Church and nations
Genesis 2:5-17 gives us poetic imagery for the relationship between the church and the nations:
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground — then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Life-giving water flowed from the sanctuary to the world. The food from God’s sanctuary was meant to feed the world. And the wealth of the surrounding lands was meant to be brought back in to God’s sanctuary to beautify it. This was interrupted by sin, but we see it completed in Revelation 21-22, when the nations’ gold and gemstones now adorn God’s city. Out of this city flows a river, and food for the nations:
By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. — Rev. 21:24
Even on the cross Jesus began the process of drawing the nations to himself (John 12:32-33), and he is earnestly engaged in this task now that he has ascended to his throne. Gemstones generally signify people (consider Aaron’s breastplate and the stones on his shoulders, or the precious stones with which Paul built in 1 Cor. 3), and the most significant treasure that Jesus collects from the nations are people, whom he sets into his church (Eph. 4:8ff). Interestingly, Paul here reverses the direction of Jesus’s giving and receiving compared to Psalm 68. He can do so because of the church’s union with Jesus: when Jesus receives tribute from the nations, he distributes these gifts to his church.
Because the anointed kings of Israel were types of Jesus, it is not surprising to find them exhibit this pattern. God’s people provided food for the nations and received gifts to establish his house (2 Sam. 5:11-12, 1 Kings 5, 1 Kings 10). Yet the image is not perfect: even generally faithful kings erred in plundering God’s house to give to the nations (1 Kings 15:9-24).
Israel’s relationship to the Gentile nations is a typological picture of the church’s relationship to the nations today. In that time, there were three broad degrees of nearness to God — Israel’s priestly nearness, Gentile God-fearers who worshipped from a relatively greater distance (but could still offer sacrifices; Num. 15:14), and unbelievers (whether apostate Israelites or unbelieving Gentiles). But in Jesus these distinctions are foreshortened — all of God’s people are now priests to him (Gal. 3:27-29, Eph. 2:11-22, 1 Pet. 2:4-10). Even unbelievers are now drawn more uncomfortably close to Jesus, who is presently seated on his throne as king of kings (Rev. 1:5), leaving the nations with no excuse to reject him (Acts 17:30). Because of this heightened nearness, I suggest that the nearer relationship between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel could serve as a particularly fitting type of the church’s relationship to the nations today.
It does not seem that there was any inherent sin in Israel’s choosing Jeroboam over Rehoboam. What this provided was an opportunity for Israel to demonstrate their faithfulness or faithlessness. But immediately Jeroboam sinned, devising a scheme to lead Israel in worship outside of God’s house (1 Kings 12:25-33), and breaking the second commandment by worshipping Yahweh through images. This became the signal sin for the kings of Israel following him. Ahab heightened this sin, breaking the first commandment by abandoning the worship of Yahweh altogether (1 Kings 16:29-34). Judah had her own sins, and one of them was to reverse the order of things — instead of leading Israel to God’s house in worship, she chased after Israel in her idolatry and sin (Ezek. 23).
Peter Leithart has written on how the book of Kings may serve as an instructive typology for church division and unity. I think from the story of Judah and Israel we can also develop a typology for the church and the nations in the new covenant. Consider that Israel was in this time under God’s law, while all true worship was to take place in Jerusalem. This is roughly the situation today, where all nations are under Jesus’s law and lordship in a more comprehensive way, while all worship, all approach to Jesus’s throne, must still take place in and through the new Jerusalem, Jesus’s church.
If this is the case, we learn a few things about how the nation and church should — and should not — relate. Certainly the nations must not establish idolatrous worship. The only true worship of Jesus exists in and through his church and its officers, not through the king and magistrate. The church belongs to Jesus and not to the nation: the nation should take great care not to mess with Jesus’s bride, but to protect and honor and even adorn her. And for her part, the church has a corresponding responsibility to remain faithful to her husband, and stubbornly refuse to follow the nation in sin, idolatry and foolishness.
God uses the spheres of the church and the state to discipline one another. On the church’s part, some clear examples include the use of excommunication, and praying and singing the less popular corners of the Psalter. There are cases when the church may forsake a grossly faithless king and lend her support to an alternate civil authority (Elisha and Jehu, Jeremiah and Nebuchadnezzar, or in our time Bonhoeffer and the organized resistance). Likewise, the church herself may be disciplined, perhaps by an unwitting tyrant, but also by a wise sponsor-king who knows that the health of his nation is dependent on the faithfulness and unity of the church.
Finally, this underscores that Jesus is the great iconoclast. He is the fulfillment of Josiah, who tore down idolatrous altars in both Judah and Israel (2 Kings 23). Through his church’s worship and self-discipline, Jesus intends to exercise “divine power to destroy strongholds, . . . destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience” (2 Cor. 10:4-6). And Jesus intends that civil authorities “carr[y] out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).