Sunday, 22 November 2015

Knowing God Personally; The Christian Message to the Muslim World, Part II

Continuing from Part I

David: A Man after God’s Own Heart
When David became king of Israel, God said: ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my own heart, who will do all my will’ (Acts 13:22). He was not talking of David’s religiousness, outward adornment, or reverence for holy days, he was speaking of his inner being – his upright spirit, love for God, refined character, personal sincerity and deep faith. David expressed his devotion to God in his many psalms. He was a man of great weaknesses and failings, yet in spite of these he longed for God and turned his heart constantly towards him. He prayed: ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’ (Psalm 42:1-2).

In another of his praise songs David declared: ‘I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies’ (Psalm 18:1-3). He was not reciting from a prayer-book, he was expressing the depth of his belief in God.
He knew that true faith came from the core of a soul turned towards God. He did not project an outward appearance of uprightness to the world around him while remaining unregenerate within himself. He longed to be pure in all his thoughts, words and deeds. He cried out: ‘Search me, O God, and try my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!’ (Psalm 139:23-24)

When he did fail he examined his heart and prayed: ‘Behold, you desire truth in the inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart’ (Psalm 51:6), going on to plead: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit’ (Psalm 51:10-12). True humility before God also comes out as his prayer continues: ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ (Psalm 51:17). David was chosen to lead Israel because his heart was true to God. He understood true faith. He knew it was a willingness to pursue inner renewal, a response to God’s perfect faithfulness. When God commanded Samuel to anoint David king of Israel, he said to him: ‘the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). David knew and understood this.

Throughout his life David strived to unite the nation of Israel in the worship of the one true God. When he was able to rest after subduing all his enemies, David said to the prophet Nathan ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ Nathan replied ‘Go, do all that is in your heart; for the Lord is with you’ (2 Samuel 7:2-3). David proposed to build a great temple for God, to bring the people of Israel constantly together to worship God where his glory dwelt. But God told Nathan to speak to David and say: ‘When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. I will be his father, and he shall be my son’ (2 Samuel 7:12-14). God told him that his son would build the temple he proposed and concluded by promising: ‘Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever’ (2 Samuel 7:16).

As God had promised Abraham a son, so now he promised one to David as well. Solomon was the son promised and after his father’s death he set about building the first Jewish Temple. In the generations to follow the people of Israel sensed that, while Solomon was the immediate son promised, the prophecy also spoke of a greater son to follow. God had assured David that the promised son would rule over his kingdom for ever. When Solomon died the people soon realised the prophecy would only be completely fulfilled when the greater Son of David arrived and they looked forward to his day. Significantly God had said to David that the greater son to come would be his own Son. God had added unambiguously “I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son.”

The prophecy is found in the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), not some later Christian work. Like Muslims Jews have never believed that God has a Son, but right here, in one of their own books (2 Samuel) revered as the Word of God by all Jews throughout the generations since it was written, God’s promise that his own Son would come into the world to establish his eternal kingdom was plainly foretold. The promise is confirmed in another passage: ‘He shall cry to me, “You are my father, my God and the Rock of my salvation.” And I will make him the first-born, the highest of the kings of earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him for ever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his line for ever and his throne as the days of the heavens’ (Psalm 89:26-29). This quote is also from another of the core books of Jewish Scripture, written a thousand years before Christianity began.

Both promises of a son to come, made to Abraham and David, came suddenly without any precedents or anticipation. As you read through the Jewish Scriptures you cannot but be amazed at how striking both prophecies are as there is nothing in the build-up before them to give the slightest hint of what was coming. God simply chose an appropriate moment to speak of things to come as his purposes for mankind and plans for its redemption unfolded.

When Solomon had completed the Temple and the priests came out of it after placing the ark of the covenant in the holiest place: ‘A cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord’ (1 Kings 8:10-11). Once again God visibly manifested his presence to the nation as he had done when Moses completed the tabernacle in the wilderness. Islam has never had anything comparable to this.

During those forty years when the Israelites had wandered around the desert regions because of their unbelief, the nation was stripped of its fertile surroundings and given nothing but manna to eat and water to drink. The people chafed under the pressure as God tested them severely to see whether they would be true to him or not. He projected his righteousness strongly at them and, whenever they disobeyed him, he reacted immediately, sending plagues and fires through their camps.

Now, however, God gave the nation forty years of unparalleled peace and prosperity. This time he let go of it, happy that the covenant he had made with Moses finally appeared to be working. His hopes for the nation had peaked and he allowed it to rejoice in its splendour. Even Israel’s enemies were at peace with her. It was a golden age, a symbol of heavenly peace and glory to come. ‘The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah’ (1 Kings 10:27).

Unfortunately the honeymoon did not last long. Solomon failed to focus his faith in God and turned to material extravagance. He married foreign wives who introduced pagan customs to the nation. Solomon ‘clung to these in love’ (1 Kings 11:2). When he grew old his foreign wives ‘turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father’ (1 Kings 11:4). After Solomon’s death the nation soon divided in two as the people of Judah followed Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, as their king while the northern tribes of Israel followed Jeroboam who placed two golden calves at Dan and Bethel to distract the people away from worshipping the Lord at Jerusalem. (1 Kings 12:28-29).

God said to Jeroboam: ‘You have done evil above all that were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and molten images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back’ (1 Kings 14:8-9). A succession of evil kings led the tribes of Israel into every form of idolatry and wickedness. Judah’s history was more chequered – some of its kings like Ahaz were as bad as the kings of Israel while others like Jehoshaphat kept the people true to God, but it was only a matter of time before Judah too fell away and angered God intensely.

His hopes for the nation had been shattered. His wrath became white-hot against it. He could have summarily called Israel and all the other nations of the world, who had long abandoned the worship of God, to a final day of judgment. But he didn’t. The God of all faithfulness, whose love for his people had also reached a peak, a white-hot intensity of its own, weighed up the possibility of yet bringing his people into a deep personal relationship with him. He sought an alternative to judgment. What was he to do – judge or redeem? His burning love made him choose the latter, but not after considering very deeply what price he himself would have to pay to accomplish his purpose.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel: The Promise of a New Covenant
No less than 17 of the 39 books of the Jewish Scripture come from the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They lived about three centuries after Solomon and David. The writings of this time are, with the exception of the Book of Jonah, all prophetic works. They are full of prophecies about the future and focus on God’s expanding revelation and the climax towards which it was heading. Some quotes from these books, however, show just how deep God’s anger against his people was for consistently rejecting him at the time.
‘My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders,’ God declared (Zechariah 10:3). Again he cried out: ‘Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me. I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me’ (Hosea 7:13). Yet again he exclaimed: ‘I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins,’ adding ‘I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies’ (Amos 5:12,21).

Yet it was not just hot anger that moved God to speak so forcibly, it was also a deep grief that the nation he had chosen and loved from the depth of his being had so coldly chosen to brush him aside as we see in this passage: ‘Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor, and consecrated themselves to Baal, and became detestable like the thing they loved’ (Hosea 9:10). Therefore God proclaimed: ‘Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more, all their princes are rebels’ (Hosea 9:15).

But between these quotes, which are only a selection of a number of condemnatory exclamations, come an abundance of similar texts where God declares his burning love for his people and his desire for their redemption. ‘I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them’ (Zechariah 10:6). Again he declared: ‘My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy’ (Hosea 11:8-9). Many others show how God’s emotions at the depth of his heart had intensified within him. He loved his people and his compassion for them had reached a defining stage, but his wrath and anger against their coldness of heart had also reached their zenith.

It was not just a simple matter of tossing a coin and choosing which would prevail. Throughout the Bible one finds that God’s attitude to sin is absolute. He does not regard the sins that men commit as nothing more than acts of wrongdoing, oversights, mistakes or errors of judgment that can easily be forgiven. They confront and offend his holiness. From the time Adam and Eve first rebelled against him God has treated human sinfulness as a rebellious condition. It shows that humans do not truly love him, that their hearts are cold towards him, and that they do not care to enter into a close relationship with him where his Spirit is free to search their innermost beings and cleanse their souls. Pious observance of fixed prayer-times, regulated fasting, formal recognition of outward rituals and ceremonies do not and cannot compensate for a heart that is cold towards him. Nor are these observances proof of an obedience that comes from the heart.

The 17 books written at this crucial juncture of Israel’s history show just how God feels about human sinfulness. Here is God’s basic assessment of the human condition from one of them: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings’ (Jeremiah 17:9-10)Two other quotes from books written at this time define God’s perfect holiness and show why sin angers him and is not easily forgiven: ‘the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness’ (Isaiah 5:16) and ‘your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing’ (Habakkuk 1:13).

The Bible shows that although God has many attributes (such as those mentioned in the 99 names of God in Islam), two are paramount. By nature he is righteous, it is the basic facet of his being. Sinful acts and attitudes confront that righteousness and, as numerous records in the early days of God’s relationship with man show, awful judgments can follow. Satan and his fallen angels were cast into pits of gloom never to be forgiven or delivered (2 Peter 2:4), every first-born son in Egypt was slain in a single night because of the nation’s resistance to God (Exodus 12:29), while numerous Israelites perished in the wilderness whenever they opposed Moses and defied the Lord (Numbers 11:33, 16:35).

The second great virtue in God’s character is his love which is so deeply ingrained at the depth of his being that the Bible simply declares ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But whereas his righteousness is at the forefront of his being and was quickly thrust in the face of those who defied him in those earlier times, his love appears to have taken time to develop, grow and rise from the deepest recesses of his being. It wasn’t a natural affection for his people, it was a deepening desire for their best welfare in spite of their hostility towards him. It was a strengthening love for a world that was consistently proving to be decidedly unlovable. By the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel it had reached its zenith and, although God could justifiably have called all mankind to judgment because of its sinfulness, he chose rather to express the fullness of his love towards it, making one decisive and definitive statement which was to shape his attitude to the human race for the rest of its days: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you’ (Jeremiah 31:3). After intense reflection and inner resolve he decided to press on and almost immediately declared how he planned to change the God-man relationship completely and bring the two together in a wonderful new way, uniting them in perfect fellowship, goodwill, personal knowledge and mutual companionship.

God declared: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jeremiah 31:31-34 – emphasis added).

This promise was unprecedented – God giving his people a divine motivation and power from within to keep his holy laws, opening the door for all his people to know him personally, and guaranteeing to forgive all their sins right here and now. And this wasn’t all. Through the prophet Ezekiel God went on: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (Ezekiel 36:26-27), adding: ‘I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God’ (Ezekiel 37:23). Unlike the first covenant, where God had commanded his people consistently “You shall” and “You shall not”, placing the obligation on them to obey him unreservedly, he now consistently declared “I will, I will, I will”, thereby placing on himself the obligation to ensure that his people would respond faithfully to him. True Faith had reached its peak. God’s faithfulness was going as far as it possibly could – guaranteeing the faith of those who were willing to walk through his open door into a deep personal relationship with him.

The angels of heaven must have wondered, however, how he proposed to reconcile this open invitation with his perfect righteousness which would instinctively keep sinners at bay. How could absolute righteousness finally give way to perfect grace and mercy? How could God possibly introduce a new golden age in which his people, sinners to the core, could nevertheless be so forgiven that they could live in a perfectly holy relationship with him right now and know him from the depth of their beings? In short, how could God’s Holy Spirit live comfortably in unholy human hearts? God gave them the answer: ‘Behold I will bring my servant the Branch … I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day’ (Zechariah 3:8-9 – emphasis added).

For centuries he had longed for his people to respond to him, to draw close to him and to obey his commandments from the depths of their hearts. But as their resistance increased, so his love grew until it went far beyond just wanting a more intimate communion with them than a master-to-servant relationship. God knew that the only way he could ever bridge the gap between his all-holy character and unholy human sinfulness would be for him to pay the price we should pay to satisfy his wrath and vindicate his righteousness. He promised to send a deliverer, whom he called the Branch, who would bring redemption for the human race in less than a day. But it was obvious this deliverer would have to come from his own being if he was to fully pay the supreme price required to secure the forgiveness of God’s people and to do it in only a few hours.

God fell back on his promise to David that he would give him a son who would rule over his kingdom for ever. Remember that God said ‘I will be his Father and he shall be my Son’ (2 Samuel 7:14). Also remember what was pointed out earlier – this does not come from an original Christian text, it is found in the Jewish Scriptures written many centuries before the Christian era. The important thing here is that God was willing to give his own Son to achieve his supreme goal – the complete acquittal of all who would believe in him for the forgiveness of their sins and, with it, the free gift of eternal life. What we see here is God’s ultimate purpose – to engage man in the closest possible relationship and what he was prepared to do to achieve this. In short, God was willing to send his own Son for the salvation of the world so that we might no longer be unworthy servants but become the redeemed children of God and heirs to his everlasting kingdom. God was willing to enter the darkest recesses of the human world so that we might behold his glorious light.

After going through what must have been an extremely painful experience when deciding to tear his heart apart to redeem us, God allowed himself a brief moment to savour and relish its eventual outcome. With great joy and tangible relief he declared: ‘And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul’ (Jeremiah 33:38-41 – emphasis added). He went on to affirm the complete forgiveness of all their sins so that they might know him personally and live with great joy to his praise and glory: ‘I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me’ (Jeremiah 33:8).
We move on to the glorious new covenant age God had promised.

Continuing on Part III



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