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Community: The Context for Change

The Bible contains the incredible story of our calling to become God's image bearers.

Story behind the sermon (from John Ortberg)

I am a huge N. T. Wright fan, and I think some of his material on the role and destiny of human beings is a game-changer. I wanted to try to find some way to teach out what he writes in an accessible fashion.

The "human beings" as priests and kings is a tremendous teaching, but one that requires some explanation and illustration so that people can understand how it relates to the destiny and dignity God has for them. To explain this, I used a flip chart to illustrate the "human beings at a 45 degree angle between God and earth." That was a very helpful visual aid. Plus, it created an easy way to illustrate how sin damages the function we were made for—we don't want to reflect the praise up to God, and we don't want to reflect God's dominion down to our corner of the earth.

It was also a wonderful change to take a theme that runs from Genesis through Revelation and help increase the theological literacy of our congregation.


Last weekend I went with my daughter to see a production of Hamlet. What was really striking about this production was that it was done on Alcatraz Island—imagine that! This was one of the most creative and effective productions of anything I have ever seen.

The show actually started in the ferry on the way over to Alcatraz. Then, once we were on the island, we walked from one setting to another as the scenes progressed. The play began in late afternoon and ended at night when it was really dark.

We walked around in the gray twilight; the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father was up in the guard tower. Then we walked around to the back side of Alcatraz. It was dark and windy, and you could hear those really lonely bells from the buoys out in the ocean. Hamlet's murderous uncle came out from a secret passageway in the prison and did his "My offense is rank before heaven" speech.

It was just unbelievable. And at one point, when we were actually inside one of the prison cells, Hamlet came out to say the most famous words of the play: "To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?" He asked this very famous, huge question: Is it better to exist, especially in the face of pain and suffering? If it is better, why? Why am I here? Is there a reason?

Just at that moment, a cell phone rang out. You can imagine the acoustics in Alcatraz—it was unbelievably loud. My first thought was, This is absolutely brilliant! It's part of the play! Somebody is calling in with an answer to this great question! Then my second thought was, That's my phone! because it was my phone. You might want to turn your phone off right now if you brought it along.

We're in a series called (re)new, about how the gospel makes everything new again. I want to do something a little like watching Hamlet on Alcatraz; I want to look at the great question of life: Why are we here? Why did God make the human race? Against the great backdrop of the Bible from Genesis all the way to Revelation, I want to see how the Bible literally transformed the human race's understanding of itself. I especially want to see what our understanding of ourselves means for the kind of relationships God wants us to have with each other. Why does community, the church of all things, matter so much to God and to our earth? We have a lot of ground to cover. We need to just roll up our sleeves and dive in.

We're actually going to start a little before Genesis was written. Everything that was ever written has a context. It's important when you come to the Bible to understand that the Bible has a context, too. Genesis was not written in a vacuum. Israel was surrounded by cultures. There was primarily Mesopotamia: the Samarians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians. Then there were the Canaanites right around Israel, and there were the Egyptians. They all had religions. They all had gods; they had in common a hierarchal way of looking at life.

So all of these cultures had certain gods, which means they were all polytheistic. Under these cultures gods would be the king. Then under the king there was the court. At that level there would also be priests, who reported to the king. Then underneath the court and priests would be artisans, merchants, and craftspeople. Then under them would be a large group of peasants and slaves. They were considered to be just about the dregs of humanity. There were not many people beneath the peasants and slaves. That was about it.

In ancient Mesopotamian culture, the king was treated as divine or semi-divine. He was understood to be made in the image of the god who created him. The Hebrew word for image was tselem. The king was thought to be made in the tselem of the god. This was a dividing line between the king and the rest of the human race. Peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god. In fact, they were thought to have been created by inferior gods.

The king was the mediator through whom the blessings of the gods flowed to everybody else. Tselem is also the word for idols or idol images. All these religions would have them. They were controlled by the priests who were under the control of the king. So everybody else only had access to heaven through the king. Genesis challenges all of this. These details will come back through this message and in Scripture, so hang on to them as we move on.

The revolutionary new story of Genesis

Genesis has a very different account of creation. In Genesis, it is the Spirit of the one God who orders creation. Over the seven days of creation in Genesis, God makes seven speeches. The final one ordains the Sabbath as the holy day.

The writer of Genesis deliberately uses language that would be used of the king. God is placed in a royal role. God says, "'Let there be light,' and there was light." Now that's how a king reigned by royal proclamation. "Let there be taxes," and there were taxes. God is portrayed as the sovereign—not earthly—King. Then we're told that by the seventh day, God finished what he had been doing. We'll come back to that.

Now Genesis doesn't just say God is sovereign. It also says he is generous and wise, and he delights in his creation: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." This idea of being "very good" implies that creation is filled with the glory (character, goodness, generosity) of the God who made it. God created a special place on earth for human beings, the Garden of Eden. Then we're told these odd little facts about the Garden of Eden. You may have never noticed them before.

In the second chapter of Genesis, set in the Garden of Eden, we're told the gold of that land is good. Aromatic resin and onyx are also there. Why does the writer say there are gold and resin and onyx in Eden? These are all materials that would be used in the future temple: gold to make it beautiful, resin to make it smell good, and precious stones. These are all used for worship, because God was specially present in the Garden of Eden.

We're also told that Adam heard the sound of the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day. It's as if the earth is God's temple, but the Garden of Eden is the holiest place there. Adam and Eve are priests in that garden with God.

When it comes to human beings, things get very, very interesting. God says, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky" and so on. "So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." That word for image in the Hebrew is the same word we talked about earlier: tselem. In the image of God, God created all human beings. This statement by the writer of Genesis is the single most world-changing statement about human dignity, worth, and equality ever recorded. We all still live, whether someone thinks of himself as a believer or not, banking on the truth and change that this Book has made in the human race's understanding of itself.

Imagine what it did to the hearts of peasants and slaves to be told that not just the king but they, too, were created in the tselem, in the image, of the one great God. Male and female, slaves and peasants, all made in God's image. What if there was a community where everybody treated everybody else as if they were a king? Nobody on top; nobody on the bottom. What if there was a community where a billionaire looked at someone who was homeless and treated that person with honor and respect because that is how they view them? They're not just being nice. What if someone who was really, really powerful and ran a big organization, saw someone who was jobless and treated that person like she was a queen?

Low self-esteem is so painful, because we were made in the image of God. The Latin phrase for image of God is imago Dei. In Hebrew it was tselem Elohim, the image of God. That's why when your worth, when your dignity, when your sense of value is damaged, it's so brutal. That's why the mistreatment of another human being is so serious to God.

Look what it says in Genesis 9. "And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being." Why? Because in the image of God, God made mankind. You have never looked at another human being—no matter how ragged they may appear to you—who was not made in the image of God.

Here's another Genesis distinctive: In every other religion in the ancient world, the idea of one divine king made in the image of a god is traced back to the creation story, to the creation myth. They believed that the king was part of the god's plan to reign over earth. The king was the son of god and the way that the gods ruled. Israel has a really different story. Israel does not have a king for centuries of its existence. The only way they get a king is to beg a prophet by the name of Samuel.

When Samuel is an old guy, the Israelites go to Samuel and say, "You are old. Appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have." Samuel tries to talk them out of it. Samuel knows that is not God's plan for his people. But the people refuse to listen. "'No!' they said, 'We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations." That's a good reason to want a king, isn't it? Don't they sound like a bunch of second graders? "We want a king. All the other kids have a king. How come we can't have a king? It's not fair."

So God says to Samuel: "Okay, give them a king, Samuel, because it's not you they're rejecting. It's me. I had another plan for the human race. It wasn't this plan, but they wouldn't want it; they're not ready for it."

Nobody else has a story like Israel's, where the king doesn't even come until centuries later and then as a concession against the will of God. How different than those cultures whose king was the one who alone bore the image of a god.

The new dignity of human beings as God's image bearers

The Bible brings to the world a revolutionary understanding of the human project. The fact that you are made in the image of God tells you not just about your worth and value (though it does tell you those things) but also about your destiny. There is a very clear historical context behind this notion of being made in the image of God. A lot of people don't know about this.

In ancient times, there was no media, no Internet, no papers, so this is what kings would do: they would set up images of themselves—statues—in the farthest flung corners of their empire, so that everyone would know who was ruler. It was a little like politicians in our day, putting their names on highways on having their pictures up in post offices. They want people to know who's in charge.

The writer of Genesis is saying that just as the king would place images of himself around so that everybody would know who was ruler (this is how Bishop N. T. Wright puts it), so God places his own image, human beings, into his world so that the world can see who its ruler is. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. It's not about having this or that quality; it's not about whether you have reason or free will or something of that nature. It's about your role in the cosmic scheme of things. You are made to reign under God's character, with God's power, in God's stead, for the benefit of the earth, so that all the earth can know who reigns it. You are made in the image of God. God's plan is to graciously share his power by creating a community of loving people who will exercise dominion through his strength, marked by his goodness. That is who you are.

There is a tiny picture of this in the Garden of Eden, where we're told God brings the animals to the man to see what the man will name them. God doesn't name the animals himself. He could have done that. But whatever the man calls each living creature, that becomes its name. This is a little reflection of the tselem Elohim that's in you.

How many of you have ever had a pet? When you call your pet, do you say, "Hey you"? No. Our love of animals, and our ability to have insight into their natures and even tame or train them (that's all part of this naming deal), is all part of this divine tselem. That's why there is something in us that responds to the creatures God has made. We have a little bit of his heart in us.

We had a membership class here yesterday, and there was someone in the class whose dog had recently died. It's a very sad thing. We always do a Q&A in the class, and one of the questions that came was, Will there be dogs in heaven? There will be dogs in heaven. That's just biblical. There won't be any cats, but there will be dogs in heaven.

The idea of this image-of-God business is that through us, through our learning, through culture, through our relationships, through technology, through the arts, through medicine—through all of these things—we reflect who God is. We are, with humility, to add goodness and beauty to families, to neighborhoods, to societies, to nations, to people who are hungry or homeless or have no education, so that God's whole project becomes a glorious delight in generosity and righteousness to all who see it.

The prophet Habakkuk says, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." That's the story. There is a narrative. It isn't an accident. This isn't a random blob of protoplasm floating around the universe. This is God's plan. This is your story and mine and the big story we're a part of. We might call all of this the Genesis project.

N. T. Wright offers a beautiful picture of this image, the imago Dei. It is the image of a mirror. God reigns over the earth through these little human creatures made in his image, who bring God's good rule, God's good reign, down to the earth. Then, in turn, that glory—the joy, the gratitude, the goodness ("The heavens declare the glory of God …") wells up, and human beings give it words, turn it in to praise, and offer it back to God. We are created to reflect God's rule down to the earth and to reflect the earth's joy up to God. Your destiny is to reflect the holy reign of God to the earth, to care for all of creation, and particularly human beings, the way God would want you to care for them. Then you are to gather all the goodness and delight from the earth, put it into words, and offer it back to God in raucous, joyful worship.

Your destiny is to contribute more creative, God-given goodness to the earth than you can currently imagine, and then to offer more earthly joy and gratitude to God than you can currently contain. By the way, if you're a little disappointed right now at how your career is turning out or what accomplishments you have achieved, don't worry about it; you have more before you in God's eternity than you could ever even imagine.

The Bible says that you will be a king. The reign of God will flow through you to enhance the earth, and you will be a priest. The praise and glory of the earth will flow through you to be offered to God. You will be a priest and a king. In Revelation 22, John says, "The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. And they will reign forever and ever." To reign is not some static thing where you're stuck on a boring throne. It means you will be strong and powerful and creative in making good and in achieving value, beauty, delight, humility, and joy. That's the destiny that lies before you in eternity. You will be a king and a priest.

The ugly disruption of sin

So how is the Genesis project going these days? Is the earth pretty much covered with the glory of the knowledge of God like the waters cover the sea? No, it's not, because of the presence of sin. God is still here, but because I'm sinful, I don't want to be a mirror. I don't want to reflect God's reign. I want to reign. I want my will to be done, not God's will. When praise and glory come, I don't want it to go up to God. I want it to come to me because sin, pride, selfishness, and deceit have robbed me of this mirror and distorted the image of God in me. I want now to be my own little god. I live now in the kingdom of self instead of in the kingdom of God. We all do.

Sin has messed everything up. As a result of the Fall, we see the effects of sin immediately in what's called the Curse. Our work—our dominion—is messed up. Now there are thorns and thistles. We labor by the sweat of our brow. Dominion is messed up. Relationships are messed up.

As a result of the Fall, God says to the woman, "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." I grew up thinking this verse was like a biblical mandate—that it was God's original plan for the human race. It wasn't until I was a full-grown man that I realized a husband ruling over his wife was not part of God's original plan before the Fall. It was part of the Curse, from which Jesus died to redeem us.

Somebody asked me once, "How did Nancy respond when you told her that the man ruling thing was part of the Curse?" Well, I haven't told her yet. But what happened in Genesis is this: instead of there being community, harmony, love, and joy between genders, there is hostility. There is a struggle for power; we attempt to reign and inflict our own wills on each other.

Does anyone here ever mismanage conflict? Do you ever nurse resentment? Do you ever not go directly to somebody when you have a problem with her? Ever send a sarcastic email? Ever make a cutting comment about someone behind his back to another person? See, we have become people who destroy community, who damage other people and ourselves. This is serious. This behavior violates the image of God. In a sense, it blasphemes the God in whose image we are all made. We have become the kind of people who cannot live the Genesis project.

Adam and Eve leave the garden. God places on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim to guard it.

The new Genesis story in our lives

But God doesn't give up. He begins again. This is who our God is. On Mt. Sinai he makes a covenant with Israel. He gives them the Ten Commandments. Look what he says to them first: "Although the whole earth is mine"—God cares for it all; that reality often gets lost—"Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

The language used here is no accident. You will be priests (you're going to bring worship to God), and you will be kings (you're going to bring God's dominion to earth). Then God makes his covenant. God gives Israel the Law. Then he does a very strange thing. He tells Moses to build a tabernacle, a holy place that will express God's presence on earth. The last chunk of Exodus, about 15 chapters, is just very detailed instructions for the construction of that tabernacle. It's pretty tedious to read, but one detail is very interesting.

Take a guess at how big the tabernacle was to be—the tabernacle that was for all of Israel to see as the presence of God. By way of reference, this room is about 150 feet long by about 100 feet wide. The tabernacle size, if converted to feet from cubits, is about 45 feet by 45 feet by 15 feet. That's how big the tabernacle was to be.

The tabernacle is not valuable because of its size; the value is not in the actual structure. There is a greater reason why Israel loves the tabernacle. The construction, the creation, of the tabernacle takes seven days. During the creation of the tabernacle, God makes seven speeches to Moses to instruct him in how to make it. The seventh speech is set aside to consecrating the Sabbath. The Spirit of God who, in Genesis 1, hovers over the waters over the deep, is said to have filled Bezalel, the craftsman, to inspire the creation of the tabernacle.

That is the first time in the Bible that anybody is said to be filled with the Spirit of God. The entrance to the tabernacle, God says, is to face the east. The ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, the holiest place, is guarded by cherubim. Does this sound familiar? The Holy of Holies is decorated with gold. It is sweetened with incense. On the breastplate of Aaron, the high priest, the only guy who could come into the Holy of Holies, there is a stone on which are written the 12 names of the 12 tribes of Israel, representing all of the people of God. That stone is made of onyx.

In Genesis 2, when creation is done, the text says, "And so God finished the work." In Exodus, when the tabernacle is done, it says, "And so Moses finished the work …. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle." The glory of the Lord fills it so intensely that we're told Moses cannot even enter it—the glory fills it like the waters covered the sea.

Why does Israel love the tabernacle? The tabernacle is not designed to be a little refuge where people can go to escape the world and be safe. The tabernacle is designed to be a mini-cosmos. It's all of creation in miniature. It's a picture, a symbol, to Israel every time they see it—an expression of what God intends to happen to the whole of his creation. He will yet dwell with his people. His creation will yet see his glory. The Genesis project is not over yet.

Then comes Jesus. John says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt …." The word translated dwelt is the Greek word to tent or to tabernacle. This is very deliberate on John's part. You can literally translate it, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory,"—that's what was in the tabernacle—"the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." He is the Messiah, but people still think of Messiah in human terms.

In fact, after Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000, it occurs to people that he could be the ultimate secret weapon against their enemies. If he could just take a few loaves and fish and feed 5,000, give him a sword, a chariot, and a horse, and think of all he could do! Jesus, knowing they intended to make him king by force, withdraws into the hills by himself. He spends his few short years teaching and manifesting a kingdom, a kingship, a rule of another kind—of servanthood and humility and generosity and self-sacrificing love.

In Jesus, God is beginning the Genesis project all over again at infinite cost. On the cross where Jesus dies for your sin and mine, you might remember Jesus' final words. Jesus cries out, "It is finished!" At the end of creation, God said, "It is finished." At the end of the tabernacle, Moses said, "It is finished." Now, finally, all the damage sin has done has been defeated. It is finished! When he says those words, the curtain that has kept everybody out of the Holy of Holies is ripped in two. Now anybody can just walk right in.

What does this new creation look like? Where does God now dwell? Peter says it like this: "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander of every kind. You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood." You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood. You! A holy nation. A people belonging to God.

Now the glory of God is somehow seen on this earth not in a tent or a building but in the unity and harmony and love of a community of redeemed men and women, who live in oneness through the Spirit, purchased at the cross of Jesus. "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit …." How is that going for you? You're a priest and a king and a steward of God's dream of community. How is it going?

There is a guy I met a year or two ago named Duane. He was in the parking lot at church, and he came up to me and said, "I want to tell you my story, Pastor John." He had been wrestling with an addiction, but had become sober. He had 13 years of sobriety. Then he said, "My wife, who I loved more than anything, died in my arms." He lost his sobriety. He went back to using again, hit bottom, ended up homeless on the streets with no job, living in a shelter in San Jose, and it was then that he met someone from our church.

We had a group at our church for grief recovery for widows and widowers. This person got Duane hooked up with that group. Through this church, Duane met Christ. He found a home, a family. Somebody in that recovery group invited Duane to live in his house with him. So Duane went from a homeless shelter in San Jose to a home in Atherton. During his time living there, Duane got very sick with cancer. He died a month ago.

Yesterday was Duane's funeral service. He has three brothers, and there has been a lot of pain and estrangement in the family. One of his brothers got up to speak, and he talked about reconciliation. He and Duane had gone years without say a word to each other. He shared about the reconciliation he had begun to experience with Duane. He said, "I don't know if you have ever experienced forgiveness like that, but if you haven't, I hope you do, because it's the best gift I have ever been given."

Another brother is engaged. His fiancé got up and said, "You know, the theme of the day just seems to be reconciliation. There has been a lot of pain in this family, and it has to stop. So you three brothers, I want you to stand up." That's the gutsiest thing I have ever seen at a funeral service. They didn't particularly want to stand up, but what are you going to do? It's a funeral service.

They stood up. She said, "Now, this is it. Duane started this. It's time for reconciliation, so I want all three of you to hug each other." They didn't want to do this, and you could tell they were kind of mocking it, but tears started streaming down everybody's face. It was the most awkward, beautiful hug I have ever seen. All I could think of was that verse in Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!"


Every time you forgive, every time you reconcile, every time you include somebody who has been lonely, every time you encourage somebody who is down, every time you love somebody who is left out, the Genesis project is happening all over again. The reign of God is coming down to earth, and the glory of God is rising up to heaven. If your heart is hard in some places, a little stony, a little cold, God will give you a new heart, make you a better king, make you a better priest.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The revolutionary new story of Genesis

II. The new dignity of human beings as God's image bearers

III. The ugly disruption of sin

IV. The new Genesis story in our lives