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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Vision Thing (14): Seeing Christ

Repeatedly I have asserted that all true vision starts with a vision God gives us of himself, a vision that is really the invisible God's self-emanation seen in his Son, Jesus Christ. I'm back to that assertion again. The prophets who had overwhelming, world-shattering visions that extended far beyond their earthly careers were seeing visions of Jesus—and they knew it.

According to Peter, even though their vision came from God, a vision from outside themselves that they could take no credit for, nevertheless they thought deeply and carefully about its implications and fulfillment:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you . . . [1 Pet. 1:10-12].
These prophets tried to figure out whom the Spirit of the Anointed One was talking about. They couldn't get a clear fix on him—though they were told that future generations would—but they knew it was Someone specific they were being shown. Though the portrait was blurry and the image was obscure, they knew that they were seeing Christ. Abraham saw Christ's day. David saw Christ's resurrection. Isaiah saw Christ's glory. They didn't know who the Christ was, but they saw him.

This might seem like a historical curiosity for us, who have been granted to know exactly whom these prophets wrote about. But there is an application for us as well. These prophets' visions, though wide-ranging, all came down to Christ in the end. The visions were based on him, were centered in him, were concluded in him. Likewise for us, if our vision is truly God's vision, it too will be based on Christ, centered on Christ, and conclude in Christ. Our vision will be all about Christ—it will be such that if there was no Christ, our vision would be logically absurd.

Test your vision, your family's vision, your church's vision, your organization's vision by this: when I see the vision, am I by necessity seeing Christ?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Vision Thing (13): Seeing Signs

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion (1536)

Some hope that by achieving a true vision from God, they will see miracles, and rightly so. Others recognize that getting a vision from God is a miracle itself. But it is also important to understand that without vision, one cannot recognize a miracle for what it is.

The label that John uses for miracles in his Gospel is translated "sign." The choice of that term is—there is no better way to put it—"significant." When God momentarily upsets the normal pattern of nature at the command of the Son—i.e., when Jesus works a miracle—it is not for nothing. And it is not merely for the immediate benefit of the recipients of the miracle, whether the host and guests at a wedding reception or a pair of bereaved sisters. As a sign, the miracle points to something else. If a person sees a miracle but does not see what the miracle signifies, it is like hearing a beautiful song in an unknown language—a measure of its loveliness may be perceived and enjoyed, but the point of the performance is lost.

Perhaps the supreme illustration of this is when Jesus fed 5,000 men (plus women and children), the only miracle performed by Jesus that appears in all four Gospels. John goes out of his way to demonstrate how this miracle was a sign (ch. 6). The day after the miracle, the huge crowd pursued Jesus to the synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus told them, "I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted" (v. 26). Note—these are the people who had not only seen but tasted the miracle Jesus had performed, but they never saw the sign because they failed to grasp what the miracle communicated. In the course of the conversation Jesus says, " . . . my father is giving you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. . . . I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty" (vv. 32-33, 35). The multiplication of bread to many to keep them alive a few more hours was a sign of God's gift of his Son to keep myriads of believers alive for eternity. The crowd did not see this. They really had a problem when Jesus asserted that "the one who believes has eternal life. . . . The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (vv. 47, 51, 54). The miracle was a sign of this reality, which is itself a miracle. Because they lacked vision, the crowd saw the first miracle but had no grasp of the one it pointed to.

Millions of people think that if they only saw a miracle, they would believe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Miracles do not make people believe. Miracles make believers believe. God the Father once spoke publicly from heaven to an entire crowd assembled around Jesus. A few thought they heard an angel. Most merely heard thunder.

A contrasting example is the Roman centurion who oversaw Jesus' execution. Wild things happened when Jesus died—the curtain in the temple split, a massive earthquake struck, and dead people got up out of their graves and started walking around the city. Most of the people in Jerusalem experiencing this concurrence of unprecedented miracles would never know or believe why they happened. But the man assigned the job of killing Jesus knew. "[W]hen the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were extremely terrified and said, 'Truly this one was God's Son!' " (Matt. 27:54).

That is vision. Vision isn't seeing the miracle. Vision is seeing that the miracle is a sign, and where the sign is pointing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Vision Thing (12): Seeing the Past

Invariably when people talk about gaining vision, they are talking about a vision of the future. But I have argued that in addition to a vision of the future (including the far future), true vision necessarily requires a vision of the present. Moreover, vision also includes a vision of the past.

This is counterintuitive to many people, because they assume that vision is all about where you are going. But it is foolish to underestimate the impact on where you are going that comes from where you came from. It is also foolish to underestimate the difficulty in gaining a clear vision of the past. The proverb that "hindsight is always 20/20" is frequently untrue. While it may wear well as an observation about an individual's experience—especially one's reflection on one's experience fairly soon after events—it is far less true as an observation about the task of the historian. Reality is mind-bogglingly complex, and so all of us when we look at the dynamic relationships between persons (as in our families) and masses of persons (as in the world at large) inevitably make generalizations and simplifications to try to take all the data and make sense of it, reducing it to conceivable size. This isn't bad—as a matter of fact, it is a necessary part of really understanding it. But how do we know that our generalizations and simplifications are the right ones? We don't without God's vision.

God sees all (which we don't) and has the definitive interpretation (which we lack). At times he reveals his vision of history so that people can serve him more faithfully in the present. This is why so much of the Bible is composed of books of history. Chronicles is a particularly good example, because we see there that the people who could be trusted to write reliable histories were always prophets. Samuel the seer, Nathan the prophet, and Gad the seer wrote the complete chronicles of the life and reign of David. Nathan the prophet, Ahijah the Shilonite, and Iddo the seer did the same for Solomon, as did Iddo the seer and Shemaiah the prophet for Rehoboam. Later, the account of Hezekiah's reign would be recorded in Isaiah's "vision."

God sees all, past, present, and future, at once. So if we're to be graced with his vision, we will see clearly not only the future or even the present, but also the past. We need to see the past clearly to live the present faithfully and enter the future confidently.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Vision Thing (11): Seeing the Future

People generally assume that vision means seeing the future—specifically, a good future that motivates people to strive toward it. And in one sense, it is. But even in this sense, our visions often fall far short of the biblical scale.

Where vision appears by far the most often in the Bible is in the prophetical books of the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament. Isaiah's entire 61-chapter book is entitled "The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" (Isa. 1:1, NASB, emphasis mine), setting the tone for the entire prophetic corpus. And one quickly loses count of all the times that John says "I saw" in his visionary book of prophecy (Rev. 1:1-3).

But the visions of these men were not happy, stretching-but-reachable futures that motivate human striving. They were far, far bigger. Their visions were not "private," by which I mean that they did not pertain to particular group or slice of the pie of reality. At their furthest extent, they encompassed the entire cosmos. And their visions generally did not depict a short- or medium-term goal. Usually the end of the vision was far beyond the visionary's lifetime; usually it was the end of history itself. And the content of the vision was not something that any person, nation, church, movement, or even all humanity together could possibly produce. That was the whole point—it is within the capacity of God alone.

This is not the only kind of vision God gives. As I have shown partly in some previous posts and will show more in posts to come, God does give vision to persons and groups that come to pass within months or years and in which human obedience has a major role to play for the vision to become reality. But it is very important that we keep those visions in perspective. Whatever vision we may receive that God employs us to achieve, no matter how large it seems to us, it is a mere pixel in the vast expanse of God's vision of everything. And don't rule out that he may give you that vision—a vision you are not to strive for, but simply to stand in awe of.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Vision Thing (10): Seeing the Present

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jeremiah (1308-11)
Generally, when people talk about vision, they are talking about imagining and articulating a future for people to press toward. But vision isn't just about the future—it's about the present. In fact, your vision of the future won't do much good if you don't have true vision of where you are right now.

The Old Testament prophets were masters of this. For example, before Ezekiel saw his spectacular visions of apocalyptic war and a reconstituted, resettled Israel (chs. 38-48)—and much, much else besides—he saw God's vision of the current detestable idolatry of the denizens of Jerusalem (chs. 8-11). Ezekiel didn't just have a vision of the future but a vision of the present.

One particularly interesting prophet in this regard is Jeremiah, because through Jeremiah God repeatedly urged Judah to see his vision of themselves. Yahweh urged Judah to see that when they submitted to other nations when they asked for help, they were rejecting their God and humiliating themselves. He urged them to see that despite their protests of purity, they had made themselves unclean by relentlessly pursuing Baal in worship. He urged them to see that their freewheeling worship of any deity they could find was adulterous promiscuity. He urged them to see which way is the good way to go, the way he had showed them generations before, that would lead them to peaceful rest, but they would not go there. He urged them to see the desolation at Shiloh, where he had once dwelt, so that they would understand that the mere presence of his temple in Jerusalem was not enough to spare them from his judgment.

True vision isn't just a vision of where you are going. It's a vision of where you are. And you can't motivate people toward God's vision of the future if you don't convince them of God's vision of the present.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Vision Thing (9): Seeing the Inside

True vision is seeing what God sees, and a lot of what God sees is people. As Samuel learned when he was sent to Jesse's house to anoint the next king, God doesn't look at what people look at when people look at people. We see what's on the outside, but God looks at the heart. God saw the heart of a warrior, of a ruler, of a passionate lover of himself (and others, for good and for ill) in the smooth-faced, overlooked shepherd, David.

Where others saw deeply and genuinely holy people when they looked at their religious leaders, John the Baptist saw children of vipers. Peter looked into the heart of Simon the sorcerer, ostensibly an excited new convert from occultism to Jesus, and saw a heart still mired "in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity" (Acts 8:23, NASB). But when Peter looked into the heart of Cornelius, whom he would earlier have considered an unclean Gentile, he saw someone who did what was right and was welcomed by the God he feared.

But the master of this vision was Jesus, who read everyone he saw. He saw that Nathanael was "a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit" (John 1:47), that an earnest young man had made wealth his god, that a thoughtful scribe was close to God's reign, and that a widow's two copper coins were the extravagant gift of all she had.

No vision that involves people will be successful unless it is invested with a true vision of people. And no matter how perceptive we are, we will always fall short of a true vision of people without the whisper of God's Spirit as in the ear of Samuel and in the mind of Jesus. God sees what's on the inside, the heart. To be true visionaries, we must also.