“You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” (Exodus 23:32,33)
A primary purpose for God settling Israel in the land of Canaan was so that the blessings of His covenant could take root, flower, and spread the fragrance and fruit of redemption to all the nations. The blessing of all the families of the earth was a central feature of God’s covenant with Abraham from the beginning (Genesis 12:1-3), and it remained a central component of His plan for His people, even as the Lord directed them to displace the sinful nations who occupied the land He intended for them.
As Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Law from God, together with their marching orders for the conquest of Canaan, God’s directives concerning how they were to conduct themselves in relation to the pagan cultures around them could not have been clearer. So sinful, wicked, violent, and disgusting had the pagan peoples of the land become — “abomination” is the adjective God most commonly uses concerning them — that God determined to expel them all from His land and give it to His chosen people, Israel (cf. Genesis 15:13-16). Israel was strictly forbidden from retaining any of the cultural and religious trappings of the people they were about to dispossess (Deuteronomy 12:1-5). They were commanded to follow a path of holiness, an agenda of righteousness, justice, and peace that would make them stand out among the surrounding nations and cultures.
But the purpose of this call to différence was ultimately to attract the pagan nations by the beauty of holiness. Just before entering the land the people were told to expect that their altogether different way of life would cause their neighbors to wonder at and admire them (Deuteronomy 4:1-9). In a much later generation, the prophet Micah envisioned a day yet to come, “in the latter days” (cf. Acts 2:16-17), when the nations of the world, seeing the loveliness of God’s Law lived out in His people, would exhort one another to make their way to the people of God, there to learn how to possess this difference for themselves (Micah 4:1-5).
So the conquest of the land was but a foreshadowing of a larger conquest of the nations, reserved for the last days, which the Lord taught His people to envision and pursue — a conquest that would be achieved by their remaining a distinctive people, in pursuit of a different agenda, with a different ethic, cultus, and worldview. This is the day Jesus proclaimed when He described His followers as a city set on a hill, the salt of the earth and light of the world, a people who, by their good works, would show the glory of God to the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
In the divine economy the way to conquer the world is not to imitate it, but to separate from it unto holiness, righteousness, goodness, and truth, and, by these, to become a people, filled with the presence of God and His shalom, who are a blessing to their neighbors and the joy of the whole earth (Psalms 48:1-3). God’s words to Israel at Mt. Sinai could not be clearer.
Rejection of Différence
There can be no doubt that God called Israel to be different from the nations they were preparing to displace. They were not to take into their midst anything of the idolatrous and sinful practices of people of Canaan, or to allow the Canaanites to continue residing in their midst, for to do so “will surely be a snare to you.” The experience of Israel throughout the Old Testament demonstrates over and over that the rejection of différence in favor of accommodation, adaptation, and conformity to pagan ways was destructive of national well-being and made the people of Israel, not the conquerors of the world, but its slaves.
Whenever the people of Israel neglected the Law of God or sought to “be like the nations” around them (1 Samuel 8:4-5), they ended up overrun by idolatry and sin, unable to resist their enemies as they set upon them for plunder and destruction. Whether in matters of politics or piety, ethics or economics, liturgy or law, marriage or morality, rejection of the call to différence invariably meant catastrophe. Israel could not fulfill her purpose of being a blessing to all the nations so long as she insisted on being just like them in all her ways.
Différence Takes Times
God told His people that they must have patience with His economy. He would not destroy the Canaanites and give their land to Israel all at once. He would do it “little by little” (Exodus 23:29-30), giving the people time to settle into conquered territory and set up shop according to their distinctive calling, before carrying the conquest to the next phase. At the same time, He held out for them an expansive vision of a nation whose borders would encompass all the territory which today comprises the nations of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. And beyond that lay all the nations, who, the Lord promised, would be drawn to the beauty of holiness, especially in the last days, the days when the Spirit of God would be poured out upon all flesh.
But the people had no patience for long-term visions and perseverance in a plan based on différence. The allure of pagan sensuality, materialism, and camaraderie was, in every generation, just too great. Refusing to keep God’s vision in mind and rejecting His patient strategy for conquering the world, Israel became the slaves of the peoples whose favor they curried, and whom they brought into their midst, so that they might be like them.
For our Learning
The Apostle Paul, reflecting on such Old Testament accounts, advised, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). As in the days of ancient Israel, so today, God’s economy continues to unfold and His plan remains unaltered. He still intends that His people should conquer the world, but now they will do so with a message of grace and truth, centered on our risen Savior and Lord. He still holds out a vision that is grand and all-encompassing: “All things are yours . . . and you are Christ’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21). He still calls us to patience in pursuing the end of making all the nations disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
And He still calls us to différence.
God has never revoked the mandate that we are to be a holy people (cf. Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 2:9-10). He continues to warn us against harboring sin in our midst (1 Corinthians 5), dallying in pagan practices and ways (Ephesians 5:1-11; 1 Peter 4:1-6), or worshipping God in anything other than His Holy Spirit and Word of truth (John 4:21-24). Our lifestyles should communicate an outlook and a hope our unsaved neighbors can only wonder about (1 Peter 3:15). Our refusal to participate in the trivial, sensual, dissipative practices which they enjoy so much should leave them scratching their heads (1 Peter 4:1-6). Our love for one another and our earnest desire to live in peace should dispel all doubts as to the reality of our message, and impel even our staunchest adversaries to unite with us (Acts 6:1-7). Our worship services, while they must be intelligible, should be wholly focused on God, and should leave unsaved visitors concluding that, through what they experience in our worship, they get a clear look at the lostness of their souls, for God is surely there (1 Corinthians 14:16-25).
But if we reject the call to différence for the sake of “being all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) — surely the most misunderstood and widely abused passage in all the New Testament today — then we will end up, not as the loving liberators of our neighbors, but as their oar-mates in the dank below decks of the sinking ship of our secular and postmodern age.
Vive la Différence!
Are you a follower of Christ? If so, you are called to be holy, as He is holy. His Holy Spirit indwells you, and He is using the holy Word of God to transform you into a glorious and radiant reflector of the very image of Jesus to the world (2 Corinthians 3:12-18; John 17:17). Does your church claim to be part of the Body of Christ? Then it, too, is called to holiness, to come out from the unclean world and celebrate the difference being a follower of Christ makes (1 Peter 2:9,10; 2 Corinthians 6:14). You and your church are called to seek a Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy and to live by a holy, righteous, and good Law through the indwelling Spirit of God (Matthew 6:33; Romans 14:17; Romans 7:12; Ezekiel 36:26-27). You cannot be a Christian and remain unchanged; Jesus makes all things new. Your church cannot be a true church and take into its worship or tolerate in its membership those things which characterize the interests and passions of our unbelieving age rather than the character and agenda of the King of Kings. We are called to be different, so that, being different, we may achieve a kind of beauty the world knows little of, but which it cannot help but admire.
God intends to conquer the world with a message of love, forgiveness, hope, righteousness, and joy, centered on a crucified, risen, reigning, returning Savior. And He intends to do this work through His holy people who, because of the différence which radiates out from their lives, convince the watching world that God is and that He is true.
Are you different from the people around you? In what ways? Do you see any ways in which your church may be compromising the call to différence?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.