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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thank You for the Failures

Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895
by Studio Levy & fils
God wants to save “all people”, or so we are told.

Some readers understand that concept very broadly. They see that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”, and conclude from it that God would prefer it if every single human being on the planet were to turn from sin and self to Christ, who is God’s only way of salvation.

This may very well be true, though I don’t think it’s exactly what Paul was telling Timothy.

Another Interpretation

Other readers — and I am among them — understand the phrase “all people” in 1 Timothy 2 to mean “all kinds of people” or “people from all stations in life”. The meaning of the word “all” in scripture, as in language generally, is not invariably global in scope; it is limited by the context in which it is used. Context here suggests that Paul’s intended meaning is that believers should not restrict or limit our prayers for the salvation of others to only those of our own kind or those in our own strata of society, because God wants to save people of every type: rich and poor, slave and free, rulers and ruled.

The gospel is offered to all, and who are we to be more delimited in our prayers than God is in his grace?

There will be Failures

That said, the kingdom of God is not an easy fit for certain sorts of people. And it is not just the rich who find the gospel unpalatable; the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Inevitably there will be failures to communicate and situations in which our determination to share the word of God falls, for all our efforts, on what appear to be deaf ears. Sadly, some of the owners of these ears live under our roofs and even occupy our beds.

So while God may desire all people to be saved, it is clear that in the universal sense this desire is destined to remain unfulfilled, assuming of course that we believe in the inspiration of scripture and a God who cannot and will not change his character.

There will be failures — not of God or of his methods — but failures by those to whom he addresses his message to embrace the truth embodied in his word.

Even more amazingly, we have at least one instance, recorded for us by two different writers of gospels, when the Lord Jesus gives thanks for these failures.

The Context

The Lord has just finished denouncing the cities in which he has done most of his miracles. And not only his own: he had sent out seventy-two others, two by two, with the same message. Miracles were being done on every corner in Israel. There had been nothing like this in the history of the nation. The seventy-two returned saying “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” They were full participants in the work of God, and yet were as amazed at the display of God’s power as the crowds they attracted.

You would think that after amazing most of Judea with inexplicable acts the like of which they had never seen, maybe the Lord’s message of “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” might find a little traction.

But again, context: The message of the kingdom, as we have already seen, and as the Lord Jesus told his disciples right at this time, is one that will cause polarization, division, disagreement and dissension. A person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Those who rightly understand it will love it or hate it. The only reason to be indifferent to it is a failure to comprehend its content.

The Reaction

And so the miracles provoke awe and their message is … rejected or ignored.

It is at THAT time, in THAT context, with his apparent failure to communicate in mind that the Lord gives thanks:
“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”
(Matthew 11:25)
Luke, in recording the same statement, adds a mystifying twist. He says the Lord “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit”.

An Apparent Mystery

Why was the Lord so enthusiastic about his own apparent inability to get his message across?

The phrase “you have hidden these things” is hardly an obscure linguistic construction. So why did God make it so difficult? Jesus rather bluntly states that this failure of communication is the deliberate work of God, and as he says it he rejoices. He’s giving thanks, not DESPITE failure, but FOR a particular sort of failure. How is it then that God deliberately sets out to confuse people, leaving them mystified and angry … when he could so easily simply make his point clear?

After all, he himself had molded the intellects of everyone who heard his words. If every hair on our heads is numbered, we can be sure he had mapped the twists and turns of all the crania of his listeners. He knew what men were like; how hard would it have been to simply reorganize their synaptic responses in accordance with the facts?

There must be something in scripture to account for what we find so perplexing.

The Bit We Naturally Agree With

Thanking the Father that he has revealed things to little children is something with which none of us is likely to have a problem. Everybody loves kids (and if we don’t, we’re generally savvy enough to recognize it as a character flaw and pretend to). Sharing his truth with them is not only something you would expect of God the Father; it’s almost demanded by his character.

But if we accept a God who cares for children, we must equally acknowledge a God who is calculatedly careful about communicating truth to those who are “wise and understanding” by only the standards of this world.

But this should really not surprise us.

The Value of the Written Word

A revelation from God has immense value, as one might well expect. His word is profitable. It is understanding for living life well. Meditated upon, it is an antidote to sin. It is wondrous and a delight. Oh, I give up: just go read Psalm 119 if you have any doubts about it.

But if the revelation of God is as valuable as the psalmists and indeed ALL the writers of scripture claim it is, then surely it is not to be wasted on those who have already determined they intend to reject it.

This is what it means to “cast pearls before swine”, an aphorism so ubiquitous that it is still floating around in popular culture today, as the title of a comic strip … and the name of a jewelry store, a band and who knows what else. But you remember the consequences of doing so: the pigs will trample the pearls underfoot, and turn to attack you.

And that’s pretty much what happened when the Jewish leadership encountered the gospel of the kingdom.

The Value of the Incarnate Word

If the written word of God is a treasure, what can we say about the Word made flesh?

He is precious. He is unique. Knowing him is worth everything we own, and more besides. Eternal life is simply … knowing him.

If rejecting the written word of God was a hazardous spiritual move, what can we say about … oh wait, someone has already said it:
“Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”
(Hebrews 10:28-29)
Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that it’s possible today to trample underfoot the Son of God, profane the blood of the covenant or outrage the Spirit of grace like a Jew in the time when the book of Hebrews was being written could have done by returning to Judaism after being confronted with the miraculous evidence of the claims of Christ.

But is it not evident from this passage how little God thinks of those whose fetishization of this world’s wisdom and understanding causes them to consciously, knowingly and continually reject his Son? How can we imagine that he would ever feel obligated to drag such creatures into the kingdom of his dear Son against their own will?

Thank You for the Failures

God wants to save all people.

But as we speak to others in the name of Christ, pray for them and try to love them into the kingdom of God, we need to be aware that we lack most if not all of the relevant facts about their real attitude toward God. It may appear to us very much as if a person we love is only a hairsbreadth from salvation, and that only our inadequate testimony — or a failure to communicate — is holding them back. As such, we cannot with confidence thank God for what we believe could be our own “failures”.

The Lord Jesus, on the other hand, always knew exactly who he was dealing with, and what their real motives were. He could rejoice that the Word had gone out, and if it was rejected, he knew it was rejected because of the hardened heart of the hearer, not because of the message or the messenger. He could confidently thank his Father both for what he had hidden and for what he had revealed, adding “… yes, Father, for such was your gracious will”.

But is rejoicing in any sort of “failure” in keeping with the character of God as revealed in the Old Testament? I believe so.

When the Lord proclaimed his name to Moses, he did so by displaying not only his mercy, grace, forgiveness and love for thousands, but also his justice. He ended by saying that he “will by no means clear the guilty”. As C.S. Lewis has well said:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”
Believe it or not, that’s something for which we can be thankful.

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