does God do a good job being God? (does our understanding of God measure up?)

“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.”

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.

John 3

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11

It’s common nowadays to question the God of the Bible in more ways than one. And as N. T. Wright points out, when people use the word God, they don’t at all mean the same being as much as they once did. For a good many people God just seems to fall short both in the Bible, and in life. Anyone who reads the entire Bible will understand that the Bible itself is about real life with most of its characters flawed, and even in the case of one remarkably unflawed character, Daniel, he includes himself in his confession to God of Israel’s sins.

But what about God in these pages? We find a God who again in the words of N. T. Wright is both passionate and compassionate. A God who takes seriously human decisions, and lets the weight of them (even if not fully), good or bad fall into place with the consequences. And yet we also see the God who created all things work to restore all things in a redemption and salvation which brings in nothing short of a new creation. And God does that through humans, specifically through choosing Israel to be his light to the world, coming to culmination and complete fulfillment in Jesus.

There is no question that at times in both the Bible and in life we can’t begin to make sense of at least parts of it, sometimes very large parts which can impact individuals and nations. Of course one would have to see the entire story and really get inside the story to really understand and appreciate what is going on. We often don’t have that vantage point. With scripture, we can read from cover to cover, from Genesis through Revelation and get the gist at least of the story in it, in all its complexity and beauty. If we want an easy read, and easy answer, it’s not there. But such is life. Yet with the faith of a little child, we can enter in, and begin to understand the account of a loving Father in and through Jesus.

As the doxology in the Romans passage quoted above suggests, we can’t follow God completely, it’s not like we can retrace God’s steps or fully comprehend what God is up to especially in the affairs of the world as the sovereign ruler. But the point in that passage is God’s dealings with his covenant people Israel in terms of the gospel and the change that brought. Romans 9 through 11 talk about that, and it’s an important read. And we can understand quite a bit, and at least what is essential for us to understand from that reading. But we do best in the end to echo the doxology which follows it, acknowledging that God is God and his working is beyond us. Yet at the same time we need to keep looking to God’s final word (Hebrews 2) Jesus, who himself is the essence of God, even as a human, of course one with the Father in the Triunity of God.

No, we don’t understand God all that well, except for what God has revealed to us, and actually it is quite a lot in scripture. But we need the Spirit of God to help us really begin to understand God beyond concepts, even if those concepts contain truth and avoid error. We need what begins as an acquaintance into a full relationship with God in and through Jesus. The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the God who is love (1 John). We need to learn to not only accept the revelation of God in Jesus, but to learn by faith to rest in that God who comes to us in Jesus.

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a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus

Psalm 106 is a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. Glenn Paauw’s book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well helps us see the importance of reading scripture and considering its entire historical narrative before we start claiming its promises. That might be a bit overstated, but I think the point he makes in the book is an excellent one, and sorely needed.

I ran across the sentence perhaps in that very book, which makes the point that God’s wrath in judgment is directed against human machinations, and even against humans themselves, whose actions make not only a mess of things in this world, but bring much harm to others. Of course God is the God of mercy as well. And not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter). Not desiring the death of the wicked, but that they might repent and live (Ezekiel). That’s the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. The God who is to be feared, who is holy, righteous, just and good, essentially love, that love not cancelling out the rest, all else actually being an expression of that.

God is not the God so many seem to want to see as the soft, cuddly teddy bear who simply affirms all we do, the point a Christian brother (who happens to be Eastern Orthodox) was making yesterday. God is a God to be feared, as he would say, and yet all of what God is in all its awe and wonder is encapsulated in love. God is love. That comes across to us in Jesus, but beware of watering down what the Bible makes plain, even in the account of Jesus, including Jesus’s own words.

Psalm 106 in its entirety is an account of the picture scripture gives us of the God who comes to us in Jesus.

Praise the LORD.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are those who act justly,
who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people,
come to my aid when you save them,
that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may share in the joy of your nation
and join your inheritance in giving praise.

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.
When our ancestors were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
to make his mighty power known.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up;
he led them through the depths as through a desert.
He saved them from the hand of the foe;
from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.
The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
Then they believed his promises
and sang his praise.

But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.
In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wilderness they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease among them.

In the camp they grew envious of Moses
and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the LORD.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan;
it buried the company of Abiram.
Fire blazed among their followers;
a flame consumed the wicked.
At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
So he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him
to keep his wrath from destroying them.

Then they despised the pleasant land;
they did not believe his promise.
They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the LORD.
So he swore to them with uplifted hand
that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
make their descendants fall among the nations
and scatter them throughout the lands.

They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
they aroused the LORD’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.
By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;
for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips.

They did not destroy the peoples
as the LORD had commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs.
They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to false gods.
They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.
They defiled themselves by what they did;
by their deeds they prostituted themselves.

Therefore the LORD was angry with his people
and abhorred his inheritance.
He gave them into the hands of the nations,
and their foes ruled over them.
Their enemies oppressed them
and subjected them to their power.
Many times he delivered them,
but they were bent on rebellion
and they wasted away in their sin.
Yet he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
He caused all who held them captive
to show them mercy.

Save us, LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.

Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.

Let all the people say, “Amen!”

Praise the LORD.

the Bible is from the real world for the real world

I’m reading this book (Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well, by Glenn R. Paauw) and ran across the thought that the Bible comes from the real world, reflecting it, for the real world. Like Jesus came into the real world, sharing in its brokenness, apart from sin, of course. And that this strikes against the gnosticism which rears its head in a good number of ways, yes even in the church. A gnostic approach is to somehow avoid the real world with something from heaven that cancels out the earth. But the biblical message is about heaven becoming one with earth, the real earth, the real world, right where you and I and everyone else lives. A messy, broken, and sometimes ugly world. Transformative, to be sure, in and through Jesus, but touching all of life right where we live.

That helps me, because although I’d like to check out and not go through the mess (maybe like on a long vacation somewhere in Paradise), life doesn’t allow that. In the Bible, people are taken through the valleys, not out of them. We do look forward to the great Transformation to come when the troubles of this life will be over, and a new real world will be born. But until then, we are engaged in this good, yet broken real world, and through Jesus somehow that engagement will impact the new real world to come (1 Corinthians 15).

And so I don’t want to shun what might be unpleasant and even ugly. But to address everything through Jesus and God’s good news in him. We live out a gospel for the real world that is for the real world, all of it. It not only impacts it, but it gives an entirely different answer other than what the world gives, in and through Jesus.

That is what I live in and for with others. The only hope I have for myself, for others, and for the world. In and through Jesus.

God’s judgment as good news

In the Bible, judgment mostly comes across as good news, or at least that’s a large swath of its teaching. One sees that over and over again in the psalms: God is going to root out the wicked and destroy them, maybe even in a way which not only brings them shame, but actually causes them to seek his face, whatever that might possibly mean in the hidden scheme of things. The backdrop of this is God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, the bereaved, as well as for his people. The day of God’s judgment, called the day of the Lord (LORD, or Yahweh in the First/Old Testament) is coming.

In the Bible, judgment always precedes salvation. We all end up being judged in some way, but God in Jesus takes the judgment for sin on himself by suffering death, even at the hands of sinners, and through that death providing the way for forgiveness and eternal life for all who believe. When Jesus returns, he will rid the earth of all evil to bring in the full salvation, somehow all of this being a new creation in the fullness of the kingdom of God.

We were raised on the version of God’s judgment as something to fear and even be ashamed of. How could a loving God pour out judgment on the earth? Admittedly some of the lines and passages in the prophets show a passion on this which seems extreme. Though one has to remember the nature of prophetic writing, how exaggeration to make a point is accepted, and not to be taken strictly literally. We in this culture with any knowledge of Christian history remember Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Heaven and hell once dominated the American Christian theological landscape in the Christian understanding within the churches. At least it was a dominant theme.

But we do much better to let that recede, and what actually is in the wave of biblical teaching appear. It may not appeal to the world, or to those coming up with some kind of new theology, but it will deal forthrightly with things as they are by a God who is completely good and pure love. As we remember the salvation provided in Jesus from all of the destruction to come, to bring us into the goodness of God’s judgment, both for ourselves individually and for the world in and through Jesus.

biblically based? yes, but…

In this year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, though I prefer to think of myself as simply Christian, and one with all who name the name of Christ, though my heritage, beginning with the Anabaptists- Mennonite, falls more along those lines, I don’t hesitate to say that I try to be biblically based. Like most things in life, that’s complicated, and doesn’t mean at all that the church doesn’t have authority, nor that the ultimate authority isn’t God himself. It does mean that a certain kind of practical authority is invested in the Bible, but only when read contextually, and as a whole. And that opens up another important set of questions.

One of the keys in Christian thinking is to attempt to end up reading scripture the way Christ did. Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of scripture, and not only with reference to a copy and paste approach, which highlights passages in the Old Testament about him, but in terms of being the completion of God’s working in bringing in a reign that is saving both from and for. And so while we need to read all the scriptures as if in their original context, insofar as that is possible, we also need to think of them in terms of their fulfillment in Jesus. Seeing how he fulfilled them in an abundant, overflowing and to some extent even unanticipated way.

A key aspect to remember in the First/Old Testament is that while the groundwork was indeed laid, some of its aspects were provisional for that time, and I think in a sense, an accomodation. But to think that somehow lessens its authority is a failure to understand the Final/New Testament. Jesus again refers to the First Testament as speaking of him, and Paul wrote that all of the First Testament was written to instruct, warn, and encourage us. So we need to read the New/Final in light of the Old/First.

And so, I remain a Bible person from which I want to understand the gospel, God’s good news in Jesus, the heart of it, and all that proceeds and goes out from it. The church by the Spirit is very much a part of this. To do so, we have to go back to the Book again and again. Asking for God’s help. And believing in its message to us, as the very written word of God. Everything in and through Jesus.

a gospel bigger than I, me, mine, and even us- the only gospel there is

When we open our Bibles, the beginnning is Genesis, for a reason, and the end is the Revelation for a reason, and everything in between counts, every book and for that matter, every line, has its reason and place in the whole.

It is daunting, and takes commitment over time, but we all need to be in the entire Bible, as challenging on many levels as that is, and read it through again and again. When we do, we’ll come to see that the story of Israel picked by God to be a blessing to the world is a central theme. And how that is fulfilled through them, but mainly in anticipation of the true fulfillment in Jesus.

While this is certainly for each person in our relationship to God, it is for every other person, as well, and for the entire world. It’s a good news in and through Jesus which affects everything and is therefore worldly in that sense, or one could say earthly. But in another sense it can’t be worldly at all since it can’t participate, except insofar as it influences the change of worldy structures. This is the case, because the difference is in and through Jesus, and God’s redemption, salvation, and kingdom come in him.

Only when Jesus returns will all things be changed, the god of this age gone; the world, the flesh and the devil being a thing of the past. But until then, we witness not only to a gospel for each individual, but a gospel which is to begin to demonstrate the alternative to what is necessarily in place, in this present evil age and world.

And so we live in the in between times when God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus is beginning to break in through the gospel into the church, and out from that into the world. As we look forward to the end of this age which will bring in the fullness of what has begun now in Jesus, when he returns.

do we have confidence in God’s word, or not?

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4

The NIV‘s heading for this section is entitled, “A Final Charge to Timothy,” and includes this well known important passage:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Something I’ve noticed in my lifetime is that often the word isn’t preached. I think I’ve been blessed with the churches we’ve been a part of to be used to the exception. But as a rule, it seems like an appeal to the word is only from something other than the word itself. Somehow there just doesn’t seem to be adequate confidence in scripture as the written word of God.

I’m not referring to a lack in expository preaching. That can be good, but it’s interesting when you read the sermons in Acts, that actually none of them is preaching a text expositionally as at least was popular in many evangelical and fundamentalists circles, and you still find a few holdouts here and there. I think it’s alright. In fact I think it’s probably safe to say that such a method is much better than much of the pablum which passes for sermons today. Somehow it seems like the goal is to get people’s interest and keep it, and somehow through that, get in something of the word of God.

My question becomes, Do we really have confidence in the word of God itself, because it is God’s very word? And is that a measure of our confidence in God?

Scot McKnight has an excellent post that hits on this very subject in what is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (“The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?“). He states that the Reformers were marked by their deference to scripture, by opening the Bible and reading it. I think it’s good to refer to theological concepts which point to the truth about scripture (or what Richard Wurmbrand said is “the truth about the truth.”). And there’s no doubt that the art of biblical interpretation, which includes kind of a science to it, as well, is important. And we need to reject the Cartesian Modernist, scientific approach (Rene Descartes) as in relentless examination and induction of the biblical text (see John Locke). I am rusty when it comes to philosophical figures, not that I was ever heavy into them, but they are important in helping understand the times in which people live.

Our appeal must be to scripture, and it must start with ourselves. If we don’t see it as vital, and of central importance in our own lives, then we certainly won’t see it that way for others. Of course it points us to God’s final word in Jesus, and the good news in him. But we must be in the written word itself to find the Word himself.

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4

And so the measure of our actual faith and confidence in God will in large part be our confidence in scripture itself, the word of God. To be biblical we must get back to the Bible like the people of God in the Bible did, including even Jesus himself. We need to have the utmost confidence in scripture as God’s word first for ourselves, and then for everyone else. And live with that in hand, in and through Jesus.