Questions and Answers (2:4)

The theme of chapter two of Conversations About God by Graham Maxwell is what went wrong in God’s universe, in other words, what is sin and how did it mess everything up? After the lecture, Maxwell took questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, Lou Venden (1984). Edited by Jon Paulien.

Lou: This question also concerns the previous chapter. “Could you explain within the larger view the text ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin’ (Heb 9:22)? Is the word ‘remission’ here used with a different meaning than the common medical interpretation that an illness is not cured or gone, but is simply in a state of inactivity without symptoms? I’d hate to think that Christ’s shed blood only ‘inactivates’ the rebellion, but doesn’t really cure it.”

Graham: That question is a sermon in itself. On the matter of “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin,” that will be covered in the chapter on why Jesus had to die (chapter 8). But I’d like to comment on the second half of the question, the remission of sin. “Remission” in the Bible is not a medical term. If sin were only remitted, we would be in a sorry state and our infections would get into the hereafter. And our rebellions would continue.

The actual word translated in some English Bibles as “remission” means forgiveness. According to Hebrews 9:22 God actually sent His Son to “forgive” sin. The best translation is really “without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness.” But God sent His Son to do even more than that, Jesus came to do away with sin (Heb 9:26, NIV). God is not through with sin until it has been eliminated. But these texts do raise the question, Why is blood necessary? And that we will treat most seriously in a later chapter.

Lou: I’d like to return to a question we talked a little about in the previous chapter. “If we say that God has already won the war, why are we still here? What is God waiting for? Shouldn’t the war be over?”

Graham: We have a whole chapter on what God is waiting for (chapter 18). But since it came up here, it would be good to address it briefly now. When Satan and his followers were cast out of heaven there was victory of a sort, but not much of one. There were so many questions yet to be resolved. Peace had not been confirmed. Even the loyal angels had their questions. Getting sin out of heaven might seem “the real victory.” But it was no victory for our heavenly Father. It was only when Jesus died that it could be said, “It is finished.”

When Jesus returned to heaven on resurrection Sunday, He found the universe celebrating that He really had won the war. In the book of Revelation, the heavenly throng says over and over again, “You’ve shown Yourself to be merciful and just and good and righteous and holy” (see Revelation 5:12-13; 15:3-4; 19:2). “You have the victory” (see Revelation 3:21; 5:5-6)! So in a real sense the war was won then, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The angels and the inhabitants of other worlds have paid such close attention to what Jesus revealed in His life, teachings, suffering and death that they got the message. And they couldn’t wait to tell Him on resurrection Sunday, “You’ve won our loyalty. As far as we’re concerned, You have won the war.”

Unfortunately back on this planet we didn’t get the message. Jesus invited three of the disciples to watch some of the evidence in Gethsemane. And the brethren slept through it all (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:41-46)! He repeatedly invited them to come to the cross, and see the most important answer of all (Matt 16:21; 17:22; 20:19; Mark 8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:34; Luke 9:22; 17:25; 18:32-33; 24:7). The universe watched. But where were “the brethren,” as He called them? Eleven of them were off in deep depression. Only one of them was there. And that’s why John was the disciple who wrote the most significant things about why Jesus had to die.

So God has been mercifully waiting for this one tiny planet of people to make up their minds. We know there are awesome events to take place here before Jesus comes. And until we are as settled into the truth as the angels are, God will not let the closing events come. He puts them off, and He mercifully waits. That is what God is like. He gives His people all the time they need to become settled into the truth about His character. God waits until His people understand. You can trust a God like that!

Lou: But Graham, doesn’t the Bible speak often about the wrath of God? Can you really trust someone who is angry a lot?

Graham: We will have more to say on that in the chapter on why Jesus had to die (chapter 8). For now let me just say that if you take all sixty-six books of the Bible and look at the references to God’s wrath all the way through, you’ll find so many places that explain God’s wrath as simply God’s turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want Him anyway, thus leaving them to the inevitable and awful consequences of their own rebellious choice. God’s anger is not like our anger. And we will have a lot more to say about that later.

Lou: Could you say a word or two to introduce the chapter which follows? What is the next topic?

Graham: The next topic is “All God asks of us is trust.” The basic point of that chapter is that God can and will save all who trust Him. When it comes to salvation there are no limits on the part of God. He can readily heal the damage done. The crucial issue is whether or not we will trust Him enough to stand humbly and teachably in His presence and ask, “What must we do to be saved? What must we do to be well?” The problem is not with our creator, the problem is with us.

Lou: It seems to me that in this chapter, Graham, you have emphasized that problem. We need to understand the problem before we can fully understand the solution. In a sense, everything hangs upon how we understand the nature of this sin problem. And in the next chapter we will talk more about the solution.

Graham: Very much so. A correct understanding of sin will make a big difference as we continue our conversations about God.

Questions and Answers (2:3)

The theme of chapter two of Conversations About God by Graham Maxwell is what went wrong in God’s universe, in other words, what is sin and how did it mess everything up? After the lecture, Maxwell took questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, Lou Venden (1984). Edited by Jon Paulien.

Lou: Why do you feel that the tree in the midst of the Garden was the only place Satan could tempt Eve? And how was God’s commandment not to eat of this tree protective?

Graham: It’s true that there’s no text that says Satan could only approach Adam and Eve at the tree. But if you had been the devil, which tree would you have chosen? Wouldn’t you have gone to the tree of life? But Satan never met them at the tree of life. He only met them at the tree where they were not supposed to go. So apparently he was limited to that one tree. And he knew they had been told not to go there. So I’ve connected two facts together; 1) God only warned them about that particular tree, and 2) that’s exactly where Satan met them. So he didn’t have free access to the entire garden. That means the tree was put there to protect Adam and Eve. Satan’s freedom to tempt was limited to that tree. I think
that’s the only logical inference.

Lou: This next question ties in a bit with that. “Does evil exist in order to allow human beings to be able to choose between good and bad, to use our own judgment?” That sounds like evil is something good because it gives us a chance to grow. What do you think of that?”

Graham: Fortunately, Paul dealt with that in a very potent way. In a sense it is true, the more evil we have been, the more gracious God has been to us. And so Paul says “Why don’t we be a little more evil then, so He’ll look more gracious” (Rom 3:8; 6:2)? Paul raises the idea twice and then condemns it twice as a terrible thought (Rom 3:7-8; 6:1-2)! It is true, the worse we have behaved, the more graciously God has stooped to meet us and love us and treat us so graciously. Well, if the blacker the backdrop the more brilliant God’s righteousness appears, why don’t we paint Him a blacker backdrop? Paul says that’s a terrible thought. In fact, in Phillips’ translation it says “What a ghastly thought.”

So I don’t think we should suggest that our sinfulness and our evil has helped God. Rather, He has taken an emergency and turned it into something good. He’s the only one that looks good in this. Let’s not think we are serving Him by being a little more wicked so that He can show how good He is. We’ve been bad enough without trying.

Lou: All right, here’s another question. “If a person is sincere about religious things but sincerely wrong, whose fault is that?” And I suppose implicit behind the question is, “What will happen as a result? Will the person be punished or suffer consequences from that?”

Graham: I like that question and what it implies. I do believe that if one sincerely takes the wrong path, one will sincerely arrive at the wrong destination. That’s true.

Lou: So whose fault is it then?

Graham: Keep in mind that if we are truly sincere; if we’re really willing to listen, God has not left us in the dark. As John says, Christ is the light that enlightens everyone who comes into this world (John 1:9). Paul even says that there are Gentiles who know nothing about the Bible, who know nothing about God’s law and instructions. But they do by nature the things that the law requires, and they show that the law has been written on their hearts (Rom 2:13-16). And I love the paragraph in Desire of Ages that tells about heathen who worship God ignorantly; to whom the message was never brought by human instrumentality. Instead, they’ve heard the voice of God speaking to them in nature (DA 638). They’ve done the things that the law requires, which is love. And they’re recognized as God’s children. God is not going to abandon anyone on this planet who is sincerely and humbly willing to listen. He will not leave them in the dark.

Now it’s a great privilege to be the one who gets there with the good news, but sometimes somebody else gets there first. Think of missionaries who have been shipwrecked as they’re about to arrive on an island to somehow “turn those cannibals into Christians.” As they’re drowning out there by the reef, here come these cannibals paddling their canoe. So the missionaries say farewell to each other; they know what’s going to happen shortly. But instead, the cannibals put them in their canoe and take them to the beach and revive them. When they are finally comfortable the missionary says, “Let’s assemble these people and give them the truth.” And he starts to preach to them about love.

His missionary wife nudges him and says, “Wait a minute. These people risked their lives to rescue us from the reef!” The minister replies, “But nobody’s preached to them yet.” He forgot Romans 2. The Spirit of God was there before the missionaries came. God has always approached people “in many and various ways” (Heb 1:1). So I would say that if one is really sincere, one will not wind up sincerely wrong. If one is “sincerely wrong,” one has probably been saying no to truth for a long time. True sincerity is open to evidence and open to correction. True sincerity is humble. False sincerity is often simply lazy.

Questions and Answers (2:2)

The theme of chapter two of Conversations About God by Graham Maxwell is what went wrong in God’s universe, in other words, what is sin and how did it mess everything up? After the lecture, Maxwell took questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, Lou Venden (1984). Edited by Jon Paulien.

Lou: Did God give Satan a chance to repent? After all, you’ve said that questioning God wasn’t a problem. God welcomes our questions. How did things go too far?

Graham: Did Satan get a chance to repent? There’s no text that says he did. But don’t you think that the God we know and trust would give Satan ample time? Has He not always been this way? Isn’t God unwilling that any of His children should perish (2 Pet 3:9)? According to Peter, God is so patient that some people will wonder if He’s ever going to come (2 Pet 3:-10, see also Romans 2:4). So we have a consistent picture of this all through the Bible. God always waits and waits, granting us every opportunity to repent.

In fact, on the authority of the prodigal son story, I would say that had Satan repented, God would have fully reinstated him into his original position. Remember that when the prodigal came back he said, “If you’ll just let me in as a hired servant, I’d be very pleased.” And the father said, “We don’t have any second class sons in our family. You’re either fully home or not.” The father even gave him a blank check at the local bank when he gave him that ring. The father was so generous it really bothered the older brother. So I would say that if Satan had repented, the God of the prodigal son story would have taken him back and fully reinstated Him.

Lou: Here is a question we discussed in the previous chapter, but perhaps we ought to touch on it again. “If God knew that Lucifer would be such an instigator of trouble upon the human race, why did He create him?” I think this is a question that baffles many.

Graham: As we touched on in the previous chapter, I don’t like to limit God’s foreknowledge. So I like to believe that when God created Lucifer, He knew that Lucifer would cause all the trouble. But God also knew what He would do about it. So as He created this magnificent person, He said, “I know this is going to cost me, and I’m willing to pay.” And I think that is truly wonderful, that He would go ahead, knowing that Lucifer would one day cause all the trouble.

Does that make God responsible for sin, then? No. God has never created anybody imperfect. His creations are perfect. Lucifer had no bent to evil whatever. He allowed pride and then sin to rise up in himself. God created him perfect, but He also created him free. And this is important. It means that when we say we love God, it isn’t because we’re programmed that way, it is a free choice. But that freedom means we can also choose to rebel. We can also say to God, “We hate you.” Adam and Eve demonstrated that. When they sinned in the garden it was because they were free to sin.

Lou: That means Satan didn’t go wrong because of some malfunction in the way he was made, like an automobile that has to be recalled. He was perfect. But with that perfect freedom to make choices, all kinds of consequences were possible.

Graham: Yes. But God is in no way responsible. In fact, that leads me to something really wonderful about God. He has paid the price for this rebellion as if it were His fault. He has assumed the responsibility, even though it was not His fault. I think it’s because freedom means so much to God, He would rather go this costly way. He would rather not take some shortcut and program us so we would all behave, like robots. We could have been programmed to line up and say how much we loved Him. It would be like listening to a recording or watching a video with actors pretending to love someone. And that wouldn’t please our intelligent God.

Questions and Answers (2:1)

The theme of chapter two of Conversations About God by Graham Maxwell is what went wrong in God’s universe, in other words, what is sin and how did it mess everything up? After the lecture, Maxwell took questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, Lou Venden (1984). Edited by Jon Paulien.

Lou Venden: Here’s a question that takes us back to the previous chapter and helps set the foundation for everything we are trying to do in this book. “You said that the book of Revelation was especially directed to the Christians living at the time when it was written. Can you explain that a bit more? I have always understood, or been told, that it has special relevance to the present day church instead. What do you think about that?”

Graham Maxwell: It’s true, I believe the book of Revelation was written first for the Christians of that time. They were discouraged, wondering why the Lord had not yet come. There was heresy in the church, opposition to leadership, and persecution. They needed the message of Revelation to point them to the larger view. They needed to know that they were caught up in a great controversy, but that God had already won the war.
We need it too. The book was written just as much for us as for them. We live at a time when we are faced with many of the same problems. And we need the same insight they did. Not so much a message about dates and events to come, interesting and helpful as that might be. Rather, we need the major message of the book of Revelation: Look a little higher, take a larger view of things. Realize that God has won the war. When we understand that message, our assignment and privilege is to go out and tell people that He’s won the war, and how He has won it. Supported by the message of this book, we can act more like players on a winning team instead of so often being on the defensive.

Lou: Are you saying that the meaning for us now may be even clearer when we understand its impact back then?

Graham: It’s the same message, but from our perspective in history, it should mean even more to us. God didn’t have a message for them and a schedule of events for us. I believe the consistent message of the book for all readers is to take the larger view of things. Set everything in the context of the great controversy. That perspective makes everything so much more significant. And it is a reading of Revelation that is positive and optimistic.

Lou: I have a question regarding the beginning of the rebellion in heaven. “Did any other angels question God before Lucifer did? If they didn’t, why didn’t they? Is it possible that another angel will question God again in the future? Since it happened once, why couldn’t it go on happening?”

Graham: I don’t know of any text that suggests other angels did what Lucifer did. The Bible only tells us a little of what happened. You remember that John said, “If I were to record everything that Jesus said and did, there wouldn’t be room in the world for all the books that could be written” (John 21:25). It’s enough for us to learn of Lucifer’s questioning rebellion and the consequences. Will this ever happen again? What about raising questions reverently? Of course, I think we’ll do that for eternity. How else could we learn? God is not afraid of reverent questioning at all. I think He’s complimented by it. But the Bible assures us that the kind of rebellion that arose with Lucifer will never arise again (see Nahum 1:9). Not because our freedom has been taken away, but because a costly basis has been established to provide us the answers we need. Jesus will always be there in His human form to remind us of all the answers God gave at the cross. And we’ll remember. And that will guarantee peace for eternity. But it will not take away our freedom.

How God Wins Us Back to Trust

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Millions of angels and men have broken faith with God. They have shown that they cannot be trusted. But has this changed our God? Can God still be trusted? Specifically, can God be trusted to even want us to come back? Is God still the kind of God who can be trusted to pay any price to win us back? That is the question that stirred the apostle Paul when he wrote Romans 3:3-4: “What if some of them did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all” (NIV)! Some versions say, “By no means” (ESV, NRSV). “God forbid” (KJV). “May it never be” (NASB). And we have the whole biblical record of all God has done to set right what has gone wrong.

God even sent His Son to deal with sin. Look at Romans 8:3: “What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like our sinful nature, to do away with sin (GNB).” What the Law could not do, God did by sending his own Son to do away with sin. Or as the Jerusalem Bible puts the same sentence (Rom 8:3): “God dealt with sin by sending his own Son.”

What does it mean to deal with sin? It depends on what sin is. If sin is distrust and its consequences, forgiveness alone will not heal the damage done. Forgiveness does not do away with sin. For there to be lasting peace in God’s universe, trust must somehow be restored. Questions must be answered. Satan’s accusations must be met. God must be seen to be righteous, and infinitely worthy of our trust. And so Christ came to set things right. That is why He died; a subject we’ll spend a whole chapter considering (Chapter 8).

Look at Paul’s explanation in Romans 5:1: “Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (GNB). Notice the phrase “put right” or “set right.” That’s based on the Greek verb that’s usually translated “justified” or “being justified.” (Greek: dikaioô) I love how the Good News Bible translates it, “put right.” We’ll go into this more deeply in a later chapter.

There are at least three ways of looking at what went wrong in God’s universe as a basis for our continuing discussion. And the crucial point is that God looks different in each of these three ways. The first of these views is very widely held beyond the bounds of Christianity. The statement of the problem goes something like this: Because we have broken God’s rules, we have offended Him. He is very angry with us. The crucial question then becomes: What can human beings do to appease God’s anger so that He can find it in His heart not to destroy us, but rather forgive us and bless us once again?

There is another view that’s widely held, sometimes within the bounds of Christianity. The statement of the problem goes something like this: We have broken God’s rules, and thus we are in serious legal trouble. Law and justice demand that God should destroy us, or (in some versions of this view) even torture us for eternity. The crucial question then becomes: Can anything be done to make it legally possible for God to forgive us, and not destroy us, while still being just in His own eyes and in the eyes of the onlooking universe?

Then there’s a third view that is not so widely held on this planet, but I believe it is the most widely held view throughout the universe. In this view the statement of the problem goes something like this: We have sinned. We have allowed ourselves to be deceived by Satan’s lies. And so we have turned away from the true God to many substitutes. And the results have been disastrous. Left alone we all would die. The crucial question then becomes: Is there any way that Satan’s lies can be corrected? Is there any way that the truth about God and His government can be made crystal clear? Is there any way that unquestionable evidence can be provided, that God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be? Can some of us rebels be won back to trust, and so be saved and healed?

Could I ask you which one of these three views you prefer? Which one of these gods do you prefer? Which one would you rather live with for eternity? Or does it really make any difference?

The Consequences of Mistrust

Sin changes us, producing fear and mistrust of God. The results of centuries of mistrust are catalogued in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Let’s look first at Romans 3. What makes this quotation from Romans so significant is that it’s made up of six Old Testament passages; one from Isaiah, and five from the Psalms. This is a summary of the Old Testament picture of the consequences of mistrust (Romans 3:10-18): As the Scriptures say: “There is no one who is righteous, no one who is wise or who worships God. All have turned away from God; they have all gone wrong; no one does what is right, not even one. Their words are full of deadly deceit; wicked lies roll off their tongues, and dangerous threats, like snake’s poison, from their lips; their speech is filled with bitter curses. They are quick to hurt and kill; they leave ruin and destruction wherever they go. They have not known the path of peace, nor have they learned reverence for God (GNB).”

Paul has a lot more to say about the consequences of mistrust in Romans 1. There (Rom 1:18-20) Paul points out that there is no excuse to be ignorant about God. God has revealed Himself in creation and in human experience. So lack of knowledge is actually rooted in human rebellion. Notice some of the consequences (Romans 1:21-23): They know God, but they do not give him the honor that belongs to him, nor do they thank him. Instead, their thoughts have become complete nonsense, and their empty minds are filled with darkness. They say they are wise, but they are fools; instead of worshipping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles (GNB).

We know from ancient records that the Egyptians worshipped crocodiles and even beetles. Think what that would do to a person. We’ll look more closely at that in a later chapter. But Hosea says that it is a law that we become like the object of our worship: “When Israel came to Baal-Peor, they began to worship Baal and soon became as disgusting as the god they loved” (based on Hosea 9:10). That’s the devastating consequence of worshipping a false picture of God. Those who worship the Father through the revelation we have in Jesus become more like Him. Those who follow Satan become like him.

How God has tried to keep in touch, but how unwilling we have been to listen! Because people have refused to keep in mind the true knowledge about God (Rom 1:18-23), Paul goes on to say (Rom 1:25, GNB): “They exchange the truth about God for a lie.” And you know who the Father of lies is. Paul then outlines the devastating consequences of this exchange (Rom 1:28-32):

(God) has given them over to corrupted minds, so that they do the things that they should not do. They are filled with all kinds of wickedness, evil, greed, and vice; they are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, and malice. They gossip and speak evil of one another; they are hateful to God, insolent, proud, and boastful; they think of more ways to do evil; they disobey their parents; they have no conscience; they do not keep their promises, and they show no kindness or pity for others. They know that God’s law says that people who live in this way deserve death. Yet, not only do they continue to do these very things, but they even approve of others who do them (GNB).

Notice how the Bible says (to our comfort) there will be no gossips in eternity! The saved will be those who can be trusted with the memory of other people’s sins and still treat them with dignity and respect. Paul also mentions people who break their promises, a translation of the Greek word for “faithless” (ESV, NIV) or “untrustworthy” (NASB). These are all consequences of a breakdown of trust in God’s human family.

The stubbornness and unwillingness to listen that Paul features in Romans 1 is echoed in Hosea 4:16, 17: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer. How can the Lord feed them now like lambs in a broad meadow? Ephraim is wedded to idolatry, let him alone” (Phillips). When people don’t love, trust, and admire God, “their spirit is steeped in unfaithfulness and they know nothing of the Lord” (Hosea 5:4, Phillips). Notice also the following selections from Hosea 4:1 and 5:6, 12: “There is no honesty nor compassion nor knowledge of God . . . My people! Asking advice from a piece of wood and consulting a staff for instructions” (Phillips)!

This raises a significant point, how could it be said that Israel does not know God (see also Jer 5:4; 9:3)? Who else knew God so well? Look at all the Old Testament prophets and their marvelous pictures of God. But the way Israel knew God in those days was not knowing God in the special, biblical sense. That is, to know God as a friend– to even know God intimately as a husband and a wife know each other. The Bible says, “Adam knew Eve,” his wife (Gen 4:1). And as a result, they didn’t just learn each other’s names. They had a baby.

Elsewhere, God says of Israel, “Thee only have I known” (Amos 3:2). He knew all the other nations. But He knew Israel in a special way. Something similar happens at the last judgment. When disappointed saints find that they are not acceptable in the kingdom, they plead “Lord, Lord. Open unto us.” He says, “Go away. I never knew you” (see Matthew 7:21-23). He knew the hairs on their head (Matt 10:30; Luke 12:7), but He did not know them as friends. And friendship is the very essence of the relationship God wishes to have with His people. If Israel had really known God, they would have been better friends. They would have been jealous for His reputation. And they would have been better people themselves, like the prophets in the Old Testament who wrote so well of God.

When we believe Satan’s lies, we don’t trust God and allow Him to heal us. And the ultimate result of that can be found in Romans 6:23: “Sin pays its servants: the wage is death” (Phillips). Or in the Good News Bible: “For sin pays its wage – death” (GNB). You see, as human beings we cannot make it on our own. Not until God breathed into man the breath of life, did man begin to live (Gen 2:7). We are not gods; we’re just created beings. God hopes we won’t find that too humiliating. He won’t rub it in. He even treats us as gods in the Psalms (82:6). He even speaks of us as brothers of His Son (Matt 25:40; Mark 3:34; John 20:17). But we are still created beings. It makes good sense, therefore, to listen very closely to the One who made us. To pretend to be God was Satan’s insane idea. And look what it’s done for him.

Sin as a Breach of Trust in the Story of Moses

This blog continues chapter two of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures of Graham Maxwell in 1984.

Conversations About God 2:3

I know of no greater illustration of how sin is a violation of trust than the one involving the great saint Moses. When the people were complaining about the lack of water, they came to Moses and grumbled. They even said they wished they had died in the wilderness. “ Why did you bring us here from Egypt? We have no water” (based on Numbers 20:5). They behaved so badly that Moses ran to God and prayed, “God, what shall I do?” And God said, “Give them water. Take your rod and go to the rock and speak this time. Don’t hit it, don’t make a scene, don’t be angry with the people or condemn them. Just speak to the rock, and they’ll have all the water they want” (based on Numbers 20:7-8).

Instead of following God’s instructions, Moses went back to the rock, struck it smartly (Num 20:11) and said, “You ungrateful rebels! Must we bring forth water from this rock” (Num 20:10)? According to Numbers 20:12 (NIV) God responded: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

Now on the surface, doesn’t that seem a bit arbitrary and severe? All the old man did was to get irritated and impatient. He disobeyed God by hitting the rock with his rod. Was that enough to keep him out of the Promised Land? For forty years he had led the people. And think what he had put up with all those years. But God says, “Because of what you did at the rock you may not take this people in.” Does that seem severe, for God to treat His old friend like this? How could what Moses did be serious enough to call for such a terrible consequence and penalty?

Understandably, Moses begged God, “Please. Please may I take the people in?” And finally God said, “Speak to Me no more on this matter.” Now how could it be that serious? Or is the answer in the text that we read? It doesn’t say in Numbers 20:12, “Because you disobeyed Me, you cannot take the people in.” It actually says, “Because you did not trust in Me enough to honor Me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you may not bring the people in.” Why?
Moses was one of the best friends God ever had. God talked to him face to face, even more directly than the visions and dreams He gave to the prophets. He said, “I talk to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friends (see Exodus 33:11).” So the people knew Moses had a special relationship with God. They revered him—at least when they were behaving. They had seen him go up on Mt. Sinai and come down carrying the Ten Commandments. If your pastor came down a mountain carrying the Ten Commandments with his face shining so brightly that you couldn’t look at him, wouldn’t he have increased influence in your congregation?

Moses had enormous influence with the people of Israel. That’s what made his behavior at the rock so serious. He said, “Must we bring forth water from this rock” (Num 20:10)? Moses implied with the “we” that he was speaking and acting in God’s behalf (Num 20:10-11). Moses had pictured God as angry when He was not. God had wished by His kindness to lead some of those Israelites to repentance (Num 20:7-8, see also Romans 2:4). But by his behavior, Moses deprived God of that opportunity. Standing as they were on the verge of going into Canaan to meet those well-armed tribes there, they needed to trust God very closely. And God purposed to win them over to trust, in spite of all their complaining and grumbling. He was not going to condemn them or criticize them; just give them abundant water in one of the driest of deserts. “Moses,” He said, “don’t even strike the rock.” But Moses pictured God as angry.

What a contrast to the way Moses had behaved earlier when God said, “I’m tired of these people. Step aside. Let Me destroy them and I’ll make a great nation out of you (see Exodus 32:10).” At that time Moses responded, “God, you couldn’t do that. Think what it would do to your reputation. What would the Egyptians think? They would assume that you couldn’t take your people to the Promised Land (see Exodus 32:11-13)!” And God said, “I love that, Moses. Who knows Me as well as you do? You really are My friend” (see Exodus 33:9-11). But later on, under pressure, Moses let God down. He misrepresented God as vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And that was precisely Satan’s sin in the beginning, the sin that is the most devastating of all.

God has honored His friend Moses ever since. He even personally buried him (Deut 34:6), resurrected him (Jude 9), and later sent him down to comfort His Son on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3-4 and parallels in Mark and Luke). But God had to go on record before the eyes of the onlooking universe regarding the terrible seriousness of Moses’ sin. It wasn’t just about disobedience, or that by smiting the rock he had “spoiled a symbol.” He had certainly done both. But more than that, Moses had broken faith with God. The most destructive thing a person can ever do is to be a person of influence and misrepresent the truth about God. Moses hadn’t shown himself to be God’s trusted, trusting friend. And that’s the essence of sin.

How many of us have committed the same sin in words or actions? How many of us have hurt our own children and others who trust us to tell the truth about our God? Have you ever apologized to God for putting Him in a bad light or leaving the impression that He’s not the kind of person we know Him to be? Moses repented and became a better friend of God than ever before. But so many people have continued to mistrust.

What Sin Is All About

Conversations About God 2:2

A crisis of distrust developed in God’s universal family. As we reviewed earlier, our heavenly Father has been accused of being unworthy of our trust. Specifically, He has been accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. For the Bible, sin is much more than a mere breaking of the rules, serious as that might be. In its essence, sin is a violation of mutual trust. It is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn unwillingness to listen to the One who is so eager to help us in our predicament.

Doesn’t the Bible specifically state, however, that sin is breaking the rules? How about the key text we’ve learned from childhood up, “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV)? Actually, that’s a rather free translation. The Greek word that John used is anomia, and it means, literally, lawlessness. “Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4, Williams). In other words, sin is described as a state of mind, an attitude. And anyone in that state of mind is a continuing threat to the peace and security of the universal family. Sin will not have been truly dealt with until our lawlessness has either been changed or eliminated. Sin begins with a lawless, rebellious state of mind.

The hazard of regarding sin primarily as breaking the rules is that such a mindset tends to encourage an impersonal, even fearful relationship with God. If we regard sin as primarily a breaking of the rules, God’s commandments may be misunderstood as arbitrary regulations designed to show His authority and test our willingness to obey. If we obey, we’re rewarded. If we disobey, we’re destroyed. Do you want to live under those circumstances?

Since we all have sinned, should we be fearfully awaiting the execution of the sentence? Or have we been spared because God found some legal way to give us yet another chance? And if we turn down that second chance, will He punish us with even greater severity for our ingratitude? Would such an understanding help produce the peace and the freedom from fear that God desires so much in His universal family?

Actually though, if rightly understood, there is a sense in which one can say that sin is a breaking of the rules. Let’s look again God’s commandments, particularly the Decalogue. All those Ten Commandments ultimately require is that we love God and we love each other (Matt 22:36-40). And if we really did that we would have peace and freedom. In fact, in the tenth of the Ten Commandments it says that we should not even want to sin. If we lived in that state of mind, not even wanting to do anything unloving, we would have freedom to be sure, and all kinds of peace and good will.

But can love actually be commanded? Or produced by force or by fear? To put it vividly, has God said to us children, “You either love Me, and love each other, or I’ll have to kill you. Do I make Myself clear?” Have you husbands ever tried that on your wives and children? Did it work? Imagine your wives and children trembling in front of you and saying in unison, “Oh, yes, daddy. We love you very much.” Would you be pleased? Would you be satisfied? If so, then you’re a brute. And the God some of us worship would never settle for that.

Having said that, we all must admit that the Bible is full of references to law, discipline, punishment and rewards, even final fiery destruction. And since our purpose in this series is always to look at the Bible as a whole, not just “here a little and there a little,” we must look at all these other passages seriously. In fact, several chapters of this book will be devoted to God’s wide use of law and why Jesus indeed had to die. And we will talk about how, in reality, God’s law is no threat to our freedom! To understand that is really the truth that sets us free.

Going back to the beginning, sin entered our universe when angels ceased to trust. As a consequence, they themselves became untrustworthy. James 4:17 offers a familiar definition: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (RSV).” It is rebellious to act that way. It is lawless to act that way. Anyone who behaves like that is certainly not trustworthy to have around in a free universe.

Look at Romans 14:23 in several, different versions: “Any action that is not based on faith is a sin.” (Moffat) “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (RSV).” “When we act apart from our faith we sin (Phillips).” In a text from the book of Ezra (10:2), the Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity are confessing that they have done several things that they should not have done. But they describe their misbehaviors in these words: “We have broken faith with our God (RSV).” “We have been unfaithful to our God (NIV).” These texts underline that the essence of sin is a breach of faith; it’s a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness.

Chapter 2: “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe”

This blog begins chapter two of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures of Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that followed are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

In the previous chapter we summarized the war that broke out in Heaven, as described in Revelation 12. This conflict within God’s family began right in His very presence, in the mind of God’s most honored and trusted angel. This raised the question, What really went wrong in God’s universe? This question is important because understanding what went wrong helps us to understand the methods God is using to put right the things that have gone wrong. We often call these methods “The Plan of Salvation.” As we noted in the last chapter, we’re accustomed to thinking of the plan of salvation as God’s gracious provision to save you, me, and other sinners on this planet. But in the larger view of the great controversy, the plan of salvation is God’s way of setting right what went wrong in the whole universe, and setting it right in such a way that it will never go wrong again.

What really did go wrong? To begin with, it helps to consider what made things go so right before the war in heaven began. Before the war there was peace. There was peace because all the members of God’s vast family trusted each other. They trusted their heavenly Father. And He in turn could safely trust in them. Where you have that kind of mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

Questions and Answers (1:5)

Lou Venden: Human beings have a tendency to focus on our own salvation. You have referred to how our salvation needs to be seen in the larger perspective. What I’m wondering is, how does this perspective affect Christian belief in general? Does it make a difference?

Graham Maxwell: I don’t think it minimizes our Christian beliefs in any way, it rather makes them more significant. As I mentioned earlier, the gospel takes on a much broader meaning in the larger view. But that’s not all. Some of us regard the Sabbath as a privilege to observe and a great blessing. A typical approach to the Sabbath is preoccupied with what God has done for our own salvation and what God has done for this planet. But if you limit your understanding to this planet, then the Sabbath was given before sin. And as such it is merely a test of our obedience, to show God’s authority and test our willingness to obey.

In the larger view, however, the Sabbath was given to man after sin entered the universe. Then it’s no longer an arbitrary test of obedience. It’s a great gift that God gave to remind us of all the things the Bible associates with the Sabbath. Things like the freedom and the perfection of Eden, and the freedom that He gave to all of His creatures. God’s rescue of His people in the Exodus. And then the events of crucifixion week. The seventh-day Sabbath is connected with all of those.

Similarly, the law in the larger view is God’s emergency measure to help us. Paul specifically says that in Galatians 3:19. Take, for example the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were not to eat the fruit of that tree in the garden. In the narrower view, which is preoccupied with what God has done for us on this planet, God said, “don’t touch that tree” before sin. And that would simply be a test of their obedience, or so it’s often explained. But in the larger, great controversy view, they were told not to go near that tree after sin entered the universe. With that in mind, the tree was not so much a test of obedience as something given to protect us. You see, God permitted Satan to tempt Adam and Eve, but Satan was only allowed to approach them at the tree. God was not limiting them, He was limiting Satan! You see, the more one takes the larger view, the less arbitrary God’s requirements, measures, and provisions look. He simply looks a whole lot better in the great controversy view.

Lou: This definitely helps us understand the reason and the meaning behind God’s actions and, at times, lack of action. But this leads me to one final question, “If God won the war at Calvary, then why isn’t it over? Why is it still going on? In fact, why didn’t it end when God threw Satan and his angels out of heaven?”

Graham: Obviously the expulsion of Satan from heaven was a victory, a physical victory. But God was not satisfied with that alone. There were still unresolved questions and wonderings among His family. And so He waited. But when Jesus said, “It’s finished,” something was finished. And Revelation indicates He was recognized in heaven as having won the war (Rev 5:6-14). So why does He still wait? Is it that the war has been won in the minds of His children throughout the universe, but not here on this planet? We’re still trying to make up our minds. And it’s essential that we not only make up our minds, but be so settled into it that we cannot be moved during the terrible events that will happen before the second coming. It is in mercy that He waits.

Lou: I’m sure we’ll have more on this as the series progresses. Tell us about the next chapter.

Graham: The next chapter deals with the question, “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe?” What went wrong in the family? It will be a fresh look at sin in the larger setting of the great controversy. Sin is much more than just breaking the rules, it is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness. This will take us to the heart of the issue in the war. Until we know what’s gone wrong, how can we understand God’s efforts to set things right?

Note from Jon Paulien: This blog concludes chapter one of Conversations About God, my edited transcript of a 1984 series of lectures followed by questions involving Graham Maxwell and then-pastor Lou Venden. I will begin sharing chapter two shortly.