Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Presence of God as The Central Biblical Theme (John Walton)


                                                                  (Ladybug, on napkin)

In my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church I argued that the central theme of the Bible is the presence of God. Gordon Fee referred to this as the "presence motif," which runs like a river from Genesis to Revelation.

Tonight I've been reading John Walton's Old Testament Theology for Christians. He affirms the same as Fee, and me. Here's a long quote, making the point. 

"I propose that the primary theme that progresses throughout the Old Testament, and indeed throughout the entire Bible, is the establishment of God’s presence among his people (“I will put my dwelling place among you,” e.g., Lev 26:11) with the explicit intention of being in relationship with them/us (“I will . . . be your God, and you will be my people,” e.g., Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12; Jer 11:4; Ezek 36:28). I do not consider this to be the “center” of Old Testament theology, but it is an overarching theme, arguably the most dominant and pervasive of themes, the trajectory along which the program of God moves. It is the covenant that gives formal articulation to the stages of the relationship between God and his people; it is the promise of God that he will make such a relationship possible; it is the Torah that governs how people may live in the presence of God and sustain relationship with him; and it is the kingdom of God that expresses his role in the cosmos and in which we participate as we live out our relationship with him.

After Genesis 1, Scripture tells the story of God’s gradual restoration of his presence among his people and of his relationship with them, both of which culminate in new creation. We can see, then, that this theme permeates the entirety of the biblical text. People begin to call on the name of the Lord  around the time of Seth (Gen 4:26), thereby invoking God’s presence. The covenant is God’s mechanism for establishing relationship, and it eventually (by the end of Exodus) leads to the reestablishment of his presence. The Torah is given so that God’s people might learn how to live in the presence of God so as not to lose it again. The tabernacle provides a place for God’s presence to dwell and is eventually replaced by the temple. And these sanctuaries serve as the palace of the Great King, from which God rules, but also as the place where his presence dwells among his people. Just in these few major stages, we can see that the Old Testament is tracking the themes of presence and relationship.
The Prophets speak of the future dwelling of God among the Israelites (Is 2; Mic 4) as well as of pending abandonment and punishment at the hands of the Babylonians (Ezek 10). The hope oracles of the Prophets, on the other hand, look forward to a time when God will restore his people and dwell among them again (Ezek 40–48). Just from these few examples, we can see that the Old Testament is tracking the themes of presence and relationship.
The New Testament picks up the theme with the incarnation: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The incarnation would have happened, even if there had been no sin for which to die, because the incarnation was an important step in the advancement of God’s presence. Jesus would have ascended, and the Holy Spirit would have been sent (Acts 2) regardless of the state of humanity, because the indwelling Spirit is also an important step in the advancement of God’s presence. Thereby the church becomes the temple of God (2 Cor 6:16) as God lives among (indwells) his people.
The statement “And he will be their God, and they will be his people” is indicative of relationship. The theme draws to a conclusion in the new creation detailed in Revelation 21 as God is dwelling in the midst of his people on the new earth. Relationship has been made possible through the work of Christ, and all of creation is restored to the state of God’s original intention. The biblical story does not begin with kingship, covenant, promise, or law, and it does not end with them. It begins and ends with presence and relationship, which are at the heart of God’s plan and which are the focus of Scripture, start to finish. 
The plot line of presence is more important than the plot line of salvation ... [And so on...]
The Old Testament is about living in the presence of God so that it will not be lost again, as in the Garden of Eden. The New Testament is about participating in the kingdom of God, which is characterized by God’s presence. From the opening chapters of Genesis to the closing chapters of Revelation, God’s presence and relationship are the Bible’s plot line and theological focus."
Walton, John H. (2017-11-20T22:58:59.000). Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.