Fill the Earth 2: Mission Frustrated

Fill the Earth 1-page-001In the first segment of this class we argued that because Jesus viewed the OT as having a missional message, in order to understand the church’s mission we need to pursue a whole-Bible theology of mission. We then looked at the creation account of Genesis 1 and saw that God’s mission in creation is for His kingship to be represented to the ends of the earth. This is the initial substantiation of the overall thesis of this class:

God’s mission in the world is for His kingship to be represented to the ends of earth.

In this second segment, we will see how humanity rejected God’s kingship and how the aftermath of that rejection resulted in a frustration of our ability to engage in mission.

Humanity’s Fall: Rejection of God’s Kingship

In the Garden, God gave humanity both grace and responsibility. After God created humanity, Gen 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the language of “working” and “keeping” is used together only to describe the priests and Levites “working” and “keeping” the tabernacle (Num 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:7). This indicates that Adam was given the privileged responsibility of serving as a priest, one who works in the special presence of God.

Gen 2:16 then follows, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.'” This is the first time the verb “command” is used in Scripture, and as we see here, it is a very gracious command: “Freely eat!” God’s grace always precedes His law.

The exception is then stated in v. 17: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Just as creation obeyed God’s kingly word (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” [Gen 1:3]), so must humanity, the pinnacle of creation, obey His kingly word.

So in creation we see God’s extending great privilege and grace to humanity, yet also holding them responsible to submit to His authority as the sovereign King, demonstrated by their obedience to His word.

In the Fall, humanity rejected God’s grace and responsibility. When we look at Satan’s and Eve’s conversation, we see that Satan directly contradicts God’s word and that Eve doesn’t know God’s word well.

God’s words

Serpent’s and Eve’s words

Gen 2:16: “You may surely eat of every tree in the garden.”
Gen 3:1: “Did God actually say, ‘You may surely not eat of every tree in the garden’?”
Gen 2:17a:
“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,”
Gen 3:3: “but God said,
‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die”
Gen 2:17b: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Gen 3:4: “But the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not surely die.”

As this table shows, Satan’s word directly contradicted God’s word (Gen 3:1, 4), and Eve made God more restrictive than He was (Gen 3:3). By subsequently acting on Satan’s word rather than obeying God (Gen 3:6), humanity rejected God as King, along with the grace and responsibility He had extended, and instead treated Satan as king.

After the Fall, God cursed humanity’s ability to carry out the mission. After Adam and Eve sinned we read this:

“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'” (Gen 3:16)

In creation, God had commissioned humanity to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Here in 3:16 is the next occurrence of the verb “multiply,” only now God is multiplying the woman’s pain in being fruitful! This is a direct frustration of the creation mission.

God then turned to address the man:

“And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field'” (Gen 3:17-18).

Whereas God had previously given the gracious command to “freely eat” (Gen 2:16), now humanity will survive only through pain and toil.

What all of this shows us is that our fallen state involves not simply our separation from God but also a crippling of our ability to engage in mission. This sets the stage for redemption to include not simply our reconciliation with God but also our restoration for mission.

Humanity’s Decline: Rejection of God’s Mission

The post-fall world was characterized by murder, which is the opposite of the creation mission. That is, instead of the multiplication of God’s image, murder is the reduction of God’s image. We see this problem of murder and violence escalate as we move throughout the various narratives of Gen 4-9.

Genesis 4

In the first post-fall narrative, Cain kills his brother Abel (Gen 4:1-16).

Next we read of a man named Lamech who killed a person and boasted to his wives about it.

23 Lamech said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold'” (Gen 4:23-24).

The word I’ve underlined here–“man”–is the normal Hebrew word for a man. However, the italicized word–“young man”–actually means “child” (Heb. yeled). Significantly, the verb from the same root (Heb. yalad) means “to give birth” and was used in God’s curse of the woman, “in pain you shall bring forth children (yalad)” (Gen 3:16). So not only is Lamech’s murder an escalation from the account of Cain and Abel (which Lamech says in v. 24), but it also alludes to the curse on the woman and shows that this act is the opposite of the creation mission.

Genesis 6-9

By the time of Noah, this problem of violence had become a worldwide epidemic:

1 When men began to multiply on the earth… (sons of God marry the daughters of men)… 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great [lit. “multiplied”] in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:1, 5).

The problem here is that although people were “multiplying” on the earth, rather than multiplying as faithful God-representing images, they were “multiplying” wickedness. This persisted until the earth was filled with violence:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11).

“And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (Gen 6:13).

After the original mandate in 1:28, these verses are the next descriptions of the “earth” being “filled.” However, rather than being filled with God’s faithful images representing His kingship, the earth is filled with violence, the opposite of the creation mission.

And it’s clear that murder as the reduction of God’s image in rebellion against God’s creation mandate is the heart of the issue here because of what God tells Noah and his sons after the flood.

6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for as the image of God did He make man. 7 But you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply on it” (Gen 9:6-7).

Capital punishment is prescribed here because humans are God’s image. In contrast to this, Noah and his sons were to re-engage in the original creation mission (v. 7). This shows us that the mission of God in the world has not changed even after sin entered the world.

The post-fall world was characterized by centralization, which is the opposite of the creation mission. We see this rejection of God’s mission in the account of the tower of Babel.

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (Gen 11:1-2).

By “settling there” and centralizing in one place, humanity was not “filling the earth” as God commanded both Adam (1:28) and Noah (9:1, 7). As the account progresses we see why humanity was doing this.

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth'” (Gen 11:4).

Rather than filling the earth and thereby extending God’s kingly glory, they wanted to centralize and “make a name for themselves.” The way they attempt to do this is through their tower.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a tower “with its top in the heavens” was a standard way of referring to a ziggurat,* which was a pyramid-looking structure with a large staircase, at the top of which was a shrine for the city’s patron deity. It is important to note that the ziggurat was not for the people to ascend to the deity but for the deity to descend from heaven to earth.

So, despite popular understandings of this story, the people building the tower of Babel were not trying to get to heaven by their own efforts. Rather, they were trying to localize God to the place they had chosen. Rather than spreading across the earth for His name, they were centralizing for their own name. They essentially wanted to be known as those who created the place where God came to earth (significantly, “Babel” means “gate of God”).

In response to this, God frustrated their plans:

“‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (Gen 11:7-8).

Here God (1) confused their language, thereby creating the “nations,” and (2) scattered them over the face of the earth. It is this climactic rebellion against God’s creation mission that gave rise to the nations of the earth.

Implications

As we begin to discuss the issue of “going to the nations” in subsequent lessons, we need to remember that the reason going to the nations is important is not because God likes diversity, but because the nations have been scattered across the fullness of the earth. Therefore, reaching the nations with “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23) is the avenue by which God’s people are to fill the earth. This means that missions has a specifically geographic concern.

This implies that the church needs to be strategic geographically when considering the missionary endeavor. We need to view the goal of international missions as filling the earth, not simply going somewhere else indiscriminately.

In the next segment we’ll see how God responds to the confused situation in the wake of the Babel debacle by calling Abram and promising to the bless the nations through him.

 

* For a helpful discussion of the ziggurat and the Mesopotamian background to the tower of Babel account, see John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 119-123.

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3 Responses to Fill the Earth 2: Mission Frustrated

  1. Pingback: Fill the Earth 3: Mission Resumed | Newkirks in Japan

  2. Pingback: Fill the Earth 4: Mission Organized | Newkirks in Japan

  3. Pingback: Fill the Earth 5: Mission Failed | Newkirks in Japan

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