The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

We’ve been talking this week at This New Life about God’s abundance. The Lord has revealed himself to be generous and openhanded, not stingy and tightfisted. His provisions are bounteous and plentiful, not paltry and miserly. He overflows with love and compassion for his people, not reticence and standoffishness. In short, God is for us not against us. 

Unfortunately, many people believe that God couldn’t possibly love them like that. He can love other people, perhaps, but not them. Maybe it’s because of their wretched past. Maybe it’s because of some traumatic family-of-origin issue. Maybe it’s because of a deep existential crisis at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s their struggle to be on the receiving end of things rather than on the giving end all the time.

Where do we even begin to help them overcome their reluctance to accepting their acceptance in the grace of God? We commit to being as patient with them as God has been with us. We keep loving and serving them as best we can. And we keep telling the Story that has transformed our own lives—as winsomely as possible.

One story within the larger Story that has always fascinated me is the outlandish request Moses made of God nearly 3,500 years ago. In Exodus 33:18, Moses said to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” It’s difficult to imagine a greater request that one could make of God. It’s even more difficult to comprehend how God could ever answer such a request. 

In the context of Exodus 33, God’s humble sanctuary was not enough to satisfy Moses’s spiritual longings, but his divine glory would have been far too much for him to endure (cf. Exod 33:20). As a result, God responds to Moses’ request in a mediatorial way, showing him an unparalleled revelation of himself while hiding him in the cleft of the rock: 

“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’” (Exod 34:6-7a; emphasis mine). In many ways, the rest of Scripture is a commentary on that one verse, as the statement is repeated in various forms at least twelve more times throughout the Old Testament (cf. Num 14:18; 2 Chron 30:9; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 116:5, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nah 1:3). Allusions to it are also scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. It’s no stretch, then, to consider this passage the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.[1]

To be sure, the mediatorial nature of God’s self-revelation implies a certain moral inability on Moses’ part to survive a full-throated theophany, but it is important to remember that the story of Scripture speaks of Original Blessing (Gen 1:22, 28) before it speaks of Original Sin (Gen 3:6-7). It is truly glorious, then, to be a human being, even a fallen one.

Indeed, Scripture indicates that all persons are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen 1:26). Consequently, they possess an intrinsic value, unique significance, and lofty status in creation. Nona Harrison notes that the word “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 “involves (1) dignity and splendor, and (2) a legitimate sovereignty rooted in one’s very being.”[2] This “being” is truly sacred. That’s why Walter Kaiser, reflecting on the sixth commandment, notes that to kill a human being with malice aforethought is “tantamount to killing God in effigy.”[3]

Kaiser’s memorable phrase captures the dignity and splendor of what it means to be human. In fact, five times in the Gospels (Matt 6:26, 10:31, 12;12; Luke 12:7, 24), Jesus declares human beings to be “valuable” (diapherō). In Ephesians 2:10, the Apostle Paul calls human beings “God’s workmanship” (poiēma). Members of the human race are God’s “poetry,” says Paul—a significant affirmation in light of his observation earlier in the chapter that human beings are “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1). 

A thousand years earlier, King David asked God with great wonder, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than God (ʾělōhîm), and crowned them with glory (kāḇôḏ) and honor (hāḏār)” (Ps 8:4-5). God in his wisdom has conferred upon the human race a certain majesty, dignity, and splendor. Finally, David saw himself as “knit together” by God himself in his mother’s womb, and “fearfully [yārēʾ] and wonderfully [pālāh] made” (Ps 139:13-14). 

All told, it is “very good [ṭôb]” to be human (Gen 1:31). In fact, it is beautiful to be an image bearer of the beautiful God (cf. Ps 27:4). So, it is never helpful to start talking about Genesis 3 before talking about Genesis 1-2. Not only does the concept of Original Blessing precede the concept of Original Sin, there is copious grace flowing like a mighty river even in Genesis 3 where the fall of humanity takes place: 

  • the gentle pursuit of the fallen pair by the one dishonored and spurned; 
  • the provision of suitable garments for the covering of their nakedness; 
  • the proto-euangelion (pre-gospel) promise of the Seed of the Woman;
  • the fiery sword placed at the gate to prevent humanity’s irreversible damnation. 

At the epicenter of the great spiritual kaboom, then, is a spiritual bunker or “fallout shelter” provided by heaven. “Behold the kindness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22). And the kindness keeps trying to win (Jas 2:13). 

As such, be assured that God knows how to bring people to himself. He knows what it will take to open their eyes to his incomprehensible love. So, watch and wait. Pray and trust. Hope and rest—in “the compassionate and gracious God” who is “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Amen.

Image Credits: getalongwithgod.com; onlyfreewallpaper.com; laparks.org; biblicalarchaeology.org; pexels.com.


[1] John 3:16 in the New Testament says, “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.” This verse is reportedly the most translated sentence in human language, ostensibly because it encapsulates the gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ and the only appropriate human response to it—faith.

[2] Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 90.

[3] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 91.

He Shines in All That’s Fair: Why Common Grace Should Be More Common

Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.

Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not. 

Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel


John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”[1] The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society. 

Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation. 

While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines: 

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:

  • Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
  • Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
  • Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
  • Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
  • Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
  • Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
  • Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
  • Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
  • Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
  • Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
  • Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
  • Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)

Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.”[2] Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:

  • Melchizedek blessing Abraham
  • Rahab serving the Israelites
  • Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
  • The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
  • The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
  • Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
  • The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
  • The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
  • Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth

Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.

If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.

Image Credits: pexels.com; gettyimages.com.


[1] John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.

[2] Tim Keller, Sermon Archives.

Needing and Needling: The Challenge to Find Good Christian Community

Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.

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Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)

Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?

And the answer is not without grace.

Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.

Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.

Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)

Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.

It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.

Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.

•  “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

•  “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”

•  “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”

•  “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

•  “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

•  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

•  “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”

•  “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”

•  “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”

When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?

Image Credit: Barcroft Media.

A Look at ‘Love (III)’ by George Herbert, from ‘The Temple’

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a highly regarded poet and priest in the Church of England. His “metaphysical” poetry is top-tier reading in my world—always passionate, ponderous, and elegant in its devotion to Christ. His composition “Love (III)” is a gem of image and inspiration, written as a dialogue between a host (divine Love) and a guest, who is the speaker.

The poem comprises three stanzas with six lines each, and an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The meter alternates between a loose form of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. It can be read as a prompt and response. Below is the text of the poem, my brief analysis of it, and a short reflection on why it speaks to me. Additional biographic information on Herbert can be found here

George Herbert ( 1593-1633). Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Engraving, 18th century.

1
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 

                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 

                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                             If I lacked any thing.

2
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                             Who made the eyes but I?

3
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

                             So I did sit and eat.

Introduction

In the preceding poems, “Love (I)” and “Love (II),” Herbert has labored to rescue the word “love” from its inferior meanings in secular usage. God, he claims, is the “Immortal Love,” and his “Immortal Heat” is totally other than human love, which is often selfishly expressed. Here in “Love (III),” Herbert shows the selfless nature of divine love, portraying not only that God is “Love,” but how God is “Love”—he is a gracious and welcoming host to broken people.

Analysis

Lines 1-2
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.

In the presence of pure Love (i.e., God), the poet instinctively shrinks back. The next couplet explains why, but the opening line communicates Love’s disposition by echoing the sentiment of Song of Solomon 5:6, “I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.” The reason for the poet’s hesitancy is then revealed; he feels “guilty” in the presence of Love. Indeed, he is guilty—on two counts in Herbert’s theology: he is sinful by birth (“dust”) and sinful by action (“sin”).

Lines 3-4
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,

Love is portrayed here as an attentive host, noticing immediately the poet’s hesitancy (“slack”) to be in his presence. The adversative “but” indicates a strong disposition on the part of Love to overcome the poet’s hesitation. Who will win the battle of wills—the poet or Love?

Lines 5-6
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.

Love steps toward the reluctant poet, not in aggression but in gentleness. He comes “sweetly questioning” him, harkening back to God’s gracious pursuit of the disobedient Adam in Genesis 3, an encounter that arguably features more grace than judgment. Moreover, Love acts here as both a selfless and other-centered host, asking if the poet “lacked any thing.” Clearly Love wants to overcome the poet’s fear and shame of being in his presence, speaking and acting in such a way as to put him at ease.

Lines 7-8
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: / Love said, You shall be he.

The poet responds that he lacks a person worthy to be in Love’s presence. In other words, it’s not so much that the poet has a lack; he is the lack! He feels that he does not deserve to be there. Love disagrees, resolutely stating that the poet himself will be deemed worthy.

Lines 9-10
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.

The poet refutes Love’s contention that he could be considered worthy. After all, his defining attributes include being “unkind” and “ungrateful”—the very opposite of Love’s defining attributes. Such a disparity in moral character renders the poet incapable of looking directly into the eyes of Love (“I cannot look on thee”).

Lines 11-12
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?

Love initiates a gentle touch, employing a smile to indicate acceptance of the poet and delight that he’s there despite his feelings of guilt and shame. Love poses another question, forcing the poet to consider a new, more hopeful perspective: “Who made the eyes but I?” The implication is that Love is the poet’s Creator, and he did not create those eyes to look away from him in guilt but toward him in fellowship. Love is pressing the poet here to find his identity in Love’s original design for him, not his sullied record.

Lines 13-14
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.

The poet protests again, resisting Love’s continued kindness because he has “marred” (i.e., stained or compromised) his eyes through un-love, possibly referring back to the deficient expressions of human love portrayed in the previous sections of the poem. The moral crimes producing his sense of shame render him worthy of condemnation and, thus, unworthy of Love.

Lines 15-16
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve.

Love reminds the poet that Someone “bore the blame” for his moral crimes, a reference to Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Captivated by the reminder that no blame remains, the poet now feels compelled to serve Love (“My dear, then I will serve”). His attitude is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s intention to return to his father as a hired hand, not as a son (Luke 15:18-20). 

But as the next couplet indicates, such an economic arrangement is not Love’s intention. The poet is made worthy by Love, so Love will serve him, not vice versa. The image is taken from Luke 12:37, where, quite shockingly, cultural norms are stood on their head when the master starts serving the servants: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” The biblical scene is almost scandalous, but this is what Love looks like, and this is what Love does. 

Lines 17-18
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.

In the end, Love wins (“So I did sit and eat”). But he wins by overcoming the poet’s reluctance with kindness, not coercion. And “winning” here takes the form of Love serving the poet a meal made by his own hands (“my meat”). Love doesn’t win by punishing the poet for his moral crimes; the claims of justice for those crimes have long since been satisfied. Consequently, all that remains now is for the poet to allow his guilt and shame to melt away in the presence of Love. When that happens, a delightful meal of peace is shared at the table of brotherhood. That was Love’s aim all along.

Why This Poem Speaks to Me

I could well be the broken poet. I have plenty of moral crimes to my name, and they render me “unworthy” in the presence of Love. But God’s deepest desire has never been to play the part of my vindictive Judge; his desire has always been to be my gracious host and share a meal with me at his table (cf. Rev 3:20). He can do so without compromising his holiness because Someone “bore the blame.” My blame. 

Consequently, my own guilt and shame can melt away in the presence of Love, and I can look at God again—in the face of Jesus Christ.

So can you.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about how to begin a journey with Jesus.