“Prophets” by Fra Angelico
We are told in scripture that where there is no vision or revelation people perish. The New International Version translates it: “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint…” (Prov. 29:18). We might add that where there is no vision churches also perish and cast off restraint. When I was a child in the southern US, we occasionally attended funerals in the countryside. It seems like the cemeteries in those days often surrounded some old church. I remember noticing as a child that many of these old churches were dilapidated and even falling in. I wondered how the roof could fall in on the house of God and how the windows could fall out? Now I think I have the answer to my question. They simply ran out of vision and revelation. If a church has these things it will thrive, even if it is built in the middle of a cemetery. If a church has vision and revelation people will drive a hundred miles to get to it.
Indeed some churches I know are like a time warp. They are still doing the same things they were doing a half-century ago; singing the same songs; preaching the same sermons. Sometimes, the same people are still there, even if they are a lot older. Although these churches are exactly the same, the world around them has changed almost beyond recognition. Sometime soon the roof may fall in on them too.
We see from scripture that God’s people of old had a similar problem. In the days of Eli the priest the light had gone out in the house of God (1 Sam. 3:3). This was tragic, since according to God’s law the light was required to burn continually (Ex. 27:20). In Eli’s time we are told that the word of Lord was rare and there were not many visions (1 Sam. 3:1). Because of that dismal situation, Eli’s own sons, who were also priests of God, cast off restraint. They forcefully stole the best meat from the sacrifices people were bringing to God. They even slept with the women who were ministering at the Tabernacle (1 Sam. 2:12-22).
Because of these abuses Eli lost his priesthood. He fell dead when he heard that the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and that his two sons had lost their lives in the battle. In time, God’s presence moved away from the glorious Tabernacle of Shiloh and it became deserted as it still is today.
We may think all this is far removed from our day. Yet, such things were happening even in the New Testament period and they are still happening today. We see in Revelation 2:5 that just as the lights went out in Shiloh, they were about to go out in the church at Ephesus. In fact, Jesus warned this once-great church that he was ready to come and remove her menorah or candlestick (Rev 2:5). He is probably on the verge of doing the same thing to a lot of churches in our day.
Where there is no vision, people and churches perish. Conversely, where there is vision and revelation God’s people thrive. Soon after Eli died, faithful young Samuel took over the priesthood. Almost immediately there was light and blessing. The Philistines, their persistent foe, were greatly defeated in battle because of the changes Samuel made. We see a similar thing in the New Testament. When revelation and vision exploded on the Day of Pentecost, great blessing followed and the infant church of Jerusalem rapidly expanded over most of the known world.
WHAT ONE GREAT VISION DID FOR THE CHURCH
Let us look at this matter of vision and revelation more closely. We want to consider a great vision that was made known in the early church. Actually it was a two-part vision given partially to Peter but fully revealed to the apostle Paul.
Probably at the time it was given, no one knew that the lights were about to go out in Israel. The Temple of God was about to be destroyed and the Jewish people would soon be dispersed for the second time. With this vision, however, the infant Jewish church burst out of the confines of Israel and expanded to places like Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, etc. This great revelation has been driving the church ever since.
It was probably some years later when Paul finally formulated this wonderful revelation. In Ephesians 3:6 we read about it: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” We should take note that there are a lot of “togethers”
in this verse.
This astounding mystery was revealed to Paul in another but similar picture, that of the olive tree. In Romans 11:17-18, Paul sees that Gentile Christians are actually grafted into the house of Israel. He says: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”
What a beautiful picture of our spiritual heritage! This whole passage (17-21) tells us that we Christians have Jewish DNA in our bodies. The picture has many spiritual implications for us. We are grafted into a very ancient tree whose root is holy and is the Messiah (Rom. 11:16; Rev. 22:16). It is also a very fruitful tree with nourishing sap flowing up into its engrafted branches. What good news this revelation is to Gentile people and Gentile churches. It is revelation like this that propels the church. We sometimes think programs propel the church but we are greatly mistaken.
HOW THIS ANCIENT VISION CAN HELP US TODAY
These complimentary revelations of St. Paul so long ago still contain dynamic power for the church in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the mystery of Ephesians 3:6, that we Gentiles will become heirs together with Israel, still remains much of a mystery. Because of the subtle anti-Semitism that has lodged in the church for two millennia, most of the church is still not ready to do much of anything together with Israel.
The olive tree revelation may be more applicable to us at this present moment. It has many spiritual lessons for us today, and those lessons can revitalize our churches.
The olive tree is the tree of light, because in the ancient world light was produced with olive oil. This light, or revelation of the Holy Spirit, will turn the light on in dark churches today. It will help us to realize that we Christians should be walking in the light, not in the shadows as many are doing (1 Jn. 1:7). Light is our heritage.
The olive tree is also a tree of revelation, because with light comes revelation. It is time we get our spiritual eyes open in the church. Paul even teaches us to pray for one another so that our spiritual eyes could be opened (Eph. 1:17-18). It is interesting that after praying for churches like he prayed for the Ephesians, Paul left those baby Christians on their own. Amazingly, in a very short time they grew into mighty churches.
There are many more spiritual pictures in the olive tree. It is a tree of healing, for olive oil was used as a healing agent in ancient times. We see this in the story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament. When this man found a wounded man while traveling on the Jericho Road he poured oil and wine upon him. In James 5:14-15 this picture is still used. This passage says: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up….”
The olive tree is a tree of holiness and holy relationship. We see this in 1 Kings 6:23 and also in verse 31. We realize that in Solomon’s Temple the door-posts into the Holy of Holies were made with olive wood. Also in that temple the cherubim within the Holy of Holies were likewise made of olive wood. It is a picture for us that the olive tree, or Israel connection, is designed to bring us into a most holy relationship with God.
Last of all, the olive tree is a tree of anointing. In Bible times olive oil was used to anoint priests, prophets and kings. We see in Psalm 133 that the anointing is often a rather messy thing. God is not so interested though in how we look, but whether or not his anointing is upon us. When the olive tree anointing is upon us we can do mighty things for God. We remember that it was two anointed men who primarily built the temple for God after the Babylonian captivity (Zech. 4:14). Zechariah 4:6 tells us how they did it: “…Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.”
We need the olive oil or Holy Spirit anointing today in our churches. The Bible tells us that the world will grow darker and darker as the Lord’s coming draws near (Isa. 60:2). But it tells us that in Zion there will be light. In anointed churches there will also be light. May we go out into this dark night as those wise virgins of Matthew 25:1-13, with our little lamps glowing and with extra buckets full of olive oil.
Publication date 2003
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons, title “Prophets,” fresco by Fra Angelico, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto