List of Scripture references, bibliography and notes on bibliography available at the end.
Throughout the biblical narrative, God has acted to create or make an alternative society. This alternative society in turn is the conduit through which He performs His ever expansive plan of redemption which includes the salvation of humanity and renewal of the earth. Mind you, (and I emphasise this because the Reformation has resulted in the form of individualism prevalent in Christianity today but hardly seen before it’s time,) not to create perfect or God-fearing individuals per se, but to make a beautiful, loving, just society. This society is pictured in different ways in the Bible such as sheep, a bride, a priesthood, a nation. Basically, it is a “people”.
This movement of God starts with Abraham, to whom YHWH gives the ever expanding promise He will fulfill – that He will make a great nation out of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), that He would be a father of many nations (Gen. 17:1-7), and his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 22:17). This is among other promises including provision of a land and deliverance of his people. (Walter Brueggemann notices that these are a mixture of unilateral and bilateral promises in his book Disruptive Grace.)
God continues His work, acting on His promises, by the wondrous acts He performs for Israel. First, He saves the 12 tribes of Israel from famine by bringing them to Egypt as a people highly favoured. When the odds turned against them, they were reduced to being despised slaves (unwanted pests!) tasked with the work of building Pharoah’s mega projects. Seeing their suffering, God came onto the scene and dramatically rescued Israel through an extended battle, with their old master Pharaoh at the losing end.
As Israel escaped into the desert, God leads them lovingly with His presence of cloud and fire. In the next great act, God declared Israel as His people, and He their God. What can be more amazing than to have the God of the heavens and the earth make a claim for these oppressed people? The Old Testament is rich with this memory of the great rescue.
And then, omgomgomg, YHWH gave them His laws.
I pause here to share a beautiful insight of exodus shared by Walter Brueggemann in his book, Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture and the Church. Brueggemann points out that life in Egypt was characterised by one command: “Make bricks” (Exodus 1:14). When Moses and Aaron sought for Israel’s freedom to worship God, the next Pharaoh made his command more severe: “Make bricks, without straw supplied to you, and produce the same number of bricks as you have before.” (Exodus 5:6-9)
For a nation who heaved and groaned by this command to build the mega projects of a nation who despised them, the Law of God contrasted drastically. God offered to them a new life, a counter narrative, a life of abundance, a life of love and dependency on God. No longer do they have to be slaves and be at the mercy of a merciless master. But they would be a people of dignity who belonged to God. Such is the “disruptive grace” that Brueggemann expresses in his book.
God’s laws thus were given to make a great nation out of a people who were once oppressed. With this backdrop, is there any wonder that the longest Psalm, 119, is devoted to the laws that this nation cherished?
I want to make a note here that God’s laws were not made to be senseless to-do lists to discipline and whip Israel to submission to YHWH (unlike Egypt’s law). God’s Law was to make a nation like no other, a nation that would be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), that would draw people to worship YHWH. (This was only achieved in King Solomon’s time.) God wanted to show that this is what He had in mind for humanity, and the laws if obeyed would achieve that. But we know that while God was faithful to His covenant, Israel was not.
Eventually, the words of the prophets were said to bring Israel back, to be realigned to the purpose and vision that God had for them. Israel was to be known as a nation belonging to YHWH and only YHWH, to be known to be a just, righteous nation characterised by love – truth, justice, mercy, righteousness. Jesus showed us that the entire breadth and depth of the Law and the Prophets “hangs on” loving God and loving neighbour (Matt. 22:20).
History and Christian tradition shows that Israel was not successful in keeping its part of the covenant, and therefore failed to be a light to the surrounding nations. The prophets showed how Israel and Judah went downhill because of their inability to follow God’s Law, the final straw being disowning God Himself for other (non-)gods, resulting in exile for Israel.
I wish to interject here with a food for thought: is it true that after the incident we call the fall, God became thoroughly estranged and distanced from humanity? If you have seen the popular John 3:16 illustrations (provided below), you can see that following the fruit snack incident, God becomes immediately distant from humanity.
What is taught from this illustration is that God only comes to humanity through Jesus Christ coming to earth and pow, we can cross the bridge back to God again (who is pictured as that distant, constant, unmoving being that flinches at the sight of sin like me and a cockroach). Nothing can be further to the truth. Guided by Paul Barker in his class Mission of God in the Old Testament, I came to see that the movement of God after the fall was to press on closer and closer to humanity. In other words, I see it as ‘Immanuel’ being not just Jesus on Christmas Day, it is the very nature of God pressing in closer and closer through time. It is the divine pattern.
We can see this by how God gives the Abrahamic promise, chooses a nation, draws close through the tabernacle, then the Temple, and followed by Jesus and today the Holy Spirit that dwells in us, the new temple. This movement shows how God actively draws closer as a God who desires to dwell with His people. And in the final day, we cannot under-emphasise that God will come and dwell with us in the new earth which will be reunited with the new heavens as one (Rev. 21) (N.T. Wright emphatically reminds us of this in his work – God does not snatch us away from a dying earth, but He comes, renews the earth and dwells with us in it.) Not only so, but His movement is ever expansive, from one man, to a nation, to nations of the world. It is a movement that becomes closer and more widespread. God has always wooed humanity, given them promises, rescued them, given them hope, sorted them out when they screw up. We are the ones who reject God. Interestingly, Brian McLaren in his book A New Kind of Christianity also reveals this disparity of so-called John 3:16 model and what Scriptures actually show us. He goes further to say that the illustration is actually a Greek thought structure that the Bible doesn’t actually adopt.
Jesus and His Church
Anyway, back to Israel.
Now that Israel has shown itself as incapable of faithfulness to God (hey, I didn’t say it, the Prophets did), God Himself comes onto the scene as the perfect human, Jesus Christ (this of course, according to the Christian tradition). Jesus comes to earth to proclaim that the Kingdom of God (or Heaven, with God and Heaven meaning a similar thing) has come! With Jesus, the Kingdom of God has broken into our world. Jesus demonstrated what Israel could not, and in His death on the cross became the perfect atonement for sin.
Jesus also made a people. As N.T. Wright puts it, He reconstituted a new people starting with His 12 disciples. A people no longer characterised by bloodline, but those who are bought by the blood of Jesus, entering into a process of renewal through the work of the Spirit. The Abrahamic promise becomes more concrete now, and through the Apostle Paul and others, the Kingdom of God is now open to the Gentiles through Christ. This is Good News indeed!
As we enter the story of the earliest church, we see the great divide between Jew and Gentile crumble. Not only so, we see class ranks dissolve when slave and free are equal (Gal. 3:28). We must realise that this echoes Old Testament ethics, where God’s will is that there are no poor or slaves in the land through the jubilee principle, and all along, God desired Gentiles to come to Him through Israel and not to have Israel hog God all to themselves (Luke 4:25-27, where the widow and Naaman were both Gentile)!
Now, in a new world where the Roman Empire has taken over many corners of the Mediterranean, this Good News is – subversive! This new people – who are now equal, who are characterised by love – do not play to the social norms of the day! In fact, they were seen as strange and even atheists who had no pantheon of gods and no statues in their Temple! Class structures were practically destroyed.
The Church does not stray far from the mandate given to Israel, for Jesus brings up this conflict in his great sermon on the mount – “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14,16)
Such is the “alternative society”, God’s people.
A Holy Nation, A Royal Priesthood
In speaking of an alternative society, a modern expression, I wish to anchor and end this article with 1 Peter 2:9-10:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
I feel this helps to anchor our idea of such a society by speaking of a holy nation, a royal priesthood in Apostle Peter’s terms. Again, the concept is a reconstituted nation. Intriguingly, Peter describes this nation as a kingly priesthood under the great High Priest Jesus. What does this entail? And here I draw from Sunny Tan’s session recently at the Reformation 500 conference on the priesthood of all believers. The role of a priest is to be a mediator between God and humanity i.e. non-priests. Their role is to intercede, to stand in the gap and to be God’s presence where they serve. This adds a further dimension to this alternative society we are speaking of. This alternative society is to be God’s representative, Christ’s representative in our world. To be mediators between God and the world through word and deed, by being and doing.
Such is the alternative society, one that does not play by the rules of world, but is, rather, I hope, subversive. A society that strikes as foolish to the world. A society that is even offensive because it contradicts some of the driving inherent values of the world.
This alternative society is, and should be, the church of Jesus Christ of history, of today, and the church tomorrow. And the church of Jesus looks like His vision of blessedness found in the Beatitudes. N.T. Wright comments that the beatitudes is not a bunch of rules that Christians abide by, or rules that people need to be abide by if they want to be considered Christians, but they describe the attributes of a people through whom God will work in the world.
And the people whom God desires to work in the world is His church – the alternative society that is His bride, His people, His holy nation, His royal priesthood. The alternative society who is characterised by love shown in truth, righteousness, justice and mercy.
Abrahamic promises: Genesis 12:1-3, 17:1-7, 15:13-20, 22:17
Israel enters Egypt: Genesis 46-47
Israel suffers in Egypt: Exodus 1-5
Israel is delivered from Egypt: Exodus 6-13
The Decalogue: Deuteronomy 5
The Great Commandment: Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18; Luke 10:27
The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-12
* I did not make mention of the Great Commission here, but I believe the Great Commission must be taken within this broader framework of God’s mission on earth and the overall narrative. Obeying the Great Commission without an idea of this overall narrative of God first being at work will make it a robotic, legalistic and soulless proclamation of suppositions that people today call “evangelism”.
Bibliography with some notes:
1. Paul Barker, 24 & 25 October 2016. Mission of God in the Old Testament, a seminar by Asia Gateway.
2. Tan Jin Huat, 17 June 2017. Plenary Session of “Submit or Not”, a seminar by CNBM.
3. Walter Brueggemann, 2011. Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture and the Church, a book published by Fortress Press.
4. N.T. Wright, various literature and video sources including Romans, Simply Jesus, Simply Good News (video), Surprised by Hope (book)
5. Sunny Tan, 30 September 2017. The Priesthood of all Believers, a workshop in Reformation 500, a seminar by Seminari Theoloji Malaysia.
6. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity.
7. Lianne Lee, Bible 101, a training class offered by DUMC.
I first came across the framework of the mission of God in the OT through a class by Dr. Paul Barker. I remember clearly how he proposed that the missiological hermeneutic is an approach that is essential in reading the overall biblical narrative. He proceeded to deliver a concise yet riveting framework of the great six acts of the Bible (creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, the church and the end). He also highlighted how God moved closer and closer to His people (which demystified for me the whole idea that God became horrified and mortified by our sin that He couldn’t come near to humanity unless there was blood sacrifice, which was instituted post Exodus, and Israel was chided for making animal sacrifices more important than acts of justice in Isaiah 1) – in Abraham, the Exodus, the Laws, the Tabernacle, the Temple, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and finally the new Jerusalem where God will come to dwell with us forever.
But it was Rev. Dr. Tan Jin Huat who brought to my mind the concept of “an alternative society” in an event I organised on the role of Christians in society. Of course this terminology is not new and is echoed by other scholars. But he pointed how in church history Christians have participated in society to protest against the grotesque Roman games such as the bull fights, infanticide and so on, and lived in a very communal way that included the sharing of possessions and taking care of the poor.
Dr. Walter Brueggemann the OT scholar writes breathtakingly on the Old Testament. Incidentally he specialises on the poetic imagination of the prophets. I can’t describe adequately the contribution he has made to my understanding of the people of Israel, but he has helped me see their memory and thereby illumined my reading of the OT.
Prof. N.T. Wright has been instrumental in my understanding of New Testament times and read the Bible from this historical perspective. He challenges the presuppositions of the Reformers and is not apologetic to suggest that some of these Reformers have read their own cultural biases into the Bible especially when talking about God’s wrath, heaven, and eschatology. He has contributed to my understanding of eschatology, the person of Jesus and I continue to sit at his feet through videos and books for more.
Rev. Dr. Sunny Tan delivered a message at the recent Reformation 500 conference that stirred my heart about the community I am helping to build. Are we the holy nation, a royal priesthood? Are we bringing God to the people around us?
Brian McLaren. I found some bits of A New Christianity illuminating but I am not much of a fan. Maybe because I have not read much of him yet. Too many books, too little time.
Lianne Lee has helped to plug in some missing details and gaps to my understanding of the overall narrative of Israel and the timeline from inhabiting the Promised Land, the exile and beyond, through her class, Bible 101.