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The Embarrassing Patience of God (19:6)

God’s incredible graciousness has even been an embarrassment to some of His people. Do you remember when the prophet Jonah was asked by God to go and give a serious message of warning to Nineveh? At first he ran away. Later, under considerable pressure, he went and delivered his message. He was hardly a “missionary volunteer.” Think of the pressure the Lord had to put on Jonah to get him to go to Nineveh and deliver a very serious message to a very dangerous people. Jonah walked the streets and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (based on Jonah 3:4).

Then he went out and sat down on a hillside nearby to watch the city come to its end (Jon 4:5). But it didn’t. The people of Nineveh repented, and the city was not destroyed (Jon 3:10). And Jonah complained angrily to God. He said, “God, that’s why I ran away. I knew You were far too kind to go through with that threat. You’ve made me look like a false prophet. I’m humiliated enough to die.” Imagine saying such words to God! Here’s how the biblical text puts it:

Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now then, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive. Jonah 4:2-3, GNB.

Think how well this man knew God way back in Old Testament times! Those are words Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, or Abraham would have been proud to speak. In fact, none of them used better words than that to talk about our God. But Jonah was ashamed. God’s kindness had embarrassed him. He was so humiliated, his reputation as a reliable prophet was so destroyed, that he was prepared to die!

God reasoned with frustrated Jonah. “Have you no pity for these people? Aren’t you glad that they have chosen to repent?” Jonah 4:4, 11. God even mentioned the cattle in the city at the end of the book (4:11). But Jonah was much more concerned about his own reputation. Moses, Abraham, Jeremiah, and Paul all announced themselves proud to know God as they did. They were proud of Him and proud of the good news. Jonah also knew God, but he was ashamed.

The Misunderstood Patience of God (19:5)

Sometimes this patience of God has been misunderstood. Some think we can go on sinning with impunity because God is simply too kind and too patient to discipline us or to turn us over to destructive consequences. Paul warned that presuming on the kindness of God is a serious error: “Are you, perhaps, misinterpreting God’s generosity and patient mercy towards you as weakness on his part? Don’t you realise [sic] that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4, Phillips.

God’s patience has even puzzled His trusting children. In the days of Habakkuk, they cried out to God, “Why don’t You do something? Why don’t You rescue us and help us in our predicament?” They were in despair that God seemed to be doing nothing (all based on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 13). And so the prophet Habakkuk was sent to urge them not to give up their faith, but to trust God to work out His plans in His own good time (Hab 2:1-4). The problem, according to Micah, is that we often don’t understand God’s plan (Mic 4:12). Let us trust Him as we seek to understand His plan, and let Him do it in His own time and in His own way.

The prophet Habakkuk sums up his message by saying: “[What God has planned] may seem slow in coming, but wait for it; it will certainly take place.” Hab 2:3, GNB. In fact, God’s first message to Habakkuk was, “I am doing something, but you wouldn’t believe it if I told you” (based on Habakkuk 1:5). Habakkuk said, “Try me, Lord. Tell me” (based on Habakkuk 2:1). And the Lord did (Hab 2:2-4). Habakkuk then indicated that he was willing to wait. That’s the source of that great verse, “The just, God’s friends, will live in faith, in trust” (based on Habakkuk 2:4). That verse was not about forgiveness. It was written about trusting God enough to be willing to wait. That great verse that Paul picked up in Romans is a most appropriate one for those who wonder why the Lord still waits.

In these last days, God’s patience even gives His enemies an opportunity to misinterpret it as weakness. They scoff at God’s apparent inability to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion. This issue is addressed in the whole of 2 Peter 3. Peter warns that:

In the last days there will come men who scoff at religion and live self-indulgent lives, and they will say: “Where now is the promise of his coming? Our fathers have been laid to their rest, but still everything continues as it has always been since the world began.” 2 Pet 3:3-4, NEB.

Doesn’t that sound like the doctrine of uniformitarianism? Nothing has ever changed and nothing ever will. But that is not the real reason for the delay:

It is not that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise, as some suppose, but that he is very patient with you, because it is not his will for any to be lost, but for all to come to repentance. 2 Pet 3:9, NEB.

Then Peter refers to Paul’s earlier advice in Romans 2:4: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you.” 2 Pet 3:15, NIV. God’s patience is often misunderstood.

The Gospel and the End (19:4)

Of all the things that must happen before the conflict is over, Jesus especially emphasized one. He said that the gospel, the true picture of God, must go to the whole world before the End will come (Matt 24:14; Mark 13:10). We can trust God to wait until His children all over this planet have had a chance to make an enlightened decision. In view of the confusion and the deception to come, God would not ask anyone to pass through that period without sufficient information upon which to base an intelligent choice.

This is consistent with the way God has treated angels and men ever since the Great Controversy began. He has always waited patiently for His children to make up their own minds. Think of how many centuries He waited for Israel to respond to the information brought by the prophetic messengers that He sent one after the other. It was not until Israel went beyond even the Creator’s power to restore, that He finally and reluctantly gave them up. But after the Israelites had been taken off to Babylonian captivity, God inspired the writer of 2 Chronicles to explain why He could no longer protect them, why He had to let them go:

The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people . . . but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, till the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, till there was no remedy. 2 Chr 36:15-16, RSV.

It was not an arbitrary decision. They were misbehaving so grossly (as we know from Kings and Chronicles), He simply could not do anything more for them. He had to let them go into the discipline of captivity. And that’s what the “wrath of God” means, God sadly giving Israel up. Fortunately, it was not the final awful destruction at the end of the world. But it was discipline. And though God seemed to have abandoned them, we know that He went with them, didn’t He? He blessed Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Esther, Mordecai, and Ezekiel while they were in captivity. But by and large, God could not work through His people as a nation at that time. He had to give them up into the discipline of captivity.

Reacting to His Return (19:3)

Now in the passage we read above from Matthew, Jesus speaks of all the people on earth weeping as they see the Son of Man coming back. But other passages tell us that not everyone will be weeping. Those who have learned to trust Him will be very glad to see Him come. This was clearly predicted way back in the days of Isaiah: “In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’” Isa 25:9, NIV.

While many will rejoice when Jesus returns, most of the world will have turned against God (Rev 13:8). And because they have not learned to trust Jesus, they will flee from Him in terror, even though He will come back in human form: “They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’” Rev 6:16, NIV. How could they possibly flee from gentle Jesus, meek and mild? While He does come back in majesty and power, there is still no need to be afraid. But Satan has so convinced his allies that God is arbitrary, vengeful, and severe, they will actually flee from Him as He cries after them, “Why will you die? How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” Ezekiel 18:31; Hosea 11:8. How thoroughly Satan will have convinced these people that his lies about God are the truth!

What makes the difference between the reaction of the righteous and the reaction of the rest? Peter and Judas looked at the same gentle but majestic face of Jesus during His trial. One of them was moved to repentance (Matt 26:75; Mark 14:72; Luke 22:61-62). The other one was moved to go out and take his own life (Matt 26:47-50; 27:3-5; Acts 1:15-20). Our Lord is not two-faced. The difference is in us! Those who have learned to welcome the good news, the truth about our God, have learned to trust and admire God’s wise and gracious ways. They will be ready to see Him come, even to see Him in His glory, and not be afraid. They will be awestruck, to be sure, but not scared of our God. Those who have despised and rejected this good news, on the other hand, will actually look at the one who died for them and, like Judas, be driven by that sight to suicidal action (Rev 6:15-17).

More Important Than Knowing the Time (19:2)

In John 14 Jesus indicated that there was something much more important than knowing the exact time. It was far more important that His followers trust Him enough to be willing to wait. Do you remember Chapter Three, “All God Asks Is Trust”? If we trust Him enough to be ready for His coming, we really don’t need to know the exact time. If we trust Him, all will be well. Jesus indicated this in John 14:

Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. . . . I shall come again and receive you to myself, so that where I am you may be also. John 14:1, 3, NEB.

Jesus did not tell His disciples when, but He did give them some details by which they could tell the approximate time. As they sat together one day on the Mount of Olives, Jesus spoke of many signs by which the disciples could tell when the End was getting near. These are very familiar passages to all who believe in the Second Coming. He spoke of alarming disturbances in earth and sky. He spoke of growing distrust between the nations. He spoke of the rise of false religious leaders. He particularly warned of those who would arise and teach that His return was to be in secret. “Don’t believe it,” Jesus said:

. . . for the Son of Man will come like the lightning that flashes across the whole sky from the east to the west. . . . and all the peoples of earth will weep as they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. The great trumpet will sound, and he will send out his angels to the four corners of the earth, and they will gather his chosen people from one end of the world to the other. Matthew 24:27, 30-31, GNB.

Now that is hardly the description of an invisible event. Quite to the contrary, John affirmed very clearly in the last book in the Bible that “every eye will see him” come. Rev 1:7, RSV.

Chapter Nineteen: “How Soon Will the Conflict Be Over?”

In the last three chapters we have introduced the topic of when the conflict of earth’s history will be over and Christ will return. That time will come when God’s children on this planet have fully responded (“yes” or “no”) to His final pleading. The conflict will be over when His loyal children on this planet will have become so settled into the truth that they are ready to resist Satan’s final efforts to deceive. Christ will return when His followers not only know the truth well enough to survive but, like Job, they know it well enough to speak well and truly of their heavenly Father. This chapter explores the timing of the end of human history and its relevance to how we view the character of God. The question addressed in this chapter is not so much when the conflict will be over, but rather how soon it will be over.

Many of us wonder if the conflict will end and Christ will return in our own lifetime. The disciples wondered about this already in their time, and they asked Jesus: “Tell us, when will this be and how can we tell when You’re coming back and the world will come to an end?” Matt 24:3, Beck. And Jesus replied that even the angels do not know. In fact, in His human form, even He did not know: “But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father.” Matt 24:36, NEB.

Questions and Answers (18:13)

Lou: What about some of these things you have referred to as “emergency measures;” like the law? Are you saying that even the law can be distorted? What is the right place for the law in a healthy, balanced view?

Graham: If we present the great controversy view, we show how God added these emergency measures when we needed them. Faith does not deny them, it thanks God for them. The law was given to lead us to Christ that we may grow up. For some, this is an essential step along the way. Misunderstood, emergency measures like the law can keep us as children, and hence vulnerable to Satan’s influences at the End.

Lou: What about the destruction of the wicked?

Graham: If that produces theophobia, it will lead to the obedience that springs from fear. Such obedience turns us into rebels and certainly keeps us children. “Love Me, or I’ll kill you” won’t produce real love, not even in a little child. So we need to see the destruction of the wicked in light of the cross.

Lou: How about the cross then?

Graham: If the cross is seen as propitiating the anger or winning the favor of an offended God, it also produces theophobia. Even the cross can make me afraid of God if presented in that way. “Thank God He’s forgiven me just now, but I better not give up or you know what He’ll do to me.”

Lou: What is the healthier view of the cross then?

Graham: The healthier view of the cross is as a demonstration that sin does indeed lead to death; it’s that serious. But the cross is not torture and execution at the hands of an angry God. He simply gave up His Son as He will give us up in the end. And when the Son died, the Father cried, as He will cry over us when we die in the end (see section “Three Questions Regarding the Character of God” in Chapter Eight). So, rightly understood, there is no need to be afraid of God when we stand at the foot of the cross. And there is no need to be afraid of God when we see the destruction of the wicked either.

Lou: How should we understand sin in the larger view of things?

Graham: If we view sin as breaking arbitrary rules, it makes sin something that God doesn’t like. It offends Him. It makes Him angry, so He punishes us. That’s a childish view. But in the Larger View, sin is something that’s really wrong in itself. It is like poison, producing its own consequences. In that case, the “punishment” for sin is not really punishment, it is a consequence inherent to the crime itself. Sin leads to consequences, all the way up to the consequence of death, and God would prefer to spare us those consequences.

Lou: What about atonement?

Graham: The Devil wants us to view atonement as reconciling God to us, assuaging His wrath, instead of God winning us back to Himself. The truth is, God never left us; we left Him.

Lou: Let’s take two more. First, intercession.

Graham: If by intercession we imply that the Father is not our friend, we’ve driven a wedge between the Father and the Son, and we’ve made the Father look very unforgiving and severe. So the intercession message could be used by the Devil to turn us against God and keep us as little children. But it can also be an encouraging message for those who need it.

Lou: What about the Judgment?

Graham: Again, if the Judgment is seen as arbitrary, or a positive outcome is seen as dependent on the pleading of Jesus, I think that’s cruel. The Devil is pleased when we assume that one member of the Godhead is more friendly than the other two. But a biblical view of judgment focuses more on what God is like and what He is doing for us.

Lou: You could say we just tried to review the first eighteen chapters of the book in the last three minutes here. Hopefully that will prepare us for Chapter Nineteen, “How Soon Will the Conflict Be Over?” And that has been a topic of conversation for God’s people ever since John said, “Come soon, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:21). I’m looking forward to it.

Questions and Answers (18:12)

Lou: Someone said the other day that there is actually a condition in the medical dictionary called theophobia– fear of God. It’s an actual ailment that a physician might need to be alert to.

Graham: That’s right. Doctors run into it now and then. It is a morbid fear of the wrath of God. Some saint preaches, “Fear God,” and doctors have to rush in to cure the theophobia. We’d better tell people the truth about God. Otherwise, we ministers will be working at odds with our clinical friends, making people ill with theophobia. We had better bring the good news that there is no need to be afraid of God. Jesus spent all His life healing the sick. It would be tragic to think about God, the One who meant to cast out fear, and have that become a theophobic experience.

Lou: You also mentioned Ephesians 4, where it suggests that the work of the church community is to help people grow up. How does a church try to do that? What can a church do to really help people grow?

Graham: As a pastor, you’ve devoted your life to thinking of ways to do this. It would be growing up for a member to go from a child-like, legal, authoritarian view to a larger understanding of freedom and truth. God does not ask us to believe anything for which He does not provide evidence. It is evidence that appeals to the reason. He urges us to inquire, to investigate. These are the things that a grown-up does.
We have to take trusting children and make them independent, but loving and trusting adults, adults who can withstand what’s coming. I think one of the first ways to do that is to invite our members to investigate every sermon that they hear. If they go home and investigate, over time they’ll grow up.

Lou: Toward the close of the previous chapter, you were suggesting some ways in which the Enemy has distorted and perverted Bible truths. Bible truths can be twisted to offer a terrible picture of God, one in which God is pictured inaccurately and unfairly. I’d like to turn that around here and have you suggest how a right understanding of those same truths can help people to grow up. For example, what is the correct understanding of faith?

Graham: The Devil would love to have saints understanding faith as believing what someone in authority tells us; that faith is a leap in the dark, it’s just believing. Because then he’ll have his way with us. The truth isn’t on his side. So what he needs is our willingness to believe without investigation. Genuine faith means trust, a well-founded trust, based on God’s demonstration of the truth.

Lou: What about the Holy Spirit?

Graham: The same way there. I think the Devil has perverted the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, offering the Holy Spirit as a shortcut. “You don’t need the truth; you just need the Spirit.” He teaches that when you have this indwelling, this feeling that comes up through your body, the Holy Spirit is taking over. And when the Spirit is in charge, God will run your life. It sounds so good, but it’s a devilish perversion.
In contrast, the Bible says, “When the Holy Spirit comes, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). He will help you investigate, and He will give you the gift of self-control. So all of these doctrines can be used both ways. We’ve got to present the Spirit as bringing independence (John 3:8), teaching us self-control, things like that.

Questions and Answers (18:11)

Lou: You made reference at the beginning to 1 Timothy 4:1-3. It says some interesting things about forbidding marriage and certain foods. With regard to marriage, didn’t Paul go so far as to say that we shouldn’t marry (1 Cor 7:25-28), and didn’t he write 1 Timothy too?

Graham: Well, by selecting random texts you can prove anything you like from the Bible. But if you take Paul’s comments on marriage in the full setting of 1 Corinthians, he has nothing against marriage whatsoever. In fact, at weddings, whose writings do we quote more than the writings of Paul? He said the nicest things about love and marriage. So one needs to read that part of 1 Corinthians as a description of an emergency; his advice about marriage was an emergency measure at that particular time. It’s not fair to Paul, or to the meaning of marriage, to pluck verses out of their setting.

Lou: This reference to food in 1 Timothy 4, however, makes me wonder. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has had a message about food and health. Could 1 Timothy be talking about that?

Graham: That text is sometimes used against us. We certainly do have some things to say about food. But we don’t teach people to avoid certain foods for arbitrary, ceremonial reasons. Through the centuries there have been religious organizations that have forbidden marriage and certain foods for ceremonial and religious reasons. That’s all 1 Timothy 4 is talking about.

Lou: So you are saying it’s quite a different thing to emphasize concerns about food for health reasons.

Graham: That’s right. Paul in Timothy is not discussing health at all. He is discussing arbitrary ceremonial restrictions that put God in a bad light.

Lou: Moving in another direction, you refer to Job frequently. But why would you use Job as a model, when at the end of the book he talks about repenting? That sounds like somebody who has been wrong and is saying, “I’m sorry. I’m a sinner.” How could Job be a good model when he is repenting?

Graham: A lot of folk, I think, misunderstand Job when they summarize with that statement. Job says, “I repent.” And they say, “The friends were right; they said he should repent.” You see, many people who read Job actually side with the friends. Those who take the narrow, legal view are more comfortable with the theology of Job’s friends than the theology of God in the book. But they fail to read on. After Job says, “I repent,” God says, “Don’t. You have done a beautiful job. You have said of Me what is right and those theologians have not” (Job 42:6-8).
Why then did Job say, “I repent?”
“God,” he says, “I have spoken of many things beyond my understanding. I wouldn’t say it the same way next time” (Job 42:2).
And God says back to him, “Look, We’re sympathetic up here. You’ve lost your family, lost your estate, lost your reputation and you are sitting on a dung heap with your clothes torn and your body covered with boils. We didn’t expect eloquent speeches from you. We think under the circumstances you did magnificently, Job! We couldn’t be more proud of you. You have said of Me what is right.”
Job was saying what every preacher could say at the end of every sermon, “I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job.”

Questions and Answers (18:10)

Lou: Changing the subject a little, will we know if and when we have been sealed?

Graham: Well, if we understand that we are sealed by the Spirit, we can look for the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). One of these fruits is a great concern for truth (Eph 5:9). Another fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:22). And love does not insist on its own way. 1 Cor 13:5, ESV, RSV. All the fruits enter into the reckoning. The more I am perceiving and liking the truth, the more I’m willing to stake my life on this conviction about God. Then I realize the Spirit is having His way in my life. However, I must check my convictions by Scripture, where I got them from in the first place. I must continually submit my convictions to the correction of the Scriptures that were inspired by the Spirit.
The key is to be more and more settled into this picture of God, not just as an opinion but as something we would stake our lives on. Over time we will see that it is really affecting the way we behave and treat other people. Then one could say, “God, I thank You for the Spirit. He’s evidently having some success with me.”

Lou: When you talk about the seal of God, that reminds me of another phrase that you commented on. What really is the “mark of the beast?”

Graham: In Revelation the sealing is mentioned first, then the mark of the beast. If the seal is a symbol of loyalty to God, then the mark of the beast is a symbol of loyalty to the opposition. To receive the seal of God is to be so settled into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, that one cannot be moved. Conversely, to receive the mark of the beast is to be so settled into the lie, that you’ve completely substituted Satan’s lies for the truth. To receive the mark of the beast is to be so settled into Satan’s false picture of God that not even the Spirit of God could move us. So in essence, both the seal and the mark represent an inner commitment for eternity with respect to the truth about God.

Lou: For many of us Seventh-day Adventists, the seal of God has been tied very closely to the Sabbath. In fact, I myself have said that the seal of God is the Sabbath. But I hear you making a distinction between the Sabbath and the seal.

Graham: One has to stop and realize that the people who crucified Christ kept the seventh-day Sabbath scrupulously. Did they have the seal of God? They certainly were not settled into the truth about God. When Jesus brought the truth about God, they said He had a devil (John 7:20; 8:48), and they killed Him to silence His witness. On the other hand, the Sabbath reminds us of the things God has done. Knowing, intelligent, thoughtful observance of the seventh day is a reminder of all these great demonstrations of the truth about God. So in that sense, the Sabbath could be an outward expression of one’s settling into this truth about our God.

Lou: So the Sabbath has something to do with very deep understanding and experience.

Graham: Yes. When the issues in the Great Controversy are clearly seen, the preference for a substitute Sabbath could suggest preference for, even faith in, the one who wants to “be like the Most High” (Satan– 2 Thess 2:4). But not until then.