Freed by One God

When God liberated his people from Egypt, he assembled them into a new nation of worshipers.

Israel, once a people under servitude, gained freedom in a new land. Yet where there is freedom there is duty. Israel was not free to do whatever she wanted, she was free to do what was right. Israel was to be governed by laws. And God had already written their constitution, as it were. Of first importance, headlining the list, was a command to exclusively worship Yahweh.

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3).

It’s not that God is first in a pantheon of other gods; he alone is God (see Deut 4:35). In the Exodus, God already demonstrated that he was superior to the many false gods of Egypt—the ten plagues were direct attacks on Egyptian deities. In this new nation, it was imperative that the only true God be revered.

Moses would emphasize this to a later generation, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4–5). Though these verses show us what was preeminent in the Old Covenant, they also carry over in the New. Jesus declared that they comprised “the most important” commandment (Mark 12:29). He brought this concept to bear in his final rebuttal to Satan by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'” (Matt 4:10).

Whether we look to the past, the present, or the future, Scripture is clear that there is only one God. “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Is 43:10). Yet idolatry has continually plagued the human race. Our hearts yearn to worship created things—that which came from God’s hands or our own. Calvin rightly called the human heart an “idol making factory.”

But it’s not enough to believe that there is only one God; the demons do that (James 2:19). The Thessalonian church serves as an example of those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). We need a changed heart that is devoted to him. Only as the Holy Spirit works through the gospel message can we both believe and practice these things (1 Thess 1:2–10).

There’s only one God, one worship. Find your freedom there.

 

Possession over Judgment

The bluesmen who emerged from the Mississippi delta in the twenties and thirties of the last century were and are America’s psalmists. It’s not that they were Christian, although some of them portrayed a strong spiritual understanding in what they wrote, but that they established a way of story-telling to a form of music that became the foundation of American expressions of sorrow and ecstasy in song.

In the blues you hear the fears, joys, cravings, cruelties, and contradictions of the powerless dreaming of power. Arguably the most potent writer of this era was Robert Johnson who was fearless in his excavation of the dark corners of the soul.

In his song “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day” Johnson writes, “If I had possession over judgment day,/ Lord, the little woman I’m lovin’ wouldn’t have no right to pray.” The reference to the final judgment is clear, but what hits the listener harder is his admission that if he were the one calling the shots, mercy would not be foremost in his mind especially in relation to those who have hurt him.

Johnson’s use of the words “judgment” and “possession” remind me of Psalm 2. In this Psalm, God’s Anointed, whom God has setup as the King in Zion, tells what God has said to him: “Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

We know that the Anointed is Jesus, and at first his decree to “break” the nations sounds a bit like Johnson’s view of himself in the judgment seat. To be sure, that final judgment is coming, but God has extended the hand of mercy in the person of Jesus Christ and that hand is still open to us.

The psalmist of Psalm 2 goes on to conclude, “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned O rulers of the earth . . . Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

Unlike Johnson, who was ready to call the shots in what was a very short life (he died at age 27), our God and Father who is eternal is not willing that any should perish, even those plotting against him, and he is holding back the day of his wrath. This is an important point for us to absorb: the true possessor of judgment day was given it from the beginning of time, and when he came he could have claimed his possession along with all the other rights and powers of divinity.

But he denied himself his birthright, even to death, so that many might look on him and live. Even now he is waiting.

A Future World

In Creation God exhibits his strength and knowledge (Is 40). But, awesome as the initial creation is, how much more will the new creation be, in which every curse of sin is fully and finally reversed? Creation out of nothing is marvelous but a new creation out of a universe saturated with depravity is much more glorious. That’s the coming power of God extended to us in Jesus Christ.

With unlimited power and wisdom at his command, God is funneling every thing in history toward his goal: living with us in a new and better Paradise (Rev 21:1–4). Every event and molecule, every person and galaxy is under the control of God (Is 40, see last week’s article). Along a charted course, they all march toward his grand finale.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away'” (Rev 21:1–4).

Christian, the day is coming when our family, friends, and health will not pass away. Rather, all “the former things” of our grief-filled world will have “passed away” (Rev 21:4). What will remain, enduring for eternity, is a home where God lives with his people. The entrance of sin into Eden never diminished God’s desire to dwell with man. The redemption of Christ makes it all possible.

Weaving together the many threads of the Bible, God’s final chapter of redemption is promised and portrayed at the close of Revelation. God, who walked in the garden with man, who filled the tabernacle with his glory, who became flesh and dwelt (literally tabernacled) with man, and sent his Spirit to dwell in the church (as the temple of God) will unveil the new creation where “the dwelling place (tabernacle) of God is with man” (Rev 21:3).

Come, Lord Jesus, come!

 

A Secret World of Fear

When I met him, I was eighteen years old sitting with my mother in a television studio watching her favorite Christian program being broadcast live. I had just graduated from high school and was not sure what direction my life was going to take.

I was raised Lutheran and went to Lutheran schools. For nine years I not only attended church and Sunday school, but I was required to take religion classes at school and attend chapel weekly. By the tenth grade, however, not long after my first communion, my mother gave up making me go to church.

During my senior year, though, I was invited to a different kind of church. Their passionate worship and preaching moved me to tears. I would later learn that their teachings were false, but their enthusiasm for the Bible got me going to church and reading the Bible of my own free will for the first time in my life.

Weeks later, hand pressed against the hand of an evangelist on the TV screen, my mother prayed her own way into this new kind of Christianity. That is how I ended up at the TV station that summer evening.

The young man was riding a boom and busy running the camera, so he sent his brother to ask for my number. Weeks later he picked me up for our first date. We sped off in his red Corvette to meet a group of his friends for dinner.

He came from a prominent Christian family. He was charismatic. He was funny. And he was cruel. He delighted in mocking of the weaknesses of others. One thing I had learned from reading my Bible was that Christians were supposed to be kind (1 Cor. 13.4, Gal. 5.22). That evening I went from attracted to troubled. When I got home I told my mother about my concerns, and she got on the phone for a conference call with two of her new church friends.

This relationship, they prophesied, was from God. This young man and I, they declared, would marry and have a national ministry. They told me, in other words, to disregard what the Scripture said, and listen to them. I did. I let myself fall in love.

That phone call became, for me, the portal to a secret world where I strained to hear the voice of God and where people who heard voices that I couldn’t charted the course for my life. A year or so later, when that young man had an affair with his best friend’s wife, and left me in the wake of his perfidy, that secret world became a world of fear and distrust, as God became, to me, a cruel joker.

Yet deep beneath my fear of that secret world remained the memory that, through the Scriptures, the Spirit of God had warned me that love is kind. God was not a trickster. He had spoken, and, through the Scriptures, He continues to speak.

God’s Presence

Having paid his fare for the voyage, Jonah settled in for the journey. Tarshish, on the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea was at the edge of the world, in the land of the setting sun and, most importantly, as far away from God as Jonah could imagine. Three times, we are told that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD (1:3, twice; 1:10).

Jonah ignored a song he grew up singing.

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me”  (Ps 139:7–10).

Even if Jonah could have saddled the sun and flown across the skies beyond Tarshish, he wouldn’t have been able to flee from God. No distant land is far enough. Nowhere above or below earth is a suitable hideout. God is everywhere. God’s presence is above and beyond any location in the universe.

Okay, so there’s nowhere physically to hide, but that leaves us with the privacy of our thoughts, right? No. God is also unlimited in knowledge. Nothing escapes his attention.

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Ps 139:1–4).

God knows everything that happens. He knows our thoughts, he knows the future. All we say, do and think is known by him, even before it happens. His knowledge is infinite. Knowing this brought David comfort even in the midst of his sin (Ps 139:23–24) and, ignoring it caused Jonah to act irrationally.

At the heart of Jonah’s flight wasn’t bad theology or ignorance of who God was. In fact, it was precisely because he knew God’s character that he fled (Jonah 4:2–3, see Ex 34:6–7). He didn’t want God who is gracious to save his bitter enemies.

May God’s infinite knowledge give us the sensitivity of David, calling on him to search our hearts and expose our sin (Ps 139:23–24). May His universal presence ever comfort us.

 

The Holiness of God

When Isaiah saw a vision of heaven, he beheld the splendor of God and heard the six-winged seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:3, see also Rev 4:8).

The scene was as terrifying as it was glorious. At the pronouncement, heaven’s throne room shook and smoke filled the house. The sight of this holy King dropped Isaiah into a panic (Is 6:5).

The repetition of “holy” in the angel’s proclamation emphasizes this essential aspect of God’s character: God is completely different from everyone and everything else. God is in a category all by himself.

While it is common to define holiness as moral perfection, its meaning is more nuanced. “[T]he word signifies everything about God that sets him apart from us and makes him an object of awe, adoration, and dread to us. It covers all aspects of his transcendent greatness and moral perfection and thus is an attribute of all his attributes, pointing to the “Godness” of God at every point” (J.I. Packer).

At its root, holiness points to being “set apart,” distinguished. The opposite of holy is common, trivial, routine. God is the furthest away from common as it gets.

An argument from the lesser to the greater may help here. The Sabbath day was “holy” because it was set apart from the rest of the week for a sacred function (Ex 20:8). The tabernacle along with all of its furnishings were called “holy” because they were to be used for exclusive purposes of sacrifice and worship (Ex 40:9). Then, there was the innermost chamber of the tabernacle, a place where only the high priest entered once a year. It was considered the “most holy” place, the holy of holies (Ex 26:33).

And then there is God. The one whom angels worship as “holy, holy, holy.” Three times holy, God is lauded for his completely incomparable nature, he is distinguished from all else.

Just as Isaiah had his guilt taken away (Is 6:7), we too need to be saved from our sin so that we can walk with God “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44). And the only way to approach God who is holy is by having our sin atoned for by Jesus, the King whom Isaiah saw (John 12:38–41).

A Bittersweet Providence

It was her childhood home, the place where she married her husband and gave birth to two sons. After ten years away, she was back in Bethlehem of Judah, with nothing but a young foreign woman at her side. The townspeople struggled to put a name to her changed face. Her name was Pleasant, Naomi, in Hebrew. The sound of it alone made people smile. If names were prophetic, hers was a blessing. But now, here in Bethlehem, after all these years, and after everything she had lost, her name sounded like a cruel joke. She begged them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.” Ruth 1.21-22a

In those days, judges ruled Israel and the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. When the people turned their backs on God, He would bring war or famine until they cried out to Him again.

During one such famine Naomi’s husband took his family to sojourn in Moab, the land of their enemies (Deut. 23.3-6), because food was plentiful there. And there, he died, leaving Naomi with her two sons, who, in disobedience to God’s command, married Moabite women (Deut. 7.3-4). With no husband, and with her sons tied to Moab, there was no turning back. Naomi devoted her pleasant nature to the family that remained, winning the hearts of her daughters-in-law in the process.

When both of her sons died, everything Naomi had ever loved, every blessing she’d brought with her, and all her financial provision was gone. Hunger had begun to eat away at her and her daughters-in-law, when she got word that God had once again blessed Israel with food. With no future to promise them, Naomi encouraged her now beloved daughter’s-in-law to go back to their own families, get married, and start over without her. But one, Ruth, refused to leave the mother she’d grown to love or the God who, through Naomi, she had learned to honor.

What Naomi did not know as she changed her name to Mara, was that even in her wanderings in a foreign land, even in her grief, even when providence was bitter, not pleasant, God was with her. In kindness He was converting an idolatrous foreign woman into a faithful, God-fearing daughter. He was carefully preparing the way for Naomi’s return home to God’s likewise idolatrous people and lovingly providing the means not only for her joy and redemption through the birth of her grandson, Obed, but for theirs through Obed’s grandson, King David, and for ours through the Son of David, Jesus Christ, Savior of the world.

It was no mistake, even in the midst of her bitter grief and loss, that Naomi’s name was Pleasant.

The Sustainer

The gospel of John’s opening statements echo the words of Genesis 1:1 while also detailing the role of the Son in creation:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1–3).

The Word, whom John reveals as Jesus (John 1:14–18), already existed at “the beginning,” “was God,” and made everything that was created without exception. Therefore, as John says, “In him was life” (John 1:4a). Everything that has life is derived from the one who is life.

Not only did creation and life originate from Christ’s creative power but, as God, he is also the sustainer of life, the one who continues to give life to the creation every day. In the words of Colossians, “all things hold together” in him (1:17).

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15–17, see also Heb 1:3).

Notice how these passages necessarily connect the deity of Christ, his role as creator and also his ongoing role as the sustainer. All life depends on him.

Many religious people have denied this ongoing dependence on God, however. Thomas Jefferson liked to think of himself as a Christian but denied central aspects of Christianity. He is famous for his Jefferson Bible which sought to eliminate any reference to the supernatural by picking-and-choosing what he wanted to believe. Sounds a lot like the milieu of modern day America—over two hundred years later.

Seeing God as the master clockmaker who created the universe, wound it up and let it go to operate apart from him, deists of the past like Thomas Jefferson set up a false God to worship. As Christians, we must affirm that God not only created all things but that he is the giver of all life who continually sustains the creation as well. We also must deny the deistic view that God is no longer intimately involved in the day to day operations of the universe.

The Creator

The very first thing the Bible teaches us about God is that he created everything that exists. That is, everything that exists besides himself, of course.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

Though the opening words of the Bible are very familiar, perhaps we miss some of their significance. Since God is the one who created the heavens and the earth, he necessarily existed before they did. He is eternal. Everything else had a “beginning,” therefore God is both before and superior to everything else that exists. In addition, the orchestration of creation reveals the power, wisdom, immensity and beauty of God among much else.

Genesis goes on to tell us that God spoke things into existence. Such is the power and efficacy of his word. All that God “said” necessarily occurred.

“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6,
cf. 2 Pet 3:5).

It is so foundational for every believer in every age to espouse God as the creator that the Bible not only opens with the teaching, but nearly every one of its books connects an argument to this fact about who God is.

For example, Jeremiah contrasts idols which are made by man with the true and living God who created all (Jer 10). Romans tells us that everyone knows enough about God from creation to be condemned for their rebellion against the creator (Rom 1:18–25). John tells us that Christ was there in the beginning as the creator, echoing the words of Gen 1:1 (John 1:1–3). Paul evangelized the intellectual elite of Athens by informing them that their “unknown god” was the one who made everything and gave all men life (Acts 17:22–32). Many more examples could be cited.

Of course, to believe the very first words of the Bible and the many other references that teach us that God is the creator requires faith.

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb 11:3).

As Christians, we must affirm that God is the one who created everything. We must also deny that God was created. We believe, rather, that he has eternally existed.

 

God’s Word

“The word of God” is an often used phrase in the Bible that teaches us a fundamental truth: the Bible comes from God and is therefore completely true and authoritative in what it says. It both deserves and demands our attention.

Hebrews tells us of Scripture’s “living and active” qualities:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12–13).

While we rightly insist that everyone search the Scriptures to discover what it says, Scripture itself searches us to expose what we believe. The word of God is alive and able to do surgery on our souls.

The reality is that everyone will be judged in light of Scripture. What the word of God says makes us accountable before God, therefore we are called to believe what the Bible teaches, obey what it commands, and trust what it promises.

When Jesus said, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47), he did not mean that obeying him was optional.

Jesus followed this statement with a personification of God’s word that captures the “living and active” essence of Scripture as mankind’s judge:

“The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48).

Jesus’ own words, which are the words the Father gave him to speak (John 12:49), serve as our rule, standard, guide, and judge. If we reject Scripture, we reject what Jesus said. Consequently, we reject his Father who sent Jesus and gave him the words to speak.

As Christians, we affirm that the Bible is the word of God and is the sole authority which governs all our knowledge and behavior. We also deny that authority to anything or anyone else. We must confidently look to Scripture alone.

 

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