My wife and I own a private helicopter.

Well, actually we don’t, but we do have Google Earth, which is the next best thing.

It was a boon when, recently, we planned to move house. The estate agent’s blurb listed room-sizes and facilities, plus distances to local schools and shops. But for a bird’s eye view of the property we turned to Google Earth. From our virtual helicopter we could spot footpaths that didn’t show up on maps. We could work out the most direct route to the beach and to the town centre. Brilliant!

There’s a biblical equivalent of this approach. It can do wonders for Christians trapped in the narrow alleys of ‘Jesus-and-me’, with no vision beyond getting a blessed Bible thought to see them through the day. They need to take off in the chopper and view the bigger picture of God’s plan. I’m the pilot today, so jump in and I’ll take you up. You’ll see God’s plan spread out below us.

‘And what exactly is his plan?’ you ask, as the ‘copter takes off.

Well, put simply, it is to glorify himself by sorting out the mess.

The mess affects people. Some are born with spina bifida or cerebral palsy. Youngsters in children’s hospices lie tubed up and pale, dying of cancer. People become blind or deaf. Others suffer a stroke or heart attack and need care for the rest of their lives. All of us grow old, wear out and eventually die.

Then there’s the mental and emotional mess. Some folk carry the scars of childhood trauma. Others become hoarders, living in a house full of garbage, or they turn obsessive, or imagine they are Mussolini, or hear voices telling them to kill. Depression drives people to suicide.

The worst problems are perhaps the moral ones. People turn to crime, to cruelty, to exploitation. They bully and tyrannise the weak. They yield to alcohol or drugs, wrecking their lives and those of their families. People steal. They lie and murder. They grind down the poor as they makes themselves rich.

But the rot extends beyond people to the whole of the natural world. Next door’s dog savages the cat that invades its patch. On TV we watch wildlife, admiring the beauty of zebras and lions, only to shuffle on the sofa as the lion sinks its teeth into the zebra’s neck before feeding on its still-warm corpse. The cat pounces on the chaffinch or the mouse. The bird pecks the greenfly off the roses. It’s all killing.

Then Planet Earth, throbbing with energy, lashes out with natural catastrophes. An undersea earthquake triggers a tsunami that sweeps thousands to their death, or one inland brings down buildings, crushing people below. Tornadoes wreck cities. Floods destroy in a few hours livelihoods that have taken a lifetime to build up. Volcanoes erupt. Lightning strikes. Fires rage.

Yes, it’s a mess. There’s something seriously wrong. How it came about we just don’t know. If you believe that Adam was a literal person and Eden a real place you may put as least some of the problem down to ‘the Fall’. If evolution figures in your view of origins you have to come up with a different suggestion. But, on either scenario, the world’s deep problems have always been around, or if they haven’t, they have been around so long that they might as well have been.

Now, if there is a God, and if by definition he is omnipotent, why did he ever allow things to get to this pass? Again, we don’t know. And when knowing runs out, trust has to take over. Here’s where Christians get a handle on the situation. We believe in a God who declares himself to be love,[1] and even though we can’t grasp how the universal mess and a loving God fit together, we trust that he cares, that somehow he remains in charge, that he has a plan to sort it out, and that he knows what he’s doing.

And what is he doing? How is he sorting out the mess? What is it that we have climbed into the helicopter hoping to see?

We want to be assured that God is steering things towards a solution, and the Bible affirms that he is. Yes, he will one day put the whole thing to rights. One day, not just people, but the whole natural world, will be released from the tyranny of sin, decay, pain, sickness and death to enjoy the reign of peace and unity, wholeness and harmony, life and joy—with Jesus in charge![2]

Ah, we’ve gained height now. Look over there: see how Jehovah, at an early stage of The Plan, called a Babylonian pagan called Abram to leave his country and culture and develop his relationship with the one true God. As Abraham obeyed, God promised, ‘Abraham, you’ll be the key to piping my blessing to every nation on earth. You’ll be the thin end of the wedge by which I’ll get in to sort out everybody and everything.’[3]

God’s contact continued with Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. And then—see the major change down there!—it grew from family-size to nation-size. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and his twelve sons became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel—the Jewish people.

The Old Testament tells their story. They grew to become a populous nation, but living as slaves in Egypt. Enter Moses. He was God’s man who, in the great Exodus, led them out of slavery and set them on their way to the Promised Land of Canaan. That was the territory God had promised to give them, where they could settle as a free nation under God.[4]

That would be the means to a bigger end, because God gave the Jewish nation a clear mandate: they were to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’.[5] As the Jews honoured God by living in tune with his Law, they would enjoy such a quality of life that the Gentiles would notice. ‘Excuse me’, they would say, ‘but we can’t help noticing what a together bunch of people you are. Your family life and national life are outstanding, and we’re intrigued. We’d like to know the secret so that we can live that way ourselves.’ And Israel would reply, ‘Well, it’s simple really. We just honour the one true God and live our lives in line with his ways.’ Whereupon the Gentiles would devote themselves to God and enjoy his blessing.

Unfortunately the ‘light to the Gentiles’ went out. Far from exporting God’s blessings to their Gentile neighbours, the Jews hogged them to themselves. They became proud and stand-offish. They looked down on ‘Gentile dogs’. Even worse, by their sinfulness they failed to honour God, so his promised blessings of unity and harmony quickly faded. The nation began to fall apart. In the end things got so bad that God was obliged, in his justice, to impose the ultimate sanction: exile. Look down there—it’s a blot on the landscape: the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded the land. They sacked its capital, Jerusalem, and razed to the ground the Temple where Israel’s worship of God took place. Then they dragged away the leading citizens into exile in Babylon. All of which served to put the Gentiles off God more than ever.[6] The Plan, it seems, was having a few wobbles.

Israel’s prophets, however, promised an end to the exile. And in due course it happened: a few exiled Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, rebuild their Temple and get the worship of God started again. But it was all a rather weak and half-hearted affair. The Jews remained under foreign domination—technically they were still in exile, even though back in their own land.

And that was the state of affairs as the Old Testament story drew to a close. It continued through the 400-year period between the testaments. The foreign domination of Israel begun with the Persians passed to the Greeks, and after that to the Romans. As the New Testament story began, Roman soldiers policed the streets of Palestine and ran the country.

In these circumstances the Jews were quick to latch onto the promises delivered by their prophets, promises of someone called the Messiah.[7] He would be God’s representative and would come to deliver Israel.[8] But he was an enigmatic figure, because sometimes the prophets seemed to say that God himself would be the one to deliver the nation.[9] How could the Messiah be, at the same time, both God himself and God’s representative? But whoever he was, he would deliver Israel.[10] But from what? Well, from Roman oppression, of course. That’s what every first-century Jew believed. The Messiah would run the Romans out of the country and give the Jews pride of place among the nations.

Now look closely down below: there’s a major landmark coming up. It was in this climate of expectation that Jesus appeared on the scene.

He didn’t seem to be a military man at all, but those closest to him recognised in him someone unique and significant. Peter, one of his disciples, blurted out one day in a moment of spiritual insight: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’[11] Jesus accepted Peter’s assessment, but told the disciples not to make it public—it could prompt some Jews to hijack him and try to force him into a military role. Meanwhile, his miraculous powers and captivating talk drew the crowds, and many quietly entertained the hope that, when his support-base was big enough, he would adopt a military posture and do the business.

The crucifixion dashed their hopes. They expected Jesus to drive the Romans from the country; instead, the Romans executed him in the most humiliating way. God’s rescue plan, first for the Jews and then for the whole world, seemed completely off-track.

But—aha! Stand by for an unexpected turn of events down there: God brought Jesus back to life!

It seems so flat saying it like that. At this point we really need a drum roll, a fanfare of trumpets and a booming voice over the tannoy declaring, ‘He is risen!’ This was the most mind-boggling event in history! It was to turn the whole world upside down!

Certainly it transformed the disciples. After the crucifixion they had been fearful and despairing: ‘We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel…’[12] Now, in the wake of the resurrection, they were as bold as brass, standing tall with a challenging message of hope to all who would listen.

Some today say that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. His alleged ‘rising’ was merely ‘in the hearts of his followers’, a kind of sanctified wishful thinking. But that wishy-washy stuff could never account for their startling transformation. No, Jesus came back to life literally and powerfully. He talked to people. They touched him. They ate and drank with him. It was Jesus, all right. Yes, they had seen him die and some had even helped lay him in the tomb, but here he was, alive and well, the same Jesus!

But he had strange new powers. He was able, for instance, to appear and disappear at will—including appearing in a room where the doors were locked. One moment he wasn’t in there with the disciples, the next moment he was![13] And a few weeks later they looked on as he disappeared for the last time, returning, he said, to the Father who had sent him, but with the promise that he’d be back! He soaked his followers with the Holy Spirit to keep them going till then.

This astonishing turn of events drove the early Christians back to their Old Testament Scriptures, which they now read in the light of those events. As they did so, they saw truths in there that had been hidden even from the original writers. The New Testament writings, compiled by the apostles and their associates, would in time document their Spirit-inspired insights. It is thanks to those insights that we can take our helicopter-ride. We can see now how God’s great plan to sort out the mess was beginning to take shape.

Try, if you will—as we hover over the storyline of Scripture—to picture God’s developing purpose as a river flowing through a valley. Looking down over the Old Testament section, we can make out a number of tributaries—Old Testament themes—that flow into that river: the Jesus River.

There’s the ‘Jews’ tributary. We saw how they failed in their mission to be a ‘light to the Gentiles’. But Jesus, himself a Jew, proved to be the Jew. In his own person he was everything that every Jew had been called to be: he honoured God fully, he kept God’s Law completely and he reflected God’s nature perfectly. The nation of Israel had been called ‘God’s son’[14] and had let the Father down. But Jesus, who was ‘God’s Son’ in a unique and personal way, had brought the Father nothing but glory.

This Jesus, therefore, fulfilled in himself Israel’s calling to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’, which is why the apostles were quick to preach the good news of salvation through his name to Gentiles as well as Jews.

A second tributary is Abraham, to whom God gave that key promise that all the world’s nations would be blessed through him and his descendants. Who were those descendants? In an ethnic sense, the Jewish people. But the apostle Paul is quick to point out that, because of Jesus, the ethnic factor no longer counts for anything. Abraham’s real descendants are now all those people—whether Jews or Gentiles—who trust in God the way Abraham did. It is believers in Jesus who are his true family, the true people of God, the real Israel.[15]

The Exodus forms a third tributary. That saga of Israel’s deliverance from slavery, their journey through the desert and arrival in the Promised Land, turns out, in the light of Christ’s resurrection, to be merely a foreshadowing of the real Exodus. This is the ultimate Exodus, the world-changing one brought about by a leader greater than Moses. Here we have not just one small nation leaving Egypt. We have people everywhere  following Jesus out of their slavery to sin and death. They enjoy his company and leadership through the desert of this life as they follow him to the Promised Land of a ‘new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells’.[16]

While arrival at that destination is still future, awaiting the return of Jesus, we can enjoy at least a taste of it here and now. This is one of the truths that excited the early Christians. They, like all Jews, understood history to be divided into two ‘ages’ or periods: the ‘present age’ and the ‘age to come’. The age to come would be inaugurated by the Messiah. But here’s the intriguing thing: the coming of Jesus the Messiah has two parts to it. There was his first coming, described in our New Testament, and there will be his second coming, which is still future. The latter will be at the end of history; the former broke into the middle of history, into ‘this age’.

That is important, and we need to see it clearly as we look down from our chopper. In his first coming Jesus inaugurated the age to come—but only in part. When he comes again it will be to complete the job. So we have what is technically called an ‘inaugurated eschatology’. In simple terms this means that in Jesus, and especially in his death, resurrection and enthronement, we see here and now what it will be like for all of us in the age to come. In the middle of ‘this age’ he rose from death with a glorified body, a living example of the way our own bodies will be transformed when he returns.[17] He is the firstfruits; we will be the full harvest.[18]

Meanwhile, by faith, we Christians have become united to Jesus. We are, as Paul likes to put it, ‘in Christ’—in him who is the true Israel and, as such, we are part of the people of God.[19] We are already members of the Father’s family that will populate the new heaven and new earth in the age to come. The physical side of our transformation awaits his coming, but the spiritual aspect is a present reality. Here and now we enjoy eternal life. And ‘eternal’ describes not just its duration but also its nature: it is ‘the life of the age to come’. That’s why Paul exclaims, ‘If anyone is in Christ—new creation!’[20] In other words, already that person is enjoying tasty morsels from the coming age’s banquet-table.

A couple more tributaries to spot and we’re through. Down there is the ‘Messiah’ stream. We noted how some of the Old Testament prophecies gave the impression that the Messiah would be God’s representative and, as such, distinct from God, while others implied that God himself would be the one to bring deliverance. In Jesus the two are combined. He is truly God, of the same essence as the Father, yet he is a distinct ‘person’ within the trinitarian Godhead, and truly human, the Word made flesh.[21]

Finally, there’s the Promised Land tributary. The New Testament writers show no interest at all in the Middle Eastern territory where the Israelites lived. The resurrection of Jesus blew away that small territorial vision and showed them greater things. They came to see that God had never really been interested in limiting his promises to a few square kilometres east of the Mediterranean. His intention, they realised, had always been to put the whole world to rights. And now, with the true Israel comprising all who believe, God’s Promised Land expands to embrace the whole earth.[22]

So there we have it. Looking down, we see that the swelling river is advancing steadily to the sea of God’s fulfilled purpose. His plan to sort out the whole created order, human and non-human, is on track. In Jesus all the tributaries came together, causing that plan to surge forward. And that’s where we Christians today fit in. We are white-water rafting in the flow of God’s purpose in Christ. We live in both the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. We enjoy now the spiritual aspects of ‘eternal life’, and relish the prospect of the material aspects, including a new body, that will be ours when Jesus returns. He will then finalise the whole process, as an excited Paul describes in Romans chapter eight.[23] Our own glorification, Paul enthuses, will be the trigger for the whole created order to be liberated at last from ‘its bondage to decay’. The whole world put to rights—hallelujah! Wow! What a panorama!

Our helicopter is returning to base now. But having seen this bigger picture, we’ll find our everyday Christian living touched by it. No longer can share the view of those who think they are one day going to leave this doomed earth for ever, leaving behind their bodies for some spooky disembodied existence. Today they stand grim-faced with their backs to the wall, stabbing at the encroaching hordes of Satan, waiting for the Jesus-cavalry to come over the hill to rescue them and whisk them off to heaven. But that’s not for us. Our helicopter-view has shown us an altogether different prospect, in which heaven comes to earth and the whole of creation is renewed. So we see our calling today as a call to make the world a better place, doing our utmost to bring it into line now with what it will be in its fulness after Jesus returns.

That’s a key part of our gospel mandate. In fact our helicopter-trip has suggested that there’s much more to the gospel than ‘Trust in Jesus and have your sins forgiven’, important though that is. The gospel—the good news—is fundamentally that Jesus is Lord. He has been through the worst that this world could throw at him. He has been through death, and has emerged triumphant from it. He has a resurrection body, and he’s Lord: he’s on top of things. The Plan is on track.

What’s more, Jesus is God’s model for us who are privileged to be ‘in him’. Ours will be the same experience. We may suffer as we represent him; some of us may lose our lives in the process. But death has lost its sting. There’s a guaranteed exit beyond to a short stopover in heaven with Christ,[24] then, on the Big Day, a new body, a new heaven and a new earth. The mess sorted. Everything fixed—forever.

So we press on to make our Lord Jesus known. We preach the gospel, yes. But we also live the gospel, making society and the material world today a better place, one step closer to its guaranteed happy ending.

Copyright © David Matthew 2010

1. 1 John 4:8, 16


Seeing the bigger picture

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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2. Romans 8:18-21; Revelation 21:1-4

3. Genesis 12:1-3

4. Genesis 24:7

5. Isaiah 42:6; 49:6

6. Romans 2:24, quoting Isaiah 52:5 LXX

7. ‘Messiah’ means ‘Anointed One’ (from the Hebrew; the Greek equivalent is Christos).

8. E.g. Psalm 2:2-3

9. E.g. Psalm 96:10-13

10. Ezekiel 34:22-24

11. Matthew 16:15-16

12. Luke 24:21

13. John 20:19-20

14. Exodus 4:22

15. Romans 4:16; 9:8; Galatians 3:7-8; 6:16; Ephesians 3:6

16. 2 Peter 3:13

17. Philippians 3:20-21

18. 1 Corinthians 15:20-23

19. 1 Peter 2:10

20. 2 Corinthians 5:17, literal translation

21. John 1:14

22. Note how OT promises relating to ‘the land’ are applied by the NT writers to ‘the earth’: Romans 4:13; Matthew 5:5 cf Psalm 37:11; Ephesians 6:2 cf Deuteronomy 5:16.

23. Romans 8:18-21

24. Heaven is not our ultimate destination but an intermediate state pending the ultimate state. The Greek word monai, translated ‘rooms’ in John 14:2, means a temporary resting-place.