To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

My Photo
Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Jesus, the woman, and the well in John 4

Reading the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, do you get the feeling we've been there before? The theme of a man and woman meeting at a well is prominent one in the Old Testament. Consider:

1. Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 24:10-61),
2. Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 29:1-20),
3. Moses and Zipporah (Ex. 2:15-21).

Each of these three scenes share the pattern of six common steps [1]:

1. A man of the covenant goes to a foreign land.
2. He meets a young woman at a well.
3. One of them draws water.
4. The young woman rushes home to announce the stranger's arrival.
5. A marriage betrothal is made, usually after a meal.
6. The marriage yields great fruit.

Notice that the scene with Jesus and the Samaritan woman follows this pattern perfectly through step four. But what, you may ask, does Jesus and the Samaritan woman have to do with marriage?

Only this. Jesus is the bridegroom, and the church is the betrothed of Christ. The church is made up not only of good, clean Jews, but of the most outcast of the Gentiles. In this scene the Samaritan woman is a type of the church. And who could be more symbolic of the breadth of Jesus' proposal than a Samaritan woman of questionable moral background?

1. For a treatment of these steps in the OT, see The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Toward a Biblical Environmentalism

These are some preliminary thoughts on biblical environmentalism. They come from a book outline I developed a couple of years ago and are still in skeletal form, without a great deal of elaboration or supporting documentation. I offer them here to stimulate discussion.

Life Context

Present rates of human impact on the environment are unsustainable. That simply means we are using resources—fresh water, tillable land, fish, rainforests—faster than they can be replenished. Pollution, global warming, destruction of habitats, extinctions, desertification—God's creation is being degraded and destroyed at an alarming rate, threatening not only the environment itself, but the future of humanity. At bottom, this unsustainable consumption of natural resources is fueled by greed: a relentless demand for products and services. For the most part those who consume the most natural resources give little thought to the impact their appetites have on the planet, either short- or long-term. In the words of Wendell Berry,

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.

Americans, most of whom claim to be Christians, are some of the greatest offenders in this non-sustainable environmental selfishness.

Biblical Context

Evangelical Christians have so far done little to speak out for protecting God's creation, leaving environmentalism in the hands of less biblically grounded Christians, or those actively antagonistic to the Christian faith. On the one hand, Christians have a much higher calling than protecting the planet. Our primary purpose is a heavenly one—preparing ourselves and others for a right relationship with God here and through eternity. The Bible tells us that "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).
On the other hand, we do have obligations to be good stewards of the earth. God created the world and takes pleasure in it (Psalm 104). He has left it up to humanity to rule over and care for all creation (Gen. 1:28). The Psalms tell us that creation is not only given for our use, but that all creation—animals, plants, hills and sky—is intended to praise and glorify the Lord (Psalm 148). When humanity, through greed and short-sightedness, weakens and damages the earth, we are guilty of wasting not only a precious resource, but of defacing a beautiful work of God.

God could have created the whole world instantly. But he took six full days, savoring each new element of his creation. At the end of each day, he looked at what he had made and saw that it was good. On the sixth day he created the first man and woman and put all creation under their control (Gen. 1:28).

Principles of Biblical Environmentalism

The Bible has little to say directly on the topic of environmental stewardship. Taking the Scriptures as a whole, however, we can find a great deal in the Word of God to illuminate the issue of environmental stewardship. Here, briefly, are thirteen relevant truths.
  • God created the world as something good (Gen. 1:31-2:1).
  • God gave humanity dominion over the planet (Gen 1:28).
  • Creation was subject to frustration at the fall of man and has been groaning ever since (Rom. 8:18-21).
  • Even after the fall, everything God created is good (I Tim 4:4).
  • God takes pleasure in His creation and actively sustains it (Psalm 104).
  • We are not to worship the sun, moon, stars, or any other part of God's creation (Deut. 4:19).
  • Rather all creation, including the celestial bodies, should actively praise God (Psalm 148).
  • God cares and provides for all living creatures (Gen. 1:30; 9:17; Mt. 10:29).
  • But man is more important than other created beings (Matt. 10:31).
  • Greed or covetousness, however, is a grave sin and a form of idolatry (Rom. 1:29; 7:8; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5 ).
  • Stewardship of God’s creation is for our own good, and God commanded it (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 25:7; Deut. 22:6-7).
  • One day, however, God will create a new earth, as well as a new heaven (2 Pe 3:13, Rev. 21:1).
  • The new heaven and earth will be eternal (Isaiah 66:22). When they finally do come, the old creation will be forgotten (Isaiah 65:17).

What do these principles point to? First, that human beings have dominion over the earth and are the most important species on the planet—a point typically neglected by non-Christian environmentalists. We should not feel shame in a reasonable exploiting of creation; we are, in fact, more entitled to the planet’s resources than the other animals. Dominion, however, is not a license from God for rapaciousness. Environmental depletion is a symptom of self-centeredness, greed, and covetousness (in other words, it is a consequence of the fall). On a collective scale, this greed manifests itself in the many symptoms of environmental degradation.

Addressing these symptoms will do little or nothing to correct the root problem: sin. The only means of overcoming that root problem is the grace of God through Jesus Christ. As Christians are transformed from worldly thinkers to Kingdom citizens, our hearts will be changed and our individual appetites become less covetous. In that respect, growth of the Kingdom will result in some lessening of environmental degradation. Jesus has told us, however, that the percentage of human beings living a life of true discipleship will always be relatively low (Mt. 7:13-14). We should not, then, expect a lessening of rapacious attitudes among Christians to have a significant effect on the environment. In fact, Jesus tells us that the calamities of a fallen world will continue to include such events as pestilence and famine (Lk 21:9-11).

That leaves Christians with the question: how should we approach environmental stewardship? Focusing too much attention on the symptoms of human depravity (environmental degradation) draws our minds away from the true source of the problem (sin) and the only hope of salvation (Jesus). Yet to focus strictly on individual salvation is to neglect the world-wide influence of both sin and the Kingdom of God. We must, I think, begin to look at the Kingdom of God as just that—not a collection of redeemed souls, but as a reign that ultimately will redeem not only human souls, but all creation.

Working out the details of a Kingdom view---well, that's the hard part. Any ideas?

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The God of Encouragement, Endurance, and Hope

Romans 15:5-13
Preached Sunday morning, January 30, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Here in chapter 15 we’re coming to the end of the main section of Romans. Chapters 1-3 deal with mankind’s need for God’s righteousness. Chapters 3-8 show that God has imputed his righteousness on those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Chapters 9-11 explain that God is righteous for giving us his righteousness through grace, and chapters 12-15:13 exhort Christians to practice righteousness in our lives [1]. This is also the ending of the “Christian liberty” section, running from Rom. 14:1 through 15:13 [2]. After this point, Paul begins to conclude the letter. We will conclude this series next week by looking at part of those concluding comments.

The section ends with two benedictions, one at the beginning of this week’s passage, and one at the end. In between, Paul reminds Christians that the Gentiles have now been accepted among God’s covenant people. We will focus today on the first benediction, in Rom. 15:5-7. It is a picture of how the church ought to be.

This benediction, or what some call a “pious wish” [3], begins with a wish for blessings from “the God of endurance and encouragement” (v. 5). Isn’t that an interesting title? The God of endurance and encouragement. We’re probably used to thinking of God as almighty, righteous, holy, maybe even Father. But the God of endurance? What does he endure? Us, of course—our weakness and failures and stubbornness and sin. Not only does he endure—he encourages us. We are broken, flawed, and sinful, but God still loves us. We’re fickle, but he’s steadfast. We provoke him, but he is patient. We are bad, but he makes us righteous. That, brothers and sisters, is an encouraging picture of God.

And notice that it is God who grants us the blessings that follow? He is the Father of all blessings, just as he is the Father of righteousness. God grants us good things. We do not create righteousness or harmony or glory. It is up to us, though, to accept and nurture God’s blessings. And what are the blessings Paul wishes for Christians here?

First, he wishes that Christians will “live in harmony with one another.” Literally, the meaning here is that Christians be of one mind, that Christians be unified in their thinking. And what a rich unity that is. Christian unity doesn’t mean uniformity. As we saw in chapter 14, unity doesn’t depend on making others do what we want. And it doesn’t mean we all do the same thing. Rom. 12:3-8 explains that we are one body with many members. That’s a wonderful picture, because it means we don’t all have to try to look or act exactly the same. God has created each one of us with talents and gifts to use for his purposes. Over the past few years we’ve completed some significant renovations to the building and office here. I’m glad we have men here with talents in those areas, because if the church had to depend on people like me, we wouldn’t have these new facilities. I can’t even hammer a nail straight, let alone enclose a carport. But the wonderful truth is that God doesn’t expect every one of us to be handy with power tools any more than he expects all of us to be handy with words. Yet together the church, with a variety of talents and gifts, can do all the work God has set out for us. That’s encouraging. That’s Christian unity.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, there is one more essential element of Christian unity and harmony. Paul wishes the Roman Christians to have unity and harmony “in accord with Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ—he is the key to real Christian unity. We are not called to have unity at any and all cost. One of the major Protestant denominations is now being threatened by wide-scale division over the issue of homosexuality. In the midst of this struggle, one of the denominational leaders recently proclaimed that no doctrinal issue was worth dividing the church over.

Oh yes, some are. Throughout the pages of the New Testament, we see that some issues are so important that those who don’t hold to them have no place among God’s people. Among those issues are belief in the need for repentance and the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor. 5:2-5; 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9; 2 John 10-11; Jude 4). So unity is not unity at all costs. Repentance from sin and the lordship of Jesus Christ are essential to being Christian. Real Christian unity has to come through Jesus Christ. He’s the one who makes our relationships real. Christian unity is a whole lot more than "Hi-howya-doin’" fellowship. Real Christian unity is where we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), share our possessions (Acts 2:44), and serve one another sacrificially, just as Jesus came to earth as a servant (Phil. 2:7-8; 2 Cor. 4:5). This is the heart of the matter for Christian fellowship—Jesus Christ, here in our midst, the one we should be seeking. Christian unity is all about Jesus.

Naturally, we’d like it to be about us. It’s so much easier to try to have Christian unity based on doing the right things—following the pattern of the New Testament, for example. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to follow the teaching of the New Testament. The problem, however, arises when we begin to take pride in our ability to interpret and follow that teaching. When we go too far down that road, we begin to look the wrong way. Instead of looking to Jesus, we begin to say, “Look how well we’re doing!”

When I was a young Christian, a Sunday school teacher asked the class, “What’s the most important thing in the world.” One of the class members answered, “Our relationship with Jesus Christ.” And I sat there thinking, “Wrong. The most important thing is Jesus Christ himself, not our relationship.” And I was so proud of myself. I was looking at myself and my perceived superiority instead of looking at Christ. So although my doctrine was right, my heart was far off the mark. If we do look at Christ, however, then “together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 5).

Harmony with one another is a prerequisite for doing the work God has in store for us. And what is that work? It’s in verse 5—to glorify God as a body of believers. If you’re like me, you’ve struggled with understanding what it means to glorify God. Literally, to glorify means to give light to something. In the case of God, the idea of giving him glory is obviously a metaphor. How could we possibly give light to the source of all light [4]? I think in the context of worship, glorifying God means turning our eyes toward him—toward the source of life and light. We may choose to run from him or submit to his transforming grace. The first choice is darkness; the second is glory.

Glorifying God is inherent in our harmony with one another. Our harmony itself glorifies God. Jesus described this relationship when he said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:35). Our lives are a testimony of Christ in the world. Again, Jesus said, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (Jn. 4:11-12).

We are also unified in a shared purpose. We each are who we are, with many different talents and passions. Yet every Christian has a common mission, a common goal. And what is that goal? To glorify God. When we are united in corporate worship, we glorify God through giving, prayer, song, proclamation of the Word, and by sharing the Lord’s supper. In this way we do something very special—we reflect the unity of God—Father, Son and Spirit. In worship we also prepare ourselves for our time in heaven, when we will for the first time worship God in perfect unity and harmony.

We also glorify God by welcoming one another. This reference in Rom. 15:7 to welcoming one another ties back to Rom. 14:1, where Christians are told to welcome the weak in faith. We are to welcome one another not to quarrel, but as Christ welcomed us. And how does Jesus welcome us? That’s a good question to ask, because the answer shows us how we are to welcome each other.

Christ, first, welcomes us with grace; he gives us better than we deserve. We are called to do the same, especially in the church. Do we truly welcome everyone, or do we secretly want only those who can “contribute” to the church, not only monetarily, but also with time, effort, and social pleasantness. Jesus welcomes us as we are, just as Christians are called to welcome the weak brother. We don’t have to make all our changes before we set foot in the assembly. It is a lifelong process to be welcomed by Christ. And it changes us.

Christ also welcomes us in our repentance. Repentance literally means “new mind.” In that sense Christians repent of their sins at baptism, yes, but we should be continuing to let our minds be changed by God throughout our lives. Jesus also welcomes us in our ignorance. We don’t have to know all their is to know about Christ or do all our growth into Christ at the front end. But we do have to commit to change—deep down in our hearts.

So what does all this point to, this unity, harmony and welcoming? In short, it is a call for us to become more like God.

Notice that we have another benediction or hope prayer in Rom. 15:13. And do you see the words Paul uses there? “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Notice the word hope—it is a way both of describing God himself and describing what new life in Christ looks like. I don’t think those similarities are there by accident.

Hope—I don’t know about you, but I could use a dose right now. The harder you look at the world, it seems, the more hopeless many things looks. The world, in fact, is a “hope sink” that works to suck real joy out of lives and makes us think of ourselves as small and insignificant. But real Christian hope is much more than simply the wish that things will go better. Hope is a condition of the Christian’s heart built on the joy and peace that comes from believing the Word of God (Rom. 15:13).

Yet it is still God who grants us joy and peace as a gift. That is a major theme of Romans, by the way—the gifts of God to us. It’s a major theme of my life right now, too. God is doing so much in my life. He’s making my heart more tender, and at times he’s given me an amazing calm amid the storms of life. Seeing how I’ve changed in that way through the influence of the Holy Spirit gives me hope.

I want you to have that kind of hope, too—hope that God is real and that what he has in store for us is better than all we can ask or imagine. You don’t have to go on the journey alone. God will help you find that kind of hope. Just stop running away and take a step toward the light.

1. Thomas Constable, Notes on Romans, available online at, 152-53.
2. Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2, College Press Commentary, 418.
3. Constable, 152.
4. John 1:4-9.

Copyright 2005, Milton Stanley