Titus Kuepfer, host of That Jesus Podcast, has a deep passion for missions and also for transformation in the church. He is currently working on a book about radical Christianity that he hopes will be scholarly, accessible, and culturally-aware.
Rather than contending for a specific theological position or worldview, I want to explore what it means to be radically devoted to a few values and practices that many committed Christians hold in common. This is the path forged by missionaries, revivalists, mystics, ascetics, and spiritual giants throughout Christian history.
You may learn about the book project and join the community here. Today, we’re sharing an excerpt from his research.
I was taught that God created us to have a relationship with him. This is true, but it’s only part of the picture. It misses the nature of the relationship God wanted to have with humanity. Let’s go back to the first pages of the Bible to see why God made us.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make mankind in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26)
In ancient times, only kings were said to be the images of God. They were the earthly representatives of divine rule. The Hebrew Scriptures make the audacious claim that all of humanity, male and female, are created in God’s image. This means that we are all royalty called to govern the world on God’s behalf. This is stated explicitly later in the verse when God says “let them rule” over the rest of creation. We are created to have a vocational relationship with God by ruling the world as vicegerents on his behalf according to his wisdom. As one of my favorite authors, John Mark Comer, put it,
“We’re image bearers, created to rule, to partner with God in pushing and pulling the creation project forward, to work it, to draw out the earth’s potential and unleash it for human flourishing — to cooperate with God in building a civilization where his people can thrive in his presence.”
I remember when this beautiful truth first became real to me. I was pretty committed to living a life of radical devotion to Jesus, but this dedication was disconnected from a holistic understanding of the rule of God and our role in implementing it. I had a job mowing grass at the time and viewed it as just a way to make enough money to stay alive so I could go share the gospel on the streets after work. One day I was listening to the Bible Project podcast as I unhappily weed-whacked some overgrown grass. Tim and Jon, the hosts, were describing what it means to be God’s images and how this brings meaning to all of our lives. It suddenly dawned on me that my job was not just a means to an end. Caring for God’s good world by cutting grass was a way of implementing his gracious, life-giving authority. As my atheist friend remarked, it’s sort of like we are God’s subcontractors (please don’t commit the genitive fallacy by discounting his insight). This breakthrough was a profound discovery that helped me find joy and meaning in all of life: delicious meals, breathtaking scenery, honest work, good coffee, and an occasional sci-fi movie with my wife after the kids are in bed.
The story of the Bible is a long epic detailing how the rule of God was interrupted by the rebellion of his image bearers and restored by the coming of King Jesus. This is a way of framing Christianity that is relevant because it speaks to our deepest longings and to our current cultural moment. It’s a way we can enter into the fray of the ideological sparring around us with a compelling alternative worldview and a healthy community living it out. Most importantly, it’s relevant because it is thoroughly biblical.
We’ve already seen how as God’s images the first humans were called to be royal ambassadors of God’s government on earth. Let’s walk through a few moments in the Hebrew Scriptures where this motif is developed.
After the Fall, God chose to reintroduce his rule into the fractured world by making a covenant with one earthly nation: Israel. After rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt, he met with their leader Moses on Mt. Sinai to lay out the terms of the covenant. It was sort of like Yahweh was defining the relationship and setting up some healthy boundaries. These conditions were accompanied by a promise:
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5a)
As a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” Israel was called to be the touchpoint of God’s government on earth, demonstrating to the rest of the nations what it looks like to live under his rule.
As the story develops, it becomes clear that Israel was not up to the job. One of their primary failures was rejecting God as their sovereign by pining after an earthly king like the nations around them.
“…they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people regarding all that they say to you, because they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being King over them.’” (1 Samuel 8:5b-7)
The temptation to put our trust in human rulers and their definition of good and evil is an ancient one. It’s much easier to champion an earthly hero than trust in an invisible God. We see this reality demonstrated in the office of the presidency in the United States. Although the president has limited power, he wields enormous cultural influence because people are looking for a strong-man to rally behind. This inclination always leads to oppressive results as God himself predicted:
“Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall warn them strongly and tell them of the practice of the king who will reign over them…he will take your sons and put them in his chariots…he will appoint…some to do his plowing and to gather in his harvest, and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters and use them as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields… and give them to his servants…and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out on that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.” (1 Samuel 8:9-18)
Let’s look at one more fascinating passage in the Torah before we move on to the prophetic writings. Stick with me as I get a bit nerdy here.
“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 ESV)
There is a debate on how to translate “sons of God” in verse 8. It is rendered “sons of Israel” in many translations based on the Masoretic texts. Michael Heiser makes the case for the “sons of God” translation based on the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls and argues that this phrase refers to lesser spiritual beings in the Hebrew Scriptures. Without getting lost in the weeds of his very thorough scholarship, I’d like to think about the implications of this passage if Heiser’s exegesis is sound.
Verse 9 reaffirms what we have already established: Israel is Yahweh’s nation. The previous verse seems to indicate that he consigned the rest of the nations to lesser spiritual beings by fixing their borders according to the corresponding number of their supernatural rulers. This is the initial foundation for later biblical development of the idea that the nations are ruled by principalities and powers of darkness. Remember, Jesus did not argue with the devil when he claimed to rule the kingdoms of the world and offered them to Jesus if he worshiped him (an offer many have subsequently taken up). As I look around at the strange power that blind nationalism and political ideologies have over people, I can’t help but wonder if there is in fact a dark supernatural element at play.
Why does all this matter? Well, from cover to cover the Scriptures indicate that there is only one divinely sanctioned government: the government of God. All other power structures are inspired, animated, and ruled by powers of darkness. This realization should spark a clarion call to “come out from among them” and find our identity in the nation of Jesus and his agenda for the world.
I’m deeply concerned by the vitriolic division that is taking place in my country. Political analyst Bill Shneider claims that America has never been so divided since the Civil War. I don’t think the powers of darkness really care which side wins. They only want to create hatred, chaos, and violence in the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be peacemakers by offering a “third way” that demonstrates the life-giving rule of God.
Let’s summarize what we have discovered so far. First, God created humanity as his royal images. After the fall, he chose Israel as the touchpoint of his government on earth while consigning the rest of the nations to lesser spiritual beings. However, Israel followed the pattern of these disinherited nations by pining after a human king. Clearly, God needed to pursue another plan if his divine rule was to be reinstated back on the earth. That’s when Israel’s prophets began to speak of something new that was coming!
Granted, this way of telling the story of the Bible is just one thread of the tapestry. There are many other themes that could be traced throughout the Scriptures. However, I believe this is the primary motif that followers of Jesus need to understand and internalize since the kingdom of God was the topic Jesus spoke about most.
We will close our brief stint through the Hebrew Scriptures by looking at a beautiful prophetic passage about the coming of God’s rule through his son, Jesus the Messiah.
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
Into our broken world steps King Jesus!
- Comer. Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human. Zondervan, 2015.
- Heiser. “‘Sons of Israel’ or ‘Sons of God in Deuteronomy 32:8”. Logos, 2017: https://blog.logos.com/sons-of-israel-or-sons-of-god-in-deuteronomy-32-8-9/
- Manchester: “Analyst says US is most divided since Civil War”. The Hill, 2018: https://thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/409718-analyst-says-the-us-is-the-most-divided-since-the-civl-war