Monday, May 30, 2011

To Fill the Earth

For the last week, I’ve held one foot in Genesis 11, while the other foot of my compass has explored connections in other parts of the Word, all part of Lyla’s challenge at A Different Story to camp on a certain passage of Scripture for seven days.

My eyes have sparkled more in excited revelation than they have in the last month, me literally running for the phone to call my mother with what I’ve learned, rushing forward after evening worship service to tell my pastor how his sermon just helped complete the last piece of the puzzle God had set before me for the week, and laughing out loud at the irony of discovering in this “staying” the importance of obediently not staying but rather going forth.

After the flood, God told Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it” (Gen. 9:1,7). This was a direct command—to GO and FILL the earth, a repetition of the first command God gave Adam, to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28).

The Hebrew word translated in both these verses as “fill” was used by God before the flood to describe the state of the earth as “filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). God’s rationale for Noah and his sons (as well as Adam and Eve) filling the earth makes sense—if Godly men filled the earth, then it would be filled with holiness and righteousness, not violence and evil.

At first, it seems Noah and his descendants sought to obey the Lord. Scripture says, “It came about as they journeyed east,” (Gen. 11:2) implying they were filling the earth to some degree. Then, several people decided they were tired of moving and filling, that they wanted to stop and stay awhile, to “make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).

No more scattering…no more filling. Here, at the Tower of Babel, the filling stopped, and rebellion began. But God’s commands would not be thwarted: “So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:8). He repeats the same phrase in verse 9, emphasizing the “scattering,” the earth-filling that the people began doing again, albeit this time against their will.

Fast forward to the New Testament. It is right after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus had told his followers to stay put until the Holy Spirit empowered them to go. He said, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). His disciples got the first part right—they stayed put and waited: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1).

Yet, once they were Holy-Spirit empowered, they still stayed put, forgetting the second half of Jesus’ command to be witnesses outside the walls of Jerusalem. Scripture says the early church members were “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house…” (Acts. 2:46). The Jewish high priests even confirm how localized the believers were to Jerusalem, saying “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28, my italics).

Jesus’ followers were filling their Jerusalem with His glory. But, they weren’t filling the whole earth, as commanded. I am unsure as to whether their stopping at Jerusalem’s outer walls was an intentional act of disobedient rebellion, an act of fear, an act of racism (i.e., Jesus is for the Jews, not the Gentiles), or just that they got so caught up in celebrating with each other that they forgot to go further. In my heart, I think it could be a little of all of the above.

Yet, no matter the reason, the result was the same—no filling. Just like at the Tower of Babel, God did something mighty to fulfill His plan. This time, though, it wasn’t by frustrating their language but by bringing persecution: “a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

Fill the earth. That has been the command since the creation of Adam, and continuing with the new Adam, beyond the resurrection of Christ.

Too often today, Christians want to create strongholds of separateness to protect their families, their children from society, its untruths, and evil’s attacks on their faith. While raising up one’s children in the Lord around a secure hearth of faith is definitely important, such an action does not negate God’s command to GO and fill the earth with the gospel, the righteousness, the holiness, the beauty of Jesus Christ.

To defy God’s command to go and fill our world for Him is just asking for God to bring some sort of only-God-could-do-this calamity to scatter believers.

But what’s more frightening? If we who believe in Christ do not fill our world, those who do not believe will fill it for us.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reaching Past the Stars

Earlier in the week, my oldest son asked if we could go to the moon. I smile tight, wishing I still believed such wild dreams and reality could collide. Today, he's reaching higher, beyond sun, moon, and stars.

With the loss of his "friend" kitten last Thursday, Wyatt has turned to asking if he can go to heaven to "visit Micah." At four and a half, his question actually makes a lot of sense. The only person he really "knows" in heaven is Jesus--and He's alive!

This reaching higher towards God and the heavens resonates in me and my love of architecture in both ancient and modern cultures. From the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza to the Sumerian ziggurats to the dome of London's St. Paul's cathedral--these buildings were built with the intent not to literally reach the heavens but to figuratively, metaphorically do so by providing a central place of religious ritual and worship, similar to the way Israel's temple functioned.

Although I've always wondered if those building the Tower of Babel were filled with enough hubris that they actually believed they could construct a tower tall enough to reach God, it seems more likely that their structure was intended to function in the same way as comparable ancient religious structures throughout the world--as a figurative representation of a place where they would be able to reach God.

First, they chose to build their tower on "a plain" (Gen. 11:2), not atop a mountain. Surely, if one literally wanted to touch heaven, he would use the natural heights of creation to give him a good head start. Yet, this group chose not a mountain but a wide expanse of flat land, which hints at the tower's true goal.

They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth" (v. 4). Considering the location plus this goal statement, it seems they had plans to build a great kingdom in a wide open area of land with one tower standing tall as a religious beacon, drawing to worship all who could see it miles away across that flat plain.

Such a refusal to be scattered by building of a solid, well-rooted kingdom, though, was disobedience, for God had instructed Noah and his sons to "fill the earth" (Gen. 9:1). However, unlike in Noah's day, God didn't just wipe civilization out again for this organized, of-one-mind disobedience. Instead, the trinity's decision to frustrate mankind's work by confusing their language showed mercy.

One very worth your time to read article states, "God frustrated the efforts of the builders at Babel before they reached the point of no return. God thwarted their plans in His benevolent omniscience."

Without God's intervention, as the Lord said, "nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them" (Gen. 11:6). With mankind's naturally sinful nature, they were already headed straight down the path that had led God to flood the earth just a few generations ago.

Ironically, they were already reaching heaven, even if their structure was barely off the ground--reaching it with their disobedience, their sin. And with one language and one mind, they would quickly build a tower of sin so high that God's holiness would be justified in destroying all living beings once again...although not by flood.

I have never before thought of the language barrier as an act of mercy by my God. That language slows worldwide progress, yes. But that it slows the spread of organized sin in rebellion against God, too...it makes sense.

In John's Revelation when he records what is to come concerning Babylon and her final rebellion against God, he says, "for her sins have piled up as high as heaven" (18:5). The Tower of Babel has figuratively continued to be built all these millenia, one sin piled atop another, reaching God.

This time, though, the peoples of the earth have reached the point of no return. This time, there will be no mercy, no thwarting of man's evil intent, no confounding of language. And the result is utter, eternal destruction.

Our vision of a far-away God who is unreachable and out-of-touch is completely flawed. Our prayers, our cries, our sins pile up before Him.

Atop the highest mountain or deep in the valley below--He is near, wanting to offer His mercy and grace to all who will repent and believe in His Son.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It Takes Two: Hating & Loving Like Christ

Whether you are a stay-at-home mother, a farmer, or a tax attorney in April, it is easy to become so busy with living and doing that you lose your focus. For the past three months, I've been studying the book of Revelation and keep coming back to the seven letters to the seven churches in chapter two where many of the churches seem to have lost their focus, for one reason or another.

Like a good teacher, though, Christ first commends them for what they're doing right before showing where their faith is lacking.

Of the Ephesians, He says,

"I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate " (Rev. 2:2-3, 6).

In this passage, there is so much good.

First, they were not content to be pew-warmers. Instead, they lived a faith in action, working hard for the cause of Christ. A glance at the Greek shows the word "toil" as meaning "to grow weary, tired, exhausted (with toil or burdens or grief)"* This group took seriously the Great Commission, demonstrating to the point of exhaustion their belief they were not saved to sit but saved to serve. But even in their physically weariness, Christ says they "have not grown weary." Despite physical weariness, they were still strong spiritually.

Next is the Ephesians' commendation for "perseverance." The very fact that this group persevered implies that there was something they had to persevere through. They were steadfast. They endured great trials and suffering, yet remained loyal to Christ.

These hardships are alluded to when Christ says, "have endured for My name's sake." The King James version renders this phrase as Christ knowing what this congregation "hast borne." This wording seems to better reflect the symbolism offered by the original Greek's "bastaz┼Ź," which means "to bear, to carry"* From this , it is easy to envision the Ephesians bearing the burden of claiming Christ's name and metaphorically "carrying" His cross. It seems they took seriously Christ's edict that "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk. 9:23).

And finally the Ephesians sought out and expelled any who deviated from the true gospel. Unlike today's Christianity where small concessions of false gospel here and there are splintering churches and watering down denominations until the gospel is completely ineffective, the Ephesians hated false apostles just as Christ hated them.

BUT (and here's where the Ephesians went awry), Christ found something specific wrong with their faith: "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Re. 2:4).

They hated as Christ hated. BUT, they did not love as Christ loved.

They did not love with Christ's "agape" love, a love only available to those infused with the Spirit, a love not possible by any human means.

Somehow, they lost this kind of love. Whether the Ephesians lost Christ's love because they grew cynical after booting too many impostors out of their church or whether they lost that love in the busy-ness of "doing" for God...I don't know. Maybe it was a little of both, which made them become Pharisees, so focused on busily standing guard at the front door to keep out the false teachings that they exchanged a passionate, merciful love for legalism.

And perhaps then this legalism led their righteousness to turn into self-righteousness...an all-too-easy leap to make when you know you hold the truth and forget what pit God's grace saved you from.

In America today, I see Christianity being painted as a legalistic, self-righteous religion, mainly because too many Christians are using their swords of truth as weapons of hatred and self-righteousness when standing against such polarizing sins as abortion and homosexuality. This using legalism as a justification for not demonstrating agape love reveals that we, too, have left our first love.

Even as I write this, I'm still not sure how to walk that line of hating as Christ hates while loving as Christ loves. They seem so opposite. But I think it goes back to what Jesus pointed out as the top two commandments--to love God and then love my neighbor as myself.

If we maintain or reclaim our first love for God, His Spirit will help us show agape love, which will then infect everyone around us, and the rest will follow.

* www.blueletterbible.org

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Christian Mother Just Isn't Enough

Mother's Day is over...right?

Good. I've been holding my breath all day, but now I can say it.

It doesn't matter how good a mother you are...you still cannot be everything that your child needs.

There's little doubt that each year when Mother's Day rolls around, I'll hear or read an admonishment for mothers to strive harder in Christ because they hold the most positive influence over their child for or against Christ. Then, someone will quote the Old Testament passage most likely to make even the best mother feel like a failure: "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies...Her children arise and call her blessed" (Prov. 31:10,28).

I have nothing against the Proverbs 31 woman. I believe she is a wonderful model of service and love. I strive to be like her, myself because I do believe mothers wield much, much influence over their children, over their entire families...for or against Christ.

BUT, I also know a trap when I see one, and clipping one chapter out of Scripture to paste on the wall as a checklist of unattainable 24/7, 365-day-a-year perfection is a trap...an endless cycle of guilt, shame, and narcissism--thinking it's all about me, such a popular philosophy in today's society.

Some of the best mothers in the Bible knew it wasn't all about them. They knew alone, they would fail. So, they did all they could. I believe many of them lived as the Proverbs 31 woman, but while doing all they could, they also faded into the background, giving their children over to God for the raising.

Think of Moses' mother--a "Levite woman" who gave birth to a son in a time and place when boy children were killed (Ex. 2:1). She did all a mother could do and "hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile" (Ex. 2:2b-3).

Moses' mother came to the end of herself and what she could do to save this child. No, Scripture doesn't show her praying to God, but how else could a mother from a tribe of priests send her child forth into dangerous waters except surrounded with the power and peace of prayer?

As God designed, Pharaoh's daughter was blessed with divine empathy so that when she found the child, she chose to save him and raise him as her own. And Moses' mother? She "took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son" (Ex. 2:9-10).

Although named in two other passages, I think it no accident that Moses' mother is unnamed here. Yes, being his mother was important. She no doubt taught young Moses to love Jehovah while he rested beneath her roof and tutelage. But what was most important was her realizing how limited she was, that only God could truly raise Moses to be His man.

Please don't misunderstand--Scripture is wrought with mother after mother whose actions contributed to the raising up of a Godly child who impacted their community, their nation for God.

Yet, many good Christian mothers (and fathers) beat themselves up over every un-godly response to a child's disobedience, over blowing their top instead of speaking with patience...all because they think they're solely responsible for their child's salvation.

Acknowledging sin, repenting, and asking forgiveness for wrongs is good. But, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can be the spiritual everything for our children, that our actions alone will determine whether that child accepts God's plan of salvation.

Mothers and fathers alike, even stand-in parents like mentors or grandparents--they all can and should diligently work in their children to establish a Godly foundation; to hide the Word in their hearts;to serve as a daily Christlike example of redemption and forgiveness; to pray without ceasing for the child's salvation; as well as to provide every opportunity to learn about, worship, and serve God.

My mother and father have lived a life showing me how to love the Lord--they did everything they could to show me the path to salvation. And still, they fell short of saving me from sin and hell, themselves, because that is a work only God could initiate in my own heart. Only I could accept God's grace for me. And when I went astray? That was the result of my own wayward heart, not my upbringing.

Paul said, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is not a result of having a good mother or father. Salvation is the result of GOD.

Parents can and should do everything in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead their children to the living water. Yet, there must come a point when parents realize that they can't take that final step for their child. They do not have the power within their actions, their words, or their example to make that final leap and save their child for Christ. Our God alone can do that work.

To think otherwise not only disregards individual accountability, but also seeks to take the glory and honor away from Jesus Christ who is the "author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb 12:2) and place that glory on ourselves.

My prayer--any parent's prayer--should be to live a Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered life that shows our children Jesus and the path to salvation...and then give God all the glory for the rest.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

More Than Words

What if every person in the church wrote out his testimony and compiled them together into a book for future generations, a time capsule of faith bound in paper?

I presented the idea to our church’s scrapbooking queen, hoping she would find the idea as exciting as I did. As we spoke, she stated that encouraging people to actually write out that testimony would be the hard part. Then, she did the unexpected and told another woman and me to go ahead and write ours first.

That was about a month ago, and I haven’t written one word. Instead, I’ve become mired in New Testament Scripture, Greek definitions, and a stack of tomes thick enough to break a toe were they to fall.

This standoff started with one of those nagging feelings that maybe what modern Christians refer to as their testimony may not really meet the Biblical definition of the word, that maybe, just maybe, we were missing something important in our casual request for a person to “give her testimony.”

Then, I encountered the word “testimony” in my totally unrelated (or so I thought) study of Revelation. John describes the two witnesses (Moses and Elijah), saying, “When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them” (Rev. 11:7).

What a thought--that if these witnesses could not be killed until their testimony was finished, the same could be said of me, another witness for Jesus Christ. My days on earth will cease only when my testimony is “finished.” Amazing. Now, just what was this testimony that needed finishing?

In Revelation 11:7, the word for “testimony” comes from the root word “martus,” meaning “a witness.”** That wasn’t too earth shattering. But the apostle John’s repetitive use of this word throughout all his writings was.

In one passage, he uses the term six times: “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:9-12).

Simply or not so simply put, Jesus is God’s testimony, the testimony to mankind about the way of reconciliation to God the Father. While on earth, Jesus gave testimony about the Father who sent the Son as a testimony of sacrifice, redemption, and eternal life. Sounds like circular logic, but that's the truth of a unified trinity.

Grounded with this knowledge...

1. A Christian’s testimony should include what is past: “in an historical sense, of the testimony of an historian.”*

John says of Jesus’ death and burial, “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe (Jn. 19:35). Here, John explains his role as historian, recording the truths about Jesus for the purpose of leading others to saving faith in Him. Following this, then, our testimonies should record the historical truths about Jesus as well as His past work in our lives…for the same purpose of fostering belief. However, a Christian’s testimony doesn’t end with a big period here.

2. One’s testimony should also include her present reputation, which is derived from her every word and action: “in an ethical sense, of testimony concerning one’s character.”*

When describing the qualifications of “overseers,” Paul uses testimony in this ethical sense: “And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7). Here, “testimony” is translated as “reputation,” implying that not merely our past but also our present life serves as a testimony to non-Christians…a testimony either for or against Jesus Christ.

John also uses testimony in this manner, saying, “Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself; and we add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true” ( 3 Jn. 1:12). How others’ perceive us in the here and now says as much about our testimony as our history does.

3. A testimony should include one's perseverance into the future: “to hold the testimony, to persevere steadfastly in bearing it.”*

John describes those whose testimony for Christ persevered through their death and beyond: “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev. 6:9). The martyrs maintained...persevered, unto death.

This past, present, future kind of testimony of truth—one that is solely focused on showing others Jesus Christ and leading them to saving faith—it’s the only way to gain personal victory over sin and death. John writes, ““And they overcame him [Satan] because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death” (Rev. 12:11).

Who knew my testimony, your testimony was so powerful? It is. But the power comes not from we who testify, but from the One who is the author and content of our testimony--Jesus.

I'm shaking my head, knowing that whatever testimony I write will need to be revised a week later because no person’s testimony can truly be encapsulated in words since it is composed of muscle, sinew, blood...life itself.

*Thayer's Lexison.

**Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament.

Photo: Artist unknown.