Book Review: From Eden to the New Jerusalem
T. Desmond Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem was written as an accessible introduction to biblical theology. Structured in a cyclical manner, the six chapters in between the introduction and conclusion each survey a particular aspect of redemptive history. Structured thus, each chapter serves to add another layer of detail to the overall thesis. Each chapter could be read profitably as an independent study of one particular subject in biblical theology.
Alexander states in the introduction, “There is something of value in seeing the big picture, for it frequently enables us to appreciate the details more clearly. The scholarly tendency to ‘atomize’ biblical texts is often detrimental to understanding them.” (11) This illuminates the thesis of his book, that the biblical meta-narrative must be the lens through which individual passages of Scripture are interpreted, as God’s overarching plan of redemption provides a context which must be considered.
Foundational to Alexander’s hermeneutic is his interpretation of the Garden account in the first three chapters of Genesis. The Garden itself is God’s temple, the connection point where the person of God dwells upon the earth and interacts with His people. Adam and Eve were placed in Eden with instructions to expand the garden, thereby eventually spreading the presence of God throughout the whole earth. This role of Adam and Even designated them as “priests” and co-regents, ministers for God in the presence of God.
The disobedience of Adam and Eve by eating from the forbidden tree was an outright rejection of their status as God’s appointed priest-kings. By failing to exercise dominion over the serpent, they refused their role as kings; and by failing to obey the word of the Lord, they refused their role as priests. Alexander writes, “All importantly, their actions jeopardize the fulfillment of God’s blueprint that the whole earth should become a holy garden-city. The very ones meant to extend God’s dwelling place throughout the earth are excluded from his presence.” (27)
After this expulsion God’s presence is experienced through sacrificial altars, as can be seen through the worship of men such as Abel and Job. The original promise of a Messiah embedded within the protoevangelion begins to germinate with the advent of the covenant between God and Abraham.
God’s call of the nation of Israel out from the land of Egypt to the peaks of Mount Sinai reintroduces the presence of God specifically dwelling amongst a people called to be His priests. The divinely-inspired blueprint for the Tabernacle is laden with nature imagery, connecting the Mosaic Tabernacle with the original Tabernacle of God, the Garden of Eden. At the heart of the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant, which is the footstool of God. It is inside the Holy of Holies that the presence of God dwells, and the Ark is the connection point between His reign in the heavens and His reign on the earth.
Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites fail in their responsibilities as priest-kings. The vision recorded by the prophet in Ezekiel 10 depicts the presence of God departing from the recalcitrant nation. Though the temple was rebuilt in post-Exilic Israel, the presence of God is never depicted as returning to the temple. While God’s favor still was upon the nation, His specific presence was not.
The New Testament marks a fundamental shift in the way the God is working to fulfill His original creation blueprint. All throughout the Old Testament the presence of God was in a specific, geographic location. The pilgrimages of the Israelites for the feasts consisted of returning under the shadow of the presence of God. After the death of Jesus Christ, the presence of God is implanted within His followers. Alexander quotes McKelvy, “God no longer dwells with his people in a sanctuary which they make for him; he dwells in them, and they are his temple.” (64)
More than being the means for implanting His presence inside His followers (which returns them to their role as priests), Jesus Christ also reestablishes His followers’ role as kings. Jesus Christ as man triumphed over the serpent that had held mankind captive since the fall of the first Adam, purchasing for His followers a return to the original created order, to be revealed in the coming New Jerusalem.
In the new creation, the original design of God will finally be realized. The New Jerusalem as pictured in John’s Revelation is a perfect cube, connecting it with the Holy of Holies within the Tabernacle. The presence of God will dwell with His people on the whole earth, as they worship before Him as His priest-kings.
As an introduction to biblical theology, Alexander’s work is quite helpful in presenting the basic hermeneutic used to trace the biblical meta-narrative, as well as the conclusions resulting from such a study. Throughout the book he intertwines personal and ecclesial application with nuanced theological argument, demonstrating how technical theological discussion should produce a purer worship and life. A discussion about the atonement preparing human beings to be the living temple of the Lord suddenly bursts forth into Charles Wesley’s classic hymn And Can It Be? While rare for a theology book, such passionate worship is not contrived but rather the obvious overflow of an author who has experienced much of God in his studies.
As it is an introductory work, Alexander’s book is rather short and suffers for it. At times it seems as though clarity was sacrificed upon the altar of limiting the book’s pages. Though Alexander’s intention in his work is to concentrate upon the big picture, clarity is sometimes lacking as to how the details prove his rendering of the big picture. The strength of this work is clearly its presentation of biblical theology, not its defense of it.
While Alexander has written a very clear, understandable, and accurate vision for the overarching plan of God in redemptive history, his conclusions about the connection between the the old covenant people and the new covenant people are questionable.
Concerning communion and the passover, Alexander writes, “Given the obvious links between the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper, it seems reasonable to conclude that both fulfill the same purpose of sanctification.” (134) For Alexander, the communion meal carries much greater significance than being a mere symbol. He understands the meal to have in and of itself properties of sanctification, which is why it is dangerous for the unrepentant to partake.
While there certainly is symbolic connection between eating Passover and partaking of communion, to state that both function in the same way is to underestimate the differences between the old and new covenants. God now resides within the human heart, and it is the Spirit who makes holy, not eating a particular meal. (1 Pet. 1:2) The Passover is only mentioned once in the Epistles as anything other than a day on the calendar, (1 Cor 5:7) and the context is church discipline.
Likewise, Alexander draws a heavy correlation between the nation of Israel and new covenant believers. He writes, “Undoubtedly, Paul views the church corporately as being God’s temple,” (61) and “Many scholars interpret Paul’s comment ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’ as implying that each individual believer is a temple of God…However, Paul’s use of the singular forms ‘body’ and ‘temple’ in conjunction with the plural pronoun ‘you’ would seem more naturally to fit with the view that the local church is the temple of God.” (64, footnote 95)
The communal aspect of the church as the body of Christ certainly has been largely ignored in contemporary American Christianity. Alexander’s argument for such an understanding of the church as the collective temple of God from Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 6 is quite compelling. However, Alexander’s conclusions would seem to ignore the individual aspect of the return of the presence of God at Pentecost. The tongues of fire rested individually upon the disciples, not upon the room as a whole. The Scriptures affirm both the corporate body of believers and the individual believer as being the temple of God.
These two matters of exegesis do little to dampen my enthusiasm towards Alexander’s work. It is clear, it is concise, and it is worship-producing. In my own life, gaining an understanding of God’s passion to have His creation be priest-kings and the necessity of having a human being fulfill that plan makes the incarnation and subsequent death and resurrection of Christ even more unfathomable. I was in subjection to the serpent, but another Man came and conquered him for me. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone in my church who desires to understand how the Scriptures are unified as a whole, and how they communicate God’s passion to be known by His people.
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