Levi Shalom, a father’s love for his newborn baby

God is agape love.  The nature of agape love is that it doesn’t love to get.  It simply loves.  It isn’t selfishly looking to receive, but is firmly and legitimately centered on another.  Agape pours out love to another, and the joy is not in getting something in return, but simply in the act of the out-pouring, the giving of self for the benefit of another.  This is the definition of God, for God is love.

In the following 4-minute reflection on the love of God, I’d like to share with you the insights God has given me about His love since becoming a father 2 weeks ago.  My son, Levi, cannot yet even hold eye contact with me.  I get nothing from him at this point.  But, aside from my wife Cami, there’s no person I love more.  How much more, then, God must love with his infinite love.  Sure, the analogy, like any, has its limits, but for what it’s worth..

Audio (4 minutes): Reflections on God and my newborn son

UPDATE: Can’t believe I didn’t think of this when I posted, but Levi does give something back.  He periodically works really hard to produce a wonderful gift in his pants.  Upon receiving it, I say… “Gee, thanks.”  It has been said that to God our righteousness is “filthy rags” (Is 64:6).  But the lesson is this: he loves us anyway.

Also, I was discussing this with a friend yesterday, and he said, “well at least Levi is cute, God looks at our degraded bodies, a far cry from the perfection of Eden, and, we’ll we’re not that cute.”  Good point!

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All of the Bible verses on the nature of hell and the destiny of the wicked

I’ve received some very good questions from folks who have had a chance to listen to podcast #10 on the state of the dead and the nature of hell.  This is a pretty hot topic!

Let’s take the Bible passages one by one and observe what I think is the only way to harmonize all of the relevant biblical texts. We’ll mainly be dealing with the topic of hell, since that is what has sparked the most discussion.

First of all, a review of the content from podcast #10:

1. The Bible clearly teaches that human beings in their sinful state are not immortal, but God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16).  Satan’s lie to Eve was that she would continue to be immortal in a sinful state (“you will not surely die”).  The Bible says that only the righteous put on immortality, and that even we are mortal and perishable until the resurrection clothes us with immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53).

2. It is not merely the body of the wicked that will die, but the soul of the wicked will die. While the righteous will put on immortality, the wicked will experience the second death, a complete soul death, after their resurrection.  Unlike the righteous, the wicked do not put on immortality at the resurrection.

3. The lake of fire (hell) is the second death (Rev 20:14, 20:8). The nature of the hell experience is not an eternally conscious hell. The notion that the wicked live forever in hell presupposes the untrue belief that human beings are naturally immortal (a pagan, Greek notion that slipped into the church after the first century). The following is what the Bible says about the fate of the wicked. Rather than eternal existence in hell,

  • They will be ashes and stubble (Mal 4:1-3)
  • Neither root nor branch will be left (Mal 4:1-3)
  • They will be no more (Ps 37:10)
  • They will vanish like smoke (Ps 37:20)
  • They will perish (Ps 37:20)
  • They will be burned up like chaff (Matt 3:11-12)
  • They will be stubble (Is 47:14)
  • The soul will be “destroyed in hell” (Matt 10:28)
  • Their destiny is destruction (Phil 3:19)
  • They will be devoured by the fire (Rev 20:9)
  • Sin pays its wage, and its wage is death (Rom 6:23)
  • The soul will die (Ez 18:20)
  • The opposite of eternal life is to perish (John 3:16)
  • Everything will melt with fervent heat (2 Peter 3:12-13)
  • The fire of God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29)
  • They will melt like wax (Ps 68:2)
  • They will be blown away like smoke (Ps 68:2)
  • Where righteousness leads to eternal life, sin leads to corruption/destruction/decay (Gal 6:8)

4. Isaiah 33:14-15 asks the question we’re asking, which is about dwelling in the fire.  Isaiah asks, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” The Bible’s answer surprises those who have heard the popular teaching on hell.  Most of us would say the wicked dwell in the everlasting burning.  The Bible says the following are those who will live in the eternal fires for eternity: “Those who walk righteously and speak what is right” are those who dwell in the consuming fire, the everlasting burning.  It is the righteous, not the wicked, who will live forever in the fire. So, yes, the Bible says there will be a group of people who are eternally conscious in the fire; but it is not the wicked, it is the righteous. Only the righteous can dwell in the fire, the Bible says; the wicked cannot dwell in the fire.

All of the above is clear enough.  But there are passages that need to be discussed in light of the above.  They are important passages to account for in our understanding of the nature of hell.

1. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

This passage paints a strange picture of immortal human beings who live during death in “Abraham’s bosom” and “Hades.”  Aside from this one parable, this picture of an “afterlife” is entirely absent from the Bible. So, what do we make of it? Do we conclude that the wicked are burning in hell right now from this one parable alone? I think that would be imprudent and hasty. Let every matter be established by the testimony of 2 or 3 witnesses. The way I understand this is that it’s simply a parable, a dramatic story. It wasn’t meant to teach about the state of the dead, but was meant to be a spiritual lesson about greed and poverty.  It’s important to note that those who believe the dead are in heaven and hell right now do not picture it as this parable does anyway – a situation where people talk to each other from heaven to hell and where heaven is not called heaven, but Abraham’s bosom. This passage is simply a parable that pulls from strange Greek understandings about death that were prominent in Jesus’ day and thus familiar to the people of his day to be used as a teaching tool, and this parable was not intended to instruct on the matter of death, but an entirely different matter altogether.

2. Matthew 25:41 calls hell “everlasting fire.”

To some, this sounds like the wicked will burn for eternity.  But, reading closely, notice that the passage says that the fire itself is what is everlasting, not the experience in the fire. The fire is everlasting, because it is God himself who is the consuming fire.

Also, we have an actual example of everlasting fire, so let’s let scripture interpret scripture: Jude 7… “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” As the everlasting fire consumed the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, so also it will consume the wicked in the end. Peter also says the same thing … 2 Peter 2:6 “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.”

3. Revelation 20:10 says that the devil will be tormented “forever” in the lake of fire.

The problem with taking Revelation 20:10 literally is that if we do, the Bible contradicts itself. Consider Ezekiel 28:18, speaking of Lucifer or Satan: By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries. So I made a fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching.” How can the devil be CONSUMED/reduced to ASHES AND be tormented “forever and ever?” The only way to harmonize these is to do a careful word study of the use of the word “forever” in the Bible. (See below)

4. Revelation 14:9-11 says that the smoke of the torment of the wicked will rise “forever.”

Again, if we take this literally, we have the Bible contradicting itself. As we’ve seen in many passages above, the Bible teaches that the wicked will be consumed, be ashes, no more, be stubble, be dead, perish, be destroyed etc. Consider Isaiah 34:9-11, which Revelation 14:9-11 is a direct reference to. (Most of Revelation is citing Old Testament passages that can help us understand the difficult passages of Revelation.) Isaiah 34:9-11 gives more detail than Rev 14:9-11. Notice that it says that the land will be “DESOLATE” after the smoke of their torment rises “forever.” NOT that it will be heavily populated with souls that burn forever and ever for eternity. Desolate. This sounds a lot like ashes, be no more, dead, perish, destruction, etc., which the many passages clearly teach us.

How do we understand this thing about the devil and the wicked burning “forever” before becoming ashes? That doesn’t make sense in our English language to say that they burn forever and then are destroyed!  But that is what the Bible very clearly says; there’s no way around it.  Either we have a contradiction, or…  The answer comes when we realize that the term “forever,” as used in the Hebrew and Greek language and mindset, means simply a period of time, limited or unlimited.The phrase “forever” is used 56 times in the Bible in connection with things that have already ended.  In Jonah 2:6, “forever” means “three days and nights.” (See also Jonah 1:17.) In Deuteronomy 23:3, this means “10 generations.”  In the case of man, this means “as long as he lives” or “until death.”  (See 1 Samuel 1:22, 28; Exodus 21:6; Psalm 48:14.)  So indeed, the wicked will burn “forever” in the biblical sense: the wicked will burn in the fire as long as they live, or until death, until they are consumed.  No doubt, this fiery experience will vary according to the degree of wickedness for each individual, as Jesus said with regard to the stripes each will be “beaten” with.  But while some will indeed receive “many” stripes, nobody will be beaten with stripes endlessly for the ceaseless ages of eternity.

[It should be noted that our our confidence in the belief in the literal eternal/forever nature of God and the literal eternal/forever nature of our heavenly experience do not rest solely on the use of the ambiguous word “forever” in the Bible. The Bible clearly says that the righteous will put on immortality and not die and that God is immortal. These are unambiguous, unlike the Greek word for “forever.”]

5. Matthew 25:46, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I affirm the fact that the punishment of the wicked is truly eternal in the sense that it is irreversible. The consequences of the punishment are eternal. But as we’ve seen, the Bible explains that the experience of the punishment is not eternal, but that the wicked are destroyed.  Also, consider this treatment of the Greek used in the passage:

The entire concept of eternal or everlasting punishment hinges primarily on a single verse of Scripture–Matthew 25:46. This is the only place in the entire Bible where we find these two words together AND only in some Bibles. There are over a dozen English translations which do NOT contain the concept of “eternal punishment” on ANY of their pages, NOR the pagan concept of Hell.

The Greek form for “everlasting punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is “kolasin aionion.” Kolasin is a noun in the accusative form, singular voice, feminine gender and means “punishment, chastening, correction, to cut-off as in pruning a tree to bare more fruit.” “Aionion” is the adjective form of “aion,” in the singular form and means “pertaining to an eon or age, an indeterminate period of time.” (Note: the two words in many, not all translations become reversed changing the Greek into English.)

Aionion,” as shown above, is the singular form of the adjective of the Greek noun “aion.” Many people unfamiliar with the Greek do not realize that the endings of the same word change (inflection) to indicate its mood, case, gender, etc. Therefore, “aionion” may appear with different endings. “Aionion, aioniou, aionios,” for example, are all different inflections of the adjective form of the noun “aion.”

The noun “aion” in Greek literature has always meant “an indeterminate period of time. It could be as short as the time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish (three days or nights), the length of a man’s life, or as long as a very long age.

[It should be noted again that recognizing the limited duration of the “aion” of the punishment of the wicked need not undermine our confidence in the unlimited duration of the “aion” of the reward of the righteous, since we have clear biblical teachings on our future immortality whereas we have clear biblical teaching on the destruction of the wicked.]

6. “Worm will not die”, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and “outer darkness.”

These are three biblical statements referring to the hell experience, which have been raised. None of these indicate that the wicked will live forever in the fires of hell. The presence of weeping and gnashing of teeth does not imply that the weeping and gnashing of teeth goes on and on for eternity. Indeed, the experience of hell will be blackest darkness. And the worm, which is pictured as a consuming agent, will not fail of completing its task of decomposing the refuse. Notice that worms are not the object of punishment, but are the means of destruction. So, the fact that the worm doesn’t die shouldn’t be taken to meant that immortal souls live on forever in the fire. [UPDATE… Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms are eating “dead bodies,” not tormenting immortal living souls in hell.  The picture given is that the wicked are destroyed, dead, and consumed by unstoppable fire and (perhaps figuratively) unstoppable worms.  See the comments for further discussion on the worms and unquenchable fire.]

CONCLUSION:

To sum up, we have two categories of Bible verses.  One category says that the wicked will be ashes, stubble, no more, vanish like smoke, nothing will be left, will perish, burn up like chaff, souls will be destroyed, destiny is to be destroyed, will be devoured, will die, will melt, will be consumed, and will be blown away like smoke, will experience a second death, will reap decay/destruction/corruption.  This is a huge amount of testimony teaching annihilation.  The other (very small and using ambiguous Greek) category of verses use the phrases, “everlasting fire,” “eternal punishment” and “forever.”  At face value, these two sets of verses do contradict each other.  Above, I’ve tried to explain the only logical way I have found to harmonize the two sets of verses.  If there is another way to harmonize the verses, I am open to that.  Above we’ve seen how “forever,” “eternal,” and “everlasting” can mean something different in the Bible than what we suppose in English and according to church tradition.

Here’s the challenge and the invitation for those who presently believe in an eternally burning hell experience: take each of the descriptions of what happens to the wicked (ashes, stubble, being consumed, being destroyed, perishing, death, a second death, being no more, vanishing like smoke, burn up like chaff, soul destroyed, be devoured, decay/destruction/corruption, etc.) and show in the Bible where we get permission to re-interpret each of these to mean eternally conscious existence.  In other words, do with those passages what I’ve attempted to do with the forever/eternal/everlasting passages. Just as I haven’t been able to find an answer to the question, “how can love torture people for eternity?” I also have not found an explanation for how all of those descriptions that speak of annihilation are really meant to point to eternal consciousness.  But I am open to it, just as I assume you’ve been open and perhaps convinced by the biblical testimony pointing to the complete destruction of the wicked.

I want to be clear on something, because several people have accused me of having a bias, looking to find what I wanted in the Bible in order to support my preconceived view of a benevolent God.  THIS IS EXTREMELY UNTRUE!!  At the time when I was first confronted with these Bible verses many years ago, I had a bias in favor of established tradition on hell, and I did NOT have the view of God as a kind and loving Father, which I have today.  The whole “a loving God wouldn’t burn people in hell” argument didn’t interest me when I first explored this topic and came to believe as I do on hell.  I simply wanted to know what the Bible said.  I searched it out and found only one way to reconcile the two different sets of verses that seemed to contradict.

If you also set aside your bias and preconceived notions and you come to a different conclusion after objectively and fairly analyzing the above verses and finding your own way to harmonize them, then I respect your honest pursuit of biblical truth.  I am not looking to argue or fight or get people riled up.  This is what I see in the Bible.  I will not accuse you of looking for what you want to find in the Bible.  I also ask for the same respectful understanding from those who disagree with me.  Unfounded accusations need to be set aside as we engage in healthy Christian dialogue, seeking biblical truth together.

In the comments under this post please list any other passages that need to be addressed in order to have a full biblical picture of the nature of hell in case I have neglected to write about them here.

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Be terrified of God! (??)

See end of post for a 4-minute audio addendum: Why all the Scary Stuff in the Bible then?

As I was reading through the opening scenes preceding the birth of Jesus in Luke 1 this Christmas, I was struck by a strange seeming contradiction.  In Mary’s song giving thanks for God reaching down to exalt the lowly (and in doing so shaming the proud and haughty), she states, “His mercy is on those who fear him.” 

Those who fear him.  So, are we supposed to be terrified of God? 

Many places in the Bible we are instructed to fear God, actually.  Now that’s confusing.  If God ultimately wants fear from his children, then why did he choose to come as an infant in a manger with animals, the least threatening thing imaginable?  If God ultimately wants fear from his children, then why did he turn the other cheek and refuse to retaliate against those who murdered him?  This is not a very scary picture of God he is painting for the world.  And let’s not forget, that in Jesus we see the highest and clearest portrayal of the character of God.  Jesus said, “if you have seen me you have seen the father” (John 14:9).  And Jesus is not scary.  Even when he’s doing the only moderately scary thing during his ministry (cleansing the temple), little children are drawn to him!  Jesus is about the least scary person ever.  Therefore God is about the least scary person ever.

So, what do we make of this “fear God” business?

Well, if you read on in Luke 1, the puzzle starts to come together.  In Zechariah’s poetic prophecy, he idealizes a situation where we “serve Him without fear.”  Wait a minute, Mary had just said that we should fear Him, now Zechariah is saying God wants us to serve him without fear.

Then, combine Zechariah’s statement with the insightful commentary by the apostle John that love and fear are mutually exclusive: “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

So does God want our fear or our love?  It can’t be both.  Seeing as God is defined as being love and not terror, we might ask ourselves, does love seek love or fear?  Love seeks love, and does not demand fear.

So then, what do we make of Mary’s statement and the others in the Bible that we should “fear God?”  Well, the angel Gabriel who came to Mary can help us out with this.  We know that God doesn’t want us to be terrified of him because Gabriel says “do not be afraid, Mary.”  In fact, it has been said (though I haven’t verified) that statements like “fear not,” “do not be afraid,” etc. appear 365 times in the Bible–one for each day of the year.  So we know that God didn’t inspire Mary to say that we should be terrified of God.

Plus, if we assume that she’s suggesting we should be terrified of God her statement wouldn’t even make sense in itself (“mercy on those who fear Him”).  Fear and mercy are incompatible.  If you’re terrified of somebody, you’re not experiencing their mercy, but rather, they’re inflicting psychological and emotional pain upon you.  So the fear Mary speaks of can’t be “fear” as we normally think of it.  There must be a kind of so-called “fear” that helps us experience God’s mercy.

What do we make of the numerous places in the Bible where it says we should “fear God,” then?  A fear that helps us experience God’s mercy.  Hmm.  Is there another way to understand the biblical admonition to “fear” God than is commonly thought?  Indeed there is!  As usual, a Greek or Hebrew word has more angles of meaning than one of our words, and thus their word for “fear” can carry with it connotations not of terror, but instead (and here’s the important part!) connotations of “respect” and “reverence.”  In other words, to “fear God” in the Bible means not that we’re afraid of him, but that we are willing to listen to him, that we are teachable.  The goal is not to be terrified/afraid of God, but to revere him.  Put another way, since we admire God’s character so much, and since we owe our existence and every good and perfect blessing to our loving Creator, it is fitting that we look to him as the authority that we love and respect and listen to.  That is what it means to fear the Lord.  It is the very beginning of wisdom.

It is not in God’s character to lord it over us (Matt. 20:25ff), but he knows that it is ultimately best for us to worship, admire, honor, respect, and learn from him, and not a false concept of God.  It is good for us because we tend to become like that which we admire and worship.  If we look to a higher ideal in the form of a God of love as revealed in Jesus, then it will change us; it will be good for us.  Only if we listen to (or “fear”) the one true God, the only God who is love, will we be healed of our selfish minds.

God has our best interest at heart, and he proved it by showing that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to reach out to us and win us back to love and trust.  Since he has our ultimate good in mind, how could we do anything less than respect and honor him in his goodness and follow the ways he says are best for us–i.e. “fear God” (respect him, listen to him, follow his instructions).

We can be sure that God does not want us to be terrified of him, because what he really wants most from us is a relationship of love, an intimate friendship.  The very definition of eternal life is “knowing God” (John 17:3)–and the word “know” in the Bible means intimate relationship even marital intimacy when the context suggests, such as, “Adam knew Eve and she conceived Cain” (Gen 4:1).   And Jesus said that he wants not terrified servants, but understanding friends.  Yes, God is friendly, wants you to be his friend, and wants to be your friend–an intimate relationship.  John 15:15 says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

In order to experience that intimacy with God, we must live within his law, the law of love, the very reality within which we were designed to thrive and live in harmony with him who made us.  But, to find what that law of love looks like in principle and in practice, we must be willing to listen to God, to “fear” God, to obediently live within the very design protocols of ultimate reality: others-centered, self-giving love.  If we don’t respect the one who made us and if we don’t seek to pattern ourselves after him, then we will remain in sin and selfishness and never experience the joy of living in relationship with a God who is love.  But if we do listen to him and follow him each day, we will experience life eternal: knowing God, intimate friendship with God.

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4-minute auido addendum to this post: if God’s goal is to awaken love in his children rather than fear, then why does he deliberately evoke fear and terror in his people throughout the Bible? 

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Peace on earth for all

Depending on what translation of the Bible you use and what interpretation you bring to the text, the Christmas story might portray God in one of two ways.

The relevant text is Luke 2:14, which is the message of the angelic host singing praise to God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” (NKJV).

Now, you might be waiting for the rest of the sentence.  That is, if you grew up with the NIV Bible as I did.  The same verse in the NIV reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

At first glance, the NIV’s take on this might sound as if God’s favor isn’t intended for all of his children, that perhaps God feels differently toward his rebellious children than he does toward his obedient children.  He only intends peace only upon those whom he favors.  No doubt, religion has given many the impression that God loves his good kids, but his misbehaving ones he really can’t stand.  And all of this would imply, then, that I have to do something to get God to be peaceful and favorable toward me, to get on his good side, to get him to love me…as if these are not innate attributes of his character and as if that is not his continual attitude toward his children.

The picture of a God who has favor only upon a few, however, does not fit with what we know to be true about God.  God is love.  And love extends forgiveness and peace to all, not just those who are willing to reciprocate.  God has favor toward all of his children.  For example, Jesus’ favor was extended even to those who were in outright rebellion against God, such as the woman caught in adultery or those who were crucifying him.  Jesus did not wait for them to get their act together before he showed his heart of forgiveness, favor, and peace toward them.

And Jesus told us in Luke 6:35 that the Most High is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”  God’s favor is extended to all, even the most vile.  Even me.

With the character of God as revealed in Jesus as the foundational truth, how then do we make sense of the NIVs rendering of the Christmas message, “on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  It still sounds like God only gives peace to those whom he favors.

The only way to understand this is to realize that experiencing peace and experiencing God’s favor is different from God extending his peace and favor.  While God extends his favor to all, only some will allow it to rest upon them, only some will accept it.  Those crucifying Jesus are a good example.  Christ extended his favor to them (“Father forgive them”), but they went on crucifying him.  Thus his favor didn’t rest on them; they rejected it.  They would not allow the experience of God’s peace on earth unless they accepted his favor, which is extended to all.

A decent parallel to this is found in Matthew 10:13 where Jesus instructs his disciples to find homes to stay in as they travel and teach about the kingdom of God.  Jesus directs his disciples to select a house to stay at, and he tells them to, “let your peace rest on it,” or in other words, offer your peace to the home.  Specifically in verse 12 he says, “give it your greeting.”  If however you are not welcomed, then his instructions are, “let your peace return to you.”  Simply leave.  You can’t force peace upon people who don’t want anything to do with you.  Similarly in the Christmas announcement, the angels make mention of those who have allowed God’s favor to “rest” on them–they will experience his peace. 

So, the reason God’s favor does not rest on everybody is solely on the human side of the equation, not the divine.  God extends forgiveness and favor to all, period, because that’s what he’s like.  God doesn’t have to be won over to me.  But I do have to be won over to God; I do have to accept his favor and let it rest on me.

How does that work?  When I see God’s kindness, when I see the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to communicate to and save his sin sick children…I am then won over to God.  As Paul put it, “the kindness of God leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4).  After being won over to God by seeing his goodness, then not only will his favor be extended to me, but I will receive it and accept it; his favor will actually rest on me.  Then I will experience peace on this earth.

On this Christmas Day, know that the message of Christmas is “peace on earth” for all who are willing to accept it.  Peace in your home.  Peace of mind.  Peace with yourself.  Peace with God.  God extends his favor, and all we have to do is say “thank you” and allow it to rest on us.  There is nothing that can change the way God feels about you.  Christmas proves that.  May we all then experience the peace of the presence of a God of love in our lives.

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The Pinnacle of Truth

Christianity has a lot of truths.  We have a lot of Scriptures.  Sometimes the truths and the Scriptures seem to run contrary to each other.  How can we make sense of it all?

Is God angry or loving?  Kind and gentle or violent and vindictive?  Is he somehow both simultaneously since he’s “sovereign”?

Well, we know that God is love (the thesis statement of Christianity; the very definition of God).  With this as the foundational truth, we then approach the difficult passages of the Bible asking, “in what way must a God who is love do or say such things?”

But beyond that, we need a clearer conception of what love is!  Maybe love is sometimes uncontrollably angry, who knows?  If God is “sovereign,” he can make up rules about what love is and isn’t, right?  Hmm…

Well, thankfully, we do have a picture of love in the Bible, and it is as clear as crystal.  God does not merely settle with giving us a definition of love, and saying “just take my word for it.”  He actually came to earth, himself, to demonstrate, not merely define, what love is.  The person of Jesus is the clearest expression of love in the history of existence.

The self-sacrificing teachings, life, attitudes, actions, and even death of Jesus show us beyond a shadow of a doubt what God is like.  

Jesus is…the pinnacle of truth.

Jesus is the standard by which we must measure all of our conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings about God, our theological constructs, and even our Bible verses.  

The supreme Truth of Christianity…is a person.  Not a doctrine, not theological system, not even the Bible itself.  Jesus said, “I am the…truth” (John 14:6). 

In fact, since I am the Truth, the only value of the Bible is that it testifies of me!  “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). 

To the extent that the Bible is used in any other way than to point to the character of God as revealed in Jesus, the Bible is being misused.  If misread and misconstrued, the Bible can lead to death, rather than life.  If one’s use of the Bible accomplishes anything other than drawing us closer to an understanding of and a relationship with God as revealed in Jesus, then it is not bringing us life.  If we walk away from sermons and Bible studies with anything less than a deeper trust in a God of self-sacrificing love, then we have misunderstood the Bible, and it has brought us no good at all.

Since Jesus is the pinnacle of truth, the clearest communication of God to man, no statement of a prophet in the Old or New Testament can contradict the character of God as seen in the person of Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews captures this (Heb 1:1-3) when he says that in many and various ways God has tried to communicate to us through prophets, but now he’s done it through his Son!  The communication through prophets just does not compare to the Son of God coming, himself, to communicate to us about God.  Then the writer says that Jesus is the “exact representation” of the “glory” (i.e. character) of God.  

The exact representation.  Thus, the pinnacle of truth. 

If you want to know what God is like, what love looks like (for God is love)…look at Jesus.  Begin there.  Admire his compassion for the needy, his concern for little children, his weeping over those who rejected him.  And then stand in awe as the God of the universe washes the feet of his betrayer and forgives those who are crucifying him.  

That is love.  That is what God is like.  This picture of God should begin to purge from our minds any subconscious feelings or conscious beliefs we have about God’s character that just don’t measure up to this pinnacle of truth as seen in Jesus.

Yes, it is a difficult task to take the Truth about this self-sacrificing God as our lens to make some sense of difficult passages of scripture.  But it is one of the most worthy tasks.  Because if we do not measure those difficult passages by the pinnacle of truth and understand them in light of the most bright and clear light we have (Jesus), then we will retain misconceptions about God’s character that will prevent us from truly trusting him.

God is not mixed in character.  “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  The Father is no different from the Son in character, for the Son is the “exact representation” of God’s character (Hebrews 1:3).

Begin with Jesus.  The pinnacle of truth.  The Truth about God personified.  Remain with Jesus for a time.  Fall in love with him.  Develop a trust relationship with him.  Then after that, tackle the rest of the Bible in light of the pinnacle of truth, and see the “many and various ways” God has dealt with the sin emergency on this planet and tried to reach his rebellious children.

Jesus is the standard by which we must measure every thought about God.  And we should “take captive every thought” which “sets itself up against a knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5), the knowledge of God as revealed in the pinnacle of truth, the Truth—Jesus.

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The Definition of God

You’ve heard the statement, “if you look up stupid in the dictionary, there’s a picture of you,” implying that the person at the receiving end of the insult has done something dumb and is being made fun of – “dude you are the very definition of stupid!”

It’s not very nice, but it makes me wonder if God has a definition.  What is the definition of God?  What is the essence of the divine character?  If one were to wrap up everything that God is in a simple statement, what would it be?  “God is ____________.” 

Is it possible?

Can we really define God in a statement such as that?

Well, if you believe the Bible to be a credible collection of documents, then we have such a statement.  And only one of them.

According to the Bible the entire character of God can be captured in three words, one very simple definition of God.

God is love (1 John 4:8).

It has been said a zillion times.  Maybe it has lost all meaning to us.  When we hear the word “love,” maybe we think only of romantic love, emotional feelings, or worse yet, self-centered pleasure-seeking.  As Ty Gibson observes, “we talk of love and sing of love obsessively, and yet we are in a continual crisis of love”…because ‘love’ in popular culture is self-centered and self-referencing (A God Named Desire, p. 134). 

And so it’s time we begin to revisit biblical love and plunge the depths of meaning contained in this simple phrase that defines the very identity of God’s character.

Because it’s the only statement of its kind in the Bible.  God IS love.  Not loving.  LOVE!  We can’t compile a list of such statements from the Bible, which define God as being different things, and then “balance” them one against another.  The Bible doesn’t permit us to do this.  Yes, the Bible does say God is just and merciful and kind and holy and many things.  But these are merely adjectives describing God, where love is noun defining God.  The Bible does not define God literally as the nouns justices, mercy, kindness or holiness, but simply describes him as being just, holy, etc. 

But the Bible deals with the word love differently.  It is the only word used as a noun to define God.  The only statement of its kind in the Bible, the very definition of God: God IS love.

And no doubt this includes all of the other attributes (justice, holiness) of God which then must be expressions of God’s identity as love.  Rightly understood, every attitude, statement, action, and attribute of God must be an outflowing of the essence of his character of love.  Love is much deeper, wider, bigger, and far more mind-blowing than we have thought.

Ty Gibson explains Agape-love this way:

“The declaration, God is agape (1 John 4:8), is the only total identity statement made about God in the whole Bible.  It is, in fact the only comprehensive, all-encompassing declaration regarding the divine character that may be made with a single word in the form of a noun.  The declaration is not ‘God  is loving,’ but rather, ‘God is love.’ [] Love…stands alone as the only word that encompasses the totality of God’s being.  Everything that is true of God is true of God because God is love.  God is just in all His ways due to the fact that God is love, and because justice is an attribute of love. […] Agape is not one trait in a list of others.  Rather, it is the complete whole of who and what manner of person God is” (A God Named Desire, 141-142).

If expressing one’s religious faith required a thesis statement, my vote would be for “God is Love” as the thesis statement of Christianity.  Religion can begin with a list of rules. Religion can begin with me and what I want out of it.  Religion can begin with an offended deity whom we have to appease.  And it often has.

Or…the Christian faith can begin where it ought to: God.  And not just any God.  The only picture of God in human history where the deity is described simply as the very essence of love.  A deity that is personal (not just an energy or force), is relationship, is others-centeredness, is self-sacrifice, is forgiveness…personified.  Any picture of God that is other than this is a false God.  Any unloving attitudes, attributes or actions with which we clothe our conception of God make him to be a false God even if by the same name.

I’m afraid that much of Christianity has missed this point and cherishes misconceptions about God, and thus, as John says, “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  Christians are not known for portraying for the world a God of love through our theology, attitudes, and actions.  Is it possible that Christianity, then, to a large degree “does not know God” and is worshipping and admiring a false God in its false conception of God?

The thesis statement of Christianity.  The definition of God.  Love.  And Love is much deeper than we thought.

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Official launch of blog!

This is a very exciting moment.  The As He Is series is over, I am on Christmas Break, and I can now launch this blog.  This has been a long time in the making, and my mind is racing with different topics to post on.

What kind of blog is this?  My hope is that it will be a conversational exploration into the most interesting subject of all: the character of God.  Other topics are interesting, but nothing is as permanently interesting as seeking God and knowing him.  More than merely being interesting, this pursuit actually transforms the pursuer.

Welcome aboard as we seek the truth about God together!

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