Culture and Goodness (1)
You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even fromthe rebellious,
That the LORD God might dwell there. Psalm 68.18
God in the gifts
This Old Testament text is extremely important, because it establishes a course or trajectory, as well as divine expectations, for the development of human culture from the days of Christ onward. We need such divine guidance where culture is concerned, because culture is essential, inescapable, and good.
Well, not all culture is good; but culture by its very nature can help us to understand and make good use of the good gifts of God.
Paul quoted Psalm 68.18 in Ephesians 4.7, 8, where he was exhorting believers to use all the gifts God has given them through the grace of Jesus and the power of His Spirit. Here’s the way Paul puts it: But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.”
Now if you were paying attention you will note two differences, one major and one minor, between Paul’s use of Psalm 68.18 and the text as it appears in David’s psalm.
The Old Testament text says that, upon ascending to the heavens, the Lord began receiving gifts from people. The apostle Paul changed the verb to say that the Lord, upon ascending on high, gave gifts to men – all men. Upon His ascension to the right hand of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, together with the Father, poured out the Holy Spirit among the peoples of the earth and with Him, gave a variety of gifts for people to use in their everyday lives. Calvin explains this change by saying, “Paul intends to shew, that this ascension of God in the person of Christ was far more illustrious than the ancient triumphs of the Church; because it is a more honorable distinction for a conqueror to dispense his bounty largely to all classes, than to gather spoils from the vanquished” (Commentary on Ephesians).
The second difference we note in Paul’s rendering of this text is the absence of the phrase, “even among the rebellious, that the LORDGod might dwell there.” The absence of this phrase in Paul’s usage implies that he accepts it without having to say so. The Lord Jesus has given gifts to people – all kinds of gifts to do all kinds of things, even to people who do not love Him – in order that, in some way, by various means, He Himself might be present in the exercise of those gifts.
God’s goal for culture, in other words, is the manifestation of Himself, His glory, and His love. And to the extent that culture does this, culture is good.
A witness to the Lord
This lavish bestowing of gifts, even gifts of making and using culture, is not new to the New Testament. Nor is it a new idea that God should use culture to declare something about Himself. God has always been doing this, as is clear from Acts 14.17, where, as we have seen, Paul advised a community of pagan people that gifts of culture, in the form of agriculture, had been given to them by God so that the people would see in these wonders a witness to the living God Himself.
The mysteries of sowing, the strenuous work of harvesting, and the joys of consuming the work of one’s hands have been given to all peoples and nations as a way of directing their thoughts to God. God, in a sense, inhabits the culture-making activities of men as the Giver of those abilities, and He intends that those activities should bear witness to Him and His love.
So the end for which God gives gifts of culture is so that He might be known, and the culture those gifts produce can be a powerful means for bearing witness to the Lord. Christians need to understand this, and to devote themselves, wherever they have presence and influence, to shaping and using culture according to the intentions of God, so that all culture will bear witness to Him.
And this means that we must strive to make, use, and reform culture so that God is known and loved, and that, loving Him, we will love our neighbors as He does, and seek only their edification and wellbeing. To the extent culture can help us in this, it is very good, indeed.
An impossible challenge?
This might seem like an impossible challenge. I mean, how is it possible to use and shape our cultural lives so as to honor God and promote an environment of love?
The apostle Paul, however, is not sympathetic to such balking at our cultural calling. He tells us to do everything – and to use everything – in ways that point to God, honor God, display the character of God, and further the Kingdom purposes of God on earth as in heaven (1 Cor. 10.31).
It must be possible, therefore, and so it remains for us to consider more carefully what achieving a culture expressing the love of God will require of us.
1. What is culture? What is it for? Is it really essential and inescapable? Explain.
2. Meditate on 1 Corinthians 10.31. Eating and drinking – preparing and taking a meal – is a cultural act. How can God be glorified in this?
3. What makes culture good? How can good culture help us to understand and bring to light the goodness of God?
Next steps – Conversation: What are some ways that you can see the presence of the Lord in the cultural gifts of people? Talk about this with some friends. What does this suggest about the ways we use the culture of our own lives each day?
T. M. Moore
What are you doing at 8:18 am? If you’re with Bruce Van Patter, you’re observing the goodness of God in your immediate surroundings. Take a look at Bruce’s column, and let your world come alive with goodness (click here). You can sign-up to receive 8:18 as Bruce posts it by using the pop-up at www.ailbe.org.
Creation reveals the glory and grandeur of God. Order T. M.’s book, Consider the Lilies, to learn how to look at creation to discern God’s glory, and to use that in your walk with and work for the Lord (click here).
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.