by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
Creation and Redemption
We affirm the continuity of God’s works of creation and redemption. Therefore, we affirm the goodness of all honorable vocations, the importance of embodied habits and rituals, and the value of aesthetic beauty for Christian life and worship.
Baptists, and evangelicals more generally, have sometimes felt a certain unease with drawing too close of a connection between creation and redemption. A rightful concern for the spiritual state of fallen humanity and a longing for the world to come have sometimes been perverted into an entirely other-worldly, even quasi-gnostic denigration of the present world. An overspiritualization of Christian life and worship have led to further maladies: cultural withdrawal, political quietism, misunderstandings about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, a failure to highlight the inherent goodness of “secular” vocations (unless conceived of as opportunities for evangelism), and a lack of aesthetic concern for church architecture, just to name a few. As Baptists seek to reconnect with the full Christian tradition, the time is ripe for a reconsideration of the relationship between creation and redemption—and that on comfortably Baptist grounds, which is to say, on the basis of the biblical revelation.
In the beginning, the Triune God made the heavens and the earth. By his Word and through his Spirit, the Father, created all things - the heavens, sky, sea, and land, and the heavenly bodies, birds, fish, creeping things, animals, and humans. He fashioned his world in an orderly manner, called all of it “good,” and appointed human beings as his image-bearers, his representatives, to rule over what he had made. Adam and Eve were to rule by being fruitful and multiplying, filling the earth with other image bearers of Yahweh; by cultivating and keeping the Garden in which God placed them; and by obeying God’s law. In doing so, they would dwell with Yahweh forever in his place, bringing glory to him.
But Adam and Eve failed—they failed to rule when they didn’t drive the serpent out, they failed to obey God’s law when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As a result, their ability to be fruitful and multiply was hindered (“your pain will be multiplied in childbirth,” “your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you”) and their ability to cultivate and keep God’s place was damaged (“cursed is the ground because of you,” “you shall bring forth thorns and thistles”). And, ultimately, they were exiled from God’s place, barred from returning by two angels standing guard at the entrance to the Garden, a spiritual and geographical precursor to the physical judgment of death that was now to come.
God did not leave Adam and Eve without hope, though. He promised to crush the serpent, the deceiver, through a seed of woman, and he did not destroy Adam and Eve on the spot. Instead, he clothed them and remained with them and their offspring outside the Garden. Fast forward to his call of Abr(ah)am, and we see that God preserves Adam, Eve, and their offspring, and promises to crush the serpent’s head, for a redemptive reason—he is going to reverse the effects of the fall through the seed of woman. The promises to Abraham are promises to redeem what was lost in the fall of Adam. God will reverse sin’s effects and destroy its source. Notice how the promises to Abraham match up with Adam and Eve’s tasks in the Garden—“many descendants” matches “be fruitful and multiply”; “land that I will show you” matches “cultivate and keep”; and “kings will come from your line” matches “rule.” God also gives Abraham a law, and also the promise that the seed will come from his line. In short, God promises through Abraham’s seed to defeat God’s enemies and return God’s people to God’s place. There is thus a fundamental continuity between God’s work of creation and his work of redemption. He is not making something brand new in redemption, nor is he discarding most of what is affected by the fall and saving only, for instance, human souls. Instead, God’s work of redemption prevails “far as the curse is found,” which is to say, in all areas of creaturely reality.
God ultimately accomplishes these promises himself, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Here, though, we should not jump too quickly over Israel’s story, which culminates in Christ but also prepares us for that Christological pinnacle through its own history.
The rhythms of both creation and redemption are embedded in Israel’s life, and particularly in their worship. The most obvious rhythm regarding the former is the Sabbath, but many of the laws in Leviticus are also intended to remind Israel of their call, reflecting Adam and Eve’s, to “cultivate and keep” God’s place. This command is seen in its fullness in the priests’ role in the tabernacle and Temple: they are to “worship and obey,” the same two Hebrew words as “cultivate and keep,” but applied to the priestly work in the tabernacle. And the tabernacle and priestly vestments both were decorated in ways that reminded Israel of the Garden and of God’s entire creation. Finally, Israel’s calendar contained ways in which they were reminded of the rhythms of creation, particularly the Feast of Weeks. This festival celebrated the harvest, calling Israel to tithe the fruit of the Land to YHWH.
The tabernacle, Feast of Weeks, and priestly vestments, as well as the other elements of Israel’s worship, all reminded them not only of the rhythms of creation but also of redemption. The tabernacle was the place in which the priests, on behalf of unrighteous Israelites, made sacrifice. The Feast of Weeks, as well as Israel’s other Feast Days, pointed back to Israel’s redemption in the Exodus and, after the exile, forward to their anticipated return to the Land. The calendar revolved around these holy days, and particularly (in Leviticus) around the Day of Atonement. Israel was reminded constantly of their need to be made holy because of their sinfulness through the daily and yearly rhythms of their worship. They did not only hear the Law read and explained, although this was part of those liturgical rhythms; they also felt and tasted and saw God’s Word to them through other liturgical acts repeated rhythmically.
When Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, YHWH in the flesh, arrives, he does not come to abolish the Law, including the laws concerning worship. He comes to fulfill the Law. He does not abolish the law of the Sabbath, but reorients it around himself. He does not abolish the Holiness Code, but reorients it around himself. He does not abolish laws concerning sexual immorality, but heightens them. And he does not abolish Feast Days, but fulfills them and, again, reorients them around himself. Many of the I Am statements in John take the primary symbol for particular Israelite feasts (light and bread in particular) and reorient them around Jesus. The Passover becomes the Lord’s Supper and, ultimately, the Crucifixion. The Feast of Weeks becomes Pentecost. And so on. Additionally, the creational signs of Israel’s judgment and salvation for Israel in the prophets—oil, water, grain, and vine—are all fulfilled in Jesus. He is anointed by the Spirit (oil), baptized in the Jordan (water), and institutes the Lord’s Supper (grain and vine). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the place of worship, the Temple, is completely reoriented around Jesus. He is where God has fully and finally tabernacled among us (John 1:14). Israel’s worship in the Gospels is not destroyed, but instead is fulfilled in and reoriented around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus also in his work of redemption brings new creation, the act to which Israel’s worship pointed. Jesus comes healing the sick, casting out demons and exercising authority over the wind and the waves, all signs of the new creation that comes with God’s kingdom. In his ministry the restoration of God’s place breaks through in these myriad ways, but we see the new creation ultimately on Easter Sunday when the New Adam rises from the grave. God does not leave us, his people, in darkness, and neither does he leave his creation cursed. Instead, he brings salvation to his people and restoration to his place through the work of Israel’s Messiah. God’s two acts of creation and redemption are thus intricately intertwined in their representation in Israel’s worship, and they find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. All of this divine work has a thoroughgoing eschatological orientation: God is moving his good but fallen creation toward a glorious renovation at the return of Christ. “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through” might have some traction if we are talking about the evil world structures. But if conceived of in more material terms, this perspective is sub-Christian. This created world is indeed our home and will be forever when it is purged and transfigured at the kingdom’s final in-breaking on the last day. In the meantime, all of our mundane lives—both spiritual and material, both sacred and secular—are infused with eschatological significance.
What does all this mean today, for the church? What do we do with, for instance, Paul’s instructions in Col. 2:16–17 to “. . . let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Here there are a few things to be said. First, we need to remember, as Paul says here, that Israel’s worship points forward to, is fulfilled in, and is reoriented around Jesus Christ. To the extent, therefore, that anyone insists on “going back” to those particular regulations, we need to say that new covenant believers are not under the Sinaitic Law but under Christ’s Law. Union with Christ and the fruits of his Spirit are what now distinguish us from the nations, not laws about circumcision or festivals or tattoos or shirts made of two kinds of thread. We must not put one another under a yoke of slavery to the Sinaitic Law.
But with that very important caveat in place, there are still some positive things to say about the continuity between creation and redemption and how it affects our worship. Israel did not have the rhythmic liturgy in the OT because they are fundamentally different kinds of creatures from those of us who have become members of God’s people after Christ’s first advent. God made us as embodied creatures, and Israel’s worship involves their entire person—not just their ears and brain. As we think about worship practices, we should remember that, as James K. A. Smith has put it, we are not just “brains on a stick.” God gave us, in addition to brains and ears, eyes and hands and feet and knees and noses. As Protestants, the prime place in worship goes to God’s Word, and rightly so—but that Word can be communicated in ways that involved the whole person. Preaching God’s Word is fundamental to and primary in Protestant worship, and, again, rightly so. But God’s Word can also be prayed and confessed and read and recited and visually and olfactorily proclaimed through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Furthermore, Israel’s embodied worship practices were set out at regular intervals. In other words, they were habitual and liturgical. While, again, we do not want to put one another under a yoke of slavery to the Law, we find again that this liturgical rhythm is both practical and rooted in God’s design for the world. Habits, repeated practices, liturgy, whatever you want to call it—repeating things at regular intervals forms and shapes people’s mind, body, and soul. Israel’s worship practices reflect this. The early church appears to have a similar rhythm (Acts 2:42–47; also the liturgical structure of Revelation). And, historically, the church throughout space and time has repeated the same kinds of practices in worship every week for two millennia. The church today would do well to consider the wisdom of Israel’s worship, Jesus’ fulfillment of it, and the church’s historic practice, all of which liturgically demonstrate the continuity between creation and redemption.
Finally, drawing creation and redemption into closer connection means that it isn’t just our “spiritual” exercises—whether public or private—that have eternal import. As the manifesto states, all honorable vocations (or callings) are intrinsically good. This was one of the great recoveries of the Reformation: that all Christians are called by God to meaningful service, not just the clergy. Anything we do to love and serve our neighbor for the sake of Christ—from preaching the gospel to cleaning bathrooms, from missionary work to the arts and sciences—has significance in eyes of God. This is not to say that our works will usher in the kingdom nor that we should draw hasty conclusions about whether and which cultural artifacts will survive the great purgation of the last day (2 Peter 3:10-13). But it is to say that because all of world history is in the hands of our Sovereign Lord—the one who became incarnate, who suffered, died, was buried and was raised, who has passed through the heavens and who will one day return to this earth to judge the living and the dead—because of Christ’s Lordship over history, all of our lives in every particular has eternal significance. To that end we preach and pray, but we also design and build and create and develop the good gifts of God in the service of God.