Step outside and see the world biblically

A few weeks ago I read James B. Jordan’s book Through New Eyes, and it did indeed leave me with new eyes to see. The book is essentially a primer of biblical worldview. This is not, Jordan explains, the same as Christian worldview in a philosophical sense. Rather, it is about how the Bible portrays the world we live in, all on its own terms. This involved two main categories: symbolism and history.

As Jordan explains, the world is designed to reveal God and His glory. This isn’t a secondary function, or frosting on the cake of creation. It’s what the world is at its heart: a symbol of God. And every part of the world symbolizes God in its own way. Through New Eyes uses the Bible to show demonstrate how certain different parts of creation symbolize God, so that you can go outside and see, instead of just matter, a world on fire with the glory of God.

While Through New Eyes looks at lots of different symbolism, I just want to highlight here some of the stuff that stuck out to me the most and has had the largest impact on my own vision. So here are a few natural symbols in biblical perspective:

Sky
The sky is called “heaven/the heavens” in Scripture, and it’s not a coincidence that this word is also used for the realm of God and the angels. The two are not the same place, but the sky is the image of heaven. It is above us no matter where we are, symbolizing that God and His host are watching over everything. Being higher also symbolizes God’s authority. The sun symbolizes the face of God, which shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, giving light, heat, and glory to the world, yet also scorching and burning. The sun, the moon, and the stars together also symbolize the rulers and authorities in the world, both earthly and heavenly. The clouds also represent the weight and glory of God, along with His double-edged comings of blessing and judgment.
Trees
Trees represent people, as can be seen throughout the Bible, such as in Psalm 1. Trees and men both come from the earth, and both grow up toward the sky which represents heaven. Those which are healthy and well-watered flourish, creating shade and fruit as a blessing, just as the Christian is given new life when baptized by the Spirit, which leads him to a life of love and fruit which blesses others. Unhealthy trees represent the wicked, who are dry and lifeless and good for nothing but to be cut down and thrown into the fire. People tend to surround homes, apartments, schools, and other such places with trees, and these trees represent the intended flourishing of the people who populate those places. Trees also represent a ladder to heaven, reaching from the earth to the sky, something which men are meant to become by the Spirit.
Animals
All animals are designed to represent God in various ways. They variously represent strength, power, beauty, sight, or other things which God has in abundance. Most interestingly, the animals which were unclean represented death. This is because the curse of human death was bound up with the cursing of the ground and its dust.
Rocks and stones
The Bible calls God a “rock.” He is strong and hard and massive, and this has two edges. On the one hand, rocks represent the safety God gives to His people. In the cleft of a rock a man can find shelter and shade. On the other hand, rocks represent the danger God poses to unbelievers. Whoever falls upon the rock will be broken, and if the rock comes falling down, whoever is beneath it will be crushed. The rock of the kingdom of God grows into a mountain, which elevates God and His people, Christ and His Church, above the whole world. It will stand and never be shaken. Smaller stones, like rubies and diamonds and the like, represent by their inner glint God’s fire of purity and holiness, and His Holy Spirit. By their brilliance they represent the glory of God, the shining and luminescent aspect which beautifies Him and His world.

So go out, look at the world, and see God. He is behind it all, and it all is meant to be a picture of Him.

Why I favor dressing up for church

Feel free to dress casually.

From what I’ve seen, most church websites and bulletins these days are very sure to include something like this somewhere noticeable. They want it to be clear: we’re not a stuffy old church that insists you dress like businessmen and Victorian ladies if you want to experience the presence of God. We know God as living in a personal relationship. So come as you are and enjoy fellowship among equals all in this together!

For what it’s worth, I appreciate that. The legalism which had built up in vast swaths of the Western church over the centuries about what to wear was stifling and unbiblical. Even now, you occasionally hear horror stories from old Baptist congregations: an usher scolds some single mother for her choice of attire, and she misses what might have been a redemptive moment. Such nonsense is a shame in the strongest and most condemning sense of the word.

Nonetheless, in our efforts to remove legalism and open welcoming doors to outsiders, I fear it’s easy to miss some of the good from the old tradition. The impulse that led people to dress up for church was deep. It definitely goes beyond the generic answered reason of “giving God your [culturally relative] best.” I think there are actually two areas of theological significance which can give the practice real meaning.

First, there is the idea of the sacred. In church, we are not members of a club. We don’t gather for some mere earthly thing we have in common, whether politics, hobbies, careers, or family relationships. We gather to worship God the Father Almighty, the transcendent One who is infinitely different from and superior to us. We come in the name of Jesus, His beloved Son who mysteriously unites human and divine natures in Himself in order to bring us to God. We unite in the power of the Holy Spirit, the very personal presence and power of the God who made everything and everyone. This puts us on holy ground. When we gather as a church (not, I should specify, just “in” a church), we are entering the presence of a Holiness which is set apart from anything else we know.

So when we dress differently than we do elsewhere, it can serve as a sign, especially when done freely and not legalistically. It can symbolize and point to the fact that Body of Christ is not just another function of human life, but is the point where the radically different life of God meets us. This, of course, doesn’t bind us to any particular kind of clothing. But when we, by our clothes and other, more important things (you know, like love for each other and praise of God), mark out church as sacred time and space before God, we testify to the world that we’re dealing with something, or better Someone, different than everything else. (As a side note, this idea is not compatible with our “Sunday best” simply being the same as our business clothes, or formal wear, or any other category. It sets itself apart, even perhaps undermining the traditional ideas of what special clothes make sense to wear for church.)

The other possible Christian significance to dressing up at church has to do with our identity. As a people born again, we live in hope of a resurrection to glory. We are now, and one day will be more fully, members of a new creation. Everything will be made better. Redemption will extend to every nook and cranny of creation, including our bodies. All will be beautified and perfected. When Jesus comes back for us, we will all be our best selves both inside and out.

To dress up, then, also serves as a sign of the new creation. No one can deny that, culturally relative as it may be, dressing up makes people look nice. In all but the rarest instances, we look our best when we dress our best. And while our looks aren’t the point, they can be a sign for ourselves in the world: we look like our best selves now in anticipation of how we will become our best selves when Christ returns, and in fact we are already our best selves hidden in Him. The visible points us to what is now invisible so that we can remember and witness to what Jesus has done and will do.

Of course, none of this is meant to construct a new legalism where we must dress up at church to make theological points. The beauty of the sign is at least in part in its freedom, showing that we have been freed by Christ into new creation, not forced. We must not submit to any yoke of slavery. But my point is rather not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The legalism and formalism of yesterday’s “dress your best” church is and deserves to be dead, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up on the dress up altogether. We still have power to be signs if we want, or even to be signs by some other method. In any case, let each render to God according to his own conscience for God’s glory.