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Interpreting terrible atrocities on Earth with heavenly lens

Unsplash/Alexander Tsang
Unsplash/Alexander Tsang

When we witness terrible atrocities on earth, we must interpret them in light of the heavenly reality. Heaven is a palace from which God rules sovereign over all, and heaven is a temple where he is worshiped as he ought. This is the reality.

How, then, do these visions of God in his heavenly palace/temple impact our understanding of what happens here on earth? What is essential to recognize is that when God created the heavens and the earth, He intended for this reality of the palace/temple of Heaven to be extended to the earth. As Psalm 104 states, God stretched out the heavens like a tabernacle. God created the heavens to be a tabernacle of his presence. Further, as Isaiah 6:3 states, it is not just the heavenly temple that is filled with the glory of God, the whole earth is full of his glory. God created the earth not only as the kingdom realm of the sovereign King, God created the whole earth to be His holy temple, filled with His glory.

The garden sanctuary

Consequently, a biblical understanding of the nature of heavenly worship and its relationship to God’s plan in history must be situated in God’s intention for mankind as articulated in the creation narrative. On the sixth day of creation, God created man in His image, and God blessed him, saying,

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"Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

This blessing given to mankind at creation crowned him with rule over the earth, granting man the privilege and responsibility to subdue and have dominion over all things. “Subdue” (kābaš) and “have dominion” (rādāh) are royal terms, the former term later used to describe Israel’s subduing of the land of Canaan (Num 32:22, 29; Josh 18:1), and the latter term used to describe the Messiah’s future reign (Ps 110:2). Made in God’s image, man is given the role of God’s regal representative on earth. As Eugene Merrill notes, “Man is created to reign in a manner that demonstrates His lordship, His domination ... over all creation.”  God is sovereign king over all creation, but He formed man in His image to be His vice-regent on earth. This is what David later describes when he says in Psalm 8:4–8,

What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

The realm of this kingdom over which man was to rule as God’s regal representative was a garden God planted as his earthly palace (Gen 2:8). God placed the man whom He had formed in His palace, adorned it with rich food and gold, and put Adam to work:

"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it"(Gen 2:15).

Yet here the language shifts from royal language to priestly language, revealing a second role man was to play in the garden realm. The phrase “work it and keep it” signifies much more than the duties of a gardener; rather, as Allen Ross explains,

In places where these two verbs are found together, they often refer to the duties of the Levites (cf. Num. 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6), keeping the laws of God (especially in the sanctuary service) and offering spiritual service in the form of the sacrifices and all the related duties — serving the LORD, safeguarding his commands, and guarding the sanctuary from the intrusion of anything profane or evil.

In other words, the four verbs in Genesis 1–2 that describe man’s purpose in the garden indicate that God created man, not only to be his kingly representative but also to be his priestly representative. The garden was not only God’s earthly palace but also his earthly temple. God was present with His people in the sanctuary as He “walked” with them in the cool of the garden (Gen 3:8). Notably, the verb for “walked” (hālǎḵ) in Genesis 3:8 is used later to describe God’s presence in the tabernacle (Lev 26:12; 2 Sam 7:6–7). Man was supposed to “keep” the palace-sanctuary, that is, to guard and protect its purity, preventing those who would attempt to usurp God’s reign and defile His temple.

Thus, what God intended for man in the garden was that he serve as a perfect king/priest within what Meredith Kline describes as a “holy theocracy,” a perfect union between kingdom and cultus, between reigning and worshiping. I am using the term “cultus” here, of course, to refer to the public acts of worship performed by a religious community. Man’s regal work and his priestly work were unified in one kingdom/cultus, an earthly manifestation of the heavenly reality.

However, we know what happened. When the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8, which claims that God has put everything under the feet of man, he says in the next verse, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb 2:8). Adam failed. He disobeyed God’s command to have dominion over creation by allowing a creature, the serpent, to be king. He failed to guard God’s garden sanctuary by allowing Satan to defile it. As the representative of all mankind, Adam failed to be God’s perfect king/priest, and he was exiled from the palace-sanctuary of God’s presence.

Adam’s failure did not end the universal sovereign reign of God over all things, of course, and many of the passages in Scripture that speak of God ruling over all refer to that continual, never-ending cosmic reign of God on his sovereign throne that Isaiah and John witnessed. All aspects of the universe still fall under the sovereign rule of Yahweh. Even Adam’s failure was part of God’s sovereign plan.

Nevertheless, Adam’s failure did end his role as king/priest, and God pronounced a curse upon Adam and Eve and all creation. Yet as part of his curse upon the serpent, God provided a glimmer of hope:

"I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Gen 3:15).

God promised that one day a seed of the women — a Second Adam — would accomplish what the First Adam failed to do. He would crush the usurper’s head and cleanse the defiled Sanctuary, fulfilling the God-given role of the perfect king/priest.

Originally published at G3 Ministries. 

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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