The Bible is a complex and rich tapestry, but we often fail to see the patterns, let alone the overarching pattern, of it. For me at one time, it was like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side – just a jumble of threads going seemingly everywhere and nowhere, without any discernible design.
At the same time, the Bible is not safe. I found it to be a harsh reflection of me when I read it for the first time. It was dangerous.
It commanded itself to me, but I didn’t always like what I saw or felt. Primarily, I didn’t like what reflected back at me about myself.
I will never forget the day in a world religion class as a college freshman that I read these words:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Hebrews 4:12 NIV
I wasn’t a believer then, but I could see it, and it made me feel uncomfortable. Even though the rich meaning of Scripture was veiled to me at the time it reflected back to me and probed my heart to expose the worst aspects of me.
I read in the words of David today in my reading from the Psalms:
“With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.”
Psalm 18:25-27 ESV
God deals with each of us according to our own hearts. We see Him presently “as in a mirror dimly”, Paul says, “but then we shall see Him face to face!” (I Corinthians 13:12 ESV) We see God in this life through our own reflection, which may not always be clear.
We see in Scripture our own hearts mirrored back at us, and we see God as if He were standing over our shoulders looking on. How we respond to what we see and to determines how He reveals Himself to us.
As I read through Exodus in my daily reading, I read the passage in which God told Moses he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Moses would do miraculous things in front of Pharaoh, but Pharaoh would not be moved by them. (Exodus 4:21)
This seems odd at first blush that God would do that. How can we blame Pharaoh for his hard heart if God hardened it? Why would God even do that?
Reading in Exodus today, I observe that two passages in the first two chapters have poignant application to the Body of Christ in the United States today. I see two predominant lines of injustice in the United States to which the Church collectively has given its attention that are identified in these first two chapters of Exodus.
At the same time, the C on these issues. I don’t say this to condemn or to be judgmental. It’s simply a fact that I think we need to recognize soberly, honestly and humbly.
We might find many examples, but the one that comes to mind – the one that is, perhaps, most poignant in this given time – is the division between black and white and the division between supporters and and non-supporters of Donald Trump .
I know: I said one example, and it seems I given two here. These are two examples, but they coalesce into one. The proof for that is in the statistics that show that approximately 80% of white evangelicals support Trump, and approximately 80% of black “evangelicals”[i] do not support Trump.
Now, I recognize that these statistics are sweeping generalizations, but generalizations do tell a story. There is some reflection of truth in them. I also don’t mention Trump to be divisive here. The example simply is provided for illustration.
Churchgoing African Americans can be as theologically conservative on things like what it means to be born again as white evangelicals, but their individual and collective experiences give them a different perspective on life. Their view of the world and injustice is different than their white, evangelical counterparts, for the most part, and this plays into their political affiliations.
My reading in Exodus (which I will get to) is timely because today is Sanctity of Life Sunday. I didn’t even realize it when God when I did my daily reading after I woke up this morning.
I didn’t realize it until I tuned into the Manchester (NH) Vineyard Community Church service this morning. I have never tuned into their services, until today, though I know people affiliated with them. When I set out to participate in local church service, I believe God drew my attention away to this one.
It was a great message, and I gained some perspective from it that, perhaps, God wanted me to have in writing this. With that introduction, let me explain the passages in Exodus that prompt my writing. Those texts include Exodus 1 (about the killing of babies) and Exodus 2 (about slavery).
I will take these things one at a time and draw some conclusions that arise out of the burden God has placed on my heart over the years. In another article, perhaps, I will explain how my perspectives have changed and, hopefully, shed some light on how the church can come together in the full council of God to advance His justice and righteousness.
Before I get into my immediate thoughts, though, I need to say that I speak with no condemnation in my heart
Just as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery that he did not condemn her, I am reminded that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world; God sent His son into the world so that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
I do not say these things to condemn anyone because Jesus has redeemed us!
In the story of the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees and Sadducees brought her to Jesus to challenge him, noting that the Law required her to be stoned, to see what Jesus would do. Jesus seemed to ignore them and began writing in the sand.
Some people believe that Jesus may have written the Ten Commandments out in the sand as those men stood looking on. When he looked from his stooped position, Jesus “invited” them by saying, “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” Then, he continued writing in the sand.
Some people believe he was writing down the sins those men had committed, and they walked away silently because they realized that no one is without sin.
The wages of sin for every person is death.
When they walked away, without condemning the women, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus didn’t condemn the men either. If they had stayed and repented, we know that Jesus would have received them, forgiven them and invited them to follow him.
God’s desire is to save us, to have relationship with us, to renew our minds and to conform us to His image.
Our sin is the reason God became flesh and died for us. He came not to condemn, but to demonstrate His great love for us and to save us from the sin that enslaves us.
One last thing before I get into what I believe God has put on my heart to share: salvation and sanctification is a process. It starts where we are. When we are born again, God begins to work in us to will and to act according to His purposes and to conform us to His image, but we start that process in different places.
One point made in the sermon today, is that “a person doesn’t have to be pro-life to be saved”. People are saved by grace; it’s a gift that we haven’t earned. There will be no exam in heaven we must perform for salvation. It’s already been accomplished for us by Christ’s death and resurrection.
At the same time, if we are born again, God has begun a work within us. He has begun to renew our minds, and change our hearts, and we have begun to learn to think God’s thoughts after Him and become like Him.
With that said, I will address the two texts I read today in Exodus 1 and 2 that speak to me about the Church, collectively, in the United States today. In writing this article, my hope is to provide some biblical basis on which we might begin to bridge the divide along racial and political lines and come together as the body of Christ. I hope to provide some perspective and understanding that will bring us together in Christ.
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.
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.
I am reading through the Bible chronologically. By the way, the “books” of the Bible are only roughly chronological. Following the chronology closely requires jumping around a bit. I didn’t realize to what extent that is true before taking this journey that I am on.
Presently, I am right at the point where Moses stands on top of a mountain (east of Jericho, on the edge of the plains of Moab) to survey the land that God promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham and his descendants. Moses dies right before they go in.
Before he dies, though, he reminds the people of all that has transpired. He reminds them how God delivered them out of their slavery in Egypt and went with them every step along the way. The reminder of God’s presence was with them by fire at night and cloud during the day.
God revealed Himself in dramatic ways to these people and instructed them through Moses down to very particular details for establishing a relationship with God through the Tent of Meeting, Ark of the Covenant and the offerings they were to make through the intermediaries of the Levite priests, among other things. They had 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with God’s presence continually among them in visual demonstration and ritual reminders.
Reading through this history of God’s interaction with the people He chose to lead eventually into a land He promised many, many generations before through a modern, intellectual lens can be unnerving. The skepticism of the age echoes in my mind and unsettles my heart.
Of particular note are the times we read that people are stricken dead for ignoring or refusing to follow the instruction. For instance, the Sons of Korah, the sons of Moses’ cousin Korah led a revolt against Moses. They and all the people who followed them died when God caused “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah”. (Numbers 16:1-33)
Incidences like this prompt a person of modern sensibilities to wonder, “Why would a good God do such a thing?!” It seems Draconian.
The stakes were high for these people, and even less intentional “slips” were sometimes met with the same fate. It’s hard to imagine living in those circumstances, especially in light of the grace that seems to color everything that Jesus said and did.
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. (Exodus 15:23-25)
Moses had just led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea that God parted for them. All the women had taken up timbrels and followed Miriam dancing and celebrating, exalting God for rescuing them from the Army of the Pharaoh. From there, Moses began to lead the newly freed nation into the wilderness.
They had wandered only three days, but it was three days without water. They found water at Marah, but it was too bitter to drink. So, the people began to get restless and “grumbled” to Moses. This is only the beginning of the grumbling, a theme that would continue throughout the years wandering in the wilderness. Even after God did miraculous things, like part the Red Sea and rescue them from certain capture and calamity, the people were quick to fall back to the habit of complaining.