Stories come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. For most stories, there are usually various layers of storylines that overlap and interweave together to form the overall story.
Think of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, where our eponymous protagonist is sent by her mother to deliver a basket of goodies to her sickly grandmother.
I'm sure you might be familiar with the plot complication caused by the Big Bad Wolf? He arrives on the scene, stalks the Little Red Riding hood for a while (pretty creepy...), approaches her and discovers she's on her way to her grandmother. He tricks Little Red Riding Hood to go pick some flowers for her grandmother while he darts off to swallow the grandmother! Then he gets dressed in the grandmother's clothes, tricks the Little Girl into believing that he is the grandmother ("What a deep voice you have!" "All the better to greet you with..."), and then swallows up the Little Red Riding Hood.
(yes... this is an incredibly dark and scary story and, yes... it's weird that this is a story small children are told just before bed... But let's just put all that aside for now.)
Fortunately, most versions of the story don't end there. A hunter or woodsman arrives, cuts the wolf open and Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed.
The story is still not finished.
Since the story began with Little Red Riding Hood trying to deliver the basket of goodies to her grandmother, the story properly ends when Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother (and now also the woodsman/hunter) have a picnic together.
So what's the most basic plot line here? To be clear, when I say 'basic' I don't mean 'simple', but rather I mean the most foundational element, upon which the other strands of the story are based.
Even in this simple fairy tale, there are various plot levels. But, the most basic storyline refers to the Little Red Riding Hood delivering a basket of goodies to her grandmother. A whole lot happens in the middle of this, but this is the most basic strand of the story. It starts and ends on this basic plot line, and it sits in the background while the rest of the chaos ensues.
What is the most basic storyline of the Bible?
Have a little think before reading on... What do you think is the most basic, foundational storyline of the Bible?
Many theologians, including Richard Middleton and NT Wright, see it like this:
The most basic storyline of the Bible is that God has created humanity to rule and reign over the earth, with and for God.
Think of the broad Bible storyline. In particular, think about how the Bible views the task or vocation of humanity in the beginning and at the end.
In the beginning...
In Genesis 1:26-28 - the divinely commissioned human vocation is described as ruling over all creation:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’
At the end:
In the final book of the bible, in Revelation 5, there's a climactic scene of God's cosmic throne. In this scene once the slain Lamb is revealed as the true king, a song of praise erupts. But notice what this Slain Lamb has achieved through its death:
And they sang a new song, saying:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.’
This idea, that God has created humanity to rule and reign over creation, starts at the very beginning of the Bible story and runs all the way through to the end, and it rears its head in all sorts of ways throughout the twisting and weaving of the Bible's storyline. This such a massive theme that it's difficult to comment on it succinctly in a little blog post... But here's a few quick thoughts which I think are interesting and important.
Is every human made with the purpose of royal rulership?
Often the idea that God sees us as kings and queens is thrown around in church circles in fairly romantic, sentimental ways. It seems that this is usually referred to to communicate that we are important, and that God likes us and thinks highly of us. This might be true, but it misses the biblical weight of this idea.
In the Bible, the idea of royalty is about purpose and responsibility.
It really hit home for me when I saw this idea expressed visually.
In the Ancient Near East (the world in which ancient Israel lived and in which the Old Testament was written), the common worldview held that the gods mediated their divine power and presence to the world through a king or a queen. This position of royalty was restricted to only a few people, and was seen as and mediator of the presence and will of the gods on earth.
The presence and lordship of the god(s) were mediated through the king/queen to the people and nations of the world and all of creation.
The Biblical story draws on this thinking, but also completely subverts it in an exciting and provocative way.
Rather than this divine responsibility being given to only a handful of political leaders (kings and queens), the outrageous claim of the Bible is that every single person, irrespective of their social standing, sex, race, geography, or financial means, is entrusted with this task. Or perhaps more accurately, we, together as humanity, have been entrusted with this task.
John Mark Comer puts it like this:
"The theology of the image of God in Genesis was, and still is, subversive and stunning. It claims that all human beings - not just those of royal blood, not just the oligarchy of society, not just white men - all of us are made in the image of God."
What does it mean to rule over creation?
If I'm honest, as soon as I hear the words "rule over" I start to feel a little concerned and disillusioned. For me, it invokes too many stories of people using their power to reinforce their own standing and welfare, while ignoring or adding to other people's plight. Sadly, all too often the church (both the institution, and individual Christian leaders) has been guilty of such a use of power.
One of the main things the story of the Bible shows us is that when we use our power and privilege in this way, things go bad. There are countless examples of awful kings in the bible. In fact, there are several books in the Bible where the main point of the whole book is demonstrating the terrible effects of awful self-serving, power-hungry, idol-worshipping kings.
Rather than trying to ignore or do away with the Bible's royal vocation for humanity, we need to let the Bible reshape our understanding of what it means to "rule and reign over the earth".
So much could and should be said about this. But two quick thoughts for now...
Firstly, in Genesis 2:15 the human task is described in more detail. It is described as tilling (working/developing) and keeping (protecting/caring for/observing) creation. The Bible presents the Garden of Eden as good, but unfinished. There are raw materials and beautiful jewels described in a way that invites the reader to ponder what humanity ought to do with them.
One Hebrew scholar views the rulership of humanity as an invitation to "actively partner with God in taking the world somewhere".
Richard Middleton puts it like this:
The royal task of exercising power to transform the earthly environment into a complex sociocultural world that glorifies the creator is thus a holy task, a sacred calling, in which the human race as God's image on earth manifests something of the creator's own lordship over the cosmos.
So, the first idea is that the Bible story invites us to see our sacred, royal called as looking after, developing and making the most of the raw materials in God's created world. In Genesis 1 and 2, the idea of 'rulership' is subverted: Rather than it being about sitting in a high tower and being served by others, 'rulership' is shown to look more like a farmer caring for and protecting the land for the sake of all. 'Rulership' is about creatively unfurling the latent potential of creation, such that the flourishing of the Garden of Eden is extended everywhere, to all people and every part of creation.
Secondly, we need to let our idea of 'ruling' be shaped by Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Jesus used his divine position to lovingly and sacrificially serve others. Jesus showed us what truly good rulership looks like.
In a sense, being a Christian, is finding yourself caught up in this story, captivated by Jesus as the perfect King and image of God, and impelled to live as a sacrificial servant-ruler in Creation.
Little Red Riding Hood got caught up in the distracting, destructive presence of the Big Bad Wolf, and needed the help of the hunter/woodsman.
Another part of being a Christian, I think, is realising our inability to be the kind of humans (read 'kings and queens') that this world so desperately needs. Our sin, in all its forms and manifestations distorts and distracts us from our original calling.
And this is why we turn to Jesus, the perfect King, the perfect reflection of God's loving leadership, and the One who has, through self-giving love conquered over sin and death itself.
Again and again, we turn our gaze to Jesus - to recalibrate our hearts and reshape our vision.
Again and again, we draw near to the Living Presence of the Nazarene Rabbi, seeking to be fashioned and formed by his Spirit so that we will increasingly live out our royal vocation in ways that reflect the Holy God and cause the flourishing of all creation - human and nonhuman.
May you sense the Spirit of the Servant-King with you today, leading, guiding, showing you the way.
Some questions to ponder:
When have you done something creative, or made something beautiful that contributed towards our sacred calling of creatively and responsibly 'taking the world somewhere'?
If ruling/tilling/keeping of creation is humanity's vocation, how might this inform our thoughts around climate change?
If you're created to be a 'ruler' with royal responsibility within God's created world, what kind of a 'ruler' are you? What type of world are you contributing to bringing about?
Diversity & Inclusion is a big conversation in our cultural moment. In what ways does this basic Bible storyline speak into that conversation?
A prevalent 'story' in the church is about 'going to heaven when you die'. In what ways might this contrast and conflict with the Bible's storyline of humanity made to rule on earth with and for God?
Three books have been particularly helpful to my thinking on this subject, and I wanted to mention them and commend them to you:
John Mark Comer: Garden City - a very easy but profound read. Super accesible - you won't need to have any prior theological understanding to get into this one. It engages both the role/meaning/purpose of work, and the need for rest and Sabbath.
J Richard Middleton: A New Heaven and a New Earth - an academic but readable assessment of the theme of New Creation which runs through the Bible. One of my favourite books of all time.
Andy Crouch: Culture Making - a detailed exploration of the vocational task of creating culture (rather than just copying or consuming culture) from a thoughtful, and philosophically astute thinker.