Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Power of Three

Recently, an article popped up in my social media feed that a friend had in some way interacted with, and that article was enthusiastically entitled something like "The Power of Three!" with a catchy subtitle like, "You'll never guess how many 3's are in the Bible!" 

And that's how easily it happens.

The idea is not really new, at least not for contemporary Christians. Many have heard somewhere or another (and many believe) that either three or seven...or both...are the Bible's "power" numbers. That the more you decorate your life with these numerals, the better things will go for you. That God has some special favor for threes or sevens. That threes and sevens are, in fact, good luck. Uh....biblically good luck.

But that's just not true. In fact, it's nothing more than New Age bologna. (And there's nothing so "new" about "New Age.")

If there were power in the number three or in the number seven, don't you think the Bible would mention it at least once? Don't you think it would be more than some secret mystery that we're supposed to just figure out all on our own by putting together a selected few dots? A verse here, a verse there? Don't you think that if the God of the universe is completely open with powerful ideas like grace and redemption, He'd be more forthcoming about the power of a number, if indeed there were such a thing? 

Seems pretty silly to send Your only Son to die a public, gruesome death on a Cross and, resurrected, stand in front of countless men and women, to clearly demonstrate Your power over life and death, but to hold back on something so mundane as the power of a number.

Could it be that threes and sevens are more the keys to the kingdom of Heaven than the Cross? 

Some prosperity gospelists and conspiracy theorists would have you believe the answer is yes, but it's a profound and resounding no. There is no power in numbers, and there never has been.

But there are a lot of threes and sevens in the Bible. So what gives?

The numbers three and seven in the Bible are meaningful numbers, not powerful ones. Each is meant to serve as a reminder of something holy and sacred and important, something that God's people should not forget. 

The number three has a relational meaning, meant to draw the faithful back to remembrance of the Trinity - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every time we see the number three in the Bible, it is meant to remind God's people of wholeness and unity. Jonah has fractured himself and is living in splinters away from the will of God; three days in the belly of the whale makes him whole again, restores his integrity. The Messiah has been broken, hung upon a Cross; three days restores the promise. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness with three temptations; by His response to the three questions posed to Him, we see the wholeness of His divinity. Three wise men come to visit the baby Jesus, meant to show a wholeness of the wisdom of this world reflected in three. Every time we see three, what we're meant to see is that our Triune God is One. There's no power in it; there's just meaning.

The number seven has a redemptive meaning, meant to draw the faithful back to remembrance of creation - when the formless and void became the everything and all things. There are seven days of Creation, and there are seven churches in the final days. When Peter asks if he should forgive his brother seven times, it's a question about how long it takes to set things right. The answer, seven times seven, indicates that forgiveness is the ongoing work of setting things right. The Sabbath is on a seven, and so is the Jubilee. In fact, God's entire economy runs on the sevens because that's how long it takes to make something out of nothing. To put things together. To set things right. To see that they are "very good." Again, there's no power in it; there's just meaning.

The idea that there is "power" in numbers, that we should be able to guide our lives by these sorts of things, is not a Christian idea. Far from it. It's a New Age idea, which actually has some ancient roots in other cultures throughout history. In the present day, it's right up there with tarot cards and ouija boards and feng shui and yoga and all the other things we do that we think have "spiritual" tones to them but are pulling us away from what God wanted us to know.

Which is not that there is some mystical power in the numbers He's given us, but that there is profound meaning in them, meant at every turn to draw us back to our Triune God and His creative/redemptive work in the world. And in us. 

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