans 15:8,9), their example was intended to light the way for others and so prepare for his coming. In fact, it could be said that all God’s dealings with Israel throughout the Old Testament period were that he might be known throughout the earth.Only as people acknowledge their true God could they be blessed as he intended.Psalms 67 spells this out clearly. The reason the psalmist desires God’s face to shine on them is that “[his] ways may be known on earth,[his] salvation among all nations”(Psalms 67:1,2) and that God may bless his people “so that all the ends of the earth will fear him”(v. 7).
In Exodus 19:5 God describes Israel as his “treasured possession”. The Hebrew word is segulla, which was used in both Hebrew and Accadian to describe the personal treasure of the monarch and his family (cf. 1 Chronicles 29:3; Ecclesiastes 2:8). God chose to place Israel in a special personal relationship within his worldwide kingship. What this involves is explained in verse 6. Their role is to be a priestly and holy community in the midst of the nations.
As the story progresses, we read how time and again Israel failed to measure up to their God-given task, eventually reaching the point where God allowed them to suffer the ignominy of the destruction of their land and 70 years captivity in Babylon. However, God was not to be thwarted. Though the nation as a whole was not up to the task, there were still individuals who were faithful to the original vision and who longed for its fulfilment. It was through these that God was able to continue his plans and prepare his people for the final act of the drama.
The Hebrew word “offspring” in Genesis 12:7 is literally “seed” and may be either single or plural. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, God’s ultimate plan would be fulfilled though a single individual who himself would take over the mission originally given to Israel. This individual, foretold by many of the Old Testament prophets, would succeed where others had failed. It is this person, Jesus (the Second Person of the Divine Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit), born of an Israelite virgin, and his committed followers (the true children of Abraham as per Galatians 3:7), to whom is now committed the original charge of bringing God’s blessings to all the nations of the earth. As James pointed out to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, the bringing of the Gospel to the Gentiles was consistent with the teaching of Israel’s prophets, who foretold that they would be welcomed into the divine presence in the temple of messianic age (Acts 15:13-18—see Amos 9:11,12).
If Israel was to have such a significant role in God’s purpose for bringing blessing to the nations, it is most important that we are clear about the kind of people they were intended to be. Though their culture and environment would be very different to many nations in today’s world, there are basic principles exemplified in the laws that God gave them that are applicable to all people of all ages. These laws, given through his faithful servant Moses at Mount Sinai, and repeated is some detail as they were about to enter the promised land forty years later, give us the blueprint of a nation that I am sure most of us would indeed find a blessing if they were adhered to. So let’s see what we can learn from the kind of nation God intended them to be.
It is significant that the covenant promise to Abraham that launched the work of redemption in history included land as a fundamental constitution of that promise. Out of 46 references to the promise from Genesis to Judges, only 7 do not mention the land, while 29 are mainly or exclusively about it. In Genesis 28:4 the “blessing given to Abraham” simply means possession of the land. The Old Testament refers to land 2,000 times and the New Testament 250. In his important book, The Land, Walter Brueggemannargues that “land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith.”
This particular land was a wonderful gift to Israel. It was “a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valley and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills” and “a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9; 11:11). It was indeed, as they were often reminded, a “land flowing with milk and honey”(e.g. Numbers 13:27). In a wide variety of contexts in the ancient world ‘milk and honey’ were the Elysian food of the gods. As Lohfink says in Option for the Poor: “What we have here, then, is an image of the plenitude of paradise.”
However, possession of the land and its blessings was not without conditions. Specific instructions were given as to how they were to treat it, live in it and honour the one who had gifted it to them. On a number of occasions they were warned that if they were not faithful to him and did not observe his laws, then they would forfeit this right and be taken from it (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:1-40; 28:63,64). Gratitude towards the One who had given them the land would prove the best antidote to pride, and to neglect of the commands relating to the care of it (Deuteronomy 8:10-20). If they continued to obey his commands, then not only would he grant many material blessings, but he would “walk among” them (Leviticus 26:12), using the same unusual form of the verb as is used to describe God walking with the couple in the Garden of Eden. A further result would be that “all the peoples of the earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 28:10). The possession of the land was the assurance that they were the Lord’s people as promised to Abraham. It is striking that the name of their ancestor Israel came to denote both the people and the land.
The divine ownership of the land had been hinted at in one of the earliest pieces of Israelite poetry, the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, which they sang on their deliverance from the army of Pharaoh. It looks forward to entry into the promised land, which is described as “your holy dwelling” (v. 13), “the mountain of your inheritance” (v. 17) and “the place, O Lord, you made for your dwelling” (v. 17). This theme is found often in the prophets and Psalms. The clearest statement, however, is given in the instructions concerning the Year of Jubilee given to Moses on Mount Sinai. “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers” (Leviticus 25:23; cf. 2 Samuel 20:19; 21:3; Jeremiah 2:7; 16:18). Christopher Wright translates this, “you are ‘guests’ and ‘residents’ with me.” That the land and its blessings were gifts of grace from God in view of his covenant promises to their forefathers, and not due to their own merit, was emphasised (Deuteronomy 7:7-9; 8:17,18). Should they fail to honour this, they would perish from it (Deuteronomy 4:25,26).
The people of Israel were given the right to private ownership of the land, but only as tenants. And, as we shall see, ownership of the land involved responsibilities; to God, to one’s family and to one’s neighbours. In the Canaanite system kings owned the land of the small city-states they ruled. Fairness and justice therefore depended on the character of the king. Under the Israelite system God was the ultimate title owner. Fairness and justice were therefore guaranteed as long as they remained faithful to him.
In addition, the land was divided in such a way as to give each individual family a fair share of its resources. First of all it was apportioned fairly to each of the tribes according to the population of that tribe (Numbers 26:52-56). Then, within the tribal boundaries, it was divided “according to its clans”, the constant repetition of this phrase in Joshua indicating that the land should be distributed throughout the whole kinship system as widely as possible. This did not mean that everyone should have thesame, but that each family should have enough. These smaller portions also were held as a gift from God (e.g. Deuteronomy 26:10). In this way, each individual household could claim that the Lord himself guaranteed its right to the land it possessed. This would explain Naboth’s resistance to King Ahab’s attempts to buy his vineyard (1 Kings 21). “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (1 Kings 21:3). The Lord did forbid it. Only by falsely charging Naboth with blasphemy could Ahab appear to give some legitimacy to his theft. As possession of the land was a significant part of the covenant relationship with God, forfeiting his right to membership of the people of God through blasphemy, also forfeited his right to possession of the land. This emphasis on continued ownership of the land discouraged mass migration to cities, so Israel experienced no large-scale urbanisation. It also restricted the development of a class-based social structure.
To ensure that this right to possession of their family inheritance was maintained, every fifty years the year of Jubilee was to be proclaimed. Not only were bonded workers to be freed on this day, but also, if for any reason they had forfeited their land, it was to be returned to them (Leviticus 25:9,10). It is significant that the Jubilee was to be proclaimed on the Day of Atonement. The day on which the people’s need for God’s forgiveness was acknowledged and celebrated was the day on which forgiveness was to be extended to others.
Failure to observe this right of each to their own inheritance was one of the sins denounced most strongly by the prophets.
Woe to those who plan iniquity
to those who plot evil on their beds … .
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance.
Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
No tribal land was to be sold to another tribe, so each Israelite could retain the land of their ancestors (Numbers 36:7).
This attachment to the land was fundamental, not only to their covenant relationship with God, but also to their wellbeing as a people. Russ Parker, in Healing Wounded History, says, “One of the strongest and most basic needs of the whole human race is to belong, and to belong in the place or on the land where we can connect, be rooted and grow.” Paul, preaching in Athens, applies this principle to our spiritual wellbeing. “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands … so thatthey would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:26,27).
Dave Bookless comments: “It is in our long-term interaction with creation in a particular place that we find hints of God’s glory and begin to seek for a relationship with God.” Even in exile in Babylon, the Lord, through Jeremiah, urges the people to put down roots and pray for the peace and prosperity of the city, “because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jeremiah 29:4-7) We were intended to be not only in relationship with God, but also with a local community and the natural world.
Included in the vision of the prophets concerning God’s future renewal of his creation was the statement, “everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree” (Micah 4:4). Every family would “long enjoy the work of their hands” (Isaiah 65:21-23). Gentiles would be included and have secure tenure of the land in this vision (Ezekiel 47:22,23).
An Amish proverb gives an interesting perspective on this: “We didn’t inherit the land from our fathers; we are borrowing it from out children.”
The most obvious example of the responsibility to care for the land lay in the command to allow it to lie fallow during each Sabbatical year and for two years during the time of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:4,5; 11,12). Here we have a clear example of sustainable living, the need to maintain the health of the soil, not only for their own continued use, but also for future generations.
A similar example of the importance of providing for the continued productivity of the natural environment is the command not to take a mother bird with its young, so she can then lay a second brood (Deuteronomy 22:6,7). Fruit trees were not to be harvested till the fourth year of growth (Leviticus 19:24). Nothing they can do in, on or with the land is outside the sphere of God’s moral inspection. From major issues of defence and national security down to how they grew their fruit trees, every area of life is included.
The observance of these laws obviously required a certain amount of faith, a willingness to trust God to provide sufficient food for their families for the Sabbatical year, or for two years in the case of Jubilee. He had promised to do this (Leviticus 25:18-22). This willingness would also be a factor in the release of bonded labourers with generous provision (Deuteronomy 15:12-18), the cancelling of debts (Deuteronomy15:1-11), the limits to harvesting required in providing for the poor (Leviticus 19:9,10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22),the returning of houses to Levites and the banning of interest on loans to the poor (Leviticus 25:32-38). The motive God gives for this is his own generosity to his people in giving them the land (Leviticus 25:38). Indeed, some of the economic regulations called for the sacrifice of self-interest in favour of the needs of a fellow Israelite. As E. W. Heaton said inThe Hebrew Kingdoms, the law was not designed “for good business but for good community.”
It is significant that the Jubilee year was announced with a blast on the trumpet (the yobel, from which the Jubilee’s name derives), an instrument associated with decisive acts of God. The return of Christ to announce the final Jubilee, when liberty is proclaimed to all his people and creation is renewed, is announced with the blowing of a trumpet (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16: cf. Isaiah 27:12,13).
Neglect of the Sabbatical Years is given as one of the causes of divine judgment: the prophets interpret the long exile in Babylon not only as judgment on Israel for widespread injustice and turning from the true worship of Yahweh, but also to help the land recover from hundreds of neglected Sabbatical Years (Leviticus 26:32-35,42,43; 2 Chronicles 36:21; cf. Isaiah 24:1-7). “I will remember the land,” Yahweh declared. When Nehemiah took over the governorship of returned exiles, one of his major concerns was to restore the divine covenant with the land (Nehemiah 5:1-13; 10:31). The covenant concerned the relationship between the human social order, divine blessing and the goodness of the land. The wellbeing of the land was inextricably tied up with their faithfulness to the covenant. “He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there” (Psalm 107:33,34). Their very presence in the land God had given them would depend on the manner in which they valued this gift. If they defiled the land, then “it will vomit you out as it vomited our the nations that were before you (Leviticus 18:28). The prophet Habakkuk denounced the Babylonians for their destruction of nature as for their violence towards humans: “The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. For you have shed human blood; you have destroyed lands and cites and everyone in them” (Habakkuk 2:17).
So many of the detailed instruction of the law have reference to the use and care of the land, directly or indirectly, that this is easily the most comprehensive of the ethical and theological categories of the law. Nothing you can do in, on or with the land is outside the sphere of God’s moral inspection. In The Cosmic Covenant Robert Murray reasons that there is a profound recognition of a precarious balance between created order and cosmic disorder running through the Hebrew Bible. He argues that the rituals and laws of the covenant community of Israel are designed to preserve and restore this order, in the face of those cosmic or human forces that threaten to disrupt or overwhelm it.
Adequate food was the right of everyone. The poor were permitted to feed on grapes in a neighbour’s vineyard, or to pluck grain when passing a field. Owners were obliged to leave part of their harvest for those in need as well as the tithe of the third year (Leviticus 19:9,10; Deuteronomy 26:12). The fallow land of the Sabbatical Years and Jubilee provided food for the poor. “An unploughed field produces food for the poor, but injustice sweeps it away” (Proverbs 13:23). Land was not treated as a commercial resource, in a manner that so often leads to injustice in today’s world, but as a means of blessing to be enjoyed by all.
This truth was stated by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical on ‘Human Work’ (1981). He distanced himself from Marxist “collectivism” and liberal “capitalism”. In the latter case, he explained, the question is how “the right to ownership of property is understood.” He continued:
Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole creation; the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.
If we accept the premise that God’s intention is that all have right to the produce of the land, then can we deny the truth of Michael Northcott’s statement, “Where wealth accrues to some such that this sustenance is denied to others then this is theft”? In Israel, the right of the poor to have access to the necessities of life had priority over the right of private ownership of property.
Israelite law enjoins a deep respect for life (Leviticus 17:13,14), exhibits what we would today call ecological consciousness (Deuteronomy 22:6,7), and conveys a passionate sense of what is right in dealing with fellow-creatures (Deuteronomy 14:21; cf. Genesis 49:5-7). Rebecca is chosen as wife for Isaac because she drew water for Abraham’s camels, not just for his servant (Genesis 24:19). There is authority and permission in use of animals, but implicit in that is responsibility and accountability.
Fairness and compassion were commanded towards working animals, such as the laden donkey and threshing ox (Exodus 23:4,5; Deuteronomy 25:4; cf. 22:1-4). In the former instance, this had priority over feelings about a potential enemy. Domestic animals were included in the rest that was mandatory on the Sabbath, not only on the basis of God’s example in creation (Exodus 20:11) but also on the grounds of his redemptive act (Deuteronomy 5:15). Wild animals were to benefit from the fallow land of the seventh year (Exodus 23:10,11).
A significant verse is Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” The word translated “needs” here is nephesh, the Hebrew word for soul and can refer to the inner, unspoken feelings and needs of human beings. Christopher Wright comments on this passage:
The implications of this epigram are profound. Of the Hebrew virtues, the most all-embracing (sedeq) and the most deeply felt (rahmim), which are used of God towards humans and of humans towards each other, are here used in speaking of right and wrong attitudes towards animals. Thus animals are brought into the sphere of human ethics.
Of significance is the command in Deuteronomy 12:23,24 not to eat the blood of animals, “because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat…pour it out on the ground like water” (Deuteronomy 12:23,24). The word for ‘life’ here is the Hebrew nephesh, which means breath. It reflects the breath of the creator Spirit and the act of breathing and the lifeblood are seen as intimately connected, as we know from modern medical science. This command was so important to the Jewish people that it was taken up by the early church as one of the restrictions imposed on the Gentiles (Acts 15:28,29).
Michael Northcott comments on the significance of this:
The Hebrew Torah went this way many thousand of years before the modern animal rights movement. Instead of the language of rights it sets the treatment of animals in the context of their sharing of the divine-inspired character of all of life, and in terms of the responsibilities and duties which consequently arise for humans in their treatment of animals.
At the beginning of the Creation God prepared his throne with justice, righteousness, faithfulness and love (Psalm 33:5,6; 89:12-15; 96:10,13). Ralph Knierim, in Task of Old Testament Theology, says:
The concern for justice pervades the entire Old Testament. It is found in the historical, legal, prophetic, and wisdom literature, and in the Psalm as well. It is found throughout the entire history of the Old Testament literature … The evidence shows that the concern for justice was one, if not the central, factor by which ancient Israel’s multifaceted societal life was united throughout its historical changes … No sphere of Israel’s life was exempt from concern for justice, and the Lord was known to be at work in all its spheres.
Righteousness and justice come in the top five of the Old Testament’s ethical vocabulary. Each of them, in various verbal, adjectival and noun forms, occurs hundreds of times. Psalms 145 includes God’s provision for all his creatures in its definition of his righteousness as well as his love. It places God’s care for creation in precise parallel with his liberating acts of justice for his people (vv. 13-17). “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29:7).
Ideally, there should have been no poor (Deuteronomy 15:4), considering the fair distribution of the land. However, humans being what they are, greed, exploitation, laziness, incompetence and other factors would inevitably result in a landless class of people. Israelite laws were particularly concerned to protect them and addressed the needs of people such as widows, orphans, immigrant foreigners and Levites (e.g. Leviticus 19:33; Deuteronomy 10:18; 12:19; 24:17)—precisely because such action accords with God’s character.
In the founding of the nation there were clear laws concerning justice for all ranks of society. These included; the freedom of servants after six years (Exodus 21:1-6), the forbidding of harsh working conditions (Leviticus 25:39,40; 43), full and prompt payment of wages (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14,15), respect for foreigners (Exodus 23:9), fairness and impartiality in judicial matters (Exodus 23:6-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 16:19,20) and a mandatory rest on the Sabbath for workers and even domestic animals (Exodus 20:11). There are seventeen direct references to the forbidding of charging interest on loans to fellow Israelites, particularly the needy (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:19; Exodus 22:25). This was no doubt designed to prevent money becoming a commodity that would begin the insidious process of diving the rich from the poor. Economic generosity was commanded and reinforced by a mixture of theological and economic arguments (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:12-15) and the commands relating to the Sabbath and Jubilee.
Slaves and other hired workers were permitted to enjoy all the benefits of the great festivals and cultic occasions (e.g. Deuteronomy 16:11,14). Such people would benefit from the triennial tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28,29). Though slavery was permitted in some circumstances, there were laws concerning the treatment of slaves that were unparalleled in any other Near Eastern code (Exodus 21:20,21,26,27; Deuteronomy 23:15,16). Slavery of fellow Israelites was forbidden (Leviticus 25:42; cf. Nehemiah 5:1-12; Job 31:13-15; Jeremiah 34:8-22; Amos 2:6).
Though not related to poverty in these particular instances, the laws relating to uncleanness, healthy diet, sanitary conditions and pollution are clearly most relevant today, though their application may vary with modern knowledge (see Leviticus 11-15, Deuteronomy 14; 23:9-14). Similarly, the forbidding of destruction of fruit trees in war is relevant (Deuteronomy 20:19).
Compassion toward foreigners was mandatory in view of their own experience. “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; cf. 22:21; Deuteronomy 15:15). They were even commanded to “Love them as yourself”(Leviticus 19:34). This is beautifully illustrated in the book of Ruth. Israel society was geared towards the social health and economic viability of the ‘lowest’, not to the wealth, privilege or power of the ‘highest’.
Power in decision-making, especially in judicial matters, resided in network of elders. Such decentralised power stands in marked contrast to contemporary ancient Near Eastern states, which had highly stratified and pyramidical political and economic structures. According to von Soden in Ancient Orient, “after around 1500, there appear to have been only minimal institutional limitations on the power of the kings of Babylonia and Assyria.” If Israel was ever to appoint a king, which they eventually did against God’s advice (1 Samuel 8), he was to read God’s law “all the days of his life” so that he “not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites” (Deuteronomy 17:19,20).
Robert Gnuse’s comment at the end of his survey of the Israelite laws and institutions relating to property in You Shall Not Steal, is also worthy of note:
Laws and moral imperatives about loans, interest, debts, slaves, land, wages, justice in general indicate that the first concern of Israel was for human need, not ownership … The maintenance of property and possessions must come second to human need. Israelites favoured persons over property and possessions.
God delights in kindness, justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 9:24) and he made it clear that only through just living in their attitude to the foreigner and the disadvantaged would he guarantee them a permanent place in the land (Jeremiah 7:5-7). Jeremiah spoke this warning at a time when God was about to send them into exile for 70 years!
Continued health of both the people and the land was inextricably tied up with the worship of Yahweh, their God. Commenting on the combination of social, political and religious dimensions in the clash between Yahweh and Baal at the time of Ahab and Elijah, Ulrich Duchrow, in Shalom, says, “A starving people and a wealthy king is a result of the law of the accumulation of riches and power, and happens when Ba’al reigns and not Yahweh.” When things were not going well the only real and lasting solution lay in repentance (2 Chronicles 7:14). Instead of the hidden hand of the market, Donald Meek argues in God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, the Hebrew Bible proposes God as the hidden hand who correlates abundance and gift with moral righteousness and scarcity and famine with moral failure.
The community that God envisioned for his people was, in the words of Paul Hansen in People Called, “a people called by God, a community of freed slaves within which the pyramid of social stratification consigning certain classes to lives of ease and others to relentless suffering and deprivation was to be banned forever.” For some time they more or less succeeded. As Christopher Wright says:
They succeeded for several centuries to prove, for example, that a theocracy could actually work without a human king; that land could be possessed and enjoyed without being treated merely as a commercial asset, to be bought, sold and exploited through absolute ownership; that a broad equality of families with built-in mechanisms for the prevention of poverty, debt and slavery could be maintained; that people’s spiritual needs could be met without a highly consumptive, landowning , cultic elite.
Patrick Millar, in Enthroned on the Praises of Israel: The Praise of God in Old Testament Theology, says:
To go through the Book of Psalms is to be led increasingly toward the praise of God as the final word … that is so theologically, because in praise more than any other human act God is seen and declared to be God in all fullness and glory. That is so eschatologically, because the last word of all is the confession and praise of God by the whole creation.
The emphasis given to creation in the worship of Israel is most significant and there is no better place to look for Israel’s beliefs about God and about his creation than in the Psalms. According to my reading of the Psalms, there are seventy-one that take some aspect of nature to illustrate a truth about life or about God. There are forty-two that speak of God as the ruler, judge or possessor of all the nations or whole earth, or that he is to be worshipped by the whole earth. There are forty-four that mention the fact that he is revealed in his creation, or that he is active in it, or that he possesses it, or is to be praise by it.
The Psalms of Asaph, in particular Psalms 74-79, display elements of rituals designed to preserve the order of heaven and earth and to sustain the blessings, which come from God’s covenant with his creation.
The temple, which was the central focus of their worship, was full of reminders of creation. Carvings of gourds, pomegranates, lilies, palm trees, flowers, lions, bears and bulls abounded. Some think the temple design was a depiction of the Garden of Eden. A major item was a huge bronze sculpture depicting the ocean, no doubt with waves and frolicking sea creatures amid the carved metallic swells.
The combined theme of creation and redemption is well illustrated by the six annual feasts of Israel. These began at Passover in their first month when they celebrated their deliverance from Egypt. This was to be replaced in the New Testament with the Lord’s Supper as the time when Jesus gave himself for our sins. The Passover was immediately followed by the Feast of Firstfruits, which marked the beginning of the barley harvest, the earliest crop to ripen, when a sheaf from the harvest would be offered in the temple. At the commencement of the main harvest of other crops, seven weeks later, the Feast of Weeks was celebrated, which commemorated the arrival in Sinai and the giving of the Law. This combined the themes of redemption and creation, and new grain and two loaves baked from the first harvested wheat were presented in the temple. In the New Testament this corresponds to Pentecost, the beginning of the spiritual harvest, when 3000 souls were added to the fledgling church. No further feasts were held until the Feast of Trumpets on the first day of the seventh month. This was a celebration of the end of the harvest. The two final feasts, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh month, returned again to the theme of redemption, with the emphasis on forgiveness and the deliverance from Egypt. These feast are described in Leviticus 23. They were always celebrated with feasting, together with their families. It is noteworthy that there are constant commands to celebrate their worship with feasting and rejoicing (Deuteronomy 12:11,12; 14:22-27; 16:11,14; 26:11; 27:7). At the Feast of Tabernacles they were to rejoice for seven days (Leviticus 23:40)! It is significant that Israel has no feast today to celebrate the return from exile in Babylon in the sixth century. Though some did return to rebuild the temple, the complete restoration, as pictured by the prophet Isaiah, with the transformation of nature together with the full restoration of shalom blessings for God’s people, has yet to occur, though the process was initiated with the coming of Jesus.
At all their celebrations, sacrifices would be made for forgiveness and reconciliation with their God, but these were always accompanied by offerings of grain, oil and wine—the fruits of the earth. Additional offerings from creation were their chief means of expressing gratitude to their God for his abundant provision of their needs. It is also significant that the reasons given for the command to rest on the Sabbath was both because of the completion of creation (Exodus 20:11) and their deliverance from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). It was a day to remember both events with gratitude. As Leo Perdue sums it up in his book Wisdom and Creation, it is now clear to many scholars that “creation is a pervasive theme through every area of the Hebrew canon. The view that redemptive history … takes theological priority over creation cannot be defended by reference to the Hebrew Bible itself.” And as Larry Rasmussen notes:
Religion in the Old Testament frequently seems hard to distinguish from good highlands agriculture, from proper treatment of topsoil and animals, from joyful celebration over bountiful harvests and the warm glow one gets from a goblet of good wine.
All this emphasis shows how vital creation was to the Israelites and, as long as they maintained their faithfulness to their God, it is difficult to see how they could not but value it and desire to care for it. As the history of Israel makes plain, the health of the land was inextricably tied to their true worship and the degradation of the land to its abandonment (cf. Haggai 1 in this regard).
Though the application of the seven principles in this chapter may vary from age to age and in different contexts, they are as relevant today as ever, perhaps more so because of the situation to which we have brought ourselves. It is true that Israel was primarily an agrarian society but there are principles here that apply to any society.
Christopher Wright sums up as follows:
Ancient Israel my not have been anxious or fearful about the plight of the physical planet in the way we are, for the very good reason that we have made a far greater mess of it than the ancient world ever did. So to that extent many aspects of what we would now regard as urgent ecological ethical issues were not explicitly addressed within the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the theological principles and ethical implications that they did articulate regarding creation do have a far-reaching impact on how biblically sensitive Christians will want to frame their ecological ethics today.
 E.g. Joshua 2:11; 4:24; 1 Samuel 17:46; 2 Samuel 7:23,26; 1 Kings 8:41-43,60; 2 Kings 19:19; Nehemiah 9:10; Psalm 106:8; Isaiah 37:20; 45:6; 63:12; Jeremiah 32:20; 33:9; Ezekiel 36:23; Daniel 9:15.
 The Old Testament scriptures look forward to the time when the nations would not only be joined to Israel, but actually be identified as Israel, with the same names, privileges and responsibilities before God (Psalm 47:9; Isaiah 19:19 -25; 56:2-8; 66:19-21; Amos 9:11,12; Zechariah 2:10,11). For New Testament fulfilment see Acts 15:16-18; Ephesians 2:11-3:6.
 See also Psalm 96:7,8; Isaiah 2:2,3; 25; 56:6,7; Jeremiah 3:17; Micah 4:1,2; Zechariah 14:16).
 Italics mine.
Christ and Creation
As we have seen, it was God’s purpose from the beginning to come eventually in the person of his Son to complete all that he had initiated through the call of Abraham. Jesus, through his birth, life, death and resurrection, set in process the final act of the drama, which will be completed when he returns again. In order to understand who Jesus really is and his relationship to creation, there is no better place to look than in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae. This is not the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is spoken of as the Creator (e.g. John 1:1-14, 1 Cor 8:6, Heb 1:2,3,10) but as this is the most concise and comprehensive passage on the subject in the New Testament, I will quote it in full.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
Whatever it means for humans to be created in the image of God (and we have explored that above), Jesus, in his humanity, was the perfect example of that image. However, the above passage speaks of him as much more that that. Here he is presented as the source, the owner, the beneficiary, the sustainer and the redeemer of all creation. What is so remarkable about this passage is the repeated use of the word “all”. Jesus is the firstborn over all creation. He is the creator of all things (mentioned twice). All things have been created for his benefit. He is before all things. He sustains all things. He has supremacy over everything. All God’s fullness dwells in him. And he is the one who by his death reconciles all things to himself.
Richard Bauckham, in Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism, points out the significance of this:
Of the Jewish ways of characterising the divine uniqueness, the most unequivocal was by reference to creation. In the uniquely divine role of creating all things it was for Jewish monotheism unthinkable that any being other than God could even assist God (Isaiah 44:24; 4 Ezra 3:4 … ) But to Paul’s unparalleled inclusion of Jesus in the Shema’ [see 1 Corinthians 8:6; Deuteronomy 6:4] he adds the equally unparalleled inclusion of Jesus in the creative activity of God. No more unequivocal way of including Jesus in the unique divine identity is conceivable, within the framework of Second Temple Jewish monotheism.
As Irenaeus wrote in the third century, God crafted the world with the two hands of his Son and his Spirit.
Jesus shares authority over the universe with his Father. He is not only “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5), he is also “the ruler of God’s creation” (Revelation 3:14). Both these statements could, of course, only be made about God. Through the miracles of turning the water into wine, stilling the storm, feeding the five and four thousands, and healing broken bodies and minds, he demonstrated this authority.
Note that the universe is created for Christ’s benefit and enjoyment. Dave Bookless says: “In a real and profound sense, the whole creation is God’s love-gift to his Son, Jesus Christ. No wonder the universe is designed with such beauty and harmony. It is an expression of the love in the heart of God.”
As the one who sustains the universe, it is instructive to note creation’s reaction to his crucifixion. As he hung on the cross the skies were darkened and at the moment of his death there was an earthquake flinging open tombs and tearing the curtain in the temple from top to bottom. Another earthquake occurred at his resurrection as nature responded in celebration to the beginnings of a new creation in Jesus’ resurrection body.
Noteworthy, also, is the fact that it is all of creation that is to be reconciled through what Christ achieved by his death on the cross, and not just the world of humans.
James Dunn, in his concluding comment on this passage in Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, says:
The vision is vast. The claim is mind-blowing. It says much for the faith of these first Christians that they should see in Christ’s death and resurrection quite literally the key to resolving the disharmonies of nature and the inhumanities of humankind, that the character of God’s creation and God’s concern for the universe in its fullest expression could be so caught and encapsulated for them in the cross of Christ.
To quote Dunn again:
What is being claimed is quite simply and profoundly that the divine purpose in the act of reconciliation and peacemaking was to restore the harmony of the original creation, to bring into renewed oneness and wholeness “all things”, “whether things on the earth or things in the heavens”.
A similar emphasis is found in Ephesians 1:10 where we are told it is God’s purpose “to bring unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ.” In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul declares that God not only reconciled us to himself through Christ (v. 18) but he was also reconciling the world (Greek: kosmos) to himself (v. 19). He goes on to explain that this message of reconciliation has been entrusted to us to proclaim as his ambassadors. Perhaps we can see significance in the fact that when the side of Jesus was pierced by the Roman soldier, his blood was poured on the earth for its healing, as was the blood of all the Old Testament sacrifices.
Paul concludes the passage in Colossians 1 on Christ and creation with the puzzling statement, “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven … .” (v. 23). Perhaps Tom Wright’s comment is relevant:
What has happened in the death and resurrection of Christ, in other words, is by no means limited to its effects on those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter. It resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.
This hope for the renewal of nature, together with the redemption of God’s people, is anticipated in the vision of the prophets (See Isaiah 11:6-9; 35; 65:17-25; Ezekiel 47:1-12; Hosea 2:14-23).
A further significant point is made by N. T. Wright in Climax of the Covenant, “The parallelism between its two halves [Colossians 1:15-20] … invites the reader or listener to draw the conclusion that the creator is also the redeemer, and vice versa.”
There are two main reasons in the Christian tradition as to why Jesus became part of his own creation; to consecrate that creation, regardless of sin, and to restore creation, because of sin. It is important that we embrace both traditions. Paul Hansen says well: “No goal short of the resurrection of all of God’s creation to its intended wholeness will satisfy the yearning of the Servant of the Lord” (see Isaiah 40-66).
Colossians 1:15-20 focuses on the cross and does not mention the resurrection. However, the resurrection is the guarantee of the final restoration of all things. In itself it is the starting point of the final act of that restoration. It is significant that a literal translation of Isaiah 65:17 is “Behold, I am creating a new heavens and a new earth.” The process has begun.
I referred earlier to the problem of the obvious suffering that we see so much of in creation. How does this relate to the suffering of God himself as it is so starkly revealed in the cross, particularly in reference to the statement in Revelation 13:8 that Jesus was “slain from the creation of the world”? In Philippians 2:7 Jesus is said to have “made himself nothing”. The Greek word is kenosis, which could be translated “emptied himself”. It seems as if this self-emptying of God is not something that began at Calvary, but is inherent in the very nature of God himself and is inextricably linked with the whole of creation. Jurgen Moltmann suggests this in his book God in Creation:
God withdraws himself, steps back, limits himself in order to make creation possible. God’s creative activity outwards is preceded by this humble divine self-restriction. In this sense, God’s self-humiliation does not begin merely with creation, in as much as God commits himself to this world; it begins beforehand and is the presupposition that makes creation possible. God’s creative act is grounded in his humble, self-humiliating love. This self-restricting love is the beginning of that self-emptying of God, which Philippians 2 sees as the divine mystery of the precise purpose of the Messiah. Even in order to create heaven and earth God emptied himself of his all-plenishing omnipotence, and as Creator took upon himself the form of a servant.
Loren Wilkinson, speaking at the Creation Groaning Conference held at Regent College, Vancouver, cites Holmes Rolston, the Associate Editor of the highly respected Journal of Environmental Ethics. He describes Rolston as “having written eloquently on the pattern of what he calls kenosis in nature, the self-giving that is evident throughout, willingly or not, in creatures. It is not altruism, yet there is a sense in which creatures live in and though others. It is particularly evident in the salmon run where the salmon struggle upstream for the sole purpose of giving their life for their offspring.” Rolston says:
Nature is cruciform. Life is advanced through suffering and pathos. The cruciform creation is in the end deiform, godly, because of this element of struggle, not in spite of it. There is a great divine “Yes” hidden behind and within every “No” of crushing nature. God rescues from suffering, but the Judeo-Christian faith never avoids suffering in the achievement of his divine purpose. To the contrary, seen in the paradigm of the cross, God too suffers, not less than the creatures, on order to gain for the creatures a more abundant life.
Again he says:
Everywhere there is vicarious suffering. The global earth is a land of promise, and yet has to be died for. The story is a passion play, long before it reaches Christ. Since the beginning, myriad creatures have been giving up their lives as a ransom for many. In that sense, Jesus is not an exception to the natural order, but a chief exemplification of it.
C. S. Lewis says something similar in Miracles. Speaking of the widespread recognition throughout the world that somehow death and life are intimately connected, Lewis says of that pattern that, “it is derived through human imagination, from the facts of nature, and the facts of nature from her Creator. The death and rebirth pattern is in her, because it was first in him, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
I don’t profess to understand all this, yet I am sure there is a profound truth here. There is a real sense in which God suffers with his creation, and this is language we tend to avoid in the church. As Wilkinson says, “Self-giving suffering love is central to who God is. … The Creator pours himself out for his creation from the beginning in a self-giving which culminates in the Cross.”
The reason Paul speaks of Christ’s self-emptying in Philippians 2, is to underline that we should have a similar attitude. “In your relationship with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had”( Philippians 2:5). Applying this to our attitude to creation, Rolston says:
We can envisage the possibility of kenosis, self-emptying, in a still richer sense, where self-interested humans impose limits on human welfare on behalf of other species. Human are distinguish by their ability to see others, to oversee a world. Environmental ethics advances beyond the usual Christian ethics in that it considers others before humans. We can put this provocatively by saying that Christian kenosis is called to rise to sufficient moral vision to count real others, non-humans, trees, species, ecosystems. The secular world looks for the management of nature, for reducing all nature to human resources, and plans a technology and industry to accomplish that in the next century and millennium, but, in that aspiration, humans only escalate their inherited desires for self-actualisation, tempted now into self-aggrandisement on scales never before possible. The Christian opportunity today is to limit such human aggrandisement on behalf of the five million other species that also reside on earth.
It is significant that the physical territory of Palestine is nowhere referred to with any theological significance in the New Testament. Instead, all the vocabulary of blessing, holiness, promise, gift, inheritance and so on, which is associated with the land in the Old Testament is applied to Christ himself. One may well get the impression from this that land is of no more importance. However, this is far from the case. Christopher Wright explains this as follows:
This is partly because the Christian churches rapidly spread beyond its borders to other lands throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. But much more importantly it is because the holiness of the land, and indeed all its other attributes in the Old Testament thinking, was transferred to Christ himself. The spiritual presence of the living Christ sanctifies any place where believers are present. This transference of the holiness of the land to Christ is well presented by W. D. Davies, who points out how Christianity reacted to all the concrete details of Judaism, including the land, ‘in terms of Christ, to whom all places and all space, like all things else, are subordinated. In sum, for the holiness of place, Christianity has fundamentally … substituted the holiness of the Person: it has Christified holy space.’The promise of Jesus to be present wherever his people meet, effectively universalises the Old Testament promise of God’s presence among his people in the land, for now the people of Jesus are everywhere.
William Cowper expressed this beautifully in a hymn he wrote for his congregation when they had to moved to a new building for worship:
Jesus where’er thy people meet
There they behold thy mercy seat
Where’er they seek thee, thou art found
And every place is hallow’d ground.
Another point worth noting is Jesus’ constant reference to himself as the Son of Man. This is normally believed to be an allusion to the “son of man” mentioned by the Prophet Daniel (Daniel 7:13). This is no doubt true enough. However, “Son of Man” is literally “Son of Adam”, the one who was created from the dust of the earth. Jesus is talking about himself as “the son of the one hewn from the earth” as James Jones puts it in Jesus and the Earth. Perhaps we could call him “son of the soil”. Adam’s disobedience had its adverse effect on human relationship with nature. Jesus, as the perfect image of the invisible God, is our perfect model for caring for nature.
 W.D.Davies, Gospel and the Land.
The Church and creation
It is very significant that God puts the responsibility for taking the lead in bringing healing to the land squarely on his own people, which in New Testament terms are those who have put their trust in his Son, Jesus Christ, and claim to be his followers. And the first step we are required to take is that of repentance. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).” Having acknowledged our failures to care for the planet he has entrusted to us, the evidence of our true repentance will be demonstrated in what we choose to do about it. There are three areas of its life that I believe the church needs to give attention to in regards to creation; its worship, its teaching and its outreach to the community.
As the central act of worship in the church is the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, the only religious ceremony specifically commanded by our Lord apart from baptism, it is important that we explore its connection with environmental issues. The main focus of the Lord’s Supper is on the cross and its benefits. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for he forgiveness of sins”(Matthew 26:28). As we have seen, it is by means of the cross that not only humans are reconciled to God, but also the whole of creation is to be renewed in perfect relationship with its creator. This being the case, it should be fully recognised in both our Eucharistic liturgies and the manner in which we celebrate it.
In ancient Israel, practically all their religious festivals included recognition of God’s provision of their needs through his gifts of the fruits of the earth. This understanding was evident in their offerings and liturgies, but most significantly through their feasting and festivities and the emphasis on sharing their good things with the poor and the stranger. This emphasis on the sacred value of communal meals is taken over into the New Testament. Some of Jesus’ most significant teaching moments occurred in the contexts of meals (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; 14:1-23; John 2:1-12; 6:1-15; 25-59). It was on these occasions particularly that he demonstrated his love for the sinner and outcast, illustrating the chief purpose of his mission. His favourite metaphor for the kingdom of God was that of a banquet, particularly a wedding banquet, which is the most joyful of all human celebrations (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13; Luke 14:15-23). Eating together is no doubt one of the most effective ways of building community.
Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples, the night before he was crucified, occurred over a meal, probably a Jewish Passover meal. John devotes five chapters to describing all that he taught them on this occasion (John 13-17). It was in the context of this meal that he took two of the most common symbols of the good fruits of the earth, “wine that gladdens humans hearts … and bread that sustains their hearts” (Psalm 104:15), to speak of his coming death and its purpose, for our forgiveness (Matthew 26:28).
We only have one description in the New Testament of a celebration by Christians of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Paul refers to it because of the misuse the Corinthians were making of it, but it gives us clues as to the nature of early Christian gatherings. It took place in the context of an ordinary meal to which all local believers, of all ranks of society, were welcome and the food was shared. At some point of the meal thanksgiving would be made for the death and resurrection of the Saviour through the breaking of break and the sharing of wine. No doubt there would be a time set aside for teaching, maybe during the meal, with discussion invited. I am sure that celebration of the creation and the good fruits of the earth, as so evident in the Psalms of Israel, would have also been included.
Today, we have so formalised the Lord’s Supper that the communal aspect, which is so prominent in the teaching of Paul, is downplayed, and the emphasis on the good gifts of creation barely get a mention. It would be great to see a return to this feasting aspect of the celebration of this central act of our worship, in recognition of the significance of creation and in anticipation of the “wedding supper of the Lamb”, when we “take [our] places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Revelation 19:9; Matthew 8:11). The medieval practice of the presentation of the ‘holy loaf’, whereby a different family from the congregation makes the bread by hand each week from flour that has been sustainably grown, and brings it to church to become the loaf that is broken and shared around, is a step in the right direction. It is still practised in some parts of Europe, but in my opinion does not go nearly far enough. Even having a ‘potluck’ meal after the worship is over does not recover the emphasis of the early church, when the service of the Word was organised around the meal, rather than tacking the meal on when the liturgy is over. If we can recover the sacredness of eating together as God’s people, whether in our church gatherings or our homes, maybe we will begin to give more consideration to the manner in which the food is grown, marketed and presented. Joachim Jeremias, in New Testament Theology, has this to say about table fellowship in an eastern setting:
It is important to realise that in the east, even today, to invite a man to a meal is an honour. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life … In Judaism in particular, table-fellowship means fellowship before God.
It is my conviction that the “body of Christ” which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 11:29, and which the Corinthians were failing to recognise by their treatment of the poor, was not the material or mystical body of Christ represented by the broken bread, but the body of the Christian fellowship which Paul describes in such detail in the following chapter. This was the belief of those Christian farmers who left severe persecution in Europe and established the Anabaptist community in North America. For them it was not the priest or the altar, nor their mystical association with Christ, which made the elements of bread and wine holy, but rather the gathering of the whole people of God and the holiness of lives. It is the quality of our fellowship that makes the eating and drinking worthy or otherwise (1 Corinthians 11:27).
As Michael Northcott suggests, the Anabaptist recognition of the foundational significance of Christian eating is surely not unconnected with their resistance to modern agricultural practices. Their lack of debt to banks and government for high inputs of machinery and chemicals, and their contentment with growing sufficient for their communities, have made them not only the best conservers of soil in North America, but also its most successful farmers, if success is measured by quality of life as well as quantity of production. Michael Northcott adds:
In such ways it turns out once again that acts of resistance to the global economy and its destruction of a stable climate through global warming are not a costly burden, but instead involve the joyful recovery of forms of life that industrialism has sacrificed on the altar of surplus value.
Contemporary liturgists, such as Episcopalian priest Scott McCarthy, have created Eucharistic and seasonal prayers and rites, ceremonies of light and darkness, rituals in the open air and forms of thanksgiving for water, minerals, animals and food designed to remake connections to place and land, time and seasons which the church has lost, especially since the Industrial Revolution. We must learn to make creative use of such resources in our worship. It is significant, as noted earlier, that in the worship around the throne of God in Revelation 4 and 5, praise for creation comes before praise for redemption.
On an individual level, it is good to take such opportunities as we have to both enjoy and meditate on the wonders of creation. John Calvin once wrote:
There is no doubt that the Lord would have us uninterruptedly occupied in holy meditation; that while we contemplate in all creatures, as in mirrors, his wisdom, justice, goodness, and power, we should not merely run over them cursorily and, so to speak with a fleeting glance; but we should ponder them at length, turn them over in our minds seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly. For there are as many miracles of divine power … as there are kinds of things in the universe.
As the hymn puts it:
Joy to the world! The lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
That’s good theology and good worship.
How often does one hear a sermon, or even a series of sermons, on the importance of creation and our responsibility to value and care for it? It is my hope that this book may be a useful resource for such teaching, whether in sermons or study groups. There are some relevant subjects that may be beyond the expertise of a local congregation but where we can invite qualified Christians to give input to our regular gatherings. According to theologian Jurgen Moltmann, the neglect of economics is “a wound in the side of the Church.”
The church is becoming increasingly aware that demonstrating care for God’s planet is as significant in this modern world as caring for the people in it. In fact, the two are often inextricably connected. Demonstrating God’s love for his creation by our actions can provide links with others who have similar concerns, though perhaps with different motives, and can have a powerful evangelistic result. Christopher Wright has this to say:
The gospel is indeed good news for the whole of creation. It is not surprising then that those who take seriously, as Christians, our responsibility to embody God’s love for creation find that their obedience in that sphere often leads to opportunities to articulate God’s love for suffering and lost people also. The story of A Rocha has shown that while the movement’s goals and actions in creation care have their own intrinsic validity, God honours such obedience by blessing and building his church as well in the context of such activity.
Truly Christian environmental action is in fact also evangelistically fruitful, not because it is any kind of cover for “real mission” but simply because it declares in word and deed the Creator’s limitless love for the whole of his creation (which of course includes his love for his human creatures) and makes no secret of the biblical story of the cost that the Creator paid to redeem both.
Dave Bookless says of his experience in A Rocha:
We are not using environmental work as an excuse to smuggle in the ‘real’ spiritual gospel. Instead, we are living out and sharing all that God has called us to: our part in God’s mission to the world. This is what seems to attract those who are searching for spiritual reality, which makes sense in a world of damaged people and degraded ecosystems.
Though we must be prepared to work with any group that are doing good environmental work, regardless of individuals personal beliefs, there is a real place for specifically Christian organisations in order to demonstrate on a wider scale what Christians are about and why.
The evangelist Dr Rob Frost has said, “When Christians take the earth seriously, people take the gospel seriously.”
Romans 8:19 states: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” No doubt this has a primary reference to the future renewal of creation. Maybe creation is also waiting for us to be revealed as its primary caretakers in the present.
There are so many things that can and need to be done to restore some of the natural environments and ecosystems of this planet and, at the very least, to prevent things from getting worse. We all have different gifts and different opportunities and it is up to each to decide what we can do individually and collectively. The task may seem enormous, but we can do something. As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time!”
Numerous websites offer suggestion and tell us what is already being done. On a personal level, I like the six Rs:
Reduceour consumption of non-essentials to healthy living.
Reusewhere possible to reduce waste.
Recycle. This is what God does.
Resistthe temptations that abound in our materialistic society.
Restorewhat has been lost where that is possible.
Rejoicein the goodness of God in all that he has made and all he provides.
Poet Gary Snyder, when asked what to do to stem the tide of ecological degradation and work to improve the state of our home planet, said, “Settle down, get to know your place, and dig in.”
However, we can achieve much more if we can work together on specific projects with likeminded people. Many churches, which can be located on websites, are developing programmes to make their own churches environmentally friendly, and also tackling specific programmes in their communities. I recently read of a Tanzanian pastor who encouraged all the churches in his region to establish tree nurseries. They required those going through confirmation classes to plant trees in order to graduate. As a result, over 500,000 trees have been planted, and an important water source that had become intermittent now flows steadily.
We can support our own churches in such activities, but also, where it fits our gifts and interests, join an informal group working on some environmental project or an organisation such as A Rocha. There is a very significant movement in Christian Colleges across the United States as staff and students become more aware of he fact that care of creation is a justice issue and necessary for helping people. Those involved in business communities can exert their influence there.
And we will achieve much more if we recognise this is God’s work and we depend on him. Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ resurrection, thought he was the gardener. Actually, she got it right. He is the Head Gardener and calls us to work with him. He has come to uproot the thorns and thistles and plant myrtle and cypress instead, as Isaiah foretold.
And Wendell Berry reminds us in Sabbaths that the responsibility for the final outcome of our work is not ours alone:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf of grain is filled
By work of ours, the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, A Sabbath mood
Rests on our day and finds it good.
Joseph Santmire concludes his book Nature Reborn with these words:
Life as a Christian has never been easy. Nor should it be any easier today. But, shaped by its ecological and cosmic ritual enactments, and buoyed by its now ecological and cosmic spirituality, this martyr church can rise to this historic occasion today, by the grace of God, to respond to what is perhaps an unprecedented calling, to love God and all God’s creatures, as one great and glorious extended family, and in so doing to be a light to the nations and a city set upon a hill, whose exemplary witness cannot be hidden.
Eugene Peterson’s appealing translation of Philippians 2:15 in The Message suggests we can make a difference, “Go into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.
Renewal of creation
There are a number of passages in the Bible which make it clear that the statement of Peter that God would “restore everything, as he promised long ago through the holy prophets” (Acts 3:21) includes not only the restoration of humans but of the whole creation. This has been insisted on by many prominent theologians down the ages, from Irenaeus and Augustine through Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. We have seen that the cross is effective for the reconciliation of “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). Ronald Sider, in a comment on this passage in an article in Christianity Today, says, “That does not mean that everyone will be saved; rather it means that Christ’s salvation will finally extend to all of creation.” Four times the Bible speaks of “a new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). Note that Peter adds it will be an earth and heaven “where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). All taint of sin and evil will be removed. Goodness and love will reign supreme.
As Peter stated, there are glimpses of this in the prophets of the Old Testament. Hosea foretold that in messianic times God’s covenant with his people would include “the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; cf. Isaiah 41:18-20; 55:12,13; Amos 9:13; Micah 4:3,4). Both Hosea and the Psalmist use the analogy of marriage, using the technical language of nuptial consent and acceptance, namely, ‘respond’ and ‘answer’, to illustrate the depth of the relationships that will exist between God, his people and creation (Hosea 2:21-23; Psalm 85:10-13). Isaiah’s magnificent vision of the return and restoration of his people in chapter 35 includes the restoration of nature. I suspect that his statement that “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them … (Isaiah 11:6-9) will be more literally fulfilled than we could imagine.
If our vision of the future is a rather vague disembodied state that has no place for trees, flowers, mountains, lakes, and fascinating animals and insects, then it is likely that we will not attach much value to them in the present. Anthony Hoekema, inThe Bible and the Future, even went so far as to say that to envisage the new kingdom as anything other than a renewed creation would be to concede a great victory to the devil. “If God would have to annihilate the present cosmos … then Satan would have succeeded in so devastatingly corrupted the present cosmos and the present earth that God could do nothing with it but blot it totally out of existence.”
It is significant that it is in the wilderness where Isaiah predicts the Messiah will begin his ministry. “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for the Lord’ ” (Isaiah 40:3). This verse is quoted by all four gospels. In the imagery of Isaiah the wilderness was not a place of delightful flowers but of thorns and briers, a place where scorpions sting and vultures feed on carcasses of the dead. It was not a place where birds sing, trees clap their hands and rivers leap to praise God. It is here that Jesus begins his work of re-creation. Maybe there is significance in the fact that, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus “was in the wilderness … with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13). Interestingly, there is an ancient Jewish document from about that time called ‘The Life of Adam and Eve’. In chapter 19, verses 13 and 14, it talks about Adam taking the role of a penitent and standing in the river Jordan for forty days surrounded by the beast. The animals come to him as he prays for the restoration of creation.
Loren Wilkinson says:
[Christians} are rediscovering the truth that redemption is not human salvation out of a doomed creation, but rather therestoration of all God’s purposes in creation. Theological support for this view comes from theologians as diverse as Irenaeus in the second century and John Calvin in the sixteenth … In ways we hardly understand, it will be the human privilege to complete creation and be its voice of praise to the Creator.
The Bible is clear that we go to “be with Christ” at death where we enjoy his presence in a state that is “better by far” (Philippians 1:23) than the trials of this life, but this is only half the story.One day he is returning in glory as the New Testament repeatedly states. Then there will come our resurrection to new bodies that are imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Then also will come the restoration of all creation (Acts 3:21). So we must stop talking as if “going to heaven” is the ultimate goal of the Christian. John’s magnificent vision of the future in Revelation 21 and 22 takes place on earth, not in heaven. “I saw the Holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 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’ ” (Revelation 21:2,3). Note that God comes to dwell with us, not we with him. (It is the same Greek word that John uses of Jesus dwelling among us in John 1:14). It is not as in the story of the tower of Babel when people sought to reach for God. It is the earth that “will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Christopher Wright sums up the Biblical emphasis as follows:
The consistent biblical hope, from Genesis to Revelation is that God should do something with the earth so that we can once again dwell upon it in ‘rest’, in Sabbath peace with him. The Bible speaks predominantly of the need for God to come here, not of the wish for us to go somewhere else. This earth is to be the place of God’s judgement, and also the place of God’s saving power. So the flood story and its sequel becomes the sign not only of God’s commitment to life on earth while it lasts (in the covenant tied up with its rainbow ribbon) but also of the coming final judgment and renewal—the new creation.
As Larry Rasmussen said in a lecture given at St. Olaf College, the reason the prophets ultimately predict our beating swords into ploughshares is not only to end bloody warfare on the earth, but also to enable us to return to our true calling: earthkeeping, tending the garden of God’s creation!
All this was guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus when his material body was transformed, issuing in the beginning of the new age. Tom Wright expresses this emphasis eloquently and forcefully in his timely book Surprised by Hope. In an interview inChristianity Today he says:
The Western Church has been fixated on going to heaven and has lost its grip on the resurrection and on the embodiedness of the future life. When I worked at Westminster Abbey I noticed that tombstones before about 1780 or so would often say things about the resurrection: ‘I’m resting here at the moment but I’ll be back, I shall arise.’ Through the 19th Century and on into the 20th century you don’t get that. Instead you get: ‘Gone home to be with Jesus’ or ‘Heaven is home’. It’s important to give comfort to people so they know that the loved one who died is with Jesus, but the whole of the New Testament insists that’s not the end of the story. There will be a new day, a new world, a new creation and new bodies to live in it. When you say this, people sort of scratch their heads and say, “Yeah, I guess I sort of believe that but I really thought it was just about going to heaven.” It’s really time to get a grip because it affects everything else: how we do ethics, how we do politics, it plays out in a whole range of things.
It is time we rethought the message of hymns such as the following:
This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
When Jacob has his vision of a ladder connecting earth and heaven and the Lord promised to give him the land on which he had slept, he had the sense to declare, “thisis none other than the house of God; thisis the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17).
A little over a hundred years ago, an American pastor in upstate New York celebrated in a great hymn both the beauty of creation and the presence of the creator God within it. His name was Maltbie Babcock, and his hymn ‘This is my Father’s World’ points beyond the present beauty of creation, through the mess and tragedy with which it has been infected, to the ultimate resolution. There are different versions of the relevant stanza, but this one is the clearest:
This is my Father’s world; O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world; The battle is not done;
Jesus who died, shall be satisfied,
And earth and heaven be one.
The most striking and comprehensive statement of all concerning the restoration of creation is that of Paul in Romans 8:16-26, which is worth quoting in full. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. …
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
I don’t profess to understand all that Paul is saying here, but some things are worth noting. I am much indebted to a talk by biblical scholar Gordon Fee, given at the Creation Groaning Conference at Regent College, Vancouver, for the basic outline of what follows.
The most remarkable thing about this passage is the way Paul links the present situation and future destiny of humans with that of the whole creation. He does this in a number of ways. Both humans and creation are waiting for our final glory. We “wait eagerly” for it (v. 23), while the creation also “waits in eager expectation” (v. 19). The Greek word Paul uses here is a rare one in the Bible (apokaradokia), but it is an expressive one because it literally refers to a “craning of the neck.” It is as if creation is standing on tiptoe, stretching it neck to catch a glimpse of its final restoration. Both are in bondage to decay (vv. 21). It is because of this that we wait for the transformation of our present bodies (23). Both are said to “groan” (vv. because of our present condition (vv. 22,23), as does the Spirit (v. 26). The creation groans “as in the pains of childbirth” (v. 22)—a well-known Jewish metaphor for the emergence of God’s new age—and we also “groan inwardly” (v. 23). Both have “hope” of future glory (vv. 20,24).” The form that this glory will take for both humans and nature is described as that of liberation “into glorious freedom”(v. 21). This liberation will no doubt mean different things for different parts of the planet, whether it be liberation from grinding poverty, destructive lifestyles or other things that impact the environment. Scott Hoezee comments, “Hope has been spread onto the soil of this earth like a good fertilizer. Its runoff seeps into every lake and river and ocean and is sucked up into every tree and cornstalk, and billows through the clouds in the sky.”
Another significant point is the number of times Paul uses words that begin with the Greek suffix sun, meaning ‘with’. This is not always obvious in English translations. In verse 16 the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children. In verse 17 we are co-heirs with Christ, we suffer with Christ, and we will be glorified with Christ. In verse 22 the creation groans with us and suffers in childbirth with us (implied—the creation does not groan with itself). In verse 26 the Spirit comes alongside with us to help us in our praying. The relationships that have existed between the Father, Son and Spirit from all eternity will be extended to include all of God’s children together with the whole of creation.
A further significant emphasis is the role played by the Spirit. This chapter is one of the significant passages in Scripture concerning the ministry of the Spirit. He is mentioned 19 times. In these verses (16-26) he is the one who confirms our relationship with God as his children, and therefore co-heirs with Christ of his kingdom, which includes the whole of creation. As the firstfruits, he confirms our final adoption when our bodies will be redeemed (v. 23) and will be the one who raises us from the dead as he raise Jesus from the dead (Romans 1:4). In the present he “helps us in our weakness” (v. 26).
The question arises as to whom Paul is referring when he speaks of the one who subjected creation to frustration. Was it Adam through his disobedience, or God? I tend to go with statement of The Expositors Greek Testament: “[It] seems best referred to God: it was on account of Him—that His righteousness might be shown in the punishment of sin—that the sentence fell upon man, carrying consequences which extended to the whole realm, intended originally for his dominion.” Paul seems to have Genesis 3 in mind as he links human suffering and need for redemption with the frustrations of creation. We know that human sin is responsible for much that seems awry in creation, but not all. Paul does not make distinctions here and we do well to admit the limitations of our knowledge. However, Paul does appear to put the ultimate responsibility on God. But note that the creation is subject to frustration “in hope” (v. 20).
Before leaving Romans 8, it is worth comparing this passage with 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. The Corinthians had a Greek attitude to the human body, bordering on Gnosticism. Their slogan was “food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” (v. 13). What you did with the body was unimportant, as it will be destroyed anyway. The body didn’t count. That gave freedom to go to the prostitute. Paul contradicts this with two arguments. First, the body belongs to the Lord, united with him in spirit, and therefore destined for resurrection, not destruction. It had been purchase by him at great price. Second, it has become the sacred temple of the Holy Spirit. We are not free to do as we wish with our bodies but duty bound to honour God with them. In chapter 9, verses 24-27, he adds the importance of discipline, treating our bodies as servant, not master.
In Romans 8:23 Paul speaks about “the redemption of our bodies”. This comes at the culmination of Paul’s discussion in the first eight chapters of Romans concerning our redemption. It is very likely that we see here the reason he includes his comments about creation at this point. As our material bodies are included in our redemption, so is the material environment in which we live. And if we are to treat our bodies with reverence now because they belong to the Lord and will one day share his glory, surely we must care for creation now for exactly the same reasons. I believe this to be the most powerful argument for caring for creation in the present that we have in the New Testament.
One passage of Scripture that deserves some comment, as it has led to much misunderstanding among Christians, is 2 Peter 3:10-13: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of persons ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt with heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
Many Christians have taken the attitude that since this present world is to be destroyed, what is the point of taking care of it? Quite apart from all the reasons for caring for this planet that we have so far discussed, this attitude depends on a questionable interpretation of the passage. Instead of “will be laid bare” in verse 10, the KJV and NASB translations have “will be burned up”. This is a translation of the Greek word katesetai. However, the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts do not havekatesetai buteurethesetai (reflected in both the United Bible Society and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testaments), which has the meaning of finding or discovering. Our word ‘eureka’ comes from it. It is translated“will be laid bare” in the TNIV (above), the NIV and the NEB. The NRSV has “will be disclosed”. Richard Bauckham’s interpretation, that the earth and everything in it will be “found out”, that is, exposed and laid bare before God’s judgement so that the wicked and all their works will no longer be able to hide or find any protection, seems to be what this passage is all about. The earth will not be totally destroyed, but purified, resulting in a “new” earth. God will not make “all new things”, but “all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
An apt illustration is that of a forest fire, after which new green shoots spring up from the scorched earth. C. S. Lewis painted a great picture of this in the conclusion of The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan takes the children into a new world. Following a great conflagration of fire and wind they see a world strangely familiar and yet one in which every blade of grass and every leaf on every tree seems to mean more. Everything is deeper. They discover that the farther they penetrate into the New Narnia, the deeper it becomes. The deeper they go, the more the world opens itself up to them.
This interpretation fits well with other passages that speak of judgement by fire. Malachi speaks of the Lord coming as “a refiner’s fire” who refines his people like “gold and silver” is refined (Malachi 3:2,3). Paul says that on the Day of Judgement our works “will be revealed with fire”. If much of what we have done has been found to be worthless, then we will suffer loss, but we ourselves will be saved—“even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). Earlier in 2 Peter 3, Peter had spoken on the flood of Noah’s day when the earth was “destroyed” (v.6) and used this as a historical precedent of the final judgement. In that day it was the evil that was destroyed while the earth itself was preserved. The Greek word that is translated “elements” (stoikeia), that Peter says will melt with heat, can refer to the basic elements of which this universe is composed, but it was also used in first century Asia Minor to refer to malignant forces that separate humans from God (cf. Galatians 4:3,9 where the same word is used).
Paul speaks of the Christian as already a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). As a consequence of our link with the risen Christ through the Spirit, “The old has gone, the new is here!” But this does not mean that I have been replaced with a different ‘me’, but that I am the same person under reconstruction. My responsibility is to live accordingly. Similarly with the new earth. It is the same earth purified. Reconstruction began with the resurrection. However, 2 Peter 3:10-13 does indicate that it will not be merely a rearranging of the furniture, but a complete rebuilding of the whole house.
Another support for this interpretation comes from the use of the Greek word for ‘new’. There are two words for ‘new’ in the Greek language. There is neos, which means new in a quantitative sense. If I get a new car, then it has no connection with my old one. Then there is kairos, which is new in a qualitative sense. If I take my old car to the factory to get it rebuilt from the bottom up, then it is the same car, with the same characteristics, but as good as new. When the New Testament speaks of a new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) it is kairos that is used. The newness will be in the sense that Jesus’ body was new when he rose from the death. It was the same material body and yet transformed with new characteristics. The new earth will be the perfect environment for our own resurrected bodies. “Everything” will be new in this sense (Revelation 21:5).
Another relevant passage with this emphasis is Philippians 3:20,21. “Our citizenship is in heaven” because that is where the divine throne is, but “we eagerly await a Saviour from there”. When he comes from there he “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body”. Note that our bodies are not discarded, replaced or simply improved, but transformed, as his was. Note also that the passage declares that this will be achieved “by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control”. That “everything” will include our natural environment, which will be transformed in a similar manner. As Tom Wright says:
It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. It is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1:10, that God’s design and promise was to sum up all in things in Christ, things both in heaven and on earth. It is the final fulfilment, in rightly symbolic imagery, of the promise of Genesis 1, that the creation of male and female would together reflect God’s image into the world. And it is the final accomplishment of God’s great design, to defeat and abolish death forever—which can only mean the rescue of creation from its present plight of decay.
Heaven and earth are made for each other in the same manner as male and female, and their coming together is pictured as a wedding feast (Revelation 19:9; 21:2). And as Wright comments again:
When they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love not hate has the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.
It is significant that most of the basic words describing salvation in the New Testament imply a return to an original condition. Redemption implies a return to a state of freedom. Reconciliation implies a return to a state of friendship. Renewal means to make new again. Salvation generally means a return to a state of health or security after sickness or danger. Regeneration points to life after death. All these terms suggest a restoration of some good thing that was spoiled. It will be with creation, as with humans. When Peter spoke in the temple courts of the time “for God to restore everything” (Acts 3:21), he takes the central core of the jubilee hope (restoration) and applies it, not just to the restoration of land to farmers, but to the restoration of the whole of creation through the coming of the Messiah.
This has been a major emphasis of the Church down the ages. Dave Bookless says: “From the earliest times, right up until the nineteenth century, the majority of Christians believed that God’s plans for the earth were more about continuity than discontinuity, more about a hopeful future than destruction.” After surveying four major eschatological schemes—postmillennialism, dispensationalism, historic premillennialism, and amillennialism—Tom Finger, in “Evangelicals, Eschatology, and the Environment,” Scholars Circle monograph, concludes:
All evangelical eschatologies anticipate significant degrees of continuity between our present earth and the future world. To be sure, this contrasts greatly with what seems to be believed in some evangelical churches: that our ultimate destiny is an immaterial spaceless heaven, and that our present earth will be wholly destroyed. Wherever these views may come from, they have no sound foundation in either evangelical theology or Scripture.
We are now living in that age when it can be said that that God’s kingdom has already come to this earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. Though he is reigning as Lord, he has not yet “put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). However, the day is coming when it will be proclaimed in heaven that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever”(Revelation 11:15). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, together with Acts, make it clear that the process has already begun.
Leslie Newbigin summarises the missionary significance of the already-not-yet time of the kingdom in compelling words:
The meaning of the ‘overlap of the ages’ in which we live, the time between the coming of Christ and His coming again, is that it is the time given for the witness of the apostolic Church to the ends of the earth. The implication of a true eschatological perspective will be missionary obedience, and the eschatology which does not issue in such obedience is a false eschatology.
In other words, our teaching about the future (eschatology) should affect the way we live now. We should seek to live as if we were already there. Our Lord taught us to pray that his will be done on earth now “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The fact that his will one day will be done on earth, should encourage us to greater effort, rather than leading to complacency. Fulfilling our ministry as carers of God’s creation is an essential part of our witness to an unbelieving world. As Sherwood E. Wirt put it, “Man is bound in stewardship to take care of this earth until he gets a better one.” And Christopher Wright makes a significant comment when he says, “It is certainly not the case that Christians involved in creation care have no corresponding care for human needs. On the contrary, if often seems to my observation that Christian tenderness toward the nonhuman creation amplifies itself in concern for human needs.’
Tom Wright in Simply Christian, says:
Look to the coming time when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea; and then live in the present in the light of that promise, sure that it will come fully true because it was already fulfilled when God did for Jesus at Easter what he is going to do for the whole of creation. Gradually we are glimpsing a truth which cannot be overemphasised: that the tasks which await us as Christians, the paths we must walk and the lessons we must learn, are part of the great vocation which reaches us in God’s word, the word of the gospel, the word of Jesus and the Spirit. We are call to bepart of God’s new creation, called to be agents of that new creation here and now. We are called to model and display that new creation in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting.
And I am sure Wright could add, “in caring for God’s creation”.
A tale of two cities
For what follows I am much indebted to an article by Barbara Rossing: ‘New Jerusalem: An Ecological Vision for Earth’s Future’ in Mission Studies, vol. XVI-1,31.
The Bible could well be described as a tale of two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem. The story of Babylon begins in Genesis 11 with the account of the building of the tower of Babel. Humans, failing to recognise their need of divine assistance, protection and approval, and obsessed with their own ability, seek to build a monument to their own resources. Later, Babylon was the enemy of Israel, responsible for the devastation and exile of the nation and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. They were renowned for their arrogance (Isaiah 37:23-25), false worship (Isaiah 47:7-15), disregard for human life and destruction of the environment. This is graphically pictured in the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Habakkuk. “The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. For you have shed human blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them” (Habakkuk 2:17).
In contrast, Jerusalem was chosen by God as the place where his worship would be centred and where the temple would symbolise his presence with his people. Though his people often proved disloyal
to their calling, Jerusalem remained, at lest for the faithful, the focus of their devotion and the reminder of all the benefits they had received from the Lord. This emphasis is especially prominent in the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 48, 84, 137).
It is significant that John, in Revelation, chooses Babylon and Jerusalem to represent two opposing worldviews, one in which the God who created the universe has no place, and the other, in which he is the central figure and whose reign is supreme. In chapter 17 of Revelation John is taken into a wilderness where he is shown Babylon, pictured as a prostitute sitting on a beast with blasphemous names. “With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” (v. 2). “The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries” (v. 4). The picture of Babylon as an immoral woman probably has more to do with politics and idolatry than gender. In the prophets of the Old Testament, unfaithfulness to God is often pictured as immorality (e.g. Hosea). Babylon was renowned for its idolatry. Hence, her relationship with the blasphemous beast. Her love of luxury, always at the expense of the poor, is graphically pictured in the following chapter, which describes her final destruction (18:3, 11-13). Also mentioned is her disregard for human life, particularly that of the people of God. “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s people, the blood of those who bore the testimony to Jesus” (17:6—see also 18:13,24). Those who adopt the worldview and values of Babylon are likely to find the existence of the people of God the greatest threat to their lifestyle, quite apart from those who are a hindrance to their gaining of wealth.
For our purposes it is important to note that the setting of Babylon is in the wilderness (17:3). The Greek word is eremos, wasteland. The connotation of the term in this context is of a landscape that has been ruined or devastated. This desolate setting anticipates the “laying waste” (eremoo) of Babylon itself in 17:16; 18:17,19. This verb is widely used by classical and biblical authors to describe the razing and depopulation of conquered landscapes and cities. Josephus uses it in his description of the Jewish War of B.C.66-73 to lament the horror of the destruction of the landscape of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside by the Roman armies.
The beast associated with the woman had seven heads, which are described as “seven hills on which the woman sits” (17:9). This is no doubt an illusion to Rome, the Babylon of the first century. In the unjust economy of Rome “all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth!” (18:19). Among the items listed in the cargo, which enriched its merchants, are “every sort of citrus wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble … and human beings sold as slaves” (18:11-13). Rome’s deforestation of conquered lands was notorious. Could it be that John, like Aristides, had watched so many ships unload goods from the forests of conquered nations that he would agree with Aristides’ diagnosis:
So many merchants’ ships arrive here, conveying every kind of goods from every people every hour and every day, so that the city is like a factory common to the whole earth. It is possible to see so many cargoes from India and even from Arabia Felix, if you wish, that one imagines that for the future the trees are left bare [gymna] for the people there and that they must come here to beg for their own produce.
Another word that is used in the destruction of Babylon that has ecological connotations is gymnen, usually translated “naked”. “They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked” (17:16). It can be used of a landscape that has been denuded of its vegetation. Both Josephus and Aristides use it to describe Rome’s stripping of forests. It is interesting to compare this with the prophet Nahum’s condemnation of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, whose behaviour in this regard was no better than Babylon or Rome: “You have increased the number of your merchants till they are more than the stars of the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away” ((Nahum 3:16).
In contrast, Revelation 21 and 22 present us with a New Jerusalem where both humans and the environment flourish. Whereas Babylon is a city of ecological imperialism, violence, unfettered commerce and injustice, the New Jerusalem is a city where all the essentials for a satisfying life are given “without cost” (21:6). John’s statement that “there was no longer any sea” (21:1) may well have reference to the lack of shipping economy, on which Rome depended for her luxury goods, as much as to mythological associations as a location for evil (e.g. Isaiah 27:1; Revelation 13:1). The picture of this Jerusalem is profoundly ecological with its “river of the water of life” flowing through it and the tree of life on its banks bearing twelve crops for a year-round supply, and the leaves of which bring healing to all people (Revelation 22:1,2). Water is one of the central images of New Jerusalem (21:6; 22:17; cf. 7:17). This water is supplied freely from the throne of God and brings refreshing life to both humans and nature. Here John draws on the picture given in Ezekiel 47:1-12. There is no inequality here as all are priests and will reign with Christ on the earth (Revelation 5:10).
The Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, as much of its pleasure comes from human relationships, but this is a garden city integrating nature and urban life, where civic and rural values are combined in harmony. And it is God who provides light for the city and who dwells with his people (21:3,22,23).
This vision of Babylon and Jerusalem at the end of the Bible presents in stark contrast the values of this world and those of the kingdom of God. It offers hope for those who struggle to be faithful to their Lord. However, it is not only there to give us hope for the future, but also to offer a challenge for the present. “Come out of [Babylon], my people, so that you will not share in her sins” (18:4). Each of us must decide for ourselves whether we are going to live by the values of Babylon or those of the New Jerusalem. Whichever decision we make has profound consequences for the future, not only for us personally, but also in other ways we can barely imagine. We are told of the New Jerusalem that the “glory and honour of the nations (or “peoples”) will be brought into it” (21:26). That seems to me to imply that all the good we are able to achieve in this life will somehow contribute to the blessings of the new earth.
Beth Utto-Galarneau, a seminary intern for the Lutheran School of Theology, tells how she asked her Bible study group in a blighted neighbourhood of East Boston the question “What might the new East Boston look like?” while leading a Bible study on Revelation 21,22. This is what they said:
We saw the holy city, the new East Boston, coming down out of heaven from God. … It has clean streets in which people can walk in safety and with peace any time. There are no drugs, no fire, no fighting; everyone has a place to live. People are planting flowers and trees … and God is there.
Pioneering ecological theologian, Joseph Sittler, whose eloquence and insight on these matters remain virtually unsurpassed, in an article “Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility” said that because of the virtual demise of a vigorous doctrine of the Creation:
it is difficult but possible to get men to understand that pollution is biologically disastrous, aesthetically offensive, equally obviously economically self-destructive and socially reductive of the quality of human life. But it is a very difficult job to get even Christians to see that so to deal with the Creation is Christianly blasphemous. A proper doctrine of creation and redemption would make it perfectly clear from a Christian point of view the ecological crisis presents us not simply with moral tasks but requires of us a freshly renovated and fundamental theology of the first article whereby the Christian faith defines whence the Creation was formed, and why, and by whom and to what end.
In his book Gravity and Grace, he had this to say:
When we turn the attention of the church to a definition of the Christian relationship with the natural world, we are not stepping away from grave and proper theological ideas; we are stepping right into the middle of them There is a deeply rooted, genuinely Christian motivation for attention to God’s creation, despite the fact that many church people consider ecology to be a secular concern. “What does environmental preservation have to do with Jesus Christ and his church?” they ask. They could not be more shallow or more wrong.
What I have written, I offer in the hope that it will assist in restoring a proper balance that may impact our Christian outlook, our life styles and perhaps also our daily priorities.
These days, many environmentalists are seeking spiritual reasons why we should preserve the world. Writer Alston Chase recently assembled a list of the popular religious options: Tao, Vedanta, Sufism, Cabalism, Spinozistic Pantheism, Yoga, biofeedback, transcendental meditation, Ghandian pacifism, inimism, panpsychism, alchemy, ritual magic, Buddhist economics, fossil love, planetary zoning, deep ecology, shallow ecology, reinhabitation, ecological primitivism, chicken liberation, stone age economics, Yan Yang, the androgynous universe, the Gaia hypothesis, global futures, Spaceship Earth, rights of rocks, ecological resistance.” It is my belief that we Christians have reasons that are more satisfactory as they are based on the truth of the God who really exists, humans as they are intended to be and the world as it really is.
Reasons we share with others are: our own existence depends on it; we owe it to our children; a good earth provides for more joyful living; it is in the best interests of the entire earth community. However, as Christians have even better reasons: the earth is of value because it is God’s creation; he has declared it good and he delights in it; he has appointed us his vice-regents to care for it as well as for one another; the good we can do will have some counterpart in the new earth. And, in view of the resurrection, we have assurance that any good we do will not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Perhaps the greatest reason for caring for the earth is simply gratitude. The earth is God’s gift of grace to us and as Stephen Bouman-Prediger puts it, “Grace begets gratitude, and gratitude care.”
Reasons for Christian care are God-centred. Scott Hoezee says it well: “Christians must be staunch environmentalists—or staunch creationalists, to use a more biblical term—not because we have our own best interests at heart but because we have God’s best interests at heart.” And as he adds, “we Christians believe that the hands that are upraised to bless forests and toads are now pierced hands.”
It may well be that some who read this book may find all this talk about God will raise unanswered questions, either because their own background has not included such a perspective, or because they may have some belief in God, but as yet have no personal experience of him. I would like to add a word for those searching for some answers and who are willing to take a further step in finding a relationship with God that is real, makes sense of much of what we see around us, and provides a transforming experience that enables them to live satisfying and productive lives with some certainty as to what the future holds.
Finding such an experience essentially involves two things. First, a willingness to acknowledge that our lives are not all that God intended them to be. We have all fallen short of God’s requirements (see Romans 3:23) and most of the world’s problems simply arise from that fact. Second, a willingness to trust Jesus for whom he claimed to be, whom the Bible repeatedly declares him to be and whom the experience of thousands have proved him to be: the Lord of Creation and the Saviour of the world.
Two things happen when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Lord and Saviour. First, we receive forgiveness and reconciliation with the creator of the universe. Second, he comes to life within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit, to begin a work of transformation from within, to fit us for his service here and for future membership of the new heavens and earth. I will be surprised if one of the results will not be a new appreciation of the world in which we live. The songwriter George Wade Robinson said it well:
Heav’n above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen;
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His and he is mine.
Since I know, as now I know,
I am his, and he is mine.You may well find that praying a sincere prayer such as the following will set you on a journey that will be beyond anything you have so far imagined:
Creator God, I accept the fact that all I have and am, my very existence, I owe to you.
I acknowledge that together with my fellow humans, I have fallen short of your standards and neglected your commands and your will for me. I am truly sorry.
I accept that your Son Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins and when he died on the cross he died for me and rose from the dead to be my living Saviour.
In gratitude I commit my life to him and will endeavour to follow where he leads me.
I now accept him as my Lord and my Saviour. Come into my life and make me into the person you want me to be. Help me to develop the gifts you have given me, and show me how I can best serve you in caring for your people and your world.
I really mean this.
If you wish to follow this through and grow in your faith, then get a good modern translation of the Bible and start reading through the New Testament, praying that God will teach you on a daily basis. The best secrets of life can be found there. Find a Christian fellowship where you feel at home, where you can learn from and receive encouragement from others and make a positive contribution. And may God bless you on the journey.
Books on the subject I have found helpful
Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (IVP Academic, 2006).
James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009).
Stephen Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, (Baker Academic, 2001).
Scott Hoezee, Remember Creation: God’s World of Wonder and Delight, (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
Kim Tam, The Jubilee Gospel: The Jubilee, Spirit and the Church, Authentic, 2008.
Dave Bookless, Planetwise, Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World, Penguin Books, 2008.
J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, Brazos Press, 2005.
Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, Pantheon Books, 1993.
W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977.
Michael S. Norhtcott, The Environment & Christian Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Michael S. Norhtcott, A Moral Climate: the ethics of global warming, Orbis Books, 2007.
Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.
Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, IVP Academic, 2004.
“A report from the Mission and Public Affairs Council”, Sharing God’s Planet: A Christian vision for a sustainable future, Church House Publishing, UK, 2005.
John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, Stuff: the Secret Lives of Everyday Things, Northwest Environment Watch, Seattle, 1997.
Ken Gnanakan, Responsible Stewardship of God’s Creation, World Evangelical Alliance – Theological Commission, Theological Book Trust, 2004.
John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today: A Major Appraisal of Contemporary Social and Moral Questions, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1984.
Francis A. Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology, Hodder and Stoughton, 1970.
Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in space and time, Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.