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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Vision Thing (3): The Import of the Visible

When people long for vision as I've defined it in these posts, it is not because they are physically blind. This is obvious, but it bears repeating. People are generally capable of seeing what is around them, but they often cannot grasp the meaning, value, and significance of what they are seeing. In large part, that is what vision is.

Some think and teach that any person can attain vision if they simply look more closely, more intently, more methodically, more deliberately at the world around them, if they don't just see but look at the world that passes before their eyes continually. There is a good deal of truth to this. I remember in a seminary class being assigned to list 75 factual (and thus easily demonstrable) observations about one verse in the Bible. It sounds impossible (and actually, I think it was), but it was amazing how much detail one can see if one takes the time to look at it. And from detail may spring insight.

But insight is not guaranteed. When it comes to seeing God's vision, close observation of the world he made and silently orders and directs may be a strong preparation for vision, and if God blesses someone with vision it may come through their close observation of the world—but only if God blesses them, only if he intervenes supernaturally. A person may spend a lifetime observing nature far more carefully than the average person does and yet never see God's nature reflected in it. A person may spend a lifetime scrutinizing the Bible far more than the average person does and yet never see the glory of God reflected in the face of the Christ revealed on every page. A church may spend thousands of dollars and man-hours gathering data about their community or target demographic and yet never see the ripened grain and the lost sheep and why it matters so much to God to bring them in or what bringing them in actually means.

Vision is truly seeing what is in front of your physical eyes, but true vision doesn't come merely by looking harder. It comes from a spiritual revelation that by default every person lacks, that only God bestows, that opens the eyes to see.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Vision Thing (2): Seeing God through Jesus

No one can have God's vision without first gaining a vision of God. But there's a problem: no one can have a vision of God, not a full and unobscured one anyway. God "lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see" (1 Tim. 6:16). "No one has ever seen God," says John. But the good news is that "[t]he only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known" (John 1:18). "We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father" (v. 14, emphasis mine). Whose glory? Jesus', the Word become flesh.

As "the radiance of [God's] glory and the representation of his essence" (Heb. 1:3), the Son's glory is the glory of the Father. In fact, it might be appropriate to say that the Son himself is the glory of the Father. But because of the incomprehensible fact of the Son's incarnation, we are able to see the Son even though the Father is hidden from us in light. Because the Son is exactly like the Father and represents him perfectly—all that is true of one is true of the other except that the Son is fathered by the Father—when we see Jesus the Son, we see God the Father. "[T]he one who sees me sees the one who sent me," Jesus said (John 12:45). "The person who has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9).

But a great difficulty appears. It seems impossible that we who cannot see Jesus with our eyes the way Jesus' twelve disciples did are able to see the Father. But after Jesus ascended to heaven God made a way that all people could see his Son. "God, who said 'Let light shine out of darkness,' is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). God implants the face of Christ, the radiance of God's glory, inside people's psyches so that even though they don't see him with their eyes, they see him just the same.

Furthermore, everyone who sees the Son not only sees the Father but also sees the Holy Spirit, and vice versa. "[T]he world . . . does not see him or know him," Jesus told the Twelve, but they saw and knew him, because he was with them in Jesus "and will be in you" (John 14:17). So the person with the Spirit within "sees" the Spirit, by seeing him sees the Son, and by seeing the Son sees the Father who cannot be seen.

Therefore, anyone who wants true vision, who wants to see things the way God sees them, has to begin by fixing their eyes on Jesus, because this is the only way to see the God who is the beginning and the end of all true vision. And steadily viewing Jesus is not possible without the knowledge that comes by the Holy Spirit.

So how does one get the Holy Spirit? That's easy—you just have to ask the Father! But I believe it's important (more for yourself than for him) to specify just what you're asking for. You are not asking for the Holy Spirit so that you can have a vision of what to do. You must ask for the Holy Spirit to give you a vision of the Son of God, the Word, so that in him you would see the Father. When the sole vision you crave is a vision of the Father, he will give it—and with it much more vision besides.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Vision Thing (1): Seeing God

Eugene Pluchart, God Appears to Moses as a Spirit in the Burning Bush (1848)

When churches (or other organizations or individuals) first grasp their need for vision, when you first hear people in them say something like, “We need vision,” it’s usually closely followed by something like, “ . . . because need to know what to do.” This is both right and wrong.

It is right because, for one, vision (as defined previously) usually (though not always) requires people to do something. It is also right because usually the people who say, “We need to know what to do,” truly don’t know what to do and really ought to be doing something different from what they’re doing.

But it is also wrong. If your attention to vision is entirely focused on what you are supposed to do, you will never find it and you are likely to make great mistakes.

Remember that vision, true vision, is what God sees. And what God sees first of all is himself.

In fact, there is a recurring pattern in Scripture, especially in the first ten books of the Bible, that we can expect of a true vision from God. Let’s look at Moses as an example.

In Exodus 3, as Moses, Pharaoh’s-adopted-son-turned-fugitive-shepherd is tending to the flock in the wilderness, he sees a bush on fire that doesn’t burn up. When he comes closer, God reveals that it is he, intoning, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6) So the first thing that Moses has a vision of is God himself.

Then God continues,
I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the region of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites [vv. 7-8].
Note that what God is telling Moses here is what God has been up to and what he plans to do next. So the second thing that Moses has a vision of is what God is doing.

It is only then that God says to Moses, “So now go, and I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (v. 10). Now at last, finally, the third thing that Moses has a vision of is what he is supposed to do.

To repeat, the pattern of vision is
  • God himself
  • what God is doing
  • what we are supposed to do
But this is easy for us to miss. It was even easy for Moses to miss. Because once God finished his statement, Moses’ first words were, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, or that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (v. 11).

Now see that Moses was both right and wrong. He did correctly hear his assignment—that was truly part of the vision—but he starts at the end: what he is supposed to do. That was the focus, as it ever is with us most of the time.

God addresses Moses’ concern by assuring Moses that he would be with him (v. 12), which also reminded him that God is really the one bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. Then God repeats the pattern of vision over again to see that Moses gets it.
  • In vv. 14-15 God reveals again who he is, God himself (“I Am Who I Am”).
  • In vv. 16-17, he tells Moses to bring together Israel’s elders and tell them what God is doing (“I have attended carefully to you . . . I will bring you up”).
  • Then in v. 18 God tells Moses what he is supposed to do with the elders (“go to the king of Egypt and tell him . . . ”).
Then, as a final encouragement to Moses, God returns to what he is going to do in vv. 20-22 (“I will extend my hand and strike Egypt . . . I will grant this people favor with the Egyptians”). Poor Moses is still wrapped up in what he is supposed to do, so 4:1-17 entirely revolves around Moses’ protests about what he is supposed to do and God’s replies to him about how he is supposed to do it.

You can see the same pattern of a true vision in a number of places. You see it with Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, Manoah, and Samuel. And you see it with Jesus. Jesus, himself God, the only one who had seen God the Father completely (John 1:18), said,
I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does, and will show him greater deeds than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes [John 5:19-21].
So even the vision that Jesus, the Son of God, had was first of God himself, then of what God is doing, then of what he is supposed to do.

The bent of humanity—the bent of sin—is to focus so intently on ourselves that even when we want to do good for God or others (or are called to it like it or not), we still focus on ourselves. But if you truly seek vision, the first thing is to surrender your attention to what you are supposed to do. Don’t even seek what God is doing. The first and most important thing to see is God himself. That’s where true vision begins.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Vision Thing (intro)

Hans Burgkmair, St. John Altarpiece: St. John the Evangelist in Patmos (1518)

Vision is cool. We want it from our leaders. Companies want it for themselves. Churches want it too. And when I say that vision is cool, I don’t just mean that vision is hip and trendy. I mean that vision really is cool when you have it or when you’re around people who have it or are in an organization that has it. As Will Mancini puts it, “[Vision] clarity isn’t everything, but it changes everything.”

A chosen group in my church is seeking greater vision clarity, and we are in a methodical process to discover it. Very helpfully, we began that process by going to the Bible to see what it says about vision. As it happens, it says quite a lot.

Stemming from my investigation of what the Bible says, I’m going to post 29 short, biblical meditations on vision. I’m defining vision as “human beings’ spiritual ‘sight’ to see things the way God does.” Before you pursue your vision, check out what God says about the vision thing.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Justification is not the entirety of salvation, but it is an essential component of it.

What is justification? The declaration that a person is innocent in the sight of God.

Who/what justifies? God the Father.

Why does he justify? His grace. (Note: “Grace” in the Bible may mean either the giver’s generous disposition or the gift itself. The former is meant here.)

How can he justify? The death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ, on people’s behalf and in their place.

Whom does he justify? People who place their sole hope for justification in Jesus (also known as “faith”) and profess it.

What is the evidence of justification? The believer’s obedience to the will of God.

Who/what produces that evidence? The Holy Spirit of God living in the believer.

This is the classic Protestant teaching on justification. The Protestant view and mine is that addition, subtraction, or modification of the substance (not mere wording) of these answers is not only an error but probably a fatal one.

Friday, December 7, 2012

You Must Read This Article (Not Mine)

Earlier this year I reposted my thoughts from last year on same-sex marriage. My friend strangedavid made the post better by thoughtfully pushing back in the comments section and driving me to explain more. Though I did not retreat from my argument from Christian theology that same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms, strangedavid forced me to admit that my secondary, secular arguments against same-sex marriage were weaker—as I put it, not a “stop sign” but a “speed bump.”

For this reason I’d like to introduce you to a secular stop sign. In their landmark article “What Is Marriage?” in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson clearly define what they call the “conjugal view” of marriage. They defend that definition as the only logically coherent one and the one most beneficial to the common good, and they press difficult questions on what they call the “revisionist view.” And they do all of this with no recourse to religious sources but rather purely based on biology, sociology, constitutional law, and logic.

Every person with an opinion on same-sex marriage, whether strident or squishy, ought to read this article. If same-sex marriage is correct, then the arguments of Girgis et al. can be confronted and demolished by reason, not merely dismissed as bigotry. But if they can’t be overcome by reason . . . .

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Witness of the Spirit

In 1736, 32-year-old John Wesley was on board ship on his way to the colony of Georgia to serve as the rector of the Anglican parish of Savannah and, he hoped, to preach the gospel to the Indians. But while he was hoping to save others, he also hoped in the process to save himself. He believed that he was not holy enough for God despite that most people who knew this extremely disciplined clergyman thought that his religious seriousness was freakishly extreme.

During the journey several severe storms blew up. One was so dangerous that the English on board feared for their lives as water poured below decks threatening to submerge the ship. This tempest occurred while a group of German-speaking Moravian passengers was holding a worship service. As the English shrieked, the Moravians calmly continued to sing, men, women, and children unafraid to die. Wesley was quite afraid to die and meet God, and his fear persuaded him that he truly was unprepared for the judgment.

At the end of their journey, once the passengers began settling in in America, Wesley asked August Spangenberg, one of the Moravians’ leaders, for counsel. Spangenberg answered Wesley’s question with questions: “Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” Spangenberg’s question came directly from Romans 8:16. John Wesley, M.A., Oxford fellow, had no answer. Spangenberg pressed on with his questions, and Wesley was unconvinced by his own replies. Spangenberg’s question about the witness of the Spirit gnawed at Wesley until he finally received the inner witness himself two years later.

I love Spangenberg’s question. Since I read this story earlier this year I’ve begun asking people the same question in similar words: “Have you heard the Holy Spirit tell you inside that you are a child of God?” Unsaved people, whether staunchly religious or totally inexperienced, look back at me dumbstruck. It becomes a terrific lead-in to contrast the milquetoast, worldly concept of “children of God” (stemming from blowing Acts 17:28 totally out of context and proportion) with the biblical demand that “you must all be born from above” (John 3:7).

So since I’ve become excited about Spangenberg’s question I was startled when I read a contemporary of his and Wesley’s, Jonathan Edwards, criticize the question ten years after Spangenberg and Wesley’s conversation. Apparently in Edwards’ neighborhood, at least by 1746, it had become a common thing for religious people to cite the inner witness of the Spirit as evidence that they had truly received God’s saving grace. But as Edwards observed the lives, especially the ends, of these people, he had grave doubts that their confidence was well-founded.

So Edwards takes a good bit of space in his Treatise on the Religious Affections to challenge the question and to drill down to what Romans 8:16 really means and how it ought to be applied (pp. 229-239 here). Edwards argues that the inner witness of the Spirit does not mean thoughts impressed upon the mind from an unknown source that whisper, “You’re saved; you’re a child of God,” even if those thoughts include quotations from Scripture. Rather, the witness of the Spirit is holy, divine, eternal life stamped onto the heart. It is the glorious life of God that believers will enjoy for eternity already present in them in embryo. It is not a message; it is hard evidence—not words but a quality or presence. It is not a birth certificate that claims God as one’s father; it is a DNA test that proves it.

So for you to answer the question for yourself, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” you need to look for three things.

First, do you yearn for God as your Father? Edwards points out that the immediate context of Romans 8:16 says, “ . . . you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father” (v. 15). Does your heart cry out to God as your Abba, your Daddy?

Second, do you resemble God as your Father? “See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children—and indeed we are! For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). If the world didn’t recognize God, it won’t recognize his children, because his children resemble him just like children physically resemble their biological parents. Do you exhibit the character qualities of God? If so, the resemblance will only increase: “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (v. 2).

Third, do you act like God as your Father? “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness has been fathered by him” (1 John 2:29). The children of God are chips off the old block—they talk like him and act like him as surely as sons take on the vocal inflection and cadence and mannerisms of their fathers. Do you do the things God does?

This is the inner witness of the Spirit that you are a child of God: you yearn for God, you resemble God, and you act like God, because the Spirit of the Father is infused into your spirit.

If you see that you pass this paternity test, what a joy it is! If not, the remedy is simple (though perhaps not easy): believe in Jesus! “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been fathered by God. . . . [E]veryone who has been fathered by God conquers the world. This is the conquering power that has conquered the world: our faith. Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:1, 4-5).