29 December 2013

Desolate and Blessed

Yes, that's me with the enormous belt buckle.
I don't know what it's like to have adopted siblings.  In my family, there were only three of us growing up - me, the oldest; Richmond, the second; Shelby, the third.  My wife's family, by contrast, consists of eight children, but they all came from the same mother (God bless her, and no thank you!).  Especially now that my little brother is well on his way to a Bachelor's in Psychology and my baby sister is almost a legal adult, it would be especially awkward for my parents to adopt another child into the family.  It would be a tremendous adjustment, perhaps even seem unfair to those of us who grew up as a closed unit.  Ironically, that's exactly what God has done with His family.  And furthermore, for the vast majority of those of us who comprise the church global today, we are that adopted family member.

Revelation 7 contains what may be perhaps one of the most moving depictions of corporate worship in the Bible.  Beginning in verse 9, John records, "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"  The absolute wonder of this scene is breathtaking: the children of God gathered in countless masses, all differences of opinion and sinful plights removed, giving wholehearted and unanimous adoration to the One who is worthy of all honor, glory, and praise.

Matthew Henry's commentary (one of my favorite resources, especially when studying complex passages of Scripture) includes the observation that "God will have a greater harvest of souls among the Gentiles than he had among the Jews."  Immediately prior to this scene, the 144,000 Jews to be rescued from the Tribulation are numbered according to their tribes.  This tangible number seems so small in comparison to the innumerable masses gathered before the throne, and yet it is not insignificant because God's grace is specific.  We think about words like "sufficient" or "satisfactory" with negative connotations, largely due to the grading systems of our schools: work that is "satisfactory" is not as good as work that "exceeds expectations."  However, these words applied to God's grace mean that it was perfect to meet the need.  Exactly this much grace was needed; exactly this much grace was expended.  The comparison John makes in Revelation 7 is in no way a statement as to the superior righteousness of the Gentile nations, nor does it contain the implication that God favors them more than the Jews: it is simply a matter of the sufficiency of God's grace to cover the needs of both peoples, both of which have become parts of His family - certainly equal despite the difference in numbers, but also different from one another.

What really struck me about this passage, however, came through the lens of another of Henry's statements pertaining to this idea.

Throughout the Scriptures, one of God's primary concerns is for the poor, the underprivileged, the outsider.  God made provisions in the law He gave to Moses for outsiders - people whom the Jews were to treat with hospitality, love, and prayer.  In the New Testament, James describes true religion as ministry from the heart to widows and orphans in affliction, while at the same time remaining unstained by worldly influence.  God hates hands that shed innocent blood, and He is angered when individuals with means offer no assistance to those in need.  All of this contributes to our understanding of God as the merciful judge, the One who punishes sin but delights to show compassion upon the repentant.  His mercy is richest in the lives of the downtrodden, the weary who have come to Him for rest.

Another figure to whom this idea of mercy applies is the barren woman.  This plight is viewed even in Scripture as an unnatural injustice.  Any woman unable to bear children is a victim of the fallen world in which we live.  God makes almost as much special mention of the childless woman as He does the widow and the orphan.  Time and again, He supernaturally blessed barren women with offspring: Sarai, Abram's wife, who became the mother of Isaac well past the child-bearing age; Rachel, Jacob's wife, who - although the desired wife of her husband - remained envious of her sister Leah, who had child after child while Rachel could have none; Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who beseeched the Lord bitterly for a son, and then dedicated him to temple service as a sign of her gratitude; and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was also past the age for becoming pregnant.  In fact, God even blessed a virgin who had never slept with a man - a young woman named Mary who, although not barren, would bear and raise the Savior of the world through the supernatural interaction of the Holy Spirit.

Henry's statement, drawing from Isaiah 54.1: "More are the children of the desolate than of the married woman."

In other words, the offspring of the underprivileged, abandoned, and impoverished woman (the Gentile) will be more plentiful than those of the woman married to the Prince (the Jew).  Here's the point.  As Gentiles, we are the children of that desolate woman.  We are the descendants of spiritually dead nations, children brought into the fold and adopted into heirdom with Christ.  It's not a perfect metaphor, obviously, because each of us is individually responsible for the sins we've committed, but the idea is simply that God has opened the doors and continues to add to His family from outside of the fold.  Regardless of where we've been or what we've done, His grace remains sufficient to cover our debt and bring us into the blessings of His Kingdom.

Reading Henry's simple statement suddenly cast the following passage from Psalm 113 and others like it in a new light: "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children."  This is so much more than a statement of God's provision for individual women of faith, and yet it is certainly not less.  God has adopted entire nations into His family.  He has given new life to a world that was dead in its trespasses.  Until this age ends and Christ returns, He has offered hope to all future generations.