Seeing the Grace of God

What we see with our eyes matters. Each of our "perceptual worlds" depends upon what is in front of us to see, to look at. But what we see also depends upon other factors, too, such as our knowledge, our interests, our experiences, our attitudes.

Is it possible that these other factors – knowledge, interests, experiences and attitude – can enable us to actually see the grace of God?

Consider these examples.

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Looking into a cloud chamber in a physics laboratory, a scientist may recognize the trajectories of alpha-particles; new students of science may see only strings of water droplets. The water droplets are objective, and the physicist can see them, too. However, scientists' experience and training allow them to see the trajectories of alpha-particles as well. Early in their study of physics, the students may learn quickly that the droplets mark the trajectory of alpha-particles, and they can learn to identify what is happening in the cloud chamber-but initially they see only the cloud chamber and the droplets.

Similarly, arriving on a crime scene, seasoned detectives may visually recognize dozens of important clues; but an untrained person may recognize only little chunks of dirt and tiny red spots and see no relevance of these items to the challenge of solving a crime. The detectives see the chunks of dirt and the tiny red spots, but they are trained to see some of these also as clues to be photographed, measured, recorded, and tested. Fascinated by watching well-trained detectives, an untrained person may decide to study forensic science. With that additional training, this newly skilled observer would begin to see the chunks of dirt and the spots of red as detectives do. Either way, the detectives' visual recognition and the untrained observer's seeing are both objective and public. However, the detectives' training and experience add much.

Please consider one more example: Studying an ancient manuscript of Scripture, the seasoned language specialist recognizes every little mark – including even "the jots and tittles" – while others looking over the scholar's shoulder might reasonably guess that the ink marks might be words on the page, but they see only ink marks. Experience, interests, and training all matter in shaping and defining our visual worlds. Both the scholar and the other observers correctly recognize what they see objectively and publicly. Nevertheless, what the scholar sees – just as what the physicist sees and what the detective sees – is generally far more interesting and valuable.

After all, as little children we once saw only ink spots where now we literally see the words that are full of meaning. Our vision now processes reality differently. Maturing visual perception attains deeper significance.

In a similar way, visual perception matters to Jesus. Twice in his brief Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stresses how important our eyes are and how we use them. Growing in the Lord helps us to improve our sight. The more disciplined follower of Jesus will recognize things and events in the world in more valuable ways. For example, instead of looking lustfully at a beautiful or handsome person, a vibrant follower of Jesus might exclaim (probably silently), "Thank you, Jesus, for the wonderful beauty you make!" The "beautiful" person admired may be objectively beautiful, publicly handsome – all observers might agree. However, the untrained eye is too easily overcome by lust. The spiritually disciplined eye is trained to recognize and honor the exquisite human creations of our grace-filled Creator, our Savior – and to affirm his Presence.

Let us summarize: Visual recognition is objective, public, and improved with good training and personal discipline.  This perceptual understanding can now help us appreciate a stunning Biblical phrase that seemed to jump off the page at me the other day. When a man named Joseph in the early church – nicknamed Barnabas ("son of encouragement") – went to check on how the new church was doing in Antioch 200 miles north of Jerusalem, literally it says that Barnabas "saw the grace of God" (Acts 11:23). Astonishing! God's amazing grace can be seen! Grace is not invisible, not merely an unseen object of faith, not something strictly ethereal, mystical or otherworldly. A Godly, disciplined, faithful, Spirit-filled person like Barnabas can "see the grace of God." The text utterly grabbed my interest and imagination. I had even memorized this passage, but now I saw it in a new way.

Unfortunately, the NIV translation tries to reduce the shocking claim and interpret this passage for us, under the apparent assumption that most people have not reflected on how their visual recognition works. The effect of its wording is what I call a "flattening translation" – or more precisely a "dumb-it-down interpretation" – stating that Barnabas "saw what the grace of God had done." However, most translations (including RSV, ESV, Darby, YLT, KJV, and NKJV) translate this stunning text literally: Barnabas "saw the grace of God." Luke, guided by the Spirit, wanted this unusual claim to grab our attention – as well it should.

Much like the scientists, detectives and linguists noted above, wonderful Barnabas saw something more. Similar to these experts, Barnabas saw better. Perhaps many others observing the Antioch Church saw "what the grace of God had done," in the midst of a needy world – much like the students seeing droplets, the passers-by seeing dirt, and the observers seeing ink marks in the examples above. Barnabus certainly saw these wonderful products of God's amazing grace in time of great need, and also he saw the grace of God.

Could everyone who came to visit the vibrant Church in Antioch at that time see the grace of God as Barnabas did? Probably not. For good reason the leaders of the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas. Not everyone was equipped for the Christ-centered encouragement – and not everyone had the disciplined consciousness, the seasoned wisdom, the Godly eyes, the Spirit-filled character – of this marvelous, exemplary "son of encouragement," brother Barnabas. No wonder he was later called an "apostle," too (Acts 14:14)!

What did many others see in the midst of pagan Antioch?

  • Most visitors saw Africans (from Cyrene), Asians (from Crete), Europeans (from Greece) and Jews (from Judea) learning, loving, praying and worshipping together. Godly Barnabas saw all of this miraculous cross-cultural collaboration. And also, he literally saw the grace of God.
  • Most visitors saw a vibrant church with its divine mission, drive, purpose, and vision in a place where there had never been a church before. Disciplined Barnabas saw all of this vibrancy and was deeply grateful. And also, he literally saw the grace of God.
  • Most visitors saw changed men and women giving testimony to the power of the Gospel in their lives, in their families, and in their other relationships and work. Faithful Barnabas saw all of this Gospel empowerment and was deeply grateful. And also, he literally saw the grace of God.
  • Most visitors saw individuals and families positively hungry to grow in God, to learn more about God and his Gospel, to delve deeply into the Hebrew Scriptures, to understand more the difference that the Lord Jesus Christ makes. They may have also seen how ripe the Antioch Church was for the extraordinary teaching of true experts like Barnabas himself and Saul of Tarsus. Spirit-filled Barnabas saw all of this precious growth and interest and was deeply grateful. And also, he literally saw the grace of God.
  • Some visitors may have even understood the significance of this first largely Gentile church, and therefore they saw the Antioch church within some of its huge historic significance. Encourager Barnabas saw this timely significance, and he was deeply grateful. And also, he literally saw the grace of God.

The more we each can resemble in personal ways such a Godly, Scripture-informed, disciplined, faithful, Spirit-filled encourager as Barnabas, the more each of us now in 2014 will see more clearly many divine events and truths around us-and within us. Then we will see not merely the many Godly details and nuances, as powerful, interesting and splendid as they are already-and all worthy of our attention.

Then we will also see the grace of God.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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