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Saving the World

It really is God’s intent to save the world. It’s not my intent, nor is it something I dreamed up. It’s certainly not within my ability or competence, or our ability or competence. It is, however, God’s intent and it is within God’s competence, though it helps if we trust him. Our trusting him was, in fact, always part of the plan.

One of the most familiar passages in Scripture reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s John 3:16; the next verse reads, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him,” that is, to save the (the cosmos), the ordered universe, the earth, humanity. The word translated “world” can mean any of these things; from my reading of Scripture, I believe it means all these things. Jesus then came into the world not to condemn the world —as many have supposed and still suppose—but to save the world.

Nor is it just this one text. In the writings of John, Jesus is described over and over as “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5; 12:46), as the one who “gives life to the world” (6:33, 51), as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14), as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). With this we are reminded of what the Hebrew prophets knew. One day swords will be beat into plowshares, and nations will not train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-3). One day the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). One day the kingdom of God will fill the earth (Daniel 2:35, 44). One day, when the anointed one comes, his rule will be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10).

I was not raised to think this way. I was raised to see faith only within the walls of the little white church building we went to—my family and their friends. Only we were Christian. We had after all Matthew 7:13-14 to confirm us in our smallness. You’ll remember this text? About only a few finding the narrow gate? Later, much later, I would come to see that this text had a very specific context. Coming as it does near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, it’s Jesus’ acknowledgement that few of his listeners will grasp what he’s saying about the ways of love and forgiveness. Most will take the road that leads to destruction. A generation later in the Jewish Revolt they did, and most of them were destroyed. But when I was young we didn’t see these things, these connections. And only we were Christian. Only we and people exactly like us in faith and practice had faith. And I mean exactly like us. Of course the God presumed by all this was a frightening God, a God habitually angry, quick to judge, tyrannical, vengeful and capricious, able to consign almost everyone to Hell. This was a God who acted in ways we train our children not to. He was not a God easily trusted.

Meanwhile, it was as if the entire earth from New York City to the Himalayas and its billions of inhabitants were only a backdrop, a colorful but inconsequential stage set, for us—we few true and faithful people. Yet a lot of people, Christian and not Christian, picture the world exactly this way, as if Jesus came to condemn the world, as if he came not to save the world but to condemn it. Over the years I sensed there was something wrong with this picture. To begin with, it goes against the teachings of Scripture. It misses what salvation even means. What did “saved” mean in Jesus’ day? Answering this begins at least with looking at what “salvation” meant in Hebrew scriptures. And in Hebrew scripture it’s the word yeshu’a, from which comes the name Jesus, and it had an original meaning of “to be roomy or broad” as opposed to be hemmed in, imprisoned, or restricted. Isn’t that a marvelous picture of salvation? It came to mean “to free, come to the help of, give aid to, deliver or rescue.” The prototypical salvation event in Hebrew scripture is the Exodus when God saved Israel from Egypt. So it’s to be saved from danger, from harm, from disease, from evil intent or violence. It’s very much a hands-on, this-world, here-and-now, real-life understanding of salvation. It’s what your marriage may need now, what your body may need now, what churches worldwide may need now, what Muslim-Christian relations do need now. That’s why in the Gospels the concepts saved and healed are used interchangeably. The Greek word (sozo) means either to save or to heal. So in the miracle accounts, Jesus will say, “Your faith has saved you” or “Your faith has healed you.” It’s exactly the same thing.

This is all very “on earth as it is in heaven” salvation! Remember the Lord’s Prayer! In Matthew 6, verse 10, Jesus suggests this prayer to his followers, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There is salvation on earth as it is in heaven. And the difference made is to be on earth as it is in heaven. It’s not just fire insurance, some notion that some small group of people will somehow escape Hell.

For this reason Jesus can say of the tax collector Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:10), because the stingiest man in Jericho has just pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone he has cheated of anything four times the amount, going way beyond even the law’s requirement for restitution (which was the amount taken illegitimately plus 20%). Now salvation had come to his house, to his family and servants, to the poor who became his beneficiaries, to all who may have been defrauded. Salvation, you see, has all these dimensions: personal, domestic, social, economic. It’s hands-on. It’s here-and-now. It happens on street-level. Salvation is holistic; it affects all of life and it creates a future we can trust. It’s God’s new order on earth as it is in heaven.

— Dale Pauls

Stay tuned next week.

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