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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Vision Thing (18): Seeing the Details That Matter

We are deluged with information as never before in history. That any one of us can (or soon will be able to) access virtually the sum of human knowledge through a device that fits in one's pocket is astounding. In addition to the information that we may actively pursue, there is the information that is shot at us uninvited in the course of our pursuit of information or pleasure (through advertising and through the static and rabbit-trails of web searches gone awry). There is also the information we ask for (knowingly and unknowingly) through our e-mail subscriptions and RSS, Facebook, and Twitter feeds.

Amid the swirl of all the information we have at our disposal, true vision includes picking out the details that matter, which turns haphazard "knowledge" into insight and wisdom.

Jesus teaches an example of this which is extremely important in its own right but also serves as a model of what true vision does across a range of situations. In Matthew 24 (and parallels in Mark and Luke), Jesus answers his disciples' two questions, "When will [the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem] happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (v. 3). As the disciples' questions were lumped together, so Jesus blends his answer to the two, alternating subtly between short-distance prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction and long-distance prophecy of his return and the end of this world.

Jesus begins by giving examples of information that does not matter. "Watch out that no one misleads you," he warns. "For many will come in my name saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will mislead many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains" (vv. 4-8).

So let's review. According to Jesus, the following information is next to meaningless as an indicator of when we are close to Jesus' return and the end of this age:
  • People who claim to be Jesus returned
  • Wars (yes—even in the Middle East!)
  • Famines
  • Earthquakes
These things are just the beginning of labor pains, which may begin long before the baby is born and are no indicator of how long labor will take.

It is amazing, therefore, how many Christians through the centuries have read these words and entirely missed Jesus' point. He clearly says, This is the information that doesn't matter. Do not draw any conclusions about these factoids. Ignore them. And yet believers without vision hear "rumors of wars" and conclude that the world is about to end.

But Jesus then continues by identifying three indicators that do matter, the bits that are worth picking out of the deluge of information the world floods us with.
Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all nations on account of my name. Then many will be led to sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will appear and deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold. But the person who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come [vv. 9-14].
 Again, let's review. Here are indicators of the nearness of the end of the age that matter:
  • True Christians will be hated by all nations and put to death.
  • Many professing Christians will, in word or action, give up the faith and its moral requirements, being led astray by people who claim to be promoting the truth who actually aren't, and these surrendering Christians will inform the authorities of the whereabouts of faithful Christians.
  • The good news about the royal government of God in heaven about to overthrow the governments of this earth will be proclaimed and heard among every ethnos ("people-group") on the planet.
The first two indicators Jesus gives have happened ever since the first century, often in waves of persecution and apostasy, and in fact are happening now, in some places more than others. But we have not yet seen either of them as a truly global phenomenon—Christians hated and killed everywhere at once, and defections from the faith by compromise with the dominant society and state everywhere at once. The third indicator has gotten closer to completion every decade, especially with the rapidly accelerating pace over the last two centuries, though there are still ethnÄ“ composed of millions with no indigenous, attention-getting Christian witness.

This is all extremely important for followers of Jesus to know. But my point in this post comes from Jesus' conclusion: "Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door" (vv. 32-33). True vision involves a discriminating, analytical perception shaped by the Word of God that picks out the few details that matter from the many details that don't.

Let's face it—media, whether "established," "social," or "underground," will always be talking about wars, famines (especially famines of money), and earthquakes (and hurricanes and climate change and so on). They may even talk about the occasional false Christ, though they will always give loads of airplay to false prophets. As a rule, the media will rarely talk about Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith, even though it happens every day. They will not report on defections from the faith in those terms. And they will hardly ever report on the swell of proclamation of the Christian gospel that even now is sweeping the globe and transforming the world. But this is the information that is really telling the story of history. At the end of the age, everyone will finally discover that that is what it was all about. While we live in this age, wars, famines of all sorts, and natural disasters surely are important, and of course Christians would not and should not be indifferent to them and the suffering they cause and how they might be prevented righteously. But without vision one would never guess that they are ultimately subsidiary to the point of it all.

As it is in the world, so it is in your church. As it is in history, so it is in your life. The details are endless, the stream of facts overwhelming. But only a few details really matter. Vision from God shows you which they are.

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