The mission of God is not to get people saved. Now that I likely have your attention, let me also acknowledge that getting people saved is an essential piece of God’s present work in the world. However, we need to view God’s mission from God’s vantage point rather than from ours. Failure to do so has the inevitable result of making it all us.
The mission of God in the world is to establish and sustain a shalom-filled world that is overflowing in relationship with him. It is a world where his image is reflected through his eikons to the rest of the created order, to each other, and back to God. It is a world where his eikons exercise co-creative dominion over the created order and bring all things to their fullest state of existence.
As we look at humanity in this mission we can see that we were created for relationship with God. But we must ask a critical question of the biblical narrative: Why did God create material beings for such a relationship? God could have created non-material beings for relationship. Indeed, the widely held belief across much of Christianity today is that when we die we will enter into an eternal non-material existence.
I believe the answers are there in the first two chapters of Genesis. God creates and it is good! But it is also incomplete. First God creates the first human couple and makes them co-regents with him over the earth. Then he instructs them to “fill the earth.” Why? So that the whole earth may be filled with his image; so that the ongoing work of creation and bringing the world to its fullness may be pursued.
Here we need to make a critical observation about human action. Darrell Cosden stresses that for humanity, the created order is both our home and the object of our work. We are material beings made for a material world. We are organically intertwined in the biological and material realities of the created order but we also have a mandate to “work” the created order into a higher vision. Understood in this way, our “working” of the created order includes human culture and governance because we are part of the created order. We are “other” from creation. Thus romantic naturalism is a violation of God’s creation mandate but so is trashing the environs we were given as our home.
We are to be about converting matter, energy, and information from less useful states to more useful states … from lesser configurations to higher configurations …, where “useful” and “higher” is thoroughly shaped by shalom. Converting matter, energy, and information … and then distribution of the product of these conversions … is essentially economics.
The very word “economics” has strong linkage to the biblical context. The word finds its origin in the Greek word oikonomos, meaning “household manager.” The oikonomos was the most trusted servant within the Greco-Roman household of Jesus’ day. The household was every bit as much a business as a dwelling. The archetype master of the household was seen to be above daily affairs and frequently absent from the from household. The oikonomos was responsible for seeing that the household was both protected and productive. Jesus uses oikonomos as a metaphor for our labors on his behalf and it actually serves as striking metaphor for the human commission given in the first two chapters of Genesis.
Chapter three of Genesis and succeeding chapters relate to us the consequences of human rebellion against God’s shalom. Economic questions are central to the consequences. Included within those consequences are the refusal of the ground to yield its produce and the corruption of human relationships into greed, dishonesty, oppression, and murder. Efforts at human dominion were deeply corrupted.
The ninth chapter of Genesis records God’s reiteration to Noah of the command he gave Adam and Eve to the “fill the earth.” Chapter eleven records God’s scattering of the people across the earth in response to their explicit refusal to do be scattered at Babel. Chapter twelve begins the saga of a people through whom all nations will be blessed and the curse reversed. The Old Testament gives us a record of God’s efforts to use Israel is as light to all the nations, drawing all people to himself. The New Testament tells us of Jesus instruction to take his redeeming message and power to “the ends of the earth” in order that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The new creation will be consummated into a shalom-filled created order wherein God’s eikons are redeemed and restored to their co-regent status as they “fill the earth” with his image.
It is my conviction that new creation is exactly that … a creation … not an ethereal non-material existence. That is not to say that the present creation is utterly continuous with what is to come but neither is it utterly discontinuous. The imagery of I Thessalonians 4 is of Christ (figuratively) coming to the clouds of above the earth, the dead rising to meet him, followed by the living, and then the great throng ushering him into his kingdom on the earth. The image of Revelation is of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to the earth. In some sense, what we are doing in this world carries over into the new creation but it is perilous to be too dogmatically specific about what this entails. If the new creation is not in some sense material and in some sense a continuation of the present creation, then the language of “redeemed creation” is nonsensical. God doesn’t prevail in his stated mission to have shalom in a world filled with his eikons. Furthermore, human ontology (i.e., material beings created for dominion of a material world) becomes an aberrant experiment that must be radically discarded by for some alternate state of existence, which is to say that no redemption has truly occurred.
Finally, we need to be clear here about a frequently perpetuated inaccuracy concerning the biblical narrative. The biblical narrative begins with shalom in a garden. Contrary to frequent misrepresentations, the biblical narrative does not end with shalom in a garden. It ends with shalom in a city! Cities were not only places of worship but also symbols of human culture, art, and governance. Thus, the biblical narrative ends with the redemption of … not the obliteration of … the human contribution to the created order. Economic labors are not transitory acts absent of intrinsic value. They are contributive to the ultimate and eternal mission of God as presented in the second paragraph of this post. Jesus' ministry is about the total redemption of humanity and the created order and this includes the redemption of human labor.
So if we see the mission of God from this vantage point, what does it mean for our Christian witness in the world?