Some of us believe that the understanding of how God exercises his authority and power is the most important of all Christian beliefs. Every other Christian doctrine derives its importance, and even its meaning, from this essential truth about our God. To some of us, the most important information we have to share with our fellow human beings around this planet is the truth about the way God runs His universe and what He wants of His children. We need to share this more urgently than ever before as we face the closing events of human history. Before Christ returns, the Bible describes a time of confusion and deception such as the world has never seen.
This time of confusion will lead up to Satan’s final attempt to win the whole world to worship and trust him. Revelation thirteen says that when Satan’s campaign is over, the whole world will be worshipping him, except those few who have not been deceived (Rev 13:8). So it should not surprise us, if we are as near the end as we believe we are, that we find ourselves surrounded on all sides by conflicting claims to religious authority. Certainly the development of modern media has made us more aware of this than ever before. As we see and listen to all these conflicting claims, notice how often they are supported by position, power, miracles, or claims of special communications from the Lord.
How Satan would enjoy it if he could turn God’s friends on this planet against their Heavenly Father! Or even more seriously, how he would love to deceive God’s professing, commandment-keeping people. Such a deception within the “remnant” itself would be the most destructive of all. No wonder Paul said in Ephesians 4 that we should grow up and not be so easily swayed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (4:14). Again in Hebrews 5 he says we should grow up and have our faculties trained to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong (5:14). These are two passages we will take a closer look at in another chapter. But the crucial question in this chapter is: How do we train our faculties by practice, so as not to be deceived by conflicting claims to religious authority, particularly the claims of the adversary? And at the same time, how can we become more sensitive to the voice of true authority?
This blog begins chapter seven of the book in process, Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures by 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 follow are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.
“The Question of Authority” is really just another way of restating the central issue in the great controversy. There was a crisis of distrust that divided God’s family and started the war in heaven back in eternity (described in Revelation 12). That crisis of distrust is really a conflict over authority.
That conflict 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 (Jam 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 the abuse of divine power and of a failure to tell the truth. Specifically, as we have reviewed several times, 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 in many and various ways 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 twisted the teachings 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 most 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.” The real truth and meaning of those words is the subject of our next chapter. But 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. It is not a refutation that is based on mere claims, but rather on the evidence of demonstration. The whole Bible records a demonstration of God’s way of exercising authority and power. I think that is very good news that leads us to repentance and to trust. This understanding of the way God runs His universe will hold the universe secure and free and at peace for the rest of eternity.
Lou: Here’s a question that speaks poignantly to where many of us hurt and wonder. “’The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.’ I have a cousin, age thirty years, who has a malignant brain tumor; and he is awaiting death. There is nothing medically that can be done for him. Everyone tells him, ‘God’s will be done.’ Now the question is, does God will for one to die? I don’t think so. I believe that sin has contaminated the world and as a result we have disease and death. So please elaborate on this concept, and what’s more, what do you say to such a person? How do you talk about God’s will?”
Graham: That’s too sad to give a snap answer to. I think at times like that we draw from everything we’ve learned and experienced about God through the years. One needs to fall back on the things one is sure of. One thing I am sure of, God wants us to be well. He created us perfect. Disorder, disease–these are not of His doing. These are all part of being caught up in the consequences of this revolt. But we also know that God could heal, that’s true. And if He doesn’t seem to be healing at this time, we might wonder why. And it’s OK to wonder why. There is abundant evidence in Scripture that God is not offended when we ask why, not for a moment!
But why is God willing for this person to die? Is He a destructive God? An experience like this really tests the kind of person we believe our God to be. But even when things are not too clear, if one has learned that prayer is conversation with God as with a friend, then those who are wondering feel perfectly free to kneel down and really talk to God about this. We can say, “God, this is not clear. It looks as if You are like this, but that’s the devil’s picture of You.” Or “It looks as if You are like that. You couldn’t be, could You? Or are You?” God would not be offended by such a question. Actually, He honors such questions. There is great peace that comes from realizing we have a God toward whom we can direct such questions, even in times of great agony. The short answer to this question is this: Learn the good news about God. And there’s one more thing I am sure of, if the Lord were visibly present in your moment of suffering, how sympathetic He would be! More than anything else He would want to clear up the impression that He is the cause of that suffering.
Lou: Here’s a related question: “Can you give a reason why a loving God would allow a good Christian woman to be murdered? She was a good help in her small Church. The last Sabbath of her life they had a consecration service at the church. She dedicated herself anew to God, and she was murdered that afternoon at her house. She was the treasurer, and she had money at her house, and apparently that was the reason that someone broke in and she was killed. The reason I know about this is that she was my sister.”
Graham: Again, happy is the person who knows God very well at a time like this. It doesn’t mean that we would know the specific answer to the situation. I don’t think Job ever found out why those awful things happened to him. All he knew was that his theologian friends were wrong. They came to Job and said, “You cannot be asking God about this.” Job was crying to God with intense feeling and saying, “God, how can You do this to me? I’ve been your good friend all this time, and now You won’t even speak to me. You won’t explain this.” And his friends kept repeating their legalistic explanations. None of their explanations were helpful. Finally Job said, “I wish you brethren would be quiet. I appreciate your coming, but you’re not helping me at all. If only I could talk to God, I’m sure I could clear this up” (Job 16:2; 31:35). Eventually the boldness of his inquiries reached such a level that those three men were worried that God would surely zap him on the spot for daring to inquire. Instead, God broke in and said, “Job, you have said of Me what is right” (based on Job 42:7).
So if a person is wrestling with a tragedy like this, we may not find out why. I’m sure we won’t find out the answer to every unfair thing that happens on this planet during this emergency. But some things we know for sure; the kind of person God is, and His willingness to receive our questions. He welcomes us to lodge our inquiries with feeling, and hopefully we will trust Him enough to wait for the answer. And I’d like to think that that sister was such a saint you don’t need to worry about her. She will arise in the resurrection and say, “What am I doing here?” She will have no complaints. She’ll be looking for her sister.
In the next chapter we will deal with the whole question of authority, which is really the essence of the great controversy. The way God speaks to this is just magnificent. He is infinite in authority and power, but He would never think of intimidating or overwhelming us.
Lou: Was there not enough evidence in Old Testament times for people to recognize God’s true character, or did they have to wait for the New Testament in order to understand?
Graham: Oh, I like that question very much. When you read all the way through, the picture of God in the Old Testament is the same as in the New. It’s the same God, the same Spirit communicating, the same Christ leading them in the wilderness. What impresses me in the Old Testament is how well people did know Him. God’s best friends in the Bible are in the Old Testament. The man that Paul uses to suggest what God wants most in us was Abraham, in the Old Testament (Romans 4; Galatians 3). Moses is called a friend of God (Exod 33:11). And look at Job, Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Apparently the message in the Old Testament is clear enough for some people, at least, to get it. In fact, Jesus grew up with the Old Testament and learned the truth about His Father from it. So I think the Old Testament is magnificently clear but only when it is read as a whole. I find no break between the Old and the New, except that in the New Christ is here in human form to confirm everything that has been described and anticipated in the Old. Even His Sermon on the Mount is already in the Old Testament (see Exodus 20:17 and Psalm 51 as examples). So the Bible is a complete package, all sixty-six books.
Lou: Let’s take two or three questions that are slightly different. “You spoke about sanctification. What is this? If we sincerely accept Jesus as our Savior, how can we ever be lost? Once we are saved, aren’t we always saved?”
Graham: “Sanctification” is, of course, one of those heavy Latin terms. I prefer to use “set right” and “keep right,” rather than “justify” and “sanctify.” We can understand those words. Putting it in that way, one can be set right with God, and one can be kept right for quite a while, but one is still free to leave. And Lucifer proved that by leaving. He was right with God before he left. There was no rebellion in heaven at the begnning. And so a million years into eternity, we may have been right with God for a long time, but we are still free to go.
The once saved, always saved idea belongs to a very legal model. I’m paid up, and I’m still paid up, and I have a right to be there. I’d rather say that I’m only safe to have around if I’m willing to listen, to trust God, and to accept instruction. And I’ll always be free to turn into a rebel. That makes it even more wonderful that God’s children will choose to remain loyal. Then their loyalty means something. Their expression of love to God means something. They haven’t been reprogrammed. They haven’t been turned into robots. The price that God has had to pay to settle the questions indicates how absolutely opposed He is to programming us and making it impossible for us to go some other way. God took quite a risk, but evidently freedom means that much to God.
Lou: Graham, here are a couple of questions that are somewhat related. “If God is a God of love and acceptance, why then did He demand animal sacrifices? Couldn’t the children of Israel just have asked for forgiveness rather than going through that sacrificial ceremony?” And let me tie that together with another one. Someone writes about their daughters who are now eighteen and twenty-two. They have been vegetarians since they were young because they love animals too much to have them killed for their benefit. But they run into trouble when they go to the Old Testament, because there you have the sacrifices for God’s benefit. “We know it has something to do with the sacrifice of Jesus, but why does God have to be appeased by poor little animals dying?”
Graham: There’s a lot implied in there. But one thing is for sure, Who is the One who sees the little sparrow fall? I mean, if it upsets these daughters, how do you think it upsets the Lord? And yet He gave that whole sanctuary system. It must have been important for Him to do it. These questions are important enough that we have a whole chapter on what I call “God’s Emergency Measures.” Things like the sanctuary and the Flood were serious emergency measures because there was a serious emergency on this earth. We see God pointing to a larger picture in the prophets. “I don’t really want your sacrifices apart from the meaning. I hate them” (Amos 5:21-22; Hos 6:6).
Think of all the blood and all the suffering! God loves the animals. And yet to make a very important point, He asked Adam and Eve to kill that first lamb. So we need to consider carefully the meaning of these sacrifices. Because if we just learn about them and don’t think of the meaning, we are as ceremonial as the people in the Old Testament who missed the point. So we must ask all the way through, how could God do something which He Himself did not like? And yet it needed to be done, and we will revisit that in future chapters.
One more thing, I heard the word “appease” in one of those questions. Were these sacrifices to appease God in some way, to make Him more favorable toward us? One could get that impression from the word “propitiation” in some translations of Romans 3:25. The word “propitiation” suggests appeasement, a gift offered to change a god’s mind. But that’s not the word that’s there in the original. That’s a regrettable translation. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:18). Nobody had to win Him to our side. So the implications of that are well worth some serious study, and in the chapters on “God’s Emergency Measures” (Chapter Eleven) and on why Jesus had to die (Chapter Eight), we will have an opportunity to deal with those thoroughly.
Lou: This next question is similar. “If God’s character is love (1 John 4:8) and God loves us so much (John 3:16), why was pain and death so prevalent in the Old and New Testaments? And is it God who will actually destroy man in the end? Or is it sin and Satan that causes destruction? If God does destroy, then is that contrary to His own Word?”
Graham: I too couldn’t live without an answer to those questions, and one should work on them. But I’m glad the Bible does not settle for just claims. “These questions you will find answered on page 721, lines one, two, three, four, five and six.” Those are just claims. It has actually cost a great deal to answer those questions.
Now on the violence in the Old Testament, we know we’re all caught up in the consequences of this war. We also bring a lot of this on ourselves, to be sure. God sometimes disciplines those He loves. And the devil is also at work. There are many causes of trouble and difficulty. We plan to look at them all. But I don’t expect a neat answer to a question like that.
The biggest question, however, may be, “Will God destroy us in the end?” If all God asks of us is love and trust, and if we don’t give it to Him, is He going to destroy us in the end? This would be like God saying, “You either love Me, or I’ll destroy you.” And if that’s the way He is, I cannot trust Him. I do not care to live with Him. I do not believe He’s that way; but it cost the death of Christ to prove it. So to answer that question we have to watch Jesus die. Did the Father destroy His Son? The cross is the central answer to all of this, and we will look deeply into that answer in Chapter Eight.
Lou: Let’s shift gears to a question about the Flood, which is still in a similar vein: “On the subject of the Flood, it is apparent that God didn’t do things right the first time. So He had to send a Flood and start all over again.” What would you do with that?
Graham: That question makes a lot of sense, since the text says, “It repented the Lord that He had made man. . . (Gen 6:6, KJV).” Or as some versions say, “He was sorry that He had made man” (RSV). As you go through the sixty-six, you run into several places where God is pictured as if He were not too aware of what is going on and certainly not having as much foreknowledge as we think. For example, when He comes to the Garden of Eden, He says “Where are you?” And Adam says, “We’re over here.” “Oh, thank you. I didn’t know” (based on Genesis 3:10-11). Another time He came to Abraham (before the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah) and said, “Abraham, I’ve come down to check out the reports I’ve received, to see if they are correct or not” (Gen 18:21). Now we’ve all assumed that God is getting very good reporting. Apparently not; He had to come down and say, “I’m checking this out Myself.”
There are many places in the Bible like that, where God talks in very human language. And so in this case with the Flood it grieved God that He had made man (Gen 6:6, NIV). My understanding would be that He foreknew all of this, and He had now come to the time when there were only eight people left on this planet with whom He could communicate. And the answers to the questions in the great controversy had not yet been given. So God, as it were, turns to the universe and says, “I’m really going to test your faith in Me. The next thing you see will stun you.” And He drowned all but eight to preserve the one remaining point of contact He had with the human race. It was the only way He could go on unfolding His plan.
I’m sure the devil cried, “Foul! I told you He’s that kind of a God. You either love Him or He’ll drown you, or He’ll burn you, or have you stoned, or swallow you up.” The risk God ran in arranging the Flood suggests just how important it was to do what He did. The risk was that great. Had He not done that, everything would have ended at that time. And the answers to the great questions had not yet been given. The Flood has to be put in the total setting that includes the cosmic perspective with the angels watching. God ran a great risk of being misunderstood at that time. But I believe it was all in His plan.
Lou: You say that everything would have ended at that point. Do you mean that the whole human race was so evil that it would self-destruct?
Graham: Well those eight that got on the boat weren’t that good, you remember. Ham wasn’t too virtuous, and his father hadn’t taken the temperance pledge yet. Those eight weren’t saved because they were obedient. I believe they were saved because they got on the boat. But we can’t compare that with the salvation at the end. It’s not quite the same. The Flood was an emergency measure. At the end, God will be determining who is safe to save.
In the original lecture series done in 1984 at the Loma Linda University Church, Graham Maxwell spoke for about a half hour each Friday night following by written questions and answers from Lou Venden and also from the audience. The next several posts contain questions and answers from the fifth presentation, “The Record of the Evidence.”
Lou: It seems that you are asking us to do a lot of thinking and studying. There’s a bumper sticker around which says, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it for me.” That sounds refreshingly simple. Why wouldn’t that be the appropriate way to go?
Graham: The difficulty is that people pick the passages from the Bible that they want to label in that way, and they don’t read all the others. For example, “Take the tithe and buy strong drink with it, and rejoice before the Lord” (Deut 14:24-26). God said it. Do you believe it? Or take another passage, “Give wine to the poor, that they may forget their misery” (Prov 31:6-7). Does that settle it for you? “God has said it. I believe it.” You really can’t do that. On the surface, it sounds like an expression of humility and teachableness, which would be very commendable. But no one can really follow that if they read everything God says. Because when you read all of Scripture, you discover the hazard of plucking pieces out like that.
Lou: So you are pushing us at the point of meaning. We just cannot simply jump around here and there and think we understand what it means. If we are serious about God’s Word, there’s no easy way around the context.
Graham: The Bible says, “All Scripture is inspired of God.” So if that bumper sticker means I’m reading it all, then I’m comfortable with the idea.
Lou: Would you suggest a better bumper sticker, perhaps?
Graham: How about this: “Thank you for the evidence. Thank you for making it so clear. And thank you most of all for what it cost.” It would take a big bumper, wouldn’t it!
Lou: We have quite a backlog of questions. “Using the model of the larger view, how does one fit together the apparently violent God of the Old Testament, the friendly God of the New Testament, and the destructive God of Revelation at the end of this earth?” Put that all together.
Graham: Ah, that’s very well stated. That assumes, of course, that God is always severe and violent in the Old Testament. Yet some of the most gentle and moving statements are in the Old Testament. For example, in the parable of the vineyard, “What more can I do for you than I have done” (Isa 5:4)? “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23). So the Old Testament is not entirely violent, nor is the New Testament entirely gentle. When Ananias and Sapphira cheated with their offering, they died right on the church floor (Acts 5:5, 10). So I actually find a consistency running through all the Bible, and the real question would be, why is there a varied picture running from Genesis to Revelation, culminating in the third angel’s message, which is so violent (Rev 14:9-11)?
I wouldn’t know how to handle it, except by taking it as a whole and finding the same God dealing with a great variety of people. When we are irreverent, there may be she-bears, thunder and lightning, or an earthquake. And yet I see the same gentle One behind it all, grieving when those people had to be treated that way. But what else could He do?
I don’t think a quick answer like this would ever satisfy someone who has raised the question so thoughtfully. The best response would be to sit down together and go through all the sixty-six books. It takes a little time, but there are no shortcuts to this. And it would be wise to keep that larger question in mind as one reads every book in the sixty-six.
Lou: This one ties in with that as well. “Satan held that God was not able to be just and merciful at the same time. Today He offers us mercy, but will He not kill us finally? Are we not to be consumed in His fire? If we are, how then do we call Him a God of love? Why did Jesus have to die? Was not God’s mercy sufficient?” That’s another one of those full message questions.
Graham: Yes. These are the really important questions, the kind that have to be answered for the universe to be secure. That’s why we see that theme running all through Scripture, culminating in the death of Jesus. And that’s why we have a whole chapter in this book on the most costly and convincing evidence. There was no other way to answer those questions than for God to come in human form and die as He did. So the great controversy view doesn’t make light of the death of Christ. It makes it infinitely more significant. Because there is no other way to answer those questions, and we will deal with those at length in Chapter Eight.
There are plenty of challenging texts in the Bible, when they are read out of context. When Paul says, “It’s all right to marry if you must, but I wish you could be as I am,” does he mean that married people are second class saints? No, put that statement it in its context. Similarly, why did Paul say, “I won’t allow a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12)? And why does the Old Testament say, “You cannot boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21)? And then you turn to Judges and read about Samson, filled with the Spirit, killing a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass (Judg 15:15-17). You read about that fat king and the dagger that was thrust into him (Judg 3:15-28). And the dreadful story of the Levite and his Concubine (Judg 19:1-30).
One of the worst illustrations of reading the Bible out of context is a book called The Bible Unmasked. A man who’s avowed purpose was to destroy confidence in the Bible and in God, collected every unpleasant story of immorality and cruelty in the Bible and laid them end to end with the preface, “Would you mothers let your children read this sort of thing?” When I mentioned this book in one of my classes, a student came back with the best answer to this I have ever heard, “If you took the medical book and cut out all the pictures of disease and all the symptoms of disease and printed them all by themselves, it would be a useless, repulsive publication. The only justification for printing those things is that they are always presented in the setting of the remedy.”
The Bible is very candid in its depiction and description of sin. But it always presents sin in the setting of the remedy. Otherwise the Bible would not be fit to read. But that’s why we must read it as a whole. For example, did you know that there are two books in the Bible that don’t even mention God once? Not once. But if you take those two books, Esther and Song of Solomon, and put them in the larger setting of the Bible as a whole, they say wonderful things about our God. You see, to be fair with the evidence we must read it as a whole. After going through the Bible more than a hundred times, this is a summary of my firmest convictions about its purpose.
The great purpose of the Bible is to reveal the truth about our heavenly Father that we may be won back to Him in love and trust. This truth, this everlasting good news, is to be found in every one of the sixty-six books. But to discover this truth we must learn more than just what happened to Samson and Delilah, to David and Bathsheba, to Gideon and his fleece. The all-important question is, what do these stories tell us about God?
If one does not ask this question, much of the content of Scripture may seem unrelated to the plan of salvation, even perplexing, sometimes even contradictory. But when one learns to view the Bible as a whole, there emerges a consistent picture of an all-wise and gracious God who seems willing to go to any length to keep in touch with His people, to stoop and reach them where they are, to speak a language they can understand. And the further one reads on book by book, the more one is moved with love and admiration for a God who would be willing to run such risk, to pay such a price, in order to keep open the lines of communication between Himself and His wayward children.
God will save all who trust Him. But He has not asked us to trust Him as a stranger. The Bible–all of it–is a record of God’s revelation and demonstration of infinite trustworthy-ness.
This statement of principle will continue to guide the rest of our twenty conversations (chapters) about God. We want to look at all of the biblical evidence in this way.
No wonder many people don’t know what to do with the Old Testament. No wonder one of Jesus’ own disciples didn’t. Philip said to Jesus, “Tell us about the Father and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). Jesus replied, “Have I been with you so long Philip, and you don’t know me” (John 14:9)? What Philip seems to be saying is “We aren’t asking about You. We worship You as the Son of God. And to our great surprise we are not afraid of You. What we want to know about is the Father. We want to know about the One who drowned all but eight and said, ‘If you disobey Me, I will kill you.’ We want to know about the God who killed the firstborn in Egypt (Exod 11:4-7) and the 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35). The God who killed Uzzah when he touched the ark (2 Sam 6:3-8) and turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26). The One who swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num 16:1-35), and burned up Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3; Num 3:2-4), and sent the she-bears against the boys who mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-24).” And so on down the list. “Jesus, could the Father possibly be like you?”
Jesus replied, as in John 14:9, NIV: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Since the account in John 14-16 is quite condensed, Jesus could well have continued at this point, “And Philip, as for those difficult stories in the Old Testament, don’t take them to mean that the Father is less gracious and less approachable than you have found Me to be. It so happens that I am the One who led Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). The command to stone Achan was Mine. Philip, why don’t you ask Me why? I’d love to tell you. I would almost put off the crucifixion if you disciples would only ask Me.” But according to the record, they never asked Him.
He went on to say something extraordinary to them. In John 16:26, He spoke words which most Christians have not yet incorporated into the good news. Jesus said, “I. . . will tell you plainly about my Father” (John 16:25, NIV). Goodspeed helpfully translates what follows:
“I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself” (John 16:26, Goodspeed). I consider these the most astonishing words in the Bible; we will spend much time on them later.
What a shame they didn’t ask Him what He meant by these words (John 14:9; 16:25-27). Instead, they wanted to argue about the positions they would hold in the kingdom. Since they didn’t ask, then it’s really left with us to ask. “Jesus, why did you order the stoning of Achan? How could you, the gentle Jesus, do that? And Jesus, why did you set up the whole priestly system of intercession and mediatorial work, when you said there is no need for anyone to intercede with the Father, for the Father Himself loves us?” I wish they would have asked Him these questions, because then the biblical record would hold the most incredible information from the Lord Himself. Well, we had better ask now. If we ask, what important answers may come as we ask of every story, teaching, and event in the Bible, “What does this tell us about God?”
Fortunately, some Pharisees asked Jesus a difficult question which gives us some idea as to what He might have said on those other occasions. When they asked Jesus about divorce, they said, “Jesus, you know the texts that say we may divorce our wives. Moses gave us permission. What is your view on the subject?” Matt 19:7. And Jesus explained why He had given Moses directions as to how the people could (if they wished) divorce their wives in Matthew 19:7, 8:
The Pharisees asked him, “Why, then, did Moses give the law for a man to hand his wife a divorce notice and send her away?” Jesus answered, “Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you are so hard to teach. But it was not like that at the time of creation (GNB).”
You see in Moses’s day when you tired of your wife, you simply sent her home. You didn’t even have to give her camel’s fare to get there. All you had to say was “Out! I have a new one moving in this afternoon.” Through Moses God said, “If you’re going to do it, do it in a more humane manner.” But God’s real feeling is expressed in Malachi, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16, RSV). Most people do.
Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees is the key to so many other places in the Bible where God seems to recommend something strange or wrong. God is not contradicting Himself in those places, He’s meeting people where they are. The Matthew 19 passage illustrates a fundamental principle of interpretation, which we will use throughout the rest of our conversations, the principle of context. It was the context, the setting, that determined the meaning of a passage when it was originally written. To the extent that we can recreate and recover that original context, we are in a position to recover the original meaning.
We go back to the beginning of our Bibles, to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And the question inevitably arises, “Why so much? And why so many details? And why so many varied pictures of God?” Then we remember Hebrews 1:1-3:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times, and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . . the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (NIV).
But that raises another question. If we have the Son, why should we spend so much time in the Old Testament? Why not read the gospels? How clear the picture is there! “Blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3). “Pray for your enemies” (Matt 5:44). How gracious that whole message is. Then you see the way Jesus treated sinners. How forgiving! Is there anything arbitrary, exacting, or severe in the record of the gospels? Look at how Jesus treated Judas. He washed the feet of His betrayer the night before He died (John 13). Look at how Jesus seemed to cover people’s sins as much as He possibly could. He didn’t even expose the men who brought that woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). And when Jairus’ daughter was raised and the crowd rushed out of the room to celebrate, who was it that called after them and said, “This little girl is hungry. Get her something to eat” (Mark 5:43; Luke 8:55). The Bible even says that the Son of God cried at the funeral of one of His friends (John 11:35).
None of this sounds like the Devil’s picture of God. In the gospels, Jesus is clearly not the kind of person Satan has made God out to be. Then why don’t we just settle for the magnificent record in the Gospels? However, as one reads on through the gospels, one cannot help noticing Jesus’ own use of the Old Testament, in John 5:39, 40, for example: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life” (John 5:39, NIV). That’s almost a form of bibliolatry, worshiping the Bible as if there were some magical power in the book. “No,” Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40, NIV). He speaks of the Old Testament scriptures as bearing witness to the truth about Him. Why would we want to waste them? And note also in Luke 24:27 how He used the Old Testament: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (NIV).
To really follow Christ’s example, then, is to use the Old Testament. Where do you think He found His picture of God? How did he know God so well? He grew up with the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. We would be very wasteful not to use them, too. So back again we go to the Old Testament, remembering that 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all scripture inspired of God is profitable.”
Scripture starts with the lovely picture in Eden, but as soon as they are created God says to our first parents, “In the day you eat thereof, you will die” (Gen 2:17). And right there is the problem. Did God mean, “If you disobey Me, I’ll kill you?” That does sound arbitrary and severe. Moreover, the original pair were cast out of the garden on their first offense (Gen 3). What if all children were thrown out of their homes the first time they disobeyed? We would have a lot of homeless children in the world. Are we more forgiving than God?
We read about the Flood, when God drowned not just sinful men, but women and children, babies, and all of their pets (Gen 6:13, 17; 7:4, and especially 7:21-23). Then we go on to Sodom and Gomorrah, that awful burning of human beings (Gen 19:24-25). And then the story of Lot’s wife (Gen 19:26). How many of you women, leaving the home where you had reared your children, wouldn’t want to take at least one little peek over your shoulder? Yet look what happened to Lot’s wife. And look at all the fighting in the Old Testament. And then you find God saying, “When you fight, don’t just kill the soldiers. Go into the villages afterwards. Break into the homes. Kill the women. Kill the children. Kill the babies. Kill the pets. Leave alive nothing that breathes” (1 Sam 15:3). That same day King Saul decided not to kill everybody (1 Sam 15:8-9). And God was not pleased (1 Sam 15:18-19, 23-24).
Most of us would say that doesn’t sound like the New Testament. How could Jesus get the kind of picture He had of His Father from these stories? And there are more of them, like the stoning of Achan (Joshua 7). The worst part of that story is not so much whether Achan and his family deserved to be stoned, but that God asked His own people to do the stoning (Josh 7:12-13, 24-25). And then there’s “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21; Matt 5:38), and “the gluttonous child is to be stoned” (Deut 21:20-21), and “the illegitimate child is to be banished from the camp for ten generations” (Deut 23:2).
There are many other questions that arise. The ones we have just brought up have been easy to handle. If you have access to a modern version, none of them will be a problem. But a more serious question arises. Why do there seem to be so few theological statements in the Bible? You can go pages and pages without a statement about God. Why doesn’t the Bible read, “God is love. God never changes. God can be trusted.” If it did, many of us would be willing to believe it. But those are just claims, and the Bible itself warns against accepting mere claims. We need evidence. We need demonstration. Which leads to the next question that often arises.
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.
Think of Sinai, for example. God comes down to speak to His people on that mountain, and He thunders. There is lightning, and there’s an earthquake. The people are terrified. God says to Moses, “Build a fence around the mountain. Don’t let those people come too close. If anyone comes near the fence he is to be stoned. If anyone breaks through the fence, I’ll burst forth upon him and consume him.” And the people stood there so terrified that they said to Moses, “Don’t let God speak to us, lest we die.” Now we sing, “Nearer, Still Nearer” and “Speak to Me LORD”, but we are not at the foot of Mount Sinai. Was that some other God? Or was that the Son of God, speaking to the people in that manner on Mount Sinai?
Well, we have to recreate the historical setting. How were they behaving at the foot of the mountain? They were grumbling, and complaining, and irreverent. And the only way God could get their attention, and hold it long enough to share some truth about Himself, was to run the risk of terrifying them. Even so forty days later, when the thunders had died away, they were dancing drunk and irreverent around the golden calf. Evidently God had to raise His voice that loud because of the circumstances prevailing at the time.
An illustration of God’s preferred way of persuading us—not with denials, not with claims, but with evidence—is provided by the story of John the Baptist. John risked his life to present his cousin Jesus to the people. And how gracious he had been: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Now John was in prison. Jesus taught that you really ought to visit people in prison; but Jesus never came to see His cousin. And eventually John sent emissaries to Christ. “Are you really the one or not? Should we be looking for another?” That is a sad inquiry. Jesus could have responded to him, “I am indeed the One and I expect you to believe it!” But John might have thought he was the devil masquerading as Christ. Instead, He invited John’s two disciples to spend the day with Him. When the day was over the two men went back to the prison to see John.
“Did He answer my question?”
“But what did you see? What did you hear?”
And in the text it’s recorded:
Jesus gave them this reply. “Go and tell John what you hear and what you see; that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses his faith in me.” (Matt 11:4-6, Phillips)
And when the men arrived back at the prison and told this to John; John may have remembered passages like Isaiah 35:6 and Isaiah 61:1. And he knew, “He is the One.” Jesus did not answer with a claim, He offered evidence. This is God’s way of revealing Himself, and it is the only dependable way.