Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Semi-Random Musings (15)

In the first century it was said without exaggeration that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him.” If you were interested in what Moses had to say, you could find out all about it in any city among the nations. Judaism was not some obscure cult religion. Its influence on the world was inversely proportionate to the relative insignificance of the Jewish people.

For the most part, it was not the conduct of the Jews among the nations that gave the Law its broad appeal and drew Gentile proselytes to it. In fact, Jews were often disliked and not infrequently persecuted.

Nor was it the case that the customs and practices found in the Law of Moses were spectacularly innovative. Ceremonial washings, priestly mediation, a central place of worship, circumcision, animal sacrifices, sensible restrictions on human behavior — none of these were new things. They were part and parcel of most Middle Eastern cultures of the day.

One thing that did set Judaism apart was that it took the garden-variety cultural and religious practices of the nations and repurposed them in a much more consistent and moral way than had been previously seen. Had human beings been capable of making the necessary intellectual and moral leaps within the span of a single generation — for example, from religious rule-keeping to faith, or from the concept of multiple angry, distant deities to that of a single loving, relational God — perhaps God, in his dealings with Israel, may not have made use of existing Gentile customs at all. However, the fallen nature of humanity, our unwillingness to change our habits and our limited imaginations seem to have necessitated that God pull back the curtain by degrees over the centuries rather than in a single, transformative flash of blinding revelation. We see in Bible history a lengthy process of divine self-disclosure that one suspects could not possibly have been avoided.

Still, there are moments in the Law that hint that had it been possible, God would happily have done away with certain debased human institutions entirely rather than clean them up as best he could and permit Israel to engage in them in a limited way. This one, for instance:
“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.”
This particular law seems a little out of place considering how often God is accused of instituting and even approving of slavery. (In fact, he did neither.) Here, if a fugitive ex-slave from the nations sought freedom among the people of God, he was not to be refused refuge in Israel. He could live as a free man among worshipers of Jehovah, despite presumably coming to them with little more than the rags on his back and a desire to be free. If God had wanted to express his unqualified approval of the institution of slavery, no better opportunity existed than this one. Yet ... not so much.

There’s an insight there into God’s true thoughts about human bondage that is worth considering. Interestingly, this instruction comes in the very same chapter in which God tells Israelites they have a moral obligation to make every effort to return all lost property to its owner.

The irony could hardly be thicker.

*   *   *   *   *
There is a series of events early in the book of Acts that makes for an interesting case study into God’s providential guidance of his servants. Consider these four statements sprinkled across two chapters:
“Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.”

“Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ ”

“And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.”

“[N]ow send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.”
After Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Body of Christ is arguably the most important event described for us in the book of Acts. Peter’s vision and subsequent testimony at the household of Cornelius opened the door for almost every spiritual blessing I’ve enjoyed in my life, and I bet the same is true for you. But look at how God set the whole thing up. It’s quite unremarkable in many ways.
  1. Peter is wandering about serving God. The Church is enjoying a period of peace and growth. So Peter goes “here and there among them all.” Nothing could appear more random. It does not appear he is acting on any instructions more specific than “Feed my sheep.” So Peter goes wherever he can make himself useful among the people of God. In the process, he finds himself at Lydda.
  2. Dorcas dies in Joppa. The woman is well-loved for her good works, and the disciples in Joppa cannot imagine doing without her. Oh, wait. They happen to hear that Peter is nearby in Lydda. How convenient! Nothing about any of this is contrived on the human level, but everything neatly falls into place.
  3. Peter raises Dorcas from the dead, then stays in Joppa. Many believe in the Lord as a result of the miracle he has performed through Peter, and as a result, Peter stays in Joppa for a while, presumably to capitalize on the opportunity. It should not escape us that Joppa is 40 miles closer to the home of Cornelius in Caesarea than is Jerusalem, where we find Peter for most of the book of Acts. Nor should it escape us that this is all made possible through the kind hospitality of Simon, a tanner in Joppa, who is only mentioned in the narrative in passing, but plays an inordinately important part notwithstanding.
There are, of course, many miraculous elements to the story that we do not regularly experience in serving the Lord today: the resurrection of Dorcas, Peter’s vision, the Gentiles speaking in tongues, and so on.

All the same, it is hard to miss the fact that the Lord made use of all kinds of apparently insignificant choices made by his people along the way to accomplishing his will: Peter opted to go to Lydda rather than to the Decapolis or Syria. The disciples in Joppa had the unlikely idea to reach out to an apostle in Lydda when one of their own went to be with the Lord (think about how many thousands of Christians died in those days without anybody thinking twice about the possibility of resurrection). Peter opted to stay in Joppa when there were certainly other things he might have been doing.

At the time each of these decisions was made, there was nothing obviously supernatural going on. And yet those everyday choices and decisions were as much a part of the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the Gentiles as were the miraculous elements of the account.

Original map courtesy Andrew C [CC BY 3.0]

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