By Jeff Boldt
Awhile back I wrote about the fact that creation is a temple, and that humanity (Adam) is a priest. Now I’ll look at the cosmic consequence of humanity’s dereliction of our priesthood. That is, that by disobeying, we have caused creation to decay, but that Christ’s obedience to his priesthood has reversed creation’s disintegration.
By decay, I mean that everything is returning to a state of formlessness: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…” (Gen. 1:2). The first commandment he issues is “Let there be light.” The Rabbis noticed that God speaks the same number of times as when he gives the ten commandments. His commandments –– his words –– shape everything from formless matter. And, therefore, when humanity breaks the commandments, creation returns to this formless state.
In English we talk about both physical boundaries and moral boundaries. They’re also connected in Hebrew thought. In the beginning God drew a boundary line between light and darkness, day and night, heaven and earth, land and waters, man and animal, male and female. Even Israel’s inheritance of land distinguishes them from the Gentiles who worship idols. When creatures obey God, they are alive. When creatures are alive, they are distinct (bounded). When creatures disobey, they die. When creatures die, they become indistinct, they become formless dust (unbounded). The boundary between life and death is moral; by following God’s commandments, everything flourishes. But chaos follows disobedience.
Adam could have brought harmony to creation, but he didn’t. As Paul says,
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:20-21)
If you’re familiar with the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, you know that creation was subjected to frustration by Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God. By disobeying the commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were abandoning their priestly position. Priests stand between heaven and earth; they mediate God’s goodness down to creation, and they link up the rest of creation to God. By ignoring God’s command, however, they abandoned their post, they abandoned their place in the cosmic order, they refused to be who God made them to be, they climbed into heaven, and they placed themselves over God. As a result, creation no longer had someone to “tend the garden,” to bring harmony to creation. Rather, Adam brought discord. God tells him,
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
Adam’s disobedience brought God’s curse on creation. Afterwards, he could only get his bread through toil.
God gives moral laws so that life will flourish: he tells Israel not to murder, or commit adultery, or lie. He gives them a weekly rest. Why? In order to make their lives miserable? No, because by living in accord with natural law, they would live life to the fullest. So, not only is disobedience an abandonment of our priestly role in creation, a derelict priesthood disorders the whole cosmos. The same moral commandments that allow Adam to flourish order everything else created during the six days.
To use Paul’s word, then, Adam’s disobedience caused creation to “decay.” And so, the rest of Genesis reports a blurring of boundary lines initially drawn at creation. In the beginning God’s Word carved a line between light and darkness, day and night, heaven and earth, land and waters, man and animal, male and female, only to have them obscured by our sin. When Adam climbs into heaven, the lines between heaven and earth are violated. The same thing at the Tower of Babel: humanity tries to climb into heaven. In Noah’s time angelic beings and humans get romantically entangled and blur the boundaries between heaven and earth. As a result, the heavens fall — the waters above the firmament cross their boundaries and flood the earth. Similarly, the men of Sodom and Gomorrah want to have sex with the angelic men who visit Lot. What’s the result? Fire falls from the sky. Even at Jesus’ crucifixion, the sun goes dark just as he said:
“And in that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon; and I will darken the earth in the daytime.” (Amos 8:9)
Moral decay is the cause of cosmic decay. Violence against God’s Word results in violence to creation.
So, by obeying God, can we save the environment? There’s a very real sense in Scripture that environmental disaster is a judgment. Moses, Elijah, and Joel prophecy plagues and drought. King Solomon prays,
When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray… and give praise to your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them… send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance. (2 Chron 6:26-27)
Our moral decay causes cosmic decay.
And yet, while repentance delays disaster, there’s no evidence in Scripture that our obedience entirely reverses it. Things only get worse. By the last book of the Bible (Rev. 8), a third of the trees and grass will be burned up, a third of the creatures in the sea will die, and a third of our fresh water will become bitter.
The messianic age, however, will be different. David prophecies that the Messiah would restore life-giving boundaries: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” He continues: “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16). He prophecies a reversal of decay, a renewal of boundaries.
Ten days after Christ’s Ascension, on the day of Pentecost, Peter quoted this psalm to a crowd of Israelites:
I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day…. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it… (Acts 2)
Mere human obedience can’t put creation back together again, only Jesus’ obedience does. We were meant to tend the earth, but we crossed the boundary into heaven to take God’s throne.The consequence was we fell into the grave. The Son of God descended under the earth to bring us back to earth. But more, by grace he led us into heaven where, in our sin, we were trying to seat ourselves. In one priestly action he restores the contours of our relationship to God and to creation when he seats us at God’s table as adopted members of his family. Rather than being subjected to thorns and thistles because of disobedience, we share in God’s dominion over creation by obeying the Father. The Letter to the Hebrews says,
Although he [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest. (Heb. 5:8-10)
Obedience is a bad word today for understandable reasons. Who demands obedience? Authoritarians. So we think the commandments are arbitrary, we think that they ruin life. But this leads to a warped view of creation. Obedience holds the universe together –– Christ’s obedience, firstly, but also our obedience and the obedience of everything else. All things came to exist through God’s commandment; all things continue to exist by obeying his commandment. Only humans had the freedom to disobey –– to choose death.
But life wins because God forgives. When God forgives, he doesn’t stop demanding obedience, though. He doesn’t just lower the bar. Life can’t go on with a low bar. Instead, he brings us back to life in order to live within the boundaries of the commandments. As Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). His commandments sustain life.
Starving people don’t need to be told to eat. They just eat. We don’t hold our nose and choke down God’s commandments. The commandments are just what we’re craving. There’s no prep-time for dinner either. The table is set and we can eat now. Moses said,
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
This Word is in our mouth because he became flesh, lived among us, and set a table for us while we were toiling in the wilderness. He said,
It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:32-35)
Jesus is the Commandment that sustains us and that sustains creation. This Commandment formed and bounded light and darkness, day and night, heaven and earth, land and waters, man and animal, male and female, you and me. This Word is among us and his table is set. Obey him. Take his commandment and eat it.
Jeff Boldt has a ThD from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest in the diocese of Toronto.