“Blessed is God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; blessing us with every spiritual heavenly blessing in Christ, just as he elected us in Him before the foundation of the cosmos to be holy and blameless before Him in love.”
The last clause in these verses is one that might go by us quickly were we not looking carefully at the text. Depending on the English translation you happen to be using, sometimes “in love” is considered the beginning of a new sentence, thus tying it to verse 5 rather than to verse 4. The argument there is that verse numbers were assigned much later than the text was written and are not part of the inspired text, and so it is not unheard of to suggest that the scholars might have placed verse numbers slightly differently.
The real question has to do with which part of the phrasing that “in love” applies to on a conceptual level. The English Standard Version, along with several other translations, connects the “in love” with verse 5, understanding the “in love” as a description of how God predestines believers for adoption. In contrast, the King James, along with other (mostly older) translations, prefers to connect the “in love” clause with verse 4, understanding the clause to refer to the way that God elected a people to be holy and blameless.
Does it really make a difference? In the big picture, no. God is a God who elects and is a God who is loving. All he does, he does in a way that is perfectly consistent with his character, so both election and adoption are an outworking of God’s love. Indeed, connecting the clause with verse 5 has the advantage of emphasizing that this adoption of God’s elect is an act of God’s divine love. At the same time, God’s predestining and adoption are the natural outworking of his electing work.
Perhaps one may approach the question more clearly by first asking the question as to who is the object of this love? If one weds the phrase “in love” one is presuming that the object of the love happens to be those who God has adopted. If one connects this clause with verse 4, one might instead argue that God’s electing work (and setting apart a people to be holy and blameless) is an outworking of God’s love for us in Christ. Thus, this makes Christ the object of God’s love and the election of God a refection of God’s love for his Son.
Yet, is this not what is taught in the New Testament? Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39:
“For I have been persuaded that neither death nor life, angels nor powers, neither that which has been nor that which will be, neither powers nor heights, neither depths nor any other creature is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Or in the words of Jesus from John 14:23:
“Jesus answered them and said, ‘If anyone loves me, he keeps my word and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Approaching the text in this matter does not deny the many places where the Bible clearly states that God loves us (e.g. 1 John 3:1 and 4:9), but it does affirm that the reason for God’s love is not arbitrary. God loves us because we are elected in His Son. Or, one might word it this way: because God loves his Son with an infinite and indescribable love, we who are part of Christ’s body are recipients of that love — the love of God is mediated, as it were, in Christ.
“Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the waterskin and gave a drink to the lad.”
Sometimes people look at this passage and wonder at how Hagar could not have seen a well nearby. There are two elements we need to keep in mind when we begin to ask this question. The first is that God is sovereign and sometimes he deliberately blinds us to the reality around us to humble us and to teach us of his abundant grace. Essentially, God uses instances like this to get our attention focused on what is important. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get into a “funk” where we just cannot see past the dilemma that is before us; we get frustrated and we get tired and when this happens we just don’t think straight. The solution to our problem might be standing practically in our midst, but we just don’t look because we are selfishly focused on our problem. And here, in cases like these, God keeps our eyes shut. It is only when he can get our attention back upon himself, that he allows us to see the means by which he will lift the problem from our midst.
Hagar is in as great a time of distress as one could imagine. She has been kicked out of her home with her young son, has been given relatively little in the way of provision, and has wandered aimlessly into the wilderness with no plan and no way out. She collapses and just gives up, ready to die and hoping that she will not have to watch her son die as well. And here God comes to her. He reminds her of his promise and then opens her eyes. How little faith Hagar showed, but how often we too, who know the risen Christ, show a faith that is just as paltry.
The second thing that ought to be pointed out is that sometimes wells or springs are not as obvious as others. In the wilderness, wells are essential for maintaining your herds as they grazed and sometimes wars were fought over the “water-rights” to the wells…things haven’t changed much even today. Water is a precious commodity. We don’t want too much of it, but we need enough of it to survive. Sometimes, in the ancient world, wells were larger and more pronounced, but out in the wilderness, they were typically smaller and not always designed to stand out. The term that is used here is rEaV;b (be-er), which can refer to a small well or to a small underground water source. All that might have been there is a small spring trickling up to just below the surface, something that would not have been readily noticed lest it were pointed out. Either way, God’s hand of grace is directing Hagar to the spot where she get renew her strength with some water before they push on.
Again, how often we allow the difficulty of our immediate situation to cloud our vision of what God has promised to us in our lives. How often we throw up our hands in defeat rather than engaging the situation for the glory of God. And how often God shows himself to be faithful even though we fail to trust in his never-failing faithfulness. Beloved, do not fall into the trap of Hagar. God is faithful and he is faithful all of the time. He will work things through in his own timing and for his own glory and it will be far better than we could have designed were we able to design life ourselves. Do not doubt, but press forward in the design that God has for your life trusting him to provide that which you need physically and spiritually—trusting in his ever-flowing grace.
Recently, I was reading about the criminal investigation that took place around the shooting of President Kennedy. One of the investigators made note of something that I found quite striking: the shoes that President Kennedy was wearing looked as if they had been re-soled at least 10 times. To us, in our modern “throw-away” society, that sounds quite odd, since indeed it is often easier and cheaper to replace something than to repair or restore it to use. While the culture in 1963 was quite different than our own in the sense that “throw-away” was not the choice, the investigator was still struck that the most powerful man in the world would model such frugality with respect to his footwear.
As I was reflecting on this I began to reflect on the nature of relationships. How often, much like we would do with an old pair of shoes or a malfunctioning DVD player, we treat our human relationships things that can be disposed of when they no longer seem convenient and practical. How often, when we have trouble or frustrations with friends, we simply cut off relations and find new friends with whom we can do things. Even in marriages, the “till death do us part” has been superseded by “as long as we are in love” or “as long as it seems good in our eyes.” The same mentality seems to be applied to every aspect of our lives—our friendships, our jobs, and even our churches.
Yet, relationships are an interesting thing. Typically, when relationships are stressed the hardest, yet are able to survive the trial that brings them stress, they grow stronger rather than weaker. The scars are still ever-present reminders of what has been endured, though if shared, they also show as a sign to others of what can be endured in the grace of Christ. If you take the time to look around you at those friends with whom you are closest, you will typically find the evidence to support the principle—these closest ones are the ones you have not only laughed with, but you have also cried with and even bled with.
The key is that healthy and deep relationships are not easy and require maintenance. A pair of nice shoes needs to be polished at regular intervals. The polish not only serves to keep the leather shiny and to hide blemishes to the casual glance (so they don’t look shabby), but it also helps to keep the leather pliable and healthy. The polish that we apply to our own relationships is the polish of love—love that is, as is described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Relationships like this also have a secondary benefit: they draw others into the relationship. People have an inherent need to be in healthy relationship with others, modeling such will naturally draw others. Our relationships may indeed be worn and scarred, but there is no battered life that the love of Christ cannot make fresh and new.
Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.
I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?
The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”
Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:
“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”
It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).
Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:
“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”
Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.
The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:
My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.
Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.
It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.
When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.
In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.
Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?
My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.
I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.
The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.
“And God said to Abraham, ‘Thus you shall cherish my covenant—you and your seed after you to the generations.”
Do we really cherish the things that God has done for us? As I interact with Christians, sometimes I wonder. How often we will tell our neighbors about an award that one of our children might have received, but we will neglect to tell them about eternal life because it might be seen as socially awkward. It seems odd that we are often so silent about that which we profess to hold so dearly. Indeed, those things that we genuinely cherish are things that we seek to keep pure and preserve from outside influences. How often, though, we allow our theology to be polluted with non-Biblical but popular ideas. We often talk much about how God is love and how God forgives, but at the same time tend to downplay the fact that he is going to judge sin with eternal fire and how those who do not come to him in his Son, Jesus Christ, are guilty of the greatest offense imaginable before a holy God. How often truth becomes so watered down that its taste is barely recognizable.
Many of our English translations will render this word as “keep” and not “cherish.” The Hebrew verb used in this passage is rAmDv (shamar), which means, “to keep, to guard, to cherish, or to preserve.” It conveys the idea of protecting something that you treasure or hold dear. When this word is used to speak of commands, it usually reflects the idea of the people keeping them by doing them. Such is the same here. God is going to institute the sign of the covenant, that is circumcision. Yet, note that being circumcised is not how one fulfills the covenant—the covenant requires perfect obedience for it to be fulfilled—something that no mere human is able to perform. Hence, we need a savior; hence God moved through the split animal pieces, not Abraham. Thus the tone here as this word is being used is not so much the actual fulfillment of the covenant, but whether or not Abraham is going to be faithful enough to the covenant to preserve the covenantal sign not only in his life but also in the lives of his children.
In the Christian church, we use the same language to refer to Baptism. As blood in its fullness has already been shed by Christ, the sign is a bloodless one and thus circumcision as a command has been done away with. Though many Christians still circumcise their sons, it is simply a matter of preference and family tradition at this point in history. Baptism is now the covenantal sign we place on the heads of our children. This sign is not necessary for salvation (as the thief on the cross could not have been baptized), but it is a matter of obedience and a reflection as to how seriously we cherish the covenant that God made with Abraham for us—which of course, was confirmed by Christ. If you cherish the things of God, your obedience to them should follow.
Loved ones, my prayer for you is that you take these words seriously. God has made a covenant with us as his people and he has always been fully and completely faithful to that covenant; are we being faithful to him? Do we really cherish the things that God is doing in our lives and do we raise our children to cherish those things as well? People say that children will hold dear the things that they see their parents holding dear. Do we cherish the covenant of God so dearly that our children and our grandchildren are also drawn to cherish those things as well?
Christian hearts, in love united,
Seek alone in Jesus rest;
Has He not your love excited?
Then let love inspire each breast;
Members on our Head depending
Lights reflecting Him, our Sun,
Brethren His commands attending,
We in Him, our Lord, are one.
-Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf
Thus, where your treasure is, there also your heart will be.
Stuff, stuff, and more stuff… We fill our lives with stuff, we fill our homes with more stuff, and we fill the homes of others with even more stuff. In and of itself, stuff is not bad—we need stuff to survive. We need food to eat; we need water to drink; and we need shelter and protection from the elements. All of that is stuff. Certainly, some have more stuff than others, but it still is stuff. Frankly, I like stuff; I cannot deny it, but I would suggest that God also likes stuff. Roughly 6,000 years ago, God decided to create, well, stuff. And not only did God create stuff, but he pronounced it, “good.”
The problem with stuff is not the stuff itself, but what we use it for. Often, our stuff just collects dust. We fall into a trap of wanting to have stuff and more stuff just for the sake of having the stuff. Even worse, we find ourselves embattled with others, each trying to gain and secure more and more stuff than the other. Our lives begin to be consumed by the pursuit of stuff. Where does it all end!?!
Ultimately it does come to an end. There will come a time when all of us will die and leave behind our stuff to others. Death is the great equalizer as someone once said; we all die and we cannot take any of our stuff with us. Where we go next is not dependent on the stuff we have or even on what we have done with our stuff; where we go is dependent upon the finished work of Jesus Christ and whether or not our name is in his great Book of Life.
So, if my salvation is neither dependent upon the stuff I have nor upon how I use it, what does it matter? Jesus has some words to this question, because while your salvation is not dependent upon anything but Christ’s finished work, Christ’s finished work in your life should affect what you do with your stuff in this life. We are taught two major lessons about our stuff in scripture. The first is that God blesses us with stuff primarily so that we can be a blessing to others—not only in how we share our stuff with them, but in how we share our stuff with them for the purpose of sharing the Gospel.
The second thing we learn from Scripture is found in this verse—our heart will dwell with what we treasure. Now, for the Hebrew culture, the heart not so much reflects the passions as it does the personality and mind—in other words, the thing that you think about all of the time will be what you treasure. For the Christian, our minds and thoughts ought to be on Christ and upon God’s word; sadly, we often are tempted to fall into the trap of pursuing more stuff and in that pursuit they become consumed. The Apostle John warns about this trap:
Do not love the world, nor that which is in the world. If a certain person loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all of the things in the world-the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and arrogant living-is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away as well as its lusts. Yet, the one who does the will of God will continue living eternally. (1 John 2:15-17)
So, the question is not so much about the stuff, but it is about the heart. Have you set your heart upon God and upon the things of God or is it on the stuff that those who live in this world set their hearts upon. If, then, your heart is set upon God, the stuff that you have and accumulate in this life becomes rather secondary. And when stuff is secondary, using it to bless others becomes second nature. All our stuff comes from God anyhow, let us use it as an evangelistic tool and not an end in and of itself.