Updated: Jul 5, 2018
In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul revealed the nature of God and the way in which he works. Citing his dealings with Abraham as an example, Paul declared that “God gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17).
What does Paul mean when he says that “God calls those things which do not exist as though they did?” In the context, Paul is referring to the name change of this Mesopotamian pastoralist from Abram to Abraham – from ‘exalted father’ to ‘father of a multitude’. In essence, God said to Abram, “You are father of a multitude” when he was 99 years old and impotent, and his wife Sarai was 90 years old and infertile.
I understand the phrase “God calls those things which do not exist as though they did” to denote that God speaks to the potential in one’s life … to one’s purpose which is hidden … to one’s calling which is dormant … to one’s destiny which is as yet unmanifested.
God the Creator established a system of life called ‘seedtime and harvest’ (Gen. 8:22).
Everything in life begins as a seed, goes through a maturation process, and eventually produces a harvest. Even Jesus, the ‘with us God’, did not appear on earth as a full-grown man like some visitor from outer space. He had to come via the same route as every other human being – as a seed or sperm, implanted in a female uterus. “You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
Jesus said that the Heavenly Father sees what is secret or hidden (Matt. 6:4). Indeed, he sees our unformed substance while we are still in the womb, and remarkably, records all our days in advance (Psa. 139:16). The Bible in Basic English puts it this way: “In your book all my days were recorded, even those which were purposed before they had come into being!”
Incredible as it seems, God looks at that seed in the womb and sees not just an embryo, but a fulfilled life from beginning to end! And throughout the course of one’s life, the Spirit of God faithfully waters the seed and speaks to the potential – a potential that often only he can see.
Gideon: mighty man or malleable mouse?
A case in point is the story of Gideon in the book of Judges, chapter six. The Angel of the Lord (possibly the Lord Jesus himself in one of his pre-incarnate appearances) came and sat under a terebinth tree in Ophrah, and watched as a young man threshed wheat in the winepress in order to hide it from the Midianites.
And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him, and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valour!” Gideon said to Him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.” Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?”
So he said to Him, “O my lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the Lord said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man” (Judges 6:12-16).
Wait just a moment, there’s something fundamentally wrong in this situation. Gideon is trying to thresh wheat in the winepress. “What’s wrong with that?” you ask. Well, for starters, a winepress was usually a circular basin or rectangular trough cut out of the bedrock in which grapes were crushed by foot. The juice would then flow through a hole near the bottom into an adjoining vat. Great for treading grapes, but not for threshing wheat!
Threshing floors were usually set on hilltops so that they could gain maximum exposure to the wind. The harvested grain was laid out on the floor and threshed by oxen pulling a threshing sledge, or by men beating it with sticks. Wooden forks were then used to throw the grain into the air so that the wind would blow off the chaff while the heavier grain fell back to the floor.
What on earth was Gideon doing, trying to perform the almost impossible task of threshing wheat in a winepress? The Bible makes it clear that he was acting out of fear: “in order to hide it from the Midianites.” That’s understandable given the circumstances in which the Israelites found themselves, but what makes the situation incongruous is that the Lord called this fear-filled, panic-stricken lad “a mighty man of valour”. Either the Lord saw something deep inside Gideon that no one else could see, or he was talking to the wrong man.
Even when Gideon waxed eloquent in his unbelief claiming to be the least of the least and the poorest of the poor, the Lord persisted: “I will empower you to defeat the Midianites.” God was calling those things which did not exist as though they did – the fact was, however, they did exist in the invisible realm beyond the range of human apprehension. He was speaking to the seed in Gideon’s heart, the potential in Gideon’s character, the calling in Gideon’s past, the destiny in Gideon’s future.
God was calling forth the champion, the warrior, the leader that was inside this young man – hidden from public view, but there nonetheless. And in the same manner the Lord wants us to look beyond external appearances, and by the Spirit, speak to the potential in the lives of those around us. He would say to us today as he said to Samuel of old, “Do not look at the external appearance, for the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Pastor, you’ve been praying for a millionaire to walk into your church, but let me remind you, you don’t know how they’re going to be dressed. He or she might well be a ‘slum dog millionaire’. Pastor, you’ve been praying for God to raise up a new generation of leaders, but the answer to your prayer might be covered in more cartoons than Walt Disney and have silverware protruding from every orifice of his or her body! The point is: external appearance often belies internal potential!
Success in ministry demands that we view people with spiritual eyes and celebrate the possibilities in their lives, or as Paul put it, “acknowledging every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” (Philemon v6).
Chiselling the marble
The Italian renaissance sculptor, Michelangelo, is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. This is an important distinction, because as untrained amateurs we tend to approach the block of marble with an attitude that says, “I’m going to make something out of this.” But as far as the master sculptor is concerned, he is not ‘making’ something out of anything; the ‘something’ already exists – it just has to be uncovered.
And so it is in the kingdom of God: Paul, the master spiritual sculptor, looked upon his motley assortment of converts in Corinth with their conspicuous shortcomings and saw ‘treasure’ in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7). Yes, the vessels were earthen, and in some cases, weak and fragile. But it was the internal treasure that Paul was focusing on, not the external container.
There are two people living inside each of us: Adam and Christ, the old nature and the new nature. As a pastor, you can spend your time preaching to Adam or preaching to Christ. You can keep reminding people how terrible and sinful they are, and that’s exactly how they will behave. Or, you can start calling forth that new person in Christ Jesus, that spiritual person – and in the process, reveal the magnificent statue that’s inside the block of marble!
May we learn, by the Spirit, to speak to the potential in the lives of the people around us!