The Big Picture – Biblical Theology
If we are to make wise, Biblical decisions about communion, then we need the big picture. There are two perspectives on this. Biblical Theology which we will look at in this post is all about seeing how the Biblical story of redemption unfolds and different themes develop within it. Systematic Theology is all about what the Bible has to say about any given topic. In this post we look at Biblical Theology.
Gathering a people
One theme within Biblical Theology is that God is gathering a people to himself. In fact, we can sometimes sum up the themes within it as God, gathering a people to live in his place/presence under his rule or blessing.
Therefore, the pinnacle of creation happens when God makes man in his own image and breathes life into dust. Man is made in his image. God’s purpose is for a whole family of people and nations to worship him and to look after creation. This meant that it was not good for man to be alone and God forms woman from man, a helper, like him, equal to him in nature but distinct in role. She is called Eve, the mother of life. Adam and Eve are blessed by God and told to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the earth. Scattering out is therefore not in and of itself negative but part of our work in creation.
However, after the fall, the first humans were exiled from the Garden. Scattering through exile develops a negative connotation. There is still a divine purpose to it but it comes with a loss of blessing. This is seen again after the flood when the people try to gather in their own name at Babel and are scattered. At the same time, God’s creation purpose that they should spread out over the earth is fulfilled as they also fall under a curse.
Abraham’s call is both a scattering, he is called out from his people and a gathering, he is called to the land God has giving him. There he is expected to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the land. The people then experience exile from the land in Egypt before coming back to the land during the Exodus.
This part is important because the Passover was an annual reminder that God called his people out of slavery in ~Egypt to be gathered together in the land promised to them. Along the way, those sinning or unclean were sent outside the camp. However, a scapegoat driven outside the camp may act as their substitute. When they arrive in Canaan they are expected to spread out and scatter into the land. This is a good thing, they are to subdue the land and fill it. They are then expected to gather or assemble to hear God speak to them, to offer sacrifices for sin and to celebrate God’s goodness through festivals.
Sadly sin and rebellion leads once more to scattering through exile and the people are taken to Babylon. Prophets such as Isaiah as well as warning about exile promise that the people will return, there will be a great gathering back to the promised land at to Jerusalem. Not only that but people from all nations will be gathered together.
Jesus comes and begins to gather a people. He appoints 12 disciples reflecting the 12 tribes, they are called to follow him. They are sent out to proclaim the kingdom and gather with good reports of healing. When Jesus is betrayed and arrested, the prophecy that if the shepherd is struck then the sheep will scatter is fulfilled. The disciples scatter on good Friday in fear but are gathered together on Easter Sunday to see the risen Jesus. Jesus himself is crucified outside the city or outside the camp as a scapegoat exile. He is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. When the Holy Spirit comes, this leads to a great in gathering of new believers. Persecution leads to the early church being scattered out from Jerusalem and into the whole Roman Empire. They are compelled to cross ethnic boundaries so that Gentiles hear the Gospel.
The weekly pattern for believers is normally that we gather together on Sunday to be strengthened by God’s word as we praise him together. We then scatter into the world to work in it and to share the good news.
The final hope of believers is that God’s enemies will be scattered and experience the exile of hel. Meanwhile God’s people will be gathered into his presence around the throne.
Food For Life
I am grateful to people like Stefan Jenkins and Marc Lloyd for drawing my attention to the role that food plays in Biblical Theology. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve are provided with all the fruit they could desire in the Garden of Eden. They are nourished in order that they can set out into the world to subdue and till it. There are two fruit trees at the centre of the Garden, one leads to life and the other to death. People have speculated on what caused the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to lead to death. Did the writer think it was magical or did it contain poison? My view is that the fruit trees function sacramentally. By taking and eating, Adam and Eve were signally by their outward actions the re-orientation of their hearts.
I want to emphasise here the connection between what they thought and felt with their actions. The two were joined together. We have learnt from behavioural studies that there is a close connection between thoughts, feelings and actions. They influence each other. So, eating the fruit actually did something. It was more than a mere visual aid. Something changes to Adam when he eats. He has put his thoughts into action and the actions shape his thoughts. He is changed.
Eating the forbidden fruit leads to exile. Exile is spiritual death. Exiled people are barred from eating from the Tree of Life. This may just well be important later when we start to apply this to the question of communion.
Food becomes crucial to the people of Israel. There are commanded meals like the Passover. There are the normal day to day permitted meals and there are forbidden meals when the animal is unclean. God gives the people food to eat (manna and quails) as they journey. He gives them water to drink from the rock. Daniel and his friends in exile are willing to take on the names and language of Babylon but persist in refusing to eat the forbidden food. Destruction comes to the city of Babylon as the King feasts.
So, we come to Jesus and he announces that he is the Bread of Life. He tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He institutes a supper based on eating the bread and drinking the cup of wine at Passover. He declares that he himself is the bread and the wine. It is as he breaks bread with disciples that they recognise him. He proves he is risen by eating fish. He cooks a breakfast for his followers by the shore of Galilee. Eating together represents togetherness, peace and fellowship.
Greek and Shakespearian comedy is the opposite of tragedy. It is not about lols and jokes. Rather it is about stories with triumphant endings. The happy ending was often marked by a wedding feast. So, guess what? The story of redemption finishes with a wedding feast as Christ comes for his bride.
In the middle of the story
If you want to understand narrative, then you need to know where you are in the story. So, where are we in God’s big story. We sometimes use the phrase “we are in the now and the not yet.” This means that we are between Christ’s first and second coming. It means we can celebrate the redemption already won at calvary. It means there are blessings to enjoy now but it also means we are looking forward with longing hope to a better day.
We are between the scattering of Eden and the gathering of the 2nd Coming. This means that we experience both scattering and gathering today. We are between the Last Supper and the Wedding Feast. This means that there is a meal to enjoy now and a better meal to come.