God was sitting in heaven one day when a scientist said to Him, “God, we don’t need you anymore. Science has finally figured out a way to create life out of nothing – in other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning.”
“Oh, is that so? Explain…” replies God. “Well,” says the scientist, “we can take dirt and form it into the likeness of you and breathe life into it, thus creating man.”
“Well, that’s very interesting… show Me.”
So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil into the shape of a man. “No, no, no…” interrupts God, “Get your own dirt.”
This popular joke communicates volumes about how God deals with His own creation. It was only the other day that I found this classic joke to be illustrative of a fundamental truth about how God redeems culture. Abraham Kuyper once remarked, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!” With this thought in mind, I decided to trace out some examples in the Bible where we see God taking a cultural practice and “redeems” it to serve His own purpose and to glorify Himself. In my study, I have come to the realization that the whole universe is one great metaphor. It is like a divine analogy of God’s glory; a transcendent illustration of God’s great design.
Even so, the problem with analogies, pictures and illustrations is that they are not the real thing. The best they can do is point to reality. But they are not the reality themselves. For instance, when I say, “My God is a mighty fortress”, I am using the fortress as a metaphor. God is like a mighty fortress. However, a fortress is not God, neither is a fortress like God. One is the metaphor of the other, never vice versa. God is the ultimate reality. It is important to maintain this distinction in our efforts to engage and redeem the culture around us. The following are a few examples of how God appears to have done it, as gleaned from the Bible:
1. GOD REDEEMS CIRCUMCISION
In case you didn’t know, circumcision did not begin with Abraham and his family. It existed long before Abraham and even far away from Abraham, in eastern Africa, to be precise. So, when God told Abraham to circumcise himself and all the male members of his family, He was not issuing a strange command. However, the significance of the act was different. Circumcision, for Abraham, was to serve as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants. Yes, God redeemed the act of circumcision by refocusing its purpose in this way. So, please stop trying to disprove the Bible by proving that circumcision did not begin with Abraham. Of course it didn’t.
2. GOD REDEEMS ISAAC
Every time I read the account of Abraham and Isaac’s trip up mount Moriah, I can’t help but shudder at the utter cruelty of God’s demand. Yet, when I look at the culture around Abraham at the time, I am compelled to think twice. We often find ourselves rationalizing the story with arguments such as “Of course God knew that He will intervene, so it was okay for Him to demand a human sacrifice.” But a study of the culture surrounding Abraham sheds amazing light to the scene. In, The God Who is There, D.A. Carson illustrates this point much better than I can:
In the pagan religions of the time, it was not all that uncommon for parents to sacrifice their own sons. One particular pagan god called Moloch was pictured as holding a big stone pot in its hands, and a fire would be built under the pot until it was glowing red. Parents would sometimes throw their screaming children into this pot. That was not all that uncommon. It was a mark of devotion. But the whole point of this [Abraham’s] account is that this is NOT what God wants.
God redeemed the cultural practice of sacrificing children by sparing Isaac, and instead offering His own begotten Son, Jesus Christ, as the only worthy sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Even though child sacrifices in the pagan culture around Abraham were deplorable, they were actually prophetically illustrative of a greater truth of redemption.
3. GOD REDEEMS THE ROMAN CROSS
Everyone knows that the Cross is not an originally Christian idea. People were being crucified long before Jesus was even born. Yet, the Cross is today at the center of the Christian faith. It marks the whole point of our claim to salvation and justification by grace through faith. A tool of torture is now a symbol of hope. A place of condemnation is not a point of redemption. God redeemed the Roman Cross by using it to achieve His divine purpose of atoning for the sins of the world. Again, the Cross is only a metaphor. The two wooden beams are not the reality of your salvation. We are not saved by timber, but by Jesus Christ.
There are numerous other examples of God redeeming cultural practices and using them for His own glory and purposes. For instance, the idea of a KING as ruler of the people was originally pagan and the Israelites demanded one in order to fit in. The pagan god, Baal, had PRIESTS. The Old Testament ALTARS upon which sacrifices were offered were not an exclusively Israelite novelty. All these signs and practices seem to have been “borrowed”, for lack of a better term. You can say that God had redeemed these ancient cultural practices.
THE ULTIMATE REALITY
Does this then make God a copy-cat? Is Christianity nothing more than a refined version of pagan beliefs and practices? Is there anything in Christianity that can be said to be original? Actually, nothing and everything about the Christian faith is original. You see, as I said earlier in this post. God owns the dirt. He is the Grand weaver. All creation is one great metaphor. I also said that the problem with analogies, pictures and illustrations is that they are not the real thing. They are only pointers to the real thing. They are, at best, shadows of the ultimate reality. They are not the reality. They are insignificant and meaningless under the son.
- Yes, circumcision, predated Abraham; but it was an insignificant practice [before Abraham] in as far as man’s relationship with the true God was concerned.
- Yes, it was common to offer child sacrifices in Abraham’s time; but these were insignificant practices in as far as man’s relationship with the true God was concerned.
- Yes, there were kings, priests and altars in the pagan cultures surrounding Israel; but these were weak kings, ineffective priests and insignificant altars in as far as true authority, intercession and appeasement was concerned. The true God was still existent and sovereign over them all.
- Yes, people were being crucified on the cross all the time for their sins, but this was insignificant in as far as those people’s relationship with the true God was concerned.
All these metaphors find their significance in the ultimate reality revealed to us in the Scriptures. God is our ultimate reality. He redeems cultural practices to point us to the ultimate redemption, the redemption of our souls. You may not have noticed, but in my three main examples of “redeeming acts” above, one example is unusual. No. 2. In 1 and 3, God redeems practices by simply reassigning them. By changing their significance. However, God redeems Isaac, God redeems MAN, by substituting him. By taking man’s place on that sacrificial altar. This is the ultimate redemption, and everything else points to this ultimate reality of a redeemer taking the place of the redeemed. I guess it won’t be so scandalous to say that God does not really redeem culture, He [in eternity past] predestined culture for redemption in order to point to the ultimate redemption!
What a marvelous God we serve!
For the fame of His name,