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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

False Unities and Lines of Division

As Christians living in a day in which we have every possible advantage in understanding what God has revealed of himself to mankind down through the centuries, the importance of having our hearts and heads thoroughly marinated in the word of God cannot be overstated.

There is no area of human investigation that matters more. None.

But in a fallen world, the word of God divides. The more we read it and follow it, the more we will find ourselves separated from those who don’t.

Not Peace, But a Sword

This should not surprise us. The Word Incarnate was himself an unrepentant divider of men:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
False or merely natural unities cannot exert their usual powers on us in the presence of either the word of God or the Word of God. God’s word is repeatedly characterized as a sword, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow.” Paul tells us to take “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” And John, who saw the glorified Christ, says, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”

There Must Be Factions

Division, division, division. And not just the division of righteous from wicked, saved from unsaved, light from darkness and truth from lies. No, wherever there is the least resistance to the word of God and the claims of Christ, some sort of division must always be the outcome, even among God’s people: “For there must be factions among you,” Paul says, “in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”

The best of us, while paying lip service to the authority of scripture, have a nasty tendency to resist that authority in certain areas of our lives, if only passively, by adopting strained interpretations of texts we find just a little too convicting or inconvenient. Such habits of thought then strain relationships between even the most fervent of believers.

A committed Christian teen looks at his waffling parents and rightly detects hypocrisy. Division. A committed servant of Christ is prevented from accomplishing the will of God in his local church because his fellow servants put practical considerations ahead of faithfulness. Division. A wife steadily grows in Christ while her husband prefers the couch and the ball game to pursuing godliness. Division in the last place you’d want it, but division all the same.

Honest, inevitable division. Foolish, immature division. Disingenuous, self-interested division. Division is an inescapable feature of human response to the voice of God in our present age. Get used to it, if you haven’t already.

What Really Divides Us

But notice it is our sin that divides us, not the Word itself. If we all reacted with instant and total obedience to the voice of God, there would be no divisions among us. God takes no pleasure in division for its own sake. The divisive character of the word of God is preventive and punitive, not natural or ideal. God’s ultimate goal for those he has called and chosen is unity, not separation from one another. It is the sins of immaturity, indifference, inattention and outright disobedience that lead to division.

This truth is baked into scripture in some very innocuous and subtle ways, but it is always there. Take Huldah the prophetess, who spoke the word of God to the emissaries of good King Josiah:
“But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel …”
Did you catch that? The God of Israel has a word for the king of Judah.

The Greater, Invisible Unity

Israel was horribly divided, and God himself had brought about that division. Its purpose, as always, was preventive and punitive, not preferred. In fact, at the time Huldah spoke, “Israel”, the former northern kingdom, was largely dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire as they had been for a generation or more. There WAS no geopolitical entity you could refer to as Israel. All that was left was the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, along with those who had left the northern kingdom to join them. When contrasted with the days of Israel’s glory under David and Solomon, they were a sad, small bunch.

But the God of Israel continues, and as long as Israel remains a reality in the mind of God, its current condition is irrelevant. God sees a greater unity invisible to us, one that he intends to bring about in a future day, and if God purposes it, he will surely accomplish it.

The same holds true for us today. Christendom is a divided mess. The weeds are in the wheat and nobody knows real from unreal or true from phony, except when God’s word is applied to a situation and people can’t help showing their true colors if only for a moment. We have an obligation to that word in our generation, as in every generation: to seek out the truth of it and obey it. Those who undertake that quest, like King Josiah, will be very naturally divided both from those who will not, and from those who pursue the truth with less emotional, intellectual and spiritual vigor. It can’t be helped.

Excitement About the Brand

Given that they were all that were left of Israel in his day, Josiah might well have undertaken his own re-branding campaign if he had been so inclined. He could have re-christened Judah “Israel” if he wanted. After all, who was left to complain about it? It might well have gotten the people of Judah all excited to be part of Making Israel Great Again (MIGA™). He could even have financed the temple repairs by flogging red hats.

But it wouldn’t really have been Israel, not the way God had in mind, and to his credit, Josiah didn’t attempt it.

The best and most enthusiastic follower of God in our divided age is only the spiritual equivalent of the King of Judah, if that. We do well not to get too excited about the branding of those little patches of spiritual territory in which we each carry out our responsibilities before God. None of our little groups is THE church. None can be said to represent ALL God’s children or ALL his faithful at any given time, no matter what we may call ourselves or how much we prize the doctrines we sometimes wrongly think are uniquely ours.

God is, after all, the God of Israel, and Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.

The real Church, that is, not my shriveled conception of it.

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