Category Archives: Theological

Returning to Conversations About God

Yesterday the Seventh-day Adventist Church completed a quarter-long series of adult Sabbath School lessons on the book of Revelation. My former student, Ranko Stefanovic, helped to author the main lessons studied around the world and I helped to author the Teachers’ Edition. Through this blog, last quarter, Ranko and I were able to share with the world the editorial changes that occurred after we turned our manuscripts in. I believe this has led to a number of insights into what at least some in church leadership are thinking about Revelation today.

This week I return to a project that I began a couple of years ago, sharing the content of an upcoming book entitled Conversations About God. The book will be based on a series of twenty lectures by Graham Maxwell, each followed by a back and forth discussion with Lou Venden, then pastor of the Loma Linda University Church. I find this material inspiring, enlightening and comforting. As I prepared these “conversations” for print, I sought to retain Graham Maxwell’s unique voice while adding clarification and references to Scripture.

I have shared the first ten chapters on this blog site from April 2017 through the end of that year. I then suspended these postings to share material on Revelation, homosexuality and the political issues in the Adventist Church last Fall. I then posted summaries of the first ten chapters to refresh the blog audience in December 2018 before beginning the series on the adult Sabbath School lessons referenced in the first paragraph above. It is time now to complete posting of the Conversations About God with chapters 11-20. These will be posted in bite-sized pieces roughly every other day until the series is completed.

It is my hope and prayer that you will find this material life-changing as well as stimulating thoughts and questions. If travel permits, the first posting will occur on Tuesday, April 2 with the introductory portion of Chapter Eleven entitled “God’s Emergency Measures.”

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Ten, “The Reminder of the Evidence”

If God values nothing higher than our freedom, why has He placed right in the heart of the “royal law of liberty” (James) a command to remember the Sabbath? Is this possibly one instance where God has imposed an arbitrary requirement upon His people, just to show His authority and test their willingness to obey? But the whole message of Scripture is that there is no arbitrariness in our God. God’s laws were given to help us, to protect us in our ignorance and immaturity, to lead us back to trust.

Viewed in the larger setting of the great controversy over the character and government of God, the Sabbath was “made for man” (Jesus) after sin entered the universe. Repeatedly in the sixty-six books of the Bible, the Sabbath is connected with times of special demonstration of the truth about our God — the perfection and freedom of creation week, the freeing of His people from Egyptian bondage, the costly and convincing evidence of crucifixion week, the promise of peace and freedom in the earth made new.

The Sabbath is a monument to freedom. It sums up the good news about God. It reminds us of the everlasting truth that “sets us free” (Jesus) and will keep us free for eternity. It should always be a “delight” (Isaiah), to be enjoyed in the highest sense of freedom. Observed merely as obedience to an arbitrary command, the Sabbath could turn us against God – even lead us to “crucify Him once again” (Hebrews 6) — then hurry home to keep the Sabbath holy, as happened that sad Friday nineteen hundred years ago.

God’s laws were not given to be a burden or to restrict us. They were given to help us, to protect us in the days of our ignorance and immaturity, and to lead us back to trust and freedom. God values nothing higher than our freedom. When you go through all the sixty-six books and you come to the last one, the book of Revelation, you note that God is still asking us to remember Him as our Creator. When we keep the Sabbath we remember the Creator, who fashioned a beautiful world for us to live in and gave us the Sabbath so we could enjoy the creation. The Sabbath is a beautiful reminder of what God is like.

This completes my summaries of the first ten chapters of the book Conversations About God. We will take a break on this subject for about three months, so we can study the book of Revelation together through the Adult Bible Study Guides that I helped to produce. Then we will return to posting the full text of chapters 11-20 of Conversations About God over the year that follows.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Nine, “There Is No Need to Be Afraid of God”

If God were the kind of person his enemies have made Him out to be; arbitrary, vengeful and severe; there could be no real freedom, and our worship and obedience would be driven by our fears. Sadly, millions have been turned away from God by Satan’s perversion of the truth. But Jesus came to bring the truth about God that sets us free, truth that makes it possible for mere mortals to be His friends.

To be afraid of God is to misunderstand, even to deny, the truths that He paid such a price to reveal. Though God is infinite in majesty and power, He values nothing higher than the freedom of His intelligent creatures. He desires that their love, their worship, their trust, their willingness to listen, may be freely given. God not only prefers it that way, He knows that if our love and trust are not freely given, there would be no genuine freedom in His family. And God would rather die (on the cross) than preside over a universe that is not free.

Besides, God also knows that the obedience that springs from fear will actually turn His children into rebels. As we have seen (Chapter Eight), He has demonstrated this truth at great cost on the cross. Rebelliousness is the very essence of sin. God sent His Son to do away with sin (Rom 8:3). But in order to do away with rebelliousness and distrust, He must first do away with fear. It is fear that has turned so many away from God. It is fear that has inspired rebelliousness even in the hearts of those who seek to obey Him, but do not know Him well. God went to the cross in Christ to make it eternally clear that there is no need for His children to be afraid of Him. While He is infinite in power, He is also infinitely gracious. Surely such a God is worthy of our love, our reverence, our worship, and our willingness to listen and obey.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Eight, “The Most Costly and Convincing Evidence”

The way Jesus suffered and died is the greatest revelation of the truth about God the universe will ever see or ever need. Correctly understood, it means defeat for the accuser of our Heavenly Father. No wonder Satan has sought to obscure, even pervert, the meaning of the cross! So why did Jesus have to die? Why was it not enough for Jesus simply to tell us the truth about His Father? Why couldn’t His own gracious treatment of sinners demonstrate that God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be? Why did Jesus also have to die? Why was there no other way?

The cross is “the most costly and convincing evidence” because the unique and awful way in which Jesus suffered and died reveals something about God and His government that had to be clarified before trust and peace could be restored again. Our God has been accused of being unworthy of the trust of His created beings, of being arbitrary, vengeful, and severe. He has particularly been accused of lying to His children, of lying about death being the result of sin. It does no good for God to simply deny such charges or to claim that He is speaking the truth. It is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time and under a great variety of difficult circumstances that trust can be re-established and confirmed.

There are three fundamental questions that were raised by Satan’s rebellion and the great controversy over the character and government of God. God could have answered these questions with assertions and arbitrary shows of force. But God values freedom so much, that the only way to answer these questions is through demonstration over a long period of time and in a wide variety of circumstances. At the heart of these “circumstances” is the cross. The suffering and death of Jesus answered the three great questions about God’s character:

1) Can we trust God to tell the truth about sin and death? If God does not tell the truth, then we can’t trust Him. In the Garden (Eden) God warned Adam and Eve that to eat of the Tree of Knowledge would cause their death. But the same adversary told Eve that God had lied (Gen 3:4-5). In the Word of God and His dealings in history, God provided abundant evidence that what He says can be trusted. But is sin really the cause of death, as God has claimed? In another Garden (Gethsemane), Jesus fell to the ground dying, a consequence of human sin. Already in Gethsemane, Jesus clearly demonstrated that sin leads to death, and that God was telling the truth about sin and death.

2) What is God’s role in the death of the sinner? Does justice demand that God
torture His children to death for refusing to love Him? The experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane also demonstrated that God was not killing his Son. To the contrary, God sent an angel to sustain Him (Luke 22:43). If Jesus had died in the Garden of Gethsemane, it would not have been because His Father had killed Him. He did not lay a hand on His Son. Many, nevertheless, believe that justice requires God to torture His children to death. But it was not God killing His Son in Gethsemane, Jesus was laying His own life down (John 10:18). Death is the result of sin, but it is not torture and execution at the hands of our gracious God. But there was a third question that also needed to be answered. Gethsemane by itself would not have been enough, the answer to the third question required the cross.

3) Why is it so important to understand that God does not execute his sinful
Children? The simple answer: Because obedience that springs from fear produces the character of a rebel. If God kills and tortures those who refuse to obey Him, even His followers will not serve Him out of love and trust, they will serve Him only out of fear. Obedience that springs from fear produces the heart of a rebel. This was clearly demonstrated at the cross, where Jesus not only died, but was also tortured and crucified. By whom? By the Father? Or by allies of the most devout group of Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, health-reforming, Bible-quoting “adventists” the world has ever known? The religious leaders who crucified Jesus were serving God out of fear. And the obedience that springs from fear produces the character of a rebel.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Seven, “The Question of Authority”

The Great Controversy is not over who has the greater power, God or the adversary. Satan has never accused God of lacking physical power. In fact, the book of James says that whenever Satan thinks of the power of the One who created the whole vast universe, he trembles with fear (James 2:19). And he knows he has but a short time (Rev 12:12). Satan has not accused God of being weak, he has accused Him of abusing His divine power and failing to tell the truth. Specifically, God has been accused of being arbitrary in His use of power, of being exacting and vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. If those charges were true, then surely it would not be safe to trust in God. Who would want to spend eternity with such a Deity?

And yet one third of the brilliant angels, intelligent as they are, have agreed that Satan is right. They agree that God has indeed abused His power and is not worthy of their trust or ours. For thousands of years they have worked to convince us of the rightness of their charges. Just as God has sought to demonstrate that He is not the kind of Person His enemies have made Him out to be, so Satan in many and various ways has sought to twist and pervert the truth in support of his cause. Most diabolically, I believe, Satan has used the teachings of religion and even of Christianity to support his case. He has even perverted the meaning of the cross in support of his accusation that God demands our obedience under threat of painful execution.

“Love Me or I’ll kill you,” is his satanic perversion of God’s warning in the beginning: “Children, I don’t want you to die. If you go your own rebellious, disorderly way, you will die.” Consider the extensive damage caused by Satan’s devilish caricature of God’s words in the Garden of Eden. If God has really said, “Love Me or I’ll torture you for eternity in sulfurous flames,” how could there be any real love? How could there be any real trust? I wonder how many millions have been turned against God by that perversion of the truth. Or worse, I wonder how many people have found it possible to accept that picture of God and still try to serve Him. They offer Him the obedience that springs from fear, and then suffer the destructive consequences of forced submission.

The good news, of course, is that God is not the kind of Person His enemies have made Him out to be. The whole Bible presents a refutation of these charges, not based on mere claims, but rather on the evidence of demonstration. The whole Bible demonstrates God’s way of exercising authority and power. I think that is very good news which leads us to repentance and to trust. Understanding the way God runs His universe will keep it secure and free and at peace for the rest of eternity.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Six, “Evaluating the Evidence”

We have learned from our study of the Bible that all God asks of us is trust. If we would only trust in Him enough, He could readily heal the damage sin has done. That is all He asked before the war began. That’s all He asks now of those who have been damaged and caught up in this war. All He will ever ask of us in the future is trust. Where there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, no cheating, there is perfect security, perfect freedom, perfect peace. And this is what God desires the most. But is that conclusion based on the right interpretation of the Bible? Have we rightly weighed and understood the biblical evidence?

Others have read the biblical evidence and drawn different conclusions. Many of these are sincere followers of God, yet they perceive Him as arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Many of them earnestly seek to win others to that kind of God. But if that is the kind of person God is, then He is not worthy of our trust, nor is He safe to trust. Sadly, this picture of God sounds a lot like the accusations Satan has made against God from the beginning of the conflict.

In responding to the accusations against Him, God is not willing to issue mere claims or denials. Anybody could do that. But when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it does no good to deny it or to simply claim to be trustworthy. So God has answered the charges against Him with the evidence of demonstration. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a sufficiently long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, can trust be re-established and confirmed. The Bible is a record of just such a demonstration.

Why is there so much historical detail in the Bible? So much of it seems of such little importance. But if God’s way of revealing Himself is demonstration, it is involving Himself in human affairs and saying, “Watch the way I handle situations. That’s the way to find out what I’m like.” If we did not have the historical details, we would not be in a position to recreate those original settings and understand why God would thunder one time and speak so softly another time.

The Bible is no mere collection of theological statements. Nor is it a code book of deeds to be done and sins to be shunned. It is rather an inspired record of God’s handling of the crisis of distrust in His universe. The only way to truly understand the Bible and rightly interpret it is to pick up the Bible and read it through as a whole. To be confident that we see the real meaning of the Bible, we must view it as a whole, relating all its parts to the one central theme — the truth about God Himself. Of every story, teaching and event, the same question must be raised: What does this say about God? Another question naturally follows: Can we trust the God that we see? That will be the subject of future chapters.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Five, “The Record of the Evidence”

Without the Bible we would know nothing about this conflict in God’s family. Nor would we have the record of how He has demonstrated His trustworthiness by His infinitely skillful and gracious way of handling the revolt. But can the Bible itself be trusted? Do we have the right collection of sixty-six books? Have the words been accurately preserved? Can we trust the many translations? And, most of all can we have confidence that we understand the meaning?

How should one decide which books of the Bible belong and which books do not? I think it helps a great deal to know the origin of these books. The opinion of centuries of believers, who were much closer to the writing of these books than we are, is of consequence. But nothing compares with reading them all. I have done it several times. It takes a long weekend without any interruption. I read all the way through the Old Testament and then the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament, and the New Testament Apocrypha. And when you arrive at the Revelation of Peter, you haven’t forgotten Maccabees and Enoch and Romans and Genesis. They are still in your mind. Based on that experience, I agree with Catholic Jerome, Protestant Luther and the great Bible Societies, that the sixty-six books of our Protestant Bibles are the only ones that really measure up.

Have the words of the Bible been accurately preserved? All the original copies of the Bible have disappeared. There are thousands of hand-written copies, though, that have come down to us through the years. And no two of them are the same, which could distress a person who doesn’t know better. But there is a bright side to this. When you look at thousands of these manuscripts, and note what the differences are like, you would be moved to say that no other ancient document has been preserved with such care and accuracy as the books of the Bible. Let me quote the one-time curator of the British Museum, who spent a lifetime studying such matters, “You can pick the Bible up with confidence and say, for all practical purposes, we have the word of God.”

“In many and various ways” (Heb 1:1-3) God has spoken to us through the years. And in many and various ways those words have been translated into English and most of the other languages on this earth. How else could the gospel go to all the world? How could people find out about our God? So there is no substitute for taking the Bible (or preferably the versions, plural, of your choice) and sitting down together to read and study. Never has the evidence contained in the Bible been so readily available. And having all this evidence so readily available, let’s read it. Can we confidently come to the conclusion that we understand the meaning? That the evidence is really there? That the Bible can be trusted? And, as some of us who have spent a lot of time reading these versions believe: the Author who is behind the Bible can be trusted because there is trustworthy evidence in the record.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Four, “God’s Way of Restoring Trust”

In the previous chapter we concluded that in order to have peace once again in His universe, all God asks of us is trust. And there will be peace again, just as there was before the war that began in heaven (Rev 12). There will be peace once again because all the members of God‘s vast family will trust in their heavenly Father and He in turn will be able to safely trust in them. Along with that, the members of God’s family will learn to trust each other. Wherever there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

Our heavenly Father, however, has been accused of being unworthy of the faith and trust of His children. He has even been accused of being a liar; of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. It might seem incredible that the Infinite One would permit such accusations. But in His far-sighted plan, God has allowed these accusations and charges to spread throughout the universe, including our planet. These accusations have led to the point of war, open rebellion, and revolt. In light of this rebellion the question arises, How could God ever restore trust in His universe—in His family?

In an atmosphere of accusation, suspicion and distrust, trust cannot be established through shows of superior power. Satan tries to do that. He loves to impress people with miracles, signs and lying wonders (2 Thess 2:9). He has to, because what he says about God isn’t true. In the absence of evidence He has to use other methods to seduce, intimidate, mislead or deceive us. But if God were to use Satan’s methods it would only increase the distrust and cause people to serve Him out of fear.

In an atmosphere of accusation, suspicion and distrust, trust cannot be established through assertions and claims either. When a person has been falsely accused, there’s no way to establish the truth simply by denying the charges. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time and under a great variety of circumstances – especially difficult ones – can trust be reestablished and confirmed. The sixty-six books of the Bible are precisely the record of just such a demonstration, and every one of those books is an important part. It is particularly in the stories of the Bible, that we see the evidence of God’s character as He patiently deals with the complications wrought by sin. The evidence found in the Bible is God’s way of restoring trust. God seeks to convince us, not by authority or power, but on the basis of truth and evidence.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Three, “All God Asks Is Trust”

It is apparent, from the biblical description of this controversy in God’s family, that there was a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness—even to the point of war in heaven (Rev 12:7-9). That war spilled down to this planet, where we experience continuing misunderstanding and distrust of God. Not that we’ve all become irreligious, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be deceived by the adversary. Even many who do worship God, worship a false picture of Him—with all the hazards that follow. We tend to become like the kind of God we worship and admire.

The third chapter of Conversations About God explores the meaning and necessity of faith, in the larger setting of the Great Controversy. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he needed to do in order to be saved (Acts 16:30-31), Paul did not offer a series of doctrinal lessons, he simply said “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” The difference between belief and faith matters in the English language, but there is no such difference between belief and faith in the Bible. There is only one word for both, and it can be translated “faith,” “belief,” or “trust.” Faith is trust in the way God chose to save us. We’re not saved by faith. Faith does not save us, God saves us. But God can only save those who trust Him.
If anything should happen to any of us tonight, I would hope that we would die God’s trusting friend. Because if we do, we will arise in the next moment of consciousness face to face with God. And we will not be afraid, because we will know the truth about God. We will trust Him, know Him, love Him, and all those other things. We will have been set right. And if He should say to us, “You know, there’s a great deal for you to learn,” we would say in response, “I’d be pleased to listen, because I trust and admire You. I want to be Your friend.”

You see, faith is just a word we use to describe a relationship with God as with a person well known. The better He is known the better this relationship may be. Faith implies an attitude toward God of love, trust, and deepest admiration. It means having enough confidence in God – based on the more than adequate evidence revealed – to be willing to believe what He says, to accept what He offers, and to do what He wishes – without reservation – for the rest of eternity. Anyone who has such faith would be safe to save. This is why faith is the only requirement for heaven, and for salvation.

This long debate regarding faith, works and obedience has troubled saints through the years, but it could be so readily resolved when we realize that the Biblical word for obedience literally means “listening under.” It describes a humble willingness to listen. If we truly love and trust God, we’ll be willing to listen. It wouldn’t make sense for us not to listen to one we love, trust and admire.

What matters most is for us to trust God enough to be willing to listen, to stand humbly in His presence and ask “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be well? What must I do to be safe?” In the beginning God created the entire universe. He is able and willing to heal all of the damage done by sin. There is no substitute for trust. Anyone who has such faith would be perfectly safe to save.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Two, “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe”

The Bible describes sin as a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn and suspicious unwillingness to listen. Left untreated, sin makes peace impossible. Sin began in heaven, in the mind of God’s most honored and trusted angel. This raises 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 things right again. In the larger view of the great controversy, the plan of salvation is God’s way of setting things right in such a way that they will never go wrong again.

Before the war in heaven began, there was peace throughout the universe 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.

A crisis of distrust, nevertheless, developed in the family. Our heavenly Father was accused of being unworthy of our trust, of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Sin entered our universe when angels ceased to trust. As a consequence, they themselves became untrustworthy. 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. Sin changes us, producing fear and mistrust of God. In its essence, sin is a violation of mutual trust, a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn unwillingness to listen to the One who desires only the good of His creatures.

The hazard of regarding sin primarily as breaking God’s rules is that such a mindset tends to encourage an impersonal, even fearful relationship with God. Love cannot be commanded, it cannot be produced by force or fear. 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). So the remedy for sin 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. How God rebuilds our trust is the subject of the next chapter summary.