bible

Video: How Paul invented Christian theology

Here’s another N. T. Wright lecture video. I often enjoy listening to these while I’m drawing or painting.

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God’s Character

Originally posted on my short-lived Christian spirituality-only blog, “The Night is as Bright as the Day” (deepseastarryheaven.wordpress.com).

I’m not sure how much of this I still believe. My spirituality is in flux. But it is interesting to me to watch the progression of my spiritual journey. By 2013 the cracks had already appeared in my crumbling then-Pentecostal faith. I think I can see that in the way I had started searching the Scriptures to find the loving, merciful Prince of Peace, and not the harsh and punitive angry Old Man in the Sky. A lot has changed in my life, both externally and internally, since I wrote this. But I still think that for the time it represents, it was one of my better pieces of writing.

Here it is.

April 30, 2013

I was asked to write something on the character attributes of God, with an emphasis on the “nice” aspects. Now, that is not to deny the Scriptures that relate to God’s holiness, truth, judgement and so on, but rather to seek to bring some balance to a lot of treatments of Who God is.

Now, I write this with a massive amount of trepidation. It is all very well to pontificate from the confines of one’s house, lap top computer and hot drink in hand, and I do so with a significant amount of fear and trembling1: anyone who wants to teach the Bible should be aware that God’s judgement on such will be greater2. Voicing any kind of authority on issues pertaining to religion puts the writer in the precarious position of potentially influencing others – for better, or for worse. In addition, it has taken several false starts at attempting to begin. It turns out that I bit off more than I could chew; it would take more than a lifetime to try to explore the infinite recesses of God’s character.

So, when I write here about the character attributes of God, please note: this is a tiny, fractional and incomplete perspective of some of the qualities the Bible attributes to God the Father, as revealed through God the Son, and illuminated through God the Holy Spirit. Who am I, a finite3, time-bound and imperfect, entirely fallible creature, to think that I can ever fully comprehend4 the great I AM5, the infinite, eternal and wholly perfect, infallible Creator6?

What is shared here is a tiny piece of a much larger picture. Think of it as a little jigsaw piece in a very big puzzle. It is a topic I will most likely return to in the future. If you get anything from what I share here, let it simply be a fractional part of your own journey of studying the Bible and prayer. This not the whole picture. As the Bible says, if everything Jesus did was written down, the world would not be large enough to contain the resultant amount of books7 – if that’s the case, then one blog post will certainly not cover it!

It is when we look to Jesus Christ that we see Who God is, in personality and character and nature8. To study Jesus is to study God, in a way that the human mind can perceive. That is the angle taken here: that all the Scriptures ought to be read with Christ in mind9. As we continually grow in the knowledge, discernment and love of God, His spiritual fruits will be made to grow in us10. The Bible is our useful source of knowledge on this11, and the Holy Spirit helps us to understand12.

Why is studying God’s character important?

It affects us who follow Jesus in a very real way.

Do we see God as the petty, political, meddling Spirit being who applauds mindless consumption and supports our social structures?

Is He the One Who is entangled in human concerns of social issues, behavioral controls, and subjectively accepted, socio-historically placed value systems?

Or is He much, much greater, Someone so different from us yet Who chose to form us in His image?

Do we see God as a reflection of ourselves, or ourselves as miniature representations of the Creator?

How we act, how we live, how we treat other humans and other creatures and the Garden He has made (that is, planet Earth), will be guided by Who we think God is.

According to Baker’s Topical Guide to the Bible, the attributes of God include His unity, compassion, eternality, faithfulness, trustworthiness, goodness, grace, holiness, impartiality, justice, love, mercy, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, patience, righteousness, self-existent nature, truthfulness, His unchanging nature, freedom, and loving-kindness.

There isn’t time to cover all of these in particular detail, so here I will simply focus on a couple of Bible verses and what they say about Who God is.

They will know you are My disciples

Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”13

In 1 John we read: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”14

In various parts of the Gospels we read a repeated refrain: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”15 The fact that this, and variants thereof, exist multiple times in the Bible, implies a level of significance to the command.

The summary and expectation of our faith in Christ is that it will result in love. It is hard to avoid, as much as that four letter word might demand some significant shedding of one’s cynicism and prejudices. Yet, it is there, over and over. (A search for the word “love” in the text of the New International Version of the Bible brings up 500 results16.) It is not a one-off concept, but one that fills the pages of the Biblical text.

What does it mean that God is Love? Deus Caritas est – He is not just “love” in the limited popular English sense of the word, He is a sacrificial love. It is the kind of love that would die not only for one’s friends, but one’s enemies17. It is the kind of love that gives up all the benefits and comforts and glory that life could provide in order to prove itself to the beloved18.

It is so simple, in a way. God loves people. Our job, as people, is to love God and love each other. And, yet, how elusive is that in all practicality? Love is not easy, certainly not the agape love demonstrated by Jesus Christ. We are to love others as we love ourselves19 – yet, in this broken and fragmented world, many of us struggle to so much as love ourselves. There is hope, though, in healing, for Jesus comes to heal the brokenhearted.

He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.

– Psalm 147:3

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;

To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.

– Isaiah 61: 1-3

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “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 favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

– Luke 4: 14-21 [NIV]

Volumes could be written about what this means, that Jesus comes to heal the brokenhearted, and that we are called to love God and love others, because God first loved us20.

How would it look if those of us who follow Jesus Christ would take this to heart, that we are to love others with the same sort of self-sacrificing love for friends and enemies alike?

The Bible does not, by the way, say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” What it does say is things like:

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” [Deuteronomy 30: 19-20a NIV]

Being offered the choice between life or death, we are asked by God to choose life in order that we might love Him.

And again, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” [1 Corinthians 5:12 NIV]

How would it look if we followers of Christ loved God, loved other people, and looked not to outsiders to “behave,” but to ourselves in obedience to Christ Himself? And, indeed, what use is “good” behaviour if it is not motivated by love?21 No one is truly “good”22 – all have fallen short of God’s holiness23.

Yet, God loves the world so much that He would not leave it to suffer the curse of death: instead, God the Son died in order that those who would believe in Him might have eternal life.24

This love, then, is one fragment of Who God is, in His character and personality. Love is inescapably essential to Him. Without this love, the Bible says, we do not know Him.25

References:

Baker Topical Guide to the Bible: New International Version, edited by Walter A. Elwell (1991, Grand Rapids: Baker Books). Particularly, ‘The Attributes of God’ (pages 53-66).

All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.

Verses drawn from the websites http://bible.cc/, http://www.biblegateway.com/ and http://www.biblestudytools.com/. [Accessed 29 April 2013.]

1Philippians 2:12 – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”

2James 3:1- “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” [NKJV]

3Psalm 103: 15-16 – “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.”

4Ecclesiastes 8: 17 – “then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” [NIV]

5Exodus 3:14a – “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM…”

6Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

7John 21:25 – “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.”

8Colossians 2:9 – “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…”

9Matthew 5:17 – “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

10Philippians 1:9-11 – “9 And this I pray , that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; 10 That ye may approve things that are excellent ; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; 11 Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”

112 Timothy 3:16 – “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:”

12John 16:13a – “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.”

13John 13: 34-35 [NIV]

141 John 4: 7-12 [NIV]

15Luke 10: 27 [ESV]; see also, Matthew 22: 37, Deuteronomy 6:5, Mark 12:30

17Romans 5: 7-8 – “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

18Philippians 2: 5-8 – “5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

19Matthew 22:39 – “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

201 John 4:19 – “We love because he first loved us.” [NIV]

211 Corinthians 13: 1-2 – “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

22Luke 18:19 – “And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.”

23Romans 3:22-24 – “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

24John 3: 16-21 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”” [NIV]

251 John 3: 14-16 – “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” [NIV]