We’ve been looking at the story of God’s involvement with us as being like a play in six acts. We looked at the first ‘Act’, the creation of all that exists, and the second ‘Act’, in which the human characters rebel against the Author of the Story. Today we go on to Acts 3 and 4.
Act 3: Israel
I began to learn to play the guitar by myself with the help of an instructional book. This book taught me some basic chords and techniques, but my progress was slow and difficult. This changed, however, after I met some more experienced guitarists and was able to watch and listen to them. They were my models, and by imitating them I was able to make much better progress.
God wants a group of people who will learn a different way of living and will model it for the world around them, so that everyone can see that God’s will is good. God wants a countercultural community. And so, as Act 3 begins, God chooses one elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, calling them to leave their family and go to a new land. They are told that God is going to bless them and make their name great, and that through them God is going to bless all the families on the face of the earth (see Genesis 12:1-3). Although they are too old to have children, God gives them a miracle child, Isaac. Isaac becomes the father of Jacob, and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the ancestors of the famous ‘twelve tribes of Israel’.
The story goes on to tell us how, many years later, God led those tribes out of slavery in Egypt back into their own land of Israel. Through all the hundreds of years that followed, God was patiently teaching them. Here are some of the lessons they learned:
- Their God was the one and only God, and the idols of the nations around them were false gods.
- Their God was the Creator of everything; therefore all of creation belonged to God.
- Their God was holy and good. Consequently God wanted them to live lives of goodness and holiness as well, and gave them commandments to show them the kind of life they needed to live in order to be a blessing to the world.
Over the hundreds of years of their story, these people were often unfaithful and disobedient to God. God was patient with them, welcoming them back whenever they turned from their disobedience.
Act 4: Jesus
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken mentions how, although every author starts writing a book with some kind of plan in mind for the plot, it often happens that the characters run away with the plot and start behaving in ways the author did not intend at the beginning. This, says Vanauken, is what happened to God’s world. He goes on to say that perhaps there was only one way for the Divine author to bring the story back to its original purpose. That way was for God to enter the story as a character and actually meet the other characters on their own level, talk with them, and invite them back to the original plan.
Incredible though it may sound, that is exactly what God did. In Act 4 God stepped onto the stage, as one of the characters in the story of Earth, Jesus of Nazareth. You can be sure that if the Creator of the universe has actually visited this planet in Jesus, then the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has to be the most important story ever told in human history.
That story was recorded for us in the biblical documents we call the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They tell of how Jesus was born in unusual circumstances in Bethlehem, and grew up in Nazareth near the Lake of Galilee. At the age of thirty he left his home and began a travelling ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The basic them of his teaching was “The kingdom of God is at hand!” which meant that the time had come when God’s kingly rule was going to be extended over this broken and spoiled world. God was going to defeat evil and restore creation to its original purpose. Jesus believed that this was happening through his ministry.
Early in his ministry Jesus began to gather apprentices who could carry on his work; traditionally, we have called them ‘disciples’ or ‘apostles’. A lot of the material in the gospel accounts comes from them. In those days Jewish rabbis taught their disciples by making them memorize their teaching, and we have no reason to believe that Jesus was any different. Gradually as these apprentices progressed in their training, Jesus sent them out on teaching and healing missions of their own.
But Jesus also aroused considerable opposition from the religious establishment, and this led to the strangest part of the whole story. It sounds like a defeat, but the New Testament tells us that it is in fact a victory. We are told that toward the end of his ministry (we don’t know exactly how long this lasted, but it seems likely that it was about three years) Jesus was arrested by the authorities in Jerusalem, given a mock trial before the ruling council of Israel, and then handed over to the Romans, who executed him by crucifixion. This presented a problem for his followers. They had believed him to be the ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek), ‘the anointed One’, the King sent by God to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But would God have allowed the Messiah to be arrested and executed? That was not in the script they had read in the old prophecies!
However, on the third day strange things began to happen. Some of the women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Followers of Jesus began to see him alive again. He met with them over the next six weeks and taught them the true significance of what had happened. Gradually, as they looked back and reflected on all of this, they came to understand that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus had somehow healed the great breach between God and humanity, which was opened up when the first human beings rebelled against God. The story goes on to tell us how, before he ascended into heaven, Jesus sent out his first apprentices to tell the story to others and invite them to be a part of it as well. And so the church was born.
In the next instalment, we are going to skip Act 5 for a moment, look at Act 6, and then reflect on what we have learned so far about God and his story.