A theology of the “re-“ prefix

I often found myself as a seminary professor explaining “what the Bible is all about.” There are many ways to go about this, but one helpful rubric is to describe the overall narrative in terms of creation>fall>redemption. This is a grand scheme that covers the whole Bible with God’s redemptive work most visible in the work of Christ on the cross and a picture of eternal restoration provided in the book of Revelation. This pattern also serves as a micro scheme that explains a repeating cycle throughout the Bible. God creates. People fail and suffer the consequences. Then God restores and recreates. The cycle is impossible to miss in the books of Judges and Kings. An attentive reader can find it most anywhere.

I’m especially impressed with the resilience and persistence of God in the redemption/restoration/recreation part of this scheme. After Adam and Eve “fell,” God provided clothing for them and a way to continue living in his world. When that world became irreparably corrupt, God flooded it – and then recreated it. God’s call on Abraham was another expression of his intent to reclaim a world that keeps drifting away from its Owner. He created a people that would be his own. He gave them a whole ritual system at Sinai to ensure that they could continue experiencing God’s reconciling grace whenever they fell. And fell they did, over and over again, until they were sent into exile. But God’s persistent intent to restore was as intense as ever. The great promises of the prophets were bound up with a return to the land, a restoration of their lost fortunes, and a renewal of their hearts.

You can’t read the Old Testament carefully without noticing the amazing redundancy of words around this theme. Words such as revive, renew, recreate, restore, reform, refresh, return, repent, redeem, repair, and rebuild. I call this the Bible’s “theology of the re- prefix.” It is evidence that God finishes what he starts. He never gives up. The God we come to recognize in both Scripture and experience is One who lovingly keeps returning to his original plan. In fact, Revelation has a lot in common with Genesis. The end of things is one glorious return to the beginning of things. The Hebrew word for “return” can also mean “restore” (cf. Ps. 23:3).

The theology of the “re-“ prefix has implications for our own relationships. Have we given up on people, marriages, churches, schools, our government…the world? God’s resilience presents us with a sometimes disturbing agenda that is eternally optimistic. Like him, we may often, after patiently waiting, “cut our losses.” The world was eventually flooded. A generation never made it to the Promised Land. Another generation was exiled. There is discipline to be sure. But in every case where God brings judgment, he declares hope. He issues a prophetic “re-“ word to let people know that he will find a way to bring them back to his original design. I must ask if we are as committed to restoration and return to God’s ideals as he is?

I’ll finish this reflection with a personal illustration. When Maureen and I entered the world of public education, we found lots of people who had given up hope. However, through a series of unmistakably divine events, God brought to life Union Academy, a charter school of excellence. UA is now a decade old, serving over 1,000 children on a college bound track – many of whom come from city schools with a 50% drop out rate. The mayor said it was the only thing she could remember that was “all good.” What we witnessed together was God’s reclamation of his role in public education. He purposefully orchestrated events and decisions, demonstrating his breath-taking resolve to redeem what had been lost to bureaucracy and politics. Is there any institution beyond his sovereign interest? Business, entertainment, government? I can’t think of anything that doesn’t ultimately belong to him. Can you?

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