God’s Plans Are Bigger than We Often Perceive, and He is Working Them Out Sometimes Despite Us

God promised Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.

In the service this morning, the message was about Joseph. As often happens, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The depth and nuance and intricate tapestry that is Scripture often works that way.

I will get to the point, but first, I need to build the backstory. Most readers know of Joseph, so I will be brief. Joseph was the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the famous son of Abraham. Abraham was the man of faith to whom God gave the following promise:

“Go from your country [land] and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)

I added the emphasis and will come back to it. In the meantime, we need to recall that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, who were jealous of him. They plotted to kill him and left him for dead in the bottom of a well.  He was “rescued” by a passing caravan that sold him into slavery in Egypt.

We could say much about the story of Joseph, but I want to fast forward. Joseph’s life teetered on the edge of utter desperation. He experienced a series of very high highs and very low lows. God ultimately blessed Joseph and elevated him to the second most powerful position in Egypt because of Joseph’s faithful use of the gifts and wisdom God gave him.

Many years after his brothers left him for dead, Joseph superintended a massive grain storage plan for Egypt that positioned his “adoptive” country to weather a long, severe famine and provide food for all its people and other nations besides. That same famine prompted his brothers to travel to Egypt when they were on the verge starvation and desperation.

When they arrived and got inline to buy grain, they had no idea they were appearing before their brother, Joseph. Joseph asked them to go back to Canaan and bring his father, Jacob, back down to Egypt with them.


Joseph’s brothers, his father and the whole tribe returned to Egypt. When they returned and finally realized the powerful man who sent them for their father was Joseph, they were ashamed, and they feared retribution against them for their betrayal, but Joseph was gracious, and he gave them favorable living conditions until Jacob died.

This is the point of the story that was addressed in the service today. Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he still held a grudge after Jacob died and would pay them back for their betrayal. (Gen. 50: 15) They didn’t immediately go to Joseph. Instead, they sent a message to Joseph containing instructions to them from their father to say to Joseph: “’I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’” (Gen. 50: 17)

Much could be said about the fact that they sent their father’s instructions to them, rather than their own, heartfelt message to their brother, Joseph, but this story isn’t about them. It’s about Joseph.

Joseph wept upon receiving the message. When his brothers finally come to him in person and offered themselves as slaves, Joseph said this (which is the launching point for the real import of what I have to say today);

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (Gen. 50:19-21 ESV) (Emphasis added)

Continue reading “God’s Plans Are Bigger than We Often Perceive, and He is Working Them Out Sometimes Despite Us”

Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought

The law of loving your neighbor as yourself written on the tablet of the heart by God

In Chapter 9 of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, he traces the idea of natural law back to 1150 AD when a lawyer named Gratian compiled the first canon of law in the west. His work (the Decretum Gratiani, as it came to be called) was derived from and Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. It was an attempt at comprehensive harmonization of those two sources.

The original notion of natural law came from the Stoics: “The Stoics believed that the fundamental moral principles that underlie all the legal systems of different nations were reducible to the dictates of natural law.” Gratian syncretized the Stoic notion of natural law (the law of nature) by attributing it to divine origins which he found in the nation of law written on men’s hearts, summarized as the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Holland observed that for a millennia Christianity existed without “what Muslim lawyers had long taken for granted – a comprehensive body of written rulings supposedly deriving from God Himself”. Holland is struck by the contrast of the Christian notion that God “wrote His rulings on the human heart”.

Holland first picks up that theme in his book with Saint Augustine of Hippo in Chapter 5. Hollands description of Augustine’s words – that “God writes His laws on the heart,” and, therefore, “Love, and do what you like” – is a theme Holland traces as he finds it in the history of western thought.

So, again, Holland picks up on the fact that Gratian opened his Decretum Gratiani (as it came to be called) with the statement that all law can be summed up in a single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Gratian called this idea “natural law”, summarized by the statement, “all souls are equal in the sight of God”. Gratian identified this principal to be the foundation stone of true justice.

Holland mistakenly attributes the notion to Paul (“Paul’s authority on this score was definitive…. [e]choing the Stoics”) and finds Gratian’s syncretism of the law a decisive departure from earlier ages:

“Much flowed from this compilation that earlier ages would have struggled to comprehend. Age old presumptions were being decisively overturned – that custom was the ultimate authority, that the great were owed a different justice from the humble, that inequality was something natural and to be taken for granted.”

This is the central theme of Holland’s book – “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (its alternate title). His book is an attempt to trace back the roots of modern notions, such as the idea that people have “equal rights” stemming from natural law (“inalienable rights”) that fundamentally inform modern, western thought.  

Holland notes that these ideas do not flow out of Greek or Roman philosophy or law. They were are much foreign to the world of classic Greco-Roman thought. They are definitively Christian – Judeo-Christian – in their origins.

Holland, of course, is an atheist. He comes to these conclusions through his study of western civilization. He is an “outsider” to Christianity, which perspective makes his observations so interesting – the that he picks up on the novelty of these ideas as being a distinctively Christian departure from classical Greco-Roman thought.

He also wrote Dominion coming off the heels of writing a similar work on the history of Islam. The contrast was striking for him. Whereas Islamic scholars attempted to proscribe laws for every detail of human life, including things like how to brush your teeth and dog ownership, Christians distilled law down to a single phrase – love your neighbor as yourself – and rested in the confidence that God writes His laws on people’s hearts (“not in ink” as Augustine said). The influence of Holland’s awareness of that contrast is striking.

It shouldn’t be surprising, coming from his perspective, that Holland doesn’t get things exactly right. When Augustine focused on love, he wasn’t championing anything new, and Paul was not the source of the notion that the law can be summed up in the phrase, love your neighbor as yourself or the belief that God writes His laws on human hearts. While he might attribute these things to Paul and Augustine, the history is much older and deeper than that.

Continue reading “Tracing the Origin of Natural Law & Equal Rights in Western Thought”