A brief summary of the section. One paragraph should do it.
If a shortlist of words were to be created to summarise the Bible plot and message, the word ‘reconciliation’ would certainly figure on it, perhaps at the very top. Reconciliation, of course, is all about restoring relationships and rebuilding fellowship between parties. In the Bible, those parties are God and the human beings He has created.
The Bible begins with good fellowship between God and man which breaks down because of human sin. The implications of man’s selfishness are alienation from God (literally, as they are banished from Eden, and metaphorically as man feels lonely, and, experiencing the pointlessness of his existence without God, empty and astray). Where once they had been close, God and man are now separated by sin, corruption, and death. God remains the same, but mankind is now inclined towards the ground and his own selfish interests. Man is a dying creature whereas God is eternal.
But even at this unfortunate early stage, God shows His willingness to reconcile. Though Adam and Eve are naked, God makes clothes for them. Though Cain murders, God places a mark on him to spare him from receiving the same fate. Though the earth is destroyed with a flood, God extends His covenant towards Noah and his children and promises never to do it again. Even after crass acts of disobedience on the part of man, God’s hand is still outstretched towards men and women, appealing to them to return to Him.
The Appeal to Return
Here are some famous words of Jesus that capture the spirit of this appeal:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) (ESV)
The whole story of the Bible (and thus of world history as a whole) is the story of God’s attempts to bring His people back to Him. He makes a way by which this can happen, but the question is whether or not they want to come. It is not a matter of whether or not God is willing, it is whether or not we are. God will not force us back; we have to decide if we want to come.
This principle of God wishing to reconcile His people to Himself – making a way for His people to return to Him, in other words – can be thought about on three levels:
- It applies to God’s special people the Jews. Much of the Old Testament is concerned with this relationship – how God had a great plan for His people, but they often went their own way and ended up being estranged from Him (and ultimately ended up being banished from the land of Israel for a time in BC582, something which happened to them again for a much longer period in AD70). There are many passages, in particular in the prophets, in which God appeals to them with arms outstretched to return to Him. Some striking imagery is used to capture this: a husband wooing back an adulterous wife, or a father longing and seeking for the return of a wayward son. Although in the New Testament God’s people commit the ultimate rejection of Him by refusing to accept the son Jesus that He sends to save them, God nevertheless promises that He will configure the events of history in such a way that they will ultimately come back to Him again. This great restoration of their relationship is described in some truly beautiful passages in the Old Testament.
- It applies more widely to human beings at large, insofar as they hear the gospel message. God is seeking to save not merely His people the Jews, but all men. In fact, God’s relationship with the Jews (their alienation from Him and His efforts to bring them back) is typical or representative of what God is doing much more widely in the world (that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to understand the relationship between God and Israel). This purpose of God to bring the whole world back into a good relationship with Him in His kingdom is a clear theme in the Old Testament. But it is in the New Testament that the preaching of the gospel message to the non-Jewish people (or Gentiles) begins with a vengeance. As the Bible states, God wants to reconcile all things to Himself, thus restoring harmony and peace in the world.
- Finally, this subject can’t just be looked at as something God is doing ‘out there’ in the world at large. What really matters for each of us as individuals is that the Bible’s message is a personal appeal. It’s all very well to think about God’s purpose with human beings in the abstract, but for each one of us the real question we have to face (in the Bible’s view) is that we are sinners, and that God is appealing to us as individuals to return to Him. We have to make a decision about how to respond to that appeal.
Sacrifices and the Sacrifice of Christ
In the Old Testament God established a system of animal sacrifices which taught the important principles His people needed to understand in order to restore and maintain their broken relationships with Him. The whole sacrificial system revolved around the idea of God seeking to reconcile His people to Himself. But these sacrifices, powerful though they were, were not an end in themselves. They pointed forward to the life and the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to make it possible for men and women to come back to God in the fullest sense. The apostle Paul talks about the sacrificial system and the Law of Moses as a whole as being a kind of teaching-mechanism – he actually uses the term pedagogue, the Greek term for someone who took the children to school! – which would bring people to an understanding of Christ and his work.
The life, death and resurrection of Christ stands at the centre and forefront of world history in God’s perspective. It’s purpose? To condemn sin and to reveal the love of God, and, in doing so, to make possible the reconciliation of God and man. Christ’s work creates a way back to God. God provided the sacrifice that was necessary to repair the breach, as it were – to end the alienation between God and His people. That is why it is so central. It is the very embodiment of God’s purpose, the way by which true fellowship between God and man can be restored.
But although the work of Christ makes it possible for men and women as individuals to return to God, sin is still on the loose in the world, and there are many problems in the world that need to get sorted out. God plans to tackle this too – the Bible speaks of Him sending Jesus back to the earth again to do so, and states that those who have followed God in this life will be involved in that work of re-construction. This too is part of the work of reconciliation that God plans to accomplish.
The implications of man’s sin are far-reaching. They have impacted not only himself, but also his whole environment (just look back to Genesis 3 to see how this is the case). It is as if the world is ‘out of joint’, and needs to be healed. The apostle Paul speaks of this:
“For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” (Romans 8:22) (AV)
This metaphor of the whole world in labour pains is a fascinating one. The purpose of labour is of course not as an end in itself, but rather in order to bear children. Paul is saying that the sufferings and problems of this world are a kind of labour – leading on to and presaging something better, that is, the kingdom of God. At that time, the whole world, now groaning and travailing in pain, will be unleashed from its sufferings, freed from its estrangement from God, and re-united with Him in glorious fellowship. Something better is indeed coming, and this, too, is part of the story of reconciliation.
The Theme of Reconciliation
The concept of reconciliation thus embraces the whole of God’s work in the Bible from the instant Adam and Eve broke their intimacy with God through sin, to God’s purpose at the end of the Bible: that He will be close to His people again and will be their God. It embraces the work of Jesus who has made possible the way back to God in the face of human sinfulness, and it embraces God’s future plan to reconcile the whole world to Himself by setting up His kingdom.
Small wonder, then, that when Paul talks about how it is incumbent upon those who believe in God to spread this message, he calls it the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ – telling others about God’s plan to heal the breaches in this world, and inviting them to return to Him once more:
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;” (2 Corinthians 5:18) ESV
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled , shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8,10) (ESV)