God stands in the divine assembly;
he holds judgment in the midst of the gods:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and lift up the faces of the wicked?
Judge on behalf of the weak and the fatherless;
vindicate the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the helpless and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They neither know nor care—
they stumble in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I, I have said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you.
Yet you will die like man,
and you will fall like any other prince.”
Rise up, O God—judge the earth,
for you shall inherit all the nations.
John Piper is the first notable evangelical I’ve seen to unambiguously acknowledge what the text of Psalm 82 straightforwardly says. In his article, Putting the Gods in Their Place, he affirms that God is here “talking to the ‘gods,’ not to mere humans.” More recently, Doug Wilson makes the same point in his review of Unseen Realm:
Scripture does not teach us that the pagan gods were non-existent. Paul tells us that there were in fact “gods many and lords many” (1 Cor. 8:5-6), and he tells us that genuine demonic forces were involved in idol worship of the pagans (1 Cor. 10:20).
I am encouraged to see evangelical leaders recovering this view, because Psalm 82, accurately read, is a prominent nexus and anchor-point for a key biblical theme—a theme that stretches as far back as Genesis 1, and as far forward as Revelation 22; a theme that affects every Christian today, in many different ways.
It is a cosmological theme—which is to say that it’s about the ordering and running of the world. It is a geographical theme—which is to say that it’s about the territories or domains into which the world is divided. And it is an evangelical theme—which is to say that it’s about how God is saving a people for himself through the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
These three ideas—cosmology, geography, and evangelicalism—are drawn together in the Bible into the theme of kingdom. Let me summarize how they fit together, and then I’ll spend the rest of this series tracing the threads in Scripture, so we can see the big picture and understand how it works:
The Bible views the spread of the gospel as God’s transforming of Adam’s kingdom, ruled by Satan, into his own kingdom, ruled by Jesus. This new kingdom is a spiritual territory of restored human hearts, no longer separated from God by rebellion, but rather annexed from their previous rulers by God himself to dwell and govern there.
With this thesis established, let’s set about explaining and proving it.
The original kings as the image of God
From the creation of man, we have been defined by our kingship over the world. Genesis 1:26-28 couches our imaging of God in terms of rulership. This is especially clear if we abbreviate each instance of “dominion” with the word “rule” to emphasize the point:
And God said, “Let us make man as our image, and let them rule, rule, rule, rule, rule.” So God created man as his image, male and female, blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and fill the earth, and rule, rule, rule, rule.” Genesis 1:26-28
The term translated “rule” or “have dominion” means to reign—it refers to kingly authority. God is giving man a kingdom on earth in Genesis. This is actually how man images God; how he reflects God. The likeness of God is kingly. Genesis explicitly couches the image of God in terms of representative rule.
This is the original biblical cosmology. I am not talking physics here—the word cosmology is broader than that. I’m talking about the ordering and running, not of the material world, but the human and also the spiritual world.
Cosmology in the Bible is all about rulership—about who is in charge of whom, and what kinds of judgments they enforce. Do they accurately image God by loyally representing him, thus bringing about shalom—harmony and peace—or do they act corruptly in pursuit of their own goals, thus shaking the foundations of the earth (Psalm 82:5)?
You probably don’t tend to be looking for this theme in Scripture, and so you probably don’t often notice it. But once you know it’s there, and indeed that the Bible presupposes it, you will begin to notice that it’s surprisingly important. For instance, biblical cosmology is crucial to a clear understanding of the most well-loved verse of the Bible: John 3:16 contrasts the world—Greek kosmos—with the kingdom of heaven; and does so in such a way that we can only understand it to mean the kingdom of man. Most Christians read “world” simply as “all people”—but in John, at least, it is a kingdom. In fact, when we work through the logic of it, and when you understand what love is all about, John 3:16 can well be translated as follows:
For God desired onetogetherness with the kingdom of man in such a way that he gave his unique son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but enter the kingdom of God. For God did not send his son into the kingdom of man to condemn it, but in order that the kingdom of man might be saved through him. John 3:16
My aim here is not to rehearse what I’ve said about this passage elsewhere; rather, it is to demonstrate up front how the theology I will articulate in this series is right there on the surface of the text, if we only have the framework within which to articulate it. The narrative trajectory of the Bible begins with the kingdom of man, and ends with the gospel promise that God will save that kingdom by transforming it into his own; until in Revelation 11:15 a loud voice in heaven finally declares:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.
Simply put, the whole arc of Scripture is a story about how the kingdom of Adam, the ruined kingdom, eventually becomes the kingdom of God, the restored eternal kingdom. But to understand exactly how this works, we need to understand how extensive the idea of imaging is in the Bible…
If this sounds rather postmillennial to you, I think you have a point. I prefer Ben Askins’ description: “optimistic amillennialism.” That said, there is also a repeated emphasis in the New Testament on believers one day ruling the nations alongside Jesus, which sounds rather like premillennialism (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 2:26-27; 3:21; 20:4). So I am, for now, noncommittal on the question. The one point that is clear is that the elect will one day replace the sons of God as rulers of the cosmos. But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.
The created world as the image of the spiritual
If man images God by representing him, the rest of the world also images spiritual realities in various ways. One God created both, and it is no coincidence that when that God becomes incarnate, he has a habit of referring to spiritual things by using their physical images. Knowing how the physical world reflects, and is based on, the spiritual realm turns out to be important for understanding a great deal of what Jesus has to say, because he often takes the spiritual meaning of words as their primary meaning—in confusing contrast to every other human being ever. A prominent example is food, which to Jesus first describes partaking of God through faithful service, assimilating his very nature by the joining of the Spirit—and only second refers to ordinary physical eating (John 4:31-35; 6:27-35, 48-58). Similarly, water means spirit first, and stuff you drink second—eg John 3:5; 4:10-15; 7:37-39.
This is just a simple illustration for the broader concept I want to focus on: that the physical and spiritual realms are linked in unexpected ways. Water is not merely like spirit, but spirit is the original water—what mundane water images or represents. Spirit is the archetype of water. In the same way, we see the tabernacle and temple are constructed according to a heavenly archetype revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 40), where the mercy seat images the throne of God, and the cherubim statues image (literally) the heavenly throne-guardians (Exodus 37:7-9; 1 Kings 6:23-29; cf Isaiah 6:2; Ezekiel 1:22-28; 1 Kings 22:19).
Imaging and geography
The reason this is important for us is because the same kind of imaging or representation takes place with geography. What happens in the “heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10; 6:12) is linked to what happens in earthly places.
A helpful example of this in the New Testament is the story of Legion and the pigs (Mark 5:1-13; Luke 8:26-33; Matthew 8:28-32). You’ve probably wondered why Jesus let the demons go into the pigs, and why they then rushed into the sea. The short answer is that, in the ancient world, water was believed to be a natural barrier to spirits. For instance, deceased spirits in ancient lore often had to cross a river, like the Styx, to enter the land of the dead—the water functioned to confine them in their proper domain. In Luke, Legion begs Jesus not to send him into the abbussou, “abyss.” Now, in Revelation 9:1; 11:7 etc, abbusou is often translated, “bottomless pit;” but it is also the word used in the Septuagint to translate the “great deep” in places like Genesis 1:2 and 7:11.
Mark’s account is a little different. There, Legion begs Jesus not to drive him out of the chora, which most translations render “country” or “region.” But chora also simply means the land, as opposed to the sea; it is used this way in Acts 27:27. Given the seaside location of the encounter, understanding it this way nicely harmonizes Mark with Luke: when Legion says he doesn’t want to be driven out of the land, he is equally saying that he doesn’t want to be driven into the sea—the abyss.
So he asks to go into the pigs instead. Why does Jesus allow this? Because he intends to get rid of Legion for good, and letting him go into the pigs first gives a convenient physical form to what’s going on. His disciples can’t see demons go into the abyss. But they can see the pigs go into the sea. So this gives a physical proof of Jesus’ power not just in expelling the unclean spirits, but also in dealing permanently to them. The physical events image the spiritual events.
Now, this isn’t to say the abyss in the spiritual world is somehow identical with the ocean in the physical world. If it were, then exorcism would be as simple as throwing a demoniac into the water! The Bible isn’t out to establish some kind of “map,” but rather to represent the spiritual realm through the physical world.
By contrast, while the sea represents the abyss where demons are confined, mountains represent a place where earth and heaven become “connected.” They are therefore associated with the presence of gods. In vast numbers of religions, mountains are where gods reside, or where they presence themselves on earth. The transfiguration of Jesus happened on a mountain—probably Mount Hermon (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36; 2 Peter 1:16-18). In Ugarit, just to the north of Israel, the high god El was thought to meet in the palace of his vice-regent, Baʿal, on Mount Zaphon. In Greece, the gods met to hold council on Mount Olympus. In Israel, of course, Yahweh presenced himself first on Mount Horeb or Sinai (Exodus 3:1; 19-31), and later in the temple on Mount Zion (Psalm 9:11; 48:1-2; 74:2; 132:13; Joel 2:1; 3:17). The encounter between Elijah and the 450 priests of another Baʿal takes place on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The Samaritans believed God presenced himself on Mount Gerezim (John 4:20). Altars were routinely built to pagan gods in high places (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 12:31-32); and these could include man-made high places, built to function as artificial mountains (eg 2 Kings 17:9)—this is the idea behind ziggurats, which is what the Tower of Babel almost certainly was (Genesis 11:1-9).
The presence of deity was important to the ancient worldview in another important way. We see how this cashes out in terms of geography with the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. In verse 17, Naaman says:
…please let a load of soil on a pair of mules be given to your servants, for your servant will never again bring a burnt offering and sacrifice to other gods, but only to Yahweh.
Understanding why Naaman does this gets us to a key concept in understanding the kingdom of God itself.
What’s happening here is fundamentally the same as what’s happening in, say, Exodus 3:5 and Joshua 5:15, where God tells Moses and Joshua to take off their sandals, because the place where they are standing is holy ground. It is fundamentally the same as what’s happening in Exodus 19, when the Lord says to Moses,
Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day Yahweh will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.” When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain. Exodus 19:10-13
It is fundamentally the same thing that is happening in the threefold structure of the temple: the courtyard, the holy place, and the holy-holy place. And it is also fundamentally the same thing that is happening with Israel’s laws about ritual cleanness, and restoring it when a member of the covenant community becomes ritually impure or defiled.
Certain space is sacred. It is set apart by and for the presence of God. The land of Israel was sacred, because it was God’s land—he dwelt there, in the temple in Jerusalem. So in order to live in the land, you yourself had to be set apart for God by observing the ritual purity laws. And the closer you got to God, the more sacred the ground was. The holy-holy place in the temple, the holy of holies, was so sacred that only one man could enter once per year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The land of Israel was sacred. Naaman knew this. So he asked for enough dirt to make a mini-Israel in Syria—a small space set aside for Yahweh, where he could be worshiped.
Where cosmology and geography intersect
Now that we understand the basic principles of representation or imaging, and how these fit into cosmology and geography, we can start tying the threads together—which, believe it or not, will ultimately create a line right to the gospel. The intersection between cosmology and geography is kingdom. Cosmology is about the order and running of the world. Who is ruling? Geography is about the division and features of the world. Where are they are ruling?
Continued in part 2, on who is ruling where
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