- Learn how we can work together to protect Hope!
This is the last MIQVEH reference in the Bible that we have yet to cover. It is probably going to be the toughest to read, given the culture of tolerance that we have today. I hope it challenges you to see an alternative way of thinking about life that is in direct opposition to modern priorities. The question is, which way of thinking will ultimately prove to be right?
Our MIQVEH verse today is found in the book of Ezra. The Jews were returning to their homeland after being forced into Babylonian exile for seventy years. Their temple had been destroyed as well as the walls of their beloved city, Jerusalem. When they returned to their homeland, the Jews found it occupied by people groups who actively persecuted them and tried to defeat any attempt at rebuilding. After 16 years the temple was rebuilt, but the city walls lay in ruins.
Ezra was an excellent administrator, scribe, and priest who worked for Cyrus the Great as a cupbearer. Not only did Ezra use his influence with Cyrus of Persia to fund and support the rebuilding of the Temple, but he also taught God’s Word to the Jews as the foundational basis for true worship. Ezra led the people in a very personal way by openly repenting of his sin; this encouraged the people to admit how they had fallen short of God’s blessing. They were engaging in the very activities that had led to their previous exile!
Specifically, in the process of returning to Judea from exile, many Jewish men had intermarried with women from pagan cultures that blended worship of the Lord with worship for their local deities. Since the time of Solomon this practice of intermarriage had caused Israel to give in to a form of idolatry that progressed so far in its perversion (sexually and spiritually), it even disgusted the pagan nations who had helped to inspire it.
The purpose of the slaughter, exile, and dispersion of the children of Israel was to ensure they would never return to idolatry again. Never. Now that costly purification was being jeopardized by the very practice that had necessitated it. This brings us to our MIQVEH verse:
Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, a descendant of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God, for we have married these pagan women of the land. But in spite of this there is hope [MIQVEH] for Israel.
Ezra 10:2 New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.
MIQVEH means a collection or gathering; in that sense it often talks about the source or substance of our hopes, the place in which our hopes are gathered or focused. Shecaniah asserted that even though many Jews had sinned by mixing with local pagan peoples, there was still a collection, a gathering for Israel. You see, after Ezra’s instruction and personal example of repentance, the Jews were all of one mind. They were already painfully aware of the destruction that came to their culture from absorbing the belief systems and practices of other cultures; they had just been released from subservience to a culture that thrived on religious syncretism and actively suppressed dissenting cultural identities. In contrast, the Jews’ former and present freedom was based on following one God with one set of principles. Separated from the confusion of a pagan culture and strengthened with renewed cultural identity, the Jews were in a position for “Collective Hope”; they acted unanimously, having learned from past mistakes, in order to protect their future and decided to divorce their pagan wives (some of whom had children).
Before we get on our high horses (which would be hypocritical, given the 50% divorce rate we see today) and condemn the Jews, realize that these pagan women did not become proselytes of Judaism. A complete listing of men who married pagan wives is given in Ezra chapter 10. Out of thousands of exiles, only ~110 men had married pagan women; not all of them had children. The pagan wives and the children returned to their original people groups; no one was killed or dropped off in the desert. Notice how there is no record of even one woman saying she would change her belief system because she wanted to stay married to her husband. These women had no intention of submitting solely to God of the Jews; they were more than happy, however, to integrate Him into their system of deities.
Isn’t that so like today? Few have a problem with Jesus, as long as He is one of many ways to God. The second we assert His own words that no one can go to the Father except through Him, we are labeled intolerant, bigots, and a host of all sorts of scornful remarks. It is not only that Christians are intolerant of other belief systems, but that other belief systems are intolerant of the Bible’s claims to absolute truth. There is no way to blend the Jesus of the Bible with the leaders and systems of other religions, not without drastically reinventing Him. Christianity is the only belief system in which God does all the work: we are helpless to earn salvation and must receive it by faith in Him alone. Anything we do beyond that point is supposed to be by divine empowerment, not human effort. All other systems are based on human works. There is no way to blend belief systems and honor the Christian principle of faith in Jesus alone.
Similar to the Jews’ experience in a syncretic, pagan culture, Christians are increasingly under seige for not submitting to “progressive”, cultural norms of tolerance and acceptance. We are expected to abandon our cultural identity to assimilate with the current ethos: we are supposed to submit our interpretation of worship and our beliefs to the latest “group think”, professional and expert opinion, and government agenda; none of which is based on long-term or absolute truth, none of which can defend or protect us if it proves to be incorrect. It’s the “lemmings approach” to legitimacy! What Christians really need, like the Jews returning from exile, is Collective Hope, rooted in a strong identity guarded from external, ideological influence. We need to guard our hearts and minds jealously, rigorously seek out sinful influences personally and collectively, and do our best to remove those influences through Jesus’ prescribed methods of church discipline (giving fellow believers a chance to repent, or be cast out of fellowship).
So what does it mean to be a Christian? What is Christian identity? The term Christian is, for the time being, a popular one. There are even terrorists who claim to be Christian even though they do not read the Bible, go to church, or believe anything that Jesus taught to be true (typically they are agnostics who believe they have invented a better means of achieving “Christian” ideals). I think there are several reasons people claim to be Christian even though they are not followers of Jesus:
- HERITAGE. Sometimes this is a go-with-the-flow decision because previous generations were churchgoers or identified themselves with Christianity in some way; we may follow along thoughtlessly or intentionally, not wishing to disappoint. This is a personal Christian heritage, but not personal faith. At other times, it is a recognition that our way of thinking is very much influenced by Christian ideals even if we do not believe them to be absolutely true. For example, the Bible has significantly influenced our language and American culture: phrases like “a house divided against itself cannot stand”, which Abraham Lincoln used in a speech against slavery, come from the Bible and we agree with those ideas without acknowledging the entire Bible to be absolutely true. This is a cultural Christian heritage, but not personal faith in Jesus.
- LEGITIMACY. This is inherently more dangerous as it tends to distort the general public’s perspective on what Christianity actually is. Because of the Bible’s renown and deserved reputable status, many groups wish to attach themselves to Christianity by claiming the Bible in some way supports (or does not prohibit) their viewpoint or practices. For example, cults of Christianity will invent their own Bible versions that purposefully change words to undermine the divinity of Jesus, or downplay the Bible’s definition of sinful practices. Adherents of these cults want to be considered Christians to gain acceptance in the religious community, but they aren’t willing to acknowledge that they are significantly deviating from essential doctrines and practices. This is an ideological legitimacy; it often results in novel reinterpretations or alterations of so-called “outdated” Biblical verses to justify a position. Others engage in lifestyles that are explicitly prohibited in the Bible, such as homosexuality, pre-marital cohabitation, and abortion, usually with the excuse that the Bible (written over two thousand years ago in completely different languages) doesn’t use the exact terminology “gay”, “abortion”, or “pre-marital sex”. The insistence that these anti-biblical lifestyles should be legitimized by mainstream Christianity is contradictory and ulteriorly motivated; the ultimate goal seems to be suppressing what the Bible says about popular lifestyles because it is considered offensive or “unloving”. With freedom of religion, there is no reason to make an already existing religion anything it is not: if one wants to practice these lifestyles, he should invent his own religion before insisting another change to accept his viewpoint. This is a bid for personal legitimacy; its primary purpose is to silence personal conviction or feelings of condemnation by asserting oneself as Christian out of a desire for acceptance and belonging, even though the basic tenets of Christianity have been rejected by the individual.
- IGNORANCE. There is a genuine lack of knowledge of what the Bible really says. I think the Bible is the only literature on earth, except the Constitution of the United States of America perhaps, that people can claim to know the contents of without actually having read it :-D. We seem to have this notion that because we are American, went to church “as a kid”, or heard someone on TV say something once, we automatically have intrinsic understanding of what the Bible (and Jesus) are all about. Does that sound ridiculous to you? I certainly hope so. Unless we are involved in a Bible Study, read small portions regularly, and ultimately, ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand what we are reading, we aren’t going to absorb what the Bible really says. The all-too-human tendency is to read what we want to see into it, respond in fear to what we don’t understand, or get offended by passages that require additional historical context. As a result, many people identify themselves as Christian according to an entirely made-up opinion of what the Bible says. I think “Do not judge” is the most misunderstood phrase from the Bible and used as the mantra of many individuals who consider themselves to be Christian. Adherence to ideals that may not even come from the Bible, but are merely supposed to be Christian in origin, is a claim-by-ignorance to Christianity. The most dangerous aspect of this type of claim is that it cannot save anyone. Saving faith comes by hearing the word of God: if we never hear what the Bible actually says, we cannot respond in faith to it; if we don’t respond in faith, we cannot be saved by God’s grace.
I am not trying to condemn anyone who thinks they may fit into any of these categories. If you notice, I try to use “we” and “us” instead of “you”; I am as human as anyone and have the same tendencies (It really does take one to know one! And no, that is not from the Bible 😉 ) However, all of these (false) claims to Christianity contribute to the confusion surrounding a genuinely Christian identity. Christians culture is supposed to be defined by separation from idolatrous and pagan influences, accompanied by greater (in number) works than Christ did, a self-sacrificing care for fellow believers, a willingness to be persecuted in order to live lives of purity, a forgiveness for persecutors and enemies that manifests itself in acts of unwarranted kindness, and a boldness in sharing what Jesus has done for us personally, a heart-cry for Jesus to return and glorify Himself among the nations. Compare that to the cold, institutionalized conglomerate of denominations and buildings we see in the West today; we are in desperate need for Collective Hope!
The key to being light and salt in a dark and increasingly homogeneous (bland, conformist) world is to maintain our identity in who we are in Christ and not allow any to redefine that to make us more like everyone else. And always, always, without apology, we need to:
...worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.
1 Peter 3:15-16 New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation
Helping of Hope: We can have “Collective Hope” as we repent of the ways we have accommodated anti-Christian beliefs and practices. We have to look past petty theological divisions to see a common infiltrator-enemy of ideology. We can strengthen each other as we restore worship, hunger for God’s Word, and rebuild the ruined boundaries that define and protect us from outside attack.
If you have come to realize that you aren’t really Christian, despite thinking of yourself as a Christian for a long time perhaps, and want to be anchored into personal faith in Him, you can read how in my first MIQVEH post, One Hope.
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