Notes on 1 John

My devotional reading has recently taken me through 1 John. I found some things in the book particularly edifying and decided the thoughts they inspired might be worth sharing. So here are my lightly edited notes straight from my journal. (After this, you should totally reread 1 John if you haven’t done it in a while, because it really is a great little book.)

1 John 1

  • Summary: John has seen and knows intimately the light that is Jesus Christ, and wishes to make Him further known to his audience, that they all together may walk as one in the light with Christ, cleansed of sin and united in joy.
  • Details
    • First off, John does not separate at all between the historical and the theological Jesus. As far as John is concerned, the Jesus he touched and heard and saw in the flesh was indeed even in the flesh the Word of life, the eternal life and Son of God, by whom man has fellowship with the Father.
    • Everything about eternal life for John is oriented around Christ. He is eternal life. He is the Word of life. Eternal life comes through faith in Him. Knowing Christ is the essence of eternal life. Jesus Himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Any conception of eternal life that is not ultimately part of our conception of Jesus is broken.
    • God is light, as is Jesus, and in Him is no darkness. Therefore if we walk in Him, in His light, our sin is exposed and burned up by His radiance. Yet this painful process leads some to hide from God’s light, and they deceive themselves if they say they walk with God. Only if one is in darkness can his sin be hidden, even from himself, and thus those who claim to lack sin are indeed in darkness, for the light exposes more and more sins. Yet only this exposure can cleanse sin, and in fact this paradox is precisely the paradox of justification by faith: our only hope to be made right with God in Christ is to own up to how badly we are wrong with God in ourselves.

1 John 2:1-27

  • Summary: The true believers, unlike the heretics, keep God’s commands and love each other, even in the midst of trouble, because they know the Father and have victory in Him. The ungodly world is passing away, and so we must cling to Christ rather than any of this age, in spite of all the false teachers set to lead us astray, who would sever us from Christ by denying Him.
  • Details
    • The true Church can be known by its fruit, to at least a degree. We follow God’s commands, rather than living unlike Christ.
    • In the midst of controversy, love is still essential, and perhaps more essential than usual, for the Church.
    • The world under the evil one is conquered and passing away. All of its structures and delights are fading, so we best not get caught in them, a trap the world-denying Gnostics could easily and ironically fall into.
    • The spirit of the antichrist is alive and well, energizing false teachers, but true believers remain faithful in spite of them. God teaches His Church the truth.

1 John 2:28-3:24

  • Summary: In Christ we are righteous children of God, though the true fullness of this is yet invisible as we wait for Him to be revealed, since our life is hidden in Him. Yet in present, we see the change brought about by this new life in righteous living and active love, for those who lack such things but instead sin and hate are of the Devil.
  • Details
    • Can Bobby Grow’s claim that there is no warrant for a spiritual test here be completely supported? I’m not sure about that. Nonetheless, I do get a generally corporate and “in Christ”-ian feel from this passage, so certainly the focus is shifted away from individual assurance to identifying the true Body of Christ against the false.
    • Christ’s life is a life of radically self-giving love, and of righteous living, for this is exactly what He did from birth to the Cross. That life is also the life into which we have been born again as His people.
    • Our true nature is mostly invisible, even to ourselves, in this time-between-the-times, for it is the nature of Christ, who is hidden from our sight until His return. Thus we still sin and see ourselves in sinful terms, despite our true nature as children of God. Yet we are children of God, who do not sin but rather love.
    • Love is only love when it is real and active. That is the kind of love Christ showed for us, which even animated His Passion.
    • I should make every effort to abide in Christ, which practically means in specific devotion, worship, and Church life, so that I may share in the revelation of His life when He returns. If I want the good resurrection, I must be found in Him. If I am to be found in Him, I must stay connected to Him by the means He has provided.
    • I should always have hope even in the midst of my deepest sinfulness, because what I truly am is God’s child, and something too wonderful to know yet, hidden in Christ. No matter what I see in myself now, the new reality is there and will be revealed.

1 John 4

  • Summary: We who believe in Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh are from God, just as Christ and therefore this doctrine are from God, and those who reject this are of the spirit of the antichrist. That spirit works not love, but deception. True love is bound up with God’s self-revelation of His love in giving His only Son for us, so to reject the identity of the Son is to reject love, and thus the God who is Himself love.
  • Details
    • The spirit of the antichrist has been in the world for at least these past 2000 years, always trying to deceive and draw people away from Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh. He still does this today, but he is restrained by the overcoming power of God, Father, Son, and Spirit.
    • Those who have been born again believe in Christ. Period. Those who do not listen to the truth of Christ are of the antichrist, or deceived by him.
    • Love is bound up with this doctrine, and remains our first and foremost imperative. The God who has revealed Himself as love in Christ’s flesh has given us new life out of love, and therefore our life now ought to be shaped and driven by His love.
    • “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God — God remains in him and he in God.” This is the great ecumenical truth. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is the binding prayer behind all true Christianity.
    • Fear makes no sense in this context of love, trembling over judgment. If we are in Christ by faith, and we share in His love, by what means will we not be freed from condemnation by that love?

1 John 5

  • Summary: All of us who believe in Jesus as Christ are God’s children, and so most rightly love each other and obey God’s commandments, for by faith in Christ we are able to overcome the sinful world. We ought to believe this, because God has testified about His Son in His baptism and crucifixion, and by believing this we have life in Christ. If we have life in Christ, our prayers are powerful and unhindered, and will deliver those in sin. Yet Christ does protect us from sin as children of God, unlike the evil world under Satan’s power. Therefore let us be children of God, loving each other, believing in Christ, and keeping away from idols.
  • Details
    • Faith and love are inseparable in Christ, and thus all who truly believe in Christ also truly love Him, the Father, and everyone else who is in Christ. There is a natural communion of love and truth in God’s new household.
    • Obedience also naturally belongs in this overall category of faith and love. By faith, we obey God, in particular His command to love, and as these effects work themselves out we overcome the sinful and hostile world around us.
    • God Himself testifies that Jesus is the Son of God in whom we have eternal life. Therefore all are bound to believe it. Those who deny it lie.
    • Baptism and crucifixion were the most public acts of Jesus’ life. Of course they were God’s testimony. And yet it is a counterintuitive testimony, indeed, for in both Jesus was treated as a sinner. He became sin for us, and precisely doing this is an act of the Son of God.
    • Eternal life is simply life in Christ. This says nothing, to be honest, about whether it can be lost, for it is not clear from this passage whether one can leave Christ.
    • God answers our prayers which accord with the love, faith, and obedience which ought to characterize life in Christ. He may even rescue a dying soul by such prayers.
    • Christ protects us from sin, making a sharp divide between us, born of God and knitted together in faith and love, and the evil world, which includes idolaters who deny that Jesus is the Christ in the flesh.
Notes on 1 John

Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd

A brief new series of mine: Psalm 23. It’s just a little devotional series, designed to be used precisely as that: a devotional. In particular, this shall be a weekly one, taking the psalm one line at a time.

The Lord is my shepherd

Psalm 23 starts off with a familiar and beloved beginning. God, Yahweh, is my shepherd. Such a lovely and peaceful image.

Mostly, that is. There is more to God as shepherd than meets the eye. In Bible times, shepherds were not imagined as young boys playing with sheep. Instead, they were, well, like David. The sheep were huge financial investments, and very vulnerable ones. So the shepherds had to work in the elements to physically protect the sheep at all costs. It was not a coincidence that David the shepherd boy was already in great shape to be a warrior when he joined the army, for his duties had previously involved killing a lion and a bear with his bare hands to protect the sheep.

In fact, this that part is the main Biblical meaning to shepherding. The shepherd protects his sheep from all the terrifying and violent dangers which would kill them. He even uses violence himself to do so. The shepherd fights for the flock, even to the point of death.

This is, of course, exactly what God has done as our shepherd. He has fought and continues to fight for us. “He protects the lives of His godly ones; He rescues them from the power of the wicked”1, and “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen2. Just as the shepherds like David did, God is our valiant protector. He even gave us His life to protect us, as Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”3.

And this is the beauty of it. Our Shepherd died for us, and now lives again, to never cease protecting us. With God as our shepherd, we never need to fear, for, as Paul says:

If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Romans 8:31b-39

Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd

A Lovely Morning Prayer

I was doing some research the other day on monasticism and ran across the Prayer Foundation. They have an order of lay monks, the Knights of Prayer, except these monks are evangelical Protestants who use terms like “born again” and “Sinner’s Prayer” without blushing. So that’s cool. But anyway, I only bring them up to point out something lovely I got from their website. Apparently many of the monks of their order pray a particular prayer in the morning. I found it, read it, loved it, and now include it in my own morning devotions. Here’s the full thing, actually a hymn called “I Bind unto Myself Today,” which was adapted from a prayer attributed to St. Patrick.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet “well done” in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

A Lovely Morning Prayer

The God of Bad Interpreters

Is God the God of the good Bible interpreters only? Is He not also the God of the bad ones? Yes, He is the God of the bad ones, too.

This little opening, which you might notice alludes to Romans 3:29, summarizes something that has dawned on me recently. As I read more Scripture and study it more deeply, I often feel like there’s a serious problem with clarity for the average reader. In some passages or verses, it seems like study reveals meanings and depths which are not only inaccessible to someone without certain outside resources, but in fact may contradict or at least relativize the the meaning the same text might appear to have from a surface reading. In some cases obscure allusions, strange cultural thought patterns, or difficult to detect uses of irony may even completely reverse what you think a verse says on its own.

Yet in tension with this seeming reality is, it seems, the doctrine I have always been taught of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture. By most accounts I’ve ever heard, at least in the Protestant world, the meaning of any given part of Scripture is supposed to be more or less plain to whoever reads it with attention and care. You’re not supposed to need a bunch of outside help to get what a passage means. But given the radically different feel I get from in depth study, what gives? Is Scripture essentially clear, with scholars and theologians just complicating things, or is its meaning far from clear unless you are greatly learned?

I think the answer is, in some way, both yes and no. The Westminster Confession of Faith, a defining classic in the Reformed world, says this of the clarity of Scripture:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

I think this understanding of the clarity of Scripture works. On the one hand, there are things which are not equally clear to everyone. The meaning of every part of Scripture is not necessarily plain as day, or for that matter even as clear as mud. However, the WCF does specify that what we must know and believe in respect to salvation is clear enough that anyone, educated or not, who does basically proper reading.

I would in fact go a bit further than this to identify what exactly is plain. The one clarity that I believe shines forth from Scripture is the image of Christ Himself, the Savior who died and rose for us in self-sacrificing love, inviting us into His grace. Even if you find everything else called into question by lack of knowledge, or by bad teachings, or by cultural blindness, or by sin, the crucified Lord who loved us to His death and beckons us to follow that kind of life is plainly obvious to anyone who would crack open a Bible. If you know nothing else about the Bible, you know Jesus appears through its pages. Therefore what is clear in Scripture, Jesus Himself, is enough to be saved, as the WCF says.

Beyond this point, though, I do not think it is necessary to insist that the specific meanings of various parts of the Bible are all that clear. Sure, many of them are, and probably many of them are clearer that some scholars would make them out to be, but a great many of them may not be. Some passages may turn out to be so odd, obscure, or unique that the majority of people get them wrong, even the majority of well-educated people. Many passages will not be that bad, but will still need a decent amount of study, both of what the text says and of behind-the-scenes details, to properly get.

Is this a problem? Does it render much of the Bible basically unusable to normal Christians? Does it take the Bible out of their hands and return us to a day when only trained people could teach or interpret Scripture? I don’t think so. See, we must remember that there is more to the Bible that the words written in a particular context by a particular author to a particular audience. Its fullness is not exhausted by the precise original intentions, what exactly the authors were trying to say. While this is all an important part, a very important one, we must also recall that Scripture was inspired under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and now is read by believers with the same Spirit dwelling in them. Cultures and languages may pass away, but the Spirit who breathes the life of the Scriptures never passes away.

This link, the indwelling Spirit of God, makes it possible for the Bible to do things that it couldn’t rightly do as a purely natural book. For the authoring Spirit is still here to speak to us as we read it. So when we dig into Scripture, even if we lack a great deal of information that would shed light on the “original meaning,” He is more than able to speak to us through what we are reading, and to illuminate for us truth about Jesus Christ, even if it’s not the same truth the particular text was written to communicate! The same Spirit who oversaw the creation of Scripture now lives in us and oversees the intake of Scripture, so that no matter how educated or uneducated we are we can still hear the very voice of God speaking to us, telling us what He wants us to know, as we read the inspired words.

I’m not suggesting, I should add, that the Spirit will just lead us willy-nilly to make whatever we will out of the Bible. God is not the God of relativism, or of confusion. He is, however, the God of fresh life and revelation. Even when the words of, say, John were penned nearly 2000 years ago, God’s Spirit knew all the possible uses He might make for this book, and all of our needs today. From the beginning, He was able to breathe a kind of life into Scripture that adapts itself to the hearer, not to change the message to make things easier on us, but to break down the walls of culture and context which might otherwise separate us from what God wants to tell us. In the very same text He may be saying multiple things to multiple people in multiple times and places, the Spirit working in each reader to show him the Word of the Lord.

If I could sum this rambling up, I would simply say this: the “original meaning” of many texts in the Bible is far from clear. Jesus Himself, on the other hand, is very clear in the Bible. And as for everything else in Scripture, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for God to speak to us personally with an inspired message even when we can’t or don’t nail down exactly what the original author was trying to say. Therefore God is not only the God of good Bible interpreters, but of bad as well. Praise be to Him for His self-revealing kindness!

The God of Bad Interpreters

Prayer Help from Old

The early church has a few awesome things to offer us. Like this prayer from St. Basil the Great:

Almighty Lord,
God of the Powers and of all flesh,
Who lives in the highest and carest for the humble,
Who searches our hearts and affections,
and clearly foreknows the secrets of men;
eternal and everliving Light,
in Whom is no change nor shadow of variation;

O Immortal King,
receive our prayers
which at the present time
we offer to You from unclean lips,
trusting in the multitude of Your mercies.
Forgive all sins committed by us
in thought, word or deed,
consciously or unconsciously,
and cleanse us from all defilement
of flesh and spirit.

Grant us to pass the night of the whole present life
with wakeful heart and sober thought,
ever expecting the coming of the radiant day
of the appearing of Your only-begotten Son,
our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ,
when the Judge of all will come with glory
to render to each according to their deeds.
May we not be found fallen and idle,
but awake and alert for action,
ready to accompany Him
into the joy and divine palace of His glory,
where there is the ceaseless sound
of those keeping festival
and the unspeakable delight
of those who behold
the ineffable beauty of Your Face.

For You are the true Light
that enlightens and sanctifies all,
and all creation sings to You 
throughout the ages.
Amen.

Prayer Help from Old

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

“Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” This kind of talk is naturally a common part of church life, especially in the more energetic places. And that is good. When we are loved by so great a God and called into His service, for us to offer what Scripture calls a “sacrifice of praise” to Him is only fitting. To God be glory forever! Amen.

Yet sometimes this seems to be the only glory we feel the need to offer our Lord. And while this often can be sincere and heartfelt, glorifying God this way can be something else, too. Praise with our words can be all too easy and comfortable, requiring no real commitment or action. No matter how loftily we speak of God, or how much we call others to worship Him, we can do this all as merely an outward religion, either for show and glory or maybe even just to tide over our own conscience as it tells us to think beyond ourselves.

Beyond this, maybe we’ll read God’s word or pray to Him. We might even make an excellent habit of both, though most of us don’t. Even if we do, how easy is it to simply use these disciplines to fulfill the demands of religion on our conscience, so that we don’t feel guilty? Personal communion with God is rich and vital, but is also so intangible, so invisible, that we can easily just pretend or use “devotion” for our own purposes.

Really, doing piety—respect of God—is easy if we see God as a distant figure, a big and separate Deity a million light-years away, whom we can keep happy with our exalted speech, dedicated devotions, and constant prayers. Even though we usually wouldn’t admit or even realize this tendency, we often look at God this way. That can lead us to taking devotional activities—good activities that are God-blessed and right—as a kind of checklist righteousness which calms our conscience’s demand for higher living.

But our God is not that distant Deity. He is not a king who lives aloft from his kingdom, content to see his subjects give him due honor and taxes. Our God is the King who acts like a member of His own kingdom. He cares for and identifies with everyone under His rule, treating them as though they matter more than He does. This Lord is love. He’s so invested in the people beneath Him that He actually became one of them. He lived, died, and rose again as a human being for human beings. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us brothers and sisters, since He has become like us in every way, except without sin.

Because of this, there is no possible way to glorify God if you aim exclusively for His direct and immediate glory. God has bound Himself to humanity in Christ. In His covenant with us, He is happy to be “man’s God” and to share His own life for our benefit. This means that He is deeply invested in the situation of all people. As we know from the parable of the sheep and the goats, He identifies with us so closely that He counts what we do for others as what we do for Him. He counts what we do not do for others as ignoring Him. So to glorify God we have to treat the people He loves with the same great importance that He does.

Since God is so invested in love with people, and since people bear His image, we cannot glorify Him without being interested in people. Praising the Creator means nothing if we curse people He created. Prayers to our heavenly Father are insulting to Him if we refuse to speak with our earthly fathers He gave His only Son for. Dedicating ourselves to serving Christ’s church is a lie if we are too selfish to serve everyone Christ died for.

To sum it all up, God freely chose to create us, make a covenant with us, become one of us, live for us, die for us, rise for us, and delay His coming for us, all so that He could share His eternal life of love with us. If this is truly God’s passion in history, then in order to truly honor Him, worship Him, and give Him the glory He so richly deserves, we absolutely have to share that passion and devote ourselves to the same cause He champions. To glorify God, we must love human beings.

Back to my original point, though, this is a very hard task. Loving others is a radical way that actually honors the time and effort God puts into people is terrifying and exhausting. So what do we naturally do? We substitute what God say fulfills His whole law—to love your neighbor—with just the basic stuff that is easy to do to an invisible God. We skip caring for other people—which James says is the heart of pure religion—and substitute inexpensive sacrifices of praise, Scripture, Facebook shares, and prayer. But Jesus said to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So we should continue to rightly worship our glorious God. We should never stop praising and communing with Him in song, prayer, and devotion. But we also have to radically and completely love our neighbor. That is what fulfills the law. We must insist on doing the latter despite its difficulty, without neglecting the former. For this is what Jesus taught us Himself. Amen.

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

In the first part of this post, I tried to Biblically ground a concept of “holy love” which integrates what we know of God’s love with the revelation that He is also a consuming fire and has sometimes enacted terribly violent judgments. Now I move on to apply that to the problems we see in the Old Testament.

When Holy Love Elects a Beloved

All of the problems we will be looking at deeply involve Israel, so to make a strong foundation I’ll need to examine who and what Israel was in God’s plan. What was the point of Israel as God’s chosen people? I think God’s concluding line in His promise to Abraham holds the key: “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”1. God elected Israel because He had already freely chosen to love all humankind2. He did not choose them for their own sake, as though they deserved anything more than the rest of us3, but so that they could be a kingdom of priests4.

See, if God only chose humanity in general, loving everyone in some abstract equality, then His love could not be completely real for each individual person in their concrete existence. But by placing His electing love in a particular way on a specific human family in Abraham, He gave His love a real form in the human world of space, time, and matter. Therefore Israel was born as God’s chosen people, a microcosm of all humanity before God, and priests of God before all humanity.

This covenant relationship, though, is a relationship not of soft love but of holy love. An utterly sinful people filled with rebellion5 was called to draw near to a God who is holy love. He gave and revealed Himself to them as who He is6, and that meant danger. For if God’s holy love, as we mentioned before, opposes and condemns all self-love, then sinful people are in for disaster when drawn near. God made this clear when He appeared at Sinai, in the burning bush, and in a pillar with the form of a consuming fire7. If they lived with the holy love which God possesses, they would experience His life and blessing8. But if they continued resisting God’s love by wronging their neighbor and forsaking God’s redemptive purpose for their election, then His holy love would bear down on them with painful pressure and cause curse upon curse9.

The God of Love vs. The People of Hard Hearts

Having given Biblical grounds for these ideas of holy love and Israel’s election, I propose that God drawing near to a people in His holy love is exactly how we must understand the frequent application of violence in Israel’s history. God in His holy love is a consuming fire, yet He brought Israel close to Himself10. In doing so their sin and rebellion found opposition in the Lord’s presence. Yahweh’s relentless love became painful and torturous when they dashed their hard heads and hearts against Him. Capital punishment and spectacular judgments were not the result of an irritable God losing His temper11, but in fact were the historical actualizations of God giving Himself to a people who couldn’t and wouldn’t open to Him.

We must remember that for God to really be anything in relation to flesh-and-blood people, He must be Himself in a tangible way12. The God of people who exist in space, time, and matter can only reveal Himself in ways particular to space, time, and matter. This means that the conflict between God’s holy love and Israel’s sinful resistance had to take physical form. So when God’s wrath was kindled against His beloved by their own self-destructive self-love, He chastised them with tangible consequences of death, plague, and exile. What else could He do if He wanted to make real changes on human existence?

This concept reaches the sharpest expression in worship. The system of worship God gave Israel was His own design. Apart from Him, the Israelites had nothing good to offer, so God provided them within His covenant with sacrifices and rituals by which they could approach Him13. This was to be a constant reminder to them: they were sinful, but God was gracious enough to provide a way to Himself. So important was this truth, so necessary for Israel to know, that the most severe punishments were reserved for violating right worship. If God in His holy love is a consuming fire, then sinners who approach Him on their own terms cannot avoid being consumed. Thus the fate of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorized fire on the altar, high priests who came unclean into the Holy of holies, and the Korah’s rebels. Only in Christ is there a safe way to the Father (on this, see the end of my post on law and evil), and the only way for a pre-incarnation people to approach God through Christ is by faith which uses the types and shadows of Him which God provided in the OT priestly system. All other ways brought death as the sinner approached the fire of God’s holy love in their sinfully flammable state.

Mediation and Holy War

Now that we’ve looked at the harsh penalties of the law, what about holy war? Why did God order such extreme destruction against the peoples of Canaan? I do not expect there to be one straightforward answer. I do, however, believe that the concept of Israel’s election and God’s holy love might be able to shed some light on this question. Yet I tread lightly, because holy war really is a minefield, with wrong and destructive answers hidden under every other step.

If I was right to say that Israel was elected to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, what would that involve? Priests must mediate; they bring people to God and God to people. So I suspect that this is precisely what happened in holy war. Israel brought God Himself to the nations.

Unfortunately for the nations, they were in even worse shape than Israel to meet God. Israel could approach God despite their sinfulness because of the safe way He provided in the covenant, but the nations had no such covenant. Unless they repented of their sins, God’s coming to them could only mean judgment14. As long as they were steeped in the flammable sins which oppose all that holy love is (such as sacrificing children to idols), an encounter with God, mediated through Israel, had to mean they were burned up. And as I’ve been saying, all that God is and does to humanity must be done in a tangible, flesh-and-blood way if humanity is to be affected or care. So God commanded the Israelites to kill them all.

Of course, the most difficult part of all this is the children. I’ve personally been able to cope more or less with the adults deserving their execution by Israel, but what about the babies? Why did God even have them kill the babies? I definitely can’t say much about this, because clearly the horror is deep and complex, but as present I mainly think this: as Israel brought the adults of the nations to God, which led to judgment, they also brought the children to God. They ushered them into God’s immediate presence by the only way possible before the end—namely death—and in that presence I do believe God saved them. Instead of these children growing up among immoral people to become even more immoral and be judged, God rescued them while they were yet ignorant.

Naturally, any answer I can provide on this last point can’t be completely satisfactory. I am only somewhat okay with this conception. But thinking this way does help me, and I do hope I am not the only one. But God is God, after all. While my application of holy love, mediation, and election might be able to help get my mind around OT violence, ultimately He did what He did and I can only pray that I’ve honored Him for who He is in my theology. And with that said, I’m left with nothing but Paul’s praise to handle my ignorance:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2