Building and rebuilding the people of God: it’s child’s play

Generative AI summary:

The article explores the biblical narrative of the building and rebuilding of God’s people, using metaphors and historical references. Beginning with Adam and Eve’s expulsion, it traces the stories of Noah, Abraham, the redeemed people of Israel, and the establishment of a kingdom of priests. The Old Testament prophetic voices and the subsequent challenges faced by the New Testament community are discussed, highlighting the unfinished project and the need for redemption. The article then addresses the collapse of the tower of bricks in the Western context over the past two centuries, emphasizing the clumsy rebuilding process. It suggests that the church, amidst disagreement on what the renewed anthropology should look like, needs a new Pentecost for a radical renewal of vision and language. The success of the rebuilding process, the author contends, hinges on effectively communicating the entire story and making belief in a creator God credible again.

Read time: 13 minutes

The Bible tells the story of the building and rebuilding of the people of God. I think that the church today is having to rebuild again, and I have been looking for a simple image or metaphor that captures the process and the basic components. This tower of five wooden blocks is about as simple as I can make it, and the explanation will have to be over-simplified to fit within a single article. Bear with me.

In the beginnings…

In one version of the story of human origins, Adam and Eve are evicted from the garden of the Lord because they were tricked into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They will have to fend for themselves in an inhospitable and unfruitful wilderness; the woman will suffer in childbirth; they will die and return to the dirt from which they were taken.

Cain kills his brother, and again the relationship with the ground is damaged (Gen. 4:11-12). He departs from the presence of the Lord, settles “in the land of Nod, east of Eden,” and builds a city.

The earth becomes corrupt, filled with violence, and the Lord determines to destroy all life. But Noah is a “righteous man, blameless in his generation,” who, like Enoch and Adam before him, “walked with God” (Gen. 6:9; cf. 3:8; 5:22). So in the new world that emerges after the flood, the “unfallen,” righteous Noah is made the progenitor of a new humanity in a new creation, so to speak. The distinctive creation blessing and mandate are reiterated:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. (Gen. 9:1-2)

In defiance of the command to fill the earth, the descendants of Noah migrate westward and settle in the land of Shinar, where they build a city around a high, fortified tower in order to make a name for themselves and in order not to be scattered over the surface of the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). They are judged by God for their self-aggrandizement and hubris, and to frustrate their ambitions he confuses their language and disperses them from the city. Babel, the prototype of empire, is left empty but will be repopulated at a later point in the story, figuratively speaking, by the Babylonians.

A new creation people

Terah and his family travel from Ur of the Chaldeans, from the shadow of Babel, to Haran (Gen. 11:31), and then the Lord instructs his son Abraham:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)

It is not immediately apparent, but we see over time that this is another act of creation renewal. The blessing and mandate are repeated: the family is blessed by God, they are told that they will be fruitful and will multiply in the land that God will give to them. So Isaac says to Jacob:

God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham! (Gen. 28:3-4)

The descendants of Abraham are set to be a new creation in microcosm, in the land of Canaan, walking in the presence of the living God as though in a garden. Neither the people nor the land are a given. They are objects of a promise, and if Noah was chosen because he was righteous, Abraham was judged righteous because he believed (Gen. 15:6). There is some deep theology in that distinction, I’m sure.

A redeemed people

The book of Exodus begins by listing the names of the “sons of Israel” who came to Egypt with their households to join Joseph—seventy persons in all. That generation passed away, but “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exod. 1:1-7). The innate new creation potential is reaffirmed.

But their numerical strength alarms the Egyptians and the Hebrews are forced into servitude, which means that they need to be delivered or redeemed before they can complete the journey to the land promised to the patriarchs.

Worth noting is the fact that Israel is redeemed after it becomes a new creation people, not before. The people of God are formed, then redeemed. This will have implications for how we understand redemption in the New Testament.

A kingdom of priests

The next block that needs to be put in place in the construction process is named “kingdom of priests.” On the mountain, Moses is told to say to the people of Israel”:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exod. 19:4-6)

This adds a rigorous and disciplined vocation to the foundational “organic” and instinctive life of the people as new creation. It is bound up, therefore, with the establishment of a comprehensive “covenant” between YHWH and Israel and the formation of a model priesthood, a priestly caste, within the lay priesthood which is constituted of Israel as a whole, to manage the dangerous presence of a holy God in their midst.

God’s possession of the whole earth is demonstrated through the presence of this dedicated people in the midst of the nations. It finds ultimate expression, arguably, in the prophetic vision of the nations making pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem to bring tribute and learn the ways of the God of Israel (e.g., Is. 2:2-4). Jesus will condemn the priests for having turned what should have been house of prayer for all nations into a den of robbers.

A kingdom like the other nations

The political chaos of the period of the judges is brought to an end with the institution of the monarchy. It is regarded as an ambiguous development, chiefly because it amounted to a shift from a model of charismatic leadership that gave room for YHWH to function as king to a model of institutional government that was not so clearly accountable.

The elders of Israel go to Samuel and demand a king “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). The function of the king is the same as that of the judges: to maintain justice internally and safeguard the integrity of the people against external threats. The difference is the aspiration to compete with the surrounding nations. The story accounts for the political upgrade, and we will see that the ambition does not end there.

A prophetic community

Well, it’s not a prophetic community (that comes later) so much as a community whose abject political, social, and religious condition is interpreted by the major prophetic voices of the Old Testament.

The precarious tower of bricks collapses under the weight of the failed kingdom. The Abrahamic family has long since been dysfunctional and fractured, the temple is destroyed, the priesthood is made redundant, and the people are exiled from the land that sustained them as a new creation.

So Isaiah is sent to reproach the people for their obduracy. For how long? “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (Is. 6:11-12).

But he also charts a course for rebuilding. Pragmatically, he appeals to those in Israel who “pursue righteousness, …who seek the Lord” (Jesus does the same thing in the Beatitudes):

look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isa 51:1-3)

Reconstruction begins with the recovery of the creation blessing. The wilderness of Jerusalem and the surrounding regions will become “like Eden… like the garden of the Lord.” The city will know again the instinctive joy of new creation life, and YHWH will dwell again in the midst of his people.

The return of the exiles will be a new redemption, a gift of divine favour: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money” (Is. 52:3). YHWH will do this for the sake of his name, which has become “despised” among the nations. He will restore his tarnished reputation by delivering his people from their Babylonian captivity and leading them back to Jerusalem: he will act as a king to judge and defend, he will return as king to Zion, and the nations will see this and be astonished (Is. 52:7-10).

The rebuilding of the people of God in the New Testament

For historical reasons, the rebuilding of the people of God remained an unfinished project down to the New Testament period. A redeemed people returned to the land, but the kingdom was compromised by foreign aggression and occupation, and prophecy gave way to a desperate apocalypticism.

So we have to start again. It is still, in the first place, an existing people that needs to be redeemed. Salvation is always contextual and contingent. Jesus is the Son sent to the troubled vineyard of Israel to redeem those who were under the Law of Moses (Gal. 4:4).

Undoubtedly, some manner of renewal of humanity and of human social relations was experienced in this redemption and reconfiguration of the community. Paul’s affirmation that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) belongs here, though I would argue that “one in Christ Jesus” is an eschatological category. A new humanity is incorporated in this identification with the suffering and glorified Christ as the agent of eschatological transition.

But the new creation part remains largely implicit or latent because the land, Jerusalem, and the temple are again in jeopardy, and the followers of Jesus must embark on a journey to find a new home.

The church in the Greek-Roman world could no longer embody in its own life any sort of “original blessing” of being in the “garden of the Lord.” It would become a priesthood for the nations, displacing the old pagan priesthoods, but there was no prospect of even the Christianised Roman Empire becoming the “land” amplified. There is no “promised empire” as a counterpart to the promised land. The renewal of creation in John’s vision is deferred to a grand finale, when the old heaven and earth flee and a new heaven and earth appears (Rev. 20:11; 21:1).

Abraham is still, somewhat marginally, the type of authentic faith in the future life of a people: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham” (Rom. 4:16). Abraham accounts for the inclusion of Gentiles in this priestly people.

The renewal of kingdom, however, is a crucial building block in the restoration. This is not to be confused with the renewal of creation. Kingdom happens in the political sphere.

It is the kingdom of God, in the first place: God intervenes to judge and rule over his people, then to judge and rule over the nations. But these two political functions have been delegated to the Son seated at his right hand. The coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, is a sweeping, transformative event or series of events that will culminate in the conversion of the pagan world to worship of the God who made the heavens and earth, whose name had for so long been despised.

In the New Testament, finally, this whole process is presented prophetically, with a tinge of apocalyptic—perhaps more than a tinge.

So, for example, the disciples on the day of Pentecost are gifted with the Spirit of prophecy so that they can see what John the Baptist and Jesus so clearly saw before them, and with the same confidence proclaim to the men of Jerusalem the judgment to come.

Likewise, Paul presumes to tell the bemused “men of Athens” that the God who cannot be worshipped in the form of manufactured objects has fixed a day on which he will judge this civilisation by a man whom he has raised from the dead (Acts 17:29-31).

The rebuilding of the people of God after Christendom

In the Western context, over the last two hundred years, the tower of bricks has again collapsed, history being what it is, and we are engaged rather clumsily and incompetently in the task of rebuilding it for a new age.

I think we perhaps make more of new creation themes than is strictly warranted under the circumstances. I certainly do not think that we are collaborating with God in the restoration of creation. But the idea remains foundational in some reduced sense, not least because it must be part of missional task to make belief in a creator God credible again. There are ways in which the church may exemplify a renewed anthropology, though we are far from being in agreement about what that should look like.

I would make the point again that “justification by faith” must have reference to the conviction of the churches that they have a viable future in the age to come. We will be justified because like Abraham we believe in the promise—we trust in the narrative, we begin to glimpse the outline of a meaningful presence in a world bent as always on pursuing its own agendas.

For the foreseeable future, I imagine that churches will find ways to exist as makeshift, unauthorised priestly communities on the ragged fringes of our societies, mediating as best we can between our neighbours and the living God.

The transition is quite easily expressed in kingdom terms: God is judging and reforming that people which still confesses Christ as Lord; and he may be judging the civilisation in which we are so deeply implicated.

Finally, the success of the rebuilding process will depend, I think, on how well we tell this whole story. That is the prophetic part. The churches in the West need a new Pentecost—a radical renewal of vision and language.