Are we rescuing souls off a damned planet? Are we fleeing a sinking ship? Does the world really matter to God? The mission of the local church must be shaped by a deep understanding of the value of this world—that God has made something truly ‘good’. This truth must shape mission.
Sharing in Christ’s mission means sharing in Christ’s affection for his world. Sharing Christ’s affection for the world immerses God’s people in the life of the world, grieving its brokenness and celebrating its life.
As obvious as this sounds, the value of the world is often downplayed in expressions of mission. For example, the great revivalist D. L. Moody once said:
I look at this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat, and said to me, “Moody, save all you can. God will come in judgement and burn up this world… The world is getting darker and darker; its ruin is coming nearer and nearer. If you have any friends on this wreck unsaved, you had better lose no time in getting them off.” (D.L. Moody)
Is Moody’s assessment of the world correct? It is pressing that our mission is shaped and deepened by a robust theology of creation. In its original context, Genesis Chapter 1 challenges a worldview that could diminish the value of the world. It challenges the assumptions of the ancient Near East (ANE), that often viewed the world as an accidental consequence of the life of the gods.
For Israel’s neighbours the world was caught up in the life of the gods. In Babylonian thought, for example, night fell as the sun god, ‘Shamash’ travelled through the netherworld giving light and food to its miserable residents. For ancient Egyptians the sun god Re travelled on his night barque. Stars served as oarsman and demons attacked him on his journey.
On the one hand, the world’s relation to the gods in the ANE gave the world a certain order and reliability. On the other hand, since the character and morality of the gods was no better than the character of humanity, life could be unpredictable. The gods could be good or bad, joyful or belligerent. Thus life could be erratic and the question of which god to placate at a given time was difficult to answer.
A Whole New World
Genesis Chapter one challenges the worldview of the ANE. Using the motifs and structures of its surrounding culture, Genesis give the world and humanity a serious upgrade!
Day 1 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (vs 3-4)
Unpredictable gods may behave erratically in the ANE. Israel’s God speaks with creative authority. Design and order pervade. Since the world is made with design, life in the world is not fatalistic; life can be lived with confidence.
Day 2 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” (vs 6-8)
The waters of the sky and sea are separated. In Babylonian mythology Marduk, the chief deity, slays the goddess Tiamat, who represents water. He severs her corpse in two and the halves of her body form the watery sky above and the sea below. For Israel however the world is not the collateral damage of cosmic violence but a gift.
Day 3 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.”… and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation… and God saw that it was good (vs 9-13).
In the world of the ANE evil lurked, threatening stability. Genesis 1 however states seven times that the creation is ‘good’. Seven is a symbolic number of completeness.
Day 4 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens… And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night (vs 14-19)
In the ANE the sun, moon and stars are divine. For Israel they are mere creatures, playing a valuable but limited part in the symphony of creation. Lest they be worshipped, the author even avoids using their names, referring to them as ‘greater light’, and ‘lesser light’!
Day 5 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures… So God created the great sea dragons (vs 20-22).
The sea dragons (hebrew: tnn) are powerful rivals whom the Canaanite gods conquer. Here the ‘tnn’ is just one kind of aquatic animal created by God. Creation is non-threatening and stable.
Day 6 …Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…
In the ANE humankind was created as an afterthought to care for the gods. The primary responsibility of humankind was to provide the gods with food. By offering sacrifices of produce and animals, humanity kept the gods well fed and well disposed toward them. Genesis reverses the role of humankind. Instead of humanity serving the gods, humanity is the climax of creation, privileged to image God to the world! The world is shaped for the benefit and delight of humanity. This is one of the biggest differences between the ANE worldview, and that of Israel.
Looking at Genesis Chapter 1 in its ancient near eastern context is illuminating. Israel’s creation account is not only an explanation of ‘how we got here’, but challenges the prevailing worldview. It asks fundamental questions: what is this world like? What is the purpose of humanity? At risk of simplification we could imagine that the chapter answers these questions by waving a giant banner over the whole world that advertises: this world matters to God! The underside of the banner might read: ‘a first class world’. What God has created is truly ‘good’.
Or perhaps we might summarise Genesis Chapter 1’s view of the world with these four points:
- At the heart of reality is a generous God
- This world matters to God
- The world is good and delightful
- The world is ordered, made with design
The mission of the local church must be shaped by a deep appreciation of the value of this world. For the practical implications of Genesis Chapter 1 for the mission of the local church shortly see part #2.
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