Christian Living Bible Verses

Manual For Living in God's World

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Christian Living Bible Verses

Manual For Living in God's World

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We have composed manuals to cover an exceedingly wide range of activities, but shied away from the most important–concerning life in God's world. In this regard, the psalmist reminds us: "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (24:1). Consequently, we are stewards of all we possess, and our own lives as well.

It is required of a steward that he or she be conscientious. As a result, not given to procrastination or other inhibiting vices. In graphic terms, once having put his hand to the plow, not turning back (cf. Luke 9:62).

Since the Scripture in its entirety and particulars is a faithful guide, it would be presumptive to offer a substitute. Instead, it is my intent to appropriate and expand on some of its more salient features.

Then, too, I take what might best be characterized as a pastoral approach. This invokes imagery of negotiating a rocky trail, reposing by a quiet stream, and partaking of lush flora. It also suggests taking care to provide security against preying beasts. All things considered, to provide guidance for the pilgrim's journey to the celestial city.

I mean to state things in as simple, straightforward manner as possible. This does not come by way of a disclaimer, since profound truths are more times than not uncomplicated. Along this line, the eminent theologian Karl Barth was asked: "What is the most profound religious conviction ever expressed?"

He did not hesitate for a moment, but replied: "Jesus loves me."

I intend to approach the topic in three connections. Not surprising, the first concerns the religious aspect of life. After that, I will turn to the social factor. Then, finally, to personal considerations. These cannot be neatly separated, as illustrated by the prophetic injunction: "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not let listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:23-24).

There is one thing more. I do not visualize myself thundering from a mountainside at people stretched out below. Instead, I am admonishing myself first of all, and then those who might benefit from my reflections. So let the discussion commence.

The Religious Factor

God is; all else amounts to a footnote.

God's Awesome Presence

"For you are great and do marvelous deeds," the psalmist summarily concludes; "you alone are God" (86:10).

According to Irenaeus, "For with God there is nothing without purpose or due signification" (Against Heresies).

* * *

It is commonly assumed that a sense of awe lies at the heart of religious experience. The term implies amazement, bordering on reverence. Examples abound.

My wife and I, along with our children, made our way up the 5.2 mile Hunt Trail to the crest of Mount Katahdin–situated in Maine. The clouds were hanging low, giving the impression that we were nearer heaven than earth. The sun broke through the cloud cover at one point or another, as if to symbolize God's radiant presence.

On another occasion, I sat out under the stars. These appeared to provide a protective canopy overhead. I subsequently recalled a text from the Psalter: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Psa. 8:3-4).

At such times, I am often reminded of Stuart Hine's memorable lyrics:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

After that, the haunting refrain:

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, how great thou art!

In a manner of speaking, I had made the religious connection. Not all do so, at least not consciously so. Scripture would seem to imply that humans are inherently religious. This leaves us with the options of worshiping the Living God, or idols of our own making. For instance,

Why do the nations say, "Where is their God?" Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak; eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear; noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel; feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats" (Psa. 115:1-7).

What, then, of the foolish person who alleges that there is no God (cf. Psa. 14:1)? This pertains to the practical atheist, one who behaves as if there were no Sovereign to whom he or she would have to give an account. Such qualifies as a portrait of folly.

The examples I have cited above might give the impression that religious experience is limited to peak experiences. This is emphatically not the case. There is a milder expression of the religious experience associated with the ordinary. It is much more common, and often reflects an awareness of God's loving care–or something less for the dogmatic secularist. I will let him speak for himself.

In particular, I often associate this milder form of religious experience with God's timing. It seems as if fortuitous events combine in such a creative fashion as to remind me of God's involvement. As C. S. Lewis observed, we are often initially surprised by the turn of events. It is characteristically in retrospect that they fit together into a coherent pattern.

Consequently, we ought not to depreciate little things. God often uses them to accomplish great purposes. According to conventional wisdom, "It is from a little acorn that the mighty oak tree grew."

"And what does the Lord require of you?" the prophet rhetorically inquires. "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). As alternatively expressed, to practice the presence of God.

This does not come about in a haphazard manner, and benefits from a religious discipline. In particular, the recourse to Scripture, prayer, and doing good. As a matter of fact, devout believers report that from time to time they are not disposed to read Scripture or pray. At such times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would make a point of doing so. He found that it would characteristically prove to be edifying.

On occasion, he would counsel indirection. Suppose that a person finds that his or her mind wanders during prayer. Instead of focusing on the problem, to the neglect of prayer, pray concerning the matter that comes to mind. In this manner, the prayer vigil continues unabated. One might imagine Satan withdrawing in disgust, having failed in his endeavor to frustrate the prayer warrior.

This, of course, assumes that one is properly motivated. Otherwise, the perfunctory repetition of religious exercises can prove spiritually counterproductive. As noted earlier occasion, "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:23-24).

"He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy" (Prov. 14:22). As for the former, God appears remote or on occasion ominous. As for the latter, he seems compassionate and merciful.

All things considered, we turn to representative examples from Scripture. It came to pass that Jacob left Beersheba, and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the evening. Taking one of the stones, he propped up his head, and stretched out to sleep.

"He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: 'I am the Lord; the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac'" (Gen. 28:12-13). After that, the Lord promised to give to the patriarch and his descendants the region in which he found himself.

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought: "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and exclaimed, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

The patriarch had made his way up from the Negev into the hill country, bound for the juncture at Beth-shean. Many have traveled that way before and since without experiencing anything even vaguely similar to that of the patriarch. One never knows when he or she may be overwhelmed with God's awesome presence.

Some suppose that the rock was a relic meant to induce a religious experience. There is nothing to validate this contention; moreover, Jacob allows that he was quite unaware of the Lord being present. It was only after his experience that he set up the rock as a memorial to what had transpired.

The portrait of Jacob up to this time was one of a conniving, selfish ingrate. However, from God's perspective he was a work in progress. This was the first of seven times that the Lord appeared to him (cf. 31:3, 13; 32:1-2, 24-30; 35:1, 9-13; 46:1-4). Consequently, this would appear to be a turning point in the patriarch's turbulent life.

The ladder, or flight of stairs, was familiar from Mesopotamian mythology. It is represented in the architecture of the ziggurats, and was constructed to provide the deity an access to the temple and town. Jacob would have been familiar with the symbolism, and assume that this constituted a portal from heaven above. This constitutes the first of three panels.

The second panel finds angels scurrying up and down the ladder. The Almighty observes what is taking place. The impression one gets is that this is a matter of considerable importance, not simply for Jacob but subsequent generations. In retrospect, this proves to be the case.

The third panel consists of God identifying himself, and concludes with his covenant promise. As for the former, I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. As for the latter, I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. As for the interim, I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised you.

One can readily imagine the narrative being told and retold to an appreciative audience. Thus a historical event was vicariously experienced. In a manner of speaking, they were there with the patriarch. As a result, God was sensed as being here with them. The awesome presence of God is thereby cultivated from one generation to the next.

Our focus abruptly shifts. In the year of King Uzziah's demise, the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings... . And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." At the sound of their voices the door- posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isa. 6:1, 3-4).

The reign of Uzziah in Judah had been long and prosperous. Under such circumstances, it is tempting to attribute God's faithfulness to the regent. So it was that his death was calculated to create consternation. What would the future hold?

The seraphs are mentioned only in this context. They appear as heralds of God's holiness. The three-fold declaration serves to accent his unmitigated character. It was not something to be compromised with the passing of time, or changing conditions.

At the sound of their voices, the door-posts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke. This, in addition, brings to mind an earlier instance when "The smoke billowed up from it (Mount Sinai) like the smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently..." (Exod. 19:18). Whether in one connection or the another, these announce God's awesome approach.

"Woe to me!" Isaiah exclaimed. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty." He thereby expresses sincere contrition. Blaise Pascal's pointedly observed that there are only two kinds of persons: the righteous who believe themselves sinners, and the sinners who believe themselves righteous.

Then one of the seraphs flew to the prophet with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. "See," the seraph admonished, "this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." No commentary would seem necessary.

Isaiah subsequently heard the voice of the Lord inquiring: "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"

"Here I am," the prophet readily responded. "Send me!" Worthy of note, he sets no conditions on his service.

While accepting Isaiah's offer, the Lord warns him that the people will not be disposed to heed his appeal. "For how long, O Lord?" he inquired.

"Until the cities lie ruined," the Lord replied. So it came to pass that Isaiah labored for some forty years among a calloused people.

The time came when Jerusalem was threatened with destruction. Isaiah interceded before the Lord for its deliverance. "I will defend the city and save it," the Lord relented, "for my sake and for the sake of David my servant!" (Isa. 37:36). After that, the angel of the Lord fought against the invaders, so that they were forced to withdraw.

Later on, Hezekiah became critically ill. The prophet went to him with a word from the Lord, "Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover" (38:1). Then the king pled his case before the Almighty. Again, Isaiah was given a message to deliver to the potentate. This assured him that he would recover, and live another fifteen years.

Isaiah subsequently anticipated a time when God's people would be comforted. "Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain," he declared. "And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken" (40:4-5).

While differing in detail, the two accounts exhibit a common theme. First and foremost, there is an awesome awareness of God's presence. He appears as exalted in his sovereign glory.

This awareness is sometimes more pronounced than others. Whereas it shouts for attention at times, it is more subtle for the most part. In more graphic terms, it is seldom accompanied by billows of smoke, but expresses itself in God's soft whisper (cf. 1 Kings 19:12).

The supporting cast is introduced in realistic terms. They are prone to waver, given to despair, and weary at day's end.

Sin proves to be the culprit. In brief, any lack of conformity to the will of God. It robs mankind of its God-given potential and enablement.

Some are more noble than others (cf. Acts 17:11). They seem to catch a glimpse of what they might be by God's grace. They are willing to turn over a new leaf, and walk by faith. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for" (Heb. 11:1-2). By faith Jacob made a covenant with God, supposing that God's promises were true. By faith Isaiah assumed his prophetic office, confident that God would sustain him in his demanding ministry.

Isaiah's experience is thought to be a classic expression of man's encounter with God. Initially, there is the vision of God. He is majestic in his spender. He has solicitous attendants anxious to carry out his instructions.

Words cannot do the vision justice. They are analogical. Mystery surrounds the Almighty, as if a garment of fine cloth.

There follows a painful sense of unworthiness. Isaiah depicts himself as a person of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips. Confession is solicited, and rendered. The penitent has taken his only recourse to recovery.

There is purging. "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;" the psalmist declares, "wash me, and I will be whiter than snow" (51:7). Then subsequently, "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me."

This eventuates in a disposition to serve. Not necessarily in the same capacity, but as God would have it. "Now the body is not made up of one part but of many," Paul reminds his readers. "God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be" (1 Cor. 12:14, 18).

Not all are so favorably inclined. They resent God's intrusion, and question his motivation. They fashion idols, as projections of their own caprice. As Karl Barth observed, the sanctuary serves as the ultimate defense against revelation. It is a slippery slope that leads from rejection to destruction. Then, too, procrastination is a subtle form of rejection.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. What is meant by making the religious connection? Consider the implications of success or failure in this regard.
  2. Why were the prophets so adamant in their protest against idolatry? Reflect on the diverse forms that idolatry takes in today's world.
  3. Religious mysticism is said to be expressed in two forms: extreme and mild. How does this distinction play out in the prior discussion?
  4. What is implied by practicing the presence of God? Consider the means that serves this end, and the conditions under which they are effective. Reflect also on what is at stake.
  5. Defer to Moses' encounter with the burning bush that was not consumed (cf.

    Exod. 3) as an additional example of experiencing the awesome presence of God. What especially impresses you concerning this account?

  6. Review the components of Isaiah's interaction with the Living God. How differently might he have responded at each state in the encounter, and with what calculated results?
  7. Psalm 1 serves as a pointed expression of the two ways: that of the righteous and the wicked. As such, it provides not only an introduction to the Psalter, but a prominent biblical motif. What bearing has this on the discussion of the awesome presence of God?

Amazing Grace

Paul seems to revel in the realization: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

Ignatius consequently admonishes: "Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be" (Epistle to the Magnesians).

* * *

"John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had so long labored to destroy." These words were penned by Newton, and graced his tombstone. As expressed in one of our most beloved hymns,

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Note especially the time sequence. Once I was lost, but now I am found; was blind, but now I see. This echoes Paul's accent on being apart from Christ, and being found in Christ. The expression in Christ or its equivalent appears about 165 times in the Pauline epistles, testifying to its importance in the thinking of the apostle.

Even so, grace was not a late arrival. It was expressed in God's gracious provision of life in all its ramifications. In particular, it was an indispensable feature of God's covenant activity. Newton especially highlights this in terms of the new covenant–as a dramatic example of unmerited favor.

Common grace. All are recipients of God's blessing by virtue of our common humanity. "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Psa. 8:3-4). Why should so inconsequential a creature be subject to God's solicitous concern?

The answer is not to be found in man's intrinsic worth, apart from God's disposition. The psalmist observes, "For the Lord is good and his love endures forever, his faithfulness continues through all generations" (100:5). Not from time to time, or with some and not others, but as a divine constant.

Count our common blessings. Initially, there is life! In and of itself, life is eminently good. However, to experience it as such, we must live according to God's ways. Otherwise, life loses its attraction.

"With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation," God promises those of contrite heart (Psa. 91:16). Since life is good, long life is preferable. Then, too, one can hope to gain wisdom with the passing of years. Providing, that is, one puts his or her opportunities to good use.

Not only is life good in comprehensive terms, but in noted particulars. Feel the cool of the evening after a hot, stifling day. How good it is! It resembles God's benediction on what has transpired, in anticipation of what is yet to come.

Enjoy the company of a good friend. How good it is! One can feel free to speak candidly, and without fear of rejection. Moreover, to share some concern, confident of a sympathetic hearing.

Examples could readily be multiplied, but in summary: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17). It is not as if cloud cover would intervene.

"Turn my eyes away from worthless things, preserve my life according to your word" (Psa. 119:37). The worthless things have no lasting value. Their appeal dims with eternity in view. Conversely, God's word readily passes the twin tests of time and eternity.

If by any other designation, common is coupled with saving grace. Such as Paul alluded to initially. After that, as elaborated by Ignatius and John Newton.

In context, prevenient grace is singled out for special consideration. It is in this manner that God enables a person to respond to his gracious invitation. Negatively considered, it does not preclude human cooperation. Man is not compelled to embrace God's gracious invitation. Broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many choose to travel that way (cf. Matt. 7:13).

Positively considered, prevenient grace cultivates our understanding. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. So also it primes our inclination. This is by way of setting our affections on spiritual priorities. Then, finally, by encouraging a hearty response. As expressed by Jesus, taking up our cross and following him.

John Newton provides a welcome transition:

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear;
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

It was grace that taught his heart to fear. In more precise terms, prevenient grace. The term heart can sometimes be used as the seat of the emotions, but probably should be understood here as reflecting a comprehensive response. The term fear conveys the notion of reverence, which implies a drawing toward rather than a driving away.

After cultivating the fear of God, grace sets out to relieve one's fears. This takes the form of forgiveness and restoration. Forgiveness accents the setting aside of a former offense, whereas restoration conveys the idea of a new beginning. Thus grace manifests itself, and with the passing of time.

When it was suggested at the age of eighty-two that Newton retire, he resolutely responded: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior!" Consequently, it would appear that they made a great match.

It occurs to me that grace might be viewed differently from heaven's ramparts than from life here below. As for the former, grace appears intent on inhibiting evil and maximizing all that is good. According to Newton, this resulted in the realization of the folly of a life apart from God.

One can only imagine the torment of soul he may have felt as he listened to the moans of his human cargo as they were tossed about in the holds of slave ships. Some suppose that the notion of amazing grace originated in this context. In truth, he was as genuinely enslaved as others. This brings to mind the Jewish adage: "So long as any is enslaved, no one is free."

What would it take to turn life around? Whatever it would require, grace was instrumental. Nor would it leave the task incomplete. As confidently expressed by Newton:

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secure;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

It does not always appear as such. Paul struggled with a thorn in his flesh, its nature unknown. Three times he plead with the Lord to have it taken from him. Instead, he received the promise: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). "Therefore," the apostle resolutely concluded, "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."

In short, the apostles' thorn had become a means of grace. After that, a means of blessing. Then, finally, as a means of realizing the Lord's power. All things considered, it constituted a rare opportunity.

Granted, this is not what we generally have in mind when referring to the means of grace. Baptism and communion are the more common referents. It is said that special promises are associated with these particular rites. These are not automatically conferred, but are conditional on the contrite disposition of the communicants.

Oscar Brooks aptly describes baptism as the drama of decision. In this manner, a persons declares that he or she intends to follow Jesus. Confident of God's grace, there will be no turning back. As sometimes expressed, "The cross behind me, and the crown before me."

In keeping with Brooks description of baptism, communion by be described as the drama of life together. Life with Christ, and one another. Any who comes to Christ, encounters community. It is a given.

This brings to mind a man of advanced years, who reported that he was the only Christian living in his village. As a result, he greatly cherished the few minutes we were able to spend with him. He would subsequently recall the corporate character of his faith through the reading of Scripture and other Christian literature. Meanwhile, there was always the prospect of other believers passing that way.

These (baptism and communion) might be viewed as religious rites of passage. Without them, we are disposed to lose our bearings. In more graphic terms, life begins to unravel as the sacred canopy dissolves.

In a more general sense, prayer would also qualify as a means of grace. Prayer can be defined as conversation with God. As such, it qualifies as dialogue rather than monologue.

Prayer may involve a variety of ingredients: petition, praise, confession, and more. It is conversational in that it seeks to bring us into harmony with God's gracious will for our lives. One ought not to settle for less.

In addition, prayer provides an occasion for us to intercede on behalf of others. Our family and our friends, our enemies, those for whom we are asked to pray, and persons who God brings to mind. Sometimes intercessory prayer will be exceedingly brief, and on other occasions extended. In any case, it needs to be experienced in order to be genuinely appreciated.

The reading of Scripture provides another likely means of grace. Two related images emerge. The first consists of a solitary individual, his or her Bible propped open. This appeals especially to those raised in the Protestant tradition. In this manner, one waits expectantly for the Lord to speak through his word, to refresh the soul, and energize his or her life for service.

The other brings to mind a congregation intently listening to the reading of Scripture, as it relates to the individual and the community of faith. While appealing to those of the Roman Catholic tradition, it is not limited to such. Neither the person's appropriation or group application is meant to exclude the other.

The sermon is associated with the reading from Scripture. It is not the occasion for the preacher to parade his erudition, nor browbeat his congregation. He is well advised to think of himself as sitting in the front pew–along with others assembled to hear what God would say to them.

A story is told of a newly ordained minister who was told that God would give him the words to speak. When he arrived at the sanctuary, he had as yet no indication of what God would have him say. As the service progressed, the heavens remained silent. When he could put it off no longer, the preacher made an incoherent effort to expound on a hastily selected text. As he was hastily retreating, God advised him: "Next time prepare!"

It is not only the preacher but congregation that needs to prepare for the exposition of Scripture. First, by a life of characteristic obedience. We learn in order to do. Likewise, we refine our knowledge in order to excel.

Then in anticipation of what might be revealed. This may entail some new insight. More often, it amounts to getting a better grasp on something already familiar to us. We do well to recall that truth is characteristically multi-faceted.

Worship qualifies as a more inclusive means of grace. It, in turn, is best thought of in terms of celebration. "Glorify the Lord with me," the psalmist encourages his associated; "let us exalt his name together" (34:3). According to the ascription, the psalm was meant to recall the instance when David feigned insanity to escape death or worse at the hands of Achish, king of Gath (cf. 1 Sam. 21:10-15). For this reason, to magnify God's deliverance.

Celebration is excessive when compared with the routine of life. It is calculated to over-do. It throws aside inhibitions. It is not the intent to promote self, but to glorify the Almighty.

Celebration is also affirmative. It amounts to saying yes to life. As Karl Barth observes, not in terms of some favorable set of circumstances, but in the belief that all things works together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose (cf. Rom. 8:28).

In retrospect, Newton confides:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

As for dangers, Paul elaborates:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was ship- wrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger at sea, and in danger from false brothers (2 Cor. 11:24-26).

As for toils, the apostle continues:

"I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches."

As for snares, God requires of an overseer: "He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap" (1 Tim. 3:7). The trap consists of falling into disfavor among the outsiders, and thus impeding the work of ministry.

Grace was more than adequate for all the above. Newton would allow for no exceptions. Then, by implication, for no excuses.

It remains for grace to lead him home. In this regard, Paul declares: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will reward to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

In this connection, there comes to mind a text from the Psalter: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (23:6). The implied refrain throughout the psalm is I shall not want. Not in one situation or another; nor given any set of circumstances.

Goodness and mercy resemble two guard dogs, calculated to protect the flock from wild beasts. Then also to see that none of the animals stray off. They serve as a functional equivalent for grace.

As I recall the scene, the shepherd strides on ahead. So may we appreciate Dietrich Bonhoeffer's accent on costly grace. It is costly because we are meant to follow Jesus; it is grace since God provides the enablement.

This seems an appropriate point to introduce a benediction. "Peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," Paul earnestly enjoins. "Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love" (Eph. 6:23-24). Indeed!

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Define the term grace. What does it tell us concerning God's character? In addition, how is it experienced?
  2. Review John Newton's account of grace. In what respects might it compare or contrast with the experience of others?
  3. Likewise, reflect on the apostle Paul's comments concerning grace. In particular, what bearing has this on his signature expression of being in Christ?
  4. How may common grace be distinguished from saving grace? After that, fit prevenient grace into the mix.
  5. How differently may the application of grace appear from above and from below? Illustrate from your own experience, and/or that of others.
  6. Discuss the means of grace. Along this line, what do you make of the comment: "All life is a means of grace"?
  7. Expand of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's notion of costly grace. What examples come to mind from the course of Christian history?

The Hound of Heaven

"Where can I go from your Spirit?" the psalmist rhetorically inquires. "Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast" (139:7-10).

Abraham Heschel succinctly observes, "All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God in search of man" (God In Search of Man).

* * *

Old Red, as they used to call him, was well advanced in age. His crop of red hair had long since turned white. He lived alone in a dilapidated old house. There he awaited death to come calling.

Now Old Red knew the Bible about as well as anyone. He could rattle off chapter and verse with an uncanny ability, nurtured from childhood. He had never made a confession of faith, nor was he disposed to do so at this late stage in life. "It is too late," he would adamantly assure me.

His somber face still haunts me. Could it be that God had given up the chase? My thoughts turn to Francis Thompson's graphic text: The Hound of Heaven. He wrote at a time when it seemed that theism–belief in a personal deity–was becoming increasingly rare. He was of the opinion that the hunt would go on:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him...
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace.

The Hound of Heaven eminently qualifies as a provocative metaphor. According to one appreciative reader, "It has remained riveted in my memory since I was introduced to the poem in High School." It is a sentiment shared by many.

As vividly described, The Hound of Heaven gives us no respite. We search for a place to hid, but to no avail. We become weary of the chase, while he continues unabated. The outcome seems assured. Either we must face him previous to or in the judgment.

Man initially enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Almighty. In this connection, he could eat of the produce of the garden, except from that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I take this to be a comprehensive idiom, such as from the east to the west. Then to eat of its fruit was tantamount to declaring his autonomy.

The temptation to play God proved to be too much for Adam and Eve. "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves" (Gen. 3:7). In a culture where shame constitutes a fate worse than death, this was no incidental matter. They were driven to improvise.

Then they heard God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, when the sun had dipped toward the horizon. Rather than running to greet him, they hid themselves among the foliage. They hoped not to be detected.

After that, the Lord called out to them: "Where are you?" The chase had begun. It bears repeating, "I hid from Him... . From those strong Feet that followed, followed after."

The chase continued. The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me" (Jonah 1:2). Now Nineveh was the royal city of Assyria, known for its brutal treatment of subject people. The last thing Jonah wanted to do was to show the Assyrians mercy. Consequently, he ran away from God. He subsequently boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, to make good his escape.

Then the Lord stirred up a great storm, so that the ship was endangered. The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his respective patron deity. Meanwhile, the prophet had gone below deck, and fallen into a deep sleep. The captain abruptly awoke him with the question: "How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish." It was the pagan custom to touch all bases.

After that, the sailors cast lots to determine who was responsible for the calamity. The lot fell on Jonah., "Tell us," they demanded of him, "who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?" This was less a deliberate interrogation than the frantic questioning of frightened seamen.

Jonah answered, "I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land." If meant to assure them, it had the opposite effect. They were more terrified than before. The author parenthetically adds, "They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so." Worthy of note, this is the third of four times we are pointedly told that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord.

So they asked him, "What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?"

"Pick me up and throw me into the sea," he replied, "and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you."

Instead, the seamen did their best to row back to land. But when the storm picked up, they cried out: "O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased." Then they cast Jonah overboard, and the sea became calm.

The chase was not thus concluded. The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was inside the fish three days and three nights.

From inside the fish, the reluctant prophet prayed for deliverance. Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited him onto dry land. After that, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you" (3:2).

This time the prophet obeyed the Lord. Upon his arrival, Jonah proclaimed: "Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned." It was a proclamation meant to incite contrition. So it was that when God saw that they had turned from their evil ways, he had compassion on them.

Jonah's displeasure ripened into anger. "O Lord," he complained, "is this not what I said when I was still at home? This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

"Have you any right to be angry?" the Lord inquired. No answer is recorded. It appears that the chase must go on.

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, and sat in its shade. Then the Lord made a vine to grow to ease the prophet's discomfort. Jonah was pleased with the fortuitous development.

But at dawn God caused a worm to chew on the vine, so that it withered. When the sun rose, he also sent a scorching east wind. Jonah despaired, concluding: "It would be better for me to die than to live."

God reprimanded him: "You have been concerned about his vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. ...But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell they right hand from their left (idiomatic for their lack of perception), and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" In this manner, our attention drawn to Jonah's inconsistency.

Nothing more is said concerning the prophet. We are left to ponder the responsibility of the chosen people to be a light to the Gentiles (cf. Isa. 60:3). Short of that, the chase goes on.

God is expressly depicted as The Hound of Heaven. In this regard, we are reminded that the ways of heaven are obscure to humans. "As the heavens are higher than the earth," the Almighty declares, "so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:9). Not simply because of our finite character, but our perversity. Failing to live by the light we have been given, the gloom of night increasingly engulfs us.

Conversely, God is disposed to reveal his way to those who earnestly seek his will. Sometimes we are allowed to see from a distance, and on other occasions only the next step. It is all the same: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (Prov. 3:5-6).

Jesus admonished his disciples to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). It is a parallel construction, equating for all practical purposes the coming of the kingdom with the accomplishing of God's will. As the text implies, it is not something that man can accomplish on his own.

Neither is it something that God opts to do apart from man's cooperation. Initially, as concerns prayer. Then in terms of availability. All things considered, as enthusiastic accomplices.

The righteous are encouraged to set their affections on heavenly pursuits. Along this line, Jesus admonished his disciples: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:19-21).

Seldom do I read the above passage without recalling a story concerning the evangelist D. L. Moody. It seems that an affluent acquaintance invited him to survey his extensive property. "As far as you can see, it all belongs to me," he observed–waving his hand first in one direction and then another.

Moody pointed to the heavens, and solemnly inquired: "And how much do you own up there?" It was a question designed to solicit a time of soul searching.

The descriptive of heaven does not ignore the exigencies of life. Food, shelter, and the like. All that is a legitimate concern.

In this connection, God resembles a solicitous parent (cf. Matt. 7:9-11). It is not his intent to withhold anything that would be profitable. Instead, he delights in sharing the earth's bounty.

Likewise, of heaven accents the critical role of forgiveness. God is forgiving. "Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits," the psalmist aptly enthuses, "–who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's" (103:2-5).

Moreover, it is heaven's way that persons should be forgiving. So it is that we are to understand the prayer request: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:11). Whether in this regard or some other, do to others as you would have them do to you (cf. Luke 6:31).

Then, too, it is not heaven's way to court temptation. It was for this reason that the rabbis admonished persons to build a fence around the Torah. Thus one would be disinclined to violate an precept.

So it was that on one occasion a rabbi asked me, "What is the problem with building a fence."

I had learned that on such occasions it was better to turn the question back to the questioner. "What is the problem with building a fence," I dutifully inquired.

"Nothing," he responded. "The problem concerns the worship of the fence." It was his intent to discourage legalism.

We can readily see that The Hound of Heaven provides a graphic metaphor concerning God in search of man, along with related factors. Especially as it concerns the realization of God's will, and then in representative instances–such as with our provision, forgiveness, and the avoidance of temptation. The facets could be greatly multiplied.

We are left with the portrait of man in breathless flight. As quoted earlier,

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind... .

It may seem a novel experience at first, before we become accustomed to thinking in these terms. After that, we may be disposed to take it for granted–perhaps to our own detriment and that of others.

We are not living in a world where all roads converge. Instead, we live in a world where decisions impact on how we experience life from that point on. That is not to suggest that we cannot recover from a wrong decision, but it will be necessary to get back on the right road.

There are fundamentally only two ways that we may travel: that of the righteous and the wicked. The way of the righteous is singularly blessed. Those who persist in this way resemble "a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers" (Psa. 1:3). "Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away."

Thompson allows that the years take a toll.

My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap. My days have crackled and gone up in smoke, Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream. The end comes much sooner than we would have imagined.

No less are we left with a portrait of God in determined pursuit. It seems at time we can feel his hot breath on our necks. If perchance it appears that we have escaped him, he shows up in some unexpected connection or unguarded moment.

"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness," Peter pointedly assures his readers. "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). If patient, he is no less persistent.

Moreover, God knows when additional time will serve no constructive purpose. In contrast, we cannot make this determination. Consequently, it remains for us to labor while there is still daylight.

My wife and I lived for four years in Jerusalem, overlooking the Hinnom Valley–from which Jesus derived his imagery concerning hell. It was here that persons cast away that which no longer served the purpose for which it was crafted. As expressed by C. S. Lewis, it constitutes the last a loving God provides for those who would accept nothing preferable.

God would wish us a better prospect. "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near," Isaiah urged his constituency. "Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon" (55:6-7). Gladly capitulate to The Hound of Heaven.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Some cultures appear more concerned with shame than blame. How might these alternatives play out in the biblical narratives?
  2. What basic truth does The Hound of Heaven metaphor mean to convey? Consider other options that may come to mind, as for their strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Review the plight of Adam and Eve after their defection. What factors have bearing for their posterity in subsequent generations?
  4. Likewise, reconsider the dramatic account of the reluctant prophet Jonah. What problem was this story originally meant to address? How might it otherwise be applied?
  5. Identify the aspects of The Lord's Prayer meant to elaborate on the conditions of the chase. Why might they be especially apt, given the thrust of the entreaty?
  6. As stated above, "We are left with the portrait of man in breathless flight." How accurate an assessment is this of the human condition?
  7. After that, "No less are we left with a portrait of God in determined pursuit." What are the implications of this depiction, for better and for worse?

Strong Deliverer

"I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry," the psalmist reveals. "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand" (40:1-2).

Along a related line, Herbert Wolf pointedly observes: "A second major portrait of God (after that as Creator) is His work as redeemer. This is directly linked to the rescue of the nation of Israel from the land of Egypt" (An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch).

* * *

As a college student, William Williams prepared for a career in medicine. However, one Sunday morning he heard the gospel preached in a Welsh churchyard, and readily responded. He invested the remaining years of his life in the ministry.

His hymns contributed immensely to the Welsh revival. It is reported that folk sang them on the way to work in the coal mines and at soccer matches. Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah appears to have been their favorite. The stirring lyrics of the second stanza read:

Open now the crystal fountain,
Where the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through,
Strong deliver, strong deliverer,
Be Thou still my strength and shield,
Be Thou still my strength and shield.

His sentiments recall the Hebrew's freedom trek through the wilderness. In particular, as associated with divine deliverance. So has it been remembered and cherished from one generation to the next. As an example, "Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me" (Psa. 142:6).

Qualifications aside, the Pentateuch might qualify as an emancipation proclamation. At the outset, man was born free. He could commune with the Almighty, and pursue his stewardship calling. With the passing of time, he became enslaved. Sometimes it was to others, and predictably to self.

Genesis concludes with the Hebrew people favored and secure. Exodus begins with a ruler unfamiliar with Joseph. "Look," he urged his people, "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country" (Exod. 1:9-10).

So it was decided to built a series of store cities for provisions and weapons in the event of an attack in the eastern Delta region, and put the Israelites at work constructing them. This was calculated to weaken their resolve, and check their rapid growth.

"But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites, and worked them ruthlessly." Other measures seemed called for. Consequently, Pharaoh instructed the midwives to kill any male children born to the Hebrew women. It was tantamount to genocide.

"The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live." "Why have you let the boys live?" the king inquired of them.

"Hebrew women are not Egyptian women," the midwives replied; "they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive." The ruler appears not to have pressed the matter, but turned to other means.

He subsequently decreed, "Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live." This was incumbent on all the people. Hebrew parents were meant to comply.

Moses' mother hid him for three months, and then fearing that he would be discovered, set him afloat in a papyrus basket among the reeds along the shoreline. She had his sister observe from a discreet distance to see what would transpire. Pharaoh's daughter discovered the child, and he was raised in the royal court.

Meanwhile, "The Israelites groaned in their slavery, and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God" (2:23). God heard their cries, and deliverance was in the making.

Now it came to pass that Moses was tending his father-in-law's flock when he saw a curious phenomenon: a bush was aflame but not consumed. When he drew near to observe more closely, he head a voice from the bush admonish him: "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is hold ground" (3:5).

"I am the God of your father (singular, as expressive of corporate identity), the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," the voice continued. At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to view the Almighty. Then the Lord said to him: "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. ...So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land... . So now, go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."

Moses was intimidated by the prospect. The Lord subsequently reassured him. As provocatively expressed, "One with God is in the majority."

Pharaoh was not readily persuaded. On the surface, the struggle might appear to have been between king and prophet. However, on a deeper level, it was between the Egyptian pantheon and Yahweh. Each village originally had its own patron deity. Then, with the passing of time, the more resilient deities gained increasing influence. Since the Pharaoh was thought to be an incarnation of Horus, he was a prominent member of the pantheon.

Each of the ten plagues were calculated to demonstrate the impotency of the Egyptian gods. The plagues were not altogether unfamiliar to the region, but for their timing, confluence, and severity. The tenth plague, death of the first-born, was perhaps the exception.

It was three months to the day after their departure from Egypt that the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. Moses went up before the Lord, and the latter said to him: "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession" (19:5).

After that, God declared: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." This expression seems to recall the taking of another wife while the first is living. As such, it would be a breach of an exclusive personal relationship.

The significance of the Decalogue can hardly be overestimated. The rabbis speculated that it was prepared on the eve of creation, that as each commandment was sounded the world was filled with a pleasing aroma, and that all nature hushed to make out every word as it was spoken.

The covenant, in its entirety, resembles an ancient vassal treaty. As such, it consists of five segments: preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, sanction, and covenant renewal. The preamble identifies Yahweh as the heavenly sovereign, who is richly deserving of reverence and obedient. The historical prologue recalls his gracious intervention on their behalf. The stipulations constitute the bulk of the text, and consist of general principles and case applications. The sanctions take the form of blessings and curses, both positive and negative reinforcement. The covenant renewal provides the opportunity for the people to reaffirm their commitment in the context of new circumstances.

The euphoria of the Sinai experience soon diminished. The rigor of the wilderness wandering proved disheartening. The people shared nostalgic recollections of their sojourn in Egypt. As one of my students insightfully observed, "It was easier to get the Israelites out of Egypt than Egypt out of the Israelites."

God's deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage would live in perpetuity. It would be recalled around the campfire by night, when threatened by hostile forces, and on festive occasions. In particular, as illustrated during the turbulent time of the Judges. A common cycle occurs throughout the narrative. First, the Israelites do evil in the sight of the Lord. Then, since they would not restrain evil within, they were unable to contain evil without–being oppressed by others. After that, they cried out to the Lord, at which he raised up one to deliver them. Then they enjoyed peace for a time, until again succumbing to their evil ways.

Time passed. All three of Israel's kings began well, but ended tragically. Saul's disobedience, David's culpability concerning Bath-Sheba and Uriah, and Solomon's tolerance of idolatry tarnished their memory. The nation was not without a prophetic voice to call for repentance, but their corporate voice often went unheeded. With Solomon's death, the united kingdom ceased to be.

More time passed. A flurry of prophetic activity, primarily designed to warn the northern kingdom of impending destruction, failed to curb its evil inclination. It went into an ever tighter spiral, eventuating in the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians. I would never recover.

The southern kingdom fared better. It enjoyed times of spiritual renewal, which served to postpone the day of reckoning. Jerusalem at last succumbed to the Babylonians. The privileged class was hurried off into exile, leaving the common folk to fend for themselves as best they could.

This constituted a disaster of major proportions: politically, economically, socially, and–most of all–religiously. In brief, most of their symbolic universe was rendered useless. What king of a future was possible for a people who had invoked God's wrath, resulting in exile?

Isaiah envisaged what might be designated a new exodus. Along this line, "There will be a highway for the remnant of his people, as there was for Israel when they cam up from Egypt" (Isa. 11:16). Cyrus subsequently issued a decree:

The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you–may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-3).

Ezra described the mixed emotions of those assembled to gaze upon the foundation of the renewed temple: "And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and family heads, who had seen the former people, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of the temple being laid" (3:11-12). Ostensibly because they recalled the destruction of the former temple, and perhaps because the present construction suffered by way of comparison.

While the remnant was small and insignificant in the eyes of others, it was nonetheless the people of the Great King. They were singled out by the Almighty to bear his royal standard and fulfill his redemptive purpose. They had nothing to fear except their chronic failure to abide by their covenant obligations.

The school of the prophets soon became a thing of the past. It was as if God had grown tired of speaking to those who turned a deaf ear to him. Some likely preferred it that way. Conversely, the psalms observed: "For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit" (28:1). The righteous would echo his appraisal.

At long last the silence was broken. In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the Judean Wilderness: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 3:2). Many flocked into the wilderness to hear what he had to say. "I baptize you with water for repentance," he allowed. "But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (indicative of purging)."

Jesus, likewise, came to be baptized. John attempted to deter him, saying: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." He perhaps meant in this manner to identify with those he came to deliver.

On a subsequent occasion, Jesus confided in those Jews who believe in him: "If you hold to my teaching, you really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will sent you free" (John 8:31-32).

They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"

"I tell you the truth," Jesus affirmed, "Everyone who sins is a slave of sin. ...So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." No additional commentary would seem required.

All things considered, we are alerted to the fact that bondage is variously experienced. Some bondage is of political nature. We witnessed this concerning the Israelites enslavement in Egypt. We encountered it again with the periodic oppressions during the time of the judges. Likewise, we saw its devastating effects resulting from the exile.

Some bondage relates to convention. This was manifest in the Israelites carrying over dispositions fostered in slavery to their wilderness sojourn. Then, too, in their nostalgic recollections of their prior way of life. More indirectly, with their failure to possess the promised land when first given the opportunity.

Finally, there is spiritual bondage. This was illustrated in the conflict between Yahweh and the Egyptian pantheon. At a later juncture, in the struggle between Yahweh and Baal. Considerably later, when Jesus established a kingdom beachhead on enemy soil, from which to vigorously assault the forces of evil.

In this connection, Paul admonished his readers to be strong in the Lord. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood," he explains, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against he powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). The idiomatic expression should be understood as not only this but that.

At the outset, God is introduced in his role as creator. This imagery persists throughout biblical narrative. As noted in other contexts, this guarantees that life is good–assuming that it is rightly appropriated. In more concrete terms, food is good but gluttony is not.

Subsequently, God assumes the role of deliverer. Thus to release man from the tutelage of the gods, the tyranny of self, and the intimidation of the powers and principalities of this world.

This composite depiction of God has at least two practical applications. First, from the perspective or those entrusted with worldly goods. Such are meant to use their social leverage for the benefit of all concerned. What they own, they own as a sacred trust.

Second, from the perspective of those lacking. Worthy of note, the have-nots greatly outnumber the haves. Such are encouraged to trust their ways to the Lord, and make use of such opportunities as they are given to improve their lot. Not for themselves alone, but for others in similar plight. Rather than debate the issue, the prophets were disposed to declare: "God says (wills it)."

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Recall the lyrics of Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. How might one account for its reported popularity? What subsequent hymns serve in similar fashion?
  2. Why might the Pentateuch be described as an emancipation proclamation? In this regard, reconstruct the concerns expressed from the vantage point of its traditional dating with the exodus.
  3. What three aspects of bondage are identified? Illustrate these from the Israelites' enslavement in Egypt.
  4. How does the covenant fit into God's agenda for deliverance? Recall its various segments as they may bear on the topic.
  5. How did the deliverance motif play out in the uncertain time of the judges? After that, trace the motif during the monarchy and with the exile. Why did the latter constitute a crisis for the Israelites' symbolic world view?
  6. Note the manner in which Jesus picked up on the deliverance motif. Why may some have readily responded to his message, while others categorically rejected it?
  7. Discuss the practical applications concerning the composite portrait of God as creator and deliverer. What examples come to mind.

In the Valley

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding," the sage counsels; "in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight" (Prov. 3:5-6).

As attributed to the Carthaginian general Hannibal, "We will either find a way or make one."

* * *

According to the refrain of gospel song, "The God on the mountain is the God in the valley." Mountains proliferate in the biblical narrative, and commonly assume a religious association. The psalmist submits a random instance: "I life up my eyes to the hills–where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth" (121:1-2). His rationale appears uncertain. Perhaps he looks to the hills as a place of refuge. This, in turn, recalls the Lord as his security. Conversely, he may perceive the hills as a menace. This cautions him to rely on the Lord. In any case, he does not leave in doubt the source of his help.

Covenants, in particular, are characteristically associated with a mountain setting. So it was that when the waters receded, the ark came to rest on Ararat (cf. Gen. 8:4). This makes reference to a rugged range located in the region of Armenia. Surrounding topography consists of a high plane with sparse vegetation, and barren lava beds. One peak rises to 17,000 feet.

God subsequently announced to Noah and his sons, "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you... . Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will thee be a flood to destroy the earth" (9:9, 11). The rainbow would serve as a sign that the covenant was in force, since it resembled a bow held overhead as a pledge of peace.

Initially, note that the covenant was universal in character. It embraced all nations and all living creatures. In negative terms, it promised not to again ravage the earth with a deluge. In positive terms, it set forth the conditions conducive to enjoying God's provision.

These conditions were codified in Jewish tradition. They pertained to idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual relations, eating the limb of a living animal, and establishing courts of law. It was said that as soon as a child was able to understand the instructions, he or she was obligated to abide by them.

For instance, persons were equally culpable whether they brazenly stole in public or sneak into their neighbor's house at night to make off with their ill-gotten gain. So also one could be charged with theft whether he took something that belonged to another or kidnapped an individual. Conversely, if involved in harvesting grapes, he was permitted to snack on the grapes as he worked.

As a consequence of the covenant, persons were obligated to establish courts of law, where justice could be served. This might be viewed as a two step process: first, with the setting up of the courts, and then with exercising justice. All were to receive a fair hearing, regardless of their reputation. The matter of precedent must be carefully considered in rendering a judgment. It was assumed that this would result in a comprehensive system of jurisprudence, although it would differ from one people group to the next. All things considered, we begin to sense what is implied by the God on the mountain.

We will not linger longer at Ararat, but proceed on to Sinai. A granite ridge serves as the traditional sight, the peaks of which reach about 8,000 feet above sea level. The most conspicuous of these, Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses), looks out toward a wide plain approximately four miles in length and up to a mile in width. Nestle on the lower slopes of the ridge is the sixth-century Monastery of St. Catherine, housing a priceless library.

Having considered what transpired here earlier, I will treat it in summary fashion. God had delivered the people from bondage so that they might serve him. In Jewish tradition, they are said to resemble a elder brother to the other nations. As such, they enjoyed special privileges and assumed greater responsibilities.

Joshua subsequently charged the people, "Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. ...But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... . But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:14-15). Then the peoples answered, "Far be it for us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods!" Such is the lingering impression of the God on the mountain.

With such in mind, we set our course for Mount Zion. The ancient Jebusite city was contained on a spur, flanked by the Tyropeon and Kidron valleys. It was exceedingly small by modern standards, with an approximate circumference 4,200 feet. The temple mount extended to the north, and the Gihon springs provided a substantial source of water. It was centrally located, so as to provide a suitable setting for the monarchy.

It was appreciatively acclaimed as The City of the Great King, the sovereign ruler of the universe. In keeping with this theme, "He has set his foundation on the holy mountain; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob" (Psa. 87:1-2). Then, by implication, more than any other location thought preferable by others.

The monarchy added a new element to the covenant tradition. Now when Samuel was advance in years, he appointed his sons as judges over Israel. The elders protested, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have" (1 Sam. 8:4). "Now listen to them," the Lord counseled Samuel, "but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do."

David would subsequently reflect, "Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?" (2 Sam. 23:5). The rhetorical question implies an affirmative reply. God is assuredly faithful to his promise.

The conviction persisted. When oppressed on every side, it persisted. When cast into captivity, it persisted. When nothing more was to be heard from the school of the prophets, it persisted. In anticipation of the coming of Messiah, it persisted. Such is the faith cultivated by the God on the mountain.

Now when Jesus saw the multitude, he went up on a mountainside (Matt. 5:1). The traditional site peers down on the Sea of Galilee from the northwest. Whether here or elsewhere, Jesus pointedly taught his disciples in the presence of the multitude.

The Sermon of the Mount is perhaps a digest of Jesus' teaching over an indeterminate period of time. In any case, it scopes out the manner of life that will pertain for those embracing the new covenant.

As an example, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (5:21-22). In this regard, Jesus identifies anger and hatred as impetus to murder. So while persons harboring animosity toward others may escape prosecution, they are no less culpable in the sight of God.

These and ever so many other memories are associated with the God on the mountain. In military terms, they corporately imply high ground (a place of advantage) from which to carry out a successful mission. It is in this connection that we hear God's will pronounced, his grace offered, and his conditions set forth. It is for man to respond reverently, appreciatively, and obediently. After that, the valley assuredly awaits us.

The valley recalls various associations. I will touch on several of these, before tying up loose ends.

Lack of perspective. The first thing that comes to mind concerning valleys is that they limit our perspective. One needs to search out high terrain to scan the countryside. So it is that a guide will move from one vantage point to the next in the course of field trip.

Conversely, our experience in the valley may force us to focus on things nearer at hand. If so, this is not without merit. Short term objectives have a place in an ordered life, albeit not to the exclusion of long term goals.

So it would seem that God means to employ all of life in cultivating spiritual maturity. This is by way of re-affirming that the God on the mountain is in fact the God in the valley. As sometimes expressed, "He must be either Lord of all or not Lord at all."

Conflict. Since warfare is more easily fought in a broad valley than in the hill country, the valley becomes a stock image of human and divine conflict. While the hills are conducive to gorilla warfare, full dress battle requires broad, open space. Such as illustrated by the Valley of Jesreel.

On a certain occasion, a man of God approached king Ahab. He bore a message from the Almighty, "Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord" (1 Kings 20:28). It appears that the Arameans did not think that the Israelites could be effective in the valleys.

Conversely, God meant to demonstrate that he was more than a patron deity of the hill country. His sovereignty extends to the valleys. Consequently, hills and valleys compose a comprehensive idiom.

Foreboding. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," the psalmist confidently observes, "I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me" (23:4). The valley imagery is associated with a deep ravine, characteristic of the Judean hill country. So deep is the rift that the rays of the sun have difficulty penetrating the gloom. Here wild beasts await their prey, and thieves ply their trade.

I supposed as a child that if there was a God, he might want me to serve as a missionary. If a missionary, then most likely to Africa. The prospect of going to Africa proved threatening. Many years later, I arrived in Africa–still beset with my childhood fantasies. After a day's travel, I was left alone in my small hut. I soon turned off the lamp, since it attracted a large assortment of insects. Then I began to hear strange noises unlike those of urban life. But even there, I soon discovered that the Lord would sustain me.

An additional example comes to mind. It seems that a certain woman was critically ill, and so the family had gathered. She had been in coma, but suddenly regained consciousness. She requested that the family crowd around her bedside, whereupon he expressed her faith, and urged them to get their house in order. Then she slipped away into eternity, assured that the God on the mountain was the same in the valley.

Futility. It would seem that the valley is sometimes associated with a lack of spiritual discernment and prowess. Now Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. No sooner had they come down from the mountain, that a man approached Jesus. "Lord, have mercy on my son," he pled. "He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him" (Matt. 1715-16). Jesus healed him.

The disciples subsequently came to Jesus in private with the inquiry, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"

He replied, "Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seen, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." His line of reasoning recalls the observation, "It does not matter how often one falls, but how often he gets to his feet." So it would seem if the God on the mountain is the same as the God in the valley.

Fertility. Perhaps most striking concerning the imagery of the valley is its association with fertility. Here crops crow, and trees bear fruit. A good harvest assures the family of enough for itself and to assist those less fortunate.

Conversely, it may prove seductive. Jesus left no room for compromise: "No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (personified as an idol)" (Matt. 6:24).

So it was that the sage concluded, "give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God" (Prov. 30:8-9).

In concrete terms, Jesus told a story concerning a good Samaritan–in Jewish circles, virtually a contradiction in terms (cf. Luke 10:25-37). It seems that a man was robbed and left for dead. A priest came that way, but passed by on the other side. After that, a Levite did the same. Then, finally, a nondescript Samaritan took pity on the man and ministered to him.

In context of the current discussion, the priest and Levite were both to engage in life in the valley. They preferred to carry out their religious ritual in the safe confines of the sanctuary. They did not want to have to contend with brutality and murder. One would have expected more from them.

In contrast, one would have expected less from the Samaritan. He was considered a heretic. He was confrontational. Jesus was not unmindful of the unfavorable connotations.

It was with such in mind that he drew the contrast. The priest and Levite lacked compassion, but not the Samaritan. The priest and Levite do doubt feared for their own safety, but likely also the Samaritan. The former refused to become involved, but not the latter.

Jesus was similarly disposed. He made himself available to tax-collectors and sinners (non-observant Jews). He faced issues squarely. In the end, he died as would a criminal–nailed to a cross. He was no stranger to the valley.

Consequently, I am reminded of Ira Wilson's provocative lyrics:

Out in the highways and byways of life
many are weary and sad;
carry the sunshine where darkness is rife,
making the sorrowing glad.
Give as 'twas given to you in your need; love as the Master loved you;
be to the helpless a helper indeed,
unto your mission be true.

After that, the apt refrain:

Make me a blessing, make me a blessing,
out of my life may Jesus shine;
make me a blessing, O Savior, I pray,
make me a blessing to someone today.

Whether expressed in this manner or some other, affirm that the God on the mountain is likewise the God in the valley!

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. If the God on the mountain is identical with the God in the valley, what then? Make a list from your conclusions.
  2. Recall the prominent role covenants have played in the biblical narrative. What do they have to say concerning God's character? In turn, what obligations must humans assume?
  3. Compare and contrast the various covenants. What continuity and discontinuity do you discover?
  4. The person who is reluctant to meet God on the mountain is ill-prepared to meet him in the valley. The reverse is also true. Would you agree or disagree with this assessment, and for what reasons?
  5. Select one of the factors associated with the imagery of the valley for further consideration. What additional insights come about as a result?
  6. How does the memorable account of the Good Samaritan illustrate what is at stake with identifying the God on the mountain with the God in the valley? Draw on any subtle nuances that may come to mind.
  7. Review Ira Wilson's lyrics for their relevance for the topic at hand. What other lyrics come to mind, and in what connection?

House of the Lord

The psalmist confidently concludes, "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (23:6).

Jesus may have had this text in mind when he admonished his disciples: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you" (John 14:1-2).

* * *

It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. It may also be that fiction is sometimes more accurate than that which passes for truth. In any case, I have elected to touch on the present topic by way of a fanciful account. It may prove to be a helpful change of pace.

The woman who secured entrance through the pearly gates was named Sarah, meaning princess. It was a good name, bestowed by loving parents. She had attempted to live up to its promise, as would a God-fearing person.

The first thing that struck her was that there was no need for artificial light, since the Lord's glory provided illumination (cf. Rev. 21:23). It brought to mind one of her favorite texts, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12-13).

How could she explain her experience to someone denied entrance into the celestial city? As with other instances, starting with the known–so as to embrace the unknown. We have likely all had times when it seemed there was an invisible presence. It may have served to caution us not to do something wrong, or encourage us to enjoy life to its full. It now seemed that the presence was meant to assure her that everything was now as it should be.

Otherwise, things seemed more ordinary than she would have supposed. Granted, they resonated with a distinctive ethereal beauty not matched elsewhere. However, there was little in the way of ostentation. Were those from the nether world allowed to visit, they would likely cut their stay short.

This was not the only surprise. Sarah searched in vain for some she felt would certainly be admitted. This, in turn, recalled an observation of C. S. Lewis: "Some of those we think to be godly simply have good digestion."

The converse also proved to be true. She soon came across persons she would never have imagined to past muster. Upon reflection, she recognized that they differed from her expectation is some inconsequential manner or another. She had confused cultural norms with the fruit of the Spirit.

Now Sarah was accompanied by a junior angel, whose task was to help her adjust to her new surroundings. This was his first assignment, having only recently graduated from the angel-guidance school. "We can learn together," he enthusiastically observed.

They made an odd couple. Sarah was tall and erect, while her companion was short and compact. As they walked, he circled her–pointing out something or other of interest. Since Sarah had much to learn, the conversation was largely one-sided.

"Everything is new!" the angel exclaimed. "This is because you have lived in the middle."

"In the middle?" Sarah curiously inquired.

"Precisely," he solemnly responded, "between the fall and restoration."

"Oh," she conceded, "that is certainly true."

"For one thing, there is no adversary," the guide continued. "He was cast out, so that he can no longer tempt or accuse you. For another, there is no suffering nor death. All tears are wiped away, and all terrors are chained.

"It seems too good to be true," Sarah blurted out.

"By former standards," her companion admitted. "However, things have been dramatically altered for the better."

Then her attention was drawn to another matter. "It seems so strange...," her voice trailed off.

"What seems strange?" her guide promptly inquired.

"People are so active," she replied. "I would have supposed that they would be resting from the rigors of their journey to the celestial city."

"The labor of love is not burdensome," the angel sagely observed. "You were called to minister, and so you shall throughout eternity. Those who do not care to serve are quartered elsewhere."

"Where is the choir?" Sarah blurted out. "Surely, there must be a celestial choir. Unfortunately, I could never keep a tune."

"No matter," he responded. "What counts is whether you sing from the heart. God orchestrates the blend of voices."

"I have a lot to learn," Sarah allowed for the obvious.

"The only bad question is the one not asked," her companion responded. He had learned this at the angel-guidance school.

"Are people allowed to do as they wish?" she inquired.

"Here we are free to serve God and one another," he heartily responded. "There are no inhibitions nor obstacles."

"It is likewise the home of the brave," he subsequently volunteered. "The cowardly settle for security in much less desirable confines. Here there are challenges to face us at every turn in the road, so that there is no room for complacency."

"I see no house of worship," Sarah observed.

"Nor is there need of one," the angel confidently replied. "This is because God dwells among us."

He subsequently showed her the river of the water of life (cf. Rev. 22:1). It was as clear as crystal, flowing from the celestial throne in the midst of the great street of the city. One each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit and yielding its fruit every month. It reminded the new arrival of a luxurious oasis in the midst of a barren wilderness.

"Welcome," a friendly voice called out. Sarah turned around to face a senior angel with smiling countenance.

"Thank you," she politely replied. "By the way, you seem strangely familiar.

"No doubt," he acknowledged. "I came to your assistance on a number of occasions."

"Like the time I was so discouraged as to despair of life?" she mused aloud.

"Yes," he assured her, "and when you momentarily lost control of your automobile." At this, she recalled being spared a collision with an oncoming vehicle, as if my some mysterious intervention.

"Of course," she noted, "Dr. Overbite (her religion professor) assured us that angels were the creatures cultivated by a primitive mentality. To his way of thinking, you are wish-beings."

"Dr. Overbite also considered himself a self-made man," the senior angel mused. "That would have the distinct advantage of relieving God from any responsibility."

"Well, I must be on my way," he concluded. "I will leave you to my capable colleague."

At this, the junior angel smiled his appreciation. Then, turning to Sarah, he confided: "I'm not the best, but I'm all you have."

"My own little angel," Sarah said as she patted him on the head.

Later on, they came upon persons recounting stories from their previous lives. "While each account differs from one another," the angel explained, "they have a common theme."

"What is that?" she inquired.

"God is faithful," he affirmed. "Although he works in mysterious ways, he is astonishingly creative."

"How true!" she exclaimed.

These were just a few of the things that transpired as Sarah made her way around the celestial city, accompanied by her angelic companion. In retrospect, several things stood out as especially memorable. First, this was indeed her Father's house. It served to accommodate his gracious purposes.

As voiced by Scripture, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev. 21:3). Such envisages an eternal hospitality, where the guests are secure and the provision bountiful.

Then, too, all else that derives from this amicable dwelling together. "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" the psalmist exclaimed (133:1). In context, now that substitutes for when–since the aspiration becomes a blessed reality.

The past is not forgotten, especially as it concerns God's faithfulness. There is time for reflection, coupled with celebration. The pilgrimage is appreciatively recalled from the vantage point of its destination.

Laughter also echoed in the streets of the celestial city. Not the variety that puts down others, but bonds persons together. It seemed genuinely infectious.

Not everything was quite as Sarah had anticipated. For instance, she imagined that those who had entered into the rest of the Lord were somehow recovering from their rigorous pilgrimage. Conversely, she was surprised by their energetic activity.

This recalled a relevant text from Hebrews: "Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it" (4:1; cf. 4:11). The term rest is introduced in 3:11, and repeated six times in the following chapter. Consequently, it associates the rest enjoyed by the Israelites in the promised land, God's rest, and that of those negotiating the course to the celestial city. Consequently, rest would appear to mark a transition from temporal life to eternity.

As for further elaboration, "If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them" (11:15-16). Note first their motivation: they longed for a better country. Jurgen Moltmann was of the opinion that we are more drawn by the future than pushed by the past.

After that, note their reward: they received a city prepared for them. Ideally, community is associated with urban dwelling. Persons live harmoniously together. Life is characterized by accommodation and civility.

In antiquity, more than today, the city held out a promise of security. It would be surrounded by walls and guard towers. There would be constant vigil, so that one could rest assured that all was well.

Likewise, the city is associated with commerce. Goods would flow in from the countryside. Merchants came from far off lands. There would be a lively interchange of persons from various backgrounds. In convention terms, "There was never a dull moment."

What happens to hope when all that one has hoped for has been fulfilled? It is perhaps a mute question, one that makes no sense in terms of eternity. Then, again, it may be bonded to love in some manner that defies explication. One thing is certain, God makes good use of all that we have experienced in the past. If not in one regard, then most certainly in another.

It remains to keep resolutely on course. Ride out the stormy seas that crash against the sides of our fragile craft. Press on toward landfall rather than procrastinate and falter. At long last tack into the sheltering cove, emblematic of the house of the Lord.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Recall the text of the twenty-third psalm. How might it be said to capture the essence of hope?
  2. A fanciful account fulfills some of the same purposes as a parable. What features do they share in common?
  3. It comes as no surprise that the biblical portraits of heaven are highly symbolic. What cases in point are mentioned? What other instances might be cited?
  4. Review the biblical teaching concerning angels. In what ways does the current discussion draw on this legacy?
  5. It is said, "Love God and do as you please; because if you love God, you will do as he pleases." How is this thesis borne out in the rationale of the junior angel?
  6. Select one of the impressions Sarah carried away from her initial encounter with heaven, and elaborate on it. What additional insights are disclosed as a result?
  7. The dynamics of hope can be variously illustrated. For instance, one diligently pursues a course of study in anticipation of successfully completing it. How, then, might we characterize the function of hope?

The Social Factor

I am; not to the exclusion of others.

Interpersonal Focus

Jesus earnestly enjoined his disciples, "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31).

Along a similar line, Epicurus admonished: "Let nothing be done in your life, which will cause you fear if it becomes known to your neighbor" (Fragments).

* * *

The Golden Rule of doing to others as we would have them behave toward us is more commonly rendered in the negative. Consequently, do not do to others as we would not want them to do to us. It is tempting to see in Jesus' admonition a more affirmative approach to interpersonal relations.

In any case, Jesus appears as a concrete expression of the ideal he advocated. It is for this reason that we are encouraged to turn to select examples, before drawing some general conclusions. For all practical purposes the medium is in this instance the message.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. The term Pharisee is derived from the notion of being separate. It is said that this Jewish sect derived from its resistance to the incursion of Hellenism, extended to include sinners (non-observant Jews), and even other members of its movement who disagreed concerning some matter or another.

At issue was the divine mandate to be holy (cf. Lev. 20:7). Then, in turn, to build a fence so as not to fall prey to tempting distractions. In no case were they to worship the fence, which was tantamount to legalism. The Gospels would seem to suggest that the Pharisees were prone to hypocrisy.

Nicodemus serves as a reminder that we ought not to be too quick to generalize. He appears as a sincere seeker, who perhaps meant to make a discreet contact lest he unnecessarily offend the religious establishment. Night would thus provide him with a calculated anonymity.

As a matter of fact, Nicodemus was himself a participant in the religious establishment. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. If for no other reason, he was well aware that many in authority perceived Jesus as a threat to their privileged position.

The Sanhedrin also included Sadducees in its membership. The Sadducees were the party of the High Priests, whose sphere of influence revolved around the temple. The common priests seem to have had only a tenuous relationship, if any at all. Jesus' subsequent cleansing of the temple bought matters to a head, leading to his execution.

In contrast, the synagogue provided the power base for the Pharisaic movement. The sects differed in other regards. The Pharisees were ardent advocates of the supernatural, while the Sadducees repudiated the notion of angels and the afterlife.

Josephus mentions two other sects: the Zealots and Essenes. The former who disposed to revolt against Roman occupation, while the Pharisees were inclined to accept political restraint if granted religious expression. The Essenes were inclined to seclude themselves from the evils of society, in contrast to the Pharisees–who simply remained aloof from it.

"Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God," Nicodemus respectfully addressed Jesus. "For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him" (John 3:2). Worthy of note, Jesus was not rabbinically trained. Yet, Nicodemus acknowledges him as a teacher–authenticated by the miracles he performed.

In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." We are not necessarily to assume that the interchange was as abrupt as this would seem to imply, since it would seem that narrators commonly abbreviate the accounts of Jesus' life.

Whether or not that is the case, Nicodemus would readily pick up on Jesus' allusion to the kingdom of God. This would be associated with the Messianic Age, resulting in God's righteous rule.

Conversely, the Pharisee seems bewildered by Jesus' insistence that a person must be born again. "How can a man be born when he is old?" he incredulously inquired. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Taken in literal terms, certainly not!

Conversely, Nicodemus may be pointing out that it is difficult for persons to shed long ingrained habits. Then, by implication, it is better to let things run their course rather than precipitate an uncalled for change.

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." In other words, just as there is a physical birth, so also there is a spiritual birth.

"The wind blows wherever it pleases," Jesus subsequently adds. "You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." The point is that we cannot negotiate the kingdom of God on our own, because it requires a divine enablement.

"How can this be?" Nicodemus appears slow to grasp the implication of Jesus' words. Had Jesus responded in terms of keeping the commandments, the Pharisee's response would not doubt have been quite different.

"You are Israel's teacher," Jesus observed, "and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak that which we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people (perhaps a reference to the religious establishment) do not accept our testimony." The failure to comprehend eventuates in rejection.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life," Jesus subsequently observed. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." There is an implied invitation.

Nicodemus is mentioned twice more in the fourth gospel. "Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is going?" he inquired of the religious authorities (7:50).

They replied, "Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee." It was assumed that true religion was generated in Judea.

After Jesus' crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea requested his body so as to provide a proper burial (cf. 19:38). We are told that he was a secret disciple of Jesus, who was accompanied by Nicodemus. According to Christian tradition, the latter likewise became a disciple.

Now it came to the attention of the Pharisees that Jesus was gaining more disciples than John the Baptist. When this was made known to Jesus, he left Judea so as to make his way back to Galilee. He perhaps felt his life threatened by the turn of events. In any case, Galilee invited a more likely harvest.

It is said that it was necessary for him to go through Samaria, although persons often used the Trans Jordan route–so as to escape contact with the despised Samaritans. Perhaps the necessity was due to the urgency of the situation, or from some inner compulsion.

So it was that he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar. Jacob's well was there; and Jesus, exhausted from his journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, a natural time for a traveler to rest from the heat of the day. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus inquired of her: "Will you give me a drink?" (4:7). His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.

It was customary for women to draw water at a cooler time of the day, and in the company of others. This may indicate that she was a person of ill-repute. She replied, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" The narrator explains that the Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water (normally associated with running water)." Worthy of note, he does not pursue traditional antagonisms, but lifts the discussion to more spiritual level.

"Sir," the woman replied, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well... ." As with Nicodemus, she gets hung up on the analogy.

Jesus responded, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." In this manner, he contrasts the water drawn from the well with that he has to offer. A spring of water welling up to eternal life is best understood in terms of the anticipated Messianic Age. As such, it would be far superior to anything preciously experienced, whether by Jew or Samaritan.

"Sir," the woman pled with him, "give me this water so that I won' get thirsty and have to keep coming her to draw water." It would seem that she continues to think in mundane terms. For all we know, her petition may have been of satirical intent.

"Go," Jesus directed her, "call your husband and come back." He apparently concludes that the woman must be dealt with in more concrete terms.

"I have no husband," she replied. Jesus had touched on a sensitive subject, which he hoped to dispose of quickly.

Jesus acknowledged, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband." His response was meant as to summarize her illicit behavior.

"Sir," the woman evasively replied, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." Now the Samaritans rejected the prophetic writings, subsequent to the Pentateuch. This would account for the difference of perspective concerning the appointed place for worship. Then, too, persons of divergent points of view are tempted to accent their differences.

"Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem," Jesus solemnly declared. "You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth."

While Jesus allows that the Jews have a special role in God's economy, he turns to the character of genuine worship itself. Such is meant to be humble, contrite, and appreciative. Given these conditions, any ground is hallowed.

The woman responded, "I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." She thus touched on a fundamental area of agreement with her antagonists–the Jews.

Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." The woman has perhaps suspected that this was the case. Now it was affirmed in no uncertain terms. Many from the town believed on Jesus because of her testimony. Others came to faith upon hearing what he had to say. So concludes the second of two provocative accounts of Jesus' interaction with exceedingly diverse persons–a honored member of the Jewish establishment and a Samaritan woman of ill-repute.

Several observations would seem in order. (1) Jesus relates to persons, not strictly in terms of their present condition, but concerning what they might become. This would account for the fact that he associated freely with sinners, and others held in contempt. It was not an indication that he approved of their behavior, as these incidents graphically illustrate.

Otherwise considered, Jesus perceived persons as a work in progress. He recognized that some would not turn out well, since this was a given. Conversely, he seemed to anticipate an openness not readily recognized by others.

(2) Likewise, Jesus appears as a friend. It is said, "Nothing is more common than to talk with a friend, and nothing is more difficult than to find one." The sage concludes, "A friend loves at all times" (Prov. 17:17), rather than when it is to his or her advantage (cf. Prov. 19:4).

Jesus declared that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life in the course of friendship (cf. John 15:13). Consequently, we may take his crucifixion as the signature of a friend. Then, too, in the way he gave himself wholeheartedly to others in the course of his life and ministry.

(3) Jesus, moreover, appears free of prejudice. This can be seen in the range of persons he engages in substantive conversation. It can also be seen in the way he transcends traditional disputes, meant to court partisan perspectives.

This can be especially seen in his deference to those low on the societal pecking order. In the above instance, a Samaritan woman. On other occasions, with regard to children. As a matter of course, cultivating tax-collectors and sinners.

(4) Consequently, he enjoins dialogue. This is by way of respecting the integrity of others, since it takes two to dialogue. In this manner, persons are able to clear away ambiguities, correct misunderstandings, confirm intent, and encourage spiritual growth.

One must learn to listen attentively in order to carry on genuine dialogue. Sometimes it is not simply what one says, but how he or she says it which is more critical. Body language can play an important role. It is also important to refine the way one speaks. For instance, a request is more welcome than a demand, a smile than a frown.

(5) Jesus was careful to distinguish between issues of critical concern and those less so. As an example, it was less important where persons worshiped than that they actually worshiped–in spirit and truth. As mentioned previously, worship hallows any ground.

The dawn of the Messianic Age was obviously high on Jesus' list of priorities. This not only signaled the beginning of the end, but provided what in military terms is said to be high ground–a point of advantage from which spiritual conflict could be successfully waged. Qualifications aside, other matters could wait their turn.

(6) Jesus' creativity was much in evidence. In this connection, note the way he employed the new birth metaphor. After that, his use of living water in context of an interchange by Jacob's well.

Jesus accommodated his role. In the case of Nicodemus, it was as rabbi (teacher). In the instance of the Samaritan woman, it was as a prophet–more specifically a prophet like Moses (cf. Deut. 18:15). He was ever mindful of the needs of the person, the vital point of contact, and the hoped for results. This in preference to satisfying his own needs, as real and pressing as they might be. As sometimes described, Jesus qualified as the man for others. This and much more.

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Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Reflect on The Golden Rule as a key to interpersonal relationships. What thoughts come to mind in this connection?
  2. Why might Jesus have cause to doubt Nicodemus' sincerity? Note how he deftly builds a bridge between them.
  3. It is commonly supposed that the disciples of Jesus most resembled the Pharisees, rather than one of the other Jewish sects of the time. How, then, might one account for his castigation of them on a subsequent occasion (cf. Matt. 23:1-36)?
  4. Why did the Samaritan woman likely express surprise that Jesus asked her for a drink of water? Track the note of surprise concerning the episode with Nicademus and elsewhere.
  5. How does Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman illustrate hard love? Recall in this context the discussion of Jesus as friend.
  6. How does it alter interpersonal relationship when we approach persons, not as they are, but might become? Since this is obviously an ideal that can be abused, set forth needed qualifications.
  7. Some view dialogue as an indication of the wavering of commitment, although Jesus appears persuaded otherwise. What issues may be involved in these contrasting perspectives?

Economic Focus

"What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" Jesus pointedly inquired. "Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:26).

Clement of Alexandria subsequently observed: "Wealth, when not properly governed, is a stronghold of evil. Many, because of casting their eyes on it, will never reach the kingdom of heaven. For they are sick for the things of the world, and are living proudly through luxury" (The Instructor).

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As can be readily seen, wealth is not an unmitigated good. It is good only insofar as it serves some worthwhile purpose. Any means derived to accomplish this end will be imperfect, given the human propensity to be self-seeking and extenuating circumstances.

The first proximate means we shall consider is the extended family. The extended family was normative during the time of the patriarchs, and had a prolonged effect on subsequent generations. It consisted of a family patriarch, his wife or wives, his sons and their spouses and children, and his unmarried daughters.

The patriarch exercised authority over this diverse group. This was thought beneficial to all concerned, and might be justified on the basis of his supposed superior wisdom. It goes without saying that his authority could be abused. There remained a variety of more or less subtle constraints placed on his behavior. For instance, his concern to foster a good reputation in the community.

The extended family characteristically formed an economic entity, engaged in some common enterprise–such as shepherding or agriculture. Its corporate income would be distributed by the patriarch. With his demise, the elder son assumed his prerogatives. In this connection, it was customary for the elder son to receive a double portion of the inheritance.

As can be readily seen, the extended family provided a functional means for the gathering and disposition of goods. Some families fared better than others. As a result, the more fortunate families acquired a favored position in the larger community. When it came to contracting marriage, the hope was to marry into a more affluent and socially advantaged family unit. The alliance of families through marriage provided an important leverage in negotiating the complex negotiations among extended families.

In the post industrial world, the extended family has in large measure assumed a token role. One such expression is the family reunion, more prominent a generation ago than today. The nuclear family has in some measure replaced the extended family, but in conjunction with other social institutions–such as the public school.

Along with this trend, there has been an erosion of the family structure. Increasingly, single parent families have taken the place of the more traditional two parent families. One of the negative influences of the feminist movement has been to depreciate the role of child-rearing. Homosexual activism has challenged the heterosexual orientation of traditional marriage. All too often, the available resources for family nurture has come too little and too late.

It is necessary to sharpen our focus to make out what transpired with the giving of the Mosaic Covenant. Initially, it served to firm up the family structure already in place. After that, it elaborated on the implications of the covenant relationship.

The Mosaic Covenant was expressive of an ancient vassal treaty. So it was that the Sovereign pledged to see to the needs of the people on condition of their faithful observation of their covenant obligations (cf. Deut. 28:9).

Theft was prohibited, as was covetousness. The latter entailed the longing for anything that could not be obtained in an honest and legal manner. Expressly, anything that belongs to one's neighbor.

Conversely, one was enjoined to lay aside one tenth of his income–primarily to support the religious institutions and related charitable concerns. Maimonides subsequently elaborated on the obligation to aid the poor. In this regard, he constructed the following list of eight degrees of charity:

  1. The lowest level of charity is to give grudgingly.
  2. The seventh level of charity is to give cheerfully but less than one should.
  3. The sixth level of charity is when one give directly to the poor, but only after being asked.
  4. The fifth level of charity is to give directly to the poor, without being asked.
  5. The fourth level of charity is to give indirectly, with the giver not knowing the identity of the recipient but the recipient knowing the giver.
  6. The third level of charity is to give indirectly with the recipient not knowing the identify of the giver but the giver knowing the recipient.
  7. The second level of charity is to give indirectly with neither recipient nor giver knowing the identity of one another.
  8. The highest level of charity is to help a person before they become impoverished, whether by offering a gift in a dignified manner, extending a loan, offering a job, or helping them begin a business of their own.

Worthy of note, the accent in Jewish piety was on prevention rather alleviation of poverty. Implied in this line of reasoning is the conviction that persons should not expect others to do for them what they refuse to do for themselves. Paul likely had such in mind when he observed, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10).

The rabbis delighted in pointing out that God enjoined man to work six days before resting on the seventh. They were of the opinion that one could not worship properly without fulfilling the mandate to labor. In goes without saying that they did not expect that persons should be obligated to work if unable to do so.

As noted above, persons were no less to practice charity. In precise terms, to heartily give without expecting recompense. In these and other ways, the covenant ideal expressed itself in monetary terms.

After a protracted detour in the wilderness, the Israelites arrived in the promised land. They were not altogether successfully in driving out its inhabitants, but the time came to allot land to the various tribes. This would be a legacy passed down from one generation to the next.

This, in turn, invoked a number of related practices. For instance, Boaz went up to the town gate to await the arrival of the kinsmen-redeemer, at which time he assembled ten of the village elders as witnesses. Then he informed them that Naomi was selling a piece of land that belonged to Elimelech (cf. Ruth 4:3). In the light of this revelation, he asked whether the kinsmen-redeemer wished to exercise his right to purchase the land. When the latter realized this would involve taking Ruth as he wife, he deferred to Boaz–who then assumed the role of kinsmen-redeemer.

We are also reminded by the Ruth narrative of the practice of gleaning. According to the provision, the poor were permitted to picked up the produce left behind. Vineyards, as well as fields of grain, were involved. Harvesters were encouraged to leave enough to satisfy the needs of the destitute.

A year of emancipation was held every fiftieth year. This was designed The Year of Jubilee, after the ram's horn that announced its arrival. It provided legislation concerning the release of slaves and restoration of property. As for the former, it effected the release of Jews who had become enslaved to other Jews during the interim. In doing so, it established an equitable correlation between the price of the slave and proximity to his or her release.

As for the latter, the ancestral property was returned to its original owner or his family. It might entail landed property, or building associated with it. This meant that the Israelites were not permitted to dispose of land permanently, nor purchase extensive property in order to accumulate a large estate.

In these and other regards, God's sovereignty was invoked. Then, in this connection, man's obedience. As an example, "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you were aliens and my servants" (Lev. 25:23). Such property as they have must be held as a sacred trust.

It became the unenviable task of the prophets to insist that the people abide by their covenant obligations. In a representative passage: "For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed" (Amos 2:6-7). For three sins and for four is a common literary device, meant to introduce a series of accusations.

Initially, creditors sold indebted persons for even a trivial amount. After that, those culpable stripped persons of their human dignity, treating them as dirt. It apparently did not occur to them that they should treat persons as they would like to be treated.

In a second representative passage, "You trample the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. ...You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts" (Amos 5:11-12). First, they are reprimanded for laying having taxation of the peasant tenant-farmers.

Then their ostentation is rebuked. They will not be allowed to enjoy their ill-gotten gain. Exile looms on the horizon. Such pronouncements as a rule imply a conditional repentance, which might spare them. However, only God knows when too little proves to be too late.

Then, finally, bribery is identified as the culprit. In this manner, the poor are defrauded of their rights. As a result, wealth and power conspire to thwart the covenant ideal that persons should be treated equitably.

Some pages later in salvation history, we come across the apostolic community gathered together in anticipation of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. So it came to pass. Thereafter, it devoted itself to the apostles' teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (cf. Acts 2:42). Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders were done by the apostles. "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."

They held everything in common on a voluntary basis, as clarified at a later point (cf. Acts 5:4). There was no overt compulsion that they comply. It was in keeping with a generous corporate spirit.

No proportionate giving is mentioned, as with the tithe. Conversely, this may have been over and above the tithe. As a result, it is likely a matter better not pursued further.

In any case, their practice is not strictly speaking set forth as normative. While expressive of their generosity, it probably reflects the particular circumstances. In particular, the burden placed on the fellowship by the influx of persons for the religious festival, the relative small percentage of Judean disciples in the mix, and the question of access to the temple treasury.

The mother church in Jerusalem would, at least on occasion, continue to need the assistance of its daughter congregations (cf. Acts 24:17). This might have come about as a result of famine, hostility toward the fledgling community, or some combination of factors. Whatever the reconstruction, it reflects a sharing in common (koinonia) as characteristic of the early Christians.

It becomes readily evident that Christian charity was not practiced in a social vacuum. On a subsequent occasion, Paul admonished his readers: "Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. ...For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing" (Rom. 13:1, 4).

Note at the outset the conditions that prevailed at the time. The Christians were for all practical purposes a powerless minority in the Roman Empire. Moreover, they were suspect for a number or reasons. They were said to be irreligious, because they refused to honor the pagan deities. They were thought to have hatred for humanity, since they spoke of the world going up in flames. They were even charged with cannibalism, derived from their practice of taking communion. If for no other reason than expediency, they were not to arouse the antagonism of those in authority.

However, there was more than expediency at stake, since Paul portrays all authority as instituted by God. He is obviously speaking in ideal terms. There is a legitimate role for government, although given to abuses. In proverbial terms, "One should not throw out the baby with the bath water."

In brief, submission includes all that which is not subject to conscience. It is always necessary to yield to the higher authority; in this instance, to the Almighty.

Within such broad constraints, Christians were motivated to devise a variety of approaches to economic issues. For instance, under the Benedictine rule work was enjoined. Although in some instances funding came from estates cultivated by serfs, and choir monks gave themselves to prayer and study; in other instances all monks were required to toil on the lands associated with their monastery. In either case, land was cultivated, resulting in improved crops and tillage.

Conversely, the Knights Templar were renowned as bankers. In theory, they advocated communal ownership, and individual use. This was thought consistent with the conviction that God required stewardship for the benefit of mankind.

There were those who argued that Christ and the apostles observed a vow of poverty, and that at least the clergy and monks should follow them in this regard. Others argued in favor of private property, as a more realistic way to meet humanitarian needs–if not for all, then as normative.

Much of trade and commerce in the Middle Ages was carried on through guilds. These had religious features, and were supposed to be guided by Christian standards. Conspicuous in this context was the accent on a just price. An artisan should set a fair price for his work, and the purchaser should be willing to pay a reasonable price. In contemporary terms, this might be considered a prime example of commutative justice.

Commutative justice legislates that the exchange of goods be of equal value. This is subject to a reasonable profit, and extenuating circumstances. Violations include theft, fraud, and unjust damage.

In these and other ways, Christian ethics infused social economics. Much depended on what church/society model predominated at the time. If the church against society, then the impact would be limited. If the church as cultural catalyst, then the economic vision would be broadened.

The church was seldom, if ever, free to choose among social options. Its sphere of influence was often severely curtailed. In other instances, faith based initiatives were deliberately cultivated.

It seems appropriate to conclude with an excerpt from A Statement of Intent (1980), as expressive of Christian resolve:

We recognize that in order to engage in social change and model the relationships it commends for society, the church must exhibit total dependence on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit of God. We resolve to encourage, by all the peaceful and constructive means available to us, the poor and oppressed who are seeking to establish a position of dignity and self-worth. Finally we resolve to reconsider the use of the resources which God has given us, in order that such resources may contribute more effectively to God's kingdom and righteousness, love and justice.

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Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. "No one can serve two masters," Jesus observed. "You cannot serve both God and Money" (Math. 6:24). What illustrations came to mind, and for what reasons?
  2. Recall the extended family as a means for economic distribution. What were it strengths and weaknesses?
  3. I have alleged on occasion that life consists of turning obstacles to opportunities. What avenues for economic ministry has the dissolution of the extended family made possible?
  4. What implications has the Mosaic Covenant for economic considerations? In this context, reflect on it subsequent influence of Jewish and Christian tradition.
  5. In general terms, what approach did the prophets take to economic concerns? Recall cases in point, whether cited above or otherwise.
  6. Review the manner in which Christians have assumed their economic obligations. What current examples might be noted?
  7. Interact with A Statement of Intent, with which the discussion concludes. What occurs to you by way of elaboration? What, if anything, would you question or take issue?

Political Focus

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," Jesus responded to those inquiring as to whether it was proper to pay taxes, "and to God what is God's" (Math. 22:21).

John Adams satirically noted concerning his position as Vice-President of the United States, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

* * *

The monarchy consisted of a system of checks and balances. There were persons involved in the ritual activity: the priest and Levites, along with those less directly associated. There was a virtually pervasive wisdom tradition, expressed through parents, elders, and sages. There were the king and his retinue. There were the people, whose compliance was necessary and support solicited. Most striking of all, there were the prophets–who were bent on keeping the covenant community on course. Welcome to the milieu of Hebrew politics.

The Kingdom of God provided the power base for the prophets. In a qualified sense, they were outsiders to the political intrigue of their times, since they professed to speak on behalf of the Almighty. According to Abraham Heschel, they tuned into an octave too high for others to hear.

As a result, matters appeared eminently more serious. Lesser things were seen in context of their long range results. Thus a simple infraction appeared as a catastrophe. Chaos never seemed far removed.

A text from Jeremiah serves as an example: "'Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,' declares the Lord. 'My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their owns cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water'" (2:12-13). The heavens are summoned to bear witness to so grave a trespass.

Israel's sin is portrayed as two-fold: turning from the living God to worthless alternatives. God is described as the spring of living water, a constant source of renewal. In contrast, the cisterns cannot even hold the water they receive. There is a more subtle contrast implied between the Gentiles and Israelites. As for the former, their fault lies in idolatry. As for the latter, in both turning from the living God, and to broken cisterns.

Amos further illustrates. "The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: 'I will never forget anything they have done. Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt'" (8:7-8). The text comes in conclusion to a list of charges brought against God's errant people.

The Pride of Jacob recalls God as evidenced in the course of salvation history. The prophet employs a mixed metaphor to express God's awesome judgment: an earthquake that causes the earth to tremble, and the conspicuous flood cycle of the Nile. I will never forget gives the impression of storing up God's grievances until such a time as his displeasure becomes manifest.

The northern kingdom seemed hell bent for destruction. The fearful Assyrians overran its defenses, and the people were re-settled. Consequently, there was less time to reflect on the prophets' warning.

The southern kingdom fared better. There were times of religious revival, postponing a day of reckoning. The inevitable eventually came to pass, with the privileged class carried away into Babylonian captivity. Those who remained struggled to manage as best they could.

The return from captivity lacked the grand features promised for the end days. There was no indication that the nations would assemble to worship in Jerusalem, the alleged city of the Great King. Moreover, the inhabitants of the land proved to be hostile. The existence of Israel as a people appeared precarious.

Time passed. The infusion of Hellenic culture created a crisis of major proportions. This, in turn, led to the Maccabean Revolt. After that, the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

The high idealism of the Maccabean era soon began to erode. Commensurate with the internal malaise, pressures built from without. While Rome had refused on an earlier occasion to actively support the Maccabean cause, it now chose to intervene. Josephus summarily observed that Israel became tributary to Rome.

The Roman Empire incorporated a vast region, subject to the rule of its emperor. It contained a variety of independent cities, states, and territories. Some had chosen to align themselves, while others were annexed by force. When Rome acquired new territory, it was organized into provinces–which became part of the imperial system.

The provinces that were relatively peaceful and thought loyal to Rome were placed under proconsuls, which were responsible to the Roman Senate. The more troublesome and suspect provinces were put under the direct authority of the emperor, who often stationed armies in them. These were administered by prefects. Palestine at the time of Jesus was of the latter sort. Roman officials were charged with fostering the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome), which was viewed as a realm of civility.

The imperial cult as a rule flourished in the provinces. Persons were expected to conform as indicative of their loyalty. The Jews proved to be an exception, since their faith prohibited the worship of other gods. The status of Christians seemed less certain, since they derived from various ethnic groups. Such were the political realities of New Testament times.

It is estimated that at one time slaves made up over half of the population of the Roman Empire. Then, toward the end of the fifth century, the institution of slavery was in rapid decline. There were a variety of reasons, including Christian misgivings with the practice. For instance, Augustine concluded that God did not create man to lord it over his fellow man.

It was more customary for Christians to take issue with the inhumane treatment of slaves than to demand the abolition of slavery. The status of the slave was also enhanced by their recourse to the fellowship of believers, and an emphasis on the dignity of labor–rather than its demeaning character as fostered by classical aristocracy.

Freedom was in the process of taking on the form of the core virtue in Western Culture. In metaphorical terms, considerable water would flow under the bridge before persons could affirm governance of, for, and by the people. Even then, commitment to this impressive ideal would often appear wanting.

Three preliminary conclusions deserve to be highlighted. First, political governance is part of God's design for human welfare. It is decidedly not an usurpation of power.

Consequently, Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded that governance is a mandate. God enjoins us to govern and govern well. Correct past mistakes insofar as possible.  Do not waste what others have contributed to the process. Remain resolute.

Second, put credence in the prophetic tradition. For a number of reasons. For instance, the prophetic perspective provides a more comprehensive view of our situation. It does not suffer from myopia.

Then, too, it will not allow us to compromise cherished convictions. There is far too much dilute Christianity in the world today. We are hard put to discover the prophetic strain that energizes the faith.

Finally, we have noted the importance that freedom plays in Western Culture. It resembles a core virtue, of which other virtues feed.

Conversely, it is often misunderstood or misappropriated. Genuine freedom assumes accountability. It is freedom for the better, rather than for the worse.

Few if any would advocate the complete abstinence of government. However, many recommend minimal governance. I take it that this is what Ronald Reagan meant when he suggested: "Government is not the answer, but the problem."

Minimal governance apparently boils down to three ingredients. Initially, government is charged with the safety of its citizens. Such should be calculated to restrain anti-social behavior at the outset. As an example, this may involve gun control; or not, if it proves that an alternative is preferable.

Then it must see to it that persons who prey off society are put away, where they will no longer be a security risk to the general public. Three factors surface in penal literature: recompense, rehabilitation, and restitution. It is said that persons ought to pay their debt to society, in the form of recompense. This is viewed as a means of deterrence, if not for the long run then at least for the short run.

Rehabilitation puts the accent on positive re-enforcement. In this manner, it attempts to reclaim the persons for a constructive life in society. All things considered, this is said to be cheaper than turning the person back into society no better or even worse than previously.

Restitution may be made to those adversely effected by the crime or to society as such. Prison work shops, where persons receive a modest salary, help to pay for the offender's expense while in prison. Public service in lieu of imprisonment serves as another example of restitution.

Minimal government is also thought to require a concern for the health and welfare of its citizenry. The provision of inoculations against contagious diseases would be consistent with this concern. So also would be safety standards for water and air pollution.

The availability of public education could be justified in the above regard. This, in turn, implies accountability. It does not rule out alternatives to public education, providing these are measured by the same exacting standards.

Lastly, minimal government cultivates equality before the law. Those who are affluent and/or influential should not be treated differently than anyone else. Whoever is implicated, justice should be served.

According to the pundit, "Some people are more equal than others." I think he means that it requires vigilance to see to it that persons are treated the same. It is all too easy to plead for some special consideration, whether deserved or not. Then to grant it on the basis of alleged extenuating circumstances.

An especially complex issue relates to religion in a pluralistic society. Some continue to maintain what, if by any other name, is designated as the strict separation of religion from the public arena. This has been epitomized by Jefferson's wall of separation metaphor, which has neither constitutional warrant nor constructive resolution.

As for the former, the no establishment/free exercise of religion expression should be taken in its entirety. One should not attempt to achieve one aspect of the formula to the exclusion of the other. A both/and goal is par for the course.

As for the latter (constructive resolution), one is hard pressed to find an amicable alternative to the high wall of separation. For lack of a better suggestion, that of a friendly handclasp might serve the purpose for which it is intended: to retain both the non-establishment and free exercise features of the American way of life.

In its most extreme form, the strict separation alternative terminated with the Widmar v. Vincent 1981 decision by the Supreme Court. A state university had permitted secular student organizations to hold their meetings in campus buildings when the facilities were not in use, but denied religious student organizations access. The university maintained that the denial was necessary because it was not permitted to support religion by providing meeting space under the non-establishment clause. A group of students brought suit, pointing out that the university had already established a limited public forum, from which religious concerns ought not to discriminated against. The court agreed with the students' brief.

The court decision was soon dubbed as equal access, and was followed by a series of court decisions that favored free speech. Still, those reluctant to surrender the high wall of separation mentality have studiously endeavored to exclude religious expression from public discourse. One advocate complained that children are too impressionable to have to contend with references to God.

In this connection, I am reminded of Paul Tillich's observation that anything that serves in place of religion, is in fact religion. The secular alternative religion is characteristically expressed in terms of political correctness. This amounts to a religious establishment, to which persons are meant to conform.

It is standard procedure for a secular establishment to limit religious expression to the private realm. While not an acceptable solution, it reminds us of the need to set some parameters on religious expertise. For instance, I doubt that religious leaders can determine (as some supposed) that years ago China should be allowed into the United Nations. One could certainly question their competence.

This suggests a three level model concerning religious involvement in political affairs. The first pertains to biblical principles for those in the Jewish and Christian traditions, such as the prohibitions against theft and murder. Such matters are not negotiable. Then, too, the religious adherent is obligated to promote such principals as social ideals.

The second level relates to probability applications. For instance, if one believes in the sanctity of life, it is likely–if for no other reason–that he or she will want to discourage abortion. In this context, the preliminary options would not be between pro-life and pro-choice, but between restraint and carnage.

The final level concerns specific issues. Such as to what age a person should be allowed to drive, and under what conditions. One cannot quote chapter and verse in this case, but must defer to common sense.

In terms of prophetic religion, God is concerned with all three levels. It remains for Christians to faithfully apply biblical principles to case issues, in a consistent fashion.

There is a related issue. It is said that the state must not interfere with religious groups except in instances of compelling interest. For instance, when the life of a person is endangered by some religious practice. As an example, should someone be refused a blood transfusion when needed.

Those who advocate invasive government are sorely tempted to apply the test of compelling interest to a large range of issues. It would seem best to keep the instances to a minimum. Otherwise, we may expect that government of, for, and by the people will increasingly erode in the face of judicial tyranny.

In conclusion, "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people" (Prov. 14:34). Exalts is viewed primarily in moral terms, as evident from its converse. In context of wisdom literature, the wise person opts for moral rectitude. The fool disregards it, and must pay the consequences. Such is the character of realistic politics in God's design.

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Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. We noted at the outset Jesus' sage counsel: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Since God is sovereign over all, how can these two realms best be compared?
  2. It is sometimes alleged that Christianity has lost much of its prophetic nerve. What is implied by this charge, and how can its prophetic heritage be recovered?
  3. Recall how the Pax Romana was cultivated throughout the empire. How might it be said to incorporate a political ideal?
  4. Review the manner in which freedom came to be considered a core virtue in Western Culture. How does this impact on current political theory and its application?
  5. Reflect back on the three preliminary conclusions, derived from a brief historical sketch. How distinctive are these to Western Culture, and for what reasons?
  6. What is implied by the designation minimal governance? Interact with the various components as stated.
  7. What is involved in the strict separation of religion from the public arena, as represented by the wall of separation metaphor? Consider alternative approaches that might better express the non-establishment/free exercise of religion formula, in context of the thesis that righteousness exalts a nation.

Global Focus

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Jesus declared to his disciples. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. ...And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Math. 28:18, 20).

T. S. Eliot subsequently observed:

The world turns and the world changes, But one thing does not change. In all of my years, one thing does not change... The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil (The Rock).

* * *

The psalmist's words echo down the long corridors of time: "For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted" (47:7-9). In this manner, we are encouraged to think in universal terms.

For all practical purposes, some presume that God has no concern for the poverty stricken, impotent, and ostracized. They are wrong! More recently, some have given the impression that God is only concerned with the poverty stricken, impotent, and ostracized. They, too, are wrong! As the universal sovereign, he has compassion for all.

In terms of creation, we are all family. As reminded by the adage "blood is thicker than water," one is meant to look out for the needs of family members. This might qualify as a prime directive.

Now the time came when God orchestrated a great deluge. After that, he made a covenant with Noah and his descendants. It was meant to embrace all mankind. In Jewish tradition, this is sometimes characterized as The Path of the Righteous Gentile.

As subsequently noted, seven universal laws pertain to idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual relations, eating the limb of a living animal, and establishing courts of justice. Idolatry consists of the worship of anyone or anything other than God. This may take a blatant form of idol worship, or entertain some more subtle manifestation. The Decalogue seemingly draws on the imagery of taking a second wife, while the first is still living (cf. Exod. 20:3).

Blasphemy implies taking God's name in vain. Such as when one uses God's name as a vindictive, but no less in thoughtless repetition. In conventional thought, "Say what you mean, and mean what you say."

Murder suggests the wanton taking of life. In positive terms, John Calvin reasoned that we are obligated to do everything possible to preserve the lives of others. The prohibition does not exclude capital punishment per se. Neither does it prohibit the taking of life while legitimately engaged in warfare. One is obligated to minimize the loss of life as a matter of course.

The prohibition against theft was thought especially difficult to observe, since it might it might be expressed in varied and subtle forms. For instance, the defamation of a good name was thought tantamount to theft. Usury, the act of lending money at unfair interest rates, was also said to violate the prohibition against robbery.

Elicit sexual relations were likewise disallowed. The norm was heterosexual sex within the consenting bond of marriage. Such was associated with procreation, and the celebration of life.

Noah was explicitly instructed, "But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it" (Gen. 9:3:4). This was because life is associated with blood. Then, in turn, considered holy–since God is its source. Consequently, this prohibition anticipated the sacrificial system which would be spelled out in much greater detail.

Finally, courts of law were to be established. These were to carry out justice, and see to it that the covenant with Noah be observed. The rabbis concluded that a court that fails to do so, drives God's blessing out of the world.

Now it came to pass that God established a covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen. 17). It concerned a chosen people, meant to serve as a light to the Gentiles. In this context, their history would resemble a morality play.

Genesis concludes with the Israelites secure in Egypt, and Exodus opens with them subject to bondage. God would eventually liberate them, so that they might serve him. As noted earlier, their exodus from Egypt serves as the seminal point in their corporate existence.

The prophets assumed center stage, not only to call the people back to their covenant commitment, but to address the nations. For instance, Isaiah informs Babylon that she "will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. ...Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged" (13:19, 22). Thus the actual historical situation is depicted as God's righteous judgment.

Then at a later point: "From the west, men will fear the name of the Lord; and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory" (Isa. 59:19). People everywhere will respond: from the west to the rising of the sun in the east. Whoever are humble and of contrite heart.

The notion of ingathering embraced the return of the Jewish exiles, along with a harvest of Gentiles. In this regard, we are reminded that prophecy does not qualify as history written beforehand. Such would be a contradiction in terms.

Conversely, this does not prohibit references to future events. It was said that the Messiah would make his entry into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, as a symbol of his coming in peace (cf. Zech. 9:9). Many others have done so both before and after Jesus' triumphant entry, but only in his case was prophecy fulfilled.

Now it subsequently came to pass that the disciples were tarrying in Jerusalem, in anticipation of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly there was a sound like the blowing of a violent wind, which filled the house where they were meeting. They saw what appeared to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and (some or all) began to speak with other tongues. The description makes good use of analogy: it was like the sound of a violent wind, and it appeared as if tongues of fire.

There were present in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven, apparently meant to include proselytes, and thus anticipating the ingathering of Gentiles. These heard them speak in their selective languages. They were perplexed, and asked one another: "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:12). However, some mocked them, saying: "They have had too much wine."

"These men are not drunk, as you suppose," Peter corrected them. "No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.'"

The results were astonishing. What might have appeared as an inconsequential Jewish sect soon spread throughout the far reaches of the Roman Empire. It was no idle boast that Christians could be found everywhere, but in the pagan temples. Given the option, they also opted out of the gladiatorial contests.

While there were numerous developments in the course of church history, few were so striking as the rise of the modern missionary movement–given impetus by William Carey. A British cobbler, he taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch, and French. He had a conversion experience in 1779, and began to preach the gospel. In context of his preaching, he urged his parishioners to "expect great things from God," and to "attempt great things from God."

He subsequently published a small, subsidized book entitled An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. It served as a clarion call to a lethargic England to obey Jesus' mandate to make disciples of all nations.

Tommy Titcomb was a pioneer missionary to West Africa. I first learned of him upon over-hearing two village elders describe a certain missionary as resembling Titcomb, who they remembered as reconciling warring tribal people to one another. He put himself at considerable risk in order to proclaim the gospel. He survived the tropical diseases, associated with the rain forests that guarded the shoreline, and negotiated threatening circumstances with grace.

On one occasion, he was refused entry into a village. That was likely fortunate, since it had a reputation for head-hunting. He was probably spared because it was thought that deranged people were protected by the gods. In any case, he crawled up into the rocks overlooking the village, from which he shouted out Scripture verses at the perplexed villagers below. Whether in this or some other regard, he persisted, and is appreciatively recalled by the indigenous church.

As illustrated above, the global bond is enhanced in various ways. First, upon recall that God is sovereign over all. There are no patron deities, left to squabble among themselves. Then, by implication, no special agendas that can be pursued to the exclusion of all else.

Then in terms of our common origin and character, as created in God's image. As pointedly expressed, we are family. Otherwise expressed, "From one man he made every nation of men" (Acts 17:26). Diversification is thus portrayed as an expression of our common identity.

The thesis is further elaborated concerning the commission to disciple all nations. So it was that Christianity spread rapidly, accommodating to various cultural settings. Then sometimes with more zeal than others, highlighted by the modern missionary movement.

This resulted in varied cultural adaptations of the universal church. "The body is a unit," Paul concluded. "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Cor. 12: 12-13).

A common theme of loving compassion runs throughout the these considerations. It characterizes God's rich provision for mankind, his covenant initiatives, and resolute demeanor. It is reflected, although imperfectly, in the lives of the righteous.

A counter but compatible theme portrays life in terms of global conflict. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood," Paul cautions his readers, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). People feel themselves confronted by powers beyond their individual and corporate control. While these may be expressed in oppressive social and political terms, they reflect a deeper and more pervasive exercise of evil.

This realization incites the apostle twice to urge that his readers put on the whole armor of God. Truth for one thing, but coupled with righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God. Pray in the Spirit, on all occasions, and for all the saints–Paul citing himself in particular.

Of practical and pressing concern, how are Christians enjoined to utilize a global perspective? In general terms, as the church, via para-church agencies, and as contributing to institutions of goodwill. It has often been said that the church best serves by being itself. As such, it plays an unique role in God's gracious purposes.

In more specific terms, it has a privileged memory concerning salvation history. In contrast, the world is prone to forget or misrepresents that which it recalls. The communion service qualifies as a prime example. On this occasion, the pastor recalls how Jesus took the elements, and then–having blessed them, he shared them with his disciples. This was to be repeated time and again, until such time as he would return in glory.

As in this connection, celebration was in order. This concerned what God had done, was doing, and had promised to do in the future. The psalms were often employed in this connection. For instance, "Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of the, they would be too many to declare" (40:5).

Finally, the faithful were to commit themselves to God's redemptive agenda. This needed to be updated with each succeeding generation. There are, in a manner of speaking, no second generation missionaries.

Of course, there are social implications for all the above. This, however, must not subvert the religious purposes for which the church exists. Were this the case, it could amount to losing its saltiness (cf. Luke 14:34). It would no longer suit the purpose for which it was intended.

Consider next the para-church mode of engagement. The prefix para suggests being beside, near, or beyond. As currently expressed, a faith based agency. As such, it serves a purpose that is a legitimate extension of its core convictions.

Para-church endeavors are richly diverse. Some provide medical services, others political action initiatives, and still others address the formidable task of alleviating world hunger. They have, as a rule, an enviable record for making limited resources go a long way.

A para-church agency allows persons of similar persuasion to focus their activity on some topic of expressed concern. For instance, Gideon International is pledged to the distribution of the Scriptures. Christian business men donate their time and resources to make the text available in public places.

Institutions of good will are broadly based humanitarian outreaches. They solicit the support of Christians, along with those of other persuasions. Meals on Wheels serves as an example, in that it delivers food to elderly shut-ins.

Along a much larger scale, we turn to the Charter of the United Nations, from which we read:

We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and To establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and To promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and for these ends To practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and To unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and To insure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed forces shall not be used, save in the common interest, and To employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish those aims.

While these noble sentiments characteristically fall far short of being actualized, they remain a goal worth pursuing by persons of goodwill.

A number of services have been offered by the United Nations and/or others to resolve lingering disputes. Among these are negotiation, mediation (whereby the mediator must be acceptable to both parties), good offices (extended by a source other than those involved), commissions of inquiry (which serves in a fact finding role), conciliation (combining inquiry and mediation), arbitration (eventuating in a binding decision), and force.

All things considered, I am reminded of the provocative observation: "All that is necessary is for good people to do nothing for evil to triumph." So one would gather from a comprehensive perspective.

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Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. What implications has divine sovereignty for cultivating a global perspective? Consider the case of Job in this connection.
  2. Review the components of God's covenant with Noah, as complied in Jewish tradition. What special relevance does it have for the current topic?
  3. What evidence do we have that the prophets' concern extend to the nations? Compile a brief list of pertinent texts, and draw appropriate conclusions.
  4. How did the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost anticipate the subsequent ingathering of the Gentiles? Identify the factors that likely contributed to the early success of the Christian movement.
  5. How is the global bond said to be enhanced? Develop one of the ways mentioned in greater detail.
  6. What avenues are available for Christians to utilize a global perspective? In this context, explore the critical importance of the church being true to its unique calling.
  7. Distinguish between para-church activity, and institutions of good will. What illustrations come to mind, and how do they attempt to fulfill their respective mandates?

Environmental Focus

"The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psa. 24:1).

Then, in turn, the apt caution of Athenagoras: "Beautiful without doubt is the world, excelling as well in its magnitude as in the arrangement of its parts... . Yet it is not this, but its Artificer, that we must worship" (A Plea For the Christians).

* * *

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (cf. Gen. 1:1). Otherwise expressed, he created all that is. After that, he noted from time to time that it was good, and in conclusion that it was very good. I take this to mean that it was good in each regard, and superlatively good in its collective configuration. As elaborated, it provided a habitat conducive to life in rich diversity.

This is as God would have it. The God who created the earth continues to sustain it with view to his original purpose. In this regard, his benevolent design sets the divine agenda.

Moreover, he solicits man's cooperation. So it was that the "Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Gen. 2:15). The term Eden is perhaps derived from a sense of delight. It was a favorable location, not meant to invite indolence but appreciative stewardship.

The rabbis observed that it was God's intent to have man cultivate the soil, and guard against the garden deteriorating into a wild state. It amounted to a managed use of the environment. In brief, man was to exercise dominion without being destructive.

This would suggest that he can err in contrasting fashion. First, he may opt not to exercise his dominion. While in some instances well-meaning, this is not the way to go. Man can manage his environment in a way that brings out its best qualities, and minimizes the destructive forces at work. Refusing to do so, he violates his stewardship mandate.

It would seem that some environmentalists are for all practical purposes pantheists. As noted at the outset, Athenagoras admonishes his readers that while there are many appealing aspects to nature, we ought not to worship it–since it is dishonoring to God. It is no less counterproductive.

Second, he may exercise his dominion in an irresponsible fashion. For instance, he may introduce elements into culture which are not readily recyclable. This amounts to working against his environment, rather than working with it.

More often than not, we settle for some short term solution. In the first place, this does not substitute for a lasting resolution. In the second place, it may actually be detrimental in the long run.

Now it came to pass that man violated the conditions God has set for his experience with delight. "Cursed is the ground because of you," God solemnly declared; "through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life" (Gen. 3:17). Land blessed by God was thought to enjoy a bountiful water supply, along with fertile soil. Lacking either or both of these facets, it appears as if cursed.

So it was that man must characteristically toil long hours, subject to adverse circumstances, to maintain a livelihood. It would be a continuing reminder of his decision to eat of the forbidden fruit. Then, too, to hold out a preferred way–which factors God into life's equation.

Chaos features prominently in the biblical narrative. The creation was at first formless and empty (cf. Gen. 1:2). It was analogous to clay which a potter casts in preparation of creating something functional and aesthetically pleasing. So I am reminded whenever I watch a potter ply his trade.

Chaos remains an essential feature in the creative process. As such, it qualifies as the initial step.

Conversely, chaos is not something to be cultivated for its own sake. The great deluge at the time of Noah seems calculated to depict a return to chaos as an expression of God's displeasure. It resembles a potter who discovers some fatal flaw in his vessel, and determines to recast it. After the flood, God covenanted with Noah and his posterity never again to bring so devastating a judgment. The rainbow remained a continuing testimonial to his good offices.

The text of Jeremiah pointedly recalls chaos imagery:

I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and the heavens and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger (4:23-26).

This was associated with the Babylonians ravaging the land.

In these and other ways, we are reminded that chaos threatens our very existence. As often expressed, life resembles a raft of our own construction (culture), buffeted by waves determined to break it apart. We look in desperation for some landfall, but to no avail. The future is decidedly uncertain.

In this regard, I am reminded of my discussion with a scientist concerning the dangers associated with global warming. "Don't worry," he admonished tongue in cheek, "there are at least a half dozen more likely scenarios for the world coming to an end than this alternative."

In chaos theory, small alterations in initial conditions are calculated to have disproportionately large effects on subsequent conditions. It is called the butterfly effect, since it is said that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings half way around the world can result in a tropical storm upon arrival. Man's fall might serve as a classic example.

In any case, Paul affirms: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:18-21). Frustration implies the inability to achieve that for which it was created.

Thus it would appear that the curse pronounced on man (see above) impacted negatively on creation. This should come as no surprise, since creation is bonded together–for better and for worse. When man is directly implicated, the stakes go up immeasurably.

The truly remarkable thing about all this is that the creation tragedy leads not to despair but hope. The apostle employs the analogy of a woman in travail to express his confidence (cf. Rom. 8:22). Once creation is liberated to attain its divine purpose, the pain of delivery will be readily forgotten. Until such time, the Messianic birth pains continue unabated.

Meanwhile, mankind is not simply a pawn caught up in a cosmic struggle. In this connection, I am reminded that the River Valley district of Arkansas–in which my wife and I now live–has been subject to devastating floods over the years. No doubt this would have continued had there not been a dam built, and related controls set in place. This is consistent with man's prerogatives and responsibility.

A responsible approach to our environmental problems is exacerbated by at least four considerations. Initially, pollution gains our attention. For instance, fertilizer used in farming seeps into our water ways. Persons downwind from an industrial plant breathe in contaminated air. The examples are legion, and the cumulative results extensive.

This is not a situation where one can expect a quick fix. Pollution standards have to be established, and adjusted from time to time. International agreements need to be negotiated and monitored. Persons must be encourage to cooperate, even when there is considerable personal cost involved.

Population growth is another pressing concern. In a manner of speaking, spaceship earth has limited accommodation. While the situation is not as desperate as some would have us think, it is serious enough.

At issue is God's injunction, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28). God repeated the command to be fruitful and multiply concerning Noah and his posterity (cf. Gen. 9:1). In each instance, the command was coupled with God's blessing. Then, too, procreation was limited to the marriage relationship. It goes without saying that the injunction was not meant to accommodate irresponsible indulgence. As conventionally expressed, "Enough is enough, except when it is too much."

Affluence also compounds the environmental problem. A relatively affluent person will characteristically consume several times over what a poorer person would require. This is sometimes justified on the dubious grounds that they can afford to do so.

I have, however, come to realize that the redistribution of resources is not a simple matter. For one thing, one must make certain that the overhead is not out of proportion. I have known of some relief agencies that squander in excess of ninety percent of their donations in operating expenses. For another, one should find an effective means through which accountability will be facilitated. This may require substantial changes in the social infrastructure.

The misuse of technology provides a fourth culprit with which environmentally concerned individuals must contend. As an example, there has been extensive use of well digging to alleviate arid conditions. This, in turn, has resulted in drastically lowering the water level, and substantially compounding the problem.

In addition, it is tempting to apply large scale technologies to local situations. As a corrective, a relief specialist counsels: "Think small." Start with the situation, and develop some compatible solution.

Such technical concerns are only an aspect of the total package. There remains what is sometimes designated as the symbolic component. For instance, some fault the biblical mandate to subdue the earth as an environmentally unsound procedure. As one might surmise from the discussion to this point, I think this represents a misunderstanding of what is implicated. It bears repeating, what is called for is dominion rather than destruction.

Moreover, various ideologies have been invoked to downgrade our environment. Some are religious and others secular. Modernity seems to me especially culpable in this regard. The modern age was said to liberate mankind from tutelage to the gods. It resulted in naive utopian attitude that implies that what man can do, he should do. Such an attitude seems thoroughly irresponsible.

Some things would be better left undone. Cloning comes to mind as a highly questionable pursuit, where the prospective dangers far outweigh the uncertain advantages.

In any case, this alerts us to the importance of attitude and values in the environmental equation. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them," Jesus observed. "Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).

The practice of the Gentiles is all too familiar to require detailed commentary. Persons seek to build their private domains, while not uncommonly at the expense of others less privileged. Thus they think to assure themselves of a legacy that will be remembered by subsequent generations.

In contrast to this established practice, Jesus protested not so with you. His disciples were to assume the humble role of servant. Serve God's benevolent purposes in the world, and in so doing, exercise stewardship for creation. If the environment suffer in any regard, life is the poorer; and if it is enhanced, the prospect for life is more resilient.

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Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. It has been suggested that the recognition of God as creator enhances our concern for the environment. What rationale is implicated?
  2. Athenagoras, conversely, cautions against worshiping nature. What particular practices might he object to, and for what reasons?
  3. What is meant by managed environment? Identify and expand on some of the issues arise in this connection.
  4. Why is passive compliance to existing circumstances not the way to go? Illustrate and weigh the factors involved.
  5. In what ways may man's dominion over creation be misappropriated? Then, too, identify examples of its proper application.
  6. What four conditions are said to exacerbate the environmental problem? Consider one of these in greater detail.
  7. What roles do attitudes and values play in a constructive approach to the environment? Contrast Jesus' appeal in this regard to the all too common alternative with which we are familiar.

The Personal Factor

I am an original.

Sanctity of Life

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (Gen. 1: 27).

Alvin Schmidt observes: "The low value of life among the Romans was a shocking affront to the early Christians, who came to Rome with an exalted view of human life. Like their Jewish ancestors, they saw human beings as the crown of God's creation; they believed that man was made in the image of God" (Under the Influence).

* * *

The scene having been set, Eve gave birth to two sons: Cain and Abel. Cain worked the soil, while Abel kept the flocks. In the course of time, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. The implication is that it was a perfunctory exercise, quite lacking in devotion. The Lord was not pleased. Conversely, Abel brought fat (choice) portions from the firstborn of his flock. It pleased the Lord. So Cain was angry, and brooded over the turn of events.

"Why are you angry?" the Lord inquired of Cain. "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:6-7). In this manner, the Lord likened sin to a ferocious animal that must be tamed.

Now Cain encouraged his brother to go with him to the field. While there, Cain attacked and killed him. The Lord subsequently inquired of Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"

"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" His answer was both false and insolent.

"What have you done?" the Lord exclaimed. "Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will not longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."

The term for blood is in the plural, apparently meant to include the cutting off of Abel's posterity. It recalls the rabbinic observation, "He who destroys a single human life is as if he destroyed the whole world." For in doing so, he violates the inherent sanctity of human life–making it expendable.

Consequently, the earth cries out for vengeance (cf. Exod. 21:23). Cain is denied the blessings of life as an apt reminder of his taking of life. He will wander the earth as if an alien.

"My punishment is more than I can bear," Cain agonizingly protested. "Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence. I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." He apparently feared that God would no longer protect him against some future avenger (cf. Num. 25:10-18).

"Not so," the Lord mercifully responded. "If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the Lord put a mark on Cain as a means of protection. So it was that Cain went out from the Lord's presence, and lived in a region east of Eden. The rabbis concluded that Cain was a repentant sinner, but what had been done could not be undone. They also observed that God's mercy far excels that of man.

So the curtain falls on this dramatic episode. It resembles a morality play concerning the sanctity of life. As such, it describes a situation where life is depreciated, and its tragic results.

The time would come for the Israelites to renew their covenant obligations. On that occasion, Moses enjoined them: "Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers" (Deut. 30:20).

Choose life. It is assumed that persons may opt for life as over against death. Such freedom exists within the constraints of heredity and environment. Each individual is, in a manner of speaking, dealt a hand to play.

The rabbis supposed this was analogous to the universe in which we live. Just as each planted has its own orbit, so each person has his or her unique orbit. "All is in the hands of God," they emphatically concluded, "except the fear of God."

The passage continues with what might be said to resemble three levels, calculated as a commentary on the sanctity of life. Initially, one is encouraged to love God. Thus God is singled out for special consideration, but not to the exclusion of others. Along this line, John observes: "For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20).

This implies loving God as God. Certainly not as someone or something lesser. In this regard, not one that we can manipulate so as get our willful way. It was likely with such in mind that the eminent theologian Karl Barth was want to admonish: "Let God be God."

So also listen to his voice. Alternatively expressed, obey him. Much as would a dutiful child heed the instruction of an honored parent. Consequently, to allow for the fact that God knows best.

Thereby are we alerted to the importance of trust in fostering the sanctity of life. It is not that all experienced are in themselves desirable, but rather that God delights in turning adverse circumstances into eventual profit (cf. Rom. 8:28). It is characteristically as we look back over the years that we come to more fully appreciate the providential way in which God has led us. Not simply as concerns us alone, but how our lives come to impact on others.

Then, finally, hold fast to God. As one would cherish his or her gracious mentor. Recall his sage instruction, faithful promises, and ample provision. In this connection, do not be weary in well doing (cf. Gal. 6:9).

If for no other reason, "For the Lord is your life." In a comprehensive sense, since he brought everything into existence, and sustains it to the present. In a probationary sense, because we are allowed to opt between life and death. In a more selective sense, since we may appropriate life in its fullness.

So it is that the Lord will bestow his blessings, here associated with the land of promise. As previously described, "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land–a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing" (Deut. 8:7-9). All things considered, be careful not to forget God or fail to keep his commandments.

There was another side to the coin. The land was inhabited by a degenerate people, who intimidated those sent out to reconnoiter the region. The spies reported back: "We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! ...But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large" (Num. 13:27-28). As a result, "We seemed like grasshoppers in our own yes, and we looked the same to them." This fantastic hyperbole serves best as its own commentary.

The despicable practice of child sacrifice illustrates the depth to which the Canaanite culture had succumbed. Such might result from an effort to appease the gods, and assure success in some venture–such as implementing warfare. However, it may also have been employed simply to get rid of unwanted children–similar to present day unrestricted abortion practices.

The prophets express God's sore displeasure with the practice as such, and the cultural malaise it represented. In general terms, it had substituted a culture of death for a culture than sponsors life. Tragic consequences could be expected.

So it was that God determined to cleanse the land from its pollution. In this instance, the Israelites would be instrumental. After that, they would possess the land so long as they abided by their covenant commitment. God is not disposed to play favorites.

Since the accent on the sanctity of life is for all purposes pervasive in the biblical text, one must be highly selective in its treatment. With such in mind, we turn to Paul's provocative reference the coming of Christ in the fullness of time (cf. Gal. 4:4). In context, it highlights God's sovereign pleasure, so as to maximize the potential of this momentous event.

One would conclude that there were certain intervening circumstances that ought first to transpire. As a prime example, the ministry of John the Baptist–as a precursor to the advent. This was to fulfill the prophecy: "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Mal. 4:5-6).

I would suppose this resembles simply the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There were countless consideration that went into the choice of a propitious time. God means to take into account every contingency.

One might also think more in terms of the conditions that pertained at the time. The Jews of the Diaspora were strategically placed so as to provide an access to the Greco-Roman world. These were coupled with the God-fearing Gentiles, who shared a faith in the God of the fathers and prophets. The latter appear to have been especially receptive to the good news.

In addition, the Greek language provided a lingua franca. Thus was the good news readily spread. Especially was this the case when combined with the pax Romana (peace of Rome), which provided accommodation and relative security for travelers. This constitutes an exceedingly short list.

Conversely, the disregard for life continued unabated. Seneca observed that it as the custom to drown children who at birth appeared weakly or abnormal. Infant girls were especially vulnerable. An inscription at Delphi records only one percent os six hundred families that sponsored more than one daughter.

Infants were often exposed to the elements. There they died or were rescued by someone else. Those secured were commonly sold into slavery or prostitution.

The church fathers were adamant in their condemnation of such practice. In this regard, they appreciatively recalled the words of Jesus: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matt. 19:14). They were decidedly not to be treated as castaways.

Numerous other teachings of Jesus were associated with the sanctity of life. "Teacher," a certain scribe inquired of Jesus, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 10:25). I take it that this was a stock question, meant to test one's orthodoxy.

"What is written in the Law?" Jesus replied in customary fashion–answering a question with a question. "How do you read it (interpret it)?"

He confidently answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind': and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus commended him. "Do this and you will live."

Wanting to justify himself, the scribe inquired further: "And who is my neighbor?" Should the designation extend to those identified in the gospel as sinners (non-observant Jews), God-fearing Gentiles, or Gentiles as such? The wider the circle, the more demanding the mandate.

In reply and as noted earlier, Jesus told a story concerning a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell into the hands of thieves. They stripped and beat him, and left him half dead. A priest happened to come by, but passed by on the other side of the road. He perhaps feared that the robbers might return. A Levite also passed by, disregarding the plight of the critically injured man.

A Samaritan subsequently approached the place, and seeing the man, took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, and took him to an inn. There he made provision for the man to be cared for, promising to pay the cost in full upon his return. One could imagine Jesus pausing for effect at this juncture. "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" he pointed inquired.

The scribe replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus admonished him, "Go and do likewise." As it turned out, one's neighbor is not the one acts toward us in neighborly fashion, but the one we opt to befriend as our neighbor.

As for the sanctity of life, consider the thieves. They chose to accost the man, without regard for his welfare. It matters not that he might die from the wounds inflicted, or be handicapped in some manner or another. Certainly not so long as they were able to profit from their venture.

After that, consider the stricken man. He likely recognized the seriousness of his situation, which became worse with the passing of time. As is sometimes the case, thoughts of his life may have flashed before his mind. His pain was unrelenting, as were the thoughts concerning the barbarous strangers.

Then consider the religious officials. Jesus seems to imply that we should have expected better from them. In this regard, James assures us: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).

In contrast, consider the Samaritan. He was from a people thought to be heretical and contentious. He, nonetheless, risked his life for another. He did not inquire into the man's identity, since it was enough that he was in dire need. His compassionate act would be remembered throughout subsequent generations as a symbol of selfless service.

Not to be overlooked, consider the scribe. In context, he appears more interested in the philosophical aspects of religion than its practical demonstration. He also wanted to set reasonable limits on the obligations of his faith. In other words, he had failed to take seriously the cost of discipleship. One would hope that his encounter with Jesus would have caused him to reconsider.

Finally, consider Jesus. His recourse to parable was characteristic of the biblical representation of him as a sage. He was more, but not less. Wisdom, when differentiated from knowledge, takes a more practical turn. Accordingly, we learn in order to do. As a consequence, Jesus and the Samaritan have much in common. Both were men of action, who put their life at risk. In the end, Jesus gave his life on behalf of others.

As noted earlier, there are numerous other instances that illustrate the sanctity of life. Some by way of affirmation, and others in exception to what transpired. These leave us with a corporate appeal to sanctify life as God's cherished gift, both for ourselves and our fellow man. So be it!

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Review the episode concerning Cain and his brother Abel. In particular, how would you answer the question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Make clear your rationale.
  2. What might account for the rabbis' conclusion that the death of one person is tantamount to the death of all? Expand on any illustrations that may come to mind.
  3. Recall Moses' admonition to the people that they choose life. What three levels are said to provide a related commentary on the sanctity of life? Explore how these may be interrelated.
  4. How did Canaanite society qualify as a culture of death? Consider what implication this may have for the Israelite conquest, and subsequent history of the people of Israel.
  5. Timeliness plays an important role in biblical narrative. More specifically, how does the advent of Christ in the fullness of time highlight the current topic? Look for multiple applications.
  6. What insights does Jesus' parable concerning the good shepherd reveal? In this connection, recall the contribution of each of those implicated.
  7. Since the discussion has been limited to only select instance, cite others which might be applicable. How do they reinforce, add to, or challenge earlier conclusions?

Integrity of Truth

"My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness," wisdom declares. "All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse" (Prov. 8:7-8).

Justin Martyr aptly comments: "The word of truth is free, and carries its own authority, disdaining to fall under any skillful argument, as to endure the logical scrutiny of its hearers. But it would be believed for its own nobility, and for the confidence due to Him who sends it" (Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection).

* * *

The current topic readily lends itself to a systematic treatment. With such in mind, we initially focus on what might be designated as the theology of truth. "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just," Moses confidently concludes. "A faithful (true) God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (Deut. 32:4). Of similar intent, "Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them–the Lord, who remains faithful (true) forever" (Psa. 146:5-6).

The concept of truth pertains to that which corresponds to reality. If something is actual, it is true. There are related nuances. For instance, truth implies firmness and stability. In the first of the above passages, Moses illustratively refers to God as the Rock.

Truth also suggests faithfulness and reliability, as is so noted in the above texts. Thus was God remembered from his association with the patriarchs, in the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage, and throughout the course of subsequent salvation history. He qualifies as The Faithful One, and in thus is singled out from among all those said to be gods and human kind.

It manifestly follows that God speaks the truth, and nothing but the truth. "Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me," the psalmist implores; "let them bring me to your holy mountain, in the place where you dwell" (43:3). "Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth," the psalmist again petitions, "for I have put my hope in your laws" (119:43).

Revelation is implicated. This, in turn, involves bringing to light that which is hidden to the recipients. Much as would a devoted parent share privileged information with his or her children. As observed above, for the purpose of guidance, and the promise it holds forth.

After this, our attention is drawn to the anthropology of truth. "Surely you desire truth in the inner parts," the psalmist reflects; "you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow" (51:6-7).

In this manner, he means to get at the crux of the problem. In this manner, to deal with what is referred to in rabbinic tradition as the evil inclination. Paul pointedly expounds:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. ...Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised (Rom. 1:21, 24-25).

One would gather that man was meant to enjoy communion with God. However, he chose neither to glorify him as God (in recognition of his sovereign claims) nor show due appreciation. It was a shameful way to behave.

So it was that God gave them over to that which they preferred. This amounted to exchanging the truth of God for a lie, as characteristic of idolatry. So things would remain but for God's mercy.

The initial emphasis is on being true. "Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?" Jesus rhetorically inquired. "Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. ...Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them" (Matt. 7:16-17, 20). Jesus said this by way of warning his disciples concerning those who would deceive them.

Implied in this line of reasoning, persons ought to align themselves with truth. Not simply as an expedient, but as a prime virtue. As otherwise expressed, to become a disciple of truth. In this connection, to faithful image God.

This involves thinking truth. Initially, it requires that we critically evaluate what is reported as true. It brings to mind the astute observation, "History is written by the victors." Consequently, it seeks to put them in the best possible light.

Historical reconstruction can no more be trusted, since it substitutes one bias for another. If anything, it is more suspect, because it is tempted to read some present concern back into the historical record. Qualifications aside, it helps to have been present at the time.

Thinking truth would also seem to necessitate something akin to Augustine's conviction, "All truth is God's truth." This is a roundabout way of suggesting that God sanctifies truth for his purposes. Those who promote the integrity of truth follow God's agenda.

Thinking truth, moreover, suggests appreciatively reflecting on what is true. For instance, Paul admonishes: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–think about such things. Whatever you have received or heard from me–put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:8-9). Note the promise associated with the admonition.

After that, acting truthfully. Cultivate a life in accordance with truth. Thus to give evidence for what is promulgated as true.

Examples abound. When life threatens, one should intervene if at all possible. So it was that the rabbis taught that the saving of a life took precedence over rules governing Sabbath observance.

So also persons should observe their marriage vows. This is in keeping with the truth expressed, "For this reason a man leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24).

Finally, speaking truthfully. As a case in point, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor" (Exod. 20:16). In this connection, the prophets were forthright in their condemnation of bribery. "For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins," Amos illustratively observes. "You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts" (5:12).

The admonition to speak truthfully applies in more comprehensive manner. "Do not lie to each other," Paul summarily enjoins, "since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Col. 3:9). Do not lie is thus projected as exemplary of a life being renewed by God's indwelling presence.

Oaths were not only permitted, but sometimes mandated (cf. Num. 5:19). However, this led to differentiating between oaths that were binding, and those which were not. Jesus repudiated this deceptive practice. "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No' be 'No', he emphatically concluded; "anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:37).

Paul admonished his readers to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15). This is in the context of exercising their spiritual maturity. It, in turn, brings to mind the before mentioned injunction Pharaoh gave to certain midwives: "When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live" (Exod. 1:16).

The midwives, however feared God, and did not do as the king commanded them. Then, when they were required to give an accounting for their failure to comply, they reported: "Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive." Consequently, the Lord was favorably disposed toward the midwives. So it can be seen that the telling of truth must take into consideration the greater good–in this instance, the saving of life.

This is more than enough to prompt persons to abuse legitimate exceptions for dubious or perverse purposes. For instance, persons revert to misrepresentation when matters of security are implicated (cf. Isa. 28:15), so as to it conceal hatred

(cf. Prov. 10:18), or out of fear (cf. Isa. 57:11). Adverse results can be expected. As an example, the sage cautions: "Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment" (Prov. 12:19). The latter results in ruin.

One person was singled out as truth incarnate. It came to pass that Jesus was brought before the Roman prefect Pilate. "Are you the king of the Jews?" Pilate inquired (John 18:33). He perhaps expected more of a hardened revolutionary.

"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" Had he asked at his own initiative, the question would have political overtones. If at the instigation of Jesus' accusers, the religious implications would be paramount.

"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it that you have done?" Pilate reveals little interest in theoretical concerns, but wants to know what Jesus has done to solicit the antagonism of his people.

Jesus responded, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews, but now my kingdom is from another place." If from another place, then not a threat to the present regime.

"You are a king them!" Pilate exclaimed. It appeared that he was making some progress with the interrogation.

"You are right in saying I am a king," Jesus confirmed. "In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." So it is that truth is set over against falsehood, as if competing antagonists. Jesus thus portrays his ministry as a mission of truth.

We break away momentarily from the interchange to consider what Jesus had to say on a previous occasion. "Lord," Thomas protested, "we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" (John 14:5). This was in response to Jesus' announcement that he was going away, and would prepare a place for them.

Jesus replied, "I am the way and the truth and the life." He does not simply show persons the way, but is the way incarnate. He does not simply speak the truth, but is truth incarnate. He does not simply comment on life, but is life incarnate. Such could not be said of any other.

Imagine truth incarnate. All that could be said concerning truth was presently being lived out. It recalls a time during the turbulent sixties, when I was teaching a Bible study in a coffee house. One of those involved wore his hair long, obscuring much of his face. When intending to make a comment, he would toss his head from one side to the other, so not to muffle his speech. We were studying a passage from the gospels, when he alerted us to the fact that he meant to say something. "Man," he concluded concerning Jesus, "God was all there." So also one would conclude that truth was all there.

Returning to the interrogation, Pilate asked: "What is truth?" With this, he appears to have turned on his heels, and returned outside to address the crowd. Then to report, "I find no basis for a charge against him." He was a practical man, not given to philosophic speculation. His primary task was to preserve the pax Romana, and to dispose of this matter is some convenient manner.

In conventional terms, "A person is known by the company he or she keeps." The same could be said concerning truth and its associates. We noted earlier on the injunction to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15). This could be designated as hard love, such as compassionately addresses the critical issues at hand. As illustrated by the sage, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him" (Prov. 13:29).

In like manner, "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" (Prov. 27:6). As for the former, they are of constructive intent. As for the latter, they are deceitful.

Paul extrapolates, "Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor. 13: 6). In this instance, evil and truth are set over against one another. This portrays truth as representative of good. Love applauds truth in its crusade against all that is adverse to God's gracious purposes.

Truth, moreover, is expressed in rendering justice. David was exemplary in that he "reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people" (2 Sam. 8:18). He was not selective in his application of justice.

As in other instances, persons are encouraged to emulate God. It is not the severity of God that should concern us, but his unrelenting justice. So we shall recognize when the secrets of our hearts are made manifest.

Justice, nonetheless, is coupled with mercy. "I trust in God's unfailing love (mercy) for ever and ever," the psalmist confesses. "I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good" (52:8-9).

As expressed in the moving lyrics of Thomas Moore and Thomas Hastings:

Come, ye disconsolate, wher-e'er ye languish;
Come to the mercy-seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal
(Come, Ye Disconsolate).

Another day, a different emphasis. Jesus initially prayed concerning himself. "Father," he petitioned, "the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you" (John 17:1). The time of his being offered up was near at hand, and the cross loomed large on the horizon.

After that, he prayed for his disciples. "I pray for them," he declared. "I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. ...My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. ...Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth."

As commonly expressed, "They were to be in the world, but not of the world." They were to march to a different cadence. While out of step with the world, they were to be in step with God.

In this manner, reality is contrasted to appearance. So it was that Rudolf Bultmann concluded that truth in John's gospel can be equated with God's reality. As Francis Shaeffer was want to say, "What is really real."

All things considered, the bearer of truth must be prepared to pay the cost. "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me," Jesus confided; "anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and everyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 10:37-39).

More than should not to be interpreted to mean to the exclusion of devotion to the family. The latter is everywhere commended. In ideal terms, it is enhanced by our devotion to God. In any case, the ways of God are more demanding and more fulfilling. That is the truth of the matter.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Define and characterize the term truth. What might serve as a legitimate synonym?
  2. What matters were discussed concerning the theology of truth? Reflect on what bearing these may have on the subsequent exploration of truth.
  3. What is meant by being true? Consider why this is so critical to the apprehension and communication of truth.
  4. How are the dynamics of thinking truth expounded? Along a related line, project how this ties into the subsequent discussion concerning acting truthfully, and speaking truthfully.
  5. The admonition to speak the truth in love is touched on in two contexts. What may be implied? Illustrate as possible.
  6. What is meant by the reference to truth incarnate? Recall the range of responses from Jesus' contemporaries. How, if in any substantial way, might they differ from an audience today?
  7. Account for the various companions of truth as set forth. Add to these any likely additions. Consequently, how does the portrait of truth differ from what persons might expect?

Pursuit of Excellence

"Be perfect," Jesus admonished his disciples, "as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).

Clement of Alexandria subsequently observed: "For this also is one of the things which God wishes, to covet nothing, to hate no one. For all men are the work of one will" (The Stromata).

* * *

Appeals for excellence should as a rule be interpreted in context. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'" Jesus noted. "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun top rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:43-45). In this manner, excellence consists in embracing all in our compassionate concern.

"If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?" Jesus then inquired. "Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that?" He thus accents what Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterizes as surpassing righteousness.

After that, Jesus admonished them to be perfect, as exemplified by their heavenly Father. Perfect in terms of their comprehensive compassion for all persons, regardless of their ethnic background or social status. Perfect also in the intensity of their regard for each and every person.

Initially, the admonition seems quite unrealistic. As a matter of fact, it is but for the grace of God. God must be factored into life's equation to appreciate Jesus' instruction.

One excels by exceeding the common place. As such, it more approximates the ideal. It ought not to disregard human limitations, or foster irrational guilt. Jesus appears as a tough minded realist, not given to religious fantasies.

It goes without saying that human limitations are not pertinent when excellence is attributed to the Almighty. As an example, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic (excellent) is your name in all the earth!" (Psa. 8:1). God's name is indicative of his praiseworthy character. The psalmist speaks from personal experience, and in intimate terms.

Again from the Psalter: "Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep. O Lord, you preserve both man and beast. How priceless (excellent) is your unfailing love" (36:6-7). God may thus be said to excel in righteousness and dauntless compassion.

One final illustration will suffice. "You are resplendent with light," the psalmist concludes, "more majestic (excellent) than mountains rich with game" (Psa. 76:4). This plausible rendition could be taken to mean that God excels in the thoroughness of his provision, for creation in general and man in particular. Not only in select instances, but in all.

It is predictably as image bearer that man partakes of God's excellence. It is not something to be taken for granted, but actively pursued. In graphic terms, it might be said akin to polishing a mirror.

The scene is now set for us to consider an instructive Pauline passage. The apostle has been discoursing on the exercise of spiritual gifts among the fellowship of believers. He reasons as follows:

  1. The church constitutes a single unit, made up of its constituent parts.
  2. God has arranged the parts as it pleased him, so that they serve a corporate purpose.
  3. There are various gifts, associated with select individuals.
  4. One ought to desire the greater gifts, such as better lend themselves to the service of the community.

After that, Paul announces: "And now I will show you the most excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31).

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (13:1-3).

Love implies a moral imperative. Consequently, it is necessary to consider the prized speaking in tongues in the context of serving others. As tongues of men constitutes human dialects, tongues of angels would imply heavenly dialects–perhaps a reference to ecstatic utterance.

Paul then speaks out against the practice of reducing prophecy and faith to a game of spiritual one-upmanship, since they too must be seen in context of our moral obligations. Prophecy is essentially forth-telling, and hence associated with fathoming all mysteries and all knowledge. A faith that can move mountains appears to be an idiom (cf. Matt. 17:20), calculated to express the potency of faith to overcome great obstacles.

The apostle concludes that not even if one were to give away all his or her possessions, and life itself, it amounts to nothing–except as it is within the constraints of love. For in this manner one may deceive others, and perhaps himself, but not God. Hence, it profits him not in the least.

Paul now touches on the characteristics of love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast,
it is not proud. It is not rude. It is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps not record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes,
always perseveres (13:4-7).

Love is patient and kind respectively reflects its passive and active disposition. As for the former, it brings to mind a farmer who must bide his time before a good harvest. As for the latter, it was characterized earlier as steadfast love. As such, it sets its own agenda.

Negatively considered, love does not envy or boast; is not proud, rude, self-seeking, nor easily angered; keeps no record of wrongs. So we are to conclude that it is pleased to see others prosper; and exhibits humility, thoughtfulness, concern, restraint, and forgiveness. Those motivated by love no longer contribute to the problem, but become instruments in God's resolution.

As noted earlier, love does not rejoice in evil but good–as exemplified by truth. This recalls Paul's scathing rebuke:

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God- haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents, they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do those very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom. 129-32).

Note especially their approval of those who practice such shameless behavior, rather than acclaim for all that is true and good.

Love always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Not on some occasion, but in predictable fashion. Love is disposed to protect persons rather than put them at risk, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to anticipate that God will accomplish his will in the course of time, and lives toward the future.

Love never fails (cf. v. 8). Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. We now know in part, but we shall know fully, even as we are fully known. "And now these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (v. 13).

The precise manner in which love is said the exceed faith and hope is not divulged. Some have observed that whereby God is unable to exercise faith or hope (except in a restricted sense), he can and does exercise love. So also it would appear that a time will come when faith and hope are no longer applicable, but love remains a constant.

Even now, love constitutes the most excellent way. All alternatives are critically lacking. However, this is not love in the abstract, but seeking out concrete expression in devotion to God and concern for others.

Assured that we are on the right track, it comes time to explore the notion of excellence in the text of Hebrews–where it is singled out for special consideration. This primarily has to do with Christ, but in a derivative sense to those said to be in Christ–a favorite Pauline expression.

Initially, Christ is declared to have received a more excellent name than that of the angels (1:4). In this regard, he more eminently fulfills God's purposes. Such can be seen in that he is "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word."

Continuing the theme of excellence, "Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. ...Moses was faithful as a servant in all God's house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house" (3:3, 5-6). The analogy speaks for itself.

So also Jesus excels in his priestly service: "Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (7:23-25).

Likewise, the new covenant superceded the former one. "By calling this covenant 'new,' he has made the first one obsolete, and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear" (8:13).

In context, faith is singled out as an agent for excellence. "Now faith is being sure of what we hoped for and certain of what we do not see. This what the ancients were commended for" (11:1-2). As an example, "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise" (v. 9). "And what more shall I say?" the author rhetorically inquires.

I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephtah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised, who shut the mouths of lion, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength, and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies (vv. 32-34).

"These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better (more excellent) for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect" (vv. 39-40).

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." (12:1-2). A great cloud of witnesses is likely a reference to such as were mentioned above. Hence, they are not witnesses in the sense that they are looking on–although this may be true, but in that they have witnessed to their faith in one respect or another.

The imagery concerns a runner, who lays aside cumbersome clothing so as to run the race set before him. Paul explores the analogy more in detail: "Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1 Cor. 9:24-25). Run so as to get the prize: not aimlessly (cf. v. 26) but purposefully.

Looking back over a lifetime of ministry, the apostle observed: "I have finished the course. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (1 Tim. 4:7-8).

Note the extended application. Initially, one must condition his body in order to run well. In spiritual terms, this involves at least three exercises. First, one must make a practice of reflecting on Scripture. "How can a young man keep his way pure?" the psalmist pointedly inquires. "By living according to your word" (119:9). Consequently, he pledges: "I will seek you with all my heart;" and petitions: "do not let me stray from your commands."

The reading of Scripture derives from a thirst to experience God's presence more fully. Along this line, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (42:1-2).

Second, through the exercise of prayer. Pray as a matter of course. No special concern is required. Pray in such a way as to make oneself available to God's leading. Do not monopolize the occasion.

Pray in specific regards. As one senses the need to pray, when encountering some obstacle, or in the light of a perceived opportunity. Pray with and for others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that when our mind wanders from prayer concerns, pray for whatever comes to mind. In this manner, we do not waste precious time struggling to maintain our focus.

Finally, do good. In small ways. My other used to say following a meal, "Take a load when you go." Thus the table would be cleared through a cooperative endeavor. She supposed this was the civil thing to do.

In larger ways. So as to share someone's heavy burden. After that, in terms of some constructive resolution. Then in anticipation that God will honor our sincere efforts.

Pressing the imagery further, get a good start. This ideally involves getting a start early in life. "Train a child in the way he should go," the sage maintains, "and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Prov. 22:8). In this connection, the exceptions do not prove the rule.

So also do not linger at the starting line. Spring forward without reservation. This is of critical importance so that one may position himself well for the developing race. A poor start usually results in a bad finish.

Run well. The miler Gil Dodds had little in the way of a closing kick, but would run his competition into the boards with his relentless pace. They would not uncommonly lose heart as they saw him stretch out his lead.

One has to run the course as it is set out. On one occasion, I strayed off the course. A helpful bystander called out, "Sir, they went that way." I quickly retraced my steps, and subsequently crossed the finish line.

Finish strong. The final moments of a race can be crucial. In this regard, I recall a woman who had been in comma for some time. The family were summoned in anticipation of her demise. She suddenly regained consciousness, and asked that the extended family crowd into her bedroom. After that, she assured them of her confident faith, and urged them to get their house in order. She shortly passed away, but not before she had made one final effort to share her faith. According to her appreciative husband, "It was the most powerful sermon I have ever heard."

As a final observation, it was as she fixed her eyes on Jesus that she had run the course set before her. Initially so, throughout the race, and eminently as it neared conclusion. In a manner of speaking, she mirrored Christ's excellence.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. What is implied by human excellence? Compare this to its use concerning God, and how the two are related.
  2. Why mighty love be said to qualify as the most excellent way? Consider in this regard the relevance of Paul's discourse for the situation that existed at the Corinthian Church.
  3. As earlier affirmed, "Love implies a moral imperative." What is implied by this assertion, and what commonly held perspectives concerning love would it negate?
  4. Recall the ways in which the author of Hebrews suggests that Christ exceeds others. Since Paul rejoices from being in Christ, what implications might this have for those of like persuasion?
  5. How does faith surface in the context of the quest for excellence? Note various Biblical examples, especially concerning how they exhibit faith at work.
  6. How does the analogy of running a race highlight the pursuit of excellence? Consider alternative imagery, and how they are pertinent.
  7. Jesus told of a wise man who built his house on a rock, and a foolish person who built his house on the ground without foundation (cf. Luke 6:46-49). As for the former, it survived the flood waters. The same could not be said for the latter. What light does this parable throw on the current topic?

Cultivation of Creativity

"When I consider the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" the psalmist ponders (8:3-4).

Philipus Paracelsus touches on human creativity in an analogous fashion: "When a man undertakes to create something, he establishes a new heaven, as it were, and from it the work that he desires to create flows into him" (Selected Writings).

* * *

Initially, divine and human creativity differ in one important respect. While the former brings into being from what was not, the latter derives from what was. After that, creativity is characterized by divine initiative and enablement. God continues to be actively involved in the life process. Then, too, he invites human participation.

The birth sequence serves us well in this regard. "Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, 'With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.' Later she gave birth to his brother Abel" (Gen. 4:1-2). Then they were four unique individuals, as their distinctive names would imply.

It is said in Jewish tradition that three are implicated in the birth of a child: God, father, and mother. This implies that all have invested interests, which should be considered. It was deemed appropriate that the child should enhance his or her own distinctiveness. The goal was an unique original rather than a carbon copy.

This ideal is illustrated by the fact that while Abel kept the flocks, Cain worked the soil. It was a division of labor that appeared to suit their personalities. Neither calling was superior to the other, and both contributed to the common good.

If by any other name, any legitimate calling requires creative imagination. Only in this manner can one cope with the wide range of problems encountered in the course of stewardship. The irrigation ditch serves as an example. It came into being to serve an expressed purpose. It continued to be employed, with various modifications, because it proved useful.

Some instrument or combination of instruments were also employed. These may have been constructed for some other purpose originally, or in the above connection. In either case, creative imagination played a critical role.

It would appear that creative imagination can be cultivated. Some advise introducing children at an early age to fantasy books as a means of expanding the scope of their imagination. It certainly helps to be a keen observer of natural processes. In this connection, the sage admonishes: "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!" (Prob. 6:6).

All things considered, welcome God as mentor. "Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stand firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures" (Psa. 119:89-90). Consequently, we should anticipate that there is an active intelligence at work in creative fashion.

Any similarity between the construction of Hebrews 11 and what follows is deliberate. Now creativity is bringing into being that which was not previous. It is meant to serve a constructive purpose.

Creativity was involved when Abel offered a more suitable sacrifice than Cain. It required that he determine that which would be appropriate to serve a honored guest, and provide the means through what was at hand. He could not assume that just any sacrifice would be acceptable.

Creativity was implicated when Noah built an ark at God's bidding. One had never seen an accommodation of such magnitude or specifications. It was in preparation for an event unlike any that had previously been encountered. Noah believed God, and exercised his creative potential.

Creativity was called for when Abram was enjoined to leave the land of his forefathers, and set out for a place associated with promise. He did not know at the time all this would entail, but trusted that God would sustain him. Old ways may not suit new situations, so that a creative response would be necessary.

Creativity was solicited when Joseph was sold into slavery. In adverse circumstances, we are told that God was with him (cf. Gen. 39:21). Then, with the passing of time, he was elevated to a place of prominence in the land. The way was paved with creative response to changing circumstances.

Creativity was required when Moses embraced God's mandate to liberate his people from bondage. There was no precedent on which he could rely. Moreover, Egypt seemed invisible. He, nevertheless, persisted in confidence that God would provide the means for deliverance. As a classic understatement, he was not in the least disappointed.

Creativity emerged in the Israelites' conquest of the promised land. It had seemed to be an unlikely scenario. As reported by the spies, they seemed like grasshoppers by comparison to the people of the land, both to themselves and its inhabitants. In terms of what eventually transpired, it would appear that creativity has a way of turning grasshoppers into elephants.

"And what more shall I say?" (Heb. 11:32). One would be hard pressed to account for all of the examples of creative interplay in the course of salvation history. Some assume that what is must necessarily be, but others gather that what might be can be through God's enablement. The latter are to be commended for their disposition toward creativity.

Creative endeavor may be prompted by some sense of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Harold Benjamin tells an imaginary story about the educational curriculum of cave-dwellers, said to revolve around the hunting of saber- tooth tigers. Eventually their numbers were reduced, so that only one remained. It was old and toothless, but served as a token enemy.

After its demise, the educators were hard pressed to justify their curriculum. Then they proposed that it was fundamental to a good liberal arts education. After that, they insisted that it had religious merit. All the while, they failed to come to grips with the emerging needs of their society. Creativity was sadly lacking.

Chaos next makes its entrance. It is characterized by a marked lack of discernible order. Former things are thrust aside, so as to make way for something not yet evident.

As observed on another occasion, chaos is a necessary step in the creative enterprise. It is not only to be tolerated but welcomed for the service it renders. Then, too, for the manifestly valuable lessons it teaches.

Conversely, it is not something to perpetuate purposelessly. This would be to deny life of its rich potential. In more graphic terms, to return the world to its original chaotic state (cf. Gen. 1:2).

Consider the potter. He or she casts clay in anticipation for the constructing a vessel that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Initially, there is no hint of what it will eventually become.

Consider an author. He or she stars at a blank monitor. There is something intimidating about the experience. One is forced to bring something out of nothing. After that, it will be judged on its merits. More times than not, it will be found wanting.

The preliminary phase in the creative process is crucial. It requires that one sharpen his or her focus sharply for best results. It goes without saying, one is unlikely to hit an obscure target.

Moreover, initial conditions figure prominently in the end results. Subsequent developments do not as a rule play so significant a role. In any case, plausible exceptions do not prove the rule.

The task should be manageable. More is characteristically involved than we would at first imagine. Consequently, one is well-advised to set realizable parameters. Along this line, Jesus speculated: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish'" (Luke 14:28-30).

One must persist in the enterprise. Sometimes this involves making needed adjustments; on other occasions, starting over. For instance, Jeremiah went to the potter's house as the Lord had directed him. There he observed the potter at work. "But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands, so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him" (Jer. 18: 4).

Creativity is as creativity does. Three prime illustrations come to mind. Joel Rohr had for many years an artist studio in the Yemin Moshe district of Jerusalem, looking across at the rambling western wall of the ancient city. My wife and I first met him at an outdoor art fair, where he identified himself in terms of his devotion to Holy Writ.

We have hanging on our living room wall a copy of his arresting sketch of Ruth, a collation of imagery meant to bridge from the time of Ruth to the present. As such, it portrays God's faithfulness to subsequent generations. It no less invites persons to recall the past, celebrate its significance, and commit their ways to the Lord. If ever a picture were worth a thousand words, this would serve as a prime example.

It is not simply the sketch, as impressive as it would appear, that conveys his creativity. It is the man himself. He comes across as a genuinely humble and devout person, considerate of others, and appreciative of life. The world would be a far better place were others to emulate his wisdom.

Joe Santos' creativity took on a different slant. He was keenly aware of his stewardship of all that he possessed. So it was that when he procured a new automobile, he solemnly dedicated it to the Lord. This, in turn, encouraged him to think in terms of how it might be used in the Lord's service.

One example will perhaps suffice. Several of the senior citizens in our congregation lived in relatively dismal urban apartments. So it was that Joe made a practice on Sunday afternoon to fill his automobile with senior citizens, in anticipation of a drive in the country. This served to give these people a new lease on life. Joe experienced, what so many other people have experienced, that it is more blessed to give than to receive (cf. Acts 20: 35).

Again, the man was the message. Joe's devotion was exemplary. Moreover, it surfaced in creative ways–albeit I have mentioned only one.

Sarah Eisner came across as irrepressibly jovial. Her laughter had a way of filling the room she graced. I was unprepared to discover how much sorrow she had experienced during life. This, in turn, seemed to foster an enviable creative spirit.

On one occasion, she was asked to serve on the music committee. She thought this was something for which she was not qualified. They encouraged her with the prospect that the duties would not be demanding. "Then," she replied, "I would not be bothered with them." She had in mind some more enterprising alternative, one that would require her enthusiastic involvement.

Humor served her as a means of grace. In one instance, it helped to lighten a burden; in another, to terminate a quarrel; in still another, to put things in perspective. It is not stretching the matter to conclude that she used humor in a significantly creative manner.

Sarah was not given to preaching, except as she embodied her faith. I would suspect that persons were as a rule impressed with her walk with the Lord. In any case, I was. Such is calculated to cultivate genuine creativity, and mirror our relationship with the God of creation.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. How does the birthing of a child characterize the creative process? Reflect especially on the divine component, and how it may be enhanced.
  2. Recall what is meant by creative imagination. In what ways may it be cultivated or inhibited?
  3. How were various biblical characters said to illustrate the creative endeavor? Reflect on one of these more in detail, as a means of gathering further insights.
  4. Harold Benjamin proposed the saber-tooth curriculum for satirical purposes. What were the dangers he meant to warn against, and the ideal he intended to foster as a proper alternative?
  5. How does chaos fit into creative activity? Differentiate between its constructive role and counter-productive result.
  6. What practical suggestions were enumerated? Consider how these might be successfully implemented.
  7. Note the wide range of applications evidenced in the three personal illustrations. What implications come to mind? In similar manner, identify persons you feel exemplify the creative spirit, and the reasons for which they qualify.

An Army of One

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power," Paul admonishes his readers. "Put on the full armor of God, so that you cant take your stand against the devil's schemes" (Eph. 6:10-11).

Picking up on this military imagery, Commodianus exhorts: "With all your virtue you must obey the king's command, if you would attain the last times in gladness. He is a good soldier, always waits for things to be enjoyed. ...He (the king) gladly looks for the victory, and assures you a fit follower" (The Instructions of Commodianus).

* * *

So it is that we are called to be an army of one. Granted, we are not actually alone, but that is–for the moment–beside the point. Each person must follow the standard, in the face of threatening adversaries.

Every person's story will vary in its particulars. Consequently, my account is but one among many. It takes the form of a testimonial.

I was born October 21, 1925. Some years later I wondered if I would survive to the turning of the century. It is no longer in doubt.

My mother had difficulty giving birth. She was beyond the age when women are accustomed to birth children, and the medical procedures were far less refined. I was cherished, as were my siblings, but as a child born relatively late in life. For this and other reasons, I came early on to recognize the tenuous character of life.

While we were not a church-going family, mother taught me two formal prayers–along with encouraging me in extemporaneous prayer. One of the formal prayers was the so-called Lord's Prayer. I found some of the wording confusing, but failed to get a satisfactory clarification.

The other prayer was as follows:

Now I lay be down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The text was not reassuring, since it indicated that I might not make it through the night. Then, too, it provided no confidence concerning my destination thereafter.

As I have suggested on other occasions, I would have likely qualified for what J. Edwin Orr refers to as a protheist. As he explains, one who thinks it a little more likely that God exists than not, but does not seriously weigh the implications.

It would be a considerable number of years before I came upon Blaise Pascal's famed wager. In brief, he speculated:

  1. There are many things in life which are so inconsequential that we need not wager one way or the other, but this does not pertain where the existence of God is implicated.
  2. If we wager that God exists, and he does, there are rich dividends.
  3. If we wager that he does not exist, and he does, we have lost out.
  4. If we wager that he does, and he does not, we have still lived the best of lives.

In retrospect, it would appear that Satan was largely content to "let sleeping dogs lie." It would seem that as a rule he gets busy when we become spiritually active. Or so it has seemed over the intervening years.

Again, in retrospect, it seems as if the Lord was acquainting me with good things in a fallen world. C. S. Lewis identified this as complex good, as opposed to the unmitigated good coming down from the Father of Lights (cf. James 1:17). He supposed that these resembled carrots, which God is more disposed to employ than clubs. My experience would seem to bear that out.

Of course, God employs negative reinforcement as well. It bears repeating, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24). Lewis observes that whereas God whispers to us in our pleasures, he shouts at us through our pain. His insights serve us well.

Our little village consisted of church-goers, and non-church goers. As noted above, we were among the latter. This was reflected in my experience upon joining the army. When asked concerning my religion, I opted for non. When this was not acceptable, I inquired as to likely alternatives. I was told that most chose "P" for Protestant, "C" for Catholic, or "J" for Jewish. I settled for "P" as most appropriate for my upbringing.

There were two churches in the community: Roman Catholic and Baptist. I attended the latter for Daily Vacation Bible School perhaps two or three summers, and on rare occasion dropped in on Sunday School. The faith of the villagers often reflected a mix of Christianity and traditional beliefs. For instance, it was rumored that if one were to draw water from a running stream before dawn on Easter it would not evaporate. Moreover, there was widespread belief in ghosts and other paranormal activity.

Mother had been a rural school teacher, and seemed to think in those terms. Thus when someone would swear, she would exclaim: "Isn't it too bad that he can't speak properly!" Years later, she would insist that she could not remember me doing anything wrong. I concluded that love must have an exceedingly short memory.

I am told that I was an exceptionally inquisitive child. I suspect that was an accurate assessment, since I seem to have an insatiable curiosity. Still, if there were a god, he seemed more to resemble the high god of traditional religion than that proclaimed by the Christian faith.

My life was soon to alter dramatically. World War II was in progress, and I left for service the day after my eighteenth birthday. As a relatively free spirit, I did not relish the regimentation. I managed to work my way through a series of technical schools in preparation to my deployment overseas.

One Sunday something of note transpired. I had decided to attend a chapel service, at which the chaplain gave what I would now understand as an invitation. At that time, it seemed to me that he had become emotionally unglued. As I was walking away from the chapel, it occurred to me that if there were a god, he would likely be an alien being who might require strange means. Consequently, I offered to return the falling Sunday, and should the chaplain behave again in so peculiar a fashion, I would touch base with him.

The next Sunday found me sitting in one of the pews. As the message was winding down, the chaplain plead with persons to come forward. That had not been part of my bargain, so I waited until everyone else had filed past before I approached him. "I think I would like to take you up on your proposition," I observed. He did not at first comprehend my meaning. After that, he ushered me into his office, where he shared the gospel with me.

I got the distinct impression that Jesus was ready to accept me as a follower. I could settle for that. It was not a deeply emotional experience. However, that night as I lay down to sleep had a profound realization of God's peace.

I did not entertain any false impressions that the conditions of military life would drastically change as a result. I did sense that I had made a major step in negotiating life under adverse circumstances. I was right on both accounts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that when we come to Christ, we find our ourselves in community. So it seemed to me, although I initially had difficulty discovering those of like precious faith. The first such person was singing hymns in the shower. It turned out that he was a lay preacher.

I recall with appreciation the fellowship a group of us had in a little shelter by the flight line. There was a time for prayer and Bible study. This was accompanied by testimonials. Some of our number would be scheduled to fly a mission the following morning. There was no guarantee that they would return. Their faith sustained them.

It is difficult to put into words how I felt when the end of conflict was declared. It goes without saying, I was deeply appreciative. However, it seemed almost frivolous to celebrate. I turned to prayer.

I had come to the conclusion that God was calling me to the ministry. This, in turn, solicited an invitation to serve with the pastors of our area in an associated endeavor. I was assigned to two small churches, and two additional preaching stations. Then, every fourth and fifth Sundays, I would exchange with the permanent pastors. It was a welcome opportunity to minister, and an exceedingly profitable experience.

Little did I realize at the time of matriculation to college that most of my adult life would be spent within the confines of academia. Someone had impressed on me the importance of obtaining a liberal arts background in preparation for theological education. As a result, I had a major in history, and minors in philosophy and electrical physics.

The integration of faith and learning soon became a lifelong undertaking. It seemed to me that the alternatives were to compartmentalize between the two, or pursue the one to the exclusion of the other. In was relatively late in life when I came across Augustine's apt observation, "All truth is God's truth." I suppose I had assumed this all along.

I soon came to realize that the publish or perish syndrome was not an inaccurate assessment. It provided a ready criterion to substitute for a more complex evaluation. It always seemed to me that teaching skills, and student involvement were at least as critical concerns. I was fortunate in that my publications were deemed worthy of promotion.

My time in the pastorate had been for a relatively brief interim. I served two parishes for a total of nine years, several of them overlapping part time teaching. From a different perspective, it seemed that I continued to fulfill the role of pastor, but in a different context.

I had imagined in my protheist days as a youngster that if there were a God, he would likely have some task for me to undertake. This came to focus on what I was accustomed to think of as the dark continent: Africa. Many years later, I set out for a short-term teaching assignment in Nigeria.

After a full day's travel, we arrived at the school compound. I was warmly welcomed, and escorted to my little hut–which would serve as home for the time being. I was left with a lantern that invited a gathering of a considerable variety of insects. This encouraged me to settle for the dark. As I lay back on my cot, I could hear an assortment of noises unlike the urban sounds with which I was accustomed.

I also heard shots being fired from a village perhaps a mile distant. I was later informed that this was customary practice, so as to scare off undesirable spirits. At one point, it seemed as if something were crawling through the bushes in my direction. I peered through the screen, but could not make out anything. All things considered, I recalled the encouraging words of the shepherd psalm: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me" (23:4). The imagery reflects a deep ravine in the Judean hill country, invoking thoughts of wild animals and thieves.

After some time had passed, I was invited to participate in an ordination service. Several of us were encouraged to place our hands on the young man's head, and as I looked down–there was one large, white hand nestled among a number of smaller, black hands. Suddenly, as never before, I was impressed by the universal character of the Christian fellowship. It was then that I joined the ranks of what the renowned evangelist Billy Graham refers to as world Christians. This was with the exception of my conversion the most memorable experience in my pilgrim journey.

My wife Joan has been a blessing to me. She has been loving, considerate, and supportive. She has also been a good mother, raising our five children. Likewise, she has ministered to countless students.

We invested twenty-four years at Wheaton College, after a relatively brief span at Gordon College. Most of our memories are good, and we indebted to ever so many persons for their friendship and loyalty. We have few misgivings.

The time came when I was approached concerning the administration of what has subsequently been renamed as Jerusalem University College. When I reported this to Joan, she mischievously replied: "You can do whatever you want to, but I am going." She had developed at love for the Holy Land, derived from the time we had spent there.

Salvation history comes alive in the context of the Holy Land. My favorite place for prayer and reflection was a knoll overlooking the Shepherd's Field. A large flat rock provided me a place to sit back, and imagine the monumental events that had transpired in that environ. The world would never be the same.

We lived on Mount Zion (the western hill), within a stones' throw of the traditional site for the Last Supper. As mentioned previously, the Hinnom Valley stretched out below–recalling Jesus' allusion to the nether world. It was here in antiquity that the city's garbage dump smoldered endlessly.

For those privileged to spend an extended period in the Holy Land, the people assume a larger role in our cherished memories. Among my close associates were both religious and secular Jews, eastern Christians, and Muslims. The Armenian community was especially gracious toward me.

After four years, I retired for the second time (the first being from Wheaton College). We had built up a year of home leave, from which to rest up from a vigorous ministry. In addition, to spend time with family and friends.

After that, we took a year's assignment teaching in Oradea, Romania. This was about three years after the collapse of the Communist regime, and in the midst of rapid growth in the indigenous church. It was a challenging and rewarding time, which is appreciatively remembered. We later returned, this time for semester.

I am now retired for the third time. If at all, since I continue to maintain approximately a thirty-five hour week–primarily in connection with my study and writing.

I am reminded from time to time that God uses my efforts in unexpected and fortuitous ways. For instance, one of my least successful projects from a commercial standpoint was used by a fledgling congregation to help chart its course. One of its membership went out of his way to express the corporate gratitude of his fellowship for my insights and encouragement. At such time, life seems wonderfully fulfilled.

All things considered, I am reminded of the sage observation: "The length of our days is seventy years–or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" (Psa. 90: 10). So it is as the body begins to shut down, and we are alerted that the time is at hand for our departure.

"For me to live is Christ," Paul thereupon concluded, "and to die is gain. If I go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I know not!" (Phil. 1:21-22). It is happily God's choice. I am quite content with this realization.

* * *

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. Note the military metaphor with which the discussion commenced. How does it alter our perception of life when we view it in terms of spiritual conflict?
  2. Human experience has much in common. With what aspects of the above account can you readily identify, and what implication do these this have for life in general?
  3. Some experience is culturally conditioned. What evidence of this can you discover from the above text, and how does this qualify our understanding of life?
  4. Moreover, every person's experience is in some ways unique. In particular, how does you experience differ from that of the author, and influence your perspective and behavior?
  5. How may the author's early experiences have had long range influence on his life? Compare and contrast these to examples from Scripture and daily life.
  6. Identify the two subsequent events which were said to have had a pronounced impact on the author's life. In what ways has your life differed, and with what results?
  7. There would seem to be some truth to the observation, "It does not matter as much what we do, as what we become in doing it." What bearing might this have with regard to the pilgrimage of faith?

In Retrospect

C. S. Lewis was of the opinion that errors as a rule occur as polar opposites. It is as we attempt to escape the one that we fall prey to the other. It resembles working our way along a narrow ridge with steep slopes on either side.

One error consists of thinking we can set forth simple rules that will guarantee automatic success. Such confidence is readily eroded by ifs, ands, and buts. The opposite error amounts to obscuring the obvious. I have attempted something between these extremes.

There is the religious factor. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. These are his works, meant to serve his purposes, and to bring him glory. As an erstwhile friend liked to put it, "They are not our toys."

Man plays to mixed reviews in Scripture. He was created to image his creator, but the mirror no longer gives off a true reflection. Some received his acclaim but for the most part they appear indulgent, neglectful, and unappreciative. At one point, God is said to have grieved that he made man (cf. Gen. 7). However, even in that context, it is recorded that Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

In particular, we have considered six aspects of the religious dimension of life. Initially, as concerns God's awesome presence. This served to highlight religious experience. After that, I touched on God's grace, his initiative–expressed in terms of the hound of heaven, the deliverance motif, our perspective from the valley, and an imaginative account concerning the house of the Lord. These taken together provide what might be described as a religious mosaic.

There is the social factor. Man is aware of being one among others. He would not have survived by for their intercession. He soon senses that a reciprocal relationship is called for: he must be there for others, as he allows them to be there for him. This is not a simple correlation, but requires a skillful interplay of privileges and obligations.

In more specific terms, we considered the interpersonal character of life, economic considerations, political realities, global concerns, and our environment. These and related factors constitutes what resembles a morality play. Persons come on stage, speak their parts, and take their leave.

Finally, there is the personal factor. Man is one among others. He is an unique individual, since God is not into cultivating carbon copies.

The sanctity of life is basic to the rest. Life is good, providing it is lived according to God's guidelines. It can be improved upon as we exercise truth, excellence, and creativity. This obviously constitutes an exceedingly short list.

An Army of One fleshes out the personal factor in one fleeting life, my own. In this regard, I will allow the psalmist the final word:

As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear
him, and his righteousness with their children's children–with those who
keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts (103:15-18).

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