Matt and I are finishing up an expedition 44 miniseries on James (within our never-ending church series). Click here to watch it. This week we are on Chapter 4. Chapter 4 takes on the widely understood Hebrew message popular in OT wisdom literature of taking on a mindset of wisdom from above which is about peacemaking. What is the mark of a good shepherd community? Humbly living in the provision and plan that God has for you and your family community defined as agents of what is good -TOV.
At Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS) the first action I performed as the President was to continue our legacy by adjusting our tag line to fit our mantra which is to cultivate a Jesus culture. This is a short succinct way of communicating a plethora of Biblical understandings. This tag line recalls an entire way of life in the same way that the authors of scripture may have quickly cited a simple Hebrew idiom to recall a well-known teaching without having to retell it. Even today Hebrew idioms work this way. For instance, the phrase, “Na’eh doresh – na’eh meqayem” translates as “He who demands well, should fulfill his demands well,” or practice what you preach. That one is really plain and simple, but we all get the message. Even in English we say it all the time and it is a way of keeping someone in your family or community on target in just a few words. This way of thinking was paramount to 2nd temple communities but unfortunately has been mostly lost in translation to the modern church.
Another Idiom I invite you to consider more deeply is “Al d’ateft atfu’kh, v’sof m’tifaikh ytufun” which translates something like because you have drowned others, you were drowned — and in the end, those who drowned you will be drowned. In English the translation sounds like “you get what you deserve”, but in Hebrew it is contronym language and takes on nearly the opposite idea.
To the non-Hebraic (western) mind this one is harder as it embodies a plethora of teachings from several different directions. Essentially it recalls the various Torah and Jesus teachings that communicate because you’ve committed a sin, other people will want to harbor animosity towards you. But in doing so, they will also be sinning and essentially be as much of the problem (and as guilty before the Lord) as the initial offender. It also carries a connotation that people shouldn’t want to take the law into their own hands; that a life of shalom is better; and you should never demand Justice of God. Who are you to do that? Justice is for the Lord not for you. You are simply to forgive and continue living a life of grace and edification towards the offender as the communal body of Yahweh. (But this way of thinking also takes into account the need to transparently address the issues that may divide and not sweep them under the carpet.) It takes on the gezerah shavah, (verbal analogy) of loving your enemy with the underlying goal to win them over and reclaim them as your brother or sister such as in Mt 5:39. This is what Jesus continued to teach in a culture that had become very counter to this way of thinking (Roman culture was about yourself and the emperor and continually becoming great in the eyes of men). In the midst of the Jewish systems embracing the hierarchy of Rome, Jesus brought [back] an upside-down sense of Hebraic kingdom devotion, to return to Torah but also progress deeper within the context of servant discipleship to reclaim the world (introducing a new covenant Talmidim).
Jesus was radical and taught counter cultural radical communal based discipleship. In an Ancient Hebraic culture (and then again redefined in the first century Jesus culture), this IDIOM (Al d’ateft atfu’kh, v’sof m’tifaikh ytufun) took on an idea that didn’t need to be continually taught, it was engrained in every teaching. Essentially it created a family context of putting others before yourself and choosing to interpret actions of others in light of the greater kingdom good. The culture together understood this dynamic and expectation and lived it out. And when someone acted in a way that violated this communal code, a simple phrase was all that it took to shepherd someone back to a better way of life.
I uttered the phrase to a pastor the other day and they had no idea what it meant. I went on to spend the next 30 minutes explaining the mindset, and their reaction seemed foreign to the idea. Today it would seem that we (modern Christians) have completely lost this culture of encouragement that was so engrained into the pages of the Bible for thousands of years.
To take on this kind of cultural mindset meant that all things communal need to be positive. Even today, this Hebrew phrase or idiom takes on this mindset. It meant that in every interaction you have a choice to interpret positively or negatively, see the glass as half full or half empty. Your covenant commitment was to always interpret positively. This points to the original calling that God’s people were made to shepherd, to be the keepers and cultivators bringing shalom to chaos. Today we think of this kind of encouragement as a cheerleading unfortunately; it is far from that modern image.
This “code” of conduct meant that every opportunity was one for a positive shepherding.
You could be a positive challenger or a negative challenger (Satan.) It is the notion that we are all on a path to a better balance of establishing the Lord woven into every facet of our personal and communal life. This often came through transparent positively based conversation, that frankly most of us don’t make the time for today; don’t let the sun set before your communal body comes to agreement. Take whatever time is needed to positively shepherd into reconciliation and healing. Everyone should be shepherding, up and down, in the mindset of equality in Christ. I am often shepherded by my children in this way. The Spirit regularly speaks to me through them. Nothing should trump this way of thinking and certainly not our busy schedule outside of the community of believers. Your time, treasures, and talents should point this way, and always take priority to things of the world. In the Old Testament this was first fruits thinking but pointed towards the coming of Jesus in which the message would be completed into a New Covenant of a royal priesthood asking for all of you rather than just your first fruits. Transparent questions and open conversation bring healing, truth, and restoration by and in the Spirit.
Unfortunately, when we don’t take on a mindset of positivity, we allow transparency to be interpreted with evil intention not positive intentions. Transparency between God and you, God and your spouse, God and His church, and believer to believer is the Biblical recipe of authenticity. This is the message of considering other before yourself.
In Hebraic thought, Communal relationships are a reflection of your relationship with the Lord.
The first church lived this out and we still should today. When someone does something that could be taken either way (their action could be interpreted as positive or negative), your mindset should be of the same as that of Jesus, to them as you seek to communicate that you don’t have any room (before the Lord in comparison to what He has done for you) to interpret their actions negatively or by offense (in a way that detracts). There is no place in the covenant “code” of believers to think this way. Every interaction and interpretation within the fellowship of believers should be regarded as “the most positive” trajectory it could possibly take in.
The entire message of Grace in scripture embodies this idea.
When you understand this way of covenant thinking you now understand many scriptures in new light. You understand how a grossly mistranslated Romans 8:28 doesn’t necessarily mean that every evil will be made pure by God (although you may theologically think that), it culturally meant and still continues to mean that in the same way that God interprets us as good “TOV” (not evil) that we should do the same. You should embody this image in every interaction with the world and/or your communal kingdom family.
We should live in redemption and freedom of encouragement knowing who we are in Christ.
Romans 12:17-21 and Ephesians 5:16 speak to living in total peace making the most of every opportunity to re-interpret and distribute life. The major theme of the Bible from the first two chapters of the Bible to the last two chapters is to bring shalom from chaos. In fact, Jesus would commission disciples as the primary agents to do exactly this. To shepherd a better culture by loving your neighbor.
For 3000 years this way of thinking was a given amongst the Hebraic kingdom culture and was made complete through Jesus. However today most of our Christian community has no idea what living this way looks like. We do exactly the opposite. Even our churches interpret as the world does, often completely half empty, not full. The major calling of the church is to be a disciple and bring others to discipleship which primarily means to see and communicate the image of Jesus.
Rather than see the best and speak life as you shepherd those around you we become trained by our world to constantly see and “anti-shepherd” the worst in people.
Let me use a very transparent example. In one sense you could interpret what I just said as “anti-church” and I know many people have and will continue to interpret what I teach this way. Interpreting it as “dogging the bride of Christ.” In my opinion that is unfortunate and a major part of our “CHURCH” problem. I am not anti-church at all… I am pro-church, pro-Jesus, pro-loving your neighbor, and pro-total transformation in the image of Christ. I am “pro” the church becoming and living up to the calling of Jesus to become shepherds and disciples in a culture of better discipleship. This is why I speak up, because I love the church and don’t love it when we claim the name of Christ and live far from that image. The continual struggle is when the church continues to seemingly do a better job of leading away from that calling by enabling a worldly version of church and non-intimate discipleship.
2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us that we are to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” This doesn’t mean simply garbage in, garbage out (although it does mean that), it also means that every thought needs to be transformed. It is saying don’t let something be an argument… bring life that conforms to Christ. Your primary role as an image bearer is to do what Jesus did and transform chaos into life.
In this way when someone says something that could be taken negatively, you shepherd them back to Jesus by interpreting their words and speaking Jesus into them. When we choose to live this way, you might often you find you are actually the problem. What someone said, and you thought they intended was simply miscommunicated. Often what they meant to say or communicate might have actually been coming from an amazingly transparent “Jesus” mindset, but you misinterpreted it. If you don’t apply Jesus and talk through it, you likely will miss the blessing. I often find when people ask to meet with another person in a spirit of a Matthew 18 reconciliation it is usually the person that thinks they are wronged that is more misaligned or off the mark than the other person. When we follow scripture and transparently work towards harmony we learn and become more intimate and unified. It is a picture of speaking life and seeing beauty in the body of Christ. This is an expectation communally that we can do better in Jesus.
This (IDIOM) mindset is the picture of what Jesus does for every one of us. He takes what we offer Him, that which begins as negative and ugly (when we are first pulled out of darkness) and utterly transforms it to a rich symphony of blended spiritual giftings and unity. As we mature in Christ, we should begin to look more like and offer what is beautiful to Jesus and His body and our image should then continually look like the beauty of Jesus not the ugly of the world. We don’t stay “in ugly.” That isn’t a mark of a mature believer. This is the “Beauty from Ashes” perspective of transformation of the world and especially towards your brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the metamorphoó & anakainósis (kainos) of Romans 12:2.
Covenant community takes every opportunity to turn what could be evil into good. This is what you were designed for. You were made to be as a royal priesthood to partner with God to see things “GOOD -TOV” and transform life!!! There is no longer room for a believer to tear down or negatively interpret but bring life to everything by your choice to image Jesus.
A Jesus community positively interprets, and is the reflection of Jesus as agents of edification.
If someone (especially someone in your fellowship of believers) posts something on the internet (or says something to you in a discussion) that could be taken the wrong way or maybe even, you know is just “BAD”… your role as an image bearer in covenant is to give grace, forgive, shepherd and transform. Interpret it in light of Jesus and shepherd and encourage the statement to bring positive encouragement (and possibly teaching) in edification. It also means to be open to the idea that you might be missing the mark. Don’t allow anything to offend you but consider every opportunity to become better before each other and the Lord! This is what community in Christ looks like. We edify not tear down, we interpret by Jesus culture standards, not by the world’s standards.
EDIFICATION SHOULD LITERALLY BE THE MANIFESTATION OF A SHEPHERD
This way of thinking has been engrained in me since my days at Moody Bible Institute in the late 1990’s. I regularly attended a messianic Jewish assembly where this message was communicated in nearly every interaction. I believe this discipleship culture needs to find its way back as the central theme as the first priority of every church ministry and family initiative. Everyone should take on a missional approach for discipleship shepherding from a positive communal perspective regardless of their spiritual stage.
There are so many examples of this way of thinking throughout the pages of scripture. In fact, now that you understand this central theme of the Bible, you can’t “NOT SEE IT.” For instance, we think of “standing strong” biblically as being a wall or being ready to go to war, the NRA “stand and fight” connotation. As there may be Biblical application to that way of thinking (which my good friend Matt would likely argue, and my other good friend Steve might promote) – the primary interpretation is that we stand as a rock (Peter) in the image of Jesus! Its backwards thinking. That we are strong in our humility and servanthood even to be able to usher in something that could be of utmost negativity to the body and “strongly” transform it into every good and perfect deed. That we might suffer the backlash of tribulation for the good of the kingdom community. That is what a strong Christian “looks” like. That is a spiritual rock. Agents of transformation in spite of tribulation.
Today I encourage you to take on a Hebraic mindset. Don’t allow yourself to interpret anything negatively. Be a glass half full person and transform life in everyone and everything around you. This is the community Jesus asked Christians to embody and be known for.
The world should know we are Christians by our love. By our transforming ability to shape and shepherd chaos to good. There is no place in the community of Christ to do the opposite. We are all shepherds, and you are always shepherding one way or the other. Do you want to be a person known for your shepherding to life, or someone that always see the worst in your brother or sister?