N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
Image of God
A theme that appears several times in the NT is the idea that Jesus is the “image” of God the Father, and that Christians are being transformed by the Spirit into the “image” of Jesus.
(Rom. 8:29 ESV) 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
(2 Cor. 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
(Col. 1:15 ESV) 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
In Gen 1:26-28, God declares that he’ll create man (male and female) in his own image and likeness, and he gives mankind dominion over the Creation. In an ANE temple, the god to worshipped is represented in the temple by a statue or “image” — which is installed as the next to last step. The final step is for the god to “rest” in the temple (Psa 132:8, 14).
The ancients knew that the statue was not literally Athena or Zeus, but it represented the characteristics of that god to the worshipers and marked the special presence of that god in that temple. For the god to “rest” in the temple was for the god to approve it as his or her temple and to provide his or her special presence there so that he or she can be worshiped there and the priests’ service will be approved.
Therefore, Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden as images of God — representations of the God who made them and markers of his special presence there. When they were cast out of the Garden, they became broken or fallen images (eikons, in the Greek).
Thus, we see in the NT that mankind is being restored to his original role as images of God by being made like Jesus — who is the ultimate image of God. This happens by the Spirit, and is an ongoing process. Once we are saved, God provides his Spirit so that we can be truly human the way we were always meant to be.
The biblical narrative can be told in Temple terms. [The listing of exiles is per JFG, building on John Walton’s book Covenant; God’s Purpose, God’s Plan.]
- God made the heavens and the earth as a Temple for the worship of God and to display his glory to worshipers.
- God placed Adam and Eve in the Creation to be images of God to serve the same role as images in an ANE temple — to display the nature of God and mark his special presence.
- Adam and Eve sinned, were exiled from the Garden, and became, in Scot McKnight’s terminology, “cracked icons” — broken images — imperfectly showing God to the world.
- Call this the First Exile, the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden, separating them from the daily presence of God himself.
- The world largely rejected God and replaced the true God with idols, resulting in a separation of God from most humans.
- God called Abraham and made a covenant with him so that Abraham and his descendants would display righteousness and justice (Gen 18:19), characteristics of God himself. The process of rebuilding God’s eikons had begun.
- Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, lived in Egypt. They were enslaved by the Egyptians and cried out for God’s deliverance.
- They were rescued by God from Egyptian slavery, and at Mt. Sinai, God had them build a tabernacle — a tent that was also a temple — where God would be worshiped, prayed to, and would speak to his representative Moses. The tabernacle was decorated and designed to be a mini-cosmos, based on the days of the Creation. And God dwelt among his chosen people in the tabernacle.
- At the tabernacle, God was served by priests, who also were charged with instructing the people in Torah and administering charitable funds for those in need.
- God himself came to dwell in the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies, above the ark of the covenant.
- The Israelites responded by building a golden calf to worship, and God killed 3,000 of them for their idolatry. Not long after, the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land for fear of the natives — and lack of faith in God — resulting in 40 years of wandering and the death of that generation (other than Joshua and Caleb). Call this the Second Exile.
- The next generation of Israelites entered the Promised Land and conquered portions of the land and settled in, but they had to continue to fight for their land and to protect their crops from neighboring nations. They developed a superstitious view of the Ark of the Covenant, bringing it with them into battle for good luck. Not surprisingly, the Philistines (who had iron while the Israelites only had bronze weapons) captured the Ark, and the Israelites were without the Ark of the Covenant or the forgiveness and other tabernacle rituals for a generation. God’s special presence had left their land/inheritance. Call this the Third Exile.
- Later, David moved the ark to Jerusalem, and Solomon built the first Temple there. God’s glorious presence came to dwell there when the dedication was complete after seven days.
- God entered into a covenant with David that his descendants would sit on the throne of Judah forever (2 Sam 7).
- The Jews became guilty of idolatry to such an extent that God sent them into Babylonian Exile and allowed the Babylonians to destroy the Temple.
- The Babylonians carried the Jews to Babylon, removing them entirely from Jerusalem and the ruins of the Temple. Call this the Fourth Exile.
- About 70 years later, Persia conquered Babylon, and the Persians allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls and the Temple. Under Nehemiah, these were built. But the Ark had been lost to history, God’s presence did not return to the Temple, and after a brief burst of prophecy through Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the gift of prophecy left the Jews for over 400 years.
- Therefore, by the time of Jesus, although Jews were free to live in Jerusalem once again and the Temple had been magnificently rebuilt, they considered the Exile to continue — and it would not end until God himself returned to the Temple, the Messiah (King who would sit on David’s throne) would come, the Kingdom was established, and the Spirit of prophecy was outpoured again on Israel.
So the Jews of Jesus’ day considered themselves to be still in Exile, and they were anxiously praying for and expecting the Messiah, the Temple, the Kingdom, and the Spirit.
Covenants and Exile
The First Exile ended (or began to end) when God entered into covenant with Abraham to count faith/faithfulness/trust as righteousness and to bless all nations through his descendants. Although mankind was banned from the Garden, Abraham sometimes was allowed to be in the presence of God, who visited him and spoke with him face to face.
Notice that the Second Exile (the 40 years of wandering in the desert) was accompanied by the giving of the Mosaic covenant: the Torah. It ended with the second giving of the Law of Moses (which is Deuteronomy) and the circumcision of the Jewish males shortly thereafter.
The Third Exile (the loss of the Ark of the Covenant and so God’s symbolic departure from Israel) ended with God’s covenant with David to leave his descendants on the throne of Judah forever and to allow his son to build the Temple.
The Fourth Exile (Babylonian captivity and continuing thereafter) ended when God returned to Jerusalem and the Temple in the form of Jesus and the “new covenant” of Jer 31:31 ff was instituted at the Last Supper.
There are four main covenants: Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and each ends (begins the end) of a period of separation of God from his people. (This outline is more from Walton than Wright, but Wright assumes that the reader has a grounding in covenant theology).
Notice further that the covenants don’t replace their predecessors. God’s promise that a descendant of David would sit on the throne is true today through Jesus. God’s promise to credit faith as righteousness was made to Abraham but remains true today through Jesus.
The continuing meaning of the Torah for Christians is bit more complicated, and I’ve covered it several times in the past.