Posted by: jefriesen | July 21, 2010

Measured In Light

At the end of the 18th century, a revolution was brewing. No, I am not referring to either the American or French revolutions, which both took place during this time period, but another revolution that has quietly impacted nearly every country in the world (except for three). This revolution began in the 1790’s in France, when French scientists proposed replacing the hodgepodge of weights and measures with standards that would apply consistently everywhere. In terms of length, scientists proposed that a new standard length should be equal to one ten-millionth of the distance at sea level from the pole to the equator.

In order to figure out how long that should be, the scientists commissioned a team to measure a significant portion of the distance and use mathematics to figure out the rest. This team of scientists spent the next several years completing a measurement from Dunkirk to Barcelona. They labored through the French revolution and most of them escaped being guillotined. At the end of their survey, they compared notes and calculations and established mathematically the exact distance of a meter. They then obtained a bar of platinum 4 mm thick and 25.3 mm wide and exactly one meter in length. This bar was deposited in the National Archives on June 22, 1799 and has since been known as the Metre des Archives. From that time until 1983, when a meter was redefined as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in exactly 1⁄299,792,458th of a second, if you wanted to measure something against the standard unit of length, you could travel to the National Archives and see for yourself how your meter stick measured up. But what if we wanted to see how we measure up?

Well, last month, I took time to highlight the teaching of the bible on the depravity of man, which is simply a theological techno-geek way of saying that we are not perfect. Most of us would readily agree with this statement. In fact, we often use it as an excuse for our actions. We either use in the first person, (I’m not perfect) or in the third person impersonal (no one’s perfect). Spoken in this way, these statements aren’t so much an apology as a justification. But the statement that we aren’t perfect begs the question “perfect in relation to what?” The statement implies a mostly unspoken standard out there that we call ‘perfect.’ Somewhere, like the meter, there is a model of perfection to which we can be compared.

But before we begin looking at the standard, there is one implication that must be addressed. The very word standard implies ‘standard for everyone.’ This means, for example, that just as there is one metrical standard for length, that there is one standard for us as moral agents. A standard applies across national and cultural boundaries. A standard also applies even when no allegiance to that standard is declared. There are three countries that have not adopted the metric system: Burma, Liberia and the United States (we are in worthy company); however, if we in the US want to describe a given object’s length in meters, we do so according to the universally recognized standard. All that is to say that when we describe ourselves in negative terms in relation to that which is perfect, we are agreeing that there is a moral standard out there that we would call perfect.

So now, the question: Where do we find such a standard?

This is, in fact, how the Bible describes God. God is perfect. The word in both the Hebrew and Greek carry the idea of completeness and wholeness. But this is only part of what we mean when we use the word perfect to describe our moral choices. To this, the Bible adds the words ‘holy’ and ‘pure.’ These words convey the teaching that God is absolutely free from any moral error ever. The Bible teaches that only God is morally ‘good’ in the absolute. He is also holy, that is ‘set apart,’ from everything that contains even the least imperfection. The Psalmist declares that God is too pure to allow those who are evil into His presence.

Another word picture the Bible uses to describe God’s absolute moral perfection is light. This is a helpful analogy, because we can see things by the light that are hidden to us otherwise. The brighter the light, the more clearly we can see where we have fallen short of God’s perfect standard. Compared to the blazing white light of God’s perfection, even the smallest imperfection is revealed. And we have more than small imperfections. Where this leaves us is the subject for another day. Until then, we have a standard, not in a National Archive, but measured in light.


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