Tuesday, September 5, 2006

On the Relationship Between a Christians’ Stewardship of the Earth as a Human Being and the Christian’s Disinterest with the Earth as a Citizen of Heaven.

(A paper I have been working at, off and on, for months and finally finished! I wrote it to answer my own questions and I have found the study quite profitable. I hope anyone who has the time to read this :o) will be learn something from it and be encouraged. I was quite impressed at how Blogger neatly converted my footnotes over from Microsoft Word!)

-- An Examination of Biblical Texts --

The people of God today live in two realms – the realm of the present earth, in which they walk, talk, eat and sleep, and in the realm of God’s kingdom, wherein they exist not physically, but spiritually, and which they look toward as their final, whole destiny. Being humans, Christians are often in greater danger of neglecting spiritual things than physical things, but neither should be neglected in Christian life. The question is, “If the Bible tells us to be wise in earthly, physical things as well as spiritual ones, but sometimes instructs us to be so fixated on spiritual things so as to be unconcerned with physical things, how do I find balance?”

Old Testament History

When God created mankind on the earth, He gave them this command:

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

For some time after this command was given, Adam and Eve, the first human beings, followed this pattern in happy submission. It was the task given to them by God, and in doing so they pleased and obeyed him perfectly. No part of life was separated from God. There was no battle between “flesh” and “spirit”, for both their flesh and their spirit were God’s. But when they disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit, sin entered the scene. By his sin, the first man brought the whole human race into sin,[1] and with sin came God’s curse upon the ground, upon mankind and womankind, and upon the serpent.[2] Sin cut off communion with God (spiritual misery) and brought pain, toilsome labor, weeds, diseases and death (physical misery)

Yet there was no annulment of the first mandate. Mankind was still God’s vice-regent over earth, though his task was severely complicated by sin. Moreover, after the next earth-changing event in the world’s history – the Flood – the mandate was not much different. God said to Noah: “’Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’”[3] However, the quality of man’s dominion over the animals was changed. By God’s decree, the harmonious relationship between humans and the animal world would no longer be possible:

“The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:2-7)

The rest of the Old Testament contains the story of Israel, God’s chosen people. Beginning with Abram, whom he called out of Ur, God made the nation of Israel for his own possession.

The people of Israel were in bondage in Egypt for 430 years, and God brought them out with mighty acts of power. After the exodus from Egypt, God gave Israel his law. The blessings promised from obedience to the law were mostly physical. One instance of such a promise is in Deuteronomy eleven:

“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

The law which Jehovah gave to Israel was a revelation of his righteous character, and Israel was to display his character as they wholeheartedly obeyed his laws. They were his uniquely chosen nation. Obedience to their God brought blessing and prosperity. Disobedience to him brought great trouble. This was the means by which God would bring himself glory through them. Moses told them:

“See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

Though there were a few faithful people and a few faithful generations in Israel’s history, as a whole, they failed miserably. The leaning of their hearts was not to obedience, but to rebellion. In punishment for their disobedience, God sent them trouble as he had promised. Sometimes they repented, but then they turned again from God and disobeyed his laws. The prophet Jeremiah said: But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.”[4]

They needed a new heart, and God promised to one day give it:

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,” (Ezekiel 11:19)

New Testament Teaching

The center of the New Testament, and of the whole Bible, is Jesus Christ, who came to “save his people from their sins”[5] to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.[6] With his own blood, he bought the promised New Covenant for his people.[7] We know from the rest of the New Testament, and the out-workings of the new covenant which are explained there, that this new heart to obey God did not bring a return to the “olden days” of the law, to dwelling in the promised land under a theocracy in which obedience was rewarded with physical abundance and disobedience with physical curses. Instead, the New Testament people of God are interspersed among many different nations in many different situations.

New Testament Christians are called “sojourners and exiles”[8], but this was not a major change from the Old Testament. The Old Testament psalmist declared, “I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me!”[9] The writer of Hebrews says of people like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”[10] In the Old Testament, the “righteous lives by faith”,[11] but this truth is greatly expanded in the New Testament. So also in the Old Testament, the people of God were strangers in this world, but the fuller meaning of this is seen in the New Testament.

The things that Jesus Christ taught broaden our understanding of God’s purpose and our purpose in the world. He said things like this:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)

Jesus’ teachings were not a radical departure from God’s previously revealed will found in the Old Testament. They were a radical enlargement of it. Jesus did not refute the teaching that obedience to God brought God’s blessing, He expanded the meaning of “blessing” to include persecution from unbelievers, for the sake of the Christ, because the physical suffering of a Spirit-filled believer gains spiritual reward. The New Testament encourages Christians to obey God and know His blessing and goes beyond that to encourage Christians to be willing to part with any physical blessings in order to gain greater spiritual blessings. New Testament believers are given a capacity for spiritual blessing that the Old Testament people of God as a whole did not have. This is a part of the “better covenant”[12] that the OT people of God were not enabled to participate in.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)

Jesus promised a blessing for obedience to his word– it was not the absence of trouble but the security of the soul. This is a New Covenant blessing.[13]

When Jesus Christ died, He redeemed a people for citizenship in God’s heavenly kingdom. At present, we are exiles and strangers on the earth:

…if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:17-19)

If Jesus Christ has ransomed us from a life of futility, what do we do with our lives now? The New Covenant is not a return to the pre-Fall state. As God’s people, we are surrounded by people still lost in their sins and outside God’s Kingdom. It is our Biblical duty to seek to bring them in. The primary mandate for believers is Jesus’ Great Commission. After his resurrection, Jesus said,

“’All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:19-20)

“Adam’s fall into sin was imputed to all humanity and perverted the God-given desire to exercise authority in God’s name, and replaced it with a desire to become God ourselves. Consequently, Christ’s representative and vicarious death was necessary to restore and renew the image of God to allow redeemed men to bring the creation into submission to God. It is only in Christ, through the power of the Holy Sprit, that man can fulfill his original mandate. Thus, there is an intimate connection between the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate, [the command to subdue the earth] for without salvation, we can do nothing. Therefore, evangelism and discipleship takes precedence over other activities.”[14]

There is more to the life of citizens of God’s kingdom, than the command to rule and subdue and care for the physical earth. That command was given to the first humans, and God never retracted it. But now he has sent his Son, and his Son has given us greater work to do. That is, to go in his power and do spiritual work – work for souls. As Jesus said when He called Simon Peter, the fisherman, “’Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’[15] Jesus called Peter away from physical, earth-oriented work to do spiritual, kingdom-of-God-oriented work.

The Balance of Eternal Perspective

In what way is man to exercise dominion over creation today? As the writer of Hebrews says,

It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.’

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” (Hebrews 2:6-8)

Creation is presently not in total subjection to man. The fear of man that God placed upon the animals is definitely good in some ways – the thought of every creature having no fear of us is frightening. But it also means that mankind cannot subject the creation as he would sometimes want to. Subjecting creation is toilsome –we labor to tame wild animals, weed gardens, take antibiotics and wear insect repellent. We try to subdue creation – but we cannot do it perfectly. The next verse in Hebrews 2 gives the Christian perspective:

“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)

John Piper explains it this way:

Christ came and suffered and died, "that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone." In other words, Christ was the first man to be restored to the magnificent destiny of Psalm 8. He was crowned with glory and honor over all creation. But he does not enter his glory by himself. Verse 10 says that he "is bringing many sons to glory"—the glory of Psalm 8. Our great salvation is that, united to Jesus, we will experience the fulfillment of Psalm 8 as well. Jesus is the great forerunner of our salvation. What has happened to him will happen to us. Because he tasted death for us, we can be sure that we will share his rule over creation. The first man—the first Adam—sinned and was subjected to futility and death. The second Adam, Jesus Christ, defeated death and restored the hope of Psalm 8 for all who are in him. You, Christian, who do not neglect this great salvation, you will reign with Christ, and all things will one day be put in subjection to you. All things will serve your great good. All things, without any mixture of pain or sorrow or regret will manifest the glory of God to you and through you as you rule with Christ.[16]

Thinking about creation from this perspective helps the Christian to have balance in their stewardship of the earth and their disinterest in the earth in its present form. There is a better time coming, when those who trust in Jesus will rule the world with Him, perfectly forever.

Is there anything wrong though, with living a simple agricultural life, in the power of the Holy Spirit? The New Testament does not condemn this, but it urges the covenant people to seek a higher purpose in their earthly vocation. Paul, the apostle of Jesus also said

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:22-24)

As Kingdom-citizens we must give our best efforts in the physical realm, not simply because we want our lives here to be comfortable, but because we want to receive heavenly rewards from Christ for our faithfulness. Our earthly vocations are to be fulfilled in constant light of eternity. And we are taught that the loss of an earthly vocation or physical prosperity is no longer a curse, but a part of God’s providence and wise training in our lives.

…[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10-11)

The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-42 is an Old Testament example of this.


Now that we are in Christ’s kingdom, we are to seek it first of all. It is spiritual; it has to do with things eternal. Its consummation, and our hope, is not in this present, decaying world, but in the one to come. Jesus said, “’Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal…’”[17]

We are not to neglect the duties that come from living in this world. But these earthly duties now have a unique purpose – a heavenly one. A good citizen of the kingdom of heaven does everything for that kingdom, even though he temporarily dwells in another one. The tasks and possessions of the earth have a purpose, and one of those purposes is to serve as preparation for the coming kingdom. In Luke 16:10-12, Jesus gave us this truth:

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?”

We have money; we have time; we have possessions - but they are not ours, they are given us by God as a stewardship. We are to use them for Him, to gain heavenly rewards, not earthly ones. The things of this world are to be viewed as an entrustment to be used carefully, and as stuff expendable for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Though individuals and families are being redeemed, and the body of believers in Christ is growing, the world in its present form is not getting better –it is passing away.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)

This earth is temporary and decaying, the coming one is eternal. This earth is wicked, the coming one is righteous. We should be eagerly awaiting that better world, and seeking to hasten its coming in the day of God. The Bible urges believers to be wise and realize the greatness of their coming inheritance. In light of this we are to use temporary earthly possessions in kingdom-seeking ways, and be willing to part with them because we have hope of a greater inheritance

“Lift up your eyes to the heavens,

and look at the earth beneath;

for the heavens vanish like smoke,

the earth will wear out like a garment,

and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;

but my salvation will be forever,

and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”[18]

[1] Romans 5:12

[2] Genesis 3

[3] Genesis 9:1

[4] Jeremiah 7:24

[5] Matthew 1:21

[6] Mark 1:14

[7] Luke 22:20

[8] I Peter 2:11

[9] Psalm 119:19

[10] Hebrews 11:13

[11] Habakkuk 2:4

[12] Hebrews 8:6

[13] Jeremiah 32:40

[14] “On the Necessity of Christian Engagement” – Darrell on The Contemporary Calvinist blog

[15] Luke 5:10

[16] “Who Will Rule the World to Come” – by John Piper, © Desiring God, May 19, 1996

[17] Matthew 6:19

[18] Isaiah 51:6

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

jmp said...

Hello my erstwhile and erudite student. I just discovered this via links from my family's blogs, so I thought I would say hi. It is fun seeing all of things that you've written. I too have a blogspot, though it is mostly just a bunch of random stuff on music I've been listening to lately. I didn't have a chance to entirely read through your paper, but it is certainly an intriguing topic, one which I think of often. So I really should finish reading it ;)
Keep on writing and thinking! Jon