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In this basic introduction to faith, Carson takes seekers, new Christians, and small groups through the big story of Scripture. The video and companion leader’s guide helps evangelistic study groups, small groups, and Sunday school classes make the best use of this book in group settings.
It can no longer be assumed that most people-or even most Christians-have a basic understanding of the Bible. Many don’t know the difference between the Old and New Testament, and even the more well-known biblical figures are often misunderstood. It is getting harder to talk about Jesus accurately and compellingly because listeners have no proper context with which to understand God’s story of redemption. In this basic introduction to faith, D. A. Carson takes seekers, new Christians, and small groups through the big story of Scripture. He helps readers to know what they believe and why they believe it. The DVD and companion leader’s guide helps evangelistic study groups, small groups, and Sunday school classes make the best use of this book in group settings.
Don Carson introduces the 14-part series “The God Who Is There” and then explains Genesis 1-2.
It is an enormous privilege for me to be with you for this series: “The God Who Is There.” Before plunging into the first talk, it might be helpful if I tell you where we’re going in this series. There was a time in the Western world when many people had read the Bible reasonably thoroughly, and therefore they knew how it was put together. Even those who were atheists were, shall I say, Christian atheists. That is to say, the God they disbelieved in was the God of the Bible. Their understanding of the God whom they found incredible was nevertheless in some measure shaped by their reading of the Bible. But today, of course, there is a rising number of people who really don’t know how the Bible works at all. They have never really read it. So the first place to begin in trying to understand what Christianity ought to be, who Jesus is, is to start again by reading the Bible.
There are lots of ways in which we could in theory talk about Christianity. We could, for example, do a brief survey of the history of the Christian church. Or we might start analyzing what Christians in various parts of the world believe. But the best way to get at it is to examine Christianity’s foundation documents. There are sixty-six of them. They vary in length from one page to small books. They were written over a period of 1500 years in three languages. The biggest part was written in Hebrew; a very tiny part was written in a language like Hebrew called Aramaic; and the last part was written in Greek. So all of our Bible’s today—the Bible’s that we hold in our hands and pick up and read at leisure—are translations of what was originally given in these languages.
These sixty-six foundation documents are astonishingly diverse in form and literary genre: some are letters; some are oracles; some are written in poetry; some are laments; they have genealogies; some are horrible wrestlings as believers try to understand what on earth God is doing; some are written in a genre that we just don’t use anymore called apocalyptic literature, which uses astonishing symbolism that is visually striking. And then on top of that, they are astonishingly varied as well in terms of accessibility: some parts you can read, and anybody with the ability to read a novel today can make sense of the text; and other parts are full of symbolism that is archaic—no longer used today, out of date—because it is located at a certain time in history.
Now all of these foundation documents have been put together, and when they’re put together, they form “The Book.” That’s all “Bible” means. It’s the book. It’s the book of Christianity’s foundation documents, and we who are Christians insist that God has disclosed himself supremely in the pages of these documents.
In this series I shall sketch in what the Bible says so as to make sense of what Christianity means and looks like if it is constrained by its own foundation documents because very often Christians themselves have abandoned those foundation documents and betray the very heritage that they have received. The Christian claim, however, is that this Bible discloses the God who is there.
Now in this first session we reflect on the God who made everything, and we begin by the first book in this collection called “Genesis.” These books are put together with chapters and verses; that is, if you open the Bible anywhere, you’ll find a break with a big number (that’s the heading of a “chapter”) and then some small numbers (those are “verses”). If you’re not familiar with the Bible—if you’ve never read it at all—the easiest thing to do to orientate yourself is to open up to the first few pages where you’ll find the table of contents listing the names of the books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and so on, all the way through—the whole sixty-six. Then you’ll get the page number so you can find the book, and then you’ll see that there’s a chapter number and a verse number. So if I say something like “Genesis 1:26,” I mean the first book of the Bible, the first chapter, and verse 26. And over the course of these fourteen sessions, I’ll be referring to a lot of books of the Bible, a lot of passages; you won’t have time to look them all up, but it’s all recorded. You can look them up later. And that’s how you find them if you have not become familiar with handling the Bible in the past.
So we begin then with Genesis 1. I’m not going to read the whole chapter, but I want to pick up parts of it and into chapter 2. This is what the opening line of the Bible says:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1:1–5)
And then in successive days, various things are created by this God who says, “Let there be this” or “Let there be that.” And occasionally there is a refrain added: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10). So eventually you get to day five, and the water teems with living creatures and birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky (Genesis 1:20). “God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind” (Genesis 1:21).
And then the sixth day: “‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind’” (Genesis 1:24). And at the end of the description: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25).
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 1:26–2:3)
And then in the rest of chapter 2, there is a kind of expansion on the creation of human beings that we’ll come to in due course.
Now because much of twenty-first century culture is convinced that contemporary scientific thought is fundamentally incompatible with the opening chapters of Genesis, I’d better say something about the approach I adopt here. Four things:
(1) There is more ambiguity in the interpretation of these chapters than some Christians recognize.
There are huge diversities of opinion among Christians, let alone among those who want to write the entire account off. What shall we do with this?
I hold that this is transparently a mixed genre that feels like history and really does give us some historical details. (By “history” I don’t mean that which has been written down at the time but that which takes place in space-time reality.) Yet it is full of demonstrable symbolism, and sorting out what is symbolic and what is not is very difficult. Now how we shall negotiate that I will tell you in a moment.
(2) There is more ambiguity in the claims of science than some scientists recognize. Recently, of course, the media have focused on the fresh literary adventures of people like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Together their writings comprise what is now sometimes called “the new atheism.” And correspondingly there are robust responses that have been written of various sorts. All of these books are predicated on the assumption of philosophical materialism, that is, all that exists—all that can exist—is matter, energy, space, and time—nothing else. So anything that claims to go beyond that or belong to some domain that cannot be reduced to that must necessarily be dismissed, even laughed at, as the trailing edge of an antecedent superstition that was declared foolish a long time ago and should immediately be abandoned.
And yet I personally know many front-rank scientists who are Christians. I have spoken in many universities, and one of the surprising things I have observed is that if I go to nearby local churches and meet some of the faculty in the universities that are attending these local churches and are committed believers, there actually tends to be a preponderance of science teachers and math teachers and the like over against arts and psychology and English literature teachers. It’s not really that anybody who’s a scientist can’t be a Christian; statistically, that really is, with all respect, nonsense. So I’m impressed, for example, by the little book by Mike Poole: God and the Scientist, or another one edited by William A. Dembski called Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing. There is more debate going on than is sometimes perceived.
But even if you allow some understanding of origins that belongs to the dominant modern paradigm in which our entire known universe developed out of a big bang—something like fifteen billion years ago from a highly condensed, unimaginably condensed, everything—that became our universe, even if you subscribe to that whether under the aegis of God or not, sooner or later you are forced to ask the question “Where did that highly condensed material come from?” Now here some get very clever. There’s a book by Alan Guth called The Inflationary Universe, and he tries to work it out that this very condensed material that ultimately exploded in the big bang emerged out of nothing. And if you say that the physics doesn’t work, he says, “Yes, but, at the big bang, there is what physicists call a “singularity.” A singularity is an occurrence in which the normal laws of physics no longer work. That means that we no longer have any access to them. At that point it’s the wildest speculation, which causes a critic named Berlinski to write, “A lot of stuff that gets into print is simply nonsensical. Alan Guth’s derivation of something from nothing is simply incandescent horse manure.” (Now he uses another word for “manure,” but I spare you.) Don’t tell me you’re deriving something from nothing when it’s transparently obvious to any mathematician that this is incandescent nonsense. In other words there are complications in the domain of science that show that there is not simply a solid wall or front that makes it impossible for Christians who want to bow to the authority of Scripture and Christians who really want to learn from science to talk intelligently with each other.
(3) Whatever one makes of intelligent design—one of the dominant debates of the day—as a scientific theory, there is a version of it that I find almost inescapable. Let me explain. During the last twenty-five years, there have been groups of people—mostly Christians but some non-Christians among them as well—who point to what they call “irreducible complexity,” that is, structures in the human being that are so complex that it is statistically impossible to imagine how they could have come to be by chance or chance-mutation or mere selection of the fittest or any of the standard appeals that are made in traditional Darwinism. This irreducible complexity demands that you postulate a designer. Now there are some non-believers who argue that point, and, of course, there are many Christian who argue that point.
Some argue back—many unbelievers and believers—”Yes, yes, but that might simply mean that we don’t know about the mechanisms. If you start filling God in wherever we don’t have an explanation, then you’re putting God into the gaps of our ignorance, but as we learn more, then the gaps get filled up and God gets smaller. We don’t need a God of the gaps.” And so the debate continues.
Whatever you make of that debate—and it’s interesting that the literature is already voluminous—what I find interesting is that many writers who are not Christians in any sense by their own declaration sometimes speak of their marvel almost to the level of what I would call “worship” at the unimaginable complexity and splendor and glory of the universe. There’s a fascinating book by Frank Rees, who titles his volume Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. These numbers are bound up with physical realities such that if the realities that these numbers describe were just a little higher in number or just a little lower in number, the universe as we know it couldn’t exist. Just exactly the right distance between one particle and another particle and the subatomic level. Just six numbers. How did that happen? Or others describe the astonishing complexity of the eyeball, and although they may be completely philosophical materialists in their orientation, they are so impressed by the complexity and glory of it all that they almost begin to treat nature as a god.
I would want to say from a Christian point of view that their instincts are jolly good except that there is a God who has disclosed himself in the glory of what we call nature. I’m not sure that it’s right to argue from the complexity and glory of the six numbers the woodpecker’s tail feathers or the eyeball that you can infer in some demonstrable, powerful way that God exists. I don’t think that at the end of the day God is the end of the argument, the conclusion at the end. But if you begin with this God, the testimony to his greatness in what we see all around us is heart-stopping. It’s mind-boggling. And it takes an enormous act of will on the part of the most cynical of scientists instead to look at it all and say, “Agh, it’s just physics. Stop admiring it. Don’t do that. There’s no design. It’s just molecules bumping into molecules.”
(4) Finally, let me say where I’m coming from as we work through these texts. About thirty years ago a Christian thinker named Francis Schaeffer wrote a little book called Genesis in Space and Time: The Flow of Biblical History. He argues that to get rid of some of these endless heated debates, one of the ways to begin is by asking, “What is the least that Genesis 1 and following must be saying for the rest of the Bible to make any sense?” So I don’t want to tell you everything that I think that these chapters are saying. It would take too long in any case. We’ve got only one hour to devote to these first two chapters. What I want to suggest to you is that whatever the complexity of symbolism and literary genre and the relationship to science and so forth, there is an irreducible minimum that these chapters must be saying for the Bible to have any coherence at all, and that’s what I want to lay out for you in the next few minutes.
(1) God simply is. The Bible does not begin with a long set of proofs to prove the existence of God. It does not begin with a bottom-up approach, nor does it begin with some kind of adjacent analogy or the like. It just begins, “In the beginning God.” Now if human beings are the test of everything, this makes no sense at all because then we have the right to sit back and judge whether it’s likely that God exists, to evaluate the evidence and come out with a certain probability that perhaps god of some sort or other exists. And thus we become the judges of God. But the God of the Bible isn’t like that. It just begins, “In the beginning God.” He is. He is not the object whom we evaluate. He is the Creator who has made us, which changes all the dynamics.
This is bound up with some developments in Western thought that we should appreciate. Before the Renaissance—even right through the early part of the Renaissance and really down to the time of the Reformation—most people in the Western world presupposed that God exists and that he knows everything. Human beings exist, and because God knows everything, what we know must necessarily be some small subset of what he knows. In other words, all of our knowledge—because he knows everything—must be a subset of what he knows exhaustively and perfectly. That means that all of our knowledge in this way of looking at reality must come in some sense by God disclosing what he knows, by God disclosing it in nature, by God disclosing it by his Spirit, by God disclosing it in the Bible. That was simply presupposed.
But with the rise in the 1600s of what is now called Cartesian thought (under the influence of Rene Descartes and those who followed him), the way of thinking about knowledge changed, and the axiom that more and more people based their knowledge upon was the axiom that Descartes introduced to us (although others had said some similar things earlier): “I think, therefore, I am.” He thought that that was a foundation for knowledge. You couldn’t deny that you were thinking if you were thinking; the very fact that you were thinking shows that you exist. So he was looking for a foundation that Christians and atheists and Muslims and secularists and spiritual types could all agree was indisputable. From this foundation and other approaches, he then gradually built up a whole system of thought to try to convince people to become Roman Catholics. But notice how his axiom runs: “I think, therefore I am.” Two hundred years earlier, no Christian would have said that very easily because God thinks, God knows everything. If we exist, then it’s because of God’s power. Our knowledge, even our existence, is finally dependent on him. But this side of Cartesian thought, we begin with “I.” I begin with me. And that puts me in a place where I start evaluating not only the world around me but morals and history and God so that God now becomes simply at best the inference of my study. That changes everything. The Bible doesn’t run along those lines. God simply is.
(2) God made everything that is non-God. God made everything else. This introduces an irreducible distinction between Creator and creature. God is not a creature. In this absolute sense, we are not creators. His existence is thus self-existence somehow. I can use the word, but I don’t really understand it very well. That is, he has no cause; he just is. He always has been, whereas by contrast everything else in the universe began somewhere whether in a big bang or in human conception or somewhere. God made it all. That means that everything in the universe apart from God is finally dependent upon God.
(3) There is only one of him. This emerges strongly in the Bible. God openly says, “Let there be this.” “Let there be that.” “God made everything.” “He saw that it was very good.” Later on in the Bible this point is stressed again and again. For example, in verses that Jews reverently recite to this day called the Shema (in the fifth book of the Bible: Deuteronomy 6), we read the words, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). There’s only one of him.
And yet even in this very first chapter there is a hint of complexity to his oneness. It’s just a hint. It’s hard to know exactly what it means, but it is quite striking. We read through the account of creation “God said this,” “God said that,” “God said the other.” Then when it comes to human beings, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness . . .’” (Genesis 1:26). That could be a royal we. If you listen to BBC broadcasts, you might have listened to her majesty Queen Elisabeth II saying, “we” and “us” where the referent is clearly herself. Even the comics pick it up and picture her saying, “We are not amused.” It could be conceivably a royal reference, a king of royal editorial “we.” But it is striking that it’s introduced here when human beings are made and that it goes on not only to speak of the first person plural when God says “Let us” but “in our image, in our likeness.” You can’t build too much on that yet. It is strange language just the same, especially in a Bible that insists again and again and again that there is but one God. And later on this will get filled out in quite a variety of ways as we’ll see. In particular, he makes creatures who bear his image. Let me reread Genesis 1:26–28:
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created human beings in his [singular] own image, in the image of God he created them [plural]; male and female he created them [plural].
Now we’ll come back to what image bearing means in a moment.
(4) God is a talking God. The first action that is described under this general rubric “God created the heavens and the earth” is “God said ‘Let there be light.’” Now you could understand this to be a kind of metaphorical way of saying that God brought it into being by his power and that he didn’t utter any words. Fine. Could be. Except that once Adam and Eve are made, then he actually addresses them and gives them some responsibilities: “This is what you are to do. This is what marriage will look like.” He speaks to them. So the God of the Bible in the very first chapter is not some abstract “unmoved mover,” some spirit impossible to define, some ground of all beings, some mystical experience. He has personality and dares to disclose himself in words that human beings understand. Right through the whole Bible that recurs and recurs and recurs.
(5) Everything God makes is good—very good. As the account unravels, you discover here that there is no hint in Genesis 1–2 of death or decay, butchery, malice, hate, one-upmanship, arrogance, pride, or destruction. There is no hint of any of this. It is very good. Constantly, regardless of all the complexities of God’s sovereignty in a world where there is suffering and the like—we’ll come to more of that as we progress in this series—the Bible insists that God is good, and the foundations of it are already here in the first chapter.
(6) God comes to an end of his creative work, and he rests. That is, he stops doing it. It doesn’t mean that he’s saying, “Phew, am I tired. I’ve really got to sit down and put my feet up.” That is rather misreading the text. He comes to the end of his week of creation—however we understand this “week”—and at the end of his creative work he stops. He rests and designates this seventh day in a special way.
So these are some of the things about God that these opening two chapters say right on the surface of the text.
(1) They were made in the image of God. In one sense human beings are creatures and thus they have in common the attributes of other creatures. We know this today from genetics. What percentage of my genes are shared with a chimp or a piglet? When the piglet dies and returns to the dust, it does exactly what I do: I return to the dust, too. We’re part of this created order. If you keep stressing the continuity, then eventually you might come out with a kind of position that Peter Singer at Princeton University adopts. He wants in effect all animal life to have so far as it’s possible to work out at all exactly the kind of rights that human beings have because after all we’re genetically the same stuff. We are physical beings; they are physical beings. They are born, they live, they die; so also is our course. Genesis doesn’t see things quite that way. It insists that human beings and human beings alone are made in the image of God.
As you can imagine, that expression “image of God” has over the millennia generated endless discussion. What does it mean to be “made in the image of God”? And so philosophers and theologians have written long tomes saying, “Well, it has something to do with the facility of language, our self-identify, our reasoning processes, love that might be altruistic, our capacity to know God,” and so on. But if you were picking up this book for the first time and read it and didn’t know anything about all these debates, I suspect that your approach to this “image of God” language would be a little simpler. It becomes a kind of master-concept that is filled in as you go along. That is, we reflect God, and the ways in which we reflect God will get filled in as the Bible unfold.
So from this first chapter, God is a talking God. He speaks to human beings, and they speak back to him. There is a commonality of speech, propositions, knowledge that is not merely felt but that can be articulated.
There is also something of creativity. Of course, our creativity is not like God’s, but God makes things. He makes things out of nothing; we don’t do that. But there is implanted in human beings as a reflection of God because we are made in his image a certain creativity. We work with our hands. My wife does spectacular needle-point and silken-meddle thread and quilts and things like that. My daughter does the cooking; my wife does this sort of thing. I like working with my hand in wood. Some write. Some are remarkably creative in their physicality. I have a son who just looks at every new physical challenge that comes along and plunges in, and he is almost an artist as he learns scuba diving or spelunking in a cave or whatever the new challenge is. He is almost artistic in his creative ability to explore some new challenge. Where does that come from? By and large that is not characteristic of elephants, black widow spiders, or rocks.
There is the capacity to work. God is said to work all of this creation week and then come to the end of it. What he gives to the man and woman is certain responsibilities to work in this world, to tend the garden. This is teased out throughout all of Scripture as something honorable. Christians should never descend to the place where working at the manufacturing floor or working as a secretary or working driving a bus or doing research chemistry is “secular.” “I do that to pay the bills, and then I supposed to be spiritual on Sunday. What I do on Sunday in spirituality is just for Sunday. Then on Monday I go back to my reagents as I try to develop a new chemical that will fight cancer.” Rather, if it’s God’s universe and we are made in his image, then as we work, our work, too, reflects him and is offered back up to him with integrity and gratitude. It is significant because we are made in the image of God. It changes our perspective about who we are.
Although we have to recognize that there are difference between God and us, there are other things where we are similar where we reflect him. Later on in the Bible, God will say things like “Be holy, for I am holy.” So proper image-bearing ought to reflect God’s holiness. (We’ll come to what holiness is a little later on.) God never says, “Be omnipotent, for I am omnipotent.” That is, “Be all-powerful and do anything that you choose to do because I am all-powerful.” There are some differences between the God who is the Creator and we who are creatures. We’re not God. We’re his image-bearers. We’re made in his image. And we reflect him in certain ways. God in the Bible is not only the Creator; he’s finally the sovereign over all. But the fact that he puts these human beings, this man and this woman, in charge over the rest of the created order—not to rape it or merely to exploit it or to become economically selfish but to be God’s own stewards over the good world that God has made—really makes us (I don’t know really what else to call it) vice-regents. We’re made in his image, and as God has made it all, we’re under him, charged with the responsibility of looking after his creation. We’re reflecting something of God.
Even the capacity to know God, to delight in him, is wonderful. There’s a book by Peter Williams called I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism, that is, a response to the view that we have merely emerged from the primordial muck. Where is the meaning in this? From the Bible’s point of view, meaning in life is bound up with the fact that we were made by God and for God in his image with an eternal destiny. It changes our perception of what human beings are. Otherwise we slink into what one philosopher has called “self-referential incoherence.” What he means by this is that we compare ourselves with ourselves. We have no external standard by which anything should be judged. And we cannot find an anchor for our being anywhere. And we then drown ourselves in temporary pleasures or pursuit of money or self-promotion, but there is no anchoring that locates and gives us a meaning beyond ourselves. There’s no scale. Human beings were made in the image of God. And in this connection they were made to work, to rule, to serve as God’s stewards, to be surpassingly God-centered.
(2) They were made male and female. In Genesis 1, where the creation account is first given, we are told, “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). But in Genesis 2, where the creation of humans beings is expanded upon, not only their commonality (what they hold in common) but their differentiations are also exposed. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’” (Genesis 2:18). Older English versions have “a help meet for him,” and hence we get our word “helpmeep.” “A helper suitable for him.”
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:19–24)
So while the opening chapters insist that human beings, male and female, were equally made in the image of God, they also insist that the woman was made as a helper. But they come together in one union, a sexual union, a marriage union, which, as the story unfolds, develops a separate unit—generation after generation with the man leaving his family, the woman leaving her family and settling into a new relationship, the two becoming one.
That’s a little different picture of marriage then animals merely doing it or Ancient Near Eastern harems with the most powerful monarch having the most or woman being nothing more than chattel and possession or a decidedly intrinsically inferior being. She comes from the man. She is one with him. Different, transparently, but here there is a vision of marriage that ultimately becomes a model of a whole lot of other things throughout the Bible.
(3) They were innocent. We read in the last verse of Genesis 2, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25).” I’m sure you’ve seen these line-drawing cartoons of Adam and Even in the garden, and there’s a little snake coming and an apple hanging down from somewhere. In these line-diagrams, you don’t want to make them indecent, so the woman’s hair covers her breasts appropriately, and fig-leaves and other branches cover the man in the appropriate slots and so forth. And there’s some one-liner to it, and we all giggle. What does nakedness signify here?
Do you know that there is a theory to nudist colonies? Oh, I know that some nudist colonies are merely an excuse for rounds of orgies. But the best nudist colonies—if I may speak of nudist colonies on a moral scale—had a certain kind of philosophy to them. The idea was that if you could be completely open and transparent in one domain, then sooner or later you could foster openness and transparency in every domain. So we begin with physical transparency, complete openness, and maybe down the road we’ll all become wonderfully open, candid, honest, caring, loving people. It never works. But that’s the theory. And it’s that association that is behind this text.
Adam and Eve had nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed of. Tell me, you men, would you like your mother, wife, daughter to know absolutely everything you think and feel? You women, would you like your father, husband, son to know absolutely everything you think and feel? Or even across the same genders? We hide all kinds of things, don’t we? Why? Because we have so much of which we ought to be ashamed. What would it be like never ever ever to have told a lie? Never ever ever to have nurtured bitterness? Never ever ever to have succumbed to controlling lust? Never ever ever to have to be burning up with hate? Never ever ever to be puffed up in arrogance but always to be loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength, always loving the other as yourself? Then you’d have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. You’d be naked. No wonder the very word “Eden” means “delight.”
Here I’m merely going to prime the pump. It will prepare for things we’ll do in the rest of the series.
(1) This is a necessary background to Genesis 3 that we’ll look at next (which makes sense since Genesis 1–2 come before Genesis 3). But without understanding how good everything is, we cannot speak of what happens in the chapter that we sometimes call “the fall” to show what rebellion looks like.
(2) This doctrine of creation (God made everything) actually comes out again in the writings after the coming of Jesus as new creation and ultimately a new heaven and a new earth. That is, looking back to the old creation, which by means we’ll see, succumbed to rebellion and hatred and idolatry and sin. What is finally needed is for God to do a new creative act, to begin again, to create people over again. And that in the writing of some of the New Testament writers is called “new creation.” We press toward a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. We’ll come to that in our very last session. The terminology is all drawn from Genesis 1–2.
Likewise, Adam becomes the progenitor of the race, which falls away in all kinds of ugliness and decay and self-referentially, idolatry. Jesus is called “the second Adam,” that is, he begins another humanity, a new race, that works on quite different principles. Christians must belong to this second Adam or all that the Bible speaks about as “the gospel,” the good news, just makes no sense at all. This theme of rest and the new Eden will also continue, we’ll see.
(3) Above all, this vision shapes our worldview. For example, in pagan polytheism (that is, in views of the world in which there are many gods), the gods have different domains of operation. Here is one God who has made it all. It’s different from the worldview, for example, of hedonism, where the point of the exercise is imply to find as much as pleasure as you possibly can and then you die. But here the pursuit of pleasure is bound up with God himself. We were made initially by God and for God, and the best, the highest, pleasure is a God-centeredness that secular hedonists cannot possibly imagine. Their pleasures are too fleeting, too small, too narrow.
Then pantheism teaches us that all the created world and God are all part of the same thing. There is no differentiation. Thus I am god and you are god and we’re all in this god-existence together. “I’m really quite a spiritual person, you know, and it’s the crystals that are vibrating in my system that actually make me feel transcendently other.” I’m not mocking. This is a frame of reference that many adopt. It simply isn’t the worldview of the Bible. God made everything.
This brings us perhaps to the most fundamental and striking reality of all.
(4) What the Bible says about creation is what grounds the notion of human accountability and responsibility. Why should I obey God? If he wants to take me in directions that I don’t really like, then I can choose other gods or invent my own. I can sing, ‘I did it my way.’ I can simply declare my independence. Who is he to boss me around? Unless he made me. He designed me. And I owe him everything—life and breath and everything, such that if I don’t see it that way then I am out of line with my maker. I am out of line with the one who designed me. I am the one that is fighting against myself as God made me. For all of human accountability and responsibility before God is grounded in the first instance in creation. He made us, and we owe him. And it is for our good that we recognize it, not because he is the supreme bully but because without him we wouldn’t even be here.
And now we’re set up for the Bible’s analysis of what’s wrong with us.
Don Carson explains Genesis 3.
The passage that we will focus on especially is Genesis 3. I said at the end of the last hour that Genesis 1–2 set the stage for what goes wrong. And in general terms, of course, that is correct. What I neglected to say, however, is that there is a particular element in Genesis 2 that sets the stage for Genesis 3, namely, Genesis 2:17 records one prohibition that God gives to Adam and Eve: “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.” They are to work the garden and enjoy it in all its fecundity. It’s a perfect delight. But they are not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is a prohibition. And if you do eat of it, you will die. We’ll consider in due course why God bothered to give a prohibition. Wasn’t that sort of setting them up for failure? But without that prohibition, we cannot possibly understand Genesis 3.
Let me begin by reading Genesis 3 right through and then making a couple of comments to understand it and then work it through again.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.
The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove them out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
How shall we understand this chapter? In another part of the Bible—one that we’re not going to have time to explore in detail—the account is told of King David seducing a woman next door, and when he is caught out, he arranges to have her husband killed. So you have a powerful man (David), a weak man (the woman’s husband), and something that is desired (the woman). When the prophet Nathan is sent by God to confront King David for this cleverly concealed adultery and murder, because the king is at the end of the day an autocrat, Nathan approaches with a certain amount of care, and he tells a parable. “Your majesty,” he says, “something’s gone wrong upcountry. There’s a really really rich farmer with herds and cattle, flocks you wouldn’t believe. And next door is a dirt farmer with just one little, and he doesn’t even have that anymore. Some people came by to see the rich dude, and he went and swiped the one poor little lamb from the dirt farmer.” So a very powerful man (the rich farmer), a weak man (the dirt farmer), and something that’s desired (the dirt farmer’s only lamb). Initially David doesn’t see the connection, but eventually he does and he’s exposed and crushed by idols so forth.
But you can see what the parable is doing: it’s getting to an analogous situation by telling something similar in an account: a rich man, a weak man, and something that is desired. And yet if you compare the stories, you also see differences. What’s desired in the first instance is a woman; what’s desired in the second instance is a lamb. In the first instance, the weak man is killed so that David can hide his sin, but in the second instance, what is desired is killed (the lamb itself). The stories are not parallel. If they were exactly the same, it wouldn’t be an analogy or parable. Sometimes when stories are told they get grist of the thing out there, but they may be sufficiently symbol-laden that you have to work your way through things.
So in Genesis 3 we’ll see in due course that this serpent may be the embodiment of Satan, or he may be the symbol for Satan; and the Bible doesn’t really care to explain which. It doesn’t care. What it does say about Satan can be delineated pretty precisely, but exactly what the communication arrangements were in Eden we cannot understand exactly.
With that introduction let me suggest four things that emerge unmistakably from Genesis 3:
We are introduced to the serpent. According the later Scripture in the last book of the Bible, we are told that Satan himself stands behind this serpent in some sense in Revelation 12. Moreover, his smooth talk aligns him with another description of Satan where we’re told that he goes about as an angel of light deceiving, if it were possible, the very chosen ones of God: a smart-mouth. We’re also told that he was made by God: “the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). In other words the Bible does not set Satan or the serpent up as a kind of anti-God like matter and anti-matter with exactly the same power and potency and when they collide they explode and there’s nothing. There is not God and then an equivalent anti-God, a bit like the light side and the dark side in the force, where you lean one way or you lean the other way. This is not the picture. The picture is that even Satan himself is a dependent being, a created being. This passage does not tell us how or when he fell. Elsewhere he’s clearly part of the angelic number who rebelled against God; the angels had their own forms of rebellion we learn elsewhere. But none of that is described here. He just shows up.
We’re told in our English versions that he was the most crafty of the wild animals that God had made. Now I was brought up in French Canada, and learned English in Canada and lived in Europe for many years so that my ears don’t always hear things exactly the way American ears hear things. But does the word “crafty” to you suggest surreptitiousness and sneakiness? Does it have negative overtones? It does to me. But the word that is used here in Hebrew can be either positive or negative depending on the context. In many places it is rendered something like “prudence.” For example, “a prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself“ (Proverbs 12:23). It doesn’t mean a crafty man, a sneaky little blighter. It means someone who is wise and prudent. Or again, “the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (Proverbs 14:18). It doesn’t mean the crafty are. I suspect that the image then in the very first verse of this being who was crowned with more prudence than all the others, but in rebelling it became craftiness; the very same virtue that is such a strength once twisted becomes a vice.
In any case he approaches the woman (what the modes of communication were I have no idea), and he does not begin by a denial or a direct temptation. He begins with a question: “Did God really say that? Did God really say ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Notice what he’s doing. It expresses just the right amount of skepticism, a slightly incredulous “Can you really believe that God would say that?” like an employee asking, “Can you imagine what the boss has done this time?” except that the person whose word is being questioned is the maker, the designer, God the sovereign. In some ways the question is both disturbing and flattering. It’s smuggles in the assumption that we have the ability, even the right, to stand in judgment of what God has said.
Then the devil has made it worse by exaggeration. God did forbid one fruit. The way he frames the question, “Did God forbid you to eat any of the fruit in the garden, hmmm?” This casts God as the cosmic party-pooper: “God basically exists to spoil my fun. I might want a snack, but God says, ‘No.’ I want to do something, but God says, ‘No, no, no.’ He’s just the cosmic party-pooper. Can you believe that God said that?!”
She replies with a certain amount of insight, wisdom, and grace—at least initially. She corrects him on his facts: “God did say, ‘You must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, but we may eat from the trees in the garden.” His exaggeration is set aside. But then she adds her own exaggeration. Over against what the devil says, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” God hadn’t said anything about not touching it. It’s almost as if the prohibition to eat has got her sufficiently riled up that she has to exaggerate the meanness of the prohibition.
Then comes the first overt contradiction of God: “You will not certainly die.” The first doctrine denied in the Bible is the doctrine of judgment. It’s often the case because if you can get rid of that one, then you’re free to do anything. There are no consequences. Indeed, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Here is the big ploy, the total temptation: the heart of the vicious deceitfulness in what the serpent promises is partly true and totally false. It’s true, after all: her eyes will be opened, and in some sense she will see the difference between good and evil. She will determine it for herself. God himself says so at the end of the chapter: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).
And yet God knows good and evil with the knowledge of omniscience: he knows all that has been, all that is, all that will be, all that wouldn’t be under different circumstances—he knows it all. She comes to know it by experience. My wife is a cancer survivor. She’s had a double mastectomy. They still watch her very closely. The oncologists know an awful lot about cancer—from the outside. She knows cancer from the inside. God knows all there is to know about sin but not by becoming a sinner. She’ll find out about the knowledge of good and evil from the inside. It’s a total lie.
Indeed, the expression in Hebrew, “the knowledge of good and evil,” is often used in places where to have the knowledge of good and evil is to have the ability to pronounce what is good and pronounce what is evil. That’s what God had done, if you recall. He had made something, and “it was good.” He made something else, and “it was good.” He made the whole thing, and “it was very good.” For God has this sovereign, grounded-in-infinite-knowledge-ability to pronounce what is good. And now this woman wants this God-like function. God says, “It’s not good to eat that fruit. You’ll die.” But if she does, she’s pronouncing her own good and evil. She’s becoming “like God,” claiming the sort of independence that belongs only to God, the self-existence that belongs only to God.
To be as God, to achieve it in fact by outwitting him, to rebel against him—it’s an intoxicating program. That means that God himself will henceforth be regarded consciously or not at least as a rival and maybe as an enemy because “I pronounce my own good, thank you.”
Now I suppose we need to think a little more about this tree. What was the fruit? There is no text that says it was an apple as if God really hates apples but is rather partial towards pineapples and pears. It’s not even necessary to suppose that the apple is a kind of magical thing such that by ingesting this particular fruit—whatever it is—that suddenly a switch goes on in the brain, the chemistry changes, and now you suddenly start pronouncing good and evil. That’s not quite the point. Regardless of what it is, it’s something that is an inevitable test. If God makes image-bearers and pronounces what is good and what is evil—he orders the whole system—then to come along at any point and say, “No, I will declare my own good. What you say is evil, I will declare to be good. What you will say to be good, I will declare to be evil” makes that thing the knowledge of good and evil. That’s why it’s called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s not the kind of fruit that is crucial. It’s the rebellion. It’s the standing over against God. It’s the de-godding of God. It is, in short, idolatry.
If wasn’t sex either. Through the history of the Christian church, many people have argued that the tree is a symbol here for sex, but in fact when God brings the man and woman together in this first marriage, he thinks it’s all very good. Long after this chapter toward the end of the Bible, one of the writers says, “Marriage is honorable in all and the bed undefiled“ (Hebrews 13:4). There’s nothing in the Bible that says that sex is intrinsically evil, though like all of God’s good gifts it can be abused, distorted, twisted, and perverted.
Now this is not simply an invitation to break a rule, arbitrary or otherwise. That’s what a lot of people think that “sin” is, just breaking a rule. What is at stake here is something deeper, bigger, sadder, uglier, more heinous. It’s a revolution. It makes me god and thus de-gods God.
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom”—physically appealing, aesthetically pleasing, sapientially transforming by wisdom—”she took some and ate it” (Genesis 3:6). For those of you who know the language “take and eat,” which Christians recite at the Lord’s supper, it’s impossible not to think that “take and eat” language is so simple the act and so hard the undoing that someone has said, “This ‘take and eat’ language won’t be connected with salvation and forgiveness and transformation until someone has died in our stead.” But that’s much further down the line.
“She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6). Apparently, he was with her in all of this. Here’s the ugliness of the whole thing.
What there is initially is a massive inversion: God makes the man who loves his wife who comes from him, and together they are to be vice-regents over the created order. Now instead, one of the creation order, the serpent, seduces the woman who hauls in the man, and together they defy God. There’s a massive inversion of the whole thing. And, of course, there’s death. It’s not too surprising. If God is the Creator and gives life, then if you detach yourself from this God, if you defy this God, what is there but death? He’s the one that brought it all to being in the first place. He didn’t bring it into being that it might be completely autonomous from him. So if one walks away from him, what is there but death? If you pronounce your own good and evil and decide for yourself what is up and what is down, then you’ve detached yourself from the God who made you, and there is nothing but death.
What kind of death? Christians have wrestled with this one. In the fourth century, there was a Christian thinker by the name of Augustine who wrote, “If it be asked what death God threatened them with, whether bodily or spiritual or that second death [that’s language that is used for hell itself], we answer it was all.” God comprehends in this not only the first part of the first death when the soul loses God. We die. We hide from God. We’re dead to God. But the second part also where our body returns to the ground and our very being before God is lost and condemned or even the ultimate death, the last of death’s eternal following after all, you cannot cut yourself off from the God of the Bible without consequences.
But note the results that are immediately emphasized by the text. Their eyes were opened; they knew they were naked; and in consequence they sewed fig leaves together for a covering (Genesis 3:7). At one level the serpent had kept his promise, but this new consciousness of good and evil—this determination to specify what is good and evil in our own little world—is not a happy result. Its insight is demonstrable, but it results in massive and grotesque anti-climax. There is no pleasure finally, but shame and guilt. Now they have something to hide, so they sew fig leaves, which is meant to be a bit silly. You can’t hide moral shame with fig leaves.
But it’s also a way of saying that there’s no way back to Eden. You can’t undo that sort of thing. If you commit a theft, you can return what you’ve stolen. In that sense you can undo it. But the stain in your own being can’t be undone. If you commit adultery, you can’t undo it. If you or I defy God, we cannot undo the defiance. It can’t be undone. There’s no way back. We’re now covered in shame.
As a result, there’s this broken fellowship with God (Genesis 3:8–10) instead of enjoying God’s fellowship; whatever it meant to say that God walked with them in the cool of the day, he met with them, and they enjoyed him. Throughout all of Christian experience in every religion there have been elements of human experience that have tried to connect with God, to feel him, to enjoy some sort of mystical experience with God or the gods or the other or the transcendent. Adam and Eve knew this kind of intimate connection with God their maker in unsurpassed joy and the most intimate communion, and they delighted in it. Now it was gone. You catch some small, small glimpse of it. If you’ve been married for ten years in a really, really, really good marriage and then you slip up and sleep with someone you shouldn’t sleep with and you know it and your spouse knows it, you can’t look them in the eye anymore. There’s shame. You hide. There are certain things you can’t talk about anymore. That’s why throughout the Bible, in fact, sometimes human sin before God is described in terms of sexual betrayal. One Old Testament writer named Hosea around the eighth century before Christ presents God—it’s hard to believe—as the ultimate cuckold, the ultimate betrayed husband, because his own people abandon him and chase other gods even though he has given them life.
There’s broken fellowship with each other, too. It’s almost funny in a sad, degenerate sort of way. “Have you eaten from the tree that I have commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11). “The woman you put here with me” (Genesis 3:12)—it’s her fault. This is not the last time some character has blamed his wife. But she’s no better: “It’s not my fault, God. That serpent really fooled me.” One of the things that happens when there’s this kind of rebellion is that you don’t take responsibility. You just duck.
In the wake of this rebellion, God pronounces three curses.
(1) To the serpent:
So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:14–15)
Some people think that this is a kind of fairy tale, an etiological myth, a just-so story about how the serpent lost his legs. Once upon a time, snakes all had legs, and this is how they lost their legs. Is that what this is about? Who knows? But I do know this: sometimes God picks up something that is already there and uses it in a new symbol-laden way. In the next chapter, we’ll be introduced to this chap Abraham, who is told to introduce circumcision to the men in his family and clan. What you must understand is that circumcision wasn’t invented by God or by Abraham; circumcision was practiced throughout the Ancient Near East. It was not an unknown rite. But when God imposed it (for reasons we’ll see shortly), it had a new special symbol-ladenness in the context of his relationship with Abraham. It wasn’t a brand new phenomenon, but it had a new symbol relationship to reality. So also here: this snake may well have been squirreling along the ground, but now it becomes a deeply symbol-laden thing. The devil himself is cast out and is rejected, a slimy thing running along the ground.
The symbolism of the Bible keeps along those lines. The prophet Isaiah (late eighth century), for example, describes a day coming when “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food” (Isaiah 65:25). This is not because serpents are somehow are less moral than lions, but in the symbolism of the day, the serpent was connected with the devil, with all that was slimy and low-down, disgusting.
When we’re told, “I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers,” this does not mean that all women will hate snakes. I know some that do, including my wife. My wife, whatever her many gifts and graces, was not called to be a herpetologist. But there are some women herpetologists. This is probing at a level much beyond mere women and snakes. In fact, the text immediately goes on to name not only the woman but the offspring: “between your offspring and hers.” So if this meant “between all human beings and all snakes,” we would not have any herpetologists! That’s not the point at all.
From the woman, from the human race, will come ultimately a seed that will crush the serpent’s head. Did you see Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ? It has its strengths and weaknesses, but did you see the opening scene where Jesus is in agony in the garden praying? In the context of his praying, a snake starts crawling over one of his limbs. Jesus stands up and suddenly slams his foot down on the snake’s head. The symbolism is right out of here. By going to the cross, Jesus will ultimately destroy this serpent, this devil, who holds people to sin and shame and guilt. He will go and crush the serpent’s head by taking their guilt and shame in himself.
Genesis 3:15 is sometimes called in Christian circles the “protevangelium,” that is, the first announcement of the gospel, the first announcement of good news. It’s pretty doom and darky till now, but now there’s promise that from the woman’s seed—from the human race—will arise one who will crush the serpent’s head. In fact, that can be extended to Christians. In a letter written by the apostle Paul about the middle of the first century to Christians in Rome, Paul writes, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). There is a sense in which Christians by living under the gospel and being reconciled to God because of the gospel are destroying the devil and his work. There’s already a seed bed sown countless years earlier in Genesis 3.
(2) To the woman:
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
The first categorical command that God gave the man and woman was “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). But even this most fundamental of rights and privileges—part of their very being—now becomes a pain-filled thing. The whole created order is out of whack. It’s bound up with loss.
“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” That passage has been interpreted many different ways, as you can imagine. It worth reflecting on the fact that the two verbs that are used are used together as a pair in only one other place within the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), namely, in the next chapter. So if a first reader was coming along and thinking, “Boy, I don’t have a clue what’s going on here,” the reader has to press on only a few more verses to stumble across the same verbs again and then say, “Aha, that makes sense.” It’s in Genesis 4, where we find out that one of the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain, wants to kill the other son. We have the first murder, the first homicide. When the Lord is explaining to Cain why God is angry with him, he says to him, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it [i.e., sin] desires to have you [i.e., in the sense of to control you, to manipulate you, to boss you around], but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). So also here in the wake of the fall, the woman desires to have her husband precisely now to control him, and he rules over her with a certain kind of brutality. There is sin on both sides: she wants to control, and physically stronger than she is, he regularly beats up on her. What we have now is the destruction of the marriage relationship itself because of sin in this world.
Then you read on through the following chapters of the first homicide, double murders, polygamy, genocide—on and on and on—all because at the beginning someone said, “I will be god.”
(3) To Adam:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
“Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you. . . . “ Adam listed to the woman instead of God. At the end of the day, prime allegiance must be to God himself.
“Cursed is the ground because of you . . . .” The whole created order of which you are a part is now not working properly. It’s under a curse, subjected by God himself to death and decay.
We could press on, but we must observe the last step in this chapter.
“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Now that’s interesting. They used fig leaves. If he uses garments of skin, then there has been the shedding of blood—a sacrificial animal. (At this stage there is no system of sacrifice; that comes later—a priestly system with sacrifices and prescribed animals and a tabernacle or a temple. We’ll come to that. None of that is in place.) But God knows that they need to be covered. They have so much shame to hide. He doesn’t say, “Take off those stupid fig leaves. If you just expose yourselves and be honest with one another, we can all get back together again and live happily ever after.” There’s no way back. He covers them with something more durable but at the price of an animal that sheds it blood and is slain.
The first of the long trajectories of bloody sacrifices that reach all the way down to the coming of Jesus that was announced by one who comes just before him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is, by his bloody sacrifice—by his death—we are covered over. Our shame and our guilt are addressed because he dies in our place. A lamb can’t do that. Here it’s just a picture of what’s coming, but it’s the first step of a whole institution of sacrifices that point us finally to the supreme sacrifice and what Jesus did to take away our sin and cover up our shame.
I want to reflect on how this fits into the Bible and into our lives.
(1) Genesis 3 describes willful rebellion, not sociobiology. One of the hard things that a strict materialistic Darwinism must face is “Where do morals come from? Where does meaning come from? Where do notions of right and wrong come from?” But in the last two or three decades, there has arisen a field of scientific philosophical endeavor now commonly labeled sociobiology. One writer has entitled his book The Selfish Gene, in which he argues that because of the way we have developed along evolutionary lines, we have genes that protect us. Those genes that move us toward certain behavior are going to keep alive those people who have the genes that perform the behavior that is most advantageous to living. Those who don’t have this advantageous behavior will drop away, and, therefore, statistically you will get a higher and higher percentage of those who have these kinds of genes that are nicely adaptive. And that very selfish gene might learn somewhere along the line that cooperation with other people with similar genes is better than merely going alone. So now you have a genetic predisposition towards working cooperatively and sharing, which might not fit some simplistic view of the survival of the fittest, but at the corporate level—a sociobiology—it makes a whole lot of sense. That is to say you can develop a whole bias towards certain behavior that you call good or evil just on the basis of the various selections of genes that time and experience teach you generation by generation. In other words, there is a systematic attempt today to explain notions of right and wrong purely at the genetic naturalistic level, and I would be the last person to want to argue that there is no connection between our morals and our bodies, between our wills and spirits and our heritage and background including our genetic makeup. We are whole beings; all of them interact together. But it is very, very difficult to imagine people volunteering to sacrifice their lives for the sake of others, taking pain in their place, e.g., a person in Auschwitz pretending that he or she did the terrible deed that would get another hanged just to take their place. It’s hard to think of that as merely adaptive behavior. So nowadays entire books and essays have begun to be written back the other way, saying that sociobiology cannot possibly explain this conduct and that conduct and the other conduct. If you’re interested in such matters, I’ll be glad to give you more bibliography.
There’s a chap called Pete Lowman who wrote A Long Way East of Eden (recall how when they left the garden they went east of Eden), simply to show that the account of the fall makes much more sense of the dilemmas and perversions and twisted livings in the world than any other explanation. Or the sociologist Christian Smith Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.
(2) Genesis 3 does not think of evil primarily in horizontal terms but in vertical terms. When we do think of evil finally, depending on who we are, we tend to think of evil at the horizontal level. Probably none of us would want to deny that Auschwitz was evil. Probably we don’t want to deny that raping a little child is evil. Probably we don’t want to deny that operating a huge Ponzi scheme that rips people off of billions is evil. We don’t want to deny that. Certainly the Bible has all kinds of pretty condemning things to say about horizontal evils, that is, evils among ourselves. But in the Bible what is said to make angry most frequently is idolatry. It’s the vertical dimension. The person who is most offended here is God. It’s not that Eve is really ticked because Adam has blamed her. In the first instance, where the guilt is is guilt before God. It’s in the de-godding of God so that yes, you could read the prophet Isaiah, who warns against vicious money-grabbing owners who won’t pay fair wages, but pages and pages are devoted to idolatry. It’s the supreme evil. It is what makes all the other evils supremely evil.
(3) That means that Genesis 3 shows what we most need. If you’re a Marxist, what you need are revolutionaries and decent economists. If you’re a psychologist, what you need is an army of counselors. If you think that the root of all malfunction and disorder is medical, what you really need is endless numbers of Mayo Clinics, but if our first and most serious need is to be reconciled to God—a God who now stands over against us and pronounces death upon us because of our willfully chosen rebellion—then what we need the most, though we may have all of these other derivative needs, is to be reconciled to him. We need someone to save us. You cannot make sense of the Bible until you come to agreement with what the Bible says our problem is. If you don’t see what the Bible’s analysis of the problem is, you can’t come to grip with the Bible’s analysis of the solution. The ultimate problem is our alienation from God, our attempt to identify ourselves merely with reference to ourselves, this idolatry that de-gods God, and what we must have is reconciliation back to this God or we have nothing. It’s in that context that already this chapter looks forward to the coming of the woman’s seed.
I attended a funeral not long ago. A neighbor died of a brain tumor. On the card that was handed out at the door, we found these words from this neighbor: “May those that love us love us and those that don’t love us, may God turn their hearts, and if he doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankle and we shall know them by their limping.” Cute. I couldn’t help thinking how tragic this was. The man had just gone to meet his Maker, and his last words for us at the funeral were scoring points on people who didn’t like him, still thinking on a horizontal level.
In the seventeenth century, the great thinker Pascal wrote, “What sort of freak then is man? How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious, judge of all things, feeble earth worm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe.” He understood Genesis 1, 2, and 3.
Or a contemporary thinker writer, “We human beings are a mystery to ourselves. We are rational and irrational, civilized and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel.”
Shakespeare says of humanity, “What a work of art.” And Arthur Miller’s After the Fall says, “We are very dangerous. We meet not in some garden of wax fruit and painted leaves that lies east of Eden but after the fall, after many, many deaths, now you understand the plotline of the whole Bible. Who will fix that?”
Don Carson explains Genesis 12, 17, 15, and 22.
How shall we think of the relationship between God and human beings? What kind of mental model do we have when we think of such relationships? In various cultures around us, we could easily delineate quite distinct models.
God is a benevolent gentleman with a long flowing beard and whose primary job is to be nice. When I was a student in Europe many years ago studying in Britain, I went for a while to Germany to improve my German. While I was there in the language school where I was studying, there was a young engineering doctoral student from French West Africa who was also there to learn German. Because I was reared in French and he was from French West Africa, every once in a while—twice a week or so—we would go out for a meal together and talk a language in which we were more comfortable, French rather than German, which was giving both of us headaches. As I got to know him a bit, I discovered that he was married, and his wife was a medical student in London. So he was in Germany studying German to go back to finish his doctoral studies at a German university in mechanical engineering, and his wife was studying medicine in London. And it wasn’t too long before I discovered that once a week or so he would go to the red-light district in town and pay his money and have his woman. By this time I got to know him pretty well, so one evening when we were out for a meal, I said to him, “I don’t mean to be too intrusive, but what would you say if you discovered that your wife were doing something similar in London?” “Oh,” he said, “I’d kill her.” I said, “That sounds like a bit of a double-standard.” He said, “Yes, but you have to understand. From the part of the world I come from—in our tribal structure—she would be dishonoring me. It would be a matter of honor. I would have to kill her.” I said, “But you told me that you were brought up in a mission school. You were taught the Bible. You know that the God of the Bible doesn’t mark on the curve one set of standards for men and one set of standards for women.” “Oh,” he said, “God is good. He’s bound to forgive us. That’s his job.” Now in fact he was quoting the words of Catherine the Great. It becomes a great line to justify any sort of guilt, doesn’t it? So that’s one kind of model between God and human beings. He’s a grandfather whose only job is to be nice and forgive.
God is spectacularly great. Think of the unmeasured eons necessary to travel from galaxy to galaxy at the speed of light. And how many galaxies are there? Where is the end? And God made it all! He’s bigger than all of it, incalculably huge, transcendently glorious. So of course you can’t expect him to concern himself with your two-bit existence down here. You have as much significance to him as a nano-particle has to us. Even if your concern for the beings on your farm, you don’t really give a lot of thought to the earthworms. Why should God give a snap about you? He’s just so big and glorious and transcendent. He may have wound this whole thing up like a big watch, but now it’s just sort of running down, doing its own thing.
Neither of those models squares very well with the Bible. Already we have seen that God made it all. He is that big alright, but he holds his image-bearers to account. And the God who is described in the Bible as incalculably loving (we’re coming to that one) is also described as spectacularly undiminishedly holy and transcendent such that when he confronts rebellion, sin, all that is tawdry and evil, he is—there’s no other word for it—angry. And he holds us to account. So the first model, which is very common, can’t be squared with Scripture. The second model can’t be squared with Scripture because this God is intensely personal. But there’s a third model.
This model is very common in the world of polytheism, that is, in religions where there are multiple gods because these gods are all finite. They all have personalities, and many of them have their quirks, weaknesses, evils, eccentricities, sins, and needs. So the way such pagan religion works is that you go to the temple of the particular god in question, and you give the god the kind of thing that the god wants. You scratch their back. Then maybe that god will give you what you want. So you want to make a nice safe sea voyage in the first century in the Mediterranean world? You go to the temple of Neptune, the god of the sea. You offer the appropriate sacrifices, and you hope and pray therefore that the god of the sea will keep the sea calm and that you have a safe trip. You have to give a major speech to your stockholders? Then you go to the god of communication, Hermes in the Greek world and Mercury in the Latin world. You offer the appropriate sacrifices. You scratch the god’s back, and the god scratches your back. So it’s a kind of tit-for-tat arrangement: you scratch my back, I scratch yours. That’s the relationship between the gods and us. And you live in a certain kind of fear that you haven’t paid enough or scratched appropriately, or maybe the god in question in particularly bad-tempered.
Now it has to be acknowledged that there are some people who think of themselves as Christians who think that their relationship with God is of this you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-your-back kind of thing. Provided you’re good enough, you’ll get married happily. Provided you have your devotions every day, you’ll live a long life and won’t get cancer until you’re at least ninety-six. Provided you’re honest at work, you won’t lose your job the way others will, who deserve to lose them a lot more than you do. Provided you always say your prayers, your kids will never rebel. You scratch my back, I scratch your back.
The problem with this model, of course, is that it presupposes that the God of the Bible has needs, and, therefore, you really can offer him something that he needs and wants. That’s why it’s a barter system. That’s why it’s a you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-your-back sort of system. That’s why the system works in theory in polytheism. The gods are all finite, and they do have needs. But supposing you deal with a God who has no needs. What are you going to offer him? Paul understands that—Paul, a first-century preacher, who preaches after Jesus has come and died and risen again, who explains the difference between the God of the Bible and the surrounding paganism. So we find him, for example, in the great learned city of Athens. At the time Athens had the reputation for being the most burned city in the world followed by Alexandria in Egypt; perhaps Tarsus was next. When Paul gives his address to some philosophers and teachers in Athens, he tries to explain what his view of God is over against theirs. Theirs is a world of gods, and the very nature of the religion is you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-your-back. But Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it [there’s creation—Genesis 1–2] is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17:24). Paul doesn’t mean by that that God may not disclose himself in a temple in some sense. What he means is that God cannot be reduced to the temple where he is manipulated and domesticated by a priestly class. You can’t get him into a position where you can manipulate him to do your will because he’s in a certain temple and certain priests in the know can figure out exactly what sacrifices to offer him and exactly what ritual to go through provided you pay with enough cash. The God of the Bible is too big for that; he made everything, and he’s sovereign over the whole lot.
Then Paul says this: “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). Isn’t that remarkable? God doesn’t need you. He certainly doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need our praise bands. It’s not as if God gets to Thursday afternoon and starts saying, “Oh boy, I can hardly wait until Sunday when they crack out those guitars again. I’m feeling pretty lonely. I need to be stroked up here.” He doesn’t need our worship. He doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need anything. In eternity past before there was anything, God was, and he was entirely full of joy and contentment. Even then he was a loving God because in the complexity of God’s oneness (in categories we’ll see in due course as this series goes on) the Father loved the Son (we’ll come to those categories). There was an otherness right within God himself. He didn’t make us because he was lonely and thought, “You know, my job as God will be a little more palatable if I make an image-bearer or two who strokes me once in a while.” He doesn’t need us.
Now don’t misunderstand: that does not mean that he does not respond to us, that he might not delight in us, that he might not be displeased with us. It doesn’t mean any of those things. He does respond to us, but he responds not out of some intrinsic need in his own being or character but out of the entire volition of his perfections and will—not because he does not foresee the future, not because he has let things get out of control, not because he has abandoned his sovereignty, not because he is not sovereign, not because he is psychologically damaged, not because he needs something—but out the perfections of all that he is with all of his characteristics and attributes, he responds always in line with all of his attributes all the time. He is never less than God. Can you imagine how hard it was for Paul to get that point across to a bunch of sophisticated academics whose entire notion of religion was bound up with you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-your-back?
To make it even steeper, Paul adds another line: “Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). We need him. This is also coming out of Genesis 1, 2, and 3: “life and breath and everything else.”
When the Lord Jesus was alive at the beginning of the first century, he taught that not a sparrow falls from the heavens without God’s sanction. The very hairs of your head are numbered. That means in my case that God’s keeping a rapidly subtracting account, and he knows them all, even the disappearing ones. And every breath I draw is by his sanction. I’m dependent upon him, Paul reminds us, for life and breath and everything else—for food, for health. I am an utterly dependent creature. I’m not the creator.
Now how are you going to have a relationship with a God like that? He’s not just some mushy grandfather, and he’s not distant. He’s as sovereign as the deists want, but he’s a lot more personal. And he has no needs; you’ve got nothing to barter with. The only reason you’re still around is because he sanctions it.
Last week one of my friends who taught at a seminary in Dallas—a good man, teacher of the New Testament, author of major books, father of three children, one a missionary in Siberia, one a missionary in Russia, and one a missionary in Afghanistan—was out jogging. He came home, laid down, and died. Not a blessed thing he could do about it. If your heart keeps beating, it’s because God’s sanctions it. And if he ever says, “You fool, tonight your soul will be required of you,” you die. Or if he ever says, “Come home, my child. Now’s the time. Your work is done,” you go. How are you going to barter with a God like that? “God, I’ll give you ten percent.” He owns you. He owns your life. He owns the whole planet. What does that mean? “Lord, I’ll become a missionary.” Will that make me a better person? “I’ll become a deacon in church.” No, there’s only one way that you’re going to have a relationship with this kind of God, and that is if he displays sovereign grace because he doesn’t owe you anything. You and I are rebels, and we’ve got nothing to barter with.
The way sovereign grace—God’s decision to be gracious to some people—works out in the Bible is in a number of different structures. Sometimes what God does is graciously give promises of what he’s going to do so that people learn to take him at his word, to trust his word, and to look forward to what he’s going to do. Sometimes God enters into formal agreements with them. Those formal agreements are called in the Bible “covenants,” and they often mirror covenants that were well known in the ancient world so that we sometimes speak of the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses and so forth. He’s the God who writes his own agreements, but here again his grace is spectacularly displayed.
We come, then, to Genesis 12. What’s gone on in the intervening chapters is not particularly pretty. Abominations have multiplied until God has wiped out nearly the entire planet with a flood. Just a handful of people are spared, but the leader, Noah, promptly gets drunk. By the preceding chapter, there is a rebellion towering through the land again, defying God. And now in Genesis 12 we’re told,
The Lord had said to Abram [his name is later changed to Abraham—I’ll keep calling him Abraham], “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Now he had been in a place called Ur in ancient Babylon, then he moved to the city called Haran. Now God is telling him to go to what would eventually become the land of Israel. Now God promises him these things:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2–3)
That’s a promise. Later on the promise is further elucidated. His descendants would be as the sand of the sea. His promised son through whom all of this would come would come from his old age. At this point he’s seventy-five years old. He’s an old man. He’s wife is getting up there, too, but nevertheless, the promise is that this child will come from the union of Abraham and Sarah his wife. Abraham goes through periods of doubt and uncertainty. He tries to short-circuit things by sleeping with somebody else. It’s a pretty messy story. But ultimately God keeps his promise. They have this child named Isaac.
Isaac eventually marries, and his wife gives birth to twins, and before the twins are born, God says to them mother, “You have twins inside you. Let me tell you: the older will serve the younger.” In that culture that didn’t happen, but in God’s sovereignty he chose the younger one before either child had done anything good or evil—just out of God’s sovereign grace he chose one above the other and predicted what would happen and preserved a certain line down through the years generation after generation, generation after generation, until the tribes multiplied and multiplied and eventually possessed the land. And in the midst of all of these promises, this one stands out, too: “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). This is God graciously, sovereignly promising something.
But then comes not only promise but covenant. In Genesis 17 we read,
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him. “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. [There’s a pun in the original.] I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17:1–10)
Now this is all very remarkable. Then at the end of the chapter, we’re told,
On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. (Genesis 17:23)
So here is a covenantal structure, and in between Genesis 12 and 17 is another chapter that speaks of the covenant: Genesis 15. At the beginning of the chapter, God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). Then at later in the chapter, “Abram fell into a deep sleep” (Genesis 15:12), and he experiences a spectacularly weird vision. The setup for it comes when Abram asks God the question:
“Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. (Genesis 15:8–10)
So now you’ve got a heifer cut into two halves, a ram cut into two halves, a goat cut in two halves, one bird on one side and one on the other.
Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram . . . . (Genesis 15:11–18)
What’s going on? This is bizarre. When we speak today of writing our own agreements, this is not usually what happens at the final signing ceremony.
There were different kinds of covenant in the ancient world. Sometimes you had covenants between a sovereign regional superpower and small vassal states. The regional super power—the Assyrians at some points in time, the Babylonians at others, the Hittites at others—they would arrange an agreement, a covenant. Basically, the covenant said, “We will look after you. We will secure your borders. We will make sure that you are protected against enemies. And you—you will pay your taxes and show allegiance to us” and so on. It was an agreement between the two parties. Then there would be various curses called down, and if either side does not fulfill the terms of this covenant, then may these disgusting things happen to them. Obviously, it was in the power of the regional superpower to impose the nasties, not the other way around, but that’s the way they were written. Sometimes one of the signs of this was to take animals, tear them apart, put them side by side with a kind of bloody alleyway between the two parts, and then the two sides of the covenant would walk between the divided animals so as to signify “May this be done to me if I break this covenant. May I be torn apart. May I be cut in half.”
So Abraham prepares the animals, but obviously God isn’t a human being to walk with him between animals. Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and in his sleep he sees a firepot, something to represent the presence of God, but what is so stunning is that instead of the firepot moving between the animals side by side with Abraham (so that the two of them are saying “May it be done to us if either of us breaks the covenant”), God goes through all by himself. He takes the full responsibility for the fulfillment of the covenant all by himself. That’s grace. Abraham will sin. Isaac his son will be a wimp. The next son, Jacob, learns some lessons on the long haul, but he is a trickster and a deceiver all the way through. He has twelve sons: one of them is sleeping with his father’s concubine; another is sleeping with his daughter-in-law; ten of those sons can’t figure out whether to murder the eleventh or to sell him into slavery. And these are the patriarchs! And still God doesn’t wipe them out. He has sworn in this symbolic act. Oh, they are to practice the sign of the covenant that they are the children of the covenant, so they practice circumcision generation after generation. That’s fine. But then as the years go by and the moral tide swings up and down, it is horrendous to see how much damage and destruction are done, and God still is forbearing because he promises to keep his covenant. He will protect them. He will bring them into this land. And from their seed will come someone through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
There’s one more chapter to think about.
Genesis 22 takes place after the favored son Isaac has been born. There we’re told,
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:1–2)
So he gets there. The son, who is about thirteen, says,
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (Genesis 22:7–8)
But in a horrendous scene, Abraham eventually stretches his own son out on this altar and is about to kill him—to sacrifice his own son.
But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said.
“Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son. I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:11–18)
Now you might begin by saying, “Boy, oh boy, what kind of God wants someone to sacrifice his own son?” In the pagan religions of the time, it was not all that uncommon for parents to sacrifice their own sons. There was one particular pagan god who was pictured as holding a big stone pot in its hands, and a fire would be built under the pot until it was glowing red. Parents would sometimes throw in their screaming children into this pot. That was not all that uncommon. It was a mark of devotion. But the whole point of the story is that that is not what God wants. How can you possibly please God that way? To use this as a kind of test according to the cultural norms of the day: “Do you have the kind of trust in me that the pagans seem to have for their gods? Their false gods? Their murderous gods to whom they’re willing to give their own sons?” But when the push comes to the shove, “Don’t you understand? I provide the sacrifice! How can you ever please me by sacrificing your son?” This is in due course encoded into law in the Old Testament that it is a horrendous crime to sacrifice your children over against all the cultural pressures of the day because this is a God with whom we can have a relationship, not because he has needs and wants us to sacrifice his children, but because in sovereign grace he provides a lamb. He provides a sacrifice. What he wants of us is that we turn to him wholly and say in effect, “You are God. You are Lord. You are sovereign. I am dependent upon you. I need you. I will obey you.” For all the failures in Abraham’s life and in your life and mine, God provides the sacrificial lamb. The stories and the accounts begin to multiply and multiply and multiply through the Old Testament in anticipation of the time when God will provide a sacrifice that far exceeds the value of some ram caught in a thicket.
Let us pray: We confess, Lord God, that in a digital world full of countless material blessings and a world of nuclear physics and an astonishingly fast pace, it takes an effort to think our way through these passages, but we begin to glimpse that you are the sovereign God to whom we owe everything. And the very heart of our rebellion is the desire to be god instead of you, to run things ourselves, to barter with you. We make messes that are damaging to ourselves and to family and to the culture at large, to the relationships among nations, everything from petty one-upmanship to racism and genocide and everything in between. Yet at the heart of all of it we confess is this horrendous rebellion, this idolatry that demands that we be our own gods. Open our eyes, Lord God, that we may see your sovereign independence, your glory, your patience with us so that we are not destroyed, the way you took time across countless generations to show what a gracious sovereign God you are until in the fullness of time you sent your own Son to be the lamb of God who really does take away our sin. Open our eyes and our hearts, Lord God, that we may be drawn, ineffably, inescapably to him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Don Carson explains Exodus 20, Leviticus 16, and Exodus 32-34.
I suspect that one of the most objections against Christians and against Christianity in the West today is that Christians are intrinsically narrow and bigoted. They hold that certain things are true and that certain things are not true. They distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. They have their own rules of conduct, of morality. Some things they approve, and some things they disapprove. This is arrogant. It is divisive. Instead of building up civic community and establish a genuinely tolerant society, it has the inevitable result of proving divisive. For those who are brought up in some of the strongest postmodern trends under the influence of, say, Michel Foucault, then all claims to speak the truth are really claims to power; they are forms of manipulation. Instead of fostering freedom, they merely engender constraint.
And yet when you look at the claims on the surface, they are problematic. No community is completely inclusive. Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, likes to give this example: Supposing you have a gay-lesbian-transgender committee working in some big city, working in inclusiveness, they get along pretty well together. They’re trying to strengthen their hand. Then let us suppose that one of their number comes to one of the committee meetings one day and says, “You know this has been embarrassing, but I’ve had this strange religious experience. I’ve met this odd bunch of people—they’re Christians—and my whole life has been changed. I just don’t view things the same way. I’m not convinced anymore that homosexuality is merely an alternative lifestyle.” And the others say to him, “Well, we think that you’re dead wrong on that, but you’re welcome to your views. We still want to cherish you.” And then as the weeks go by, the tensions build up because they’re heading in different directions. They have different values that they are espousing until eventually the people on the committee say to this committee member, “You know, you really don’t espouse our views anymore. You’re heading in another direction. Your perception of right and wrong are different from our perception of right and wrong. We’re not sure that you belong in this committee anymore. We think that it’d be a good thing for you to resign.” They have just engaged in excommunication.
It is impossible to be completely, endlessly open because even that very endless openness is predicated upon the assumption that that endless openness is a good thing such that if somebody then begins to say, “It’s not a good thing to be endlessly open,” then they feel like they must reject that person precisely because they cannot be endlessly open to the person who does have their view of being endlessly open. In other words, in a finite world in any community, there are inevitably boundaries. There are inevitably inclusions and exclusions.
Moreover, even appeal to truth is inevitable. In an earlier generation, often truth was analyzed to death under the rubric of psychiatry and psychology. That’s changing again now. A generation ago the popular lyricist Anna Russell to the mickey out of this me-generation with its forms of explaining away all strange behavior:
I went to my psychiatrist
To be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat
And blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch
To see what he could find,
So this is what he dredge-ed up
From my subconscious mind:
When I was one, my mommy hid
My dolly in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally
That I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father
Kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now
At three, I had the feeling of
Ambivilance towards my brothers,
And so it follows naturally
I poisoned all my lovers.
But I am happy; now I’ve learned
The lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong
Is someone else’s fault.
That was a generation ago. Now we handle things just a wee bit differently. Now we say that truth is shaped by community. Truth at the end of the day is merely what some particular group or individual perceives: what is true for you may not be true for me. But, of course, if you hold that view, then you’re holding that that perspective is true. At the end of the day you simply cannot escape the notion of truth. Moreover, freedom cannot itself be endlessly open-ended. Would you like to be free to play the piano extremely well? Then inevitably you must learn a lot of discipline, that certain chords sound right and certain chords to not sound right. There are principles of the way music works. Do you want to be free to have a really, really excellent trusting, joyous marriage? If you do, then you are not free to do certain things. In other words, an endless openness towards freedom becomes a kind of slavery.
All of these things have to be borne in mind when we come to the Bible and discover that God (here in the passages we’re going to look at in this first session) legislates. He proscribes rules. Unless we’re willing to think outside of our own cultural Western box, we may find that somewhat offensive. Yet within the Bible’s storyline, we discover that it’s actually part of joyous freedom under the God who made us.
Let me pick up on the Bible’s storyline from where we left off last where we ended with the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), having been called by God to constitute a kind of new humanity that would enter into a covenant relationship with him. They continued in the land of Israel (as it would later be called), in the land of Canaan, as nomads looking after their vast herds until the time came when because of famine they moved down in a block to Egypt. As the centuries slipped by and their numbers multiplied, eventually they became serfs and slaves to the Egyptians. There was still a heritage of this religion fostered by the God who would disclose himself to Abraham the patriarch. This band of Hebrews multiplied; this band of people who ultimately became Jews or Israelites flourished, and yet they flourished under slavery and captivity.
In due course God raised up a man named Moses. Moses himself was a Hebrew, but through strange circumstances he had been brought up in the royal court. He thought that he’d side as a young man with his people and ended up killing an Egyptian and fleeing for his life. He spent most of his life as a shepherd on the backside of the desert, but at the age of eighty he heard the voice of God to go back and lead the people out of slavery, out of Egypt. In Exodus 3, Moses gives all the reasons that he really shouldn’t go: he’s too old, and he doesn’t speak very well. Somebody else should go. He is still a wanted man in Egypt.
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13–15)
In other words God does give himself a name (“I am who I am. . . . I am has sent me to you”), but it’s not a name that puts him in a box. He is what he is. “I am who I am.” And he defines himself as it were for people like Moses, for people like us, as he progressively discloses himself across the centuries. He’s the eternal subject. He’s not somebody else’s object that can be categorized and delimited. He is what he says he is. He is what he discloses of himself. He is. “Tell them ‘I am has sent me to you.’” And eventually, then, Moses does lead the people out of slavery. You may have heard of the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea and so forth. He does lead them out.
Eventually they come to a mountain in the desert: Mount Sinai. They still have not arrived at the promised land. On Mount Sinai, God constructs a covenant. He writes another agreement with them. There was (we saw last chapter) an agreement or covenant with Abraham that was grounded in promise of what God would do conditional merely on God being God. God himself put himself symbolically through the parts of those animals to say, “This is what I will do. It is unthinkable that anything else could be done. I will bless you. I will secure you. I will raise up your seed, make you a great nation, and ultimately through your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Now God enters into a covenant with the entire nation. We sometimes call it the Mosaic Covenant. In the New Testament it is once or twice referred to as the “old covenant” because it is the covenant that belonged to the people of God in the “Old Testament.” The covenant that Jesus introduces is then called the “new covenant.” This old covenant specifies forms of religion, how the nation is to organize itself, who the priests are, and so forth. (We’ll come to some of those structures in a few minutes.)
Right at the heart of this covenant is a group of verses that provide us with the ten commandments. They are described in two places in the Old Testament. The place we’ll look at is Exodus 20:1–19:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
These are the ten commandments. They are often said to be divided into two tables: the first four have to do with the people’s relationship with God, and the second table, covering six, have to do with relationships among each other (not committing adultery, telling the truth, and so forth). It’s worth going through them quickly.
The first of the Ten Commandments enjoins us to recognize the exclusiveness of God: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Now notice the context in which that’s given. “I’m the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out the land of slavery.” In the broader account so far, he’s the God who has made everybody. He’s the God to whom we give an account, who gives us life and breath and health and strength and everything else. That’s true for all human beings, but these particular human beings have actually been brought out of slavery. In that context God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
This is a fairly constantly reiterated theme in the Bible. Two chapters further on: “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20). A chapter after that: “Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips” (Exodus 23:13). Eleven chapters later: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Or again: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:5). “Surely God is with you, and there is no other; there is no other god” (Isaiah 45:14).
Among ourselves we’re worried a little bit about the notion of a jealous God. Do you want your mate to be constantly jealous? And yet even within the context of marriage, surely you want some kind of jealousy, don’t you? Or is it going to be the kind of open marriage where both parties are allowed to sleep around with no repercussions—everybody’s happy with that? Isn’t there a sense in which if you really are committed to each other a certain kind of jealousy to preserve the relationship is seen to be a good thing, a healthy thing, a wise reaction? And that’s among pairs, between peers. Now you have God, the one God who made everything. We’re back to the situation we discovered in Genesis 3. The very nature of the first rebellion was idolatry. What is God supposed to say? “Ah, make it up as you go along. Choose your own god. I don’t really care.” It denies who he is. It denies his role as Creator. He sustains all of life. We are all dependent upon him, and now what shall he say (this is really cute)? You can make your own gods? The Lord, whose name is jealous.
But the fact of the matter is that this is also for their good. If he were to say, “You can do what you want,” they will simply slide into endless self-exonerations, self-love, self-focus. They will be indistinguishable from the pagans all around them. Pretty soon they will be offering their children to Moloch, the god that we described last night. Why not? The neighbors are doing it. This God-centeredness that God insists upon is for their good. It is in fact an act of love, of great generosity. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2–3). The first of the Ten Commandments enjoins us to recognize the exclusiveness of God.
The second enjoins us to recognize the transcendence of God. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20:4) The prohibition preserves the distinction between Creator and created thing. As soon as you start saying “God looks like this” (whether a fish or a mountain or a human being), somehow God gets reduced. He becomes something that we can encapsulate, domesticate, and thus in some measure control. But we saw that from the beginning, that’s not the way it should be. There is but one Creator, and he is to be distinguished from all of the created order. God must not be domesticated.
The third of the Ten Commandments enjoins us to recognize the importance of God. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7). In the ancient world, the name of a person was tightly tied to the identity and character of the person. For a person to misuse God’s name was in some sense to slur him. Thus, when the Bible enjoins us to give glory to his glorious name as in Psalm 72:19, it is to give glory to God. It is to praise God himself.
The reason that we are not to say, “Oh, God!” or hit our thumb with a hammer and say “Jesus!” is precisely because it diminishes God. If you turn to the person who has just used Jesus’ name because he has hit his thumb with a hammer and say, “I wish you wouldn’t use my Savior’s name like that”—if you were to say that, he would probably reply, “I don’t mean anything by it.” But that’s the point! It’s not profane because you’ve spoken the magic word that you’re not really allowed to use; only priests can say the right abracadabra. That’s not the point. It’s using the name in a common way. Profanity simply is the commoning on something. We’re dealing with God. To make him common is to diminish him and cheapen him.
The fourth of the Ten Commandments enjoins us to recognize God’s right of reign over every domain of life including time in which we live and move and have our being.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8–11)
This pattern was established in creation. God in creation did his creative work in the creation week and then stopped on the seventh day, and it establishes a kind of time cycle in the human order. There is a place for rest.
We could work through the rest of the commandments, but let me make some observations . . . . run through several things quickly.
(1) The chapter begins, “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). He’s still a talking God, not only with the kind of speech that calls the universe into existence but with a kind of speech that interacts with his image-bearers. Later on we’re told, “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more” (Deuteronomy 5:22). He spoke.
(2) These Ten Commandments have a central place in the old covenant. They are cited by later prophets (Hosea in the fourth century and Jeremiah at the end of the seventh and into the sixth century), in the Psalms, and they’re actually referred to in the New Testament.
(3) These first four commandments lead to the next six. Because God is who he is, because he is to be honored and revered, therefore, we are to behave in a certain kind of way among ourselves.
(4) Above all the Ten Commandments are related to God’s self-disclosure in a gracious redemptive act right at the very beginning. He is the God who called the people out of slavery, and then he says, “And therefore you shall act in this way.”
These are the Ten Commandments, but they are not the only kinds of laws that God gives. In addition to these laws, God sets up an entire structure of ritual. He ordains that a tabernacle be built (a big tent, a kind of proto-temple), and it was to be built a certain way. He provides exactly the dimensions and the design, and they go ahead and build it. It’s basically a room three times as long as it is wide. Two-thirds of it is set off from the last-third, which is thus a perfect square. In fact, it’s a perfect cube; the dimensions of its length, height, and width are all exactly the same. The first larger room is called the holy place; the second room, hidden from the first room by a veil, is called the Most Holy Place. Outside of the tent there is a place for sacrificing animals; inside this tent, this tabernacle, there is a variety of accoutrements: a lampstand, a place where bread is set out week by week, and other matters that we won’t go into.
Outside of all of this there are various courtyards where people gather. It’s a very simple sort of construction in many ways—not exactly the kind of cathedral you’d get in Italy or in Canterbury, some massive structure. It’s a tent. And inside the Most Holy Place is a box. It’s called the ark of the covenant, the ark of the agreement, and it holds certain elements including a copy of the Ten Commandments.
On top of this box in the Most Holy Place something takes place once a year. What God does is ordain a special class of people, namely, some priests. All of these priests are drawn from one of the tribes of the ancient Hebrews, and one of these priests once a year is supposed to take the blood of a slaughtered goat and a slaughtered bull and take it behind the veil and sprinkle it on the top of that ark. That happens on the day that is called “the Day of Atonement.” Meanwhile, outside there’s another animal, another goat, that has been taken out into the desert to wander away. And we think, “What sort of religion is this with its bloody animals and goats?” These, too, are parts of the thing that God ordains. In this case the description is found in the next book of the Bible: Leviticus 16. Leviticus is a book that describes many of the priestly sacrifices and what they signify and so forth, but it’s worth taking a moment to read what is to happen on the Day of Atonement. This, too, is prescribed by God, the God who legislates.
The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron [i.e., Moses’ brother] who died when they approached the Lord. The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
“This is how Aaron [who is the high priest] is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 16:1–5)
Then the entire ritual is described. One goat—the one that is not to be killed—he puts his hand on the goat’s head. It’s a way of signifying that the sins of himself and his family and the sins of the people, are being transferred as it were to this goat that then takes the sin away. It goes out into the desert. The sin of the other animals, a ram and bull, are slaughtered, and their blood is captured in a little pan and taken in and sprinkled on top of the ark of the covenant, which is a way of saying that someone has died—someone has paid the price of death—for the sins of the priests and his family and for the sins of the people. That is to happen once a year every year. And that’s the only time that the high priest is allowed into the Most Holy Place, that perfect cube of a room.
I’m mentioning these details because you will see by the end of this series that all of these details are picked up later in the Bible. The fact that the room is a cube—it’s picked up in the Bible. The ark of the covenant—it’s picked up a little later. This blood of bulls and goats—it’s picked up a little later. But do you see where we are in the developing storyline? God has displayed himself as a God who holds his people to account. He has already sent Adam and Eve away from his presence. How do you get back into his presence? How to you get reconciled to this God? In fact, what you discover is that all of these sacrifices are needed in some sense to indicate that death is still going to prevail because there is still so much sin even among the covenant people. Abraham was a sinner. Isaac and Jacob were sinners. The patriarchs were sinners. And now the people of God—this covenant community, this people with whom God establishes his covenant—are terrible sinners, too. This brings us to another passage in this collection of books. It’s one of the most shocking.
What is depicted here is the descent of Moses from Mount Sinai when he is first bringing down the Ten Commandments chiseled onto tables of stone. He’s accompanied by a young man at this juncture named Joshua, who will ultimately become Moses’ successor. As they approach the camp, they hear a lot of noise, and Joshua doesn’t know what it is. Is this a happy sound? Is this a good sound? Moses discerns what it is: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear” (Exodus 32:18). And they discover that while Moses was away for a period of time (some weeks), this people that had just been saved from slavery and that had been exposed to God’s gracious self-discloser—this people that were on the edge of moving into a promised land and being constituted as a nation—somehow reduced this God who had done this to an image of calf. “We don’t know where this Moses is. He’s been away for several weeks now. We’re not convinced that this God is so transcendent an other; we would like some image that portrays him. Can’t we have a god that we can look at and touch like the neighbors all around us?”
Aaron, Moses’ brother who has been left in charge, is frightened by what’s going on, and he says, “Well, give me your gold earrings and gold rings, and we’ll see what we can do.” And eventually he produces a lovely little gold calf, and the people are having a wild party around this god, a kind of pagan worship that becomes more and more enthusiastic. It’s the sound of singing that Moses hears as he comes down the mountain—but not singing of adoration and worship of the God who is there, but of a domesticated god that can be touched and kissed and fawned over. “This is the god that brought you out of the land of Egypt,” they sing. In the horrible scenes that follow, God threatens to wipe out the entire nation and start over again, perhaps with Moses. Moses intercedes with God in prayer (Exodus 33). Moses feels terribly alone, let down by his own brother.
Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me [i.e., God has sent his brother with him, and now Aaron’s not there]. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” (Exodus 33:12–13)
That is, “I didn’t choose them. I didn’t take them out of the land of Egypt. I’m just your spokesperson. You have to do what needs to be done with them. I can’t change their hearts. I can’t finally save them. I can’t redeem them. They’re your people. They’re not mine. Meanwhile, who will you send with me?” In fact, God had promised that he wouldn’t go with him anymore. If he went with him anymore, there sin in proximity to his transcendence and holiness would simply mean that he would end up destroying them. But instead . . .
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)
Rest. Where have we heard that language before? Do you remember at the end of creation week that God rests? Going into the promised land is often depicted as going into the land of rest. Now God promises that despite the sin he will go with the people. He will be forbearing. He will lead them into rest.
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” (Exodus 33:15)
What any people must have is the presence of the living God. It’s not enough in any church simply to have the right rituals and the right sermons and the right kind of music. If God does not manifest himself in some way, if he is not present, then what’s the point of the whole exercise? Is religion merely something that is structured into a kind of ritual heritage? Or is it bound up with being reconciled to the God who made us, who holds us to account? “If your presence does not go with us, what’s the point in the exercise?”
How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16)
There’s no point in merely being different because we have rules. We must have God.
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” (Exodus 33:17–18)
It’s one thing to walk by faith, to know that God has spoken, but “Please,” Moses says, “can’t I see something of the manifestation of your transcendence? How spectacular you are—can’t I see that? Can’t I have more of that?
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you [i.e., God’s glory (verse 18) manifested somehow in his goodness—pay attention to those words; we’ll come back to them when we study Jesus later on], and I will proclaim my name, the Lord in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19–20)
Sometimes “Lord” occurs in small capital letters because in Hebrew there is a set of four letters (YHWH or Yahweh) by which God himself has disclosed himself: “I am who I am.” God proclaims his own name. He names himself amidst all the plural gods in the neighborhood, God is saying, “This is who I am. This is the God who is there. I will proclaim my name, the Lord (Yahweh) in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” How do you deal with a God with whom you cannot barter, who has no needs? It must be a work of sovereign grace: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” “But if what you are really asking for is that you may see me up close and personal, face to face, then God says, you cannot see my face for no one may see me and live. (Note this passage well. We’ll be coming back to it.)
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:21–23)
Then you get this unbelievably spectacular account in Exodus 34. Moses hides himself. The Lord goes by somehow and intones certain words. After the Lord has gone by, Moses is permitted to peak out and see something of the trailing edge of the afterglow of the glory of the Lord. That’s what he’s allowed to see. As the Lord goes by, not seen as it were face to face, the words that he intones are these:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
That’s what he intones. We could easily spend the rest of our fourteen hours together merely unpacking all the things that God says of himself: “I am who I am.” And now he begins to flesh out what he is. God as he presents himself in the very first part of the Bible already exists. He is not defined in advance and then proved in a mathematical theorem. He is, and who he is and what he is becomes progressively disclosed through time. He’s the “I am”; he is what he is.
On the one hand, he is compassionate and gracious. Why? If he had not been compassionate and gracious, at the end of Genesis 3 the human race would have ended right there. There would have been only judgment. Death was the promise, and God instead was forbearing. He abounds in love and faithfulness (we’ll come across that later, too), maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness and rebellion and sin. Yet although he’s a God of forgiveness, he does not fit into that first model that we saw in the last chapter where God is really like a super-granddaddy with a long white beard whose sole business is forgiving and being nice. He’s also the God who does not leave the guilty unpunished. Oh, there’s tension built right into that, isn’t there? We’ve just been told that he does forgive sin, and we’re also told that he can’t pretend it’s not there. He does not leave the guilty unpunished.
He punishes the children and their children for the sake of their parents to the third and fourth generation. This is because sin is social. Sin is never merely individualistic. Sin is social. You cannot commit any sin no matter how private without it having repercussions, not only in your own life but in the community where you live. Maybe it’s a very private secret focusing on porn, and you think it’s not doing any damage to anybody but you (if it’s doing any damage there at all). But of course you focus in secret on porn, and it changes how you view the opposite sex, which changes your family dynamics, which changes what affects there are on children: your modeling, your conduct. Your sin has social implications to the second, third, and fourth generation. God transcends it all.
On the one hand, he is said to be the God who forgives. On the other hand, he is said to be the God who does not leave the guilty unpunished. The closest you get to resolving it in the old covenant, in the Mosaic covenant, is that once a year this priest places his hands on the head of a goat and sends it off to sort of symbolize sin being removed. Then he takes the blood of another goat and of a bull and takes it into the very presence of God in the Most Holy Place over the ark of the covenant and sprinkles it there, God manifesting himself in some sense of glory, saying, “We deserve to die. These animals died in our place. Will this do? It’s what you’ve prescribed. Will this do? Will you not have mercy on us in our sin, our defection?” For the truth is that although law is extraordinarily important, the law finally cannot save. The people were idolaters before the law was given. When the law comes along and says, “Yeah, but you’re not supposed to do that. You’re not supposed to make images of me. There is no other God besides me. And you’re not supposed to commit murder.” In fact, the people have already been drowned in forms of idolatry for countless years. Now what the law does is formalize it. It multiplies the transgression. It makes us see that we’re defying God. Some people no doubt try to hew the line a little bit better, and then when there is sin, the law provides these animals to somehow cover sin, expiate sin, cancel sin. Is that any long-term solution?
Do you know what the most remarkable demonstration is that you find in the Bible to show that the law cannot finally save us and reconcile us to God? What are the first five books? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. They’re often called the books of Moses. At the very end of the last one, Deuteronomy, the last chapter, Moses himself does not get into the promised land. Moses is called the meekest man who ever lived; he is the one who mediates this covenant; he is the hero who in his old age is organizing the nation, setting up a system of priests and judicial structure, justice, and integrity, leading the people again and again. But he blows it here and there. He sins, too, and gets violent with God and then consequently even he doesn’t get into the promised land. The law cannot finally save.
But what it has provided is the vehicle in which God has disclosed himself again as the one who pursues his own people, provides a sacrificial structure, a vehicle in which God in his nature, his desire to forgive, his insistence that sin be punished, all be brought together until a millennium and a half later this side of the death of Jesus another writer writes a book in the New Testament—the last part of the Bible. We call it the letter to the Hebrews. And he invites his readers in chapters 9 and 10 to look back on the old sacrificial system and say, “Don’t you understand? That sacrifice of a bull and of a goat can’t ever deal finally with sin? How can it deal finally with sin when they have to do it again and again year after year, year after year, year after year? How can the blood of a bull and a goat pay for sin in any case? In what sense does the bull itself offer a sacrifice? Does the bull come up and say, ‘All right, I’ll die for you. Slit my throat’? Where precisely is the moral value in this sacrifice?” The author points out, “Listen, intrinsically, the blood of a bull and goat can’t take away sin.
Now the old Day of Atonement, held every year, is passed because we have the ultimate sacrifice for sin: Jesus himself, who did shed his blood on our behalf, a perfectly moral sacrifice. He offers up his life, and he takes our death and bears our sin away in a way that no animal ever could, the law pointing forward to that sole means of reconciling rebels to himself.
Here is the God who legislates, and even in his legislation he points us to Jesus.
Don Carson explains 2 Samuel 7.
What do we conjure up in our minds when we hear a word like “king” or “monarch”? The last king that America had, King George III, by and large is not in very good odor. We’re a republic, thank you—a democratic republic. And we probably don’t want to go quite so far in our anti-royalty and anti-clerical assessment of things as Voltaire, who said that he would be satisfied when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last bishop or the last priest. But still whatever kings or monarchs there are in the world, we’re pretty glad they’re over there. Or if we’re in a more positive mood, we might think of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and then we concede that royal pomp has its attractions. They sure know how to put on a decent royal wedding, don’t they, with prancing horses and gold-encrusted chariots and spectacular crowns and those long trumpets with such a shrill piercing sound? There’s something pretty nice about that, isn’t there? Mind you, her majesty Queen Elizabeth II is a constitutional monarch, which is really is a polite way of saying that she doesn’t have much power. She is limited by a constitutional structure, apart from whatever moral suasion she advice and apart from any advice she gives to her prime minister. In fact, she really has only two powers constitutionally left, and if she exercises them without the sanction of her prime minister, there would be a general election, and she wouldn’t get her way in any case.
That’s very different, let’s say, than the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Although there is some constraint from the larger family, this is closer to an absolute kingdom. It’s different again from the kingdom of Thailand. The Thais love their king. Your really cannot speak any word against royalty in Thailand. The people wouldn’t have it even though the limitations on his power there are really quite significant as well.
So perceptions of what we even mean by “king” and “monarch” differ in different parts of the world, don’t they? But certainly in biblical times there was no understanding of what we mean today by “constitutional monarch.” If you’re a king, you reign. That’s what kings do. You have the authority. The fact of the matter is that God is often presented in Scripture as being the king. The Psalms say, for example, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35). This is another way of saying that the exercise of his sovereignty covers absolutely every domain. That is built into the very creation account: he made everything; it’s all his, and he continues to reign. He’s sovereign over the whole lot. In that sense you’re in the kingdom of God whether you like it or not. You can’t not be in the kingdom of God. Even those who disbelieve him, who hate him, and who think that there are other gods are in this God’s kingdom if he really does reign over all.
But the notion of the kingdom of God—the reign of God—is in fact very flexible in Scripture. You have to pay attention to the context to make sense of what is being said in some particular passage or other. In the Old Testament, once God has called his people—the Hebrews, the Israelites—to himself, first with the covenant with Abraham and then with the covenant under Moses’ leadership, God is still understood to be the king of his people. God himself is to be their ruler, their king. In that sense the Israelites constitute his nation. You are under his kingship in that sense only if you belong to this covenant community.
But after the people eventually got into the promised land, they went through cycles that were really depressing. After two or three generations, what they remembered of God’s kindness in the past—of how he had spared them, how he had secured them, how he had provided for all of their needs—was forgotten, and they became virtually indifferentiable from the pagans all around them. Then eventually God sanctioned temporal judgments of various kinds (they were attacked by other tribes living in the area—Midianites or others), and eventually they cried out to God again for mercy, forbearance, and forgiveness. God then raises up a judge. These judges lead the people in renewal and in small pitched battles against some of their oppressors, and the people reestablish themselves and renew their covenantal vows to be faithful before God. Then in another two or three generations, everybody forgets, slides down in ignominian shame to forms of really awful debauchery, let alone the idolatry that underlies it. Then God raises up another judge, and the cycle begins all over again. You read the book of Judges, and the cycles downward are so appalling that in the last two or three chapters it’s really difficult to read them in public. They are so grotesque and barbaric. As the book progresses, you begin to hear a refrain: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25). It’s the way the book ends: bloody mayhem. “Oh God, how we need a king.”
Then as the story advances, you start discovering that some people want a king not so they can be a little more secure, so that somebody in authority can hold them to be covenantally faithful or any of that sort of thing, to police things when the moral fabric is being torn apart. No, no. Some of them want a king simply so that they can be like the pagan nations all around, all of whom have their petty kings. “We would like to be them. They seem to have things in civil order. We would like to have exactly the same sort of constitutional arrangement.” God says, “All right, you asked for it. Choose the best man you can find.” And eventually they choose a strapping young man by the name of Saul, who seems suitably humble, diffident (he doesn’t really want the job), careful; he loves the Lord. Within his lifetime he becomes a corrupt, paranoid, fearful, ungodly man who unsatisfied with just being king also wants to be priest. And anybody whom he sees as a threat to his authority, he wants to kill. It’s a mess.
But God raises up yet another king. He says, “Now let me show you at least in principle what a good king would be like. Here is a man after my own heart. His name is David.” So after Saul is gone, David becomes king. Initially he turns out to be a very good king, an able administrator. He secures the frontier; he unites the tribes. Eventually he moves his capital from the little town of Hebron to Jerusalem—modern Jerusalem. He establishes himself there, brings a measure of order and peace and prosperity.
Now we pick up the account in 2 Samuel 7.
After the king [i.e., King David] was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:1–2)
That’s the ark of God that we spoke of in the last chapter. The ark was a box that held certain elements in it, including the Ten Commandments, in the Most Holy Place where the blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. It’s still in a tent—a tabernacle. “I’m living in a cedar palace. The place where God meets with his priests is a pretty scrappy tent. By this point this is about 1000 BC.
Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”
But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”‘
“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.
“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by human beings, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”
Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation.
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said:
“Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant—and this decree, Sovereign Lord, is for a human being!
“What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, Sovereign Lord. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant.
“How great you are, Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears. And who is like your people Israel—the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt? You have established your people Israel as your very own forever, and you, Lord, have become their God.
“And now, Lord God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then people will say, ‘The Lord Almighty is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will be established in your sight.
“Lord Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you.’ So your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. Sovereign Lord, you are God! Your covenant is trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant. Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Sovereign Lord, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servant will be blessed forever.” (2 Samuel 7:3–29)
The king was supposed to be God’s vice-regent, the under-king. God still remained the king, the final sovereign over all the people, but the king was supposed to mediate God’s justice to the people, to mediate God and his ways and his laws to the entire people. But here we have a remarkable set of relationships.
King David wants to do God a favor. He is now settled. The very first verse says that they’re enjoying rest. There’s this theme of rest again: rest from their enemies, rest in the promised land. He looks around, and he’s been in the capital city long enough that he’s got a fine palace for himself and still the center for corporate worship for the entire nation is this now slightly ratty tent. And he remembers that indeed in the book of Deuteronomy back at the time of Moses there had been promise ultimately of a permanent center, so he thinks, “Well, it’s about time. Why not me? That’s what I would like to do.” And Nathan the prophet says, “Great idea. God’s with you. Go right ahead.” Then God intervenes and says to Nathan, “Uhhh, not quite so fast. This is not the way it’s going to happen.” And God gives two reasons why it will not be so:
God alone takes the initiative in these turning points in the story of the Bible (2 Samuel 7:5–7). Haven’t we seen this already? Think back to Abram. Does Abram wake up one day and in his devotions say,
God, quite frankly this world seems to me to be sliding to hell in a teapot. I think we should do something about it. I think we should start some new race among the human race, a kind of subunit. I’d like to head it. I’ll be the great-granddaddy of this entire new humanity. We’ll call them ‘Hebrews.’ You can be our God, and we’ll be your people. You tell us what to do, and we’ll obey you. And we’ll start off this whole new dynastic structure. Isn’t that a great idea? And this new race, this new covenant community will show the world what it’s like to be in right relationship with you.
Is that the way it happened? No, God took the initiative: he called Abram, moved him to the land, gave him a covenant. Even in that scene in the middle of the night where God puts himself under a kind of covenant vow to look after his people, God himself takes the initiative again and again. God takes the initiative in Genesis 22 to provide a lamb.
Or think of Moses. When he was a young man, Moses did wonder about the possibility of starting a revolution and leading the people out. In fact, he got caught up in a murder, and he had to run for his life and lived on the backside of a desert for the next half-century or so. And when God did take the initiative, Moses wasn’t too keen on going: “God, I’m getting a bit old now, and I have a speech impediment. I’m not leader. I’m a shepherd for goodness’ sake.” God takes the initiative and in due course uses Moses.
God will not share his glory with anybody else. God is really not open to our suggestions about how to run the universe, and that is in effect his first objection: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? All along I’ve been living in this tabernacle. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”‘“ It’s not that it will not be built. In fact, it is going to be built in the next generation. The task is going to be assigned to David’s son King Solomon, but God will take the initiative (2 Samuel 7:8–11).
“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth.” (2 Samuel 7:8–9)
Deep down David is beginning to think that he’s going to do God a favor. If he can build a bigger temple than the pagans around build for their gods, then isn’t he showing that God is even more magnificent? So David is going to magnify God’s name and almost as it were do God a favor, and God says, “It doesn’t work like that. I’m the one who makes your name great.”
In a certain context it is wonderful for believers to try to magnify God’s name, but not ever because they begin to succumb to the feeling that they are thereby doing God a favor. Worshipping God, magnifying his name, ought to be the response of gratitude and adoration and thankfulness—not somehow saying, “The pagans worship their gods. We can out-worship you because in a competition we can make your name greater than they can make their names great.” God says, “You’ve got this entirely wrong. I make your name great. You were a shepherd boy. Not only have I made you a king. I’m about to make your name resound across the ages.”
Today there are countless tens of millions of Christians all over the world who know the name of David. They’ve never heard of Alexander the Great. They don’t really know about King Tut, but David’s name has come down to us across 3,000 years. Then in that context God gives this amazing promise. The chapter begins, as we’ve seen, with a king with religious initiatives restrained, but now . . .
“The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you” (2 Samuel 7:11b). There’s a pun here. David wanted to build a house, that is, a temple for God. God’s going to build a house, that is, a household and thus a dynasty for David. There’s a pun. “You want to build a house for me?” You can almost see God smiling. “I’m going to build a house for you. Let me tell you what it’s like:
When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name [i.e., Solomon would build the temple], and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by human beings, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’” (2 Samuel 7:12–15)
Do you hear what is being said? There are two or three things that help to clarify what the passage is saying:
(1) David is aware that his predecessor, Saul, started well and ended badly, and in consequence, Saul’s son Jonathan never got to the throne. There was no dynasty ever established. It was a one-generation dynasty (if you can speak of a dynasty in one generation). There was so much wickedness by the end that God said, “This is not going to continue.” Even if David remains faithful all his life (and in point of fact, he had his pretty horrible lapses, too), who guarantees what happens in the next generation and in the generation after that? If you’re royalty, you’re concerned to preserve the family line, the dynasty, the house—whether the house of Windsor (for her majesty Queen Elizabeth II) or here, the house of David. And God says, “I’m going to build a house for you such that even if your son does something wrong—even if he is really wicked—I will not remove him from the throne the way I removed Saul such that Saul died and there was no successor. I will not do that. I will preserve your house, your household.”
So there may be some temporal infliction. There be some chastening, some human punishment. There may be nations that rise up against your nation. There may be things of that sort. But it will not be the final sanction that wipes out the line. That’s what God promises to David.
(2) What does verse 14 mean when God says, “I will be his father, and he will be my son”? We need to think about that just a wee bit. For us sonship has to do with DNA, so endless programs, the various CSIs on television, are constantly using DNA to discover who the real father is. Bound up with this are paternity suits. It’s all a matter of genetic descent. But the ancient world saw things a bit differently in part because there was a descent not only of familial connection but of work and identity.
You men: How many of you are doing vocationally what your fathers did? Let me see your hands. Look around, folks. I see only three hands. You women: How many of you are doing vocationally what your mothers did? Look around, folks. But you see, in the ancient world if your father was a baker, you became a baker; if your farmer was a farmer, you became a farmer; if you father’s name was Stradivarius, then you made violins. In other words, in an agricultural, tradecraft, preindustrial society, the son ended up doing in the overwhelming majority of cases what the father did, and the daughter ended up doing what the mother did. Our notions of freedom such that we go away from home to university or to a technical college and get a job somewhere else and pursue some other course—that’s so common for us today; it was unthinkable a mere three or four hundred years ago. So as a result you became identified not only by the family name but by the family’s profession. That’s why Jesus can be called “the son of the carpenter”; his putative father was a carpenter. And in one place he can be called himself “the carpenter”; apparently his father, Joseph, has died, and Jesus himself has taken over the family business. Joseph was a carpenter. What do you expect Jesus to be? He’s a carpenter.
This meant that the father, then, in the case of the son, taught the boy as well. In later Judaism, there were synagogue where kids learned reading and writing and things like that. There were little village schools of some sort or another. But your trade, what you learned, how you learned to make a living—if you’re a farmer, when to plant the seed and when to irrigate and how to read the weather and how to build a decent fence and all of that—that was all taught by the family. Because of this family identification of the son with the father and the task and the clan, the notion of sonship has a whole lot of different rings than it does on CSI.
Out of this come a whole lot of biblical metaphors. For example, here and there in the Bible someone is called a son of Belial, which means a son of worthlessness. This is not saying that the father is Mr. Worthless. What it is saying is that this person’s character is so worthless that he must belong to the worthless family; it’s the only thing that explains it. In the time of Jesus, Jesus gives us some beatitudes where he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The idea is that God is himself the supreme peacemaker, so if you make peace, then in that respect at least you are acting like God. So in that respect, you are a son of God. It’s not telling you how you become a Christian. It’s saying that in that respect, that’s what God does, so you’re acting like God.
Elsewhere when Jesus is debating with some Jewish opponents in John 8, he is claiming to be sent from God, and they’re saying, “How can this be? We are ourselves the true sons of Abraham. We are the true heritage here.” And Jesus says, “Can’t be. Abraham rejoiced to see my day.” And they reply, “Abraham has been dead for 2,000 years; you’re not yet fifty years old. What do you mean that he rejoiced to see your day?” Jesus won’t back down. They up the ante and say, “We’re not only sons of Abraham. We’re sons of God.” And Jesus says, “Can’t be. I come from God. God knows me, and I know God. If you don’t recognize me, then you can’t be sons of God. You don’t recognize me at all. Let me tell you who your real daddy is. You are of your father the devil. He was a murderer from the beginning, and you’re trying to murder me. He was a liar from the beginning, and you’re not telling the truth.” Now Jesus is not denying that they really are sons of Abraham genetically. They are. He’s not denying that they carry the Israelite heritage of genes. Nor is he suggesting for a moment that somehow demons copulated with women to produce some sort of bastard crew. That’s not what he’s suggested either. He’s saying that at the level of behavior, they’re acting like the devil. That makes them sons of the devil.
Now that’s the sort of language that is going on here in 2 Samuel 7. It’s used especially with respect to kings. If God is the supreme king—if he’s the king over this people—then when the human person takes on the throne, when this Davidic heir becomes king himself, then he becomes God’s son. It doesn’t mean he’s born again or anything of that sort. It simply means that he is now acting as God’s son in God’s place in the king-family as it were. That’s the nature of the promise that is given here. “He [i.e., the heir of David] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Samuel 7:13–14). He will represent me. That’s the nature of this kingdom. “When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by human beings, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you” (2 Samuel 7:14–15).
(3) The last thing to understand from this passage: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). In other words, God is not only promising that it will endure into the next generation, the generation of Solomon when the temple will be built, even if Solomon turns out to be quite wicked. He’s saying that this dynasty will go on and on; it will be established forever. There are only two ways that’s possible. One is for every generation to produce a new Davidic heir so that you go to the next heir and the next heir and the next heir and the next heir world without end. That’s one way this promise could be fulfilled.
There’s only one other possible way. It’s not even mentioned here. But if you could eventually have an heir in the Davidic line who himself lived forever, it could be fulfilled that way. There’s no hint of it yet here. This promise occurs around 1000 BC, and it leads to a number of other promises to Davidic kings across the centuries. Most of us, I’m sure, have listened to Handel’s Messiah, which cites Isaiah 9, writing in the eighth century. Isaiah envisages a coming king: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). “He shall rule on the throne of his father David.” In other words, he will be a Davidic son who is thus son of God, standing in under God as God’s vice-regent. “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). “He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). I don’t imagine that Isaiah himself fully understood what all of that meant, but on the face of it, it seems to be promising that somehow there would be a Davidide—someone in the heritage of David—who himself would rightly be addressed as none less than God himself. (We’ll shortly see that there are other prophets who make similar promises.)
David is hushed and crushed by what has been promised him, and basically his plea now is not, “Let me build a temple for you and do something for you.” Now it’s all gratitude: “I don’t deserve this. This is wonderful. All I ask, dear God, sovereign Lord, is that you keep your promise.”
That’s about 1000 BC. There are a lot of intervening steps that go on. After several centuries, the Davidic kingdom itself has become corrupted. After two generations after the time of Solomon, the kingdom splits (there’s a Northern kingdom and a Southern kingdom), and David’s line rules over only the south. Two-and-a-half more centuries go by, and the Northern kingdom never has established a dynasty. Kings come and kings go; the new usurper comes and slaughters all the children of the previous one. It’s a bloody mess. And eventually they get carted off into captivity under the Assyrian empire. Another century-and-a-half and the Davidic dynasty itself is so corroded and corrupted despite times of revival and renewal that at the beginning of the sixth century (about 587 BC), it shut down. The Babylonians have taken over. Then the people went into exile. In due course God brings some of them back: first of all, only about 50,000. They rebuilt the temple that had been burned down, but now it’s just a pathetic little affair. There’s still no king. By this time they’re living under the Persian rule. All the way down to the turn of the ages from BC to AD there still is no restored king of David on the throne. They’re always under one authority or another. And in the first century of our era, they’re under the power of Rome, under regional governors and half-breed kings like Herod and so on.
Then you open up the pages of the New Testament, the accounts, the foundation documents of our Bible, that begin to tell us what happens in the time of Jesus. What is the very first line of the very first book? “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). That is the fulfillment of the promise of the Davidic king.
When Jesus comes on the scene, he announces the dawning of the kingdom, and he uses the word “kingdom” in a variety of ways. He can say this, for example: “The kingdom is like a man who plants wheat in a field, good seed in a field, and then at night some rotters come by and they plant a lot of weeds. And the wheat and the weeds are growing up together. And the servants of the man say, ‘Should we go out and try to pull out the weeds now?’ ‘No, no, let both grow until the end, and they’ll be a final separation at the end.’ That’s what the kingdom is like.” In other words, here you have a picture of the kingdom that is embracing this world with both good seed growing and bad seed growing. It includes John Piper and Adolf Hitler. It includes them both. There is good seed and there are weeds, and they are both to grow until the end when there will be a final division. That’s one notion of kingdom.
But elsewhere in John 3 (in a passage we’ll look at later), Jesus says, “Unless you’re born again, you cannot see or enter the kingdom.” Now with that notion of kingdom, not everybody’s in it. Everybody’s in the other one; you’re either wheat or weeds. But in this notion of kingdom, you now have a subset of God’s reign, of God’s rule, of God’s kingdom, under which there is life. Only those who are born again can enter or see that kingdom. Further, sometimes Jesus speaks of the kingdom as already having dawned. It’s already here. It’s operating secretly as it were. It’s like a yeast that is put into dough; it’s already quietly working and having its effect.
And in another passage, he speaks of the kingdom as what comes at the end when there’s a new heaven and a new earth and consummation and tremendous transformation. So the kingdom is here; it’s already here. And it’s not yet come. All these notions of kingdom center on Jesus the king.
After World War II there was a Swiss theologian named Oscar Cullmann who used one of the turning points in World War II to explain some of these notions. He drew attention to what happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944. By this time the Western allies had already cleaned out North Africa and had started pushing up the boot of Italy. The Russians were coming in from the steps; they had already defended Stalingrad, and they were pushing their way to and through Poland and other Eastern European countries. And now on D-Day the Western allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, and in three days they dumped 1.1 million men and tons and tons of war material. There was a second front. Anybody with half a brain in his head could see that the war was over. After all, in terms of energy, war material, the numbers of soldiers, and the way all of these lines and trajectories were working, the war was over. So does that mean that Hitler said, “Oops, I goofed” and sued for peace. No. What came next was the Battle of the Bulge where he almost made it right through the coast of France again, except that he ran out of fuel. And the Battle for Berlin was one of the bloodiest of the entire war. It wasn’t over yet. But a year later it finally was in Europe, and there was this gap thus between D-Day and V-E-Day (Victory in Europe). Cullman says that it’s like that for Christians. The promised king came. That’s our D-Day: the coming of Jesus and what he did on the cross and rising from the dead. In rising from the dead, he says in the last verses of Matthew’s Gospel, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.” He’s the king. But does that mean that the devil says, “Oops, I goofed. I think I better sue for peace”? Does it means that human beings better say, “OK, OK, you’ve risen from the dead. You’ve won. OK. We’d better bow the knee.” No, what it means is that you have some of the fiercest fighting left because Jesus has not yet defeated all of his enemies. He reigns. All of God’s sovereignty is mediate through king Jesus. The kingdom has dawned. It is here. And you’re either in this kingdom in the new birth sense or you’re not. Or if you conceive of Jesus’ total reign (all authority is already his), you’re in this kingdom whether you like it or not. The question is whether you bow the knee now, cheerfully in repentance and faith and thanksgiving, or you will bend the knee in holy terror at the end because the end is coming. V-E-Day is coming, and there is no doubt who will be seen to be king on the last day.
So when Paul writes to Christians in the city of Corinth about the middle of the first century, he describes Jesus being the king with all of God’s sovereignty mediated through King Jesus: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25–26). Death will die. This, of course, picks up exactly what happened in Genesis 1, 2, and 3. With this massive rebellion that tried to de-god God and brought only death and decay, now Christ, who has himself beaten death and come back from the death, will continue as God’s own king in the Davidic line. Yet he’s the one who it called the “Mighty God, Everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6). And he will reign until he has destroyed the last enemy: death itself. This is why the church stands up and sings again and again, “Hail, King Jesus.” We need a king, one who is perfectly righteous, who cannot be corrupted, who is entirely good, in whom there is never any taint of evil. And he transforms, he saves his people, and he is to be acknowledged as our sovereign. Hail, King Jesus.
Don Carson explains Psalms 1, 8, 19, 14, 40, and 51 and surveys Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
We come now to two further topics that I’m putting together. We come to two types of literature in the Old Testament. One is the book of Psalms, and the other is an array of books that is really quite diverse called Wisdom Literature. Neither of these books brings the story forward a whole lot. They’re not part of the narrative sequence of books that tell us what happens next to the Jews or what’s going on in the world history at the time or something like that. But they nevertheless reflect the experiences, the insight, the revelation of God that is given to people living in these times. So it’s not the narrative that goes forward, and yet they’re such a big part of the Old Testament that they really can’t be ignored. We must say something about these books to understand what they contribute to our grasp of God as he has disclosed himself in the Bible.
Some wag has said, “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Now granted some of the things that are being sung today, that’s a pretty scary thought. And yet you can understand it. If people are walking around with iPods and music all the time, regardless of what those decide in Washington, what they really think is what they’re listening to on their iPods.
In the Old Testament the book the incorporates most of this song-like—hymn-like—material is the book of Psalms, virtually in the middle of the Bible, 150 of them. It was written over a period of about 1200 years. It wasn’t somebody sitting down to make it their writing project in a particular year. For example, one of the psalms is a psalm of Moses, taking you all the way back to the first part of the Bible. Then there are many psalms by David himself, who was a musician and in due course helped to organize the choirs and so on that were connected with the ancient tabernacle, then improved again by his son Solomon under the new temple that Solomon oversaw. Then there are psalms that depict the experiences of the people of God as they’re going off into exile. And then there are some psalms that depict the people of God as they come back from exile, which brings you down to about 400 BC. They really cover a very broad period of time.
Obviously there is no way we can survey 150 psalms. What I would like to do is drop in on a few of them so that you can overhear what they were singing. They’re very diverse.
For those of you who have been Christians for some time and have got to know some elderly believers, you’ve probably discovered it’s the elderly Christians who love the book of Psalms. There aren’t a lot of people at twenty-five who know the book of Psalms well. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the book of Psalms resonates with people who have had a lot of experiences. You have to have quite a lot of different experiences under your belt before you resonate easily with a lot of the things that are said in the book of Psalms: lament, loss, shame, death, triumph, the exaltation of informed and godly God-centered praise, prophecy anticipating what is still to come. If instead you have a very limited experience, most of these things just sound a bit over the top or a bit extravagant or even alien to you. But I’ve been by the beds of enough people who were dying who have been Christians for a long time, and if I ask, “What would you like me to read to you?” Oh, some of them might say the resurrection chapter (1 Corinthians 15) or something like that. But many will say, “Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd” or “Psalm 42” or “Psalm 40 about how he lifts me out of the miry bog and sets my feet on a safe, stable place.” But until you’ve been through experiences where you feel as if you are wallowing in the miry bog, that psalm isn’t going to speak so powerfully to you.
So let me drop in on a few psalms quickly and show you the kind of things they say about God and his people. We’ll begin at the beginning.
Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,
but who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will be destroyed. (Psalm 1:1–6)
If you look at the Psalm closely, you discover that it’s broken into three unequal parts: verses 1–3 describe the righteous; verses 4–5 describe the unrighteous; and verse 6 is a final summarizing contrast.
(1) Psalm 1:1 describes the righteous negatively. Verse 1 describes the righteous negatively: what they are not like, what they don’t do. “Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked,” that is, they’re walking along and they are marching beside them. They are coordinated with them. They are picking up advice and counsel from them.
If you do that long enough, you might “stand in the way that sinners take.” “Stand in the way” of people is not an easy translations (almost all of our English translations say something like that). The trouble is that in Hebrew to stand in someone’s way does not mean in English what we mean by “stand in someone’s way.” To stand in someone’s way in English means to impede them, to block their path, like Robin Hood and Little John on the bridge, each standing in the other’s way and then one of them ends in the stream. But in Hebrew to stand in someone’s way means to have your feet in their moccasins, to do what they do, to be indifferentiable from them. You’re not blocking them; you’re where they are. You stand in their way. This is why this version renders it somewhat paraphrastically “stand in the way that sinners take.” You’re now where they are.
If you do that long enough, you might “sit in the company of mockers.” Now you’re in your easy-boy chair, you pull the leaver, you look down your long self-righteous nose at the ignorant, stupid, right-wing bigoted Christians. The very first verse of the very first Psalm says, “Blessed are those who don’t do these things.” It’s describing the righteous negatively.
(2) Psalm 1:2 describes the righteous positively. They “delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:2). That is, this is what they think about. It changes them.
When I first started teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, we had a lecturer there—an old man already at the time—who had any number of one-liners out of about fifty years of ministry, and some of them were really good. One of his best was, “You’re not what you think you are, but what you think, you are.” Isn’t that what the book of Proverbs says? “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” You’re not just what you say or what you do because we can say and do things to cover up what’s really going on inside, but what you think, you are. So this text says that the righteous person learns to think God’s thoughts after him. He delights in the law of the Lord. He meditates on God’s word day and night. It’s not just a question of “a verse a day keeps the devil a way” so make sure that you read in a corner somewhere and have a Bible verse handy, i.e., make sure that you have your “devotions.” It’s such a love affair with all that God says that it feeds your mind. You go for a lunch break, or the light turns red ahead of you and you sit in your car and your mind just in the blank moment naturally gravitates toward thinking through what God has said. It’s there all the time. You meditate on it day and night because that means that you’re now not listening to the advice of the wicked or developing paths that are indifferentiable from theirs or slinking down into a slinky mockery.
(3) Psalm 1:3 describes the righteous metaphorically. “They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The land of Palestine—the land of Israel—is a semi-arid land, a bit like the American Southwest, so that you can have seasons of the year when there is no rain at all and the dry arroyos in the Southwest look like death warmed over. Then suddenly you can have some rains and gullies can be washed out and become quite dangerous flash floods. They call them wadis in Israel. That means that land that seems like death suddenly blooms; it comes to life. You have all of these desert flowers. But it’s only where there’s a confluence of streams, not intermittent water, with a guaranteed water supply that you have trees whose leaf never withers and that brings forth its fruit in its season. In that sense it always prospers. This is not talking about a prosperity gospel: follow Jesus and get filthy rich. It’s still in a metaphor of this tree, which prospers even when there’s heat and blight and the like because it’s well-watered; it is always evergreen. And in due course it produces fruit. That’s language that you find not uncommonly in the Bible. You understand why if you were brought up in that sort of country. You see these cycles of things every year, hence Jeremiah 17, a prophet writing around 600 BC or a little later:
Cursed are those who trust in mortals, who depend on flesh for their strength and whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes [i.e., the prosperity of life and growth and fruitfulness].
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.
“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:5–8)
So here’s the righteous person described negatively, positively, and metaphorically.
Then in verses 4–5, the unrighteous are described. It’s a very strong contrast: “Not so the wicked!” (Psalm 1:4). Not so, as if everything of significance that you want to predicate of the righteous you have to negate of the unrighteous. Are the righteous those who avoid the counsel and the patterns of life of rebels and ungodly people? Not so the wicked, not so. Are the righteous those who delight in the law of the Lord and think about it day and night? Not so the wicked, not so. Are the righteous those who can be likened to a tree planted by streams of water that yields fruit in its season and whose leaf never withers? Not so the wicked, not so.
Well what are they like? “They are like chaff that the wind blows away” (Psalm 1:4). The image is of the ancient grain harvest where someone would take the heads of grain that have come in with a winnowing shovel; the would repeatedly throw them up in the air and beat them, and the chaff falls off and the wind blow it away and the grain falls to the ground and the grain become the basis for your flour and bread and all the rest. The chaff goes: rootless, lifeless, fruitless, useless.
This contrast is strictly speaking not even between the righteous and the wicked but between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” (Psalm 1:6), that is, he owns it as his; he protects it. “But the way of the wicked will be destroyed” (Psalm 1:6) like tracks made on the seashore when the tide is out; when the tide rolls in and the tide rolls out, you don’t see the tracks. Fifty billion years from now, if I may dare speak of eternity in the categories of time, no one will be talking about the significance of Stalin or Pol Pot, but every cup of cold water given in the name of Jesus will still be remembered because the Lord watches over the way of the righteous; the way of the wicked will perish.
That’s the first Psalm: two ways, and there is no third. There are a lot of Psalms like that. They are sometimes called “wisdom psalms.” The psalms and wisdom literature sometimes get tied together because in wisdom literally the way of wisdom is cast against the way of folly. We’ll see shortly that wisdom literature regularly offers you a choice between two ways. That’s why this is sometimes called a wisdom psalm. In the New Testament, do you know who the most remarkable wisdom preacher is? Jesus. Jesus is in fact an astonishingly flexible preacher. He preaches using apocalyptic imagery, one-liners, telling parables. But in not a few of his addresses he uses these sorts of wisdom categories: two ways. You come, for example, to the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and he offers a number of vignettes that are exactly along this line. He says, “Picture two people: one builds a house on rock; the other builds a house on sand. On sand, it’s not stable. The storms come in, the water rises, the winds lash the place, and it collapses. The house that is strongly built on rock endures.” There are just two houses. It rather misses the point if you say, “Jesus, suppose you try hardpan clay.” You can’t do that. It’s wisdom preaching. It’s “this way or that way.” In the same context, Jesus says, “Wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to destruction, and many go there. But the gate is narrow and the way constrained that leads to eternal life, and only a few go in there.” “Uh, Jesus, uh, that one’s a bit destructive. It’s a bit, sort of, narrow, fundamentalist. Uh, how about a medium-sized gate. I could make do with that.” You can’t do that. It’s wisdom literature. It’s wisdom preaching. It’s “this way or that way.” There are only two ways. You know what’s scary about wisdom literature and about Psalm 1? If you’re really, really honest, you never quite fit the good way. Oh, there are times that I delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night. There are other times, quite frankly, when it’s a real struggle to delight in the law of the Lord. Don’t you find that, where you find yourself parched, not nourished at all by the word of God as streams of water flooding through your whole system?
So although these Psalms show two ways, they clarify our thinking and show us that there are some differences out there that must not be fudged over even though most of us find ourselves in the middle, sometimes acting this way, sometimes acting that way—like King David himself, King David who is responsible for some of these psalms, King David who is described as a man after God’s own heart and who can also commit adultery and even arrange for a murder. One wonders what he would have done if he hadn’t been a man after God’s own heart. Once again, as important as these psalms are, as important as wisdom literature is, to teach us that there is a difference between holiness and holiness, between righteousness and unrighteousness, and you can’t keep fudging, yet at the end of the day that information by itself doesn’t save you. All by itself it clarifies, but it could drive you to despair.
But that not all there is in the Bible. Let me mention some other psalms.
Psalm 8 not only praises God for his power in creation (“You have set your glory above the heavens” [Psalm 8:2]) but also marvels at the fact that God has a peculiar relation with human beings, mortals: “what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4). You have actually set them above the rest of the created order (Psalm 8:5).
You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:
All flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:6–9).
Do you hear what this is? This is a hymn that has been composed as a reflection on Genesis 1–2. You find quite a lot of psalms like this that are meditative corporate reflections for the worship of the people of God based on earlier Scriptures, people reflecting on them and singing these truths, not just reciting them and reading them but singing them.
This is another psalm that is a reflection on how the created order reflects who God is.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. (Psalm 19:1–6)
Then after talking about how the Lord has disclosed himself in this created order, he talks about how the Lord has disclosed himself in Scripture.
Or to change the pace entirely, take a look at the opening line of Psalm 14. “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). I have a friend in Australia who has a bit of a reputation for engaging in talking about Christ a bit like a bull in a china shop. He once gave an address called “Atheists are fools, and agnostics are cowards.” Now by and large that is not a great way to win friends and influence people, but there is a sense in which this psalm begins: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” That is so out of line with contemporary perceptions. The fool is the idiot who believes that there is a God.
But look at it from God’s perspective. Just grant for a moment that the God of the Bible is real (he is there; he’s the God who is there) and that what the Bible has said so far is entirely true. Who’s the fool? This is not written from the point of view of someone who sets himself up in the heritage of René Descartes, a sort of Cartesian independence, saying, “I think I’m in the place where I can evaluate whether God exists and which God it will be.” This is the God who is there, who has named himself, disclosed himself. In forbearance he has come back again and again to save his people, and he keeps promising an even greater deliverance to come. And he insists that the reason people don’t see this is that this side of the fall there is already a moral contagion such that we are blind to the obvious. It’s the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God,” which does not mean that no Christian is a fool. What it means is that everyone who has become a Christian started off a fool, and if in this respect we are no longer foolish, that too in the Bible’s storyline is a mark of singular grace. Christians never ever have the right to say, “I’m smarter than you are” because Christians deep down know that they’re never more than fools who have been shown forgiveness and grace. They’re never more than poor beggars telling other poor beggars where there’s bread.
Let’s try another psalm: a different approach again. This is a psalm of personal experience that develops into something more. I don’t have time to go through all of it, but here we’re told by the superscription that this is written by David himself.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him. (Psalm 40:1–3)
We don’t know what this miry bog is, what this slimy pit is. It was obviously something so awful in his experience that he felt the way you do in a miry bog, in a slimy pit, that is, desperate, unable to get out, sliding into oblivion, sucked down. And God pulled him out.
Much of the rest of the psalm talks about how he will respond to that by devoting himself to the living God, how he must give testimony to this in the community of God’s people. Then in the last part of the psalm he openly acknowledges that just because he has been through this sort of experience doesn’t mean that he won’t be through other bleak experiences. Just because you’ve been through a divorce doesn’t mean that you’re therefore going to be spared cancer. Just because you’ve had cancer doesn’t mean that you won’t lose your spouse. Just because you’ve had a kid go off the rails doesn’t mean that you won’t be in a car accident. Life in this fallen and broken world brings all kind of heartaches and defeats and discouragements, and he gives thanks to God for God’s help and release in this one. Then he looks to the future and says, “There are so many other things, Lord God, where I’m going to need your help: false friends, for example.”
Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord; may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, Lord; come quickly, Lord, to help me. (Psalm 40:11–13).
“The worst thing that I that I face is not just this slimy pit experience through which I’ve passed but my own sins, which cripple me and crush me and take me down because I look at my own heart and I cannot even fit Psalm 1.” But there are other troubles: those who mock him and give him difficulties:
May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” be appalled at their own shame.
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say, “The Lord is great!” (Psalm 40:15–16)
So here is a psalm of huge intensity as a believer looks at how God has helped him and looks to the way he’s going to need God’s help in the future.
Here it is very important to read the superscription: “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” This is account where he seduces a young woman next door who is the wife of one of David’s own troops fighting on the front in one of David’s wars. How callous is that? The war goes on, and it transpires that Bathsheba becomes pregnant; and she lets the king know. So he arranges to have her husband, Uriah, shipped back from the front. He sends a message that Uriah is supposed to bring back a message to the king, ostensibly to communicate between the officers in the field and the commander-in-chief. In fact, it’s David’s way of getting the bloke home, and he thinks that he’ll go home and sleep with his wife. But in fact he’s so concerned for his mates at the front that he can’t even bring himself to do that, so he sleeps in the open courtyard of the palace, prepared to go back the next day. And King David knows he’s snookered. So he sends back a message by this young man’s hand—a sealed message—for the unit commanders on the front. They are to arrange a skirmish, and everybody else in the platoon is supposed to have some sort of code to know when to fall back—everyone except this young man Uriah. They’re in the skirmish, the code is given, everybody falls back except Uriah, and he’s killed.
David thinks that he has got away with it. That’s when the prophet Nathan confronts him. David is in the steps of public humiliation and shame and repentance. It’s all out in the open. It’s a mess! Nevertheless, he’s a broken man out of it all, and in the midst of this he writes Psalm 51. That is what is meant by the superscription. It’s written “when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. (Psalm 51:1–3)
Have you not had feelings like that when you’ve woken up in the middle of the night and remembered some insanely evil thing that you’ve done, some really stupid thing, and you break out into a cold sweat and squirm and wish you could undo but can’t?
“My sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:3–4). Now isn’t that a stunning comment? At one level you want to say that it’s not true. He has sinned against Bathsheba: he seduced her. He sinned against Bathsheba’s husband: he had him bumped off after cuckolding him. He sinned against his own family: he betrayed them. He sinned against the military high command: he corrupted them. He sinned against the people: he is not acting as a righteous king. It’s hard to think of anybody that he didn’t sin against.
Yet he has the cheek to say, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” At the deepest level it is exactly the truth. What makes sin so heinous, what makes sin so sinful, is precisely that it defies God. It’s awful that we hurt our friends. It’s awful that we wound one another, and when we wake up in the middle of the night with those feelings of huge shame, often it’s because we’re embarrassed at what our friends will think of us now because we’ve said something so stupid or been so insensitive or so cruel. But beyond all of the shame before them is a much bigger guilt that we’re rarely even aware of and do not often squirm over. But that’s what David is doing here. He’s squirming over it because he sees what it is in God’s sight: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” What gives it its most horrendous odor, its most heinous aspect, is precisely that it is defiance of the God who made us and who judges us on the last day. David understands that because he understands the opening chapters of Genesis. The heart of Eve’s problems or Adam’s problems is not that they had just broken a rule or betrayed each other’s trust or the like; they’ve de-godded God. In any sin that we commit, whether its genocide or cheating on your income tax, the most offended party is always God. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” That’s why, as we’ve seen from the beginning, what we must have—whatever else we have—is his forgiveness or we have nothing.
Oh, there are other psalms: Psalm 110 looks to a coming who is simultaneously a king and a priest. It’s the most frequently quoted chapter in the New Testament.
Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is full of thanksgiving to God and is a meditation on the very nature of God’s words, of God’s self-disclosure in words, of his law, of his decrees, of his judgments, of his teaching, of his instruction. It’s all about what we would call the Bible. It’s all about how to think about that God is a talking God, a God who speaks and gives us his words.
Psalm 139 says something of the same. “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:17). This is the God who makes his people sing in thanksgiving, contrition, petition, lament, and reflection. But he is also the wise God.
The book of Proverbs has one kind of literature: a lot of proverbs.
In the book of Proverbs, you find two metaphorical women. Wisdom itself is regularly pictured as a woman, lady wisdom, and over against her is dame folly. And the whole book is structured in many of its sections as a course laid out either by lady wisdom or dame folly. You’re following either one of these ladies or the other. Wisdom literature likes to present either “this path” or “that path.” It will compare two things and say, “This is the way of wisdom. This is the way of folly. Make sure that what you follow is the way of wisdom.”
Right toward the beginning of the book is a proverb that recurs in a variety of ways: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). A little later: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). This does not mean the kind of cringing fear that a whipped cur has when you pick up a newspaper, knowing that you’re an arbitrary and cruel master who gets some sort of cheap glee out of scaring the poor little thing to death. This is the fear of God that recognizes that he is matchlessly holy and righteous and just. And he is our judge as well as our only hope. There lies the beginning of wisdom. This is the proverbs-equivalent of Psalm 14: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). To have a right sense of how to live under the sun must begin with God and his self-disclosure. There is the beginning of wisdom.
There are other books that are called wisdom literature. One that is very remarkable is the book of Job. We really don’t know when it was written. It’s probably very old. It depicts a man who is not perfect but is an astonishingly good man: filthy rich, but generous, caring, loving. He even prays preemptively for his own ten children lest they should commit any sins and do something bad. He’s generous with the poor. He could testify, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a virgin” (Job 31:1). He’s an astonishingly pious man, but he doesn’t know that behind the scenes the devil, our dear friend from Genesis 3, returns and makes a wager with God: “The only reason that Job likes you is that he’s filthy rich and you protect him. You take away all the good things that he’s got, and he’ll turn around and curse you to your face.” And God says, “Go ahead. Just don’t hurt him.” Successive waves of marauding rifts occur: his cattle are stolen, his herds are decimated, a wind storm comes along and the house where his children are having a party blows down, and all ten of his children are killed. And Job says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
Satan says to God, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Skin for skin. Just take away this chap’s health, and he’ll curse you to your face.” And God says, “Go ahead, but spare his life.” Pretty soon you find him on an ash pit using pieces of broken pottery picking away at his scabs. When three friends come in to visit him, they sit down for a week and do nothing but simply keep quiet—the wisest thing they could do. Then the rest of the book is set out as a drama. These friend think they’ve got the theology all under control.
They say, “Job, do you believe that God is sovereign.”
“Do you believe that God is just?”
“So if he’s sovereign and just and you’re suffering, then the implication is . . .?”
Job says, “I know that God is sovereign and just, but quite frankly I don’t deserve this. I’m an innocent sufferer. I shouldn’t be suffering this.”
“Job, do you hear what you’re saying. Are you saying that God is making a mistake or that God is unjust to you?”
“Oh, no. I’m not saying that. I know that God is sovereign. I know that he is just. But I still have to say that what I’m going through isn’t fair.”
Then the discussion gets hotter and hotter until eventually the friends begin to say, “Job, you don’t understand. You’ve got more sins behind you that you don’t even recognize—sins that you’ve committed that you don’t any know about, more than you can possibly imagine. Otherwise, you’re really saying that God is unjust. And if that’s the case, then what you really ought to do is confess them in any case, even if you can’t name any specific ones. Just confess them generally to God, and God will forgive you and everything will get better.”
And Job says, “How can I possibly do that? How can I repent of something that I don’t know that I’ve done wrong? How can I possibly repent and claim that I’m asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness when I don’t think that I deserve this? That would actually be making me a liar, and I would be sinning against God. What I really need is a lawyer. I wish I had somebody who would go between me and God; that’s what I need.”
And the tension mounts and mounts and mounts. I won’t go through all of the levels of argumentation, but eventually God speaks. Do you know what he says? “Job, have you ever designed a snowflake? Hmmm? Where were you when I made the first hippopotamus? Did you give me any wisdom on how to cast the constellation Orion into the heaven? Hmmm, Job?” Two or three chapters of these rhetorical questions. At the end Job says, “I’m sorry. I spoke foolishly, claiming that I know more than I do. I repent.” And you know what God says? “Stand up on your feet. I’m not finished yet.” And he asks two more chapters of questions. It’s stunning because at the end of the day there is no systematic answer that’s provided to sort out the entire problem of innocent suffering. All of the rhetorical questions combine to mean one thing: we’re not always going to get explanations, but God is bigger than we are and sometimes we just have to trust him.
Then God says that nevertheless Job basically got the account right. He was pushing on the arrogance a bit by the end, but it’s the three friends whom God condemns because they think they’ve got God tapped. They’ve got him all figured out. He’s nicely boxed. He’s done.
At the end God restores the fortunes of Job because after all in the Bible in the end not only is justice done, but it’s seen to be done. That, too, is a book of wisdom.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon sets out to find meaning in life. He thinks of public works, and he devotes himself to public works and discovers that that is meaningless, too. And he devotes himself to wisdom and literature and writing and meditation, and he discovers that after a while that isn’t satisfying. Then he devotes himself to generosity and asceticism and to something else and something else, and at the end of the day, nothing finally satisfies. At the end of it all when he looks back over his life and the various things that he has attempted to do in his effort to seek pleasure, meaning, fulfillment, he concludes,
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” . . . .
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of every human being.
For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13–14).
That is to say, what he finally comes up with is a teleological vision, a vision of what happens at the end. You have to live in light of the end. That is wisdom because we will give an account to this God.
When we feel in our hearts and minds as we grow older that there has to be something more—there has to be something more satisfying, there has to be something bigger—we are right to listen to that brooding voice because we were made for God and our souls will be restless until we know him. Those are the kinds of things that wisdom books teach us as the Old Testament barrels along in anticipation of the day when wisdom incarnate will come, when there is some final resolution between the perfections that God demands in Psalm 1 and the compromise of misconduct of our own lives, when there is a David who acknowledges that he sins before God and that he must have God’s mercy. But his sins are always before him, and there is no hope before him. There is a resolution still coming, and his name is Jesus.
Don Carson explains John 1:1-18.
We have finally come to the New Testament. You knew we would get there if we waited long enough. So I hope that you will open your Bible in the next few moments to John 1.
This talk has the rather, frankly, amazing theme: “The God Who Becomes a Human Being.” It presupposes that this God keeps telling us that he’s coming. In one sense he comes to Abraham and calls him on his pilgrimage. He comes to Moses and gives him a certain task. He comes to David and establishes a dynasty. In the Old Testament, through large numbers of the books of the prophets that I’ve alluded to (though we haven’t looked closely at any one of them), God is repeatedly said to come. He sometimes comes with judgment. People speak of the day of the Lord, the time when the Lord come: “Oh, it will be wonderful when the Lord comes.” And God says, “No, when I come the day of the Lord is going to be full of darkness, not light. There’s going to be judgment.” So sometimes God comes not only upon his covenant people with judgment, but the God of the Bible is the God of all the nations so he holds all the nations to account. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34). So God promises to come visit the Babylonians with judgment, or the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon with judgment, and so forth. And he also comes to his own covenant people with judgment.
He also keeps promising to come with forgiveness, with the ultimate Davidic king, with transformation. We saw one of those passages briefly in the prophecy of Isaiah 9, words with which we’re familiar from Handel’s Messiah when ultimately there is a king coming who will reign on David’s throne.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. (Isaiah 9:6–7)
Then there are other passages where you get this anticipation of someone who comes who is God. God is coming. And yet he’s tied somehow to this Davidic figure. One of the most remarkable passages in this respect is by the prophet Ezekiel:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel [that does not mean the people who keep the sheep literally, but the rulers, the nobles, the monarchs as they come and go, the leaders, the priests]; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1–6)
Then what God says in many different ways through verse after verse is this: “I will not only judge the false shepherds. I will become the shepherd of my people.” “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves” (Ezekiel 34:10). Then he goes on to say,
“As shepherds look after their scattered flocks when they are with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:12–16).
In other words, “All these false shepherds are just ruining the flock. I myself will be their shepherd.” Then after saying this again and again and again—about twenty-five times—God himself is going to shepherd his people. He’s going to do the job himself. He then says,
“I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.” (Ezekiel 34:23–24)
So somehow this promise of God himself coming and a Davidic king coming get merged into one.
So when we come to the New Testament, the four first books of the New Testament are often called “Gospels”: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They all begin a little differently, but they all begin in some way with the coming of Jesus. Before him there is always a mention of John the Baptist, who points out who Jesus is.
Luke’s Gospel, for example, depicts an angelic visitation to Mary, promising her a virginal conception, a miraculous thing, such that the child born in her would be called the Son of God. Then the familiar Christmas story occurs in Luke 2.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the situation is looked at less from Mary’s perspective and more from Joseph’s perspective. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, and then he discovers that she is pregnant. Don’t forget that in that society they couldn’t go off in the corner and have a little chitchat so that she could try to convince him that it was a miracle. You didn’t have that kind of easy, free conversation. There were chaperones and guardians around all the time, but God visited Joseph as well and insisted that this was his doing; she was a virgin.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20–21)
Joseph, when the baby came, was to give the baby the name Jesus. Jesus is simply the Greek form of Joshua, and Joshua means Yahweh saves. Yahweh is the name of God in the Old Testament, connected to “I am who I am.” God saves. Joseph was to give this baby the name Jesus he will save his people from their sins. This means in a sense that the whole rest of Matthew’s Gospel is to be read as the Gospel in which Yahweh saves his people from their sins. Every chapter of that book can be fit under that theme.
John’s Gospel begins a slightly different way. It does not begin with the historical developments (Joseph, Mary, Bethlehem, the visit of the shepherds, etc.). It begins by thinking about the coming of the eternal Son, the coming of God in theological terms. Let me read the first eighteen verses, sometimes called John’s Prologue:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:1–18)
Let me run through the thought of this very quickly.
You cannot help but see that this one whose coming is simply called “the Word”: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). We might say, “In the beginning was God’s self-expression (God expressed himself), and this self-expression was with God (God’s own fellow), and this self-expression was God (God’s own self).” Already your heart begins to flutter, and your mind wonders, “What’s going on here? How do you think in those terms?” But that’s what the text says. This one who becomes flesh, who takes on human identity, is one with God, God’s own agent in creation, God’s own self.
Even the term “Word” is an interesting choice, isn’t it? How do you think about Jesus? How is that title equipped for him? I can imagine in John’s head going round and round various titles and names and expression that could be used, and he remembers, for example, that in the Old Testament we read again and again, “The word of the Lord came to the prophet, saying . . . .” So God has disclosed himself in revelation. Or he remembers Genesis 1: God spoke, and the world came into being; by the word of the Lord, the heavens were made. God’s word in creation. Even God’s word in saving people, transforming people, God sent forth his word, and he healed them, quoting from the Psalms. All these things that God’s word accomplishes: he reveals, he creates, he transforms, and he thinks, “Yes, that’s the appropriate expression that summarizes all who Jesus is.” He is God’s self-expression. He is there with God in the beginning. God is one and yet there is a complexity in him from the very beginning. This Word is God’s own fellow, and he is God’s own self.
First, the Word is God’s own agent in creation. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3–5). That’s the way the book begins. The Word also gives us light and life.
Some books you read only once. You have a trip, let’s say, to Los Angeles, you pick up a “Who Dunnit?” at the bookshop in the airport, and by the time you get to LA, you’ve found out who dunnit. And you decide that this is a book you’re going to keep in your library, so you put it in the seat pocket in front of you and the cleaners take it out and you’ll never read it again. In fact, it’s even possible that six months from now when you make another busy trip to LA, you buy the same flipping book and read it again because you don’t remember how it went. It’s possible.
But there are other books where you read them more than once. They are books you like to pour over, perhaps for the quality of the English prose. It might even be a “Who Dunnit?” but it’s got the atmosphere exactly right, or it describes a part of the world where you live and you enjoy thinking about it. You read it once for the plot, and you read it again for the characterization and again for all the little touches and nuances. You get a real kick out of it.
The question is this: Did John write his book as a throwaway tract to be read once, or is it the sort of book where he wanted it to be read again and again and again? I think you can show that he wrote it in such a way that he expected you to see new things from it as you keep rereading it. If you read verses 4–5 without ever having read the rest of the book (all you’ve read so far are verses 1–3), how will you understand verses 4–5. Verse 3: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” This is talking about creation. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). That is, he had life in himself, and he gave life to all human beings. That was their light. There was darkness, and then there was light; there was a darkness of nothingness before he came along and created everything. In other words you can understand verses 4–5 entirely with respect to verse 3, and I suspect that if you were reading it the first time, that’s the way you would understand it.
Then you read,
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6–8)
And you start seeing how light now has overtones not of physical light and the nothingness that existed before the creation. Now light has some sort of overtone of revelation or truth—light that is revealed. And the same sort of moral or revelatory overtone is clearer and clearer as the book goes on. Thus we read, “people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). People choose the darkness because they’re afraid to come to the light: “All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:20–21). In this kind of context, light is not the light of creation; it is the light of revelation, of truth.
Now you go back and reread John 1:4–5 in the light of all of this. By the time you get to John 8, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness [i.e., of corruption and rebellion], and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4–5). Now you have another set of overtones.
You might ask, “Which is true: Jesus as the agent of physical life and light and creation or Jesus as the one who brings revelation and transformation and overcomes moral darkness?” The answer, of course, is “Yes,” because you’re supposed to read it both ways. It’s the way the book has been written. You read it and reread it and see more and more connections. The light gives us light and life.
Then we’re told that the Word confronts and divides us:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world [i.e., the world that he had made], and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own [i.e., his own home], but his own [i.e., his own people] did not receive him. (John 1:12–13)
People did not look on Jesus and say, “Ah, you’re finally here: the light of the world.” Many were puzzled by him. Some were repulsed by him because even if they did see the light, they were ashamed in his presence and preferred the darkness to the light. So his very coming did not guarantee a universal revival with everybody turning to him. Some did receive him; they believed in his name.
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent [it’s not just natural children who are in view], nor of human decision [from sexual intercourse] or a husband’s will [assuming he’s taking some sort of primary role in the conception], but born of God. (John 1:12–13)
These people are not simply humanly born. They are born of God. (That’s a theme we’ll come back to next.) That is, they are different because God has done something new in them. There is a new creation. There is a new birth. He is starting something over in them, and they truly believe who Jesus really is.
Then verses 14–18 (and with this we close). You may recall that earlier we looked at the remarkable passage of Exodus 32–34, where Moses comes down from the mountain and the people are in an orgy of idolatry. And Moses prays before God and wants to see more of God’s glory:
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18–20)
There are six major themes in those verses that are picked up here in these verses. You know how when you’re dealing with a community that knows a book or a film and you just quote one line and the whole scene comes back to mind? My son, for whatever reason, has a formidable memory when it comes to movies, and so you simply drop in one line and he’ll tell you the whole scene. Or you say, “You remember the third film in the Star Wars series where something or other happens?” He’ll quote the whole thing. He’s got this formidable mind for audio-visual recall. (What can I say? I don’t have it.) For people steeped in the Bible, as many of the first readers were, if you read through these verses together, your mind is going to go back to Exodus 32–34. Let me show you, and we’re done.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:14–18)
“The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The Word became a human being. This Word became something that he wasn’t. He already existed. He was God’s own agent in creation, but now he becomes a human being.
“And made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14)—the expression is quite literally “he tabernacle among us.” For anybody with an Old Testament background, you can’t help but remember that the tabernacle is what God set up at the time of Sinai, a tabernacle with this special Most Holy Place where only the high priest could go in on behalf of everybody else once a year with the blood of the sacrifices. It was the place where sinners met God. It was the great meeting place between a holy God and sinners, provided for by this blood of the bull and the goat that was brought in by the high priest. It was the great meeting place between God and human beings, and eventually it is the temple that replaces it. Now in this chapter we’re told, “The Word became flesh and he tabernacle among us.” In the very next chapter, Jesus insists that he himself is the temple of God (John 2:19–21). That is, Jesus insists that he becomes the great meeting place between rebels and this holy God. “If rebels are going to be reconciled to this God, they’ve got to come through the temple. And I’m the temple.” Much of John’s Gospel explains how that’s so.
Look what else is here. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). “We have seen his glory”? What was it that Moses asked for?
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you . . . .” (Exodus 33:18–19)
John plays with this theme of glory right through his book. In John 2, for example, when Jesus performs his first miracle—turns water into wine at the marriage in Cana of Galilee—we’re told at the end of it that the disciples saw his glory: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory” (John 2:11). The others saw the miracle. The disciples saw that it was saying something about who Jesus was; they saw his glory. Then eventually you get to John 12, where Jesus is to manifest God’s glory by going to the cross. Where is God’s glory most manifested? When Jesus is glorified, lifted up, and displays God’s glory in the shame and ignominy and brutality and sacrifice of a cross.
When we think of God’s glory, we think maybe of some spectacular visionary scene with the Chicago symphony playing along with the Boston symphony and presumably there’s one here in Minneapolis joining in together in a great choir of voices and a spectacular array of lightning and thunder in the background: GLORY! May it’s a supernova that you see through a telescope. But the most spectacular display of God’s glory is in a bloody instrument of torture because that’s where God’s goodness was most displayed.
Oh, it’s nice to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” but you also have to sing “On a hill far away stood an old, rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame” because there God displayed his glory in Christ Jesus, who thus became our tabernacle, our temple, the meeting place between God and human beings.
Do you see the end of this verse?
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:4)
When God intones who he is before Moses in that cave in Exodus 34, he describes himself in a variety of ways. Included among them are (the words are hard to translate) “full of love and faithfulness.” In Hebrew, they are the same words for “grace and truth.” God displays himself not only as the God who will punish sinners, but he’s “full of grace and truth” and forgives. Now John, reflecting on who Jesus is (who manifests God’s goodness, his glory in the cross), says that Jesus was “full of grace and truth,” the grace and truth that brought him to the cross and paid for our sins.
Indeed, John the Baptist bore witness to him (John 1:15). All the biblical writers tell us that the forerunner announced who Jesus was before Jesus came.
Then John adds, “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given” (John 1:16). That’s exactly what is meant. We had received grace; now we’ve got a grace that’s substituted for it. It doesn’t mean “grace on top of grace,” merely added up like presents surround the Christmas tree, piled up one on top of another, blessing after blessing. That’s not what is meant. We have all received a grace in place of a grace already given. What does that mean? The next verse tells us.
“For the law was given through Moses” (John 1:17). That’s taking us back to Exodus 32–34. “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). In other words, the gift of the law was a gracious thing. It was a wonderful thing. It was a gracious gift that God gave to his people as he brought them along the pilgrim way in preparation for who Jesus was, but grace and truth par excellence came through Jesus Christ, not in the display of glory to Moses in a cave but in the display of Jesus and the bloody sacrifice on the cross. The law-covenant was a gracious gift from God, but now Jesus is going to introduce a new covenant, ultimately grace and truth. This is a grace that replaces that old grace. It’s a new covenant.
In fact, it’s more than that: “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). Isn’t that what God said in Exodus 33? “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). “But the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). Do you hear what this text is saying? Do you want to know what God looks like? Look at Jesus. “No one has ever seen God,” and God in all of his transcendent splendor we still cannot see until the last day. But the Word became flesh. God became a human being. That’s why later in this book just before Jesus goes to the cross, he says to one of his own disciples, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Do you want to know what the character of God is like? Study Jesus. Do you want to know what the holiness of God is like? Study Jesus. Do you want to know what the wrath of God is like? Study Jesus. Do you want to know what the forgiveness of God is like? Study Jesus. Do you want to know what the glory of God is like? Study Jesus all the way to that execrable cross. Study Jesus.
May I tell you a concluding story? It’s an old story now. My first degree was in chemistry and mathematics at McGill University in Montreal a long time ago now. Somewhere along the line I befriended a wonderful Pakistani gentleman. He was twice as old as I was. He had come to McGill to do a PhD in Islamic studies. (McGill had a very fine Islamic institute at the time.) He had left his wife and two children behind in Pakistan, so he was lonely. Somewhere along the line we were in the men’s dorm, and I befriended him. It dawned on me after a while that he was trying to convert me to Islam. I was a bit thick, but eventually I realized that that was what he was trying to do. So I thought that I should return the favor except that he was a trained Muslim theologian, and I was studying chemistry.
I remember walking down the hill one night on Pine Avenue. He had agreed to come to church with me. He wanted to see what it was like. And he said to me, “Don, you study mathematics, yes?”
“If you have one cup and then you add another cup, how many cups do you have?”
Well, I studied mathematics, so I said, “Two.”
“If you have two cups and you add another cup, how many cups do you have?”
I said, “Three.”
“If you have three cups, and you take away one cup, how many cups do you have?”
I said, “Two.” So far I was hitting on all cylinders.
So he says, “You believe that the Father is God?”
“Yes.” Uh oh, I could see where this was going.
“You believe that Jesus is God?”
“You believe that the Holy Spirit is God?”
“So if have one God plus one God plus one God, how many gods do you have?”
I was studying chemistry. How was I supposed to answer that? The best I could do is say, “Listening, if you’re going to use a mathematical model, then let me choose the branch of mathematics. Let’s talk about infinities. Infinity plus infinity plus infinity equals what? Infinity. I serve an infinite God.”
Well, he laughed. He thought that was a great joke. That was the level of our friendship. We weren’t getting anywhere. Suddenly it dawned on me about November that he had never read the Christian Bible. He didn’t own one. He had never held one in his hands. So I bought him a Christian Bible. He said, “Where do I start?”
He didn’t know how it was put together. He didn’t know about the Old Testament and New Testament. He didn’t know about the Gospels. He didn’t know about Moses and where he fit in the whole thing. He had heard all of these names, of course, from the Qur’an, but he didn’t know how the Bible worked. And I didn’t know what to suggest to him. So I said, “Well, why don’t you start with John’s Gospel?” I showed him where it was, right after Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
But, of course, coming as he did from Asia, he didn’t read books the way I would read a book. (How many pages can I get through tonight? The more the better.) No, he had a different style of reading where you read something and then you stop and think about it and turn it over in your head, then go back and reread it. He was meditating, reflecting, thinking about it. He didn’t stop and ask me questions. He just read quietly.
That Christmas I brought him home to my parents, who at that point lived on the French side of our capital city, Ottawa, in a place called Hull. It transpired that my father had heart problems, and my mother and I spent most of our time in the hospital. My dear friend Muhammed Yusuf left largely on his own. By the end of that Christmas break, it turned out that Dad was fine, so I asked to borrow the car (we had only one) so I could take Muhammed Yusuf to see some of the sites in the capital city. We went here and there, and eventually we went to one of our parliament buildings. In those days there was much less security than there is now. We got in one of these guided tours—thirty of us being brought around to the rotunda at the back where the library is, and the senate chambers, and the house of commons, the rogues gallery of Canadian prime ministers from Sir John A. McDonald and so forth. We’d listen to all of these comments that filled in a bit of Canadian history.
We got back to the central foyer, where there are these huge pillars. At the top of each pillar is a little fresco where there is a figure, and the guide explained, “There is Aristotle, for government must be based on knowledge. There is Socrates, for government must be based on wisdom. There is Moses, for government must be based on law.” He went all the way around. Then he asked, “Any questions?”
My friend piped up, “Where is Jesus Christ?”
The guide did what guide do under such circumstances. They simply say, “I beg your pardon?”
So Muhammed did what foreigners do under such circumstances. They assume that they’ve been misunderstood because of their thick accent, so he said it more clearly and more loudly, “Where is Jesus Christ?”
Now there were three groups in the foyer of the Canadian parliament listening to a Pakistani Muslim ask where Jesus was. I was looking for a crack in the ground to fall into. I had no idea where this was coming from.
Finally the guide blurted out, “Why should Jesus be here?”
Muhammed looked shocked. He said, “I read in the Christian Bible that the law was given through Moses but that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Where is Jesus Christ?”
The guide said, “I don’t know anything about that.”
And I muttered under my breath, “Preach it, brother.”
Do you see how it looked to Muhammed’s point of view? He was a Muslim. He understood about a God who has laws, who has standards, who brings terror, who sits in judgment over you, a God who is sovereign and holy and powerful. He understood all of that. But he had already been captured by Jesus, full of grace and truth, who displays his glory profoundly in the cross and becomes the meeting place between God and sinners because he dies the sinner’s death.
Let us pray.
Lord, you know all of our hearts and minds as we sit here quietly. Some of us have been believers for a long time, but we’ve sneakily begun to cherish sin again and we are ashamed. Help us to see that when we sin you are always the most offended party but that our hope, too, is in you and the sacrifice you have provided in the person of your Son. We have no other hope.
For some gathered here, this is new, but it’s wonderfully new. Help them to cry in the quietness of their own minds and hearts even now, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Don Carson explains John 3:1-15.
The Bible’s storyline, we have discovered, has set up from the opening chapters of Genesis a massive tension: cosmic in scope but descending all the way down to the level of the individual. The tension is grounded in the fact that God made everything good. God himself, the Creator, is different from the creation, but all that he made was initially God-centered and good. But the very nature of evil is tied to rebellion against this God. We tried to see how this is depicted in Genesis 3, and with this desire to challenge God—to become God ourselves, to usurp to ourselves the prerogatives that belong only to the Creator—come all of the social evils, the horizontal evils that we know. With everybody wanting to be at the center of the universe, there can only be strife. I know full well that nobody goes around, “I’m at the center of the universe.” I know that. Yet if I were to hold up your high school or college graduation class photo and say, “Here’s your graduation class photo,” whose face do you look for first? Or suppose you have a really good knock-down-drag-’em-out argument (a one-in-ten-years-type), and you go away from it seething. You remember all the things you could have said and should have said and would have said if you would have only thought of them fast enough. Then you reply the whole thing in your mind. Who wins? I’ve lost many arguments in my time. I’ve never lost a rerun. All of these things are small indexes of how we want to prevail, we want to control, we want to be at the center; and even god—if he, she, or it exists—jolly well better serve me or I’ll find another one, thank you. So you have the beginning of all idolatry.
But if our life has come from God and now we rebel against him, what do we have but death? If the God of the Bible instead of wiping out rebels—in his sovereign mercy, he operates in a variety of ways. Yes, there is judgment, but he does some spectacular things. He calls out one man, Abraham, and his family, which is flawed through and through, and God begins the process of starting a new humanity in a covenant or agreement with Abraham that anticipates what God is going to do ultimately to save men and women drawn from every tongue and tribe and nation around the world. In due course he shows what good law should be, how there needs to be sacrifice for sin. If the entailment of rebellion and sin of being cut off from the Creator is death, then does not God’s justice require some kind of death even while this God forgives the sinner? So we witness the beginning of the sacrificial system as it was set up under the old covenant with God eventually promising in due course a Redeemer, someone from the Davidic line, the line of kings, set up about 1000 BC under King David. And yet as the promises unfold in the Old Testament, this ultimate Davidide, this ultimate Davidic king is more than just one more person with David’s genes. For we are given glimpses that we recite with pleasure at Christmas:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. (Isaiah 9:6–7)
The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. (Luke 1:32)
An array of biblical texts promises a Davidic king who is nevertheless identified with God himself. So we glance at some of the Old Testament promises that look forward to the time when (as we saw in the last passage we looked at) the Word—God’s own self-expression who is himself God in the complexity of one God, nevertheless, Father and Son—becomes a human being, living for a while among us. He became flesh. In becoming flesh he ultimately became the one who is the perfect locus of grace and truth. No one has seen God at any time, but we have seen Jesus. Do you want to know what God looks like? Well not physically, and yet if you want to know what he’s like—what his characteristics are, what his attributes are, how he behaves, how he thinks, how he interacts with people—look at Jesus. Jesus says to one of his own followers, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Here is a God who has disclosed himself. He is the God who is there, but he has disclosed himself.
And he is named not only with the names he takes on himself in the Old Testament, and he’s named not only with his attributes as they are described in story and action and word and proverb and the like. He’s finally named as the God-man, this Jesus, Yahweh saves, the one who comes to save his people from their sins.
But precisely how does this help? So he comes. God is named. The God who is there has disclosed himself. Granted the tension that sweeps right through the whole Bible, this is what we need:
In other words the Bible’s prospect is not just that we make a decision for Jesus and lives happy lives. The Bible’s vision is that we really are reconciled to this God who is there and that he begins this work of transformation within us, that he holds out before us the prospect of a universal transformation at the end aptly summarized under and expression that starts showing up hundreds of years before the coming of Jesus; it crops up from time to time until it triumphs in the last two chapters of the Bible: a new heaven and a new earth.
Now that’s where we’re going in this second set of seven talks. We got as far as what Christians call the incarnation—the in-fleshing (that’s what it means), the becoming a human being—of God among us. Jesus addresses all three of these massive needs, and the rest of this series is designed to show us how he does this.
One crucial part of this is the new birth. There are several passages in the New Testament that talk about this, but I’m going to focus on John 3. If you are looking at a Bible, this is in the last third called the New Testament, the part that starts in Greek and has come down to us beginning with four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all of which tell us something about Jesus’ coming, life, death, and resurrection. The fourth of those is John’s Gospel, and in the third chapter I will read the first fifteen verses.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
“How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:1–15)
New birth language: I’m old enough to remember when people drove Datsun automobiles. They were produced by the Nissan motor company, but the base model was the Datsun. Then somewhere along the line they decided that they would changed Datsun to Nissan, and all over America there were slogans about the “born again Datsun.” So what does born again mean? Name change?
Or sometimes a Democratic becomes a Republican; a liberal becomes a conservative or vice versa, and then we’ll start hearing in one of the media something about this “born again” Republican or whatever.
There’s a pollster by the name of Barna who is constantly polling people to find out what they think about this or that or the other, and not too long ago he polled a whole lot of “born again” people. But if you’re going to do that, you have to define what born again means, don’t you? He defined born again as “someone with a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important to them today.” Then what he discovered, rather sadly, was that the morals and mores of such so-called born-again people are not really much different from those of the whole generation and culture in which we live. But is that what Jesus has in mind? Is what Jesus has in mind someone who has made some kind of religious commitment to Jesus and is still more or less happy with it, regardless of whether or not it has made any difference in their life? Indeed to talk about it as a commitment is looking at it from our side, but the whole nature of birth seems to look at things from the other side. In other words the child does not sort of make a commitment to come out of his mother’s womb. I think it’s the mother, as far as I know, who is doing the work and pushing the little tyke out. In other words the source comes from the parents. It’s not begun from some commitment.
Why does Jesus even use this sort of language. As far as we know born-again language was not used (as far as our sources go) in the ancient world until Jesus invented the term. So it is important to try to find out what he meant by it if we’re going to embrace some kind of born-again-ism or born-again theology. We’re going to proceed in three quite uneven points.
We’re introduced to the chap called Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee. That meant that he was from a conservative branch of first-century Judaism known and largely respected in the community for discipline and good deeds and a certain kind of orthodoxy, sometimes given to excessive rules. But on top of his religious affiliation, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council; almost certainly that’s referring to the Sanhedrin, the top council of seventy or seventy-two people that rule the country under the Roman government. So this meant that he was part of a certain party but belonging to the political elite. Because this political elite was also a religious elite (i.e., the rules were people committed to Judaism in some sense though from different backgrounds), this put him at the top of a lot of heaps in the country. Jesus calls him “Israel’s teacher” (John 3:10), that is, there is an article with the word and should probably be rendered “the teacher of Israel.” He’s the grand mufti. He’s the Regius Professor of Divinity. So he is politically connected, and he is learned and theologically up there. Later on it appears that he is probably connected with some wealth.
But he comes to Jesus. He comes at night. Why? There have been lots of suggestions advanced. People have said, “Well he didn’t want to show up in the day. He was a bit embarrassed. Jesus was a kind of itinerant teacher from the boonies in Galilee with a funny accent and all that, whereas here was Nicodemus himself, the Regius Professor of Divinity. Why would he approach an itinerant preacher and get some theological advice? So he was embarrassed.” I don’t believe it for a moment. Nicodemus shows up several times in this book, and every time he doesn’t really care what people think. He’s got one independent spirit about him. He’ll take on anybody if he thinks he’s got a point.
To understand what John means by faithfully recording that it was night, you have to see how John himself in his book uses light and darkness, night and day, and things like that. One reason why it that it was night. That was the time. It was night. It’s just an historical fact.
But why does he even bother mentioning it? Almost certainly because John likes to play with these sorts of things. Later on when Jesus is betrayed, Jesus dismisses Judas, the man who will ultimately betray him. And as the man goes out, John comments, “And it was night.” No doubt, that was the time alright, but John is making a deeper comment as he recounts the event. He is saying, “He went out into the horrible darkness and lostness without light and hope anymore.”
If that is what’s going on (and John does use that sort of language), then the text is saying that when Nicodemus came to Jesus (and no doubt it was night time), he came with a certain kind of lostness. He didn’t even know how to approach properly. He was a bit baffled. He didn’t quite know what he was doing. That becomes pretty obvious as you read on. He comes with a certain kind of respect. It’s quite remarkable for the Regius Professor of Divinity to approach an itinerant preacher and to begin with “Rabbi.” The man is remarkable.
He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). We could start by asking why Nicodemus starts with this “we.” There is no indication that he has brought his students with him: “My class and I together, we have come to this conclusion.” There’s no hint that anybody else is there. Is it a royal “we”? That really makes it pompous. An editorial “we”? What’s going on? Well later on you’ll see that Jesus carefully draws attention to this “we” language. It’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that for all the formal respect that Nicodemus displays toward Jesus, there is a little element of pomposity: “Uh, Rabbi, we have been examining you, and we have observed that you’re not the run of the mill sort of religious teacher. There are all kinds of quacks out there who claim to do miracles, and they’re all fraudulent. But we look at the kind of thing that you do, and we cannot deny that this is miraculous. The only explanation is that it is from God. So we have come to the conclusion, we have, that you are a teacher sent from God.” That’s what it sounds like. In one sense it’s commendable. At least the chap is looking honestly at the phenomena; he is not simply dismissing Jesus as some sort of nutcase, one more religious quack. The ancient religious world had quacks, and we have our share today, too. The kinds of things that Jesus did were a cut above, and Nicodemus was not going to deny the evident. And yet this editorial “we,” this “we theologians” perhaps (“we theologians have been examining these things”), does sound a bit pompous.
Then Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:3). Now you ask, “How is that in any sense a response to what Nicodemus said?” Nicodemus says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” and Jesus replies, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:2–3). What’s the connection? So people have suggested sort of a presupposed ellipses as if Nicodemus is really saying something like this: “We know that you are a teacher sent from God because nobody could do what you’re doing unless God were with him. So tell us: are you the one who is going to bring in the coming kingdom? Are you the one who is going to make David’s kingdom finally dawn?” In which case Jesus says, “Uh-uh. The crucial question is not whether I’m going to make the kingdom dawn but whether you’re qualified to get in it.” That’s an awful lot of stuff to leave out between verses 2 and 3 to make sense of the flow of the passage.
I think the connection is far simpler. You may recall that in one of the earlier session I mentioned that the notion of kingdom can be quite varies. It has to do with God’s dynamic reign, with his power. Sometimes it’s his sweeping sovereignty, and sometimes it’s the exercise of his reign over the Israelites of the old covenant and so forth. There was an anticipation that eventually great David’s greater son would come and introduce the kingdom alright. And now what does Nicodemus see? He sees Jesus doing miraculous signs that cannot be explained as the tricks of some quack. He sees this as God’s reign, God’s power, in some sense. “We have come to the conclusion,” he says, “that God is with you.” In that sense this is God’s reign operating in some sense. He’s claiming something. And Jesus says, “My dear Nicodemus, let me tell you the truth. You don’t see a blessed thing. You can’t see the kingdom unless you’re born again. You might see the miraculous signs, but you really don’t discern. You don’t see the kingdom at all.” In other words, what Jesus is doing is actually gently but firmly knocking down Nicodemus’s pretentions. To see this kingdom, the kingdom that Jesus is introducing, you have to be born again, he says.
And Nicodemus replies with a bit of a sneer: “How can anyone be born when they are old? . . . Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4). Some have tried to argue that Nicodemus here shows himself to be the thick Regius Professor of Divinity. Does he really think that Jesus is seriously suggesting that you have to crawl back into your mummy’s tummy physically and start all over again? So to set this thing up this way means that he can’t see a metaphor. He’s just slow. He’s literalistic. He’s—not to put too fine on it—dumb. But I don’t think that makes any sense either. Nicodemus was not a stupid man. You don’t get to be the teacher of Israel, the grand mufti, without being able to discern the odd metaphor that comes your way. I think that he is replying to Jesus in Jesus’ own terms. That is to say you can promise a lot of things. You can promise a turning over a new leave: your life takes on a new direction; fulfillment finally in marriage; you get wealthy, follow me. You can promise all kinds of things, but what Jesus is promising somehow in this metaphor of new birth is a new beginning. Nicodemus hears that because he’s got ears for a metaphor. He’s not stupid, and he says, in effect, “Jesus, you’re promising too much. A new beginning? How could you possibly start over? Time doesn’t run backwards despite our theoretical physicists. You can’t crawl back into your mother’s womb and have another go at it. You’re promising too much. How can any man be born again?”
In point of fact, isn’t that the sentiment of many writers and poets over the years? The English nineteenth-century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “Ah, for a man to arise in me that the man I am may no longer be.” The poet John Clare wrote, “If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.” But life doesn’t have a second edition. How can you start over by being born again? But in this light Jesus is clearly saying, in effect, is this: “What we need is new men and women, not new institutions. What we need is new lives, not new laws. What we need is new creatures, not new creeds. What we need is new people, not mere displays of power. And so from your vantage point, Nicodemus, you really don’t see very much. You see the display of power, but you don’t see the kingdom in any saving transforming sense. You don’t really understand what’s going on at all.”
“Jesus, you are encouraging the impossible. There is no new beginning. There is no new birth. Messianic figure you may be, but you’re now promising too much.”
But Jesus won’t back down: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). What does he mean by that? I have to tell you over the generations people have understood this expression “born of water and the Spirit” in a number of ways.
Some people think it means natural birth plus some kind of spiritual birth. Born of water maybe is the breaking of the water when you’re born before you actually begin to push out; it’s natural versus born of the Spirit, something from God, supernatural. So there are two births: you have to be born of water and of the Spirit.
I don’t think that’s what it means, partly because I have not been able to find anywhere in the ancient world that people spoke of natural birth as being born of water. That just wasn’t an expression that anybody used. Moreover if you compare verse 3 very carefully with verse 5, you’ll discover something about this:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. . . .
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3, 5)
The two sentences are parallel. Verse 5 is souped up a bit more from “see” to “enter,” but it’s still in the same sort of sweep. Verse 5 moves from “born again” to “born of water and the Spirit.” In other words, “born again” is parallel to “born of water and the Spirit.” Thus, “born of water and the Spirit” is not signaling two births: first birth one (born of water) and then birth two (the born again part). No, the whole expression “born of water and the Spirit” is parallel to “born again.” So what does John mean by that? What does Jesus mean by that?
There’s one other small hint that we can pick up before we conclude what it means. Down in verses 9–10 when Jesus has given his answer, Nicodemus still doesn’t quite understand: “How can these things be?” Jesus replies, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” “The teacher of Israel” was probably a title, the grand mufti, the Regius Professor of Divinity. Now what things should Nicodemus—because he was the grand mufti, the theological senior professor in the land—have understood? What he should have understood what anything that comes from what we call the Old Testament, the first two-thirds of the Bible that we scanned previously. So the question becomes, “Where does that Bible talk about new birth?” The short answer is “It doesn’t.” But interestingly enough, in quite a few places it does talk about water and Spirit. In other words, when Jesus says, “The birth I’m talking about is of water and Spirit,” he expects Nicodemus to pick up that sort of language because after all he’s the sort of chap that has actually memorized the whole Old Testament. He knows the text that well, so he should pick up what Jesus means when he talks about water and Spirit.
There are a number of passages, but perhaps one of the most striking is found in an Old Testament prophet by the name of Ezekiel, writing about the sixth century. In Ezekiel 36, God promises a time when he will make a new covenant with his people. You will recall earlier that we noticed how God writes his own agreements, his own covenants. He has one, for example, with Abraham. Then when the law is given to Moses that’s a kind of covenant, an agreement. Then when he begins to use David as the founding of a whole dynastic order, it’s a Davidic covenant, an agreement that God has arranged. But now Ezekiel is promising a new covenant. And he says that in this new covenant, “I will sprinkle your hearts with clean water,” indicating cleaning somebody out morally. “And I will pour out my Spirit upon you,” indicating life and power from God himself. So whatever else this birth is, it’s the promise of a prophet from six centuries earlier bound up with the dawning of a new covenant, a new agreement from God, that would be characterized by moral transformation (the water sprinkling the heart) and by the power and life of God to transform and renew. That’s what Jesus means by the new birth.
Then Jesus is quick to explain a little further: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6–7). What he means by this is “Pigs give birth to pigs; cockroaches generate cockroaches; bats generate bats; kind produces kind; flesh produces flesh. So how on earth do you take human beings—rebels, lost—and actually connect them with the life of God? You’re not going to produce that by natural selection. You’re not going to have moral revolution by merely trying harder. What you really must have is what Ezekiel said: some act of God that does clean you up and that actually suffuses you with power from God himself, from his Spirit, so that we are changed, transformed. You must have that, or you cannot possibly be connected with the life of God. That’s what he wants. “Flesh gives birth to flesh. Don’t be surprised that I demand something that is birthed from spirit.”
Then he gives another analogy that depends in part on the fact that the word we translate “spirit” can also mean “wind,” depending on the context. So in the original, it is a bit of a pun: “The wind [spirit] blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit [wind]” (John 3:8). It may be that they’re standing on a street corner in Jerusalem, and a sycamore branch is swaying in the evening breeze or a tumbleweed dances down the street or a little dust eddy maybe. And Jesus looks around and says, “Do you see the effect of the wind? Do you really know where it comes from?” Even then they knew something of meteorology but not all that much—a good deal less than we know today. Nobody was sitting around thinking, “There is a high in the Arabian desert. Is this cyclonic or anti-cyclonic? Where is the line between the depression and the high pressure?” Nobody’s is thinking in those terms. But that doesn’t mean that you deny the existence and power of wind. You see the effects. You might not be able to explain all of the dynamics and all of the physical forces that brought it to pass, but you can’t deny the effects.
Then Jesus says, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Listen, friends, I may not be able to explain all the mechanics of new birth. From the Bible we can look at a text like this and a batch of others (another passage here and there that talks about the new birth), and we can infer quite a few things about how this works. But at the end of the day, we don’t have a full analysis of how God works powerfully within us to transform us, but where there is genuine new birth you always see the results. You can’t deny them. That’s why Barna’s interpretation is so abysmally off-base: “somebody’s made a commitment to Jesus.” La-dee-dah. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Where there’s new birth—where it’s genuinely come from God—it will transform you. You will see change in the life. That doesn’t mean that people have suddenly reached perfection. (We’ll wrestle more with Christian failure in due course.) But there is a change of direction, of origin. There is a cleaning up in the life. There is a transformation. There is the beginning of life from God himself that shapes our existence in a new direction. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. And my dear Nicodemus, you cannot see the kingdom, the real power of God, and you cannot enter this kingdom unless you’re born again. That is what you must have. You must be born again.”
In other words, this text is dead-set against those who think that Christianity is a matter of ritual or religious practice or mysticism. The Bible keeps saying these kinds of things. The same writer, John, who is recording all of this, also writes a letter farther on in the New Testament towards the end. It’s a little one that we call 1 John. There are three: 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John. In the first of his three recorded letters, he keeps saying things like this: “Unless you obey Jesus’ word, you really have no part in it. You’re not a Christian. Unless you love the brother and sisters, you just aren’t a Christian. Unless you believe the truth about who Jesus is, you just aren’t a Christian because when this new birth comes it transforms you. It’s not merely a public stance. It’s a power.”
In the eighteenth century there was a very famous preacher (probably the most famous preacher in the Western world at the time) named George Whitefield. He was a Brit, but he crossed the Atlantic thirteen times, each time by sail (six weeks to three months). So he was as famous a preacher in the thirteen colonies as he was on the English side. He preached to vast crowds without a PA system. He must have had spectacular lungs and vocal chords. He could preach to tens of thousands by preaching in a valley with a sounding box behind him downwind. Spectacular. And again and again and again, he preached from this text, “You must be born again,” until finally somebody got really ticked with him and cornered him one day and said, “Mr. Whitefield, why is it that you keep preaching again and again and again ‘You must be born again. You must be born again’?” “Because, sir,” Whitefield replied, “you must be born again.” Because unless you are born again, you will not enter into this saving, transforming kingdom of God, this dawning kingdom of David’s son. Here is the culmination of the Old Testament’s story all coming to a focus in Jesus, and you don’t participate in it because you haven’t been born again. This is what Jesus says about the new birth.
What gave Jesus the authority to speak like that?
“Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (John 3:11–13)
Now this is a strange passage to begin with. Have you noticed how he begins with the first person plural: “we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony”? Then in the next verse he switches to the first person singular: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Why does Jesus begin with the first person plural? I suspect it’s because he’s answering Nicodemus in his own terms. Nicodemus has said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, we do.” And Jesus now smiles at the end of this discourse and says, “Nicodemus, we know one or two things, too, we do, because quite frankly no one has been to heaven to describe what goes on in the throne-room of God. No one has come back to tell us. But that’s where I come from.” Make no mistake: the reason that Jesus can speak so bluntly about the new birth is grounded in a revelatory claim, that is, a claim that what he is teaching is revelation from God himself. This is not one more theologian among theologians who like to squabble and write books. This is the claim of someone, in fact, who claims to have come from there, which is of course exactly what we saw in the last session. That is to say, God’s own self-expression, his word, one with God, truly God, with God yet God, in this complexity of one God who has become a human being—Jesus has come from there, so he speaks with the authority of revelation.
He says, in effect, “Nicodemus, if were to try to depict the throne-room of God to you in all of its spiritual glory, you wouldn’t have a clue. You’re having a hard time believing anything I say when I’m describing things that take place on earth.” That’s where the new birth takes place. It takes place on earth. That’s what Jesus means by “earthly things.” “If you don’t believe when I talk about earthly things—things that take place down here like the new birth—how on earth are you going to possibly believe if I start describing to you the glories of the transcendent God?” At the end of the day, to understand Christianity sooner or later you must come to grips with Christianity’s revelation claims. What do you do with Jesus, who claims to come from God, to be one with God, who gives you information about things that you cannot otherwise have information about? No one has made a trip there, taken notes, come back, and filed a report. This is either true, or it is the most unmitigated garbage, blasphemous silliness. But there is no way that you can walk away from this thinking, “Well Jesus is a nice moralizing teacher.” In other words, why Jesus could speak about this being born again is bound up in his identity.
What Jesus says in verses 14–15 might have made more sense to Nicodemus than initially it makes to us because Nicodemus for all his strengths and weaknesses did know the Old Testament. Jesus alludes to an Old Testament passage that some of us here won’t know anything about:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14–15)
Clearly in this context this eternal life of which Jesus speaks must be the product of new birth. If you have new birth, you have life, and this life is eternal life. It’s not like this mortal life; it is eternal life, which is the product of new birth. How do you get it? Well, it’s “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
The passage to which Jesus is referring, which of course Nicodemus would have picked up like that because he knew his Old Testament, is found in the fourth book of the Bible: Numbers. It’s a very short account:
They [i.e., the Israelites, who had now escaped from slavery in Egypt but had not reached their own land] traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:4–9)
That’s all that’s said, the whole account. Do you hear what’s going on there though? The nature of the murmuring and grumbling, the whining and complaining, was bound up with a profound dissatisfaction of God. Once again all the way back in Genesis 3 we find a repetition, that is to say, you make your own rules, you become your own god, you decide your own destiny, you don’t trust God, you don’t delight in God or his sovereign care or ask him for things, you merely dictate to God and if you can’t have your own way, you whine and complain. And at the end of the day, it’s death all over again. And they die. And if they are to come out of it, only God can provide the solution. It’s a plain, flat-out miraculous solution as the story unfolds. He tells Moses to cast a bronze snake and stick it upon a pole. Those who have the venom in them will look at it and live. How bizarre! Nothing about, “Make sure you say enough ritual ‘Hail Mary’s.’ Make sure you do a lot of penance. Flagellate yourself with some whips to show that you’re really sorry. Fast. Do a whole lot of good works.” None of that. It’s as if God is saying, “Will you not learn? You people provide the sin. I provide life. You provide the sin and the death and the destruction. That’s where you go. And the only way out of it is not by digging out yourself but by the provision that I myself make. You look at my provision, and you live.” That’s the whole account.
Now a millennium-and-a-half later, Jesus comes along and says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert and people lived, so the Son of Man [one of Jesus’ ways of referring to himself] will be lifted up.” He’s now referring to his crucifixion on another stick, another pole, a cross-shaped pole, “that those who look to me, those who believe in me, will live.” How could it be any other way? We’ve already seen that the God of the Old Testament can’t be bartered with. You can’t offer him something and make a trade. It’s going to be out of his sovereign grace, or it’s going to be out of nothing. We’ve already seen that. And it’s modeled for the Old Testament people of God, and it’s coming to a certain kind of fulfillment here. Jesus on that cross by his death provided the means by which we have new birth. By his death we have life. By his crucifixion on a pole, we begin eternal life. The new birth is grounded in Jesus’ death. That’s what Jesus is saying. And you receive the benefit of this not by trying harder or being ultra-religious but by believing in Jesus.
Now Jesus has much more to explain about this. In particular, in the next verses he explains how all of this is grounded in the love of God. That is why in the next two sections we will focus on “The God Who Loves” and then “The God Who Dies—and Lives.”
TNIV: “And I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:27a)
Don Carson explains John 3:16-21.
In a few moments, I am going to read the next verses in the same chapter that we looked at last, that is, John 3, but picking up from verse 16. But before we do that, I want to talk a little more generally about love of God.
If there is one thing that our world thinks it knows about God—if our world believes in God at all—is that he’s a loving God. That has not always been the case in human history. Many people have thought of the gods as pretty arbitrary, mean-spirited, and malicious. That’s why you have to placate them. Sometimes in the history of the church there has been more emphasis on God’s terror or his sovereignty or his holiness, all of which themes are biblical in some degree or another, some massively so. Then on his love. But today, if people believe in God at all, they find it by and large easy to believe in God’s love.
Yet with this being comfortable with the notion of the love of God has also come some fairly spongy notions of what love means. So occasionally you’ll find somebody saying, “It’s Christians I don’t like. I mean, God is love, and if everybody were just like Jesus, it would be wonderful. Jesus said, ‘Judge not that you be not judged.’ You know, if we could all just be nonjudgmental and be loving the way Jesus is loving, then the world would be a better place. But those Christians are just so mean.” There’s a certain kind of assumption there about the nature of love, isn’t there? It’s nonjudgmental. It doesn’t condemn anybody. It lets everybody do whatever they want. That’s what love means. It’s true that sometimes Christians—God help us—are mean. And it’s true that Jesus said, “Do not judge that you be not judged.” But did he really mean by that, “Do not make any morally discriminating judgments?” Is that what he meant? Why then does he give so many injunctions about telling the truth? Doesn’t that stand as an implicit judgment on liars? About loving your neighbor as yourself? That’s an implicit judgment on those who don’t. About loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength? That, too, is a condemnation of those who don’t. In fact, in the very text where Jesus says, “Do not judge lest you be judged,” he goes on to say just five verses later, “Do not cast your pearls before swine,” which means that somebody’s got to figure out who the pigs are. In other words, when Jesus says something as important as “Judge not that you be not judged,” there are always contexts. Jesus is an astonishingly moral figure. So if what people think “Judge not that you be not judged” means is that Jesus is abolishing all morality and leaving it up to you, they haven’t even begun to understand who Jesus is. Jesus does condemn the kind of judgment that is judgmental, self-righteous, hypocritical. He condemns that repeatedly and roundly. There is no way on God’s green earth that he is condemning moral discernment and priority.
That means that when we think of God’s love, we need to think of God’s other attributes, too such as God’s holiness, truthfulness, glory (his manifestation of his spectacular being and loveliness), but precisely because our culture finds it relatively easy to believe that God is a God of love, I think we have developed some pretty spongy notions of love.
The little book that was mentioned earlier, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, tries to lay out (among other things) five different ways the Bible speaks of the love of God. Let me run you through them quickly. These are probably not the only ways, but they are at least five different contexts in which the Bible dares to speak of the love of God. These are different ways that the Bible speaks of the love of God, not five different kinds of love.
Do you see how subtle that is because you start asking how one puts all this stuff together? But after you get over the first shock you see that it can’t be all that difficult because we speak this way even of human love. I could say with a straight face, “I love riding my motorcycle, I love woodwork, and I love my wife.” But if I put all three together in the same sentence too often, my wife will not be pleased because they are really quite different contexts, aren’t they? And they really have different weight. Or again, I can say, “I believe, so help me God, I love my children unconditionally.” I have a daughter in California who works with disadvantaged kids. If instead she became a hooker on the streets of LA, I think I’d love her anyway. She’s my daughter. I love her unconditionally. I have a son who is a marine, and if instead he started selling heroine on the streets of New York, I think I’d love him anyway. He’s my son. I love him unconditionally. Yet in another context when they were just kids learning to drive, if I said to one of them, “Make sure you’re home by midnight” and weren’t, they faced the wrath of Dad. In that sense my love was quite conditional, thank you. It was conditional on obeying me and getting the flipping car home.
In other words, there are different contexts where it’s the same kids and the same Dad, but the language changes just a little bit. I don’t think my unconditional love changed for them. There’s a matrix in which that true. Another matrix where there are agreements and family responsibilities or, in biblical terms, covenantal obligations where God’s wrath might well break out. There are contexts in which God’s wrath is as wide as can be imagined, some contexts in which it is rightly said to be amoral and others where it is selective.
So people sometimes come along with clichés like, “God loves everybody just the same.” True or not true? The answer is Yes because some of the passages in which the Bible deploys the language of love really cast God’s love as amoral. He sends his Son and his rain upon the just and the unjust. He loves people just the same. But there are other contexts like the fifth of the ones I mentioned that is dependent upon obedience and still others where it is grounded in God’s own sovereign selection.
“You can’t do anything to make God love you any more.” True or false? It depends on the passage because the Bible can use God’s love language in different contexts in slightly different ways. In one sense you want to affirm that absolutely because at the end of the day you can’t earn God’s love. My kids don’t earn my love by bringing the car back before midnight; I love them anyway. And yet at the same time there are different contexts in which God’s love is spoken of. Be careful that you do not make silly mistakes as you read the biblical text by taking one verse out of its context, universalizing it, and taking no care to see the wonderful diversity of ways in which the Bible speaks of God’s love.
We’ve come to the end of the direct discourse about new birth and so forth. Christ has claimed special revelation, and then John mentions Moses lifting up the snake so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. Then we read verse 16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:16–21)
Let me draw some inferences from this passage and related ones.
By and large that is not the way we think, but the Bible delights to marvel at God’s love. The reason we don’t think this way is that not only do we think that God ought to love but “he especially ought to love me because I’m nice and neighborly and maybe even cute. I don’t beat up on people. I’m a pretty decent bloke. Of course God will love me. I mean, there’s nothing in me not to love, is there?” But this is already so far removed from the storyline of Scripture that we have to rethink it again. Let me come in from the side door. It’s an illustration I’ve sometimes used with university students.
Bob and Sue are walking down a beach. It’s the end of the academic year. The sun has made the sand warm. They kick off their sandals and feel the wet sand squish between their toes. He takes her hand, and he says, “Sue, I love you. I really do.” What does he mean? He could mean a lot of things. He may simply mean that his hormones are jumping and he wants to go to bed with her forthwith. He may mean no more than that. What he doesn’t mean is this. When he says “I love you,” he is in part saying that he finds her lovable, and if he’s got any sort of romantic twist, it might actually come out. “Sue, the color of your eyes—I could just sink into them. The smell of your hair, the dimples when you smile—there’s nothing about you I don’t love. Your personality—it is so wonderful. You’re such an encourager. You’ve got this laugh that brings down a whole room, it’s so contagious. Sue, I love you.” What he does not mean is this: “Sue, quite frankly, you are the most homely creature I know. Your halitosis would stop a herd of rampaging elephants. Your knees remind me of a crippled camel. You have the personality of Genghis Khan. You don’t have any sense of humor. You’re a miserably, self-righteous, narcissistic, hateful woman, and I love you.” He doesn’t mean that, does he? When he declares his love for her, in part, he is declaring that at that moment he finds her lovely. Isn’t that correct?
Now God comes along in John 3:16: “God so loved the world.” What is he saying? “World, I love you.” Is he saying, “World, your scintillating personality, your intelligent conversation, your wit, your gift—and you’re cute! I love you! I can’t imagine heaven without you.” Is that what he’s saying? In other words, when God says, “I love you,” if he declaring the loveable-ness of the world. There are a lot of psychologists who use the love of God in exactly that way. If God says, “I love you,” it must be that “I’m OK, you’re OK; God says we’re OK. He loves us; it must be because we’re loveable.”
But biblically that is a load of nonsense because the word “world” in John’s Gospel typically is not just a big place with a lot of people in it. Rather, the world “world” in John’s Gospel is this human-centered created ordered that God has made and that has rebelled against him in hatefulness and idolatry and genuine broken relationship, infidelity, and wickedness. That’s why already in the first chapter that we looked at two sessions back, the so-called Prologue of John’s Gospel (John 1:1–18), we read, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). It’s why we read in this passage a little farther on, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). That is, with the coming of Jesus—God’s gracious self-disclosure, his revelation, light—that is so good and clean and pure, it is come into the world, but people love darkness instead of light. People don’t want to be exposed to that kind of light. All it does is show up the dirt.
But the text says, “God so loved the world.” It’s as if God is saying to the world, “You are the people of the crippled knees. You are the people of the moral halitosis. You are the people of the rampaging Genghis Khan personality. You are hateful and spiteful and murderous. And you know what? I love you anyway—not because you’re so loveable but because I’m that kind of God.” That’s why in the Bible this side of Genesis 3 God’s love is always marveled at. It’s considered wonderful, surprising, in some ways not the way it ought to be. Why doesn’t he just condemn us instead?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). You’ve got to understand that John’s Gospel is rich in expressions that talk about the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father. There’s a wonderful chapter, John 17, that is sometimes called “Jesus’ high priestly prayer,” where there is a kind of extended meditation on the fact that in eternity past the Father loved the Son in a perfection of love. The Son loved the Father in a perfection of love, past our wildest, most generous imaginations.
We’ve already seen that the God who is there doesn’t need us. There was a perfection of love in eternity past. Then when he does make us, we thumb our noses at him and want to become God ourselves. God chooses to love us and in one sense to love the whole world (to use one of John’s expressions elsewhere) in a yearning, inviting sense of way, even if in other passages it’s particularly focused and directed on some. The sum or the whole are all lost, and he loves them in any case. It’s astonishing. And the measure of this love is Jesus, this Jesus who, before he became Jesus, as the eternal Son was already one with the Father in a perfect circle of love in eternity past. Now the Father gives his Son for us. That’s how much he chooses to love us. God in essence is giving himself.
Indeed, when we say that the measure of God’s love for us is Jesus, it really means two things:
You find him on occasion, for example, with a heart as big as all outdoors as he looks out on a crowd that seems leaderless and religiously empty, he calls them sheep without a shepherd, and the text says, “He has compassion on them.”
You find him also playing with little children and setting up little children as a kind of model for what his own disciples should be. Little children don’t come to somebody who is angry. They’re playing with Jesus and jumping all over him, and he says, “Let the little children come to me.”
Or there is this wonderful passage in Matthew 12. He quotes some words pertaining to himself from the prophet Isaiah (over seven hundred years earlier):
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he leads justice to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:18–21)
Do you hear those images? A candle: the flame goes out, and instead of squeezing out the smoldering wick, he fans it back into flame. We have a reed by the side of a lake, a place where redwing-blackbirds flock, and it’s bruised—not very strong—and he doesn’t snap it off; he builds it up. It’s a way of saying that his love is gentle, edifying, compassionate.
Even when he is denouncing people and generations and groups for their sins, sometimes in very strong language (he can actually call some people “You snakes in the grass, you generation of vipers, don’t you see what you’re doing?), then at the end of the whole thing you find him weeping over the city. There are some preachers like Elmer Gantry in literature who are quick to denounce, but they’re hypocrites. There is a kind of moralizing preaching that denounces and criticizes and is upset by moral decay, but it’s all angry. It isn’t characterized by tears of compassion. That’s not Jesus.
Then you find him on the cross. Did you see the film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ? A lot of the physical suffering was pretty accurately depicted. Whipped and beaten and broken, he cries, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
So moving is this love of God for some of the New Testament writers as shown in Christ Jesus, as measured by Christ Jesus, that it is not uncommon that they are describing something going on in theology or some truth or what Christ has done on the cross, and they suddenly burst out with another sudden reiteration of their awareness of his love. For example, in one of Paul’s letters, a letter to the Galatian Christians, he’s working through some very deep stuff on what the cross achieved, what this strange thing called “justification” is. As he describes Jesus’ death, he then breaks out, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Indeed, the apostle Paul, when he is praying for another group of believers (this time in the city of Ephesus), he tells them how he prays for them. He prays in this way and that way, and then he says, “together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18), using spatial metaphors to depict its limitless dimensions. Then he uses paradox: “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19), that is, to know this love that is not knowable, that is past finding out, that is past knowledge—to know it, to experience it. “That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19)—that’s an expression that Paul uses when what he is saying is “in order that you might be just as full as God will make you, perfectly mature; you cannot be a genuinely mature human being until self-consciously you are awash in the love of God. And that’s what I pray for you.”
The measure of God’s love for us is Jesus.
Look at the language of John 3:16–18.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16–18)
Notice the pairs: (1) shall not perish vs. shall have eternal life; (2) not to condemn the world vs. to save the world. These are the opposites. The purpose of God’s love for us is clear and directed. Occasionally some people have depicted the love of God in Christ Jesus as if it is somehow self-sacrificing without an end: Jesus dies on the cross to prove how much he loves us. But so what? Some way more than a century ago in Britain said, “Would it make any sense for somebody to run down the Brighton Pier and yell, ‘World, world, world, I love you! I will show my love to you!’ and then jump off the end of the Pier and drowned?” Would that prove love or that the fellow had lost it? His elevator didn’t go quite to the top. Sad, maybe, but scarcely and exemplar of love.
But Jesus doesn’t go the cross because he’s a victim of fate. He doesn’t go to the cross as an abstract lesson. He doesn’t go to the cross as a mere example (though he is an example). He has a purpose in going to the cross. It is to save people from condemnation that is already on them. We’re back in the Bible’s storyline. He doesn’t come to neutral people and say, “Huh, I think I’ll condemn you. I think I’ll save you.” He comes to people who are already condemned. We stand this side of Genesis 3. In that sense we are already under God’s judgment. We are already a lost and rebel brood. And he comes not simply to show an example and not “to condemn the world” (John 3:17). The purpose of his coming and his death on the cross is “to save the world” (John 3:17).
In this passage he does not depict at great length how he does that. There are other passages in John’s Gospel that make that pretty clear. There’s one spectacular passage in John 6 where Jesus says that he is the bread of life and unless we eat him we will die. We read words like that today and think, “Phew, jolly close to cannibalism.” Or those of us who are more religiously inclined might think, “Maybe it’s the sacrament or holy communion or something like that.” Originally, that’s not what it meant at all. Don’t forget that in the ancient world just about everybody worked at handcraft or on the farm, so they were much closer to the land than we are today. If you ask a five-year-old or a seven-year-old today “Where does food come from?”, they will reply, “from Jewel-Osco” or whatever your grocery store chain is in this region. Isn’t that what they will say? But if you ask anybody in the first century where it comes from, they will reply, “from plants and animals.” They have grown them themselves. So anybody in the first century knows that you live because the chicken died. You live because the carrots have been pulled up and killed. All of this organic stuff that we feed ourselves with—which we must have or we die—has given its life for us in substitution. Either we die or it dies.
Maybe tonight when you go home you will stop at McDonalds or something more sophisticated. What will you eat? Dead cow. Dead lettuce. Dead tomato. Dead barley. Dead wheat. Everything that had once been living and is now dead—except for a few minerals like salt, of which there may be too much. That’s what you will eat. And it is has all given its life for you. Either it dies or you die. Now, of course, in the case of the cow, it did not volunteer. Nor in the case of the lettuce. The point is not the voluntary nature of such substitution but the reality of it. Either you die or something else living dies so that you may live, and Jesus dares take that language and says, “Unless you eat of me, you die. I die so that you may live.”
For the whole burden of the New Testament is that Jesus dies a substitutionary death. He does not deserve to die. But when God sent him to do his father’s will, to go to the cross and die, it was with a purpose: to die our death so that we don’t have to die, so that we may have eternal life. That is what the text is saying. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” He gave his one and only Son. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. We do not finally ingest physically this Christ. We believe in him. We trust him and discover that his life becomes our as our death becomes his. His life becomes ours. And much of the New Testament is given over to unpacking precisely that point.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. . . . Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already [i.e., the verdict has already been passed] because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16, 18, –21)
I am going to come first thing two sessions on to talk about faith at much greater length. We saw it already in the last session. Just as the people were saved by simply looking at, by trusting in, by believing the bronze snake that God had provided, so also we believe in Christ and find life (John 3:14–15). So also here.
Let me end this way. If all of this is true, and I believe with every fiber of my being that it is, then the first response to it ought to be gratitude, contrition before God, thankfulness for what he’s done. But there are large voices in our world who think that thankfulness before Jesus shows what an inferior, sappy, emotional, weak religion this is. For example, Bishop Spong, a recently retired Episcopal bishop, writes,
What does the cross mean? How is it to be understood? Clearly the old pattern of seeing the cross as the place where the price of the fall was paid is totally inappropriate. Aside from encouraging guilt, justifying the need for divine punishment and causing an incipient sadomasochism that has endured with a relentless tenacity through the centuries, the traditional understanding of the cross of Christ has become inoperative on every level. As I have noted previously, a rescuing deity results in gratitude, never in expanded humanity. Constant gratitude, which the story of the cross seems to encourage, creates only weakness, childishness and dependency.
That’s a very common stance today. One of the best brief responses to it I have seen is by John Piper, who says,
“Yes,” Bishop Spong, “‘a rescuing deity results in gratitude.’ That’s true. We cannot stop the mercy of God from doing what it does. He has rescued us from our selfishness and its horrible endpoint, hell. Our hearts cannot stop feeling what they feel—gratitude.
You say this encourages “weakness.” Not exactly. It encourages being strong in a way that makes God look good, and makes us feel glad. For example, Jesus said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So his dependence made him stronger than he would have been otherwise. He is strong with the strength of Christ.
You say this “constant gratitude” produces “childishness.” Not really. Children do not naturally say thank you. They come into the world believing that the world owes them everything they want. You have to drill “thank you” into the selfish heart of a child. Feeling grateful and saying it often is a mark of remarkable maturity. We have a name for people who don’t feel thankful for what they receive. We call them ingrates. And everyone knows they are acting like selfish children. They are childish. No, Bishop Spong, God wants us to grow up into mature, thoughtful, wise, humble, thankful people. The opposite is childish.
In fact the opposite is downright cranky. C. S. Lewis, before he was a Christian, really disliked the message of the Bible that we should thank and praise God all the time. Then everything changed. What he discovered was not that praising and thanking made people childish, but that it made them large-hearted and healthy. He said, “The humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds praised most while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least.” That is my experience. When I am ungrateful, I am selfish and immature. When I am overflowing with gratitude I am healthy, other-oriented, servant-minded, Christ-exalting, and joyful.
You see, we finally close with Christ. God is the kind of God who pursues us and therefore we close with Christ. So many Christians across the centuries have testified to the way God pursued them. There’s a wonderful poem by Francis Thompson that talks about God as if he were the hound of heaven, chasing him down.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
That’s the God who loves. He’s the hound of heaven. And you see, that is what finally gives us meaning as we are restored to the living God. Our meaning does not come from being independent. That is what may destroy us. Our meaning does not come from being rich. That may destroy us. In any sense it is godless and will eventually damn us.
So in the words of another poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson,
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
Or again, the testimony of Malcolm Muggeridge, a cranky, brilliant, eccentric journalist all over the map, creative, blasphemous, victorious, defeated, a spectacular career, converted in his old age. In his old age he wrote,
I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets—that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue [i.e., the British IRS]—that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions—that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time—that’s fulfilment. Yet I say to you, and I beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing—less than nothing, a positive impediment—measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
Don Carson explains Matthew 27:27-51 and John 20:24-28.
When you think of the biographies of important people, whether artists or football hunks, an Einstein, a political figure—it doesn’t matter—never is there any suggestion that they were born in order to die. If the party is no longer living, then there is some mention of the person’s death, no doubt, which may be heroic or ordinary, prolonged or quick, accidental—it may be all kinds of things. But never do we speak of someone being born in order to die. That’s true for Muhammed. It’s true for Gautama the Buddha. There may be stories of their deaths, but no one suggests that the purpose of their coming was to die.
This is why the four Gospels (the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are so hard to classify. People have written learned tomes on what genre of literature it is. Is it a tragedy? Well, Jesus rises from the dead. Is it, literarily speaking, a comedy? But it is of a different species; it is too serious for that, and the centrality of the cross and what is achieved and the barbaric awfulness of it all amidst its splendor—it can’t be reduced to one-word terms. Is it a biography? That’s as close as you can get. It’s somewhat akin to first-century Hellenistic biographies, I suppose. But there aren’t any other first-century Hellenistic biographies where the plotline says that the reason the bloke came was to die. It feels different.
Have you been exposed to some of this literature that gets promoted roughly every Easter season? Around about Easter the press loves to drag out the latest scholar who has written something on the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Thomas or any other of these Gospels. Various people are trying to say, “These are as authoritative as the Gospels in the New Testament, and we should incorporate them again, too. Originally, Christianity was much broader, and then it got narrow and orthodox and mean. But originally, it was much, much broader. There were a lot of Gospels.” Well, let’s get one or two things straight even there. The earliest of these other so-called Gospels is about mid-second century, and they drag on for another century-and-a-half or two centuries. None of them is connected with the first generation of eye witnesses the way the canonical Gospels are (that is, the Gospels in our Bible), not one of them. But there’s more to it than that.
Consider the so-called Gospel of Thomas. It is a short book of 114 sayings ostensibly ascribed to Jesus with two tiny, tiny historical snippets. That’s it. In other words, it is completely unlike what a Gospel is in the New Testament. In fact, in the first century people didn’t speak of four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Do you know what they said in the first century? There is one gospel: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, and according to John. There is one gospel with various witnesses describing what this good news about Jesus Christ is really about, this spectacular invasive news. Only later did people start referring to them rather loosely as “the Gospel of Matthew” or “the Gospel of Mark,” but even then it is really important to see that all four of these books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) say something about Jesus’ forerunner (John the Baptist, the one who announces Jesus), his origins, his ministry (they talk extensively about what he did, what he said, how he preached, some of his miracles, his parables, his sayings, some of his sermons), and then at the end he is crucified and rises again. All along the story has been driving toward his death. This is part of the plotline in each book.
A huge part of the plotline is how Jesus starts talking about how he is going to die. In Matthew 16, when Peter confesses that Jesus really is the promised Messiah, the one who comes from David’s line, the one whom they were expecting, Jesus goes on to say, “Yes, and you know, I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be crucified and the third day rise again.” Then the disciples said, “No way. That can’t be. The promised Davidic figure, the promised Messiah, is so strong, and someone like you can do miracles. How are they going to stop you?! You can do miracles.” But Jesus keeps insisting again and again and again. Part of the plotline of each of the Gospels is how he keeps insisting that he is going to die.
Then Jesus says some very strange things: “I’m not going to die as a martyr. No one can take my life from me. I lay it down of myself. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again.” He doesn’t classify himself as a martyr but as a sacrifice. He is not simply the vicious victim of a nasty historical mistake. He’s a willing sacrifice.
That is why these books sound so strange to anybody who reads a lot of biographies. There is no one quite like him. Even when he is being arrested and dragged away, his disciples wonder if the place of courage now is to pull out a sword and slash at one of the attackers. Jesus’ response is, “Don’t you understand? I could in theory call twelve legions of angels. Do you really think a few Roman troops are going to stand up to twelve legions of angels?” But he didn’t come to be rescued. He came to be butchered. He came to die.
Moreover in ordinary biographies, once you do have them safely in the ground, they stay there. But Jesus comes to die and rise again. It is so central to everything the Bible says about Jesus and the purpose of his coming that the Apostle Paul, writing a couple of decades after Jesus rose from the dead, says, “Let me tell you the matters of first importance. Christ died to save sinners.” And Paul spends much of the rest of the chapter (1 Corinthians 15) talking about the resurrection. These are matters of first importance. They are at the basis of everything in Christian belief and conduct and structure and power. We have to get this right, or we have no part of Christianity left.
There would be many ways to go about studying Jesus’ death and resurrection. We could go through all of the accounts of his death, for example, and all the allusions to his death. What I am going to do is direct your attention rather quickly to one of the actual accounts of his death found in Matthew 27. Then I’ll switch to a passage in John that talks about his resurrection. Much more could be said about these passages (and there are many other passages), but let me focus on these two so that we have some focus to what we’re saying.
The account we have here of Jesus’ death is carefully shaped by Matthew. Matthew is a God-inspired, skillful writer. Of the New Testament writers, the two that are most given to the use of irony to explain something are Matthew and John. In some sense Matthew is simply describing what happens, but he relates it in such a way that what he shows you are the ironies of the cross. By “irony” I mean words that convey in their context the exact opposite of what they formally say. That’s irony. What you will discover is that in each of several paragraphs here Matthew lays out for us the ironies of the cross. He shows what happens when Jesus dies, but he does it with such a delicious dipping into irony that we begin to see what God is really doing in this death.
Instead of reading the section right through, I’ll read it section by section as we go along.
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27–31)
Now already Jesus has been savagely beaten as part of the interrogation process. That was standard procedure. Then after sentence was passed, he was savagely beaten again. That too was standard procedure. Once you were condemned to be crucified, you were beaten again before you were taken out and crucified. He has already suffered all of that.
What takes place here is not standard procedure. This is barracks-room humor. They put some sort of robe on him as if he is an emperor, and they twist one of these vines-spikes that they have in the Middle East with thorn about this long. They twist it into some sort of crown and ram it down into his head. They put a stick in his hand as if it is a scepter and pretend that he is a great monarch. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they say, bowing down, slapping his face, laughing. “Ha, ha, ha.” They take this stick that is supposed to be the symbol of his power and bash it against his head again and again and again. Great fun. Barracks-room humor.
But every time they say “Hail, king of the Jews!”, they mean they opposite. In the context the words actually convey nothing but derision and scorn. They think that their humor is deeply, deeply ironic and very funny. But there is a deeper irony. Matthew knows and God knows and the readers know that Jesus is the king. The man who was mocked as king is the king. That’s the first deep irony.
After all, how does the book begin? “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Jesus is in the Davidic line. He has the legal right to the throne. And all through the book there are allusions to Jesus being the king. He tells some parables in which—for those with eyes to see—the king in question is Jesus himself. In fact, part of the procedures during the trial had Pilate, the Roman governor, asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” From Pilate’s perspective if Jesus says Yes, then he could be condemned. It could be an act of treason, setting himself up against the Herod family or setting himself up even against Caesar in Rome, a usurping king. Jesus answers with a kind of affirmation: “It is as you say. You have said this.” But he doesn’t want simply to come flat-out and say Yes because what Jesus means by king is not exactly what they mean by king. But he is the king of the Jews.
In fact, when you read the whole New Testament, he is not only the king of the Jews, he is the king of you and me. How does Matthew end his Gospel? Jesus, risen from the dead, says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Quite frankly, he claims to be king of the universe. He is certainly the king of these soldiers who are laughing at his king-dominion. The man who is mocked as king is king.
But what sort of a kingdom is it? It is bizarre. Most kings surely would want to go out and fight. Jesus refuses to do so. In fact, there is one remarkable passage a few chapters back where Jesus actually talks about the nature of his kingdom just a wee bit. I have made allusion to it before. In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John and her two sons (two of Jesus’ disciples) approach Jesus, and what they want is to sit one on the right and one on the left in Jesus’ kingdom. They want political power. But Jesus goes on to say,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28)
Jesus is not recommending that you adopt the stance that makes you everybody’s carpet to wipe their feet on (that’s not the point) or that you lose any sort of authority when you are put in a position of authority (that’s not the point). The problem is that in this world when we gain authority we start lording it over people. We start thinking that it is our due. But Jesus is the sort of God—he is the God who is there—who loves because he is that kind of God. His aim is to serve. He does not come to be fawned over but to serve, to serve finally by giving his life a ransom for many. That’s why he comes. That’s the kind of kingdom it is. And he expects his followers to exercise authority in exactly that way.
There is the first irony. The man who is mocked as king is king.
As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS [more irony].
Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:32–40)
Here is a horrible picture of the most abject weakness possible. When the sentence was passed, you were beaten again, and then you were forced to carry the cross-member (the horizontal member of the cross) on your shoulder out to the place to execution where the upright was already in the ground. There you were either nailed or tied to the cross-member (it was hoisted up, and you were stripped and hung there, not with a convenient loin-cloth. When men and women were crucified, they were crucified naked. It was meant to be shameful as well as painful. In former times there had been occasion when the soldiers had left somebody hanging there, and friends had actually managed to come along and take the person down and they had survived. At this point in Roman history that wasn’t possible because it was imperial policy now to leave a quaternion of soldiers there to guard the body until it was unambiguously dead. And you pull with your arm and you push with your legs to open up your chest cavity so that you can breathe, and the muscle spasms start so that you collapse. And you couldn’t breathe. Then you pull with your arm and you push with your legs so that you can breathe, and then the spasms would start and you would collapse. That could go on for hours and sometimes days, and the soldiers would keep watch. That’s why if the soldiers wanted to finish you off for any reason a little faster what they would do is just come along and smash your shin bones. Then you couldn’t push with your legs anymore, and you would suffocate in a few minutes.
At this point Jesus is as powerless as you can imagine. There is no way out. There is no hope. And he is so weak from his repeated beatings, he isn’t even strong enough to hoist the cross-member on his shoulder and take it out to the place of execution. Jesus, by trade a carpenter, can’t lift a piece of wood, so they have to shanghai somebody else to do it for them.
Then the mockery begins: “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” Now where does this charge come from? It seems strange in our ears. But it, too, showed up in the trial—not the trial before Pilate but in the previous chapter (Matthew 26), the trial before the high priest. The reason it could be entered was this: the Roman Empire was a highly diverse place religiously speaking. So one of the things that the Romans did to try to keep peace was to make it a capital crime to desecrate a temple, any temple. If you desecrate a temple, under Roman law you die. So if someone heard Jesus saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it again,” then maybe that could be worked into conspiracy for a capital crime, that is, destroying a temple. But they couldn’t get their stories straight, and it didn’t work about to be the crime that they actually charged him with. (The charged him finally with treason, being king over again Caesar.) But now as some people heard this debate and charge at the trial, they look at Jesus in this most abject weakness without any strength at all, and they say, “Yeah, big mouth. You’re so strong, aren’t you? You’re gonna destroy a temple and build it in three days? Look at you now, huh?” Again they are being ironic.
If you work for Habitat for Humanity, with a decent Foundation, a lot of planning, a good engineer, and forty strong-backed volunteers, you can put up a house in a day. But you couldn’t put up one of the ancient temples in a day. You couldn’t put up one of the Cathedrals in Europe in a lifetime. Not one of the original architects of the great Cathedrals in Europe ever saw the finished product. It took more than one lifetime to do it. And the temple in Jerusalem—just this current beautification—had already been going on for forty-six years. Moreover, by Jewish law you were not allowed to hammer a stone within ear-distance of the temple. All those stones had to be measured and cut and brought in without hydraulics and fit into place. No wonder the temple took a long time to build. And Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll build it again.” What kind of power is that? So when they say, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days,” what they really mean is “This is a lovely piece of ironic humor. You’re actually just hopelessly weak, dying, and damned on a cross.”
But Matthew knows and God knows and the readers know that by his death and the resurrection around the corner Jesus is destroying the temple and rising again. Jesus did use these words: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). He used them early on in his ministry in John 2, and at the time his disciples didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Jesus is saying something deep again, very enigmatic.” But then John comments, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22). The point is that the temple in the Old Testament was the great meeting place between God and human beings. It was the place of sacrifice. Now Jesus comes along, and referring to his own body says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” by the destruction of his own life and its resurrection he becomes the great meeting place between God and human beings. He becomes the great temple with all the power that is required in resurrection. The great meeting place between God and human beings is not some sacrificial system in Jerusalem or elsewhere. It is Jesus himself.
Thus, while the mockers see some cheap irony, we cannot help but see an even deeper irony, for the man who was utterly powerless is in fact powerful. He is the temple of the living God.
The mockery continues:
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:41–42)
What do we mean when we say the verb “to save”? What does it mean on the streets of Minneapolis or Chicago or London? Well it depends who is saying it. If you’re a banker, saving is something that you’re supposed to do (if the market doesn’t wipe it all out) to protect your investments, to prepare for retirement. If you’re gifted in sports, saving is what the goalie does to stop a goal, whether in soccer or ice hockey. If you’re a geek, saving is what you’re supposed to do so that you don’t lose too much data before your hard drive crashes. So we use the verb “to save” in a variety of different contexts, don’t we? What does Matthew mean?
Again, we’ve already had a glimpse of this, haven’t we, a couple of sessions back? When Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant, he is told that he must give the baby “the name Jesus [Yahweh saves], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Saving in Matthew’s Gospel means saving from sin: from its guilt, consequences, eternal effects, effects and power in this life. That is why Jesus came.
Now the mockers are saying, “He saved others,” that is, he helped them, he cured them, he was such a good savior. “But he can’t save himself!” In other words, “Look at him. He’s completely enshackled. He’s completely tied down. There is no way he can save himself, which shows that he is not much of a savior at all.” So when they say, “He saved others,” again they mean with cheap irony, “He is no savior to be respected at all.”
But Matthew knows and God knows and the readers know that it is by staying on that cross that he saves others. Strictly speaking, he can’t save himself and save others. If he saves himself, he won’t be able to save others. When they say, “He can’t save himself,” they mean that he is so attached to the cross, so nailed to the cross, that physically he can’t get down. But Matthew knows that he could get down. He could still call his twelve legions of angels. But he can’t save himself if he is to save others because the very function of his hanging on that cross is to bear my sin in his own body on the tree. If he does save himself, I’m damned. It’s only by not saving himself that he saves me.
There is this deep irony here behind the cheap irony. Unlike what the critics thought, their words are true. He saved others; he can’t save himself.
I suspect that part of the reason that we have initial trouble absorbing this is that we live at a time in Western culture where an awful lot of conduct is constrained by force of law or just by force. In other words, we don’t have much place left for a kind of internal moral imperative.
Did you see the film Titanic when it came out? As the great ship is going down, people are scrambling for the lifeboats of which there are too few. There were a lot of fat cats on the boat—wealthy people—and they start scrambling and shoving the women and children aside so that they can reserve their own places. The sailors pull out handguns and fire in the air and say, “Women and children—the boats are for women and children.” Do you remember the scene? Historically, of course, that’s rubbish. All the survivors say that it’s rubbish. There were a lot of fat cats on that boat: John Jacob Astor was there, the Bill Gates of 1912, the richest man. He got his wife to the boat, shoved her in, and when others said to him, “You get in, too, sir,” he said, “No, this is for women and children,” and he stepped back and then drowned. Simon Guggenheim was there. He was pulled apart from his wife and yelled to someone between, “Tell my wife that Guggenheim knows his duty.” And Guggenheim stepped back and then drowned. She was saved. There’s not one single report of fat cats scrambling for the boats and leaving the women and the children out. Isn’t that stunning? When a writer called Zacharia reviewed the film for the New York Times, he asked the obvious question, “Why did the producer and director distort history and say what isn’t true? Why didn’t they tell the truth about what happened at this point?” Then he answered his own question: “Because if they had told the truth today, nobody would have believed them.” Because at the time it was not like there were any more Christians around, but there was enough of the Christian heritage that drove a moral imperative that made people from within want to do something self-sacrificial for others.
That’s what drove Jesus supremely: doing his Father’s will. And that’s the way it is once you and I become a disciple of Jesus, that is, it changes us from within so that our moral categories change. It’s not that there is force of law upon us or a constrained or a big policeman with a stick waiting to bash us if we step aside somewhere. There is a transformation of heart, a pale reflection of Jesus, but in the same line, wanting to sacrifice for the sake of others.
The people are still mocking:
He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. (Matthew 27:43–50)
So if Jesus actually giving up at this point, caught up in the web of miserable circumstances, drowning in despair? Is that the message we are to learn? “Push me far enough, and I too will collapse”? Oh, it’s much deeper than that. Because of Jesus’ death, because of his willingness to stay there, in the very next verse, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51), the veil of the temple that set off the very presence of God from the rest of the people. Then the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could enter once a year, is exposed. Now the veil is torn aside as if to indicate that you and I—ordinary human beings—can actually get into the presence of God because Jesus’ sacrifice really has paid all the debt that the blood of bulls and goats could never ever pay for along the sacrificial lines we saw a few sessions back. Now Jesus dies, and in his cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he is crying in the bleakest, darkest, most pitiable despair, but not because he does not know that he is doing his Father’s will but precisely because he does know that he is doing his Father’s will. He is trusting God, and that Father’s will is to bear my sin in his own body on the tree, absorbing the curse, discharging the debt, paying the guilt, and tearing the veil so that I can get into the Most Holy Place.
Now I titled this “The God Who Dies.” In some ways that’s a bit slippery. By and large the New Testament does not talk of God dying. It speaks of God and of Jesus being the God-man and of Jesus dying. Never ever is there a hint that the Father dies. Of course not. But once in a while there are passages that come so close to this. When the Apostle Paul, for example, is giving a speech to some church elders who belong to the church in Ephesus, he says, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Isn’t that remarkable? “God . . . with his own blood”? Now, of course, he could parse that. He could tease that out just a bit more. That is to say, he could say, “Of course, it’s not the Father, but it is the Son of God, Jesus, who is himself God, and because he is God and because he does give his life and shed his blood, therefore, it is appropriate to say that God sheds his life.” If you have to unpack it, that’s what is meant.
But nevertheless don’t let the shock of the language stop you. This is God’s action in Christ Jesus in the God-man. This is not the death of one human individual and no more. It is a human individual who is also the living God who hangs on that cross, not because he is forced to do so by circumstance, but because he is bringing in himself all of the strands of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system—that temple system—bringing them in himself, all the strands from the fall, the promise of the seed of the woman coming to crush the serpent’s head by his own death. “Bearing sin and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood. Sealed my pardon with his blood. Hallelujah, what a Savior!” It is appropriate to speak of the God who dies.
At the end of World War I, that bloodiest and most senseless and stupid of wars, several English poets (Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brook, one or two others) wrote some very moving poetry about the sheer savagery of the war. One of the more minor pieces was called “Jesus of the Scars,” and the poet ends by saying,
The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
So when we face the ravages of uncertainty, when there is suffering and agony in our lives or in the world and we wonder what God is doing and we have no answers and we reread the book of Job (that wisdom literature we saw several sessions back) and we hear God saying, “You don’t understand it all,” we can actually add something more now:
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
You can trust a God who is not only sovereign but bleeding for you. Sometimes when there are no other answers for your guilt or your fears or your uncertainties or your anguish, there is one immovable place on which to stand. It’s the ground right in front of the cross.
And yet as important as the cross is, this is not the end of the story, for all of the New Testament writers focus equivalently on the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The stories are told in many different ways. There is no way they can be reduced to mass hallucination; he appeared to many times over a period of forty days or so. He appeared to ones and twos; he appeared to as many as five hundred at a time; he appeared to the apostles more than once; he appeared in locked rooms; he appeared on the seashore and ate some fish that he was cooking for them. The witnesses multiply. He shows up when they’re not expecting him, and he shows up when they are. He cannot be categorized or dismissed or domesticated. The resurrection appearances are simply too frequent, too diverse, and with too many witnesses. What do you do with them?
The fact of the matter is that if you think that the early Christians made this up or were somehow hoodwinked or fell victims to mass psychology of some sort, it is hard to explain why they were willing to die for their faith. If the resurrection is a fairy story a bit like “Hansel and Gretel,” my question is “How many have offered to die for Hansel and Gretel?” But the early Christians were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had seen him, touched him, handled him, and they were transformed by him. And they were promised by him resurrection bodies of their own one day. They believed that he was Lord.
One of the most moving scenes is describing what takes place on the second Sunday. The first Sunday, resurrection Sunday, Jesus appeared to some women, to Peter and John, to a couple walking to the little town of Emmaus, to ten of the apostles. Now on the second Sunday, we read these words:
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24–25)
Now this is the kind of doubt that springs from hurt. He did not want to be duped. He had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and then Jesus had died. That made no sense. He was lonely and scared. He was still a pious, Jewish monotheist, but he had been snookered (he thought) once and now he wasn’t going to talk himself into believing that Jesus was back after all. He was going to have to see for himself. He was not going to have an easy faith, just believing somebody else’s account. He wasn’t going to do that. In other words he wanted in his own sights to distinguish between faith and gullibility, so he therefore laid out the most extreme test he could imagine. He wanted to be sure that the body that went into the tomb was the same as the ostensible that came out or had some sort of genuine, organic connection. So he specifies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
I chair The Gospel Coalition. Our executive director is a chap called Ben Peays. Ben is an identical twin, and when I say identical twin, I mean identical twin. They look alike generally, but the same little smirks and smiles and so on—they are spitting images of each other. I’m sure that if you know them well enough you can tell them apart; I can’t. So last year when we had our Council meeting, Ben was around, of course, but we didn’t tell anybody on the Council that his brother was showing up, too, to help. So at one point in the Council meeting I said, “Guys, I should tell you that our executive director has been working so hard with so much work to do we decided to clone him and get two of him.” And I pointed at the other one.
Maybe Jesus has a twin. Maybe he can come out of the tomb. Maybe he can be the new Jesus. But then where are the wounds? Not only the wounds from the nails but the shaft that went up under his ribcage into the pericardium and pierced the flesh such that blood and water flowed out? Where are the wounds? “Unless I put my hands in his wounds, I will not believe.” That was the test.
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26–28)
Now on first reading Thomas’s response is strange. It’s almost as if he is saying too much. Why doesn’t he simply say, “You are alive!” or “Oops, I was wrong” or something more modest? Why does he infer so much (“My Lord and my God!”) from the fact that Jesus is now alive? After all, some chapters earlier Lazarus had been raised from the dead, and nobody said to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead, “My Lord and my God!” So why is Thomas saying this to Jesus?
What you have to do is put yourself into the very account. Put yourself—so far as it is possible—in Thomas’s place. You’ve got a whole week between the first reports of Jesus’ resurrection and the second appearance. The fellow apostles are coming along and saying, “We did see him. Peter saw him on his own. Peter and John saw the empty tomb. The two on the road to Emmaus saw him. Together we saw him—ten of us all at one. And then there are the reports of the women. We have all seen him.” So now all week long Thomas is saying,
Can’t be. I just can’t believe it. I know the tomb is empty, but who knows, a grave robber might have come. Maybe we got the wrong tomb; it was dark when they put him in. But supposing he is alive, what would that mean? Oh no, it can’t be. It doesn’t make any sense. But he did do some strange things in his life. I mean, after all, he said the very night that he was going to the cross, “Have I been with you such a long time, and have you not known me? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And there was that strange utterance from Jesus sometime back where Jesus said “Before Abraham was born, I am” [John 8:58]. That’s not just bad timing. Abraham would have been dead by two millennia. Why didn’t he say, “Before Abraham was born, I was”? This would have been claiming some sort of preexistence, maybe—hard enough to believe. But still, that’s just preexistence. But “Before Abraham was born, I am”? That’s taking the name of God?
Do you recall how God discloses himself in Exodus 3? What is your name? “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). Now Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” God is named.
What do you do with passages like that? All during the years of Jesus’ ministry, I’m sure the disciples scratched their heads and smiled devotedly and thought, “More enigma. Maybe we’ll understand it someday.” Then Jesus had insisted that it was the Father’s determination that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (John 5:23). You don’t say that about a mere human being.
All these indications—and then maybe Thomas has thought through some of those Old Testament texts a bit more. And then, of course, historically speaking, there are the events in which he is a participant recorded in the other Gospels. Let me mention just one, and I’ll close.
There’s a spectacular account in the other Gospels (not in John) where Jesus is preaching in a packed house—no chairs, people are just packed in. By this time Jesus has quite a reputation as a preacher and teacher but also as a healer. And some friends bring along a paralyzed friend. He can’t even walk, so he is on some sort of pallet. And four helpers are carrying his pallet, and they try to get into the house where Jesus is preaching and can’t get in. People are saying, “Hush, hush, hush, the master is preaching. Wait your turn. He’s busy. Don’t bother him.” But they won’t be stopped. So they go up the outside stairs (many houses had these outside stairs in those days because people would actually cool down in the evening on the flat roofs with the breezes wafting over the city of Jerusalem). So they went up on the flat roof and listened carefully for where Jesus was speaking, and they found the right area and started taking off the tiles. They got some of the tiles off, and they lowered this friend down on ropes in front of Jesus. If the crowd won’t make room for him through the doorway, they’ll make room for him because a bed is coming down on their heads. Then this bed is in front of Jesus, and Jesus says, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” And theologians present are indignant. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” That’s a good observation, isn’t it?
Supposing, God forbid, on your way home tonight you are brutally attacked by a gang of thugs. You are viciously beaten up, left half-dead, maybe gang-raped. You get in a hospital, and I go and visit you two days from now. You’re all bandaged up with your legs on pulleys. You can barely talk. And somehow events have taken place that I can share with you. “You know, be of good cheer. I found the thugs, and I have forgiven them.” What would you say to me? Wouldn’t you be outraged? “Who do you think you are? You’re not the one who was gang-raped! You’re not the one lying in the hospital! How can you possibly forgive them? The only person who can forgive is the offended party. Only the offended party can forgive.”
At the end of World War II, there was a Jew by the name of Simon Vizental in Auschwitz. All of his extended family was wiped out in the Holocaust. At this point it was only weeks from the end of the fright and horror of Auschwitz. The Russians were moving in from the East. He was in a work party, and as he was on this party, suddenly he was pulled out by the German guards and shoved into a room. There was a young German Nazi soldier there—maybe nineteen years old. He had suffered grievous wounds and was clearly going to die, and before he died he wanted to see a Jew. He wanted to talk with a Jew. And in God’s peculiar providence, the Jew who was pulled out of the line and shoved into that room was Simon Vizental. The young Nazi explained why he wanted to see him. Gasping for breath, not long to live, he acknowledged that the Nazis had treated the Jews horribly, that he himself had been engaged in horrible things. Now he wanted the Jews’ forgiveness. Vizental reasons in his mind. He later writes it up in a little book called The Sunflower, and about sixty pages of that eighty-five-page book (give or take) are what flashes through Vizental’s mind. The reasoning is this: Who can forgive but those who have been offended? The most offended parties of the Holocaust are dead. In Auschwitz they have already been burned in the ovens. How can a survivor like Vizental pronounce forgiveness? He has not suffered what the others have suffered. How can he speak for the dead? If the most brutalized victims of the Nazis are dead, then there is no one qualified to pronounce forgiveness, so there is no forgiveness to the Nazis. Without saying a single word, Vizental listened to the young man, then turned and walked out of the room.
After the war was over, eventually Vizental wrote this up and sent it to ethicists all around the world—Christian and Jewish, various backgrounds—and asked them to read the manuscript and simply answer the question, “Did I do what was right?” He kicked off a furious exchange among ethicists all over the world. “Did I do what was right?” Vizental almost got it right. He was surely right to insist that only the offended party can forgive. That’s right. But the most offended party is always God. That’s what we saw a couple of sessions back in the Psalms when David dares to write, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).
Now when this young man comes down before Jesus—a young man who has not offended Jesus in the flesh, not man-to-man, person-to-person—Jesus looks at him and says, “Your sins are forgiven you.” And the theologians ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Just so. And Thomas remembered that, too. And he bowed before the resurrected Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God.”
That is what each of us must do. Recognize that what Jesus has accomplished on the cross was suffering for the sake of his own people who put their faith in him, who recognize that what he bore was their sin. As the God-man, only he could forgive. That is what we must have to be reconciled to God. We must have it. Then we bow before him and cry with joy and thankfulness and mystery and adoration and awe, “My Lord and my God.”
Let us pray.
We rejoice, heavenly Father, in the truth that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet this is not simply a truth in the public arena of history to be absorbed quickly and then passed by one side. For if indeed your dear Son, the God-man, rose from the dead, then everything is changed. His victory over death is confirmed. The sacrifice he provided has been vindicated. He already is the head of a new humanity that will one day share in his resurrection-likeness. And his people, heavenly Father, rejoice to bow before him and cry, “My Lord and my God.” Grant that each one here from the inmost recesses of our being may cry, “Forgive my sin as you forgave the sin of that paralyzed man, for you alone have the authority to forgive sin in this spectacular, glorious, absolute sense, my Lord and my God.”
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Don Carson explains Romans 3:21-26.
At a certain level that almost seems perverse.
Members of the jury, I am not asking for mercy or pardon. I want justice. I am demanding full acquittal. Yes, I committed the murder of which I am accused, but I am not guilty. Members of the jury, you must consider all my good deeds, not only mitigating circumstances, as reason for exonerating me. The goodness of my other deeds outweighs the crime I committed. My good deeds require a not guilty verdict. If justice is to be done, you must find me innocent.
So writes Todd Wilken. Now suddenly you see that an approach that depends finally on our balancing of good deeds and bad deeds begins to look ridiculous. We don’t even do that in a secular world, do we? So how should we think that God looks at things, this God who is himself spectacularly holy and does not see our deeds as things that are weighed in a balance against other deeds but sees our lives in mortal defiance against him? That’s the way the Bible’s storyline is unpacked.
In a few moments we are going to look at Romans 3:21–26. Martin Luther called this paragraph the center of the book of Romans and indeed of the whole Bible. But before we actually look at these verses, we should remind ourselves where they fall within Paul’s letter to the Romans.
This falls in the New Testament, which begins with the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) followed by the Acts of the Apostles (which follows on from Christ’s resurrection through the first three decades or so of the church) and then a sheaf of letters written by the apostle Paul. The first of Paul’s letters in the New Testament is written to the Romans. But before we get to chapter 3, from 1:18 to 3:20 Paul’s entire argument is designed to show how we are guilty. What these two-and-a-half chapters do is unpack in theological terms the Bible’s storyline up to this point from Genesis 3 on. So we read,
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18–19)
The remaining two-and-a-half chapters set out to show that if you come from the line of Abraham through the covenant with Moses and have received a whole lot of revelation from God or alternatively you come from outside that line from any other sort of heritage, nevertheless, both lines—Jews and Gentiles alike—without exception end up guilty before God. Supposing you know about what God wants, then what you discover is that you still don’t meet those standards. And in some ways those very standards can compound the rebellion and make you more guilty because you know more. Alternatively, if you come from a heritage where you have been exposed to very little to what God has said, you don’t even come up to that standard. On every front we are a guilty people.
This is so out of line with contemporary self-perception that when you read some of what Paul says without developing a feel for the whole storyline to this point it just seems over-the-top. He finishes the section in 3:9–20 with a raft of biblical quotations, quoting the Old Testament.
What shall we conclude then? Do we [i.e., Jews] have any advantage? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are [i.e., the whole human race] all under the power of sin. As it is written [and now you get these quotations, all snippets from the Old Testament Scriptures]:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9–18)
Now if you have walked in here for the first time and you have come from an utterly secular background and you hear some joker at the front of the room quoting lines like this, you think, “Has he taken leave of his senses? Oh, I know that there are some bad people out there—Stalin, maybe, and Pol Pot, I suppose, and Hitler, of course—but what about “Doctors without Borders? Aren’t there a lot of people doing good things out there?” At a certain level, Paul would agree with that. Historically, Christians have often called such good things the work of common grace, that is, grace that God gives commonly to all kinds of people. But Paul’s probing is deeper than that. It’s not whether there are many good things are done (e.g., pieces of art, a wonderful symphony, self-sacrificing doctors on the frontier of a horrible disease, and much much more). We have already seen that the Bible presents human beings to be horrible contradictions with so much potential reflecting something of the goodness of creation and the glory of God and on the other hand corrupt, abusive, twisted, and, above all, self-focused. And that is, according to the entire storyline of the Bible to this place, the heart of all the evil. The heart of all evil is not Auschwitz, as unimaginably evil as it is. The heart of all evil is first of all human beings, you and me, wanting to go our own way and disowning the God who has made us.
When you probe these texts line by line and see that that is what God has in mind, all the lines make sense. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” It makes sense if you remember the quotation from Todd Wilken with which we began. It’s not a question of balancing good deeds and bad deeds. We’ve all got so much wickedness in us even by our own self-assessment if we’re honest enough.
“All have turned away, they have together become worthless,” worthless in the sense of being right before this God, being thoroughly God-centered. What is the first commandment that Jesus gives (the first in importance)? “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ . . . And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37, 39). I don’t love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. If Jesus said that this is the commandment of first important, then I’m guilty of breaking the primal command. Aren’t you? In fact, loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength might be thought in our culture to be a bit fanatical, right-wing. But God says, “Listen, don’t you understand? That’s the way I made the created order in the first place. If you don’t see it, that’s already a mark of how fallen this order is.” No wonder, then, these quotations say, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
Oh, I know many of us come from fairly civilized backgrounds where there is not all that much cursing and bitterness unless we bang our thumbs with a hammer or get sacked from work when we think it’s unjust. For any of us with all of our civilized behavior, put us under enough pressure and deep down in the back of our minds—even if we are disciplined enough not to let it actually escape from our mouths—are busy swearing away in our minds.
The truth of the matter is “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” So we are still in line with the whole drama of the Bible. How do such people get restored to God? There are a lot of different ways of thinking through this ugliness. Let me read you briefly part of the testimony of a philosophy named Budziszewski. He writes,
I have already noted in passing that everything goes wrong without God. This is true even of the good things he has given us, such as our minds. One of the good things I’ve been given is a stronger than average mind. I don’t make the observation to boast; human beings are given diverse gifts to serve him in diverse ways. The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of going wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to achieve. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught these things to students. Now that’s sin.
It was also agony. You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself—well, if you are like I was, maybe you can—what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense. St. Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is “written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness” [that’s a quotation of Romans 2:15]. The way natural law thinkers put this is to say that they constitute the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?
Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God’s image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God’s image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how many he pulls out, there are still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. [That is what he means by saying that he became stupid. Christians have so much to think about. People who write God off and all of his truth have much less to think about. They become stupid.] But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focused. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. But I was the fool.
Now all of that is the background simply presupposes before he gets to this spectacular paragraph that Martin Luther calls the center of the entire Bible: Romans 3:21–26.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the “law” that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:21–31)
Now let me tell you frankly that this paragraph is so condensed that even if you have been a Christian for quite a while, when you hear it read, after a while you start hearing strings of God-words going by you without being able quite to follow the flow. It is so condensed. So although Martin Luther is right that this is an astonishingly important passage, the only way to understand it is to go slowly enough through it that you unpack its logic, that you hear how the whole thing is put together. And I know no passage clearer on what the cross achieves in all of the Bible than this one, provided you take it slowly enough to unpack the flow of the argument. We are standing here—from a biblical perspective—on very holy ground. This is what Jesus did on the cross.
So let me follow the argument, first of all, of verses 21–26, and then, secondly, the argument of verses 27–31. They are related, and we will see what these arguments have to do with us.
Now remember, he just spent two-and-a-half chapters showing how much guilt, rebellion, idolatry, and sin there is—and this being in the face of God being a righteous God. So how will we be righteous in his eyes? How will we live under him?
“But now” (Romans 3:21) means at this point in the Bible’s storyline, at this point in redemptive history: now that Jesus has come.
“Apart from the law” refers to the law given by Moses, the law-covenant under which the Hebrews, the Israelites, lived for a millennium-and-a-half.
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known.” That is to say, the righteousness of God that transcends the ages, the very character of God, his perfect righteousness, has now been disclosed or made known not in the framework of that old law-covenant with its sacrificial and its structures and so on. It has been made known apart from that. Now you fit this into the broader argument of Paul, and what he is really saying is “We have now arrived at the new covenant. There was this old covenant, and now there is this new frame of reference, a new covenant that has arrived.” He has not yet explained how it is grounded. He is merely stating the truth, the fact, of what Christ has done. At this point in history, now that Jesus is here, the righteousness of God has been disclosed apart from that law-covenant. But that doesn’t mean that it is cut off entirely from that law-covenant as if you had God doing it this way and the0n—bang—it stops and now we’ll start something entirely different.
He adds an interesting clause at the end of verse 21: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” That is, if you read the Old Testament carefully and reverently and listen well, you will see that that law-covenant that Moses gave was actually anticipating what is coming now. After all, you had that sacrifice and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with the blood of bull and goat borne by the high priest into the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. It pointed forward to the fact that there has to be a kind of sacrifice, a death that pays for sin in some sense before this holy God. It has pointed forward and is now here. Those laws that we call moral laws (“You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery”)—don’t you understand that those point forward, too?
For example, imagine if you will, a final state of things, a new heaven and a new earth, perfect righteousness, resurrection existence, absolutely sin or death or decay anywhere. Do you think there are going to be little signs posted here or there saying, “You shall not murder” or “You shall not commit adultery”? Well, it is probably pretty hard to commit murder and adultery in resurrection bodies anyway, but quite apart from that, do you really think that those sorts of laws will be needed? If you say Yes, then you have not conceived yet of perfection. If you say No, then you might ask, “Does that mean that God’s law has changed?” Oh no, that misses the point entirely because ultimately the law that says “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” is anticipating a time when murder and adultery, hatred and sheer selfish lust, will all be gone. It is pointing to the perfect righteousness where people love one another, and murder is not simply forbidden; you don’t need to forbid it. To forbid it is simply unthinkable.
So the law-covenant, which set out its do’s and don’ts and its sacrificial system and its structures for the nation and its covenant with the people, the Israelites—in many ways these things pointed forward to what is now being introduced by Christ. Now that is not explained in Romans how this has come about, but that is what Paul is saying. “But now apart from the law,” in the light of all this sin and idolatry he has described in the previous two-and-a-half chapters, “the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness [which has now been made known in a fresh way] is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:21–23)
In other words, it is this sets of all’s that connects this paragraph with the previous two-and-a-half chapters. The previous two-and-a-half chapters have argued at great length and in immaculate detail that all need this righteousness. We’re all guilty before God, some with more or less social disapproval or approval, some passing for good in our world. But by God’s standards, God’s holiness, he sees our rebellion, and we are all guilty before him. But now there is a righteousness from God that meets our needs. It can be our righteousness. And it’s open to Jew and Gentile alike on condition of faith. That’s the whole argument.
The old covenant was structured for the Israelites. Now God presents himself as sovereign over all the nations in the Old Testament in any case. God still says, “For any nation anywhere at any time and place, righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.” That’s why the God of Israel in the Old Testament can nevertheless hold Babylon to account. He can hold the Assyrians to account. In the New Testament he can call Rome to account. Today he holds America and China to account. He is still the sovereign Lord who holds all to account. But nevertheless the focus to that agreement he wrote, that special agreement with Abraham when he wrote his own agreement and when there was a special agreement with Moses and the people as a nation, it was still focused this on this subset of humanity that today we call the Jews, the ancient Hebrews, the Israelites.
But now, we’re told, this righteousness from God that is in some ways detached from that old covenant, that is now come in the terms of a new covenant, this righteousness from God is given through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not given on the old covenant grounds where you were supposed to be born into the nation or adopted into the nation in some sense. Then you had to sign on to observe the terms of that old covenant. No, it is “given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, the grace is extended as far as the need, and the need is everywhere: Jew and Gentile alike.
One of the wonderful things about the final revelation of the Bible is that it pictures around the throne of God on the last day men and women from every language and ethnicity and nation. Millions of them. Not just Jews and Gentiles. On that last day around the throne, there will be lots of Chinese, Hutus, Tutsis, Serbs, Russians. Oh, they are all Jews and Gentiles in some sense. Yes, I understand that. But now you can nail them down: different colors, different senses of humor, different languages, different ethnicities. God draws out his people from all of those nations. And Christians who travel discover that wherever they go, they will find Christians in amazing places. I’ve been in Papua New Guinea. Brothers and sisters in Christ who a generation-and-a-half ago would have been cannibals in little mud huts in the jungle. Or in Hong Kong: what a spectacular city with such a mix of Gucci and Sax Fifth Avenue; two blocks over an open meat market; such a colorful array of people. Christians from that lot, too. And on and on and on all around the world: Africans, Asians, Europeans, even some Americans. All around the throne on that day because under the terms of this new covenant God has made this righteousness that we need available to all who believe because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Now he still has not explained how he does that. But that is the entire thrust of the paragraph.
Now we are getting into some God-talk theological words that have to be unpacked.
There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:22a–25a)
What does redemption mean? For us today redemption is another God-talk term. We don’t used redemption very much in ordinary parlance anymore. A generation or two ago in English we still used redemption. If you went to a pawn shop and you hawked your grandfather’s watch to have a little money and then you got some money a few weeks later, you would go back and redeem the watch. You bought it back and freed it from where it was. Likewise people would speak in economic terms of redeeming their mortgage, finally paying it off.
But in the ancient world, redemption language was used pretty commonly. It was not restrictively God-talk vocabulary. For example, in the ancient world you could become a slave because there were no Western-style bankruptcy laws (like chapter 11 or 13 here in America). Supposing you borrow some money, you start a business, the economy flounders, your business goes belly-up. What do you do? In the ancient world what you have to do is sell yourself and/or your family into slavery. That’s what you do. There was no chapter 11.
But suppose you have a rich cousin twenty miles away (don’t forget that twenty miles away in those days was just about a day’s journey) who hears about the fact that that two or three months back you had to sell yourself into slavery. And he cares for you and decides that he is going to do something about it. What he might well do is come along and buy you back. Now there was a whole process for doing that through pagan temples that we won’t go into, but what he was doing was redeeming you. He is buying you back and thus freeing you from your slavery.
So now Paul is saying, “We’ve received a redemption, too, from our slavery to sin. We’ve been bought back, and as a result we have been freed from what would otherwise enslave us.” Now still that has not been explained. He is using the language of the day. We are all justified—declared just before God, declared righteous before God—how when we are not?! We’ve just had two-and-a-half chapters to say that we are not. And now we are told that this righteousness from God has declared us righteous. We are justified free by his grace through this redemption, this buying us back, by our freedom now secured by Christ Jesus, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
How? How has this happened? “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” Or the ESV rightly has it, God present Christ “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Now what does that mean? We need to pause for a moment and work through this word “propitiation” or “expiation” (some have) or “sacrifice of atonement.” “Sacrifice of atonement” isn’t bad; it’s just not quite focused enough. Let me unpack the terms.
Propitiation is that sacrificial act by which God becomes propitious, which doesn’t tell you very much, does it? Propitious simply means favorable, that is, to say that propitiation is an act by which God becomes propitious is to say it is an act by which God becomes favorable to us. He is set over against in some sense in wrath, but now by his sacrificial act he becomes favorable to us. It is propitiation.
Expiation is the act by which sin is cancelled, wiped out, taken off the board. So the object of expiation is sin. The object of propitiation is God. God becomes favorable.
In the pagan world of the first century, when pagans offered sacrifices to their gods, very often it was in a desire to make them propitious, favorable. So if you want to make a sea voyage, you make a propitiating sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea, in the hope that he won’t be bad-tempered or angry with you, and then you’ll have a safe sea voyage. It was a sacrifice to Neptune to make him propitious. It was a propitiating sacrifice.
But this text says something rather astonishing. In that old pagan way of looking at things, I the worshipper offer a propitiating sacrifice to the gods. But this text says that God presented Christ as a propitiating sacrifice. So does that mean that God, presenting Christ as a propitiating sacrifice, propitiates God? How can God offer a sacrifice that propitiates himself?
Partly because of that, there have been all kinds of thinkers who have rejected this interpretation entirely. They think it is silly and doesn’t make any sense. How can God propitiate himself? Besides, some of them just don’t like the notion of blood sacrifice or God being wrathful. It was a influential professor in the United Kingdom in the 1930s by the name of C. H. Dodd who argued very strongly that this doesn’t make any sense. God can’t propitiate himself, therefore, this must be expiation. This is not God propitiating God, turning away God’s wrath. How can God propitiate God? After all, Dodd argued, God so loved the world that he gave his Son. If he is already so favorable to the world that he gave his Son, how you can imagine that the Son is then propitiating God? He’s already favorable. So he must not be propitiating himself. He must be coming along to offer his Son to expiate, to cancel, sin.
There were a number of responses by people in this country and Australia and Britain. What they pointed out was that in the Old Testament when propitiation is mentioned, it is regularly in the context of the wrath of God. The word rendered “propitiation” here is two-thirds of the time actually the word used for the top of the ark of the covenant where on the Day of Atonement the blood of the bull and goat was shed precisely to turn away God’s wrath. God ordained that this sacrifice be offered to turn away God’s wrath. That’s the context in which it is mostly used in the Old Testament.
And in this passage itself we just had two-and-a-half chapters that begin “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness” that we human beings have deployed in suppressing the truth (Romans 1:18). So the wrath of God is there. It is personal. It is deep. It is unavoidable. There is a sense in which that wrath must be set aside. But how can God propitiate himself? The answer, of course, is that God stands over against us in wrath because of his holiness. He does. If he does not stand over against us in wrath, then he is immoral: “Oh, I don’t care, they can blaspheme and kill and rape and steal and lie. No sweat. I don’t care. No skin off my nose.”
God is righteous and he does stand over against us in wrath, especially because we have marginalized him. We have de-godded him. God knows that it is for our good that he be at the center of absolutely everything. It’s not simply that he wants to have a certain kind of preference among peers. When you and I want to be especially praised by our peers, we want to be stronger than they are, to have a leg up, to be discerned as superior. But God is superior. He is not just us. He is God. We’re the image of God. More than that, God knows in love that we must see him at the center of everything or we are lost and undone. It is for our good. It is out of love that God insists that it is so. So he is angry when by our actions and thoughts and deeds we declare, “It will not be so.”
God does stand over against us in wrath because of his holiness, but he stands over against us in love because that is the kind of God he is. This text says that God presented Christ to be the propitiation for our sins. Now in fact you cannot have propitiation (i.e., the turning aside of the wrath of God) without expiation (i.e., the cancelling of sin). The two hang together in the Bible. Even in the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement that was so, which is why some people have preferred the more embracing “sacrifice of atonement”: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement” for our sins, cancelling our sin and turning aside the wrath of God. What you must not lose from it in the context of Romans is the wrath of God. The word propitiation is the more focused.
We need to think about this just a little bit more. How is it possible to think of God loving us by sending his Son to get killed? “I love you so much he’s going to get beaten up.” That is the way some people today laugh at the cross. They say, “This is some sort of child abuse. I love you so much that I give you my Son, Jesus, to get killed.” But don’t you see that what is being denied here is the very nature of God. Two chapters on in Romans 5, we read, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). When Christ dies, it is God’s love, both because Jesus is God and because the Father himself is sacrificing his own dear Son on our behalf. It is God’s love that is demonstrated. It is not as if the Father stands over against us in wrath, really angry, and dear Jesus comes along and stands over against us in love. That would be a barbaric notion. The whole one God (Father, Son, and Spirit), this God stands over against us in wrath, and he stands over against us in love. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
I think that one of the reasons that we find it hard in the West to visualize this is because of our judicial system. In virtually every Western country, the judiciary is independent, and the judge is someone who must not be a victim of the criminal who is under review. Suppose, for example, some person charged with mugging is brought before a judge, and it turns out that the judge is the one who was mugged. In our system the judge must therefore recuse himself or herself because the judge is not to stand in judgment of any person where the judge himself or herself is the victim of the crime. That is because the judge is seen in our system as an administrator of a bigger judicial system. That’s all a judge is. The judge is supposed to be administering the larger system. The criminal has not in any sense sinned against the judge. And if the judge starts talking that way, he will be thrown off the bench. You sin against the state, the law, the constitution, the people. If you are in a monarchy as in Great Britain, then you sin against the crown. But you don’t sin against the judge. The judge is supposed to be an independent arbiter who is using the structure of the judicial system to apply the law fairly and evenhandedly to the person who is under review.
But that’s not the way it is with God. God, as we have seen again and again, is always the most offended party. He is the one we have mugged, and he is our judge. Yet his justice is not for that reason unfair. He is immaculately fair. He is himself the very embodiment of justice. He is perfectly righteous. He knows everything. Nothing can be hidden from him, even our thoughts. His justice is immaculate. But he is also the most offended party. Always. Thus, in wrath he demands that justice be done. Then in the person of his own dear Son, he pays the penalty.
In our system of courts, that is just so stupid it is unbelievable. I am sure that you have heard these illustrations where you picture somebody who is brought before a judge and the judge finds the person guilty and in some sort of administrative procedure assigns a fine of $5,000 or conversely the person is confined to five years in jail, and then the judge comes down off the bench and takes out his checkbook and writes the check for $5,000 or alternatively takes of his robe and goes to jail for five years in his place. And we call that substitution. It does get across the notion of substitution, but in our system it would be incredibly corrupt. You can’t do that. The judge is supposed to be an independent arbiter whose fare is the administration of the law, the majesty of the law. He doesn’t have the right to do that. That would be a corruption of justice.
But God sets up the system. He is the just one, and he is the offended party. And in the person of his own dear Son he absorbs the penalty on behalf of the people who put their faith in him.
This last point is searingly important. God is just, but . . .
He did this [i.e., God set forth Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins] to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25b–26)
God “did this to demonstrate his justice,” not simply to love, forgive, or redeem us because if no one had paid for our sins then how could God say, “I forgive you”? That would not be just. The sin had not been paid for.
“In his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” This refers to all the sins of God’s own covenant people in the past. They had received temporal punishments of some sort or another. After all, the people of Israel did go into exile. They face pressures and temporal punishments of one sort or another. But now it has to be said that they did not face the full weight of God’s condemnation. That was coming in Christ himself. They had been spared this condemnation. In some deep way, God had left their sins still unpunished. God now demonstrates his justice in sending Christ to the cross “because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Now he does this “to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” In other words, not only by this means does God declare guilty people like you and me just (i.e., he justifies us because someone has paid for our sin), but he demonstrates his own justice while he is doing it.
Do you want to know where God’s justice is most powerfully demonstrated? It’s on the cross. There Jesus, the God-man, bore hell itself, and God did this both to be just and the one who declares just those who have faith in him. There is thus a sense in which God views me, Don Carson, through the lens of Jesus. That is to say, my sin is now viewed as his, and he has paid for it. And his justice, his righteousness, is now viewed as mine. And God looks at me and declares me just, not because I am (I am guilty!) but because he has set forth his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Now all along here the emphasis has been on receiving this by faith. In the last few verses, Romans 3:27–31, Paul makes three emphases on faith. Let me just tell you what they are briefly.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the “law” that requires faith. (Romans 3:27)
That is to say, I cannot come before you and say, “I am a superior person. That is why I am accepted by God.” At the end of the day I am declared just before God not because I try harder but because I have received God’s gift by faith. The very nature of faith excludes boasting.
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28)
Is this the law that requires works? No, this is the law that requires faith. That is to say, if somehow I can get pardon from God (i.e., God can look on me with favor) because somehow I earn it, then grace is no more grace. We’ve already seen that when you’re dealing with a God with whom you cannot barter the only way that we are going to be forgiven is by his sovereign grace that is worked out in the cross. That grace is demonstrated in the cross, and we receive it by faith. Faith preserves God’s sovereign grace.
Not only does faith exclude boasting, not only is it necessary to preserve grace, but . . .
Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised [i.e., Jews] by faith and the uncircumcised [i.e., Gentiles] through that same faith. (Romans 3:29–30)
One of the entailments of monotheism, belief in one God, is that in some sense he is the God of all, acknowledged or otherwise. He is the God of Jews and Gentiles alike.
The way that you and I receive this bold declaration that we are jus before God is by faith.
Let me conclude with one word on this matter.
Today in the Western world the word “faith” itself has one of two meanings.
In the Bible it is always immaculately important to establish faith’s object. For example, in another of Paul’s letters when he is writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul insists that Christians believe that he rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Supposing, he argues, that Jesus did not rise from the dead, supposing that is historical nonsense, then what happens to your faith? If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then (1) the first witnesses are all deceived or liars; you can’t trust any of them, five hundred of them, different sites, different times, different circumstances. They are all liars. (2) It means that you are still lost because the whole predication of the Bible is that it was Christ’s dying and rising again that brought our redemption. That’s how we are reconciled to God. (3) Your faith is useless. In other words, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead when in fact Jesus did not rise from the dead, your faith is worthless because faith’s validation depends in part on the truthfulness of faith’s object. That’s why the Bible never encourages you to believe something that is not true or something that it is not prepared to declare to be true. That is why in the Bible faith is strengthened by articulating and defending the truth. The Bible does come along and say, “Just believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe—it doesn’t matter if it’s true, just believe. So long as you are sincere, that is good.” Paul goes one step farther and says that if you believe something that is not true (like the resurrection of Jesus), you are in fact of all people most to be pitied. You life is a joke. You are believing something that is nonsense.
So as long as you are convinced that Christ did not rise from the dead, I am the last person who is going to urge you to sort of tighten up your stomach muscles and pretend to believe it. That’s not faith. It might be a stomach ulcer, but it is not faith.
Thus when the apostle here in Romans 3 commends faith, what he is wanting from us is a God-given ability to perceive what Christ has done on the cross, what God has done by placarding Jesus on the cross, reconciling us to God, setting aside his own just wrath, demonstrating his love, declaring us just even though we are not because the righteousness of Christ Jesus is now counted as ours, and our sin is now counted as his.
Now that is a kind of Jesus you can trust. It is a kind of God in whom you can place your faith.
Let us pray.
Dilemma wretched: how shall holiness
Of brilliant life unshaded, tolerate
Rebellion’s fetid slime, and not abate
In its own glory, compromised at best?
Dilemma wretched: how can truth attest
That God is love, and not be shamed by hate
And wills enslaved and bitter death—the freight
Of curse deserved, the human rebels’ mess?
The Cross! The Cross! The sacred meeting-place
Where, knowing neither compromise nor loss,
God’s love and holiness in shattering grace
The great dilemma slays! The Cross! The Cross!
This holy, loving God whose dear Son dies
By this is just—and one who justifies.
Open our eyes, heavenly Father, that we may see and in seeing the truth believe.
For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
 D. A. Carson, Holy Sonnets of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 101.
Don Carson explains Ephesians 2:1-18; 4:17-5:10; and Galatians 5:13-26.
In one of his more recent books, the articulate and very interesting atheist and critic of Christianity Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything argues that the whole record of religion—all religion—is toward war and hatred and strife, whether the Protestant-Catholic strife of Belfast in recent decades or Beirut between historically Christian and historically Muslim heritage or Belgrade or Baghdad or Bombay, all around the world religion poisons everything. It has to be said that there is some truth to the charge. It is not for nothing that centuries back the Thirty Years War was in very large measure in Europe a war of religion. The reason that there is some truth to the church is that one of the things that religion does—all religion—is transcendentalize issues. That is, it ups the ante by making the issues important. Today the current round of dominant terrorists are from Islam, and undoubtedly they would like to see Islamic culture in place and have a bigger share of the financial and cultural pie and influence in the world and so on. But what transcendentalizes their beliefs is their conviction that they represent the mind of God himself.
Mind you, it has also been shown by Alister McGrath in his book on atheism that if you do not have religion to transcendentalize things, you end up transcendentalizing something else. In other words, the transcendentalizing is not merely a function of religion; it is a function of human desire to control. So in the twentieth century, for example, the great movements of Nazism and Stalinism were religiously driven movements. Sometimes in Nazism the party’s claim is to a certain kind of background in Christianity, but in point of fact what drove the two movements—well, on the one hand it was the transcendentalizing of the state, and on the other it was the transcendentalizing of race and ethnicity and intrinsic Teutonic superiority. So it is not as if religion poisons everything and everything else is good. The century of the greatest bloodshed, the twentieth century, was a century in which it was not religious movements that caused all of this. You don’t lose one-third of the population of Cambodia because of Christianity but because of communism.
Where one sees that biblical Christianity is bound up with salvation by grace, however, it ought to change everything. Tim Keller in New York writes, “Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling. The people who are fanatics, then, are not so because they are too committed to the gospel, but because they are not committed enough.” If you get just a certain kind of superficial quantity of Bible, gospel, Christian heritage and become convinced that it is the best and everybody else must have the best, too, then it is not going to be too long before you have some new crusades in the name of Christianity.
On the other hand, if you really do drink deeply from what we have been seeing the Bible is about as we work through the entire text and see that finally our hope is in grace—not because we are stronger or better (we are never more than poor beggars telling other poor beggars where there is bread)—it changes everything. This is why biblical Christianity has always had within its heritage the capacity to challenge and reform. That is why, however ghastly and defenseless the Crusades were, it is the Christian heritage in the West that has apologized for them countless times. After all, Islam took over the Middle East first with equal bloodthirstyness, and there is no trace in the heritage of Islam of any apology for any of it. It is what they expect because there is not built into the very structure of the heritage a similar understanding that at the end of the day we stand or fall by grace.
Thus the slavery that was enacted and developed in the West was also eventually destroyed by Christians who were trying to become more biblical and challenged everything. Thomas Sowell, himself by his own confession not a Christian, analyzes what takes place under Wilberforce and similar movements in Great Britain until first the slave trade across the Atlantic and then eventually slavery itself is abolished in the empire. He notes that what drives it is simply a Christian concern to do what is right before God since we all stand under his wrath and are in need of his grace.
Do you know that when slavery was finally abolished, the British government undertook to pay all the great sugarcane farmers of Jamaica and elsewhere under the British crown to pay the price of the slaves to free them? The promise was for half the national GDP, and they undertook it not because it was going to save them money but because of Christian influence regarding what is right and wrong. That doesn’t justify all the wickedness that was done beforehand, but it does remind us that the Bible superficially undertaken can be used in all kinds of shameful ways. But when you come across what the gospel is genuinely about, it is humbling. It does not make people arrogant. It transforms them.
In the previous session we saw how the cross of Jesus is the ground of our reconciliation. God propitiates himself. He sets aside his own wrath because he is the God of love. He satisfies his sense of justice in the person of his own dear Son and in grace reconciles rebels to himself who come simply to him by appropriating this reconciliation, this justification by faith. We saw that this salvation is granted by grace alone and received by faith alone. This is true for Jews and Gentiles alike.
But in another of Paul’s letters, Paul takes this argument in a slightly different direction. What I am going to do in this session is not focus on one short paragraph and unpack it in detail. I’m going to read two or three passages at length and just offer some brief comments along the way so that you can hear Paul’s argument now in a slightly different key.
Paul is writing to believers in the city of Ephesus, and he describes their conversion.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air [that’s a way that Paul alluded to Satan], the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath [so you still hear the same kind of overtones as in Romans]. But because of his great love for us [despite the fact that we deserve the wrath], God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ [that is, Christ’s life is now ours] and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus [God now views us as acceptable in his very presence as Christ himself is; we are united to him; that’s the way God sees us], in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus [all sounds very Romans-like, doesn’t it? Then it gets stronger]. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith [that sounds like Romans 3]—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast [that sounds like Romans 3]. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:1–10)
In other words, Paul is not concerned to have us legally acquitted alone. The guilt must be dealt with. The ground of God’s wrath must be set aside. God himself must be propitiated. The sin must be expiated. But that still leaves me functionally a sinner. We saw in an earlier session that there are several things that we need. We need to be reconciled to this God, but we ourselves must be changed. We saw some glimpse of that in the new birth, but now you’re getting the same thing in a slightly different key in Paul. There must be transformation. This change, this new creation, this handiwork of God within us is precisely so that we will do good works, not because the good works have secured out place in God but precisely because they are the inevitable outcome of it. In fact, if you recall, Romans 3 talks about Jews and Gentiles, both under wrath, both being saved by grace through faith; Paul now talks about Jews and Gentiles again. Listen to what he says as he goes on in this chapter.
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) [i.e., the Jews]—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise [i.e., the covenant with Abraham and the covenant of law with Moses; you Gentiles are not part of that heritage; formally, that’s the way it was], without hope and without God in the world. But now [with the coming of Christ that has changed] in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ [i.e., his death on our behalf].
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [that is, Jew and Gentile; an antithesis in opposition with resentment and suspicion in the Roman Empire and today] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations [that is, we are no longer under that law-covenant that was for the Israelites and thus distinguished them from others]. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace [a new locus of the people of God made up Jew and Gentile, people drawn from every tongue and tribe and people and nation, a new humanity], and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross [that is, not only reconciling them to each other and thus making peace, but reconciling them to God and thus making peace so that his wrath does not rest on us; all of this the cross achieves], by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away [that is, Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [that is, Jews]. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11–18)
“One Spirit.” I could have introduced the theme of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, much earlier in this series. One has to pick and choose when one flies through the Bible at this speed. Sometimes the Bible speaks of God sending his Spirit, but also of the Spirit talking. The Spirit is regularly presented not merely as an abstract power but as somehow like the eternal Word, like the eternal Son, the very self-disclosure, self-manifestation of God himself. Indeed, on the night that he is betrayed, according to John 14–16, and then carted off to trial and crucifixion, he talks at great length of the Spirit whom he will send. He calls him the Holy Spirit and another word that is harder to translate: paraklētos in the original. We sometimes transliterate it Paraclete. It means someone who comes alongside and helps in a variety of ways, and he may help by giving us strength. In John’s Gospel he helps by bringing conviction of sin to people who are otherwise self-righteous. He comes also to be the very presence and manifestation of God now that the Son is going to the cross and rising again and returning to his heavenly abode. It is the Spirit who is poured out upon us as the presence of God himself among us. He is said to be the one who takes up residence in people’s life, transforming them, giving them power.
Indeed, in the Apostle Paul’s letters, the Holy Spirit is sometimes called—this is stunning—the down payment of the promised inheritance, the ultimate inheritance, the ultimate blessing that we are to receive is a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness, transformed resurrection bodies, a perfect world. The down payment of that, according to Paul, is the Holy Spirit himself. That is why Christians speak of the Trinity: one God but somehow complex, three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—yet one God, so united, so one in purpose and will, so all God that you cannot separate them and make three Gods. Nevertheless, that is the set of categories in which the New Testament speaks, and it is the Holy Spirit who has been poured out upon us Christians such that he is seen as the down payment of the promised inheritance, the one who transforms us, the one who changes our hearts and minds, the one who gives us new birth (We did see something of the work of the spirit there: “born of water and the Spirit,” that is, cleaned up—that is what water symbolizes in the prophecy of Ezekiel—and born of the Spirit—that is, with God’s own life within us and changing us and transforming us. It is a new birth characterized by being cleaned up and changed by God himself as his Spirit takes up residence within us. So Paul talks about this new humanity that forms because of what Christ has done on the cross—all given by grace, received by faith, in order to bring peace and to do good works as we are strengthened by God himself. We have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Now jump ahead in Ephesians to watch how this works out in a variety of ways. After Paul has worked out some of the theology just a wee bit, run through this text rather quickly.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking [that is, the Gentiles in their pre-Christian days]. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts [that sound like Romans 1: suppressing the truth in unrighteousness]. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17–24)
“Created”? The power of God in creation in Genesis 1–2 is now being displayed again in a new creation that is every bit as real as the first creation, not yet consummated in the transformation of the ultimate creation but already working out in the lives of believers.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God [which presupposes that the Holy Spirit is a person; you don’t grieve a power], with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:25–30)
“Sealed for the day of redemption” means marked out as God’s because he is already within you, he is already come as the down payment of the promised inheritance. You are set aside for him so if you live as if none of this has happened, you grieve God as he has disclosed himself by his Spirit within you.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31–32)
You’re back to the cross again. Biblical Christianity does not come along with a whole lot of rules. We who are Christian pastors and preachers sometimes get this wrong ourselves. We see certain signs of decay in a culture, for example, or certain kinds of sliding morally in the church. If we are not careful, our very first instinct is to say, “Uh-uh, that’s bad. Don’t do that. Do this instead.” You will show how righteous, good, and disciplined you are by imposing all of these rules and orders in your life. And after all, this text is talking about things we should do and shouldn’t do, for example, speaking the truth and getting rid of bitterness and malice. Of course, there are some moral structures there.
And yet the motivation is not more rules: forgive each other as God in Christ has forgiven you. There is a powerful sense in which the way God’s Spirit transforms us is by bringing us back to the cross so that all of our morality is first and foremost a function of gratitude. If you begin to see just how much you were forgiven by what Christ did on the cross, how on earth can you possibly nurture bitterness toward others? If you see what is still in store for the future, that you have already received in part by the down payment of the Spirit who does strengthen your moral resolve and gives you vistas of a new heaven and a new earth, how can you possibly be locked in to the agonizing, painful, limited concerns of a world that finally will pass away? You are destined for eternity with God Almighty. It changes everything. When there is a moral slide in the church or in the broader world, what we must have more of is a right, thick, rich understanding of the gospel, for it transforms us and by the Holy Spirit whom Jesus bequeathed empowers us to live in a way that is different from the way we lived before. We are back at the language of the new birth. Everyone who has this life in himself does not live the way he or she used to live. Like the wind, we might not understand the mechanism, but you see the results. So it is with those who are born of God, with those who have the Spirit.
So we read:
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1–2)
Do you see this intermingling again of God’s love and Christ’s love. You cannot have one without the other. They are together. And because we have received so much from God in Christ Jesus, we are the objects of such love. How can we not also love? Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant sacrifice and offering to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 5:3)
That is, it is not simply improper because it is against the law, though that might be true. It is improper because you have been bought with a price. You are the Lord’s people. You are dishonoring the Lord, the Lord who loved you even to the death of the cross.
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4)
It is thanksgiving that is the underlay of all Christian morality.
For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Ephesians 5:5)
Do you hear that? Greed is idolatry because what you most want becomes your god. What you most urgently pursue becomes your god. Idolatry does not require some little figurine made of stone or clay or pottery or some giant figure of a god somewhere carved out of a mountainside. Idolatry is anything and everything that displaces God, that makes me try to find my identity and place in the universe by something or someone other than God. Thus greed itself establishes who our real gods finally are. But for Christians? They have been reconciled to God by the death of Christ and have been exposed to something of God’s spectacular glory and grandeur—not least in the cross.
No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. (Ephesians 5:5–10)
That is the change of heart. The change of heart has come so that we want to please the Lord, and we are eager to find out what pleases him. Biblical transformational Christianity gathers men and women together, called out—Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter—and under the Lordship of Christ as we look back to the cross and look forward to what is still ahead, we want—by the power of the Spirit and because of a change in our lives and because of this new creation—to find out what pleases the Lord. God help us! We are so inconsistent even in this. We are not finally transformed yet.
But Christians look back and see that they are not what they were. The name John Newton might mean something to you if you saw the film on William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace. John Newton was that old slave-trader. He figured he had transported twenty thousand slaves across the Atlantic, and in his nightmares he could still hear them scream. Then he was genuinely converted, and his life changed. Ultimately he became a pastor, and he wrote at one point, “I am not what I want to be. I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I one day will be. But I am not what I was. And by the grace of God I am what I am.” That is the testimony of Christians.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8–10)
One more passage with a similar antithesis.
A lot of the argument in Galatians is parallel to the argument in Romans: what justification is, what the cross achieves. But as soon as you emphasize those things, you must also talk about how people need changing. It’s not just that we must stand acquitted before God and be reconciled to him. It’s not just that we now have peace with God in some legal sense as important and foundational as all of that is. We must be transformed. So we read:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called [that is, called when you became Christians] to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command [it points in this direction]: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, walk by the Spirit [the Spirit who has been poured out upon us because of what Christ has achieved], and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:13–18)
Now you can identify the acts of the sinful nature. They are listed for us in the next verses.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like [which pretty much covers it]. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19–21)
But now over against that stands the fruit of the Spirit because God is the God who not only gathers his people into one community but transforms them. He gathers his people into one community, and he transforms them. Biblical Christianity is deeply concerned with reconciling guilty people to God, but not only reconciling them but transforming them. In one old Christian hymn we sing, “He breaks the power of canceled sin and sets the prisoner free.” That is, he does cancel sin through what Christ has done on the cross, but he pours out the Spirit, too and then breaks the power of canceled sin. So we read,
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22–26)
Indeed, there are a lot of ways that the New Testament talks about this sort of thing. One of the most striking comes from the teaching of Jesus himself. He points out that he himself goes to the cross, and then he says, “If you would be my disciples, you must take up your cross and follow me.” He says it several times. Now we hear that expression today, and it is not powerful anymore. In fact, some of us have made jokes about it: “Ohhhh, this horrible toothache! We all have our cross to bear!” And our cross becomes some minor irritation or a nasty in-law, but in the first century you never made jokes like that. In the first century crucifixion was so awful that handbooks were actually written on the responsibility of parents not to talk about crucifixion to their children, not to show crucifixion to their children. If there is a crucifixion site, they should take their children to some other place. There were no jokes about crucifixion in the ancient world. Not one has come down to us. You could no more joke about crucifixion in the ancient world than you could joke about Auschwitz today. It’s unthinkable. And talk about “we all have our cross to bear”? And Jesus has the cheek to turn to his disciples and say, “Unless you take up your cross, you can’t be my disciple.” Taking up the cross in those circumstances did not mean taking up your particular little bit of suffering. It meant that you take up the cross-member out to the place of crucifixion where you will suffer and die. It meant death to self-interest.
Most of us are not going to be crucified in that literal sense, but we follow a Master who was. And Jesus says, “If I have been crucified, don’t you understand? If you are to be my disciple, you must be crucified, too.” Oh, not in the same physical way for most of us, but a death to self-interest and a coming under his Lordship as he himself obeyed his own heavenly Father perfectly.
That is why Paul in another of these letters can actually say, “For it has been granted to you [Christians] on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). Do you realize that? It has been granted (that is, a gracious gift, a grant) to you who are Christians not only to believe (that is a gift) but also to suffer for Jesus. You take up your cross, and in Christ’s way of looking at it that is a privilege. In the perspective of the earliest Christians, it was a privilege such that when the apostles were first beaten up it is said of them, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
Amy Carmichael wrote this poem:
Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land;
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star.
Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers; spent,
Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned.
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And piercèd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?
And this in an atmosphere where there is no self-pity at all. It is merely the mark of a transformed life.
I read in a journal not long ago a paragraph—I just have to read it to you:
In April 1942, Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier in the Doolittle raid over Japan [that’s the raid that basically turned Tokyo into a furnace]. With four other crewmen, he bailed out. Two of them were executed. The others spent the rest of the war—three years and four months—in prison camps. They were beaten, tortured, and starved. At some point, DeShazer asked for a Bible.
They brought him one, allowing him to keep it for three weeks. “I eagerly began to read its pages,” he later wrote. “I discovered that God had given me new spiritual eyes and that when I looked at the enemy officers and guards who had starved and beaten my companions and me so cruelly, I found my bitter hatred for them changed to loving pity.” He survived, and dedicated his life to missionary work in Japan. One of his converts was Mitsuo Fuchida—the lead pilot in the Pearl Harbor attack. Fuchida became an evangelist. Jacob DeShazer died in Salem, Ore., age 95. R.I.P.
Because this is a God who gathers and transforms his people.
I have to read you one more clip, and I’m done. It’s written by an atheist. It’s wonderful. Matthew Paris:
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding—as you can—the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith
But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world—a directness in their dealings with others—that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers—in some ways less so—but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.
It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
And he goes on.
Listen: The God who is there, the God who has named himself supremely in Jesus, gathers and transforms his people. Without this transformation the Christianity so-called that you perceive is no Christianity at all. For this God gathers and transforms his people.
Don Carson explains Revelation 14:6-20.
As solemn as this topic is (“The God Who Is Very Angry”), there is a sense in which for anybody who has followed the storyline this far it should not be too surprising. Any residual ideas of God as a kind of slightly sleepy grandfather figure and nothing more simply will not stand up to the way that the Bible portrays God’s righteousness, his sense of the most profound offense when his creatures wish to distance themselves from him. When you stop to think through what the Bible says about judgment, there is quite a lot there from Genesis 3 on: the judgment of the flood, the sacrificial system with all those dead animals, the cycles of decay under the judges in Israel when the nation sank down again and faced a certain kind of judgment, the judgment that fell on the kings of Israel when they were increasingly perverse and corrupt, and on and on and on all the way through. Then there is Jesus himself with blistering language in a chapter like Matthew 23 condemning some of the sins in his own day. There is a sense in which none of this, therefore, should surprise us if we have followed the storyline at all.
But in some ways in our culture it is harder to think about because anger is often connected in the public mind with intolerance, narrow-mindedness and bigotry. The category of righteous anger is not for us near the top of our scale of virtues.
One of the most frightening passages in the Bible is found in Revelation 14. We’ve come to the last book of the Bible. There are many, many passages to which we could turn to explore this theme, but I’m going to focus on Revelation 14:6–20. Note that the section is divided into two: the heralds (three angels) and the harvest (two metaphors about harvest), and both sections talk about judgment in frankly horrendous terms. You must understand that this writing is another source; we often call it apocalyptic literature, full of symbolism and figures that you don’t find in other kinds of writing. I don’t have to unpack the background of all of the symbolism. If it were another sort of course just on the book of Revelation, then I do take time to sort out how this sort of symbolism works in detail. But you’ll catch the thrust of it in any case:
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia. (Revelation 14:6–20)
I want to run through the passage so that we understand it reasonably well so that we understand what it’s saying and then to think through with you biblically-theologically what all this language of judgment and hell means. We divide the passage in to.
You often find angels in apocalyptic literature, and the proclamations that they bring here are interrelated and progressive.
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Revelation 14:6–7)
“I saw another angel flying in midair”—that is, mid-heaven, to be seen and heard by all. Now he issues a proclamation “to those who live on the earth.” It is not for the angelic hordes of heaven. It is for people living on the earth. “He had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth.” That’s what he was there for. “To every nation, tribe, language and people”—it’s not restricted to merely one subset. The question is “What is this eternal gospel?” There are two views:
(A) One group says that “the eternal gospel” in verse 6 is given its content in verse 7. So the eternal gospel is what this angel says in verse 7: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” In this case it sounds like the eternal gospel is some kind of generic “you might not have heard of Jesus and might not have known the truth, but sort of worship the God who has manifested himself in nature and you will be alright.” That really doesn’t make any sense for two reasons:
(1) The word gospel by this time is already such a fixed word with real meaning by the time John writes this about AD 90.
(2) Earlier on in this book in two spectacular chapters, Revelation 4–5, John has a vision that shows us what the gospel really is, what it looks like. It is spectacular. I wish I had time just to expound those two chapters to you. Revelation 4 is to Revelation 5 what a setting is to a drama. In highly apocalyptic imagery, God is presented in the setting as transcendent, so spectacularly glorious that even the highest order of angels cover their faces before him and cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” There we are told that he is the God of creation, and the entire created order lives and moves and has its being entirely because of him. That’s Revelation 4.
Then in Revelation 5, the drama begins. In the right hand of this God, we’re told, is a scroll sealed with seven seals, and this scroll turns out to be the scroll that contains all of God’s purposes for judgment and blessing for the entire universe. As the drama is set up in this vision, an angel proclaims to the whole universe, “Who is worthy to approach this God and take the scroll from the right hand of God himself and slit the seals?” And in the symbolism of the day that meant bring to pass everything that was in the scroll. What angel could approach this God and be God’s agent for bringing to pass all of God’s purposes? No one is found who is worthy: no angelic being, no human being, no one in the abodes of the dead, no one. After all, he is the God who is described in such terrifying terms in the previous chapter. If even the highest order of angels dare not look on him, who is going to come along and say, “Here, I’ll do that; no problem”? And John, the seer, the visionary, weeps. He weeps not because he is a Nosey Parker who can’t see into the future. He weeps because in the symbolism of the vision, it means that unless somebody does come along and slit those seals, God’s purposes for judgment and blessing won’t come to pass. That is, history becomes meaningless. There is no final accounting. There is no righteousness. The sufferings of the church are useless.
Then one of the interpreting figures taps him on the shoulder and says, “Stop your crying, John. Look! The lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to open the scroll!” “So I looked,” John says, “and I saw a lamb.” So a lion has been introduced, and what he sees is a lamb. We are not to think of two animals parked side by side. This is apocalyptic literature, and one of the things that happens in apocalyptic literature is that you can mix your metaphors: the lion is the lamb. The lion of the tribe of Judah means “the one who comes from the royal tribe.” The tribe of Judah is the tribe of David, the tribe from whom the king comes, the tribe of the Messiah, the promised one. He comes from the tribe of Judah: the royal figure. He is come, and he has prevailed after a struggle to take this scroll and bring God’s purposes to pass. But when John looks up he sees a lamb because the lion is the lamb. The one who is the promised king is also the sacrificial slaughtered lamb. We’re told that he does not come from the outside and go in. He emerges from the center of the throne. He is one with God himself. You’re coming back to the complexity of the one God. As he manifests himself as the lion-lamb, all around the throne countless millions break out in a new song as they address this Christ-figure, this lion-lamb, and say,
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9)
In other words, the gospel is the same gospel as you find in Paul. It is what God has ordained through his Son, this lion-lamb, to pay the price of sin, to take on the effects of the curse, to release his people, to gather and transform men and women from every tongue and tribe and tongue and nation. It is the good news. It is the gospel life-changing focus on who Christ is and what he has done. That is the gospel.
(B) So in Revelation 14:6–7, the connection between these two verses has got to be seen the other way. It is not that verse 7 gives us the content of the gospel. The content of the gospel is defined by Jesus on the cross and has already been laid out for us in Revelation 4–5. The connection between Revelation 14:6 and 14:7 is a little different. Listen: “Granted that the gospel is here, granted that it is being proclaimed, granted that it is being announced, granted that this is the sole means by which God’s purposes for salvation and judgment come to pass, then fear God and give him glory because the hour of his judgment is come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.” You are tied back to responsibility to the Creator, and eventually this time of salvation and patience will close. The time comes. Fear him.
A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” (Revelation 14:8)
Now historic Babylon, of course, was the capital of the Babylonian empire in the Tigris and Euphrates system and was at one point the capital of the regional superpower, which destroyed the southern part of the land of Israel, that is, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. It destroyed the temple in 586 BC. But it becomes in the Bible a kind of symbol for paganism that runs amuck and is finally destroyed.
The great king boasts powerfully in the book of Daniel of this Babylon: “Is not this mighty Babylon that I have built?” But it becomes almost a symbol for arrogance, for vaunted self-independence. It is a symbol for the spirit of godlessness that in every age lives in those who worship anything but the Creator. Society set free from God is its own worst enemy, and now in New Testament times, Babylon has already been destroyed. It is a piddlely little village at this juncture. But the name of Babylon is picked up and applied in a symbol-laden way to the city of Rome, which at that time was the capital city of the regional superpower and the mark of paganism, unbelief, arrogance. Now as the final account is readied, the second angel says, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,” that is, there is an announcement of the impending destruction of all society in life and arrogance that sets itself up over against God himself. In the first century this manifested itself in particular in paganism. It “made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” These adulteries in biblical language have to do not first and foremost with merely sexual adulteries, if I may put it that way, but adultery becomes a figure for the kind of apostasy in which you’re not, as it were, tied intimately and covenantally with God but you prostitute yourself to other gods so that adultery becomes almost a symbol for betrayal of God. This massive pagan voice has made the nations drunk with the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The reference to the beast is from the previous two chapters. Revelation 12 pictures the devil himself, referred to as “that old serpent,” hauling you back to Genesis 3 again. That old serpent then calls forth some “beasts” as his functionaries. There is one beast that is particularly strong and powerful, and there is another beast that is deceptive, sometimes called a false prophet. And in John’s language the devil, the first beast, and the second beast function together as a kind of aped trinity, pretending to be God, trying to act like Father, Son, and Spirit, but only evil, only destructive, never able to be God. The beast, then, wants everybody to be stamped by his image and come under his sway and control. That is part of the language of the previous chapter.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast [that is, Satan’s own emissary] and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9–11)
God’s wrath poured out in full strength? The image is drawn from wine-drinking practices in the ancient world. When you produce wine, it comes out about 30 proof, that is, about 15 percent alcohol. It can go up or down a bit, but it is not a distilled product where you can control the amount of alcohol. It is a fermented process, so it depends on the sugar and the temperature and the kind of berry and so on, but it is about 30 proof (15 percent alcohol). But in the ancient world it was very common to cut the wine with water, somewhere between one part in ten (one part of wine to ten parts of water) and three and one. Most table wines that people drank in the ancient world was cut. This image is saying, “This is now the wine of God’s wrath poured out full strength. Any manifestation of God’s wrath that you have seen so far—the exile, for example, plagues in the Old Testament, disease, war—any of these things that you have seen as horrible manifestations of God’s wrath, that was the diluted form. Now God’s wrath is poured out full strength.”
Different images are used: “burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb” does not mean that the angels and the lambs are sitting there laughing and saying, “I told you so.” It means that there is enough awareness in these people of the angels and the Lamb to whom they no longer ever can have access, that that is part of the torment. There is no way out. “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever.”
Here the arrival of God’s judgment is depicted in two agricultural portraits.
The whole point of these three verses is very simple: a set time is coming when the harvest will take place, and there is no escaping it. The “one like a son of man” is Christ himself with “a sharp sickle in his hand,” and the angel that comes out of the temple (i.e., from his heavenly Father) says,
“Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. (Revelation 14:15–16)
In other words, life does not go on and on and on endlessly. This is not Hinduism where there are cycles and recycles and recycles of incarnation where you sort of rise and fall. History in the Bible is teleological. That is, it goes somewhere. It begins somewhere, and it ends somewhere; it heads toward an end. When the time comes and the Lord himself swings his sickle, time as we know it will be no more.
This emphasizes the violent thoroughness of God’s wrath when it is finally poured out. You need to understand how these things worked in the ancient world. They would take the grapes and put them into a great stone vat in a large vineyard. At the bottom of the vat were little holes, and the juice could come out of those holes and run through stone channels into collecting pots and the like. So you would put the grapes in this vat and the servant girls would kick off their sandals, pick up their skirts, go in, and stamp down the grapes. And the juice would flow. Then the juice would be collected, and from it would come the fermentation and the wine and the drink and all the rest.
But now this imagery is used to portray people being thrown into the great winepress of God’s wrath, who are being trampled underfoot so thoroughly that the blood flows out from the channels to a height of a horse’s bridal for a distance of almost 200 miles. Now I know it is imagery. The sulfur is imagery, too. And elsewhere darkness and chains, no doubt, are imagery. But they are not imagery of nothing. In each case they are meant to tell us something important, and here what is being conveyed is the violent thoroughness of God’s wrath when it is finally poured out.
What shall we as Christians make of this? There are a lot of Christians today who want to say, “Surely it is better to think of hell as a place where there will be some temporary punishments until eventually you simply lose all consciousness: annihilation. Others think that it is manipulative and cruel to think of hell at all: “Just talk about the love of God.” There are several things that really must be said. This is not an easy topic, but they have to be said.
Jesus is the one who introduces almost all of the horrendous and colorful images. He can openly say to followers of his who are at risk of being crucified and beaten and sawn asunder and all the rest: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). He talks about dungeons and chains, outer darkness. People sometimes say, “I’d like to go to hell. All my friend will be there.” There are no friends in hell. Jesus can speak of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. So it is not surprising that he weeps over the city. As for manipulating you, it is manipulating you only if it is not true. If it is true (and I rest first and foremost on Jesus’ authority), it is warning you, and it would be unkind and uncharitable for me not to warn you as I must warn myself.
Did you notice the line in Revelation 14:11? “The smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever.” This does not sound like a place where it comes to an end. Or again, a few chapters on:
But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:9–10)
We don’t need Elmer Gantry’s who take a kind of vicious glee over the tragic ends of others. We don’t need that. And we will be the first to say, as Paul calls the Christians in Ephesians 2, that we are all by nature children of wrath. It is only by the grace of the gospel that we know anything different.
But there is more.
I cannot prove this, but I think that there are enough biblical hints to hold that it is true. The last chapter of the Bible says, “Let those who do wrong continue to do wrong; let those who are vile continue to be vile; let those who do right continue to do right; and let those who are holy continue to be holy” (Revelation 22:11). That is, you move into the new heaven and the new earth—you move into hell itself—and you remain in principle what you are already. If as a Christian you are already seen as righteous in Christ, if you have already been increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ, you move into a new heaven and a new earth, and righteousness becomes yours without footnotes or exceptions or tendencies away or the influences of the old nature. “Let those who do right continue to do right.” There is the culmination of this righteousness. Or you move into hell, and you don’t suddenly turn over a new leaf and become spotless: “Let those who do wrong continue to do wrong; let those who are vile continue to be vile.” Hell is full of people who don’t want to be there but still do not want to bend the knee. For all eternity they still hate God. They still despise the cross. They still sin and hate each other in this endless cycle of self-chosen sin and iniquity and rebellion and anarchy and idolatry and its consequences. It’s horrendous. So much is that part of their stamp and makeup that if they went suddenly transported to heaven, they would hate it. In exactly the same way as we saw in John 3 in the passage on God’s love, when the light comes, people love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. That is the horrible awfulness of it: ongoing punishment and still—God help us—no repentance. Not ever. Not ever. That’s why the Bible says, “Flee, flee from the wrath to come.”
Biblically faithful Christianity does not present itself as a nice religious structure that makes happier parents and well-ordered children and good tax-paying citizens. It may produce better parents and tax-paying citizens, but the issues at stake in biblical Christianity have to do with eternity: heaven and hell, matters of the utmost significant, your relationship to your Maker, what God has provided in Christ, what the cross is about, the resurrection. For at the end of the day, what hell measures is how much Christ paid for those who escape hell. The measure of his torment (in ways I don’t pretend even to begin to understand) as the God-man is the measure of torment that we deserve and he bore. And if you see that and believe it, you will find it difficult to contemplate the cross for very long without tears.
Let us pray.
Open our eyes, Lord God, so that we can see the eternal significance of the glorious gospel of Christ. Help us to see that the terrors of the world, the threats and torments offered often enough across history by the world, are nothing compared to the wrath of the Lamb. We face some kind of choice: whether we will live our lives terrified of people who can do damage to us in the world but then can’t do anything or whether we will live our lives in the submissive fear of him who can destroy body and soul in hell. O, Lord God, from the heart of each one of us, help us to turn to our only escape, to him who bore our sin with its guilt and penalty in his own body on the tree that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. And so we sing, “Oh, help me understand it. Oh, help me take it in what it meant to Thee Thou holy one to take away my sin.” Lord God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Don Carson explains Revelation 21:1-22:5.
We come now to Revelation 21–22: the last two chapters of the last book of the Bible. I am not going to read right through both of them, but I will read Revelation 21 and the first few verses of 22. Let me begin, however, rather adjacently.
In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5–7, Jesus said,
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal [or where the stock market can erode it all]. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal [and where the stock market has no effect whatsoever]. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21)
That last sentence is astonishingly important. Note carefully what he says. He does not say, “Guard your heart.” He says, “Choose your treasure.” There are other passages where we are told to guard our hearts: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). There are texts like that. But in this passage in the Sermon on the Mount, that is not what Jesus says. What he says is, “Your heart will follow your treasure, so choose your treasure aright.” In other words, if what you value the most has to do with treasures down here—things that may in themselves be good for which to give thanks and appreciate—but if that is the entire horizon of your treasure, that is where your heart will go. Heart refers not to a merely romantic or merely emotion sense. So often in the Bible heart has to do with the inmost being of a human being: who you are, what you think, what you cherish. And if what you value out there has to do with everything in this life and that’s all, then that is where your heart will go. That is where your creative imagination goes; that is where your energy goes; that is what you think about; that is what you hope for. It may be if you a Christian that at some sort of deep but fairly insignificant creedal level you also believe that there is a new heaven and a new earth, but it doesn’t mean a blessed thing about how you live because your heart has its treasures here.
If on the other hand, though you can thoroughly appreciate all the good things that gives us in this life (and there are so many of them), yet what you treasure the most has to do with the new heaven and the new earth. That is where your imagination will go; that is where your energy will go; that is where your heart goes. Christians in parts of the world where there is a lot of persecution or violence or suffering have no difficulty understanding that at all. You meet Christians in the southern Sudan or Iran, and they understand that.
But when we have so much in the West, then our hearts follow so much here that it is difficult for our hearts to go pitter-patter and become really excited about what’s over there. That means that one of the things we ought to do if we are to take the injunction of the Lord Jesus seriously is take time pretty often to reflect from the Bible on what the new heaven and the new earth are like. We need to fire up our imagination so we see what it is that the Lord Jesus is commanding us to treasure, the think about, to value, to run after. There are few passages in all of the Bible more calculated to do that than Revelation 21–22. Again, they are deeply symbol-laden, and there is not time in the few minutes left for me to go through every verse step-by-step. There are good commentaries out there, and if you are really curious, I’ll name some afterwards. Nevertheless, even at a superficial fly-pass, you begin to see what Jesus is on about.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. . . .
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 21:1–14, 22–27; 22:1–5)
Some of us at Trinity who teach an introductory class of what we call biblical theology sometimes give students the assignment to work through Revelation 21–22 and pick up every single allusion to anything in the Old Testament. There are scads of them. What these two chapters do is pull together so much from the Old Testament—much of what we have seen in the thirteen previous sessions. We can pick up only a small part of them, but they are wonderful. What does John see? He sees what is new (Revelation 21:1–8), what is especially symbol-laden (Revelation 21:9–21), what is missing (Revelation 21:22–27), and then what is central (Revelation 22:1–5).
What he sees is initially nothing less than “a new heaven and a new earth.” Of course, that is calling to mind the opening words of Genesis 1: “God created the heaven and the earth.” So the opening of the Bible connects with the very closing of the Bible. But now this new heaven and new earth (as we will see in the following verses) is untainted by any of the residue of the sin of Genesis 3. It is a new heaven and earth. That is what John sees: a transformation of existence.
You find this language, “a new heaven and a new earth,” going all the way back to Isaiah and coming forward from time to time in the Bible. It shows up, for example, in one of Peter’s writings. Sometimes the same thing is described in other terms. The Apostle Paul writes about this whole world order groaning like a woman in pregnancy waiting for the final transformation of God’s people when the whole universe will be transformed as well. Then it changes.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth” . . . . I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . . (Revelation 21:1–2)
We’re not to think of a new creation into which the new Jerusalem comes. Rather this is simply changing the metaphor. Apocalyptic is doing that. The ultimate state can ultimately be thought of as a new heaven and a new earth, or it can be thought of as a new city. You are seeing different facets of the same reality. In the first case (“a new heaven and a new earth”), John comments, “there was no longer any sea.” For those of us who love the sea, that seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? But what you must understand is that so often for the ancient Israelites the sea is associated with chaos. They were not a sea-going people.
I was born in Canada, but my parents were both born in the UK. Basically, British people are born with saltwater in their veins. They are an island-community. They are a seafaring people, so their literature and their poetry is full of this. Even as a boy growing up in Canada with some of this heritage, I memorized poems like this:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by . . . .
But the ancient Israelites were not like that. They were a landlocked people, and the one time under Solomon when they tried to build a navy, the ships had to be manned by people from sea-going pagan ports up the coast. So as a result Israelite poetry is full of negative uses of the sea; it is full of chaos and danger and the like. So in Isaiah, “the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud” (Isaiah 57:20).
In that kind of heritage, what John says is
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (Revelation 21:1)
This is not talking about the hydrological principles of the new reality, whatever they will be. It is saying that there is no more chaos, no more destruction, no more muck and mire.
The vision of a “new Jerusalem” calls down old Jerusalem, which was supposed to be the city of the great king, the city of the temple, the city where God manifested himself to his people. But now it is a new Jerusalem without taint or corruption or being taken over by the Babylonians or anything like that. It is a profoundly social vision. So many of us in the West think of spirituality in highly individualistic terms, but this is the people of God in a social context: a city.
I know that in some of our Western literature the city can be seen as the cesspool of iniquity, but in the Bible it can be seen both as a sink or a reservoir of evil and it can be seen as a glorious place of beauty where God lives with his people. Some people with tongue in cheek call the book of Revelation “a tale of two cities” because in this book you have set out Babylon with all of its symbolism and the new Jerusalem with all of its symbolism.
Then it changes again: “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). The city is now a bride. If any of you young chaps are about to get married, I strongly urge you not to say to your wife on the first night, “Oh, you’re such a lovely city” or “you remind me of a big city” or any such thing because the aim here is not—typical of apocalyptic literature—to confuse the two metaphors but to leap from one to the other. Again and again and again God is presented in the Old Testament as the kind of bridegroom of his people, and it comes along in the New Testament similarly. Christ is the fiancé, and the church is his fiancée waiting for the final consummation, the final union, the marriage supper of the Lamb. It is a spectacular way of say in effect, “The joy, the intimacy, the pleasure, the knitting together of soul and mind and heart and body, which we best know in our small corner in a well ordered marriage, is only an indication of the kind of intimacy and joy when the church is united with Christ forever.” “The wedding supper of the Lamb” is language that is used in Revelation 19:9.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. (Revelation 21:3)
That language is used again and again in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 26, when the tabernacle is being built for the ancient Israelites in the desert and there is not even the first land, the promised land, there is not a temple (they have a tabernacle), that is where God makes himself among his people. God says, “I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11–12). Then when the new covenant is promised, God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). You have the same language, but under the old covenant it was bound up with God self-disclosure, his manifestation, in that tabernacle. Under the terms of the new covenant, it is God’s self-disclosure, his manifestation, in Christ and in the church among his people. It is the same language, but the whole thing gets ratcheted up. Now in the last stage, the same language (“I will be their God, and they will be my people”) is ratcheted up to such a place that the intimacy is so great, God is so much present with them, that it is unthinkable that any residue of sin, decay, judgment, loss, or death can prevail any more. There is a ratcheting up of expectations until this consummation of perfection. So we read,
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4)
Here eternal blessedness is couched in negation, that is, no tears, no pain, no bad stuff. That’s only the negative side of the glory to come. The positive side is depicted in the imagery that still follows: to be with him in glory and splendor, to see the limitless perfections that all of eternity will still not exhaust because he is out God and we are dwelling with him and he with us forever. Incalculable.
Then almost as if our faith needs to be reassured,
He who was seated on the throne [that is, God himself] said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega [the first and last letters of the alphabet], the Beginning and the End [from creation to the consummation to the new creation; from creation in its perfection with its horrible dip of sin and destruction and decay to the work that I have done in the sending of my own Son and the pouring out of the Spirit now to the consummation; I am the Alpha and Omega, and the turning point is Jesus; now we arrive at the consummation]. To the thirsty I will give water without cost [there is grace all over again] from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious [in this book, this refers to those who persevere to the end in confidence in Jesus; it does not refer to the kind of Christian who sails through life with nothing ever sticking to them; to be victorious in Revelation means that you persevere in faithfulness by God’s grace to the very end] will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:5–8)
So what is new? The new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem, the consummated union between Christ and his people. Spectacular.
Here it would take an hour just to work through all the symbols. Let me just pick up one or two of them. I don’t have time for more than that. We are told that the city that John sees shines “with the glory of God.” That is, the people, this city coming out of heaven, shines “with the glory of God.” Let us be quite frank: the church here today, even the very best churches (the churches are full of the gospel, where there is discipline and accountability, where Christians really do love each other), we are a flawed bunch. The church is full of sin. It’s full of sinners like you and me, declared just, yes, but sinners still, not yet perfected, not even close to what we will be. But one day the city itself will glow with the presence of God. No taint anywhere. The language is drawn from the Old Testament when the Old Testament prophets anticipated the Jerusalem that would be built after the exile, looking forward to the ultimate Jerusalem. This is addressed to Zion, to Jerusalem:
Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. (Isaiah 60:1–2)
Now God’s glory is manifested in the church, in the new Jerusalem.
Then notice the strange dimensions of this city:
The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by human measurement, which the angel was using. (Revelation 21:15–17)
The significance of the 12,000 and the 144: apocalyptic loves symbolism, and it is calling to mind the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. It is a way of saying that all of the old covenant people and new covenant people together constitute this unified people (like Ephesians 2:15: “one new humanity” in Christ).
But a city built like a cube? Even the most spectacular of our high-rise cities does not look cube like. This is symbol-laden again. So you stop and ask yourself, “OK, where is there a cube in the Old Testament?” And there is only one: it is the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle or the temple. It is why I mentioned on the way by that the tabernacle was built three times as long as it was wide, and two-third of it took up the entrance part, the Holy Place, and the last third—perfectly cube-like—where the altar was, where the blood of bull and goat was poured out in the presence of God on the Day of Atonement. It was the place where God manifested himself in his glory when the blood was poured out. Now we are told that the whole city is like a cube. That is, all of us are forever in the very presence of God. We don’t need any mediating priest. We don’t need any blood-sacrifices. It is equivalent to what we discovered when Christ was crucified: the veil of the temple was rent, and we can be immediately ourselves directly in the presence of God. And now the whole new Jerusalem is built like a cube.
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). There is no temple in the city because the whole city is built like a cube. You are already in the Most Holy Place. You don’t have a temple in the Most Holy Place. The temple is a mark of mediation. Or to change the language just a wee bit, God himself, the one who sits on the throne, and the Lamb are the temple, the focal point, the mediating place. The whole city is that. It is in the presence of God completely, always, forever. So you don’t need these mediating temples that have served us across the millennia which have served to teach us, to prepare us for the coming of Christ
“The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:23). This is not a way of unpacking for us the astronomical structures of the new heaven and the new earth any more than the absence of a sea is giving us the hydrological arrangements. It is symbol-laden. The point is that in the ancient world, when you have night (in a culture where there is no electric light), then night was the time when you shut down the city gates. That is when you had some security. You made yourself safe because the nighttime was bound up with danger and wickedness. So the sun and the moon not only give us our time-spans but give us the cycles of life when the gates are shut, when there is more danger and you hope for the coming of the light. It becomes symbol-laden, anticipating the coming of the ultimate light, the final light. And now we’re told
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. (Revelation 21:23–25)
No danger, no curse, no sin, no rebellion.
More sweepingly, there will be no impurity.
Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:27)
Have you ever tried to imagine what it would be like not only to be immaculately, perfectly pure but to live in a culture that was immaculately, perfectly pure? It is so hard to imagine. What would it be like never ever ever to have lied about anybody or anything? What would it be like always always always to have loved God with heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself? What would it be like to live in a society where that was true of absolutely everyone around you? Don’t you see? That is normal in God’s mind. It is the way it was at the beginning. It is the way it will be at the end. But now with resurrection existence and no possibility even of falling, no impurity is ever allowed to enter there. None. No one-upmanship. No greed. No holocausts. No hate. No betrayal. No jealousy. Above all, no idolatry. Completely and utterly and totally and joyfully God-centered because it is the way it should be. Finding all of our supreme joy and contentment in the God who is there, disclosing himself forever and perfectly, inexhaustibly, before his own blood-bought people.
This is the culmination: what is central. Two things are reiterated:
The language is drawn in part from Genesis again.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. (Revelation 22:1–3)
“The throne of God and of the Lamb” harks all the way back to the great vision of Revelation 4–5 mentioned in the previous session, that is, the Lamb who emerges from the throne and is the one who brings all of God’s purposes to pass because he is the lion-king. It is a shared throne, as it were. It is the throne of God and of the Lamb, and all that we need for eternal life comes from his reign. The water of life comes from his throne, utterly dependent upon him with an immaculate supply.
The twelve months remind us of the twelve tribes (one more time) and of the twelve apostles: all the people of God.
There is such a transformation that there is healing of the nations. No more sin.
Indeed, the most spectacular part of the whole vision is found in verse 4–5. It is sometimes called the beatific vision, the blessed vision.
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:4–5)
“They will see his face.” Do you remember Exodus 32–34, where Moses asked to see more of God’s glory, to see God’s face? God replied, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33: 20). The closest we can get before the consummation to seeing God is as he has disclosed himself in Christ Jesus in the God-man. But now in this splendor we have been so transformed ourselves that our sinfulness, as it were, has been burned away, the last stages of the old nature and its sinful desires all gone. And now in God’s grace we have the privilege of looking at, of gazing at, transcendent holiness. We sometimes sing these things but scarcely understand it:
Face to face with Christ, my Savior,
Face to face—what will it be,
When with rapture I behold Him,
Jesus Christ Who died for me?
Only faintly now I see Him,
With the darkened veil between,
But a blessèd day is coming,
When His glory shall be seen.
The wonder of the new heaven and the new earth is not in the first instance that you may be linked up with your mama who has gone on ahead. Undoubtedly, there will be a reunion of the people of God. But the Bible says pretty little about that compared with how much it says about the sheer God-centered spectacular unimaginable glory that will be ours forever in an unceasing sweep of glory for all eternity as we contemplate God in his perfections. And all the other biblical language about the work we will have and the responsibility we will have and the worlds that we may well supervise or cities that we rule over or whatever—it is all there in biblical descriptions of one sort of another—but at the heart of everything is the sheer Godhood of God, which consumes us and empowers us and leaves us perpetually transformed.
Part of my job takes me to many different parts of the world. I fly far too much. But once in a while I’m closer to home, and I drive. And when I drive, I bring lots of music, and my music tastes are painfully eclectic. Not too long ago I was listening to Roger Whittaker, a Kiwi by origin, a New Zealander, a kind of New Zealand folks signer who then starts singing the folk songs in many different parts of the world. And he sang a folk song from Canada, which immediately perked up my ears. He sang a song of Cape Breton, and the last stanza puts it this way:
If my time could end perfectly,
I know how I’d want it to be.
God’s gift of heaven would be made up of three:
My love, Cape Breton, and me.
And I thought to myself, “My dear, Roger, you just defined hell.” Roger and his “love” would breed like rabbits, sinners still. You’d have Cain and Abel all over again and another cycle of a downward spiral. “God’s gift of heaven would be made up of three”? He’s still thinking in self-focused terms: how much he like the geography of Cape Breton and how much I love “my love”!
God’s gift of heaven is first and foremost consumed with the centrality of God such that for the first time without any footnotes, any taint, we will know experientially what it means to obey what Jesus calls the most important commandment: to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. And we will so be transformed in this beatific vision that we will know experientially what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.
So Christians in every generation, century, and country all over the world have learned to come together and pray in words drawn from the end of this chapter, “Yes, even so come, Lord Jesus.”
Let us pray.
How constrained is our vision, how inadequate our words, how poultry our love for you, Lord God in the wake of all that you have done and in the wake of all that you have disclosed of yourself in your Son in your word. Fill our hearts with joy that we may not only be ashamed of sin and loathe it but also be drawn to your own dear Son, to holiness, all secured by Christ and his cross-work on our behalf. Draw us on to the new heaven and the new earth precisely because that will also make us better stewards of your grace here. Grant that even now it may be so in our experience that the Holy Spirit is the down payment of the promised inheritance, the anticipation of what will one day be. So shape our lives by gratitude and adoration. Give us courage and stamina and with it holy joy and a love for the transcendentally holy. Open our eyes to see Jesus, the cost that he bore, the grace that he pours out upon us, until we are ravished by his beauty, consumed by a heart full of adoration.
For Jesus sake, Amen.