Monthly Archives: July 2009

Fruity Thoughts

Over the years I have asked a lot of people a simple question:  What is an apple tree for?  In other words, what is the purpose of an apple tree?  Almost without exception, people respond, “To produce apples.”  But that is not the correct answer.

The purpose for an apple tree is actually to make more apple trees; the fruit that the tree produces, the apples, are the mechanism that the tree uses to produce more trees.  This is proven by the fact that if you don’t eat the apples, just let them drop to the ground and germinate, the tree will reproduce itself many times, all around it.  Even the flesh of the apples, the part that we like to eat, is there to decay and provide nutrients for the developing seedling after the seed germinates.

I think the reason that we think that the purpose of an apple tree is to produce apples is that we like to consume the apples.  Since we enjoy the fruit, we think that the fruit is the intended end.  But when we gather and consume all of the fruit, we are actually interrupting the process of tree multiplication.

Along these same lines, I ask these same people a second question:  What is a Christian for?  In other words, what is the purpose of a Christian.  I get a lot of different answers to this one, but the real answer is the same as for the apple tree:  The purpose of a Christian is to make more Christians.  That purpose was spelled out for us in Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV), the Great Commission:  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”   In a very real sense, multiplying ourselves is the very reason why, immediately after we are saved, we don’t just shoot straight up to heaven.  Jesus left us here for the purpose of multiplying ourselves many times over, all around us.

Christians, like apple trees, produce fruit.  In this case, we know it as the fruit of the Spirit, and it is identified by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV):  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And, much like with the apple tree, we are tempted to think that the fruit of a Christian’s life, the manifestation of these qualities, is the purpose of a Christian.  But, again like an apple tree, the purpose of the fruit is multiplication:  As God manifests these fruits in our lives, he uses them to draw people into the kingdom of heaven, encouraging them to grab onto eternal life for themselves.  But we enjoy the fruit so much that we figure that the fruit is the purpose.  When our focus is on using and consuming the fruit of the Spirit for our own use, we are actually short-circuiting the process of multiplication, which is our main calling as Christians.

Now, I’m not against enjoying the peace that the Lord gives us, or the love, or the joy, or even the patience.  But we must always realize that these are not an end in themselves, but just the tools that God has given us to enable us to multiply ourselves and grow the kingdom of heaven.  And if we keep that focus instead of letting it drift over to ourselves, we will place ourselves in a position for God to make us even more fruitful.

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Yahweh Rohi

Yahweh Rohi is translated “The Lord my Shepherd” in Psalm 23.

David himself was a shepherd for the first several years of his life, so when he uses a shepherd as a picture of God, I figure that he knew exactly what he was talking about.

So what does a shepherd do?  He takes care of the flock.  He leads them to where there is sufficient grass and clean water, and he does whatever needs to be done to keep them healthy and strong.  If one of the sheep wanders off, he chases it down and brings it back to the flock.  I have heard or read (although I don’t remember exactly where) that if a lamb is recalcitrant and keeps wandering off, the shepherd will sometimes break the lamb’s leg and then carry it around on his shoulders to bond the lamb to him so that he won’t keep wandering off.

In the same way, God takes care of His flock.  He keeps us adequately fed, watered and sheltered (see Matthew 6:25-34 for Jesus’ explanation of this) and does whatever needs to be done to keep us spiritual healthy and strong.  If we wander off, He chases us down to bring us back into the flock (again, see Matthew 18:10-14 for a parable of Jesus that deals very specifically with this), and sometimes He has to discipline us if we continue to get out of line.

So why does a shepherd care for his sheep in this way?  Some people I have talked to say that he cares for the sheep because he loves them so much.  But that doesn’t really square with real shepherds.  A shepherd cares for the sheep because they provide him with meat to feed him when he is hungry and meat to sell when he isn’t, and wool to make clothes from when he needs clothing and wool to sell when he isn’t.  Both of these produce sustenance and wealth for the shepherd.  But there is one more thing that the well-cared-for sheep provide for the shepherd; the one thing that is more important than any other:  more sheep.  Properly cared for sheep that are kept fed, watered, sheltered and healthy produce more sheep, and those new sheep grow the shepherd’s flock, and his wealth.

I believe that God loves us because He is wired that way.  (John 3:16 tells us that God loves the whole world, even the parts of the world that don’t love Him!)  But I believe that He cares for us, shepherds us, for the same reason that a shepherd cares for his flock – so that we will reproduce.  Christians reproducing themselves by making more disciples is the fulfillment of the Great Commission.  The Bible also tells us in MANY places that God loves everyone and wants EVERYONE to come to salvation, and the only way that that will happen is if we Christians bring more people into the kingdom of heaven by sharing the gospel with them and helping them to receive forgiveness for their sins, and then teaching them to obey all of Jesus’ teachings.

Some people might think that this makes God sound a little mercenary – He only cares for us because He wants us to reproduce, to bring more people into the kingdom.  But I don’t think that David would use an analogy like “The Lord is my shepherd” and then have God be totally UNLIKE a shepherd in how and why He does things!  And it’s NOT really mercenary for God to want us to reproduce, because it’s not Him who benefits when we do reproduce – it is actually one of the main ways that God actually demonstrates His love to the world – by reaching out to those who don’t know Him through those who do.

We have a God who loves everyone, and who wants everybody to be saved.  As the sheep of His flock, we are the ones who need to reproduce in more disciples.  (The shepherd doesn’t reproduce sheep!  He just makes sure that the sheep have everything they need to be healthy, because it is assumed that healthy sheep will naturally reproduce.)  And, as we reproduce and grow our shepherd’s flock larger and larger, that means that more and more of the world will be in the kingdom and headed to heaven!

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Yahweh M’Kaddeshem

In continuing to meditate on the names of God, one that appears in Exodus 31:13 is Yahweh M’Kaddeshem, translated as “The LORD who makes you holy” or “The LORD who sanctifies you.”

There is often a lot of discussion as to exactly what being holy (or being made holy) means to people like you and me.  We have very little problem acknowledging that God is holy in His essential character, but we even have a hard time defining what that means.  Often people separate the definition of God’s holiness into two parts:

  • He is separate from His creation.  We do not serve a god of the pantheists who is a part of creation, or who IS creation.  Instead, we acknowledge that our God created everything in the Universe, and is separate from it, much as an artist is separate from the artwork he creates.  This is true even though God is actually present throughout creation – He is still separate from it, not trapped in it, and not subject to its natural laws.  (I know, the concept doesn’t fit well between our mortal ears!)  So in a sense, when we talk about God as being holy, we are talking about His separateness from the created Universe, existing outside of time and space, and generally not made of the same stuff as the material Universe.
  • He is morally pure.  Although some might try to convict the Lord of actions that they deem sinful (but caution is advised here, because we can’t know everything that God knows about the things in which He takes these actions), the Bible tells us that God is morally perfect.  He never sins.  He never does anything wrong. 

Some have tried to draw half an analogy between the holiness of God and the holiness of His people that He provides as Yahweh M’Kaddeshem.  These people say that, since man can’t be made morally pure, that the only holiness that we can experience is simply being separated for God’s use.  There is a sense in which things are sanctified by being set apart, such as the tools and equipment used in the Tabernacle and the Temple, and things devoted to the LORD, but is that really what it means to be made holy? 

Others talk about a “positional holiness.”  In other words, as long as we are in realtionship with God, who is holy, then we are considered holy by virtue of that relationship, even though we are not actually objectively holy.

Other people (including myself) understand that, just as the holiness of God has a two-fold nature, so does our holiness.  When we devote ourselves to the Lord, coming to Him for salvation, we indeed consider ourselves set apart for God’s use.  But they also understand that, BECAUSE we belong to God and are set apart for His use, that we also must be morally pure as well.  Some may wonder how this can possibly be, since it is assumed that we as humans are so corrupt and depraved that moral purity is totally impossible.  The answer is that God is actually powerful enough to make us morally pure.  (Remember, He is omnipotent, meaning that He can do anything.)  He does this by remaking our hearts, just as He promised through the prophet Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NIV):  I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you  and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

I believe that God made this a reality for the Church on the day of Pentecost, when He visited the disciples and changed their hearts by filling them with the Holy Spirit.  (In the Church of the Nazarene we call this moment of being changed by the filling with the Holy Spirit “Entire Sanctification,” which means being made wholly holy.)  Peter identified this heart purification in Acts 15:8-9, describing the filling with the Holy Spirit of Cornelius the Centurion and his people:  God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith.  This purification of the heart makes possible a real moral purity that the Bible refers to as righteousness or holiness.

We understand that no person can make themselves holy, or can keep “the rules” well enough to be considered holy by God (even though we might make a good enough show of it to convince some of the people around us).  But I think it is amazing that the same God who gave Israel the Law, identifies Himself NOT as “The God who gave you the rules,” but as Yahweh M’Kaddeshem, “The LORD who makes you holy.”  He knew (and tried to communicate right from the start) that the rules would never make the people holy or righteous; for that you really need a change of heart.  But that’s okay, because He can actually do that too!

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