In Matthew 24:29, Jesus employs “cosmic language,” signs in the sun, moon and stars, to predict the imminent end of the Old Covenant. His first-century audience would have recognized His allusion to the prophecy against Babylon in Isaiah 13 and understood His discourse as a condemnation of Jerusalem as a contemporary Babel.
So, this “cosmic” language is clearly poetic, but why would the prophets—including Jesus and His apostles—deliberately cause so much confusion by using such language to describe non-cosmic events? The answer is found in the mercy of God.
An Image of the World
From Adam to Abraham, “the World” was the actual globe. Adam was the representative of all flesh, including the animal subjects in his kingdom, with whom he shared physical breath. Sin in the Garden led to sin in the Land and finally the corruption of the entire World. Thus, the Covenant Sanctions wiped out all life in the entire physical world. Noah was not only the first man qualified to judge other men, he was also the first to offer an “ascension” for the whole world as an Adam in communion with God in a “new creation.” It seems that unlike previous offerings, this was consumed by fire, creating a fragrant “ladder to heaven” as a testimony of mediation.1
This new priesthood which represented the entire world was a priesthood of all nations, led by tribal Priest-Kings such as Melchizedek. After the sin of Ham (Garden) and the revival of the Cainite city in Babel (Land), the only way to avert another “macrocosmic” flood was to reestablish a sacrificial substitute, a “microcosmic” world, one which, like the offerings of Noah, would represent all Creation. Thus, to Abraham was promised a singular nation set apart from all others, not only fruitfulness in Land and womb (an echo of the curses in Genesis 3), but also an outflow of blessing to all other nations. Israel would bear the curses for sake of the world, which is why Genesis concludes with the barrenness of Sarah and the famines in Canaan reversed and united in the salvation of all nations under Joseph.
Once the Lord had qualified Abraham as a new kind of representative, the meal of bread and wine with Melchizedek was an investiture with priestly authority. Via symbols of death, Abraham’s nation was given life. In circumcision his offspring became a Social Land, then in baptism they were given representative office over the Social Sea of the Gentiles.
Under Moses, God built a “penal substitute” for the world. Where the ark was the three-level world represented above the Physical waters, the Tabernacle was the three-level world represented above the Social waters. Just as Jacob’s “tent” of seventy people moved from Canaan to Egypt and multiplied into a nation, at the Feast of Tabernacles, seventy bulls were offered for the seventy nations listed in Genesis 10.
The Tabernacle represented the Garden, Land and World in microcosm, but once in Canaan, the Tabernacle represented the Garden, Canaan the Land, and the surrounding nations the World. Israel truly became a representative “Land” lifted up above the represented Gentile “Sea.” The human “ascension” begun in the offering of Isaac on Moriah was now an entire nation.
As anyone who grew up before the advent of computer graphics knows, when a TV show or movie required the destruction of a building, an aircraft, a city or a mountain, it was always cheaper to blow up a model, something which faithfully represented the original but on a smaller scale. The “waters” rising to cleanse the Land were Social, not Physical. In God’s mercy, instead of a “Creational” flood, the cleansing was Social or “ethnic,” as it was under Joshua.
Of course, when I say “ethnic” I mean the nations. The “ethnic” cleansing ordered by God was never racial, but Covenantal, and thus a judgment for sin. The Canaanites were evangelized by Abraham, who proclaimed the Lord to them, and made sacrifices for them, yet they continued to fill up their sins. Although these judgments were local, they were substitutionary, that is, they represented the judgment of the entire world.
Like the Great Flood, the military invasions were tragic necessities, but they were to be far preferred over another global deluge. Not only this, but like the Physical flood, they resulted in the benefit for mankind of greater judicial maturity. Just as Noah was the first man worthy to bear the sword, the sword of divine justice against Jericho was in the hands of men rather than God. Judgment was limited but judicial maturity was expanded.
For Canaanite sins, Israel would suffer similar floods. Assyria invaded Israel, covering the Land but reaching “up to the neck,” leaving Jerusalem as a head above water (Isaiah 8:8). Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples were destroyed under “floods” of Gentile armies (Daniel 9:26). Thus, it is no accident that the Revelation borrows much imagery from the conquest of Jericho, the original Social deluge.
The replacement “cosmos” after each judgment was not only “a new heavens and a new earth” in Covenantal terms, it was the investiture of a new order of sacrificial representation and broader prophetic responsibility.
So, this representative arrangement not only explains the strange references to earthquakes, stars, birds and fish in the prophets, it reveals the purpose of the “sacrificial” death of Judah and Jerusalem and the Temple for the sake of all nations: the prophets used cosmic language that the cosmos might be spared.
This article will be continued.
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Sweet Counsel.
1. See James B. Jordan, "The First Ascension," A Brief History of "Sacrifice" According to the Bible: Part 5, Biblical Horizons No. 253.
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