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By John H. Sailhamer
ZondervanCopyright © 1998 Zondervan
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Chapter OneThe Biblical Idea of Creation
The Bible teaches that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the world. In technical language this is known as theism. Theism is the belief in a living, personal, good God, who is distinct from the world but actively involved in it. This view is set forth clearly in Genesis 1. In verse 1, we find the notion of "creation out of nothing" (i.e., ex nihilo). Before God created the world, only God existed. He is eternal, and he made the world as an entity separate from himself and under his control.
Theism also maintains that God is a personal God. In Genesis 1:26 we find him saying, "Let us make man in our image." God speaks here as a person. The question most often asked about this verse is, "To whom does he speak? Who is the 'us' in whose image the man and the woman were created?" Though many have tried to explain away the use of the plural here, we believe that the only problem-free answer is that the plural reflects the plurality of the Godhead, the Trinity.
A third element of biblical theism is that God's will is involved with the world. God expresses his will to his special creatures (the human race). He commanded the man not to eat of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:16-17). The man and the woman must obey him if they want to continue to enjoy his blessing. God also provided for them everything that is good (note the "it was good" in 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Thus, at an early stage in the biblical narratives, we see that God is good and that he desires the good for his creatures. A central implication of these narratives is, then, that the will of God is the highest good. To find life and blessing, the man and the woman must know God's will. The goodness of God and his will form the basis of much of biblical prophecy. God has a good plan for his world. Prophecy is about that plan.
The biblical view of theism stands in stark opposition to other commonly held nonbiblical views of God. Deism is the belief in a creator God who is distinct from the world, but who is not actively involved with the world. Deism has no place for God's personal interaction with the world. The central implication of deism is that the will of man, rather than God, is the highest good. Deism thus results in humanism. A God who is not involved in the world could hardly be behind the glorious visions of biblical prophecy. Deism thus denies that God has a prophetic plan for the ages.
Another view of God not found in the Bible is pantheism-the belief that the whole of the material and immaterial world is part of the divine nature. God is the impersonal life force behind all of nature. The eternal being is manifested in the material world. A central implication of pantheism is that there is no ultimate good and evil. All is divine, both the good and evil. It is obvious that the prophetic word, which foresees the ultimate triumph of the good, has no place for pantheism.
The Biblical Idea of Divine Providence
God continues to maintain the world he created (Gen. 8:22). His act of governing the world is called providence. Not only does God cause the world to follow its own natural laws, but he also watches over it to ensure that everything goes according to his will and his divine decrees (Eph. 1:11). He makes sure that his eternal decrees are accomplished when, where, and how he intended them.
God's providence is universal-not just over the mighty forces of nature (Neh. 9:6) and the great events of history (2 Chron. 36:23), but over even the smallest natural event and the most insignificant human affair (Luke 12:7). God works in "all things" (Rom. 8:28); nothing is too insignificant to merit his attention and care. He makes the grass grow for cattle (Ps. 104:14) and waters the trees for the birds to nest in (104:16-17). All the animals look to him daily for food (104:27). The very lives of God's creatures depend on the breath God gives them. Were he to stop caring for them, they would die (104:29). He has established and maintains the laws for the ordering of day and night (Jer. 33:20). He also determines the course of human history (Prov. 21:1; Acts 17:26), raising up nations and kingdoms (Dan. 2:37) and bringing them to ruin (2:44).
If God's providential care for his creation is so extensive and pervasive, does anything ever happen by accident? Does anything escape his notice or lie outside his concern? No! When an innocent man, for example, accidentally kills another human being, the Bible says that "God lets it happen" (Ex. 21:13). When men throw dice, "its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33). Even things motivated by evil intention can accomplish God's intended good (Gen. 50:20).
Is any room left for human decisions? Are our lives totally predetermined by God? No. We as responsible human beings must plan and control our own lives, though we must not forget God's will (Prov. 16:1). We must "commit to the Lord whatever [we] do" (16:3), in order that our plans may succeed. We must say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that" (James 4:15). In other words, God's providence works through our plans and choices. Human beings always and only do what they will to do. Their will is not coerced by God's will. As Joseph told his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Gen. 50:20). Of their own will, his brothers intended their action for harm, but God intended it for good.
Biblical prophecy is dependent on the idea of divine providence because from the earliest prophecies on, the fulfillment of God's promises was made dependent both on human obedience and divine faithfulness (see Gen. 18:17-19).
Nature has two meanings, biblically speaking. Strictly speaking, it is that part of God's creation that does not have the freedom to act as it chooses. In a broader sense, however, it is all of creation-everything that exists apart from God himself (including humans and angels). There are several facets to the biblical view of nature.
(1) Nature is the product of God's eternal plan. He planned it and then created it, and now he sustains and governs it. The classic statement of the biblical view of nature comes from the church father Augustine (354-430), who taught that the world is the realization of the mind of God. To be in nature is to be in the mind of God. Augustine does not mean that we are literally inside God's mind, but that everything we see around us as nature-birds, trees, flowers, stones, lakes, rivers, clouds, stars, etc.-was once a mere thought in God's mind. He conceived, planned, and created every detail of what we now know as nature. When we thus walk through nature, we are, as it were, walking through what God planned-just as when we walk through Disneyland, we walk through the plans and thoughts of Walt Disney. Today what we know as Disneyland is the product of his mind, just as nature is the realization of God's mind. It is important to note that Augustine did not invent this biblical concept; he merely articulated it for the first time.
(2) Nature is not a part of God. It was created out of nothing (Gen. 1:1). Apart from the incarnation of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, God and nature are two distinct entities.
(3) Nature is not eternal. There was a moment when nature came into being (Gen. 1:1), and there will be a moment when it passes away in the coming fire of God's judgment (2 Peter 3:10). In its place will be a "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa. 65:17). This is probably to be understood as a restoration of God's original creation.
(4) God acts in and through nature; he also acts in opposition to nature. Both are miracles. God acted in and through nature when he sent an east wind to divide the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus (Ex. 14:21); he acted in opposition to nature when he provided the manna for the Israelites (16:4-5).
(5) Nature in itself is good. God created it good (Gen. 1:31), but it is now under his curse (Gen. 3:17b; Rom. 8:19-23). Biblical prophecy is about God's plan to restore his good creation.
(6) Nature is one means of God's revealing himself to humanity (Rom. 1:19-20). There is nothing in nature that reveals God's prophetic plan.
(7) Nature is not free. It follows a course laid out for it by God-a course that is a series of causes and effects (Eccl. 1:4-7). Biblical prophecy is based on the biblical notion that nature, the physical world, is good and plays an important role in God's future plans. The natural world is thus not something that will eventually be done away with. God has an eternal plan for this world.
Biblical and Modern Views of Nature
How does the biblical view of nature compare with the modern view? There are two contending modern views of nature: the scientific view and the New Age view, both of which stand in opposition to the biblical view.
In the modern scientific view of nature, the universe is not considered a creation. The universe has, so to speak, always existed. It is eternal. Moreover, there are no miracles in nature. All activities of nature follow a uniform course of events, operative yet today, from initial causes to their effects. Each event in this web of causes and effects has a cause sufficient to explain it and produces an effect consequent to it. Finally, all activities of nature are morally neutral. According to the modern view, there are no "good" causes and effects and there are no "bad" ones. Progress in nature is the result of the survival of the fittest.
This modern scientific view of nature is a distortion of the biblical view. It is true that all or some of nature is permanent, and that its laws are fixed and unchangeable. According to the Bible, however, nature had a beginning. There is a Creator who brought nature into existence and who will sustain it throughout all eternity. Moreover, the will of the Creator continues to hold sway in his world, determining events and causing miracles. While miracles are not the rule in this world, the Bible teaches that God sometimes uses them to accomplish his purposes. Finally, there is a distinction between good and bad events. Those events and things that bring about God's purposes for creating human beings are good, while those events and things that frustrate God's purposes are evil. In the biblical worldview, God acts according to his will and in accordance with our prayers, while the modern scientific view has little place for either.
Like the scientific view, the modern New Age view of nature teaches that the universe has no Creator above or apart from nature. Rather, it is eternal and possesses an inherent force that makes it essentially divine. That is, the world of nature is a series of manifestations of the divine essence, and human beings are themselves an aspect of the divine being. A tree or animal has equal value to a human being. Since this is so, there are no "good" aspects in nature as opposed to "bad" ones. Seen in its relationship to the whole of nature, all things are equally good.
It is not difficult to see that such a view of nature is inimical to the biblical view. God is apart from nature, and human beings, created in God's image, are the highest good in creation. God's prophetic plan of redemption has human beings primarily in view.
God's Plan of Redemption: The Old Testament
In the midst of God's judgment of the man and the woman immediately after the Fall, he did not leave humanity without hope but gave a word of promise. Though dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3), God did not abandon them to find their own way back to him. Rather, he promised to send a Redeemer, who would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) and thus restore humanity to the relationship with God they enjoyed before the Fall. As the Bible unfolds the content of that promise, we gain a greater understanding of his great plan of redemption-a plan that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
According to the divine promise, the Redeemer would be the "offspring" of a woman (Gen. 3:15), the offspring of Abraham (12:1-3), the offspring of Judah (49:8-12), and the offspring of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16). He would come from the nation of Israel, God's chosen people (Neh. 9:7), as a king (Num. 24:7, 17), and receive an eternal kingdom from God (1 Chron. 17:14; Isa. 9:7; Dan. 7:13-14). He would rule not only his own people, Israel, but also all the nations (Ps. 2:8). Through him all nations would be blessed (Ps. 72:17). He would establish that kingdom by defeating God's enemies in one last great battle (Ezek. 38:7-23; Dan. 7:26), after which the heavens and earth would be restored to their original state of beauty and perfection (Isa. 65:27). The King, though born a child, would, in fact, be the Mighty God of Israel (9:6).
But wait! There is one more detail in the original promise. The promised offspring of the woman, the one who was to crush the head of the serpent, would himself be fatally wounded. The serpent would "strike the heel" of the promised offspring (Gen. 3:15b). There was a price to be paid for redemption. Someone had to pay the penalty for humanity's sin (2:17), and God promised to provide the sacrifice (22:8, 13-14). At first, God instituted sacrifices of goats and bulls (Lev. 16:13-25), but they were insufficient for the permanent removal of the sins of the people (Ps. 51:16). The promised King would offer himself as a sacrificial lamb (Isa. 53:7). He is God's servant, "pierced for our transgressions ... crushed for our iniquities" (53:5).
But how could this servant die and yet reign forever on the throne of David? The afflicted Job, himself a suffering servant of God (Job 42:8), foresaw the end of the promise: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth" (19:25). Job foresaw the resurrection of the Promised One. Likewise, David saw that God would not let his "Holy One see decay" (Ps. 16:10; cf. Acts 2:25-32). Thus God's Servant would "be raised and lifted up and highly exalted" after giving his life as a ransom for all (Isa. 52:13b).
God's Plan of Redemption: The New Testament
The Old Testament messianic promise is fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection, and glorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament writers show that Jesus is the promised King, born in a manger; the promised prophet, rejected by his own people; and the promised high priest, who offered his own body as a sacrifice for humanity's sin.
Jesus was born as a baby into the family of David-legally through Joseph (Matt. 1:6-16) and physically through his mother Mary, herself a descendant of David (Luke 3:23-31). He was an heir to David's throne. But he was also the Son of God. At his birth, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and ... the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (1:35).
Excerpted from Biblical Prophecy by John H. Sailhamer Copyright © 1998 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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