Contrasts and Convergence

Today in his sermon, Pastor Craig Carter preached about the power of the Holy spirit that lead to diverse nationalities of people from all over the known world who were in Jerusalem during the Jewish Feast of First Fruits hearing, each in his own respective language, the Gospel shared by the believers empowered by the Holy Spirit, spoken by Galilean fishermen who had never been trained in those languages.  (Acts 2: 4-12)  He observed that it was somewhat of a reversal of the experience at the Towel of Babel.  (Genesis 11:1-9)   During that event people sought arrogantly and pridefully to build their own access to God and were thwarted by being fragmented into numerous languages and scattered across the globe.                                What God confounded and disbursed early on due to the people’s rebellion, he symbolically redeemed and restored through a new language of the Spirit and understanding of the person and ministry of Christ.

I had heard that observed before.  And it reminded me of another “reversal” of sorts that is also associated with that glorious day of the Holy Spirit’s power and the birth of Christ’s church.  Upon completion of Peter’s preaching to the multitudes there, possibly on the steps of the Temple, the Scripture says:  “ And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.”  Then those who gladly[g] received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”  (Acts 2:40-42)

If one thinks back to Exodus 32:28, when the people acted idolatrously, creating and worshipping a golden calf during Moses’ absence while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandment tablets, God’s wrath over their disobedience resulted in 3000 deaths. This is another sort of Old Testament/ New Testament contrast and symbolically redemptive act of restoration.

In both of these situations the people of the Old Testament had acted presumptuously and disobediently.  In the New Testament, by comparable proportions (3000) or comparable expressions (language) a distinctly redemptive work of God is accomplished by the power of his Holy Spirit. 

In thinking about the long arc of biblical progression of God’s redemptive work, the ultimate expression of that contrast between discipline for rebellion against God and God’s gracious act of redemption, this same ‘then/now” work of God, is expressed by Paul in Romans 5:12-21:  “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.  The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.  The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Again and again we see examples of humanity sowing to the flesh and suffering discipline for their conduct and God providing evidence of his love and willingness to redeem humanity.  And in another sense, in the Old Testament we see people wandering, moving and being moved, and being molded physically, geopolitically, and spiritually over many generations from a man to a family, a clan, a tribe, and a nation and people with an identity defined by God. In the New Testament we see that same nation and people challenged by God’s own son, who brought the news that what they possessed and regarded so covetously for themselves spiritually was no longer for them alone but for the whole world.  From that point on, Christ’s impact on the world spread from “Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to all the earth.”    God called out and multiplied them, gathered them, consolidated them, created them through centuries of defining them as his people, then brought forth his son, who redefined everything, flipping the “natural order” that depended on Jewish commonalities of nationalism, ethnicity, and geography.  Jesus made it clear that God’s people from that point on were defined by belief in him, love for one another, obedience to God, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, regardless of ethnicity, nationalism, or geography.

Conformity to rules and discipline are the primary emphases that define the law, the tools used by God in the first movement of bringing his people back into relationship with himself.   Grace and love are the primary emphases, the tools used by God in the second movement, after his people had learned the reason for and inadequacy of the law alone and how to keep the spirit of law and not merely the letter of the law.

It is the same approach that I have observed in a hierarchy of ethics in which those who are lost in the chaos of a self-interest based ethic of the world must be brought into obedience to the rules of a community, experiencing molding into conformity to standards that are just and agreed upon, while learning the values that underlie the rules.  As the values are recognized as a more excellent way by which to live, embraced, and celebrated, the rules become less and less onerous, or even necessary.  As the participants in community share values and strive toward virtues that support and edify one another, rules fade into the background and goodness and grace in community is the new standard.  In redemption of his people as in ethical development of groups, there are similar processes at work.  God is a genius of processes, having created them to fulfill his purposes.  He works them on grand scales across millennia and among millions and in contemporaneous small groups in a matter of months.  And in every system, no matter the scale, the central goal is restoring his people to himself.