Being God’s Beloved: Day 23: The Great Commandment

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

One day, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). The question is similarly phrased in Mark 12:28, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

It is wonderful that Jesus was asked this question, because his answer points us to Jesus’ understanding of the heart of God’s Will.[1] After all, the Law is, essentially, an expression of God’s will for how we ought to be as human beings, and how we ought to relate to the world around us. The question could just as well have been, “What is the centre of God’s Will?”

Jesus answers, in Matthew’s version,

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Mark’s version is similar, but has some differences:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

The key difference in Mark is the inclusion of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” which precedes the command to love God in the source for this first commandment in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The Shema was recited twice daily by Jewish people, as a statement of faith or creed. Devout Jews also have the Shema written on the doorposts of their home and on phylacteries tied to their foreheads, in keeping with the instruction of Moses in Deuteronomy 6:6-9.[2] In so doing, Mark’s version emphasises that the commands to love are in response to who God is and what God does.

Mark also differs by the inclusion of “and with all your strength”, though this is in fact part of the source in Deuteronomy. On the other hand, “and with all your mind” is not in Deuteronomy, but included in both Matthew and Mark.

Scholars may debate the reasons for these differences, but what strikes us from the first commandment to love God is the repeated use of all. The love for God that is described here is holistic and all-encompassing. Jesus is describing a kind of love that draws on every facet of our being. He is saying that our entire self is to be turned towards God in love. This is not merely emotional love, such as one might see on the soap operas. Nor is it an intellectual love one might read in the philosophers. Nor is it the physical love one might experience in the bedroom. Rather, this is a love that draws on the whole person.

We have looked previously at the concept of chesed, meaning God’s unfailing loving-kindness towards those with whom God is in a covenant relationship. That love for us – that chesed – encompasses the whole of us. God loves every facet of who we are. God does not merely love our spirit, or the good deeds that we do, or the virtuous thoughts that we think. God loves everything about us. And so, our reciprocated love for God must be similarly holistic. “Because the whole [person] is the object of God’s covenant love, the whole [person] is claimed by God for himself.”[3]

The second part of the commandment, which Jesus says is “like” the first, is to love our neighbour as ourselves, and is drawn from Leviticus 19:18. This involves a similarly whole-hearted, whole-person love for one’s neighbour. We recall the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37, which clarifies who “our neighbour” is – everyone is our neighbour. The kind of love that Jesus calls us to, in relation to other people, has no boundaries – it is a universal love for all of humanity, both collectively (meaning, a general love for all people) and individually (meaning, we are called to love each individual personally and specifically). On Day 16 we said that love is “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”.[4]

Jesus closely connects these two familiar commandments:  “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it” (Matthew 22:38-39a). Although there are two answers, he was asked for the greatest commandment, not two commandments. Clearly, Jesus sees these as so closely intertwined that they are as one.

A little bit of Hebrew grammar will give us insight into an important theological and practical aspect of the Great Commandment. Both the Old Testament sources of the Great Commandment (Deuteronomy and Leviticus) use the jussive form of ‘love’ in the Hebrew.[5] The jussive is a way of expressing one’s volition or desire or intention, but is not as strong as an imperative, which is much more like a direct command to do something.[6] The jussive is thus a subtler and gentler way of expressing choice. In translating jussive Hebrew verbs into English, it is often helpful to put the words ‘let’ or ‘may’ before the verb, such as ‘let him love’ or ‘may he love’.

In the two calls to love, the Hebrew uses the jussive form, thus they are not translated as imperatives or commands, “You must love the Lord” and “You must love your neighbour”. This is important because such a command can easily degenerate into an external performing of the appearance of love, without a true volition, choice or intention to love. While one can easily command someone to perform an activity (such as, “Don’t hit your little sister”), it is usually counterproductive to command someone to feel or desire something (such as, “Enjoy playing with your little sister”). In such cases, it is far better to use a gentler form, which the jussive allows (“May you develop an enjoyment for playing with your little sister”). Thus these are not commands to “Love”. Rather they are encouragements that could be better translated, “You are to love…” or “May you love…” The call to love is more to cultivate love in one’s heart than to merely perform loving actions.

The only places in the Old Testament where the jussive form of the verb ‘love’ is used are in Deuteronomy 6:5 and 11:1 (both of which say, “Love the Lord your God”) and Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34 (which say, “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “Love him as yourself”).[7] Together, they express God’s singular Will, God’s central volition, which is, “You are to love”.

There is just one Divine Will – God desires that we love. This singular Will to love is expressed into two spheres of life – in our relationship with God and in our relationship with other people.[8] But it is just one Will. Thus, these two commandments are, in fact, one command, the command to love.

The first expression of love is towards God – we love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Our love for God is always reactive, in that we are responding to what God has initiated. We are never the initiators with God, because God already loved us before we were conceived. We are always responding to God.

But our love for our neighbour, which is the second expression of love, is different. We do not love our neighbour because our neighbour first loved us. No! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes this abundantly clear – the injured man was in no position to love anyone, and so the Samaritan’s love for him is something that the Samaritan initiated. However, even this love for our neighbour springs forth as a response to God’s love for us. It is as we become more fully aware of and experience God’s love for us that our capacity to love others, particularly those who are unlovely or our enemies, develops. We love others because God first loved us. Thus, the wellspring of our love for both God and our neighbours is God’s love for us.

God does not instruct us to love as one might instruct a soldier. Rather, God does two things to move us to love. First, God loves us first. God sets the example. God fills our hearts with love. God persists in loving us even when we spurn God’s love. God loves fully and unconditionally and extravagantly. God’s entire mission to humanity is motivated by love. Everything that God does towards us is an expression of that love. And second, God moves us towards greater love by exercising Divine Will. God prompts us to love with the call to love, with the reminder that as much as we are loved by God we are called to love others. But God does not coerce us to love others. As our hearts are filled with the love of God, love will overflow from our beings and spill into our relationships with family, friends, colleagues, strangers and even enemies. God woos us to become loving.

May it be that you love God with the whole of your being, and your neighbour as yourself.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on everything that you have learned so far about God’s love for you. In light of that, how do you feel about expressing the fullness of this love in your relationship to God and to your neighbour?

Prayer for the Day

God of infinite love, thank you that you loved me long before I loved you. Continue to cultivate in me an ever deeper love for you and for other people, including those I find particularly hard to love.

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[1] Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 432.

[2] France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 845.

[3] Lane, p. 432.

[4] Woodhead, in Marshall, p. 27.

[5] France, p. 846.

[6] Ellis, R. R. (2006). Learning to read Biblical Hebrew: An introductory grammar. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, pp. 174-175.

[7] France, p. 846.

[8] France, p. 843.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 22: Lukan Manifesto

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Today and for the next two days we focus on three pivotal passages in the Gospels, which present to us Jesus’ mission for himself and for us. These are important because they reveal to us not only what God wants from us, but also what God wants from God. In other words, they reveal God’s intentions, God’s mission, God’s heart. The things that God says are most important for us must be very important to God too.

The first of these passages is from Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2 in what has become known as Jesus’ manifesto, Jesus’ statement of his programme or mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

After reading, Jesus begins to preach, opening with the words, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

These words summarise what we read throughout Luke’s version of the Gospel, which is that Jesus has a deep and enduring commitment to the poor.[1] While ‘poor’ does here include those who are financially destitute, the term is used quite broadly to include all those who are oppressed, marginalised, silenced, excluded and disempowered. Women, for example, enjoy a particularly prominent place in Luke’s Gospel, as another clear group of poor people. “The entire ministry of Jesus and his relationships with all these and other marginalized people witness, in Luke’s writings, to Jesus’ practice of boundary-breaking compassion, which the church is called to emulate.”[2]

We see Jesus’ commitment to the poor, which clearly impressed Luke, even in the songs sung about him before his birth. Mary’s song includes, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Zechariah sings about his son John, who will prepare the way for Jesus, “…salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies” (Luke 1:71-74a).

Liberation theologians refer to this as God’s preferential option for the poor. It means that when God is presented with a choice of siding with a poor person and a rich person, God will side with the poor person. In other words, God’s heart is inclined to those who are poor (remembering that ‘poor’ is defined quite broadly). We could say that wherever people suffer at the hands of others, God will be there standing in solidarity with the sufferer. This tells us something important about God’s heart. And it says something important if we are the ones inflicting suffering.

However, Luke’s Gospel is full of stories of Jesus engaging with the rich (this term is also broadly defined to include not only those with lots of money, but also those who are greedy, powerful and exploitative). Jesus recognises that to change society – to make society a better place for the poor – the rich have to change. Thus Bosch describes Jesus as the “evangelist of the rich”.[3] In all these encounters, Jesus works to shift their attitudes so that they adopt God’s concern for those who are vulnerable. The story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a good example (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus goes to the home of Zacchaeus, a much unloved and exploitative tax collector, for tea, a move that probably shocked the poor. But through His engagement and love for Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus experiences a change – no, a conversion – of heart, and consequently of lifestyle.

God’s preference for the poor, therefore, does not result in God being hostile towards the rich, nor in God being permissive towards the poor. Rather, God’s desire is for the salvation of both, and we see Jesus engaging wholeheartedly in the transformation of both rich and poor. It may just be that the sins that rich and poor people must repent of and seek forgiveness for differ. But ultimately, Jesus aims to establish a community of loving faithful, living together in mutual care and support. “In their being converted to God, rich and poor are converted toward each other. The main emphasis, ultimately, is on sharing, on community.”[4]

In Luke 4:22, the initial response in the synagogue to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah and his subsequent sermon seem to elicit approval and admiration. But this quickly turns and in verse 29 they attempt to throw him off a cliff to his death! What could have provoked such fury?

Commentators have grappled with this, but Bosch’s argument makes good sense to me and reveals something more about God’s heart.[5] The passage that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 was written to the Jews who had just returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon. They were depressed and despondent, humiliated and shaken in their faith. These words promised restoration and hope, which they were desperate for. But they also promised vengeance on their enemies: “He has sent me… to proclaim… the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2b). Verses 5-7 of Isaiah 61 speak of a reversal of fortune, where Israel will hold power, and foreigners will serve them.

Jesus’ audience would have had similar hopes for liberation from Roman oppression and were looking forward to the day of vengeance of our God. But Jesus leaves these words out, ending short with “the year of the Lord’s favour.” In verse 23, Jesus’ words suggest firstly that they were disgruntled that he had performed miraculous healings among the Gentiles in Capernaum rather than among the Jewish people, placing foreigners above family. And in verses 24-27 Jesus explicitly praises gentiles/foreigners as being recipients of God’s grace, rather than Jewish people.

It is likely that it was this dramatic contrast between Jesus’ message of healing, reconciliation and redemption for all peoples, particularly those who are poor, regardless of race or creed, and his listener’s expectations of vengeance and restitution that infuriated them. Rather than siding clearly with the Jews against everyone else, Jesus appears to side with everyone against poverty! Jesus message seems to be that “God’s compassion on the poor, the outcast and stranger – even on Israel’s enemies – has superseded divine vengeance!”[6] Instead of advocating revenge and violence, Jesus advocated gentleness, repentance and forgiveness. His is a gospel message of reconciliation, community and, of course, love.

What do we learn from this first important Gospel passage? First, we learn that God is moved by suffering. God’s heart is, in this sense, soft – God’s heartstrings are plucked when God witnesses poverty, suffering, oppression and abuse. In such situations God experiences a surge of love and reaches out a healing hand, to comfort and restore. This is good news for those of us who are suffering. We can hold onto the truth that God sees, hears, is concerned and is present with us in our suffering. We are not alone.

Second, we learn that those of us who cause suffering can expect God to challenge us. God expects us to engage in respectful, caring, egalitarian relationships with each other. When we are the ones causing poverty, when we are doing the oppressing, God’s protectiveness towards the sufferer calls forth a complementary anger towards us. This is good and appropriate – it is just what we might hope for when we are the ones suffering. But when that anger is directed towards us, it is surely frightening! Nevertheless, God’s anger in these cases is not intended to annihilate, but to call us to repentance. God is clear in the expectation of how we should engage with each other. There is no room for exploitation or oppression in the family of God. When we treat others as less than God’s beloved, we can expect a reaction from God.

Third, we learn that God’s agenda does not include vengeance, but rather reconciliation. This may be disappointing for us when we are suffering – we sometimes hope for a lightning bolt. But on those occasions that we are the oppressor, that we are the rich person, we may be grateful that God does not seek vengeance. Thus, in our relationships with those who oppress us, God calls us away from vengeance and towards reconciliation. This is much harder than vengeance! But it is God’s agenda – to establish a community of humans who love and respect each other, free of poverty and oppression, a community of peace and chesed.

What ties all of these together is God’s deeply rooted love for us, a love that protects, champions, nourishes, persists, expects and supports.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the ways in which you are rich. Consider the ways in which you might be oppressing or hurting God’s beloved. If you can think of some ways – which probably we call can – ask for forgiveness and the wisdom to engage differently with God’s beloved.

Prayer for the Day

Oh God, you are a protective mother, who loves her young and will do almost anything to ensure their safety and well-being. Please protect me when I am being threatened, and help me not to threaten others.

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[1] Bosch, D. J. (1991). Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, p. 98.

[2] Bosch, p. 86.

[3] Bosch, p. 101.

[4] Bosch, p. 104.

[5] Bosch, pp. 108-113.

[6] Bosch, p. 111.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 21: The Foot Washing Parable

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

John 13 presents us with the story of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. This well-known story is related only in John’s Gospel. In many churches we re-enact the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. It is, for us, symbolic of servanthood and humility. Of course, in Jesus’ time and context, feet needed to be washed – they would have been dusty and dirty from walking in sandals on dry dusty roads, and servants would have washed guests’ feet. In our church, feet are probably in less need of washing. Nevertheless, we do it every year, because it gives us a picture of the humility and servanthood of Jesus, which he calls us to emulate: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).

I have come to think of this story as an enacted parable. Jesus told many parables – indeed, he was renowned for using parables in his teachings. They were earthy, relevant, vivid and practical. Moreover, they made for interesting listening. And helped people remember his message. But we do not get any parables in John’s Gospel (though some do consider the Vine and the Good Shepherd to be parables). The Jesus we meet in John is much more inclined towards long, deep speeches and sermons. Nevertheless, I think this is a parable acted out – not a story told, but a story demonstrated.

A parable tells a story at two levels. On the surface is a story about something that did or could have actually happened. It is a story in its own right. Below the surface is a second story that has some spiritually important meaning. The story can be understood at either or both levels, but the second story is not always that obvious, which is why Jesus is often asked to explain the parables (e.g. Matthew 13:1-23).

An enacted parable is not a story that is told, but something that is done. The actions have two levels of meaning, which is what makes them a parable. On the surface, the actions are what they are – the doing of something that may be functional and purposeful. But below the surface the actions have another meaning that is spiritually important. I think of the foot washing in this way – on the surface, Jesus was cleaning his disciples’ feet, which is something that needed to be done, and in so doing he took on the role of a servant, which made the disciples uncomfortable. But at another level, Jesus was telling the disciples a story about his whole life, a story that we yesterday called the Kenotic U (based on Philippians 2:5-11).

It seems that John understood that this was an enacted parable, because he opens the story with a commentary:

“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. … Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:1-3).

John says that Jesus “now showed them the full extent of his love.” But washing someone’s feet, even if they are smelly and dirty, is not really a demonstration of the full extent of Christ’s love. We know that Christ’s love was much larger than just that. And within their time and culture, foot washing was not uncommon – it was just that someone of a higher status would not have washed the feet of those who were subordinate. So, it is likely that John is giving us a clue that there is more to this story than just feet being washed.

The text around this phrase speaks about Jesus’ reflecting on the fact that he had come from God and was soon to return to God. This is very reminiscent of the U is it not? John sets up the enacted parable with reflection on where Jesus comes from and where he is soon to go, related to his great love for humanity.

John now steps into telling the story itself – the parable:

“[Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5).

What we have here is the first half of the U, the left side, the descent. Jesus would have been reclining at the senior position at the table, at his place of authority as Teacher. This is like Jesus enjoying equality with God in Philippians 2:6. The Trinity is where the Son belonged – this was his rightful place.

But Jesus gets up from this place – the Son did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Jesus is willing to relinquish his status as Rabbi, Teacher, in order to begin a descent towards humility. Similarly, the Son was willing to give up perfect fellowship and Deity.

Jesus takes off his outer clothing – the Son emptied himself, making himself nothing. Our clothing is a sign of who we are. When I serve as a lay minister in church I wear a white robe and a medallion, which serve as signs to parishioners that I am licensed to perform sacred duties in the sanctuary. When I attend a graduation ceremony at the university I wear a red robe, which serves as a sign to the students and their parents that I am a professor. Our clothes are signs of who we are, and some clothes are signs of status and power. Jesus divests himself of his outer clothing, thereby casting aside any sign of his status and role. Similarly, the Son emptied himself of his privilege, power and attributes as the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus wraps a towel around his waist – the Son took on the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. As much as clothes can signify status, clothes can also signify the lack of status. We may think of a domestic worker’s (maid’s) uniform – no-one would wear clothes like that to give the impression of wealth or status! Jesus, having removed his outer clothing, dons a towel around his waist, which is what a servant would wear. Similarly, the Son took on the form of a servant and humbled himself, becoming far less than he had been before.

Jesus begins to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel – the Son became obedient to death, even death on a cross. The course of action that Jesus had initiated reaches its natural outcome – he does, in fact, wash the disciples’ feet. He does not merely give the impression that he might wash them, expecting that someone else will take over. Instead, he does what he set out to do. Similarly, the Son continued the downward curve of the U to its natural outcome – he offended the Jewish leaders to such an extent that they eventually agreed to get him killed. The Son did not merely move towards the cross, expecting God to rescue him. Instead, he was resolute and did what he set out to do.

In these two verses, Jesus enacts the downward curve of the Kenotic U, symbolising his incarnation, life and death as a humble human. John, in writing this, recognises that this is obscure, but he recalls Jesus explaining to a confused Peter, “You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7). This is a strong clue that there are two levels to this story – foot washing is the upper level and obvious; the Kenotic U is the basement story, not so obvious and needing time to recognise. John is widely recognised to be the New Testament writer who really grasped the deeper meanings of Christ’s earthly sojourn.

John 13:12 tells us the rest of the story:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them.”

Jesus finishes washing their feet – God therefore turned the tide of events towards the Son’s glorification. There is no ‘therefore’ in John’s narrative, but it is clear that now that the feet are washed, Jesus is finished with this act of servanthood, with this emptying out of himself, with this kenosis. Similarly, once the Son had completed his work on earth, which resulted in his death, God was ready to start the second half of the Son’s journey, back to glory.

Jesus puts on his clothes – the Son was exalted to highest place. By putting on his clothes, which requires removing the now soiled towel, Jesus takes back his former role and status. Similarly, the Son, after being humiliated and cruelly treated, regained his former glory, exalted to the highest place, recognised as an important person in the eyes of every creature.

Jesus returns to his place – the Son was proclaimed as Lord, to the glory of the Father. Having reclaimed his clothes, Jesus resumes his place at the head of the table, takes up again his rightful position of authority among the disciples. Similarly, the Son was given not just a meaningful name, but also a title, “Lord”, and resumed his rightful place in the glory of God the Father, reunited in the Holy Trinity.

Immediately, Jesus asks if the disciples now understand what he has done for them, echoing his earlier comment to Peter. Of course, they did not. At most they heard Jesus’ message that they, like him, must be willing to serve others. But what was only later understood, and related to us by John, was that Jesus had here enacted the whole of the Kenotic U – the descent of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, from the side of the Father, into human form, into humility and to death, after which he was glorified and reinstated in the heart of the Triune God.

The importance of this for us is to reinforce Jesus’ demonstration of love in the incarnation, cross and resurrection. We return to John’s opening words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1b).

Meditation for the Day

Continue your reflection, started yesterday, on the kenosis, on God’s emptying out of God’s self, in order become one of us, in order to redeem us. Reflect on the full extent of God’s love that this demonstrates.

Prayer for the Day

Three-in-one God, I am deeply grateful for the great sacrifice that you have made for me in sending the Son into the world as my brother and Saviour.

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Being God’s Beloved: Talk 3: Sin, Love & Wrath

This is the third in the five-part series on “Being God’s Beloved”, delivered at St Martins Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa, on 26 March 2014. Today, we explore the relationship between human sin and divine love and wrath.

Click here to follow the link to YouTube

Being God’s Beloved: Day 20: The Kenotic U

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This magnificent Christ Hymn is a description of Christ’s incarnation, humiliation and glorification. I find it helpful to visualise this as a U:

Kenotic_U

On the left is the descent of Christ, through the incarnation, into human form, into the darkness of humanity, leading to his humiliation[1] and suffering. At the bottom of the U is the lowest point, his death on a cross. And then there is the ascent on the right, starting with “therefore God exalted him” leading to his glorification as the universal Saviour. This is the great story of Christ’s salvific work – his willingness to give up everything in order to join with humanity and win our redemption.

Today we give particular attention to the left side of the U, the descent. This descent is known as kenosis, a Greek word that means ‘emptying out’. Kenosis describes what the Second Person of the Trinity did in order to become human, and is thus central to the incarnation. Kenosis does not mean that the Son ceased to be God – gave up the divine nature.[2] The Nicene Creed says that two natures – both human and divine – coexisted in the one person of Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:9 also affirms that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” However, there is clearly an emptying, a diminishing and a humiliation in this passage from Philippians.

What is this emptying, this kenosis?

First, we learn that the Son let go of “equality with God” and “emptied himself”. The latter phrase is how some English Bibles (e.g. the NASB and NSRV) translate the Greek word kenosis. This may be a separating out of the Son from the perfect integration of the Trinity. Remember that Father, Son and Spirit had, from before the beginning of time, existed in perfect unity, harmony and loving relationship. This is the timeless essence of God and all that God had ever known. But the incarnation involved a separating out of one of the persons of the Holy Trinity, in order to take on a different kind of life – life as a human. This separating would require the Son to let go of – to not grasp – equality or unity with God.

Other translations of the Bible use “made himself nothing” for kenosis. We should not interpret that being human means to be nothing – we have seen by now that humans are far from ‘nothing’. Perhaps, rather, “nothing” describes the experience of the incarnation for the Holy Trinity. Perhaps the Son’s experience of emptying himself was one of becoming “nothing”. The radical contrast between the fullness, perfection, wholeness and relatedness of eternal triune fellowship and the isolation, finiteness and smallness of the incarnation may well have been experienced as becoming nothing. This is particularly so if we remember from yesterday that the incarnation took place at the level of a single cell, not the infant. The eternal and infinite Second Person of the Trinity was emptied into a strand of genetic material. That is an unimaginable diminishment. “Nothing” could well be what it felt like.

I think that the most helpful way of thinking of the kenosis is as a ‘becoming small’, being ‘diminished’. The omnipresent Son, who could be in all places and all times simultaneously, becomes constrained in a single, initially exceedingly small, body, a body that can be in only one place at one time. Surely that is an emptying out? A becoming nothing? It is a profound and complete limitation that the Son accepts in becoming the individual called Jesus of Nazareth. It seems that similar limitations were placed on the other divine attributes, such as God’s omniscience (knowing everything) and omnipotence (being all powerful). The Son must be fed, cleaned, clothed, burped and educated, just like any other infant. The Son is constrained, limited, confined and restricted in a way that God has never experienced. This is a whole new learning opportunity for God!

Second, we learn that the Son takes on the humble nature of a servant. The term ‘form’ (used by the NASB and NSRV, for example) is probably more appropriate here than ‘nature’ (used by the NIV), because we recall that in Jesus Christ we fully find both the divine nature and the human nature. So it is not that the Son changed natures. Rather, two natures – divine and human – became integrated. What is stressed here, however, is servanthood and humility. Twice Paul writes about becoming human: “being made in in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man.” These two phrases are sandwiched between two other important phrases: “taking the very nature of a servant, … he humbled himself.”

Becoming human certainly involves a diminishing, a becoming small. But the kenosis is more than just becoming human. It is also becoming a humble servant. One might have thought that if God were to incarnate into human form, it would be a splendid form. The God-man should be magnificent, big, imposing, powerful, wealthy, gorgeous, charismatic and well placed in society. But instead, this incarnation is into a person of no significance. The Second Person of the Trinity becomes a nobody, a servant. Small wonder that Jesus speaks out in support of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) and the “little ones” (Matthew 18:10). That is exactly what the Son became – a little one, a least of all people, a humble servant.

Third, kenosis leads ultimately to death. And not just any death – “death on a cross.” One might think that a God-man, even one born tiny and raised in obscurity, would grow up to be a superhero. We think of Hercules in Greek-Roman mythology, born of Zeus and a mortal woman, who had superhuman strength. In modern times, we might think of Superman. Surely this would be the destiny of God incarnate? Instead, Jesus dies prematurely and painfully on a cross, a most excruciating and humiliating death.

Jesus’ entire human existence from conception to death is characterised by kenosis – relinquishing divine status and privilege, becoming small and insignificant, having no authority or stature, dying in disgrace. The first half of this Kenotic U is a disappointingly sad story. Of course, there is another side to the U. The cross, which lies at the base of the U, is both the last step of his humiliation and the first step towards his glorification. We know that there is a happy ending that is heralded with the resurrection, leading to a glorious ascension and a magnificent glorification at the right hand of the Father, culminating in a universal recognition of his greatness. But at this point in our journey, that is still a long way off.

Today, as we reflect on the kenosis, as an important aspect of the incarnation, I invite you to reflect on the extent of love that must have motivated the Second Person of the Trinity to take this tremendous dive into humility. How much love must the Triune God have had to elect this course of action? Not even thinking of the cross, how great must God’s love be to take on human form, to limit God’s self to such an extent? Surely, only infinite love could motivate such a choice? Surely this is a love that is willing to risk everything, willing to give up everything, willing to lay down everything? This is love come down in human form.

Meditation for the Day

What would your own kenosis entail? What would you have to empty out of yourself to become nothing? What would it feel like to empty yourself like this? Now reflect on the kenosis of the Son. What does that mean to you?

Prayer for the Day

Jesus Christ, I thank you for the great gift of yourself to us, to me, and the extent to which you were willing to give up for me. Give me courage to walk in your footsteps.

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[1] ‘Humiliation’ in ordinary language means to be publically embarrassed and shamed. It also has a theological meaning, which is similar, but more expansive. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 27) says that, “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.”

[2] Erickson, M. J. (1985). Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House, p. 735.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 19: The Incarnation

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Today marks an important transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. God’s love is continuous across both Testaments – there is no change in God’s attitude and feelings towards us. However, the New Testament heralds a new way of expressing that love! God now comes in person into humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. This is the greatest demonstration of God’s love since the creation. And it allows us to encounter God is a completely new way. God’s coming into the world – the incarnation – is a radical shift in God’s engagement with the world, and sets in motion a wonderful new experience of Being God’s Beloved.

You may recall that on Day 7, when we looked at Exodus 3, we heard God say:

  • I have seen…
  • I have heard…
  • I am concerned…
  • I have come down…

God drew near to Israel in their time of suffering in Egypt.

And now God draws near again, but in a new and profound way – God becomes human.

When we think of the incarnation, many of us think of the baby Jesus born in a manager, which we celebrate at Christmas. But in fact the incarnation took place roughly nine months before, at the conception. It must, surely, be at the conception that the incarnation took place, otherwise what we have is a human baby who is subsequently infused with God’s spirit – and that is no incarnation at all.[1]

Exactly how this works, we cannot be sure. But let us consider the possibility that in some mysterious way, by the Holy Spirit, there is a blending together of human and divine. Mary’s genetic material is spliced together with God’s to form a being who is both fully human and fully divine – two natures in one person, as the Nicene Creed says. It is at the conception that God incarnates into human form – God is woven into the very fabric of Jesus’ genetic makeup, forming a completely new entity: a God-man. This happens at a cellular level, starting with a single cell.

This is an important point, because it points to God’s new work of salvation, which starts at this conception. Let us think back to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, created in perfection, chose to turn away from fellowship with God. We call that turning away ‘the Fall’, because in that moment something happened not only to Adam as an individual, but to the whole human race. The whole of humanity fell. Indeed, we can say that human nature fell. Something went wrong with who we are as people. As we heard Schaeffer say on Day 17, we are ‘glorious ruins’.

Paul writes about this in Romans 5:12, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” He continues to say this over the following verses (5:15-19): “…many died by the trespass of the one man… The judgement followed one sin and brought condemnation… by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man… the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men… through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.”

In these verses Paul expresses the consequence of the Fall – the sin of one man, Adam – as death, judgement and condemnation. It is human nature that was damaged by the Fall, and that resulted in estrangement from God – the intimate fellowship that Adam and Eve had experienced in the Garden, was shattered and they were cast out into the world. Paul emphasises repeatedly that the action of ONE man impacted the MANY; indeed the ALL. In other words, Adam’s sin (and we should not forget Eve too) changed humanity.

Therefore, the incarnation is a tremendous start to God’s plan to unravel the knotty mess that Adam made. By God inserting Godself into human DNA, God begins to transform humanity at a genetic level. The incarnation is not merely a human being with a particularly large dose of Spirit. The incarnation points to an interweaving of human and divine, to form an integrated, indivisible, whole person. In doing this, God begins to redeem human nature. This does not mean that the incarnation brings salvation to every individual person. Rather, it means that the fabric of what it means to be human is redeemed. God opens up the path to a total transformation of our being, just as Adam’s sin led to a total transformation of our being.

Paul writes about this too in Romans 5:12-20. Throughout this passage, he contrasts Adam with Christ – two individuals, whose lives impacted not only on themselves but on the whole of humanity. Adam impacted us negatively – sin, death, judgement and condemnation – while Christ impacted us positively: “…how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! …the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification… how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. …the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. …through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (5:15-19).

In these verses, which parallel the verses about Adam, Paul expresses the consequences of Jesus’ work: grace, justification, righteousness. And just as Adam’s individual sin impacted the whole of humanity, Jesus’ individual gift impacts the whole of humanity. Yet, twice in this passage, Paul says, “how much more” – Adam impacted everyone, but Jesus impacted everyone even more – the cure is much more powerful than the disease.

Paul picks up this theme again in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49, where he explicitly contrasts Adam as “the first man Adam” and Christ as “the last Adam”. And in the same passage he writes of the “first man” and the “second man”.

Thus, the incarnation is Jesus coming into the world as a renewed and restored kind of human, infused from conception with the divine, setting in motion the redemption of humanity, of human nature, that continues through his ministry and teaching, culminating in the cross and resurrection. This whole sequence of work makes possible the salvation of humanity, and our transformation into the likeness of God.

Roman Catholic and Protestant theology (in other words, the Western Church) has tended to emphasise the cross as the heart of salvation, and this is certainly correct. But the Church Fathers and the Eastern Church (such as Russian Orthodox theology), while recognising the importance of the cross, also emphasised the importance of the incarnation as being central to God’s plan of salvation. Irenaeus, for example, writing in the second century, stressed that the “incarnation itself was redemptive, not merely a necessary step toward either Christ’s teachings or the cross event. Rather the becoming human of the Son of God – God’s eternal Word (Logos) experiencing human existence – was what redeems and restores fallen humanity if they let it. … For Irenaeus, then, the incarnation was the key to the entire history of redemption and to personal salvation. The incarnation was itself transformative… In a literal sense the entire human race is ‘born again’ in the incarnation. It receives a new ‘head’ – a new source, origin, ground of being – that is unfallen, pure and healthy, victorious and immortal. It is ‘fully alive’ – both physically and spiritually.”[2]

One of my books on salvation has a section entitled, “The incarnation: God’s basic act of forgiveness.”[3] I love this title! Think about this. Human nature had fallen into ruin through Genesis 3. Despite everything that we’ve been saying so far about God’s love, let us not forget that God is also holy and righteous, and that sin really is unpleasant for him. It may help to think of sin as something that smells really bad. A couple of days ago, my neighbour laid down fresh manure in their garden – it smelled something awful and invaded every corner of our home. Sin is something like that for God.

And yet in the incarnation God chooses to come close to humanity. God chooses to not just to come close, but to come into humanity. Yet even more than this, God becomes one with humanity! Despite our brokenness and inadequacy, despite the stink of humanity’s sin, God decides to merge God’s divine nature with our human nature. Does that not shake you to the core?

What would motivate God to do such a thing? What could be so powerful as to persuade God to pinch his nose, so to speak, and dive into the smelly world of humanity?

Just one thing: LOVE.

God’s eternal and persistent love for humanity – God’s chesed (God’s loving-kindness tied up in a covenant that God made with humanity) – is extravagant. This love is not genteel, polite, proper, tightly controlled and neatly expressed. It is wild and enthusiastic and joyful and energetic and risky and beautiful! From this heart of extravagant love, God plunges into human existence, taking on all of our ugliness and embracing us just as we are – in our human nature.

This choice – this act – is a demonstration of forgiveness. It is, as Gaybba says, “a basic act of forgiveness.” Not basic in the sense of simple; but basic in the sense of a foundation – the incarnation is the base of forgiveness. It is the first and radical step in God’s great new plan for salvation of humankind.

It is here that God begins to unravel the effects of the fall. It is here that God begins to change the fabric of our being. It is here that God bridges the sin-divide between us and God. It is here that we see God’s love in action.

Meditation for the Day

Consider what it means that God incarnated into the genetic material of humanity. Reflect on God’s demonstration of forgiveness in becoming human.

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, I thank you for coming into the world, for becoming one of us, for becoming like me. Transform me, from the inside to the outside, into your likeness.

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[1] There are, of course, many different perspectives on the incarnation, held fervently by sincere and true Christians. Feel free to differ from me – I do not have exclusive access to Truth. But these are views that I hold fervently and that make sense to me in light of what I understand in the Bible, of theology and my experience of God. If nothing else, let my thoughts stimulate your own thoughts.

[2] Olson, R. E. (1999). The story of Christian theology. DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, pp. 74-75.

[3] Gaybba, B. (2005). Soteriology. Pretoria: Unisa Press, p. 40.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 18: God’s Love and God’s Being

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

We are roughly at the middle of our 40-day reflection on Being God’s Love. How are you doing so far? We’ve focused mostly on the Old Testament so far. Has this helped you rethink some assumptions about the God of the Old Testament? Do you begin to see that contrary to the popular perception that the Old Testament God is primitive, vengeful and bloodthirsty, the Old Testament God, from start to end, actively and persistently loves Israel and desires to be in loving relationship with the whole world?

I decided to finish off this stage of our journey with a summary that comes not from the Old Testament, but the first letter of John in the New Testament. This is probably one of the last written books of the Bible, and so it very nicely bookends our beginning in Genesis 1, which is probably one of the first written books of the Bible. John, who lived a long life, had much time to ponder the mysteries of his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, whom he later recognised as the Logos, the Word, who was with God in the very beginning and active in the process of creation. John has penetrating insights into the heart of God. He also has an exceptional grasp of the long narrative of salvation story, from the very beginning.

John’s first letter addresses a number of themes that are not important for today’s reflection. He wrote this letter – perhaps more a sermon than a letter – to strengthen Christians as they grappled against a false theology that came from Christian Gnostics.[1] A particularly important part of this false teaching was Docetism, which denied that Jesus actually became human, died and rose again – he merely appeared to be human, to die and rise. They emphasised a secret knowledge (gnosis) and believed that everything physical was unimportant and evil (and on these grounds felt free to engage in all kinds of physical pleasures).

One of the important themes that resonates through John’s letter is love. 1 John 2:3-11 emphasises Christ’s command to love and the importance of living out love for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:11-24 restates the important command to love one another, linking it at the end of the passage to Christ’s command to believe in Jesus and love one another. 1 John 4:7-5:3 describes God as love, revealed in Christ, setting us the example of love for one another, which is his command. In total, 41 of the letter’s 105 verses (over a third) speak about love – God’s love for us, our love for one another, and Christ’s command to love!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been emphasising two aspects of God’s love. First, I have emphasised that love is at the centre of God’s being – love is embedded in the character of God. Theologians speak about this as the immanent Trinity, referring to the internal functioning and being of the triune God – who God is as God, within God’s self. Second, I have emphasised God’s loving actions throughout human history, from the start of creation until the end of the Old Testament. And I shall continue to emphasise God’s loving actions in the New Testament – supremely through the Son of God, who is the embodiment of love. Theologians speak about this as the economic Trinity, referring to God in action, the God we see working in human history, what God has chosen to reveal to us about God’s self.[2]

Many theologians are cautious about speaking with too much certainty about the immanent Trinity, about who God is within God’s self. This is because we really don’t know God that well – we know God through God’s actions (the economic Trinity) and then we make inferences from what we see and experience to what we think God is like internally (the immanent Trinity). But I have argued that what we do know about the immanent Trinity is that God is triune. And based on that I have argued that relationship is inherent within the being of God,[3] and based on that I’ve argued that love is found in the being of God.[4]

1 John picks us these same themes: that God is, in God’s being, love; and that God’s actions demonstrate God’s love for humanity. We see this most clearly in the 1 John 4:7-5:3.

Twice in this passage, John writes, “God is love” (4:8 & 16). The phrase appears nowhere else in the Bible. Just these two occurrences, twice, eight verses apart. The first occurrence in verse 8 is particularly illuminating. John writes, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” John emphasises love as the essential characteristic of God. It is not just that God acts in loving ways; more than just that, God is inherently, characteristically Love. In much the same way that Jesus says that the Great Commandments sum up the whole law and the prophets, John here says that Love sums up the whole of God – Love is who God is. Because Love is so defining of who God is, says John, if we do not love, we cannot possibly know God, because we will be cut off from The Defining Characteristic of God.

In verse 16, John says, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” Here John makes this character statement about the being of God, and then says that if we live in love then we live in God and God lives in us. Love is so defining of who God is that Love becomes almost a synonym for God, so that living in Love is equivalent to living in God. Because God is quintessential love, when we find love we will have found God, because God is love. There is no authentic love outside of God. John says similar things elsewhere, for example, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (4:7).

Most of the rest of this passage speaks to God’s love in action. Having described wind, John provides examples of how we will see wind, through the effects of the wind – sand being swept up, trees waving, flags flapping. We cannot see the wind itself, just like we cannot see the essential being of God. But we can see the effects of the wind, just like we can see the outworking of God’s love.

So immediately after verse 8, where John wrote, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love,” John explains, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (4:9). Love as the essence of God is not something we can grasp or perceive, but we can recognise this love in action, and John gives us the most sublime and vivid example of love in action – the coming of the Son into the world, which we call the incarnation. Of all of God’s loving acts in the history of the world, the coming of the Son into the world is the most powerful, clear and irrefutable demonstration of the infinitely rich love that lies within the heart of God.

John continues, “This is love” (4:10a). He recognises that love is a rather abstract term, and requires a concrete example. The example he now provides is this, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10b). God is, in God’s being, love. And God demonstrates this love by sending his Son to deal with our brokenness and our estrangement from God. Jesus’ entire life – from his incarnation, through his life and ministry, to his death and resurrection – is Love-in-Action. Jesus is, in effect, love with skin on. He is the embodiment of love – love incarnate, love enfleshed.

The whole of scripture is a great love story. It is the story of God’s great love for humanity, a love that is rooted deep in the core of God’s being, demonstrated over and over, regardless of the fickleness of humanity, regardless of how often we ignore, turn away from or reject God. We can be confident that the love story continues through our own time. And you can be confident that the love story includes you – that you are one of the characters who is much loved by God, God’s beloved.

Meditation for the Day

Meditate on this phrase, “God is love”. Repeat it over and over, slowly, in an attitude of prayer. Listen to God speaking to you. Open your heart to know this God who is love.

Prayer for the Day

My God, you are Love.

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[1] Coetzee, J. C. (1993). The letters of John. In A. B. du Toit (Ed.), Guide to the New Testament (Volume VI, pp. 201-226). Halfway House, South Africa: N.G. Kerkboekhandel, p. 207.

[2] Moltmann, J. (1993). The Trinity and the kingdom. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress. Rahner, K. (1967). The Trinity. New York: Cross Road Publishing, pp. 1-2.

[3] Rahner, p. 102.

[4] Moltmann, p. 151.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 17: God’s Love and God’s Standards

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

If God loves us so much, so much that God will forgive anything that we do, then we can do anything we want, right?

Actually, no.

In the early Church, this line of thinking had become popular in some circles. The rationale was that if God’s grace is what cancels sin in our lives, then the more we sin, the more we experience God’s grace. And since God’s grace is a good thing, a lot of sin must surely be good too! And so Paul writes, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? …count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus… For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:1-2, 11 & 14).

Law, of course, refers to the Old Testament patterns of sin and righteousness. In those days God had spelled out, in the Ten Commandments, clear standards for right living. Most of them are pretty obvious: don’t worship idols, don’t murder, don’t steal and so on. But of course, there are all kinds of subtle situations where something may or may not be acceptable, so over time these Ten Commandments grew into several hundred – detailed, specific and neatly defined standards for righteous living. If you kept all of these, you were okay with God. If not, you had to make amends.

These laws were hard to keep, because there were so many and they were so detailed. But if you knew them, then keeping the law was not that difficult – you just had to avoid those specific behaviours and, no matter what else you did, you were righteous. By emphasising the letter of the law, the defined behavioural standards, it was quite possible to be rotten in the heart but outwardly righteous. There were people like this.

Jesus called such men whitewashed tombs. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

Strong words indeed! And perhaps true of you and me. It is much easier to focus on the specifics of external behaviour, like not swearing at church or coming to church drunk, than on the heart, like not thinking greedy or angry thoughts, or forgiving someone who has hurt us.

Jesus proceeded to raise the standards even higher, by emphasising not only outward righteousness, but also inward righteousness. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement” (Matthew 5:21-22a). It is one thing – quite easy for most of us – to not murder someone. I myself have never murdered anyone! But it is quite another to not be angry with my brother or neighbour. Gosh, I’ve been angry countless times! This is an impossibly high standard!

And Jesus continues raising the bar higher and yet higher, on matters of lustful thoughts and desires, divorce, making oaths, seeking revenge and loving your enemies. This last is also a real challenge for us in daily life. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a).

And to cap it all, Jesus calls us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Impossible! Perfection is reserved for God and God alone.

God may love us, but the expectations God has for us are frighteningly demanding. Honestly, we cannot do it.

How does this demandingness tally with God’s love for us? It does not feel very loving to set impossibly high standards that we are sure to fall short of, does it? Good teachers and loving parents don’t do that to their students and children. We know that self-esteem is crushed when we expect more than someone is capable of. Repeatedly not meeting up to expectations is more likely to result in giving up than greater reaching for the standard.

To be sure, living under grace through Christ is a most peculiar place, full of apparent contradictions. But when we can step back and see the whole picture, we realise that they are not contradictions at all, but results of God’s extravagant love for us.

God created humanity with great vision and optimism, to be the crown of creation, the most beautiful, radiant and wonderful thing to emerge from the hand of God. And indeed we once were.

But since the Fall we are not quite what we once were. The remains of the spectacular beings that we once were are still evident, but rather fallen into ruin. We are, as Francis Schaeffer has famously said, ‘glorious ruins’. Our fallenness is the gap between the God’s vision and our reality.

What we think of as God’s standards is in fact God’s vision of us. God retains a picture of us as the magnificent castle, even though we are now glorious ruins. God still desires and expects us to be everything that we were created to be. Those are certainly high standards.

Jesus’ anger at the religious leaders of his day was not because they had abandoned God’s standards. Rather, it was because they had watered down God’s vision to a handful of petty rules, which made a mockery of God’s vision. They had trivialised God’s vision, turning the glorious human into a scarecrow. And so Jesus’ raising of the standards was part of an attempt to turn us back to that glorious vision, to remind us that God made us for so much more than just following some rules. That God’s vision concerned the fabric of our being, the innermost core of our existence. He was cautioning us not to settle for the scarecrow. The raised standard was not intended to cause us to give up; rather it was to inspire us to recognise afresh the wonderful beings that we once were and will one day be again.

In the meantime, as we strive towards becoming that vision, grace is made available to us. Because no matter how much we try, we cannot quite reach God’s standards. Rather than suffering under guilt and damnation, God generously forgives and pardons, so that we can continue the journey of being transformed into the image of the Son. It is as if God smiles at us as we fall down, and says, “Never mind, precious one. You are trying. Let’s try again. Here let me help you.”

We will not reach the destination of a glorious self in this lifetime, but this is no ‘never-ending story’. This story will, for sure, end on that great and glorious Day of the Lord, when we will be restored to our former magnificence. Grace, then, is not given for us to use as an excuse for living a sinful life. Rather, it is given to help us pick ourselves up after failure and continue the upward journey.

God’s love permeates all of this, from start to end, so that we are never bereft. While God has these exceptionally high standards and desires for us to attain them, we are never forced, because love does not force. God creates freedom for us to choose whether we follow or turn away. We are never coerced. God sets before us, particularly in the person of Jesus, a model of what we could be and invites us to strive towards that. But God does not insist on it. There is freedom to choose.

God does not desire puppets or robots. If God had desired such, God could easily have created them. Instead, God desired creatures that would freely choose fellowship with God. And that meant creating us with the freedom to choose alienation from God. That freedom has created problems for us, in the form of sin and its ramifications. But freedom is important for us and the gift of freedom is an expression of God’s love. Love that is not freely given is no love at all.

Sometimes we may reflect on the demands of Christian living and feel a little tired and constrained, wishing that we could just relax and have fun. It is a bit like being on a diet – you want to lose weight and be healthy, but a slice of chocolate cake would be so yummy! When faced with such temptations, it does not help much to hold before us the image of a judge-God, wagging his finger and frowning in disapproval at us, thin lips pursed. That does not inspire us to choose the righteous path.

Rather, let us hold before us the image of our lover-God, who desires the best for us, who believes in us, who is optimistic about who we can be, who we know will love us regardless of how much we succeed or fail, who has promised to never abandon us. The alternative is not attractive – a long descending path leading into darkness. We know what is best for us – into the arms of Love.

Meditation for the Day

Where are you on the continuum of sin-righteousness? Select one area of your life that you have not adequately surrendered to God’s Spirit. Now, imagining the God of love, ask God to help you invest in working out your salvation in that area.

Prayer for the Day

Creator God, I thank you for creating me in your image and for having a wonderful vision for who I can be. Please give me the energy, discipline and passion to journey ever closer to that vision.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 16: God’s Love and God’s Justice

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Having spent many days reflecting on God’s love, some may be becoming a bit anxious that God seems soft, even spineless. Where are the standards, the commandments, the consequences? Ideally, we might like to live in a nice, mushy, lovey-dovey world, but in truth we live in a fallen world where people do bad things to other people. Where does God’s love fit into that? What about justice, punishment, judgement? Are we really all called to love one another to such an extent that we allow wrongdoers to get away with murder? Does forgiveness mean no-one is held accountable for their crimes?

These are complex questions, to which there are no easy answers. When we place God’s love in the centre of life, things get harder not easier. When holiness or righteousness are central, it is much easier – God loves you but expects you to do right, and if you do wrong there are consequences, so you better watch out! The eye-for-an-eye philosophy of justice is very workable. But then Jesus comes and says, “Turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 times 70 times” and that is very hard to understand, let alone live out.

So, let us step back a bit and define these key words: love and justice. This in itself is a huge challenge as there are so many understandings of both. But let me suggest some definitions for us to chew over.

God’s love for us, and our replicated love for others, is intended to be unconditional – it emanates from the goodness of God and God’s superabundance of love. God has so much love that God is able to love even if we don’t love God back, even if we don’t believe in God, even if we hate God. In this way, God’s love is dependent entirely on God, and not at all on us. We sometimes call this agape love – self-less, self-giving love that seeks nothing in return.

But this is not the whole of God’s love. While God’s love is indeed unconditional, it also greatly desires relationship with us.[1] God’s love is not conditional on the relationship, unlike chesed, which is contingent on the covenant relationship. However, God’s love yearns for covenant relationship, seeks mutual and reciprocal exchange of love. We see this in God’s behaviour. Rather than sitting in heaven and loving us unconditionally from afar, God decided, because of extravagant love, to extend God’s self into the world by sending the Son to us to work for reconciliation between us and God (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11). Divine love, then, while unconditional, seeks relationship and reciprocity.

Christian love – that is, our love for others – is modelled on God’s love. Linda Woodhead has defined it as “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”.[2] Her definition is helpful, if challenging. Christian love is initiated by ourselves, and in this way unconditional – we choose to love because we choose to love, not because the person is love-worthy. We love because of the inherent worth of the other as one of God’s creatures, but we do not whitewash all people with the same inherent worth – a bland, faceless love for everyone. Rather, Christian love emphasises recognition of unique worth; that is, I extend myself to seek out particular aspects of that individual that are loveable and even likable. And it is two-way, seeking not only to express love at arm’s length, but also to establish relationship, communion, fellowship. And all of this is just the way God loves me and you and the other person.

And justice? Justice can be thought of as God’s desire for right relationships between people and others (God and other people).[3] ‘Right relationships’ includes freedom, human rights, access to resources, dignity, opportunity to get ahead, the absence of exploitation or oppression, having a voice, having power, acceptance, respect. So, where there are wrong relationships, there is no justice, and God’s vision and desire for humanity is violated. When we think of God working for justice or righteousness, then, we are thinking of God working to establish right relationships between people. In other words, God’s commitment to justice is a commitment to liberation.

God’s motive for justice is love. And the result of justice, as defined above, is love. So justice and love are not incompatible – they are very closely related. Love requires justice, because love cannot stand idly by and watch God’s beloved being harmed. But justice requires love, because justice can easily degenerate into a dictatorship. Fortunately for us, in God love and justice are in perfect balance, with God’s love for all of creation in the centre.

Let us accept God’s love for every individual, both good people and bad people, both believers and unbelievers. God does not merely love abstractly – God loves relationally, personally, by name. Thus God is constantly at work to establish fellowship with each of these individuals. In so doing, God seeks to establish a right relationship between God and each individual. Various life events, then, including both happy and unhappy life experiences, may be agents of God’s efforts to establish such relationships, thereby working for justice in the divine-human relationship.

But what does God do when one person (or group of people) harms another person? The first person is not exercising love and is behaving in an unjust way. How does God balance love and justice in such a situation? If God merely forgives that person, where is justice?

The problem with these questions is that they stem from an inadequate grasp of love and justice. And of course, from the pain of being harmed, and particularly so when it is someone we love, such as a spouse or child, who has been harmed.

God’s love, as we’ve defined it above, is for the well-being of the individual and for communion with her or him. So, when God loves that person, God desires their well-being. And our well-being is tied up in our being in right relationships with those around us and with God. So love cannot condone or accommodate harming others – this is antithetical to love. God’s love desires wholeness in that person, and wholeness involves right relationships, and thus God’s love does not overlook the wrong doing, but works towards repentance and reconciliation.

In this way, there is no conflict between love and justice. Justice demands right relationships, and right relationships are vital to well-being and communion. Thus, God’s justice requires repentance by the one who has harmed another. Repentance, contrition, penitence are essential elements of justice and necessary for reconciliation.

But notice that this kind of justice is not about throwing perpetrators into jail (or hell) and throwing away the key. It is not an eye for an eye. It is not just about punishment or retribution. Rather, divine justice, Christian justice, is ultimately about setting things right – relationships, values, respect, wholeness, wellbeing. When all is right, all is just.

We ourselves have experienced this with God, even if we don’t feel like we were a very bad person. Our sin left us in a wrong relationship with God and other people and, indeed, ourselves. According to justice defined as retribution, we deserved to be punished, cast out, thrown down. But God’s love for us desired justice defined as right relationship. And so God sought out what is loveable in us, called us to change, established a clear relationship with us, and prompted us to clean up our act and to engage in wholesome relationships with those around us. Even so, none of us does all of these things very well. Yet God still loves us, and works for our righteousness.

We have been justified with God. And “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand… God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:1-2, 5-8).

Meditation for the Day

Think about your own salvation, how God expressed divine love in reaching out to you, in spite of all your sin, and has been working ever since for you to be in right relationship. Think about someone who has harmed you. How do you transfer what God has done for you to what you do for that person? This is not easy.

Prayer for the Day

Oh God of justice and love, please work in me your great work of love to transform me into your likeness and to establish righteousness and justice in my relationships with the world around me.

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[1] Marshall, C. D. (2001). Beyond retribution: A New Testament vision for justice, crime, and punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 27.

[2] Woodhead, L. (1992). Love and justice. Studies in Christian Ethics, 1(5), 44-63, p. 56.

[3] Marshall, p. 28.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 15: God’s Love and God’s Wrath

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

There is no denying that God expresses not only love but also wrath and anger in the pages of the scripture. It may, we sometimes think, be comforting to worship a God who experiences and expresses nothing but love, forgiveness, kindness. But in both Old and New Testaments, there are references to the wrath of God that we have to face up to. And, I suggest, it is good that God shows both love and wrath; indeed, they flow from the same centre in the heart of God – wrath is a facet of love.

I encourage you to read Deuteronomy 29:18-28, which is an extended passage about God’s wrath. It is within a larger passage where Moses calls the Israelites to renew their covenant with God. Having reminded them of God’s faithfulness in bringing them out of Egypt, he cautions them about flippancy in their relationship with God. He says that some people will take advantage of God’s chesed (God’s lovingkindness rooted in God’s covenant with Israel) and say to themselves, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way” (29:19). But, says Moses, such thinking will bring down God’s wrath, “his wrath and zeal will burn against that man… the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven” (29:20). He then broadens his focus to the whole of Israel, from the perspective of those who are not Israelites, asking why God would be so angry with them. The answer is, “because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord” (29:25). And then Moses heavily emphasises God’s wrath: “In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now” (29:28). As if God’s anger and wrath are not enough, we now have great wrath and furious anger.

And God’s wrath is not limited to the Old Testament. Romans 1:18 has, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”

How are we to reconcile God’s love and God’s wrath?

First, God’s wrath is not so much the inflicting of penalties equivalent to the person’s sin, as a withdrawal of divine protection.

In both Old and New Testaments, God’s wrath is often expressed as God choosing to withdraw protection from those who sin so that they experience the natural consequences of their sin.[1] The Romans 1 reading is a good example. After writing that God’s wrath is being revealed, Paul explains, “Therefore [because they rejected God] God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (1:24). And he repeats this twice more: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:26) and “Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (1:28). This three-fold “giving over” explains what Paul means by “the wrath of God”. Marshall explains further, “God’s act [of wrath] is not so much a matter of direct, individually tailored punitive intervention as it is a matter of measured withdrawal of his protective influence and control, a refusal to intervene to stem the deleterious effects of human rebellion”.[2]

On the one hand, then, such a ‘giving over’ is not God wreaking suffering on those who sin; but neither is it a passive withdrawal. It is a personal decision that God makes to cease protecting someone. The consequences of the loss of protection may be severe, but they are, essentially, of that person’s own doing. That is the wrath of God.

There are precedents for this understanding of wrath elsewhere in scripture. There are, for example, many passages that express God’s wrath and judgement as God hiding God’s face or turning away. “They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and difficulties will come upon them, and on that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come upon us because our God is not with us?’” (Deuteronomy 31:16-17).

Second, God’s wrath is less about punishment and more about reconciliation.

God’s wrath is not simply a venting of angry emotion, like a pressure cooker letting off steam. Neither is it a desire to obliterate or annihilate people. Rather, it is a strategy to persuade people to turn back to God – to repent of sin and seek to be reconciled to God. For example, in 2 Chronicles 15:2 we read, “This is what the Lord says, ‘You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak’.” This is another example of God’s wrath expressed as God turning away. In this instance, “The leaders of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, ‘The Lord is just’” (15:3). Here we see what appears frequently in passages on God’s wrath, namely that God’s intention is not so much punitive as restorative. “The point is not to torment human beings but to enable them to see their moral frailty and their consequent need for God’s healing assistance”.[3] In 2 Chronicles, God’s abandonment results in a recognition of need for God and repentance of sin. God then says, “Since they have humbled themselves, I will not destroy them but will soon give them deliverance. My wrath will not be poured out on Jerusalem through Shishak” (15:7). God relents on the expression of wrath, because the purpose of the wrath (to evoke repentance and call to reconciliation) was achieved.

Third, God’s wrath is a facet of God’s love, giving partial expression to God’s love.

It is good that God feels strongly about sin. If God did not stand against sin, who would stand up for me when someone sins against me? If God loves me, and someone harms me, is it not appropriate that God should be angry with that person? Would God be loving if I, his beloved, am harmed by someone else and God just continues to love both me and them? Isn’t a loving response to someone harming me for God to be angry with them? Think about this in terms of our own loved ones. I love my son, and when someone hurts him, I get angry and want to express my wrath at that person. Is that not love? Would my turning to the person who hurts my son and hugging him and inviting him to supper not be an act of not-love towards my son?

Love and wrath are not mutually incompatible. Rather wrath is a facet of love. Wrath is an appropriate response when someone who is loved is harmed. Wrath is also an appropriate response when someone who is loved harms someone else or her or himself. It is a manifestation of God’s love when God gets mad at me because I sin, because I treat myself (created in God’s image) harmfully. And since we are all created in God’s image, whether or not we and they recognise or accept that, God responds with protective love when any one of God’s creatures is harmed. We call that response of protective love ‘wrath’, particularly if we are on the receiving end of it. But from the perspective of the person being protected, it is love. It is all a matter of perspective.

A few years ago, my car was stolen. I was upset because it was a much loved car. And also because it was stolen from a place where I was volunteering my time for a worthy cause – it felt like an injustice. One of the consequences was that I was delayed in marking my students’ assignments, so I informed them of what had happened as part of my apology for the delay. Many students responded with words of encouragement and solidarity. And many of these expressed sentiments like, “Shame, don’t worry Prof, God will cast those men who stole your car into everlasting torment. They will suffer forever for taking your car!” I was taken aback with the vehemence of their support. On the one hand they expressed what I am saying here, that God’s wrath against those men is an expression of God’s solidarity with me, God’s beloved. But on the other hand, they are God’s creatures too and I found myself loving them and praying that God would not punish them for what they did to me!

This is part of the complexity of being God and why I am glad that God is God, rather than me! Love and wrath are easy to get one’s head around if I am God’s beloved and you are God’s enemy. Then of course God will love me and express wrath against you. And in the Old Testament particularly, there is a tendency to divide the world neatly into those within God’s covenant and those who are already in outer darkness. But in modern times we recognise that things are not so simple and clean. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, loved by God and enemies of God. I can think of many times when I have harmed someone else (sometimes in anger and intent, and sometimes by accident or necessity), or myself or God. In all of those times I am deserving of God’s wrath. But I am also God’s beloved because of my response, through the grace of God, to the call of Christ. So, do I get love or wrath?

There are no neat answers to God’s love and God’s wrath. But as we mull it over, let us consider that God’s wrath always comes from a place of love, with an intention to restore and reconcile. God’s wrath, like God’s holiness, is enclosed in love. God’s wrath is the servant of and therefore subordinate to God’s love.

Meditation for the Day

Think about love and wrath in yourself, particularly in relation to those you love. Can you figure out how they are related, not incompatible? Now escalate those insights to God. God is not just like us, but neither is God completely different from us. Perhaps we can learn something about God as we reflect on ourselves.

Prayer for the Day

Loving God, I thank you that you are willing to take a stand for goodness, for righteousness. Help me to not be an object of your wrath, by empowering me to live in love and faithfulness. And help me to love all those whom you love.

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[1] Marshall, C. D. (2001). Beyond retribution: A New Testament vision for justice, crime, and punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, pp. 169-175.

[2] Marshall, p. 173.

[3] Marshall, p. 175.