Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God's nature. He holds everything together by what He says—powerful words!—Hebrews 1:1–2(The Message)The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] "myth" is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story. Then she turns back the historians' weapon: She says to them: What you call "myth," that is history! She will also add: What you call history: That is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.—Karl BarthIn her book Mystery on the Desert, Maria Reiche describes a series of strange lines made by the Nazea in the plains of Peru, some of them covering many square miles. For years people assumed that these lines were the remnants of ancient irrigation ditches. Then, in 1939, Dr. Paul Kosok of Long Island University discovered that their true meaning could only be seen from high in the air. When viewed from an airplane, these seemingly random lines form enormous drawings of birds, insects, and animals.In a similar way, people often think of the Bible as a series of individual, unconnected stories. But if we survey the Scriptures as a whole, we discover that they form one great story of redemption—from the opening scenes of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation. Weaving through all the diverse strands of the Bible is a divine storyline, the overarching story of what God has been up to in the rescue and restoration of fallen human beings, from the first nanosecond of creation through the final cry of victory at the end of time.
According to plan
John 3:16 is a beautiful summary of the entire gospel in fewer than 30 words. If the whole Bible had been destroyed or lost except for John 3:16, that would still be enough for any person to come to know God and to receive eternal life. But John 3:16 presupposes some important things about God and the world.The Christian account of history does not begin with the birth of Jesus, nor with the calling of Abraham in the Old Testament, but with God's creation of the world "out of nothing" (ex nihilo).This understanding of the origin of the universe is unique in the history of ideas. Pantheism equates God and the creation, blurring all distinction. Dualism posits two primal principles, God and matter, or God and some other reality, locked in an eternal cosmic battle. The Bible teaches that the world is utterly distinct from God while totally dependent upon him. In the beginning God said, "Let there be," and there was.God spoke and his word was so powerful that it shattered the silence of eternity, spangling the sky with stars, causing the sun to burst forth with radiance and the earth to vibrate with teeming animal and plant life—dolphins, elephants, caterpillars, glowworms, ospreys, the whole menagerie. When all this was in place, God created human beings, males and females, making them in his own image, endowed with special dignity and intended for intimate fellowship with their Creator.Who is God, though, and why did he make the world in the first place? Some people teach that back in the vast stretches of eternity past, God had grown lonely: he created the world in order to have something to love. But this is an utterly pagan notion of God. It supposes that in his innermost being, God is utterly alone, a monad, superior and transcendent to be sure, but isolated and aloof in his omnipotence. This is the God of Arius, a false teacher of the fourth century, who wrote, "We know there is one God, alone unbegotten, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone immortal."The Bible paints a different picture. Here we learn that within God's being there is a mysterious living love, a dynamic reciprocity of surrender and affirmation, of giving and receiving, among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Maker of heaven and earth is at once the Triune God of holiness and love.The brute power to create and order the universe is not the most decisive mark of God's divinity. What makes God God is the relationship of total and mutual self-giving by which the Father gives everything to the Son and the Son offers back all that He has to glorify the Father, the love of each being established and sealed by the Holy Spirit who proceeds from both. If all this is true, then why on earth did God make the world? Not because he had to, but because he chose to. God is the Lord of creation, not its midwife. God did not need to create something outside of himself as an object for his love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). There is nothing missing or lacking in God.Yet, amazingly, out of the richness and utter sufficiency of his own being, God created the world and human beings with a creaturely reality and freedom, and invites them to share in the out-splashing of his divine love for all eternity.Indeed, the Bible speaks of God as "jealous" for his own glory and honor: He will brook no rivals. This does not make him a grudging, greedy God, like a Silas Marner counting his gold coins; rather, at the heart of God there is a freedom, an unthreatened generosity. This is a reflection of his own character and is the basis of all human reality and freedom.This is also the source of wonder and awe, the kind of wonder that prompted Martin Luther to find sermons in peach stones. This awe led Luther to adore the living God who made heaven, earth, and creatures like himself "of his sheer fatherly kindness and compassion, apart from any merit or worthiness of mine: For all of which I am bound to thank and praise him, to serve him and to be obedient, which is assuredly true."Some people accept that God created the world, but they cannot imagine he has much to do with its continuing operation, much less with our human lives. The British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy once wrote in disparaging terms about God as "the dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle Show." This is the God of deism: He created the world, and still cranks it along from time to time but wouldn't think of getting his hands dirty in the daily muck and mess of it all.This God is an idol of the modern imagination—he has crippled feet and withered hands, eyes which see not, and ears which hear not.How different is the God of the Bible who is everywhere active, alive, involved. Jesus said that no act was too insignificant for the Father's care. He knows every time a sparrow is caught in a hailstorm and falls to the ground. In his great and boundless wisdom, God knows even how to use evil instruments to do good, including the devil himself (see 2 Corinthians 12:7, where Paul describes his "thorn in the flesh" as something given by God through Satan). In Christ even such painful episodes can become occasions for grace.God did not leave the world to its own devices, nor turn it over to the stratagems of Satan. Even before creation, God devised a plan to rescue fallen human beings from their foreseen sin and misery.God was not caught off guard by Adam's sin, nor surprised by the subsequent apostasy of his chosen people Israel. Thus the last book in the Bible describes Jesus as "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (Rev. 13:8).The biblical word for God's sovereign freedom in salvation is election. God chose, or elected, Israel as the special bearer of revelation not because it had the biggest army or the most thriving economy. Quite the contrary: "The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you" (Deuteronomy 7:7). God's election is never conditioned on our worthiness or attractiveness, but on God's own mysterious love.Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as ever faithful in all his undertakings. The pattern of redemption is unfolded century after century through the Exodus and the wilderness, the conquest of Canaan and the exile to Babylon. Again and again God reaches out to his people and communicates his love to them through the patriarchs, the poets, and the prophets, coming finally to a denouement in Malachi, the final book of the Old Testament, which announces, "I have loved you," says the Lord.It is the burden of love, the burden of God's covenant love that comes finally to rest on a baby in a manger and a man on a tree.
The crux of history
In 1980 Samuel Levine published the book You Take Jesus, I'll Take God: How To Refute Christian Missionaries. It argued that Christians misunderstand the Old Testament when they apply passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 to Jesus. The true identity of Jesus Christ is one of the most controversial issues in the history of religion—beginning with the different views of Jesus in his own day. Some saw him as a healer, a teacher, a prophet, maybe even Elijah come back from the dead. Others saw him as a demon-possessed man, a political troublemaker, or simply Joseph the carpenter's kid.But Peter clarified Jesus' identity after Jesus asked his disciples outright, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, under the Spirit's inspiration, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:15–16).But this specificity is a problem today. The British philosopher Norman Kemp Smith spoke for many of his contemporaries when he remarked, "I have no difficulty with the idea of God, but I do with that of Christ: One time, one place. Very difficult." His comment acknowledges that when we say the words Jesus Christ we are not talking about an idea, symbol, or principle but a specific historical figure. Within the framework of history, the Gospel writers portray the life and ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's covenant with his people Israel.Indeed, this is how Jesus explained his own mission to those befuddled disciples on the road to Emmaus: "'How foolish you are and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:25–27). Jesus is the last Adam, the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and the true prophet. He is the Servant King whose greatness exceeds that of Solomon (Luke 11:31). Furthermore, in the Incarnation, God the Son became flesh and blood, that part of the human person that is most vulnerable, most susceptible to suffering, decay, and death. Jesus was no phantom but truly human—of the same reality as we are.At the same time, in Christ we also find one who is actual deity, of the same reality as God from all eternity. Hence Christians have confessed in the Nicene Creed that Jesus was "the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made: who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven."Further still, when John 3:16 says that "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son," this "giving" refers not only to Jesus' birth, life, teachings, and miracles, but also to his sacrificial death on the cross. The death of Jesus was not an accident, and he was not an unwilling victim. It is important to say emphatically that God does not love us because Jesus died for us; rather Jesus died for us because God loves us.Through his work on the cross, Jesus turned aside the wrath of God, absorbing the punishment due to sinners, securing forgiveness and a right standing before God for all who trust in him. The Bible describes Christ's finished work on the cross not only as a settling of accounts in heaven but also as a triumphant victory over all the powers of darkness. Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, defended the true deity and equality of the Son with the Father when he declared, "The power of the cross of Christ has filled the world."The meaning and power of the cross, though, were released by Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Paul does not hesitate to stake everything on this event: "And if Christ wasn't raised then all you're doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever" (1 Corinthians 15:14–21, The Message).When early Christians looked back on Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—they saw him as the turning point of history, the one in whom the hopes of Israel had been fulfilled and God's plan of salvation for humanity itself accomplished. In the light of Jesus Christ, we see history not as "the succession of one damned thing after another," as Henry Ford described it, but rather as a sequence of events laden with eternal meaning. These events will lead up to the time when the Lord's rule will be acknowledged by every living creature in the universe.
The progress of the gospel
The Book of Acts opens with two great events of importance for salvation history: the going up of Jesus from earth into heaven (Ascension), and the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples (Pentecost). Jesus' resurrection from the dead inaugurated God's new beginning, which the New Testament calls "the last days." In Jesus Christ, the future has invaded the present, and Christians are those "on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:11).When Jesus ascended back to heaven, this did not mean that he was absent from his followers but rather that he would now be present in another form. Before Jesus died, he said to his disciples, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:18). From Pentecost on, the Spirit of God would come to live within every person who repented of sin and believed in Jesus."You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of His Son into our lives crying out, 'Papa! Father!' " (Galatians 4:6, The Message). This is not a matter of self-improvement, of "turning over a new leaf." Nor is it a question of our having some ecstatic mystical experience. This justification, our being declared right before God, is by faith alone, apart from any good works or personal merit we can claim.Christians sometimes sing the song to Jesus, "In my hands no price I bring, simply to thy cross I cling." Salvation is based solely on what God has once and for all done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What Christ has done for us, though, must be appropriated personally through our turning away from sin (repentance) and our turning in reliant trust to the Savior himself (faith). As John Calvin said, "As long as Christ remains outside of me, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us."Imbued with the "glad tidings" of new life in Jesus Christ, the early Christians fanned out from Jerusalem and Judea to carry this gospel into all the world. They went everywhere—into the arena, the academies of learning, the marketplace, to faraway lands such as India and Ethiopia, into every nook and cranny of the Roman Empire.The last word in the Greek text of Acts is unhindered (akolutos), an adverb used to describe the unstoppable progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. This does not mean, of course, that the early Christians faced no opposition; they often came into dramatic and violent conflict with the ruling authorities. It is not coincidental that the word martyr derives from the Greek marturia, meaning witness. The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. Still today, many thousands of Christians are put to death every year because of their faith in Christ.The course of Christian history is not marked by smooth and inevitable progress. There have been many setbacks. With the establishment and toleration of the Christian religion came a new freedom to go out into the world. But at the same time, in a new and dangerous way, the world entered into the church. There have been periods of decline, apostasy, and unbelief—but also great moments of reformation, revival and renewed faith.Several years ago I had the experience of being in a worship service and receiving communion from the Bishop of Durham, a high official in the Church of England who had become notorious for denying some of the most basic truths of the Christian faith, such as the virginal conception of Jesus and his bodily resurrection from the dead. His sermon was really bad, and I was quite depressed. After the service, I stayed in the cathedral to think and pray.As I walked through this massive Romanesque structure, I became aware of many evidences of the gospel all around me. There was the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed engraved on a wall. Here was a prayer book and a Bible used by faithful Christians for generations. There were the stained-glass windows of the saints and martyrs of ages past. The building itself was in the shape of a cross.I suddenly realized that while bishops may come and go, and heretics rise and fall, the Word of the Lord abides forever. God has never left himself without a witness, even when that witness is silent, unobserved, and contradicted by foolish thoughts and wayward words. The stones cry out and the gospel goes forth!
One of the great metaphors of the Christian life is that of a journey. Abraham and Sarah setting out for a land where they had never been, the children of Israel trek king through the desert to ward the Promised Land, Augustine's pilgrimage toward what he called his true Patria (fatherland), and Dante's journey toward the beatific vision speak of this journey. John Bunyan gave us one of the greatest interpretations of this theme in The Pilgrim's Progress, with Christian's long journey from this world to the next. No one is exempt from this journey.This adventure will culminate at some definite point in the future when Jesus returns to consummate the drama of redemption. Satan will be conquered and Jesus shall reign on earth in a world filled with justice and peace. At the resurrection, we shall receive new, transformed bodies, comparable to the body Jesus himself had after he came back from the dead (1 John 3:2). There will be a final solemn separation when the wicked are forever banished from the presence of God.There is much about the future that we do not know. When exactly will Jesus come again? Will babies who die in infancy be raised as adults? What kind of food will we eat in the new life? It is useless to speculate about such matters, for God has not chosen to reveal these details to us.But one thing we can know for sure: Eternal life with God will be an utterly transformed existence.In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In some measure the kingdom came in the person of the King when Jesus lived and taught on earth. His followers are to embody kingdom standards for now, but God will finally usher in the kingdom in its fullness. When that happens, the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. Creation itself will be restored and transformed as the promise of the Garden of Eden is fulfilled in Paradise Regained, a reality of unutterable beauty and over-splashing joy.We shall be reunited with our godly loved ones who have gone before, and indeed with all the saints of the ages. We shall worship and adore the one triune God of love and glory, sharing forever in his love that never wears down and never grows tired.In the meantime, the journey continues for the God who created the world out of nothing, who sustains it by his daily care, and who has redeemed it once and for all in his Son Jesus. He will not forsake it to its own wicked devices.Every moment, every event in history, is filled with divine meaning, although that meaning is often not evident to us.Christians are called not to abandon the world but to love it, even as Jesus loved it and died for it. But we can do this fully only when we realize that God's eternal plan does not terminate in the world as it is now, with its racism, cancer, and death, but in the new heaven and the new earth where, with the multitude of the heavenly hosts, unseen but eternal, we shall sing a new song around the throne of God.And what will it be like to enter this eternal world? The late Edward John Carnell perhaps said it best: "We are alone when we enter the world, but when we leave it we shall feel the abiding presence of the Lord. As death draws near and we dread the dark journey ahead, the Lord will assure us that our lives are precious in the sight of God. He will gently say, 'Child, come home.' Jesus has given his word that he will never leave us or forsake us, and his word is as firm as his character."
Timothy Georgeis dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and senior adviser for Christianity Today. This article is adapted from a chapter in This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World (Zondervan).
Christianity Today Editor David Neff noted yesterday how the message of this article should be preached more often. "Not every sermon needs to rehearse this history," he wrote, "but every preacher should keep in mind that each scriptural passage is a part of the whole, a whole that has a narrative shape and that moves toward the End."Don't miss George's " A Theology to Die For" where he writes that theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith.Visit the Beeson Divinity School homepage.Read Timothy George's staff bio at the Beeson site. This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.Previous Christianity Today articles about faith and the Bible include:The Benefit of the Doubt | The disciple Thomas reveals an important truth about faith. (April 7, 2000) What's Wrong with Spirituality? | The Gospel of Mark's prescription for spiritual sanity. (July 13, 1998) Winding Paths Meet | Healing and faith find a connection. (July 13, 1998) People of the Book | Conversations about faith and fiction. ( October 6, 1997) Faith Without Borders | How the developing world is changing the face of Christianity. (May 17, 1997) Adding Up the Trinity | What is stimulating the renewed interest in what many consider the most enigmatic Christian doctrine? (April 28, 1997)
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more