Publication: Pastoral Letter, November 2006
Dear Friend in Christ:
This letter is about a prophecy given by a father, who was about to die, to one of his 12 sons. The prophecy was given approximately 3800 years ago and is still relevant to all of us. Here is what he said: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; his branches run over the wall.”
The father was Jacob, and this prophecy is recorded in Genesis 49:22. He had gathered his twelve sons to give each a word from the Lord regarding their future. The prophecies are amazing, and history has confirmed their divine inspiration. But I want to focus on the word given to Joseph as a guide to the Church in our time, and in the future.
Joseph had become the Prime Minister of the most powerful nation in the world, but in the future, his descendants would have a double portion in the Promised Land. There are three key elements in this prophecy: water, fruit, and walls. The water is a reference to a constant source of life; the fruit would be his descendants; the walls refer to the fact that Joseph’s descendants would be so fruitful as to overcome barriers and adversity.
The government of Egypt would later seek to prevent growth of Israelites within their borders. They enslaved them and even murdered their male babies (see Exodus 1). But the Israelites multiplied in adversity.
The multiplication of God’s people throughout history has always been marked by adversity, whether Jew or Gentile. From Noah until now, God’s people and purpose have had to overcome opposition that was sometimes subtle, but often violent.
When Jacob’s father, Isaac, had sought to dig out the old wells dug by his father, Abraham, he faced opposition. The Philistines had filled the wells with dirt. (How stupid and spiteful it is to seek to block a precious life source.) When Isaac dug a well, they quarreled with him; so, he called the place “Quarrel” and moved on. Then he dug another well, but the Philistines created strife; so, he called that place “Enmity” and moved on. Finally, he was able to dig a well in peace and called it “Rehoboth,” which means, “God has made room for us” (see Genesis 26). He got beyond the walls.
Water is the source of fruitfulness. Over and over again, the Bible speaks of the water of life. History has flowed along rivers. In the dry Middle East, a well or an oasis would be essential to life. It is true in the Christian life as well. We must “draw water from the wells of salvation” (see Isaiah 12). We must drink the water of life freely. We need rivers of living water to flow out of our innermost being (see John 7:37). If our wells are filled with dirt, quarreling, and enmity, we will not be fruitful, much less bear fruit beyond the walls.
In the revivals of history, the people of God found the “water of life” and became fruitful; they grew and produced fruit beyond the walls. John the Baptist is a great example. The “word of the Lord” came to him in the wilderness as he preached down by the River Jordan. Many thousands came out to that remote place to hear and repent. They were baptized by that consummate outsider.
Then came the day when John the Baptist saw Jesus and declared, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” He further stated of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Jesus did indeed increase—beyond the walls. People from surrounding nations came to hear His message of the kingdom of God. He told His disciples that Gentile nations would come to the Light.
The apostles (“sent forth ones”) carried on the prophetic word of bearing fruit beyond walls. They eventually broke through the barriers of culture and religion to reach people of other cultures. The opposition could erect no barriers that would contain the Gospel.
The apostle Paul is a primary example of bearing fruit beyond walls. Even as he was imprisoned in Philippi, the Gospel was released as his jailer was converted. Philippi became a center of fruitfulness. And as the book of Acts closes, Paul is imprisoned in Rome. But the last word in the Greek account of the book of Acts is, “unhindered.” Paul was imprisoned, but the Gospel was not.
In our nation today, we are not imprisoned, but the Gospel sometimes seems to be.
The apostles were followed by the “Church fathers.” They suffered great persecution just as the apostles had. Justin Martyr was a notable example, and there were thousands of others. I have walked through the catacombs outside of Rome where Christians lived and died. I have seen their bones yet testifying to their faith. Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the saints.” Like Israel in Egypt, the more they suffered, the more they multiplied. Why were they successful? I’ll give a few reasons:
- Persecution drove them together; they had real community.
- They were filled with the Holy Spirit and boldness.
- They loved their enemies and were not bitter or defensive.
- They preached the Cross and lived it.
- They believed in Jesus’ Resurrection and that He would raise them also.
Constantine became Emperor of the Roman Empire and recognized the fruitfulness of the Christian faith. He issued the “Edict of Milan” in 313AD, which recognized the Christian faith and gave Christians freedom to worship and propagate the Gospel. By 395AD, Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
Constantine focused upon stabilizing Rome. In that effort, he used Roman institutional methods to “domesticate” the faith that had once been persecuted as heretical. He further consecrated pagan temples and statues for Christian use. Whether good for the Church or not, he brought it back within the walls.
In the immediate future, it brought peace to the Church and to Rome. But gradually, the clergy became structured along Roman Imperial lines and the laity became increasingly dependent upon the priests for salvation. The spiritual power of the Church and its fruitfulness was traded for political power. The Church was dependent upon the state.
To be fair, there were missionary leaders and there was a serious effort to maintain theological orthodoxy. But the mentality of the average believer was changed to focus on the church, the leaders and the location—behind the walls. That mindset remains even now.
From the 6th century to the 16th century, the long term trend of the Church was toward spiritual decline and liturgical form. There were many efforts to reform the spiritual condition; monasticism and scholasticism were two such efforts. But the condition of the average Christian caused a slide into mere cultural Christianity.
During those same centuries, Islam carved out huge parts of the Christian empire in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. The spiritual force of the Church was lost and it resorted to political and military force. Along the way, groups like the Waldensians of the 12th and 13th centuries, sought to bring the Church back to a spiritual authenticity, but they were driven out and persecuted. The political and military power of the Church continued to defend it against the necessary changes.
Then came Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others who began the Reformation. Their efforts were focused on a renewed theology, faith, and personal salvation. They were defended by strong political and military force in Europe and succeeded in bringing about a revival. But they did not change the prevailing mentality that Christian faith was to be practiced within walls.
There remains theological and spiritual reform for all of us. But the most needed reform from my own perspective is one that takes us beyond the walls. Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob we must see “the land” as an objective. Life and faith happen beyond—not behind—the walls.
Many believers have begun “digging out the old wells” that were filled with dirt. Many have found the water of life and many have begun to be personally fruitful. There remain barriers. Sectarian, racial, and cultural barriers intimidate our branches. But we can produce a progeny that will bear fruit beyond these barriers—if we began to “draw water out of the wells of salvation” (see Isaiah 12). The water of life will move us from maintenance to mission.
The Early Church discovered keys for success, and so might we in this generation.
The hostility of radical Islam and secularism can be a good thing to awaken us and drive us together.
We might rediscover community.
The adversities of contemporary life may drive us back to the Holy Spirit and His boldness, and get us beyond intimidation.
We may learn to love our enemies and do good to those who despitefully use us.
We could get back to the Cross and its implication for our daily lives.
We could once again realize that Jesus is alive and that we have eternal life. That would get us into real sacrifice for His will to be done on earth.
We will never completely remove the walls. Carnal thinking and resistance will always be in front of us as long as we dwell among mortals. Our own carnality and mortality will also provide resistance to our better desires. We cannot completely remove the walls. Some walls get torn down; then others get built up. What we can do is find the thrust that takes us over the walls. This has happened many times in history. Every revival has launched long branches filled with fruit.
In 1727 a diverse group of Christians settled on a farm in Moravia, owned by Count Von Zinzendorf. They fasted and prayed to overcome their diversity and the hostility that existed against them. As they observed communion, the Holy Spirit fell and they became a real community. Something else happened; that small band of believers sent missionaries all over the world, including to the United States. I read the account of Von Zinzendorf in 1963, which was 236 years after the event. In a few months after reading about it, I had a similar experience with similar results. The well is still there; if we draw from it, we will bear fruit beyond the walls.
P.S. Please continue to pray for CSM and support us financially, as we share the refreshing Good News to people in more than 70 nations. We need your support now, more than ever.
Scripture Reference: Genesis 49:22, Exodus 1, Genesis 26, Isaiah 12, John 7:37, Isaiah 12