To me, the main story line of the Bible doesn’t get rolling until Genesis 12.
Yes, I know there are big things that happen before then. There’s Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. But those events set the stage for the main drama to play out.
For example, the movie X-Men: Apocalypse starts with a segment in ancient Egypt where the powerful tyrant En Sabah Nur ends up trapped in his pyramid due to a revolt. The movie is not about ancient Egypt or that revolt, though. The story is about the X-Men facing En Sabah Nur in modern day. Those past events give you the necessary background to appreciate what happens next, i.e. the worst X-Men movie put out so far.
By Genesis 12, mankind has attempted to build a Flood-proof bastion and God has scattered and confused them. The plan to fill the world with His image seems to be a bust. The first guy rebelled, one of his kids killed the other, their descendants filled the world with violence, God wiped them out to start over with a new guy, and he and his kids get off to a rocky start, and the next thing we get is the world conspiring to defend itself against God, and there’s even hints of launching a counter-offensive.
This time, God changes tactics a little bit. Instead of starting with one family in an otherwise depopulated world, He starts with one family in the midst of a world populated with people who don’t seem to like Him very much, or are at least indifferent. He selects His new progenitor, Abram, and commissions him to multiply and fill the earth with His people (same as Adam, same as Noah), but the twist is that this will happen in the midst of other nations, and what’s more, Abram’s descendants will grow into a large and powerful nation who will use their numbers and power to bring blessing to all the other nations, not the least of which involves being a light to them, pointing the way back to the true God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. They are supposed to be the new Creation in the midst of the old one.
The rest of the Bible is occupied with how this story plays out.
These people do grow, move to another nation that eventually enslaves them, are liberated by God who has to remind them who He is and makes a formal agreement with them to be their God and have their back if they will worship Him and live faithfully in a nation of justice, compassion, and uprightness. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they are led by judges, sometimes by kings, and sometimes these leaders lead them in the ways of their agreement with God, and sometimes those leaders lead them away from it.
As time goes on, the leadership becomes more unjust, more desirous of power and wealth at the expense of their people, and while they keep up all the rituals, they are far from God in their hearts and lead the people the same way. God is losing them. He sends prophets to warn them and call them back. He sends other nations against them so they will remember where their help comes from. He grants them reprieves from their trouble. But nothing seems to work long term. This great nation of Abraham’s ends up exiled from their land, dispersed, and under the dominion of one nation after another. The only thing that even serves to remind them that they were once a distinct people and a great nation is enshrined in their Temple and their Law. Now, they’re just members of (eventually) the Roman Empire along with every other conquered people.
And the curtain falls.
When the curtain comes back up, God sends a sign that He is still with His people and has not abandoned them in the birth of a special child, Jesus. Turns out that God is still faithful to the now-broken-many-times agreement He made with Israel and still loves her and wants her back. Jesus works in powerful ways to raise Israel back up from the ashes, turning the hearts of her people back to their God, teaching repentance, and promising a powerful work on the near horizon where God will bring down those who led them astray and give them a new life in a new age. Jesus willingly sacrifices his life for this mission, and God begins the apocalypse (not related to the X-Men movie) by raising Jesus from the dead and pouring out His promised Spirit.
But there are so few faithful. How can these people survive an apocalypse? How can these rag tag faith communities, growing despite persecution, become once again the mighty nation they were so long ago?
In the biggest twist, yet, God gives His Spirit to Gentiles who believe in Jesus, repent of their sins, and take up their lives anew as His faithful people. The numbers are swelled by a huge influx of those who used to be on the outside. The boundary between “God’s nation” and “the other nations” is no longer whether or not you are a descendant of Abraham, but whether or not you believe in what God has done in Jesus and change your life, accordingly. This mechanism not only bolsters the survival of God’s people through the terrible events of 70 A.D. that destroy the Temple and all vestiges of the old religious power structure, but it is the very means by which, years later, Caesar will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.
It’s difficult for us, on this side of history, to appreciate what a world shattering chain of events all this was.
But here’s the thing – Jesus becoming lord of the Roman Empire was not the long term goal. It was something that happened that was a great advancement for God’s people at the time (although, over time, it also became a setback in other ways). In all this, God’s mission never wavered, which was to have a new Creation people in the midst of the old one until, ideally, there was no more old one and the world was filled with the image of God.
This is why I do not believe it is the church’s mission to produce conversions or to “get people saved” (unless by “saved” we mean something very holistic that is much broader than saying a prayer). Conversions are a side-effect of the church’s mission. The church’s mission is to be the new Creation people in the midst of the old one and, by doing so, be a blessing to all nations, not the least of which involves pointing them to the true God who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. We do not measure our success by the number of people who pray the Sinner’s Prayer; we measure our success by how well we, collectively, look like new creation in the world in such a way that allows us to effectively testify to the existence of and our commitment to the true God, inviting any and all to join in the new creation with us.
In America, where I live, does this look like it did in the first century?
There are certainly some commonalities. For example, we also have religious leaders who have gotten in bed with the national powers of our day, and they stir up their followers to exercise what power they have in a republic to advance the causes of wealth and power through force. In many places in America, such values and efforts are even equated with faithfulness to God, and Jesus is a prophet for free market capitalism and protecting our borders from immigrants. American patriotism is a spiritual value. In the sense that we, as a people have been severely compromised by the powers of this age starting with our leadership on down, this is very much like the first century.
But (once again, speaking in terms of America) we do not have the same relationship to America those first century faith communities had with the Roman Empire. America is not a hostile power that needs to be overthrown by God so that His people can be rescued. Or, I don’t know – it doesn’t seem like it to me, anyway. Maybe that day will come.
But the cultural dominance Christianity enjoyed in the West is not just in decline; it’s pretty much gone, and it’s only getting goner by the day. Christendom is vanishing and, in its place, is the rise (backlash?) of secularism. I recognize this is not the primary phenomenon in all countries, but it seems to be in ours. The flow of power is shifting to forces that are not simply pluralistic, which America was always supposed to have been, anyway, and I’m ok with that or even becoming more that if that will increase justice and fair treatment for Americans of other religions or none at all. If I thought Christianity being politically ascendant would provide more justice, compassion, and mercy in the world, I would fight for that, but that honestly does not seem to be the case. The overwhelming majority of politicians who profess the name of Christ are also about power, wealth, dominance, and disenfranchisement of anyone who is not like them.
So, please, I am not saying that the power structure we face in America is an erosion of exclusively Christian values.
But what we are facing is secularism with teeth. It’s not about all religions existing peacefully; it’s about no religion existing at all. It’s about a vision of a better world if humanity could shake off the idea of any kind of God whatsoever. It’s a narrative that God is at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to a just and compassionate world. And you know what? We have loaded that gun with bullets, ourselves.
In face of this situation, which is really just getting started, and it will get far, far worse before it gets better, it is more important than ever before that we, as a people, are about the business of living out the new creation and being a blessing to the nations. It is not only the reason we have been called to serve God, but it is perhaps the only testimony we can make that dismantles the incoming wave.