Excerpt from Life with God Spiritual Formation Bible

The panoramic view of biblical history helps us understand the progressive nature of how God has mediated his presence with individuals and groups over the ages to form an all-inclusive community of loving persons. In turn, a brief overview of biblical history helps us grasp how the divine drama took concrete forms in each age as people encountered God. These forms are determined by social context, the idiosyncrasies of individual characters, the specific purpose of divine action, and the limits of human response.

The People of God in Individual Communion. In the beginning God creates the world and places the first humans into the Garden of Eden to work and care for it. Here we see Adam and Eve in partnership encountering God face-to-face. “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man” (Gen 2:22, NIVI). But Adam and Eve disobey God’s instructions, are banished from the garden (Gen 3:6-7), and suffer social and physical consequences: domination, alienation, travail, suffering, and mortality. For generations God’s Spirit continues to strive with human beings during a downward spiral into immorality and political chaos. Finally, God destroys everyone except Noah and his family (Gen 6:1-7:23).

The People of God Become a Family. With God’s appearance to Abram (Gen 12:7), God promises to work through a nomadic, ethnic, patriarchal family to bring blessing to all peoples on earth. But Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all struggle with the promise: Abraham tries to force its fulfillment, Isaac lies about the identity of his wife, and Jacob tricks his brother out of his birthright. Joseph completes the next step in God’s plan as he brings his family from Canaan to the land of Goshen, in the nation of Egypt, where they multiply and develop into tribes.

The People of God in Exodus. But eventually a new king who “did not know Joseph” comes to power in Egypt and enslaves the Israelites, whose “cry for help rose up to God” (Exod 1:8; 2:23). God hears their groans and responds by sending a reluctant, tongue-tied Moses to lead Abraham’s descendants into the Promised Land. During their journey, God gives the people the Mosaic law, the tabernacle, and the ark of the covenant to remind them of his presence.

The People of God in the Promised Land. When the Israelites arrive on the borders of Canaan, Joshua, Moses’ successor, becomes their leader as they enter the Promised Land. Commanded by God to totally eliminate the Canaanites, the Israelites disobey, settling into Canaan and adopting many practices of their neighbors. They are obedient to Mosaic law throughout the lifetime of Joshua, but after his death its influence diminishes. When the Israelites begin to do “evil in the sight of the Lord (e.g., Judg 2:11; 3:7), the surrounding tribes attack them. Because there is no political entity to unify and protect them, the people call out to God and he sends someone to rescue them. After the crisis they are faithful to God for a time, but then they fall into disobedience again. They cry out again, are rescued again, and the cycle repeats. The phrase “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” describes these times (Judg 21:25).

The People of God as a Nation. In spite of the Israelites’ many failings, God remains faithful to them. When they ask to be ruled by a king, God tells them the consequences of their choice. Even though their request indicates that they do not want God as their king, in time Israel is transformed into a nation with a monarch. The second king, David, consolidates his power and brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the political capital. Under David’s son Solomon, Israel becomes a center of commerce and trade, and the Temple is built. The people survive the division of the country into two parts—Israel and Judah—and a succession of corrupt rulers.

Still they continue their pattern of alternately forsaking and returning to God. As a consequence, God allows Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and then Judah (the Southern Kingdom) to be conquered and their ruling class taken into captivity. God’s presence (shekinah), which had been with the People of God since the exodus, departs.

The People of God in Travail. Job represents human suffering for all time. “The greatest of all the people of the east” lives a life of influence and luxury, but he loses everything, including the respect of his friends and of his wife, who advises him to “Curse God, and die” (Job 1:3; 2:9). But through his misfortune and grief, through his doubts and questions, through his pain and suffering, he perseveres and points us to the way of being faithful to God in spite of our circumstances.

Just as Job represents human suffering, so Israel becomes a type of the suffering servant. This, in time, evolves into a crucial part of the Jewish messianic expectation: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering. … He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;… He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; … The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities…. He poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53:3, 5, 7, 11-12).

The People of God in Prayer and Worship. Worship of God was formalized during the exodus with the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle. However, with the emergence of the monarchy the king establishes Jerusalem as the center of worship. The Psalms establish a liturgical framework for public worship with all the accoutrements—festivals, pilgrimages, a sacrificial system, a priestly class, and musicians.

The People of God in Daily Life. As the People of God are formed, God is able to transmit his wisdom for daily life. In such books as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach, mothers and fathers, kings, and sages give counsel through wise sayings about situations faced by ordinary people every day—morality, romance, marriage, injustice, discouragement, laziness, and sexual purity, to name a few.

The People of God in Rebellion. Despite the people’s often extreme unfaithfulness, God never passes judgment or takes disciplinary action before warning them about the consequences of their actions. God always sends messengers, emissaries, or prophets “rising early and speaking” (Jer 35:14,KJV) to warn the Israelites that their abandonment of the law, their “whoring” after other gods, and their neglect of the poor would bring disaster upon their heads. From Isaiah and Hosea, Joel and Amos, Obadiah and Micah, and Nahum and Zephaniah the people hear but still reject God’s message—and as a result suffer occupation and domination by foreign powers.

The People of God in Exile. After Assyria overruns Israel, its leaders are deported and its political structure is dismantled. Babylon subsequently defeats Assyria and occupies Judah, taking its ruling class into bondage. Prophets are killed, and many of the people are deported. Those who remain work the land; Jerusalem and the Temple lie in ruins. The deported mourn and long to return to Jerusalem in hopes of rebuilding the Temple. Many begin meeting together in the embryonic synagogue.

God teaches his people to pray and work for the peace of the cities in which they dwell and the people who oppress them (Jer 29:7). Despite their longing and loss, new avenues of seeking and finding God are found as the people learn to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Ps 137:4, KJV).

The People of God in Restoration. After the Persians defeat the Babylonians, the emperor gives permission to the Jewish exiles to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. Many of the exiles make the journey and eventually rebuild the Temple, which becomes the center of their identity.

During a series of foreign occupations, Jewish leaders are appointed to political office and the priests gain power as the trustees of religious traditions and practice.

Once the Roman Empire consolidates its power in the Mediterranean world, the governor of Judea, Herod, spearheads the building of yet another Temple. Now legions of priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and a shadow government, the Sanhedrin, dictate the formal expression of Judaism, but the synagogue dominates village religious life.

The People of God with Immanuel. Into this maelstrom of political domination by other nations, which fueled age-old resentments and hostilities, Jesus is born in humble circumstances. His upbringing and day-to-day life as a resident of the Roman Empire are very conventional as he masters his father’s trade, learns Greek, respects his mother, attends synagogue, keeps the Jewish festivals, and the like.

Jesus’ ministry, however, breaks sharply with tradition. His proclamation that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21) breaks upon Jewish society like a tidal wave. People respond to their encounter with the Incarnate Word either by believing and following him or by resisting and rejecting his message. Jesus’ execution as a common criminal followed by his bodily resurrection introduces a radical change in the way the People of God develop. The work of God now goes forward with a new intimacy under the direction of the Holy Spirit: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

The People of God in Mission. Once unleashed on earth, the kingdom of God cannot stand still. It bursts the old wineskins of ethnicity and ritual. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are all received freely. A common language, excellent roads, and an era of peace (the Pax Romana) open the doors for the growing community to take the message of the kingdom of God throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

The People of God in Community. God creates us for community, but intimacy often leads to conflict. It was no different for the early Christian community, which brought together people from a multitude of backgrounds and ethnicities. So for Paul and other leaders, the task becomes not only proclaiming that the kingdom of God is here in the person of Jesus Christ, but actualizing it in the lives of individuals in the all-inclusive, loving community that this message creates. Because the leaders could not be with every community all of the time and God’s purposes reach far beyond the contemporary problems, theological instruction, pastoral care, and training in discipleship are needed. Thus these first leaders instruct Christians by writing letters to the various groups, letters that continue to instruct us today.

The People of God into Eternity. The efforts of God to form an all-inclusive community of loving persons on earth comes to fulfillment beyond time in the formation of a new heaven and new earth. Old ways of oppression, alienation, travail, suffering, and mortality end, and life eternal takes their place. Worship of self gives way to worship of God. “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face” (Rev 22:2-4). To everyone who longs to be part of this loving, nurturing, all-inclusive community: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev 22:17).

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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Excerpted from the Life with God Spiritual Formation Bible.