A friend of mine recently gave me a summary of N.T. Wright’s five-act schema (found in The New Testament and the People of God, The Last Word, and others of his books) which is helpful in understanding Scripture as a whole rather than Old Testmant vs. New Testament. He summarized it like this:
Act one: Creation. God, man, and nature in perfect, intact, refreshing harmony. Genesis 1-2.
Act two: Fall. Man sins, things go wrong, God acts to judge sin and limit its destructive power. Genesis 3-11.
Act three: Israel. God calls one man and his family, makes a special bond between them, calls on them to model restored creation and to judge the nations, to be his representative on earth. When this family fails in this calling and breaks the covenant, it looks like God’s plan and his calling are going to be for nothing. Genesis 12-Malachi.
Act four: Jesus. One of Abraham’s and David’s descendants claims that all of the law and the prophets are “fulfilled” in him. He takes on all the sin of Israel and of the world, endures its punishment, and then rises from the dead, the firstfruit of the new creation. Matthew 1 – Acts 1.
Act five: Pentecost. The church, the followers of Jesus, spread his news and model his life and redemptive love to the world. Acts 2 – Revelation 20.
Revelation 21-22 could very well be the first act in a whole new play. THAT is exciting.
We are not in act one, but we must remember act one. Act one confirms the dignity of every human being. It describes what we were made for, it introduces the main two characters in this drama: God and humankind.
We are not in act two, but we must remember act two. Act two describes why things are not the way they are meant to be, why there is suffering in the world, why human beings are capable of such wickedness. It also describes the response of a holy God to this wickedness: wrath and destruction, epitomized in the flood. It is possible that a human society can sink so low in sin that God chooses to wipe it out. In every case, he saves those who he declares righteous. In act two, we have little indication that things will ever get better, only that God won’t let them get too bad.
We are not in act three, but we must remember act three. God makes a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They don’t deserve it, but God chooses them anyway to be his holy people, always with the intention that the whole world will one day be blessed through them. He dramatically redeems his people, then gives them a law to follow. As God’s people, they are to model the love of God for the poor and the helpless, they are to keep themselves holy by refusing to tolerate sin in their midst, and they are to be his agents of wrath on sinful societies. At the beginning of act three we have one more statement of the judgment theme from act two: Sodom and Gomorrah. The next time a society needs to be wiped out, God will use the swords of the nation of Israel. Yet this is not arbitrary: he makes them wait four-hundred years in Egypt until the sins of the Canaanites “reach their full measure.” Even then, certain righteous individuals (or individuals of faith…) such as Rahab are spared. After settling the land and choosing a king, the king becomes the focus of God’s relationship with his people. When the kings commit the sins of the Canaanites and incur God’s wrath, God uses the Assyrian and Babylonian swords against them as he used their swords on the Canaanites. Even after the humiliated and dejected nation of Judah is allowed to return to the land, they continue to be ruled by pagans. They see that their exile is a result of their breaking faith with the covenant and they long for the redemption that will come with the coming of God’s King (the anointed one) and kingdom. All of the Old Testament is written during act three and is about acts one, two, and three.
We are not in act four, but we definitely must remember act four. This is the climactic twist to the story. The King comes and proclaims God’s kingdom, but he and his kingdom are not the sorts anyone was expecting. He re-defines “true Israel” as those who follow him, hinting that someday Gentiles might be in that number as well. Rather than rule his enemies, he submits to them; rather than fight them he loves and forgives them. He urges his followers to do the same, and tells them that this is how God’s kingdom will advance on the earth. He prophesies the wrath that will fall on unrepentant Israel, then takes that wrath upon himself. Israel was waiting for God to show up in Jerusalem. When Jesus shows up, he lets everyone know that that is precisely what has just occurred. As he dies condemned by Jew and Gentile alike, God’s wrath is satiated, the exile is over, redemption is bought, the temple curtain is torn. God proves that all this is the case by the phenomenal and unprecedented resurrection of His Son, inaugurating the new (or renewed) creation.
We are in act five. In act five, God pours out his Holy Spirit on his now-redeemed people, who joyfully spread the good news about Jesus to the world. They are called the “body of Christ,” and indeed, through them the ministry of Jesus continues. As forgiven people they are to forgive, as beloved people they are to love. The wrath of God, so clear in acts two through four, seems to be temporarily halted until the word gets out. As Jesus prophesied the coming destruction on the unrepentant of Israel, so the church is to tell the world of its coming destruction. But they are not to be the agents of this destruction in any way. That is not the point. Now they are to be the agents of God’s love, so that as many as possible may be saved on the day of wrath. Act five is characterized by telling stories especially about act four (the gospels are an expression of this), and of the previous acts as well.
I’ll comment on this in my next post.