Imagine buying your first house. Or, if you’ve already bought your first house, try to remember that experience. Most of what I remember about it was looking at what felt like three dozen houses whose features all ran together into an indistinguishable blur.
As you’re buying that first house, and as you’re thinking about why you want that house and what sort of life you’ll live in that house, do you ever pause to think about what a great place that house will be to store all your stuff?
It’s a legitimate thing to think about, right? Many Americans have lots of stuff, and we need a place to put it. A house solves that need. Certainly, that’s what happens in a house. In fact, most of the experience of moving in is getting all your stuff into the house. If you visit other people’s houses, you’ll note that all their stuff is in it.
Yet, if you were going to talk about your thoughts behind home ownership, most people would probably not cite “stuff storage” as the main reason they’re doing it. Sure, they might talk about storage space as an issue when comparing houses. Also, they most assuredly will move their stuff into the house when they buy it, and they probably spend a fair amount of time planning where all the stuff is going to go. Despite all that, “storage” is just not what buying a house is all about.
When you imagine buying a house, the picture is much bigger, much fuller than a structure in which to store your property. You’re thinking of a place to live – a place of your very own – perhaps to share with a spouse or children. You’re thinking of all aspects of your life as it plays out inside your house. Storage is a part of it, sure, but it’s a facet of a much larger gem. In fact, buying your house affects your life so holistically that it seems almost comical to imagine a young couple buying their first house so they can finally have a place to keep their stuff. If you were considering a specific house, and the real estate agent kept going on and on about what a great place to store your stuff it was, you might start to wonder what they were trying to pull.
At the same time, the house is a place to store your stuff. It’s a great benefit that comes with home ownership, it’s kind of a big deal, and if the real estate agent told you that she had a great house for you but you couldn’t keep any of your stuff in it, you’d probably look elsewhere.
So, on the one hand, we want to maintain that storage is a feature of owning a house, and it’s an important one – one we don’t want to do without – and one that plays a big role in our experience of that house.
On the other hand, we acknowledge that storage is just one facet of home ownership. The whole picture is much bigger than that, and if you narrowly focus on the house as storage space, someone will probably point out to you that you could, in fact, live in the house, use it, and enjoy it much more thoroughly than your narrow lens was allowing.
That’s all! Thanks for reading. This blog has been brought to you by the Realtors Association of….
No, this long, rambling prologue is meant to serve as a (very) loose analogy. Making “storage space” the entire point of a house is similar to how I feel when people make “having a personal relationship with God” the entire point of the biblical story, or God’s acts in history, or the apex of all God’s desires.
Like storage space in a house, the “personal relationship” aspect of what God is doing and has done in the world is there. It’s a thing, and it’s a big deal. Without that aspect of things, joining a priestly people called to serve God would lack some essential benefits, much in the same way you wouldn’t move into a house that you couldn’t store your stuff in.
Further, America (where I live, and also where all my stuff is) is a country that simultaneously exalts the individual and can be a very disconnected, alienating place for people who crave community. It’s extremely easy to slip through the cracks in a country that has made individualism and self-reliance national virtues. In this climate, just knowing there is a God who cares about and reaches out to you as an individual person can be life changing, especially to those who have been mistreated and/or isolated.
As a matter of personal disclosure, the individual mystical aspect of my Christian faith is very important to me. I have had several individual experiences of God that I’d be happy to share with you and they often changed the trajectory of my life in significant ways. The ongoing emotional connection and spiritual feelings of the presence of God is a big part of my life and, when I’m not feeling those things, the effect is large.
What’s more, some of the more profound and moving effects of my contemplation of God have happened when thinking of God’s love for me. God’s attention to me. These things are demonstrated in big and small ways and not the least of which has been my inclusion in the great works that God has done in Jesus Christ.
So, I want to be clear that I am not at all trying to take that from anyone or criticize it as a powerful force in someone’s life. My own life is a testimony to that power, and you sure aren’t prying it away from me. Much less would I intend to do so for someone else.
At the same time, I often find myself getting a little wearied with books or sermons or comments from other Christians that essentially boil down to, “What God wants most is to have a personal relationship with you.” I get wearied of singing song after song about this. Me, and God loves me, and God wants me, and God can’t imagine life without me, and everything God has done He’s done for me, and the whole reason Jesus died was me, and the whole Bible was written for me, and there’s just nothing God wouldn’t do if it helped me in some way.
The reason I get fed up (almost literally fed up, actually) with this sentiment has nothing to do with “correct doctrine.” I’m too old in Christ and too skeptical of myself to get hot and bothered about incorrect doctrine for its own sake these days. It’s also not simply because it makes me the center of the universe and actually taps into the idolization of the individual, although that’s also a real problem and, all told, may be the worst thing about it.
But the reason I get fed up is that it all just seems so small to me compared to what we could be talking or singing about. Yes, let’s talk about it and let’s sing about it – it’s an important piece to the whole thing – but it’s only a facet on the gem. I find myself wondering if this is really all the Christian story has become for people – a conveyance for my personal experiences with God and how we feel about each other. I feel like the entirety of God in history has boiled down to something I’d read in a Hallmark card except someone had to die in the process. I don’t know; maybe that happens in Hallmark card production, too.
The Bible is primarily a story about Israel’s existence in the world, particularly as she exists side by side with other nations, the vast majority of whom are stronger than she is and worship other gods. Old Testament, New Testament, this is the riverbed through which the river of Scripture flows.
I know many people might balk at that statement, and that’s fine, but if that summary is distasteful, let me encourage you to sit down and read the entirety of the Bible, letting each writing speak for itself and without projecting the text into a theology, insofar as you can. I would offer that what you will find is a great deal of story and reflection on what is happening to Israel and the nations.
What you will not find is that the Bible is mostly theological truths about God, nor about man, nor about the human condition. You will not find most of the writings discuss heaven or hell, nor do they provide instructions about getting to one and avoiding the other. You will also not find the bulk of the writings asserting God’s ultimate desire to have a personal relationship with individuals.
Some of those things, we might find in the biblical writings, but it’s like the storage space aspect of a house. It’s there, it’s important, but there’s a much bigger narrative in the works, and that narrative is the story of Israel as she exists with her God in the midst of the nations. The Bible in our heads might make some of those other things the primary topics of conversation, but the actual Bible does not.
Because of this, all our categories for what we find in the Bible have a character that is defined by the life of Israel in the world over a very long span of time. “Salvation” is what happens when God saves Israel from something. “Relationship” is covenant, which God sometimes does make with individuals, but it’s on behalf a people.
The great stories of those great characters you remember – Abraham, Moses, Samson, Deborah, Gideon, David, and so on – are not there to provide examples of God’s desire for personal relationship (if God is dealing with you the way He dealt with Moses, you should probably say something to someone about it). They are there because these people are pivotal to the preservation and prosperity of Israel.
And so it goes with salvation.
In Exodus 14, Moses says, “Behold the salvation of the Lord,” when they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. A very similar passage occurs in 2 Chronicles 20 when Jerusalem is about to be besieged by an alliance of Moabites and Ammonites. In Isaiah 52, the famous “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” passage is about Israel being rescued from the Exile to Babylon.
“Salvation” is God saving Israel from whatever she needed saving from. As we get into the prophets, that includes her own leadership.
“Well, ok,” says my imaginary reader, “But everyone is probably ok with that. Sure, sometimes we misread Old Testament passages to be talking about a spiritual understanding of salvation the way we understand it, but surely you can see that these are all pointing forward to Jesus’ work of setting people free from sin, death, and Hell?”
First of all, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that the horrors that Israel and her neighbors experienced were all part of a very elaborate allegory. It’s all very well and good to sit in your armchair and declare that being killed or imprisoned by Babylonians would give people centuries later a typological allegory of being in spiritual bondage or what have you, but I think an Israelite mother who saw her husband impaled on the end of a Babylonian spear might rather just have gotten a pamphlet. I doubt, as she saw her little boys taken away from her to be raised in Babylon to ensure the people did not revolt, that she thought, “You know, all this is a really great metaphor for how we’re all in spiritual bondage. Well, I hope when the Messiah shows up, he sets us free from what’s REALLY important.”
Second, I think Israel / the Bible’s ongoing concern with the welfare of Israel in the world does not get traded for the spiritual realities of all humanity in the New Testament.
For instance, John the Baptist announces to Israel to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. This is also Jesus’ message, you’ll note. When Pharisees and Sadducees show up, John demands, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Whatever you think this “wrath to come” is, I hope we can all agree it’s not what would happen to each individual standing there as they eventually all passed away from old age. The “wrath to come” is not “Hell when you die” to John the Baptist. It’s something imminent that’s about to sweep through Judea and will clear all the corruption out of it. Faithful Israel needs to be saved from this. She needs to be saved from her oppressors, and she needs to be saved from the mechanism that will clear them out – not unlike the tenth plague of Egypt.
But as you can see, the people who will be saved are those who repent and believe. This is the new twist. In the Old Testament, you were saved by God by being Israelite. In the first century, Israelites are both the oppressor and the oppressed. A new line is being drawn, and as Jesus continues his ministry, we find that he, too, announces that the kingdom of God has come near, but this also means a coming judgement and the need to be saved from it, and the people who will be saved are the people who, quite literally, believe him.
In his warnings, Jesus offers advice like, “Flee to the mountains,” and “Pray that your flight will not occur in winter or on the Sabbath,” which is really unhelpful advice for escaping Hell. Or the end of the world, really.
Even in the context of the Gospels, God is saving His people from something in the world they needed saving from. In this case, Israel’s oppressors are immediately other Israelites, and ultimately the pagan nation that rules them.
“Ok, hold on. Isn’t Jesus called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins?”
Yes. His people are Jews, and saving them from their sins means rescuing them from the state of affairs that has come about because of their sins. It does not mean that he will get them to stop sinning, anymore than you have stopped sinning.
When Peter delivers his sermon in Acts 2, the audience is cut to the heart and they ask the Spirit-filled believers (who are all Jews), “Brothers (because the audience is all Jews), what shall we do?” And Peter tells them to repent and be baptized so that their sins will be forgiven and they will receive the Spirit.
What is this message that causes everyone to be cut to the heart and cry out asking what they need to do? Is it that they’ll go to Hell when they die? Is it that the world will end?
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.
Acts 2:36 (NRSV)
There you go. You know that guy you killed? God has made him Lord and Christ.
This terrifies the audience and they beg to know what they need to do in light of the fact that God has just exalted the man they had handed over to Rome for execution.
There’s nothing in that sermon about mankind’s sinful condition or estrangement from God. There’s nothing about how God’s holiness demands the death penalty for sin in general. There’s nothing about how God, desiring a personal relationship with them, sent Jesus to die to satisfy God’s wrath for their sins.
It’s just this:
“Why are all you guys stumbling around talking in languages we don’t understand? Are you drunk?”
“No. This is the Holy Spirit promised of old that would fall in the last days before the great and terrible day of the Lord. You remember Jesus? That guy you had crucified? God raised him from the dead. He made him Lord and Christ. That guy you had crucified.”
“WHAT? WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?”
“Repent and be baptized and be forgiven of your sins. And you will receive the Spirit.”
God will save His people Israel in history in the world. Even the inclusion of Gentiles, as Romans 11 tells us, is part of the plan to save Israel. If you are a Gentile and you have faith in Jesus Christ, then you have been brought into the people of God so that Israel might be saved, and the wonder is that God has made one people out of the two, so that you are heirs of the promises to the patriarchs, and you, as well, are the Israel of God.
Above and beyond what salvation has looked like in my own, personal life and what my personal relationship with God looks like is God’s covenant with His people and His commitment to save them in the world when they need saving as they go from age to age.
Yes, the Bible tells us a (very) little bit about a final judgement and a new heavens and earth, and in that sense, that day may very well mark the telos of God’s saving works. But the Bible has very little to say about that and, instead, tells a story of a people in a world among other people. What happens to them, what do they need saving from, how does that happen, and how do they live as a distinctly holy and faithful people in their present historical circumstances?
Those questions are just as applicable today as they were to Israel, although we have to acknowledge that a lot has changed both on the world stage and for the identity of the people of God, which is no longer predominantly Jewish and is dispersed throughout all nations. Still, to answer those questions involves reaching into our past for guidance, listening in our present for God’s voice and obeying it, and hoping for a future that may contradict our present circumstances but is grounded in God’s demonstrable historical faithfulness.
Those kinds of songs, books, devotions, sermons, and conversations would not be very small or boring, I think.