In the biblical creation story, we’re told how God uniquely created human beings in his image. He generously gave the first humans “dominion” (a kingdom term) over creation. They were to spread out, fill the earth, tend to and harness/maximize creation’s unbounded potential. Connected to the Tree of Life, God’s image-bearers were meant to be an extension of him, to be living monuments to his greatness. Humanity’s initial task, then, was to be the chief worshippers within creation, to reflect God’s goodness to the world, and to lead creation in symphonic worship of the Creator (N.T. Wright develops these ideas in Simply Christian and some of his other work far better than I could hope to here). We were created to be his administrators, ambassadors, priests (within a creation that is meant to act as his temple). Heaven (“God’s space,” as Wright would say) and earth (what we think of as “our space”) naturally and peacefully coexist when God’s design is working properly. It seems he has always planned to rule over his good world through his human image-bearers (an arrangement he refers to as “his kingdom”). In order to effectively fulfill this monumental task, however, we must first be enthralled with God. We must be genuinely exuberant evangelists of his beauty and his goodness. We must accurately reflect his love and his justice with our every thought, word, and action. Herein lies the problem. We immediately notice (following a brief look at the news, a peak out the window, or an honest appraisal of our own inner thoughts) that this isn’t even close to happening as it was initially planned. Something has gone wrong.
Unfortunately, the first humans quickly became idolaters (the true epicenter of all rebellion and even death itself). They were tricked into gazing longingly at the creation instead of the Creator (which, it turns out, is a poor substitute for him). They rejected the Tree of Life for a lesser tree (and the enemy of God, after first believing his own lies, erroneously convinced them that they were indeed hungry, that they were lacking something, before they foolishly ate). Humanity has been idolatrous ever since: We ravenously chase after sex, money, power, status, human relationships, and counterfeit significance—the typical pantheon of human idolatry. Yet we're never satisfied. By default, we now worship the creation rather than the Creator, and all of creation suffers (“groans”) as a result. These created things were never evil, but our inappropriate and unfounded fixation on them as false gods has wreaked havoc in God’s once-good world (ironically, creation withers when it’s the object of our unhealthy infatuation). Worst of all, It isn’t currently a suitable temple for his dwelling and we are far from the priests we were meant to be (as with every thought and action we blaspheme the divine image we bear and so lie about him to the creation we were designed to tend).
Idolatry, exile, and death are reoccurring, cyclical themes in humanity’s painful story (therefore, miraculously breaking this cycle and reversing its effects is at the heart of the all-encompassing redemptive story of God. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves). The story of Israel, in particular, is marked by this tragic cycle (their history is somewhat of a retelling of the creation story and a microcosm of the universal plight of humanity). We read how God created a people from the dust (an idolatrous community of desert-dwelling slaves who were built up into a mighty nation of worshippers), established them in an Eden-like paradise (a promised land “flowing with milk and honey”), issued his Law (an expounded warning against the forbidden fruit and detailed instructions for legitimate worship), gave them dominion (a kingdom), and charged them with being his representatives and priests. Unfortunately, the Israelites inevitably rejected the Creator and abdicated their noble vocation in favor of idolatry (several times, in fact). However, none of Israel’s story is wasted (as we might be tempted to conclude). The law and the prophets are not simply chronicling “failed attempts” at returning to Eden that ultimately lead nowhere. Lest we forget, Jesus is the product of their story, a descendant of Abraham, and heir to David’s throne. He redeems all of their futile efforts and otherwise wasted blood, sweat, and tears.
Defining a proper place for legitimate worship is a major theme throughout Scripture (the burning question of “where to worship?” is posed to Jesus by the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4). Remember, a post-Eden world is somehow defiled by human idolatry and rebellion. God views even inanimate objects like the soil and the crops—all of creation, really—as corrupted by human sin. The crux of the Jewish Law, delivered through Moses, then, was to create something of a clean space for legitimate worship to happen and to produce temporarily clean people who could utilize said space. The designated place for worship was initially the mobile, tent-like, Tabernacle, which later transitioned into a stationary Temple. This holy space, made clean by God’s presence, can be thought of as a place where heaven and earth intersected. The Israelites, of course, understood that God was everywhere (as seen in David's rhetorical question, “where can I flee from your presence?”—Psalm 139:7b), but he had also disclosed his desire to dwell with them in a unique way. Though he was omnipresent, Jerusalem, specifically the Temple, would be where the Creator of the cosmos hung his hat, so to speak. God’s continued dwelling, however, was somewhat contingent on whether or not legitimate worship was taking place. Though he was incredibly merciful—“long suffering”—in regard to this requirement, prolonged idolatry would eventually prompt him to revoke his life-giving presence (as seen in Ezekiel's vision of God’s glory leaving the Temple).
There's an awesome prophecy in Ezekiel chapter 47 about life-giving water that's flowing out of the Temple, cleaning and rejuvenating the land as it goes. In this vein, Jesus introduced the novel (and incredibly dangerous) idea that he himself was a living breathing temple of flesh, a new place where heaven and earth intersected. He was effectively bringing the presences of God to those who were most in need, overlooked, and counted out. This revolutionary arrangement would naturally supplant the physical Temple and its geographic limitations. Jesus was/is, after all, the exact image of the invisible God, the fullness of the Creator dwelling in authentic bodily form. He is as superior to the brick and mortar Temple as a real person is to a paper doll (even more so). He invites his followers to partake of him, to miraculously become an extension of him, and, by doing so, to become active participants in this expanding, heaven/earth intersecting phenomenon. In doing this, Jesus is restoring to humanity—to those who believe—our original vocation as priests. Through his death and resurrection, we’re made clean (qualified), and by the sending of his Spirit we’re enabled (empowered) to finally break free of our idolatry and to become true worshippers once again. We're given a new heart, a heart of flesh, one that has the capacity to truly worship God in spirit and truth (Ezekiel chapters 11 and 36, and John 4).
There’s nothing that the eternal Son of God values above his Father. Ultimately, everything that the Son does is resulting from his affection for the Father. And inversely there is no one in whom the Father is more pleased than his “only begotten.” Jesus is the type of worshipper that all humans were meant to be, and, as such, he is the only human uniquely qualified to reclaim our image-bearing birthright and the kingdom that was originally entrusted to us (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 5:9-10). He means to make many sons and daughters who will reign with him. Far more than simply describing our “personal salvation,” the Gospel tells us of the Father-sent, Spirit-empowered, eternal Son’s relentless mission to produce the sort of worshippers that his Father deserves. It’s a story about idolaters being redeemed at great cost, priestly vocation being reinstated, and finally all of creation being restored to the temple it was always meant to be—all to the glory of God and for his express pleasure.
We're made to worship, and we inevitably will do just that. The question is simply what, or who, will be the recipient of our worship? There are essentially only two possible outcomes: Either we'll worship the creation (the cast shadow, the dream, the painting) or we'll worship the Creator (the living Figure that casts the shadow, the Dreamer, the Artist). There's nothing else.
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” —Romans 12:1