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Plundering the Egyptians: The place of secular wisdom in gospel mission and ministry

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Rock performances. Accounting textbooks. Voice coaching sessions. Self-help books. Leadership seminars. Adult education techniques. Sociological surveys. Jazz piano lessons. Child safety courses. Food safety courses. Statistical surveys. Statistics lectures. Corporate management textbooks. Primers on psychology. Magazine articles on cosmology. Blogs on modern communication techniques. Tips on writing style.

In my Christian life and ministry, I’ve benefitted from all of these things (among others). They have, each in their own way, helped me to communicate the gospel of Christ and to serve God’s people. I’m guessing that you too, no matter what your role in the life of God’s people, could probably make a quick list of various kinds of secular wisdom which have helped your own efforts to speak the gospel and to care for the saints.

But where does this leave the Bible? After all, the Bible is God’s inspired word, given to us for the sake of gospel ministry:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

How should we understand the relationship between the inspired (and thus exceedingly useful) Bible and the insights of secular wisdom when it comes to gospel mission and ministry? This is not a question with a simple, black-and-white answer. However, it’s a question we can’t avoid. in fact, it’s a vitally important question to ask, and to keep asking.

In the next set of posts, I’m going to explore this question. And as an ongoing refrain, I’m going to use an image drawn from a story in the Bible. This particular image has a rich heritage; it has been used and promoted by a number of influential Christian thinkers in the past, including Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine and John Wesley.1 It’s an image that is quite popular today too. It’s a vivid image, powerful and memorable (which is why I’m using it). It’s the image in Exodus of the Israelites plundering the gold of the Egyptians as God rescues them out of slavery:

But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbour, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewellery, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.

Exodus 3:19-22

The plundering of the Egyptians is primarily a sign of God’s power in judgment over Egypt. But it’s not just a sign of judgment. At least some of the Egyptian gold probably ended up in the sanctuary of God’s presence, glorifying the God of Israel:

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the sons of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, … And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”

Exodus 25:1-8

The plunder of the Egyptians, then, is an image that speaks to us about God’s sovereignty over all things; and about the way in which he uses even the riches of his enemies for his own glory. That’s why it’s also been used as an analogy for the way in which God’s people can use the best things of this world, and especially the wisdom of the world, for the sake of God’s glory. The gold of the Egyptians can be compared to the riches of worldly understanding, which assist us in serving and glorifying God. Just as Moses’ training in the “wisdom of the Egyptians” made him a powerful servant of God (Acts 7:22), so the wisdom of the world can help us to serve God.

But there’s also a twist to the story. We’ll look at this twist in the next post.


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