The Design of the Scriptures - A First Reader in Biblical Theology by Robert C. Dentan
Robert C. Dentan was Professor of Old Testament Literature and Interpretation at the General Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of The King and His Cross; Preface to Old Testament Theology; The Holy Scriptures: A Survey (a volume in the Seabury Press Church’s Teaching Series), and The Apocrypha, Bridge of the Testaments. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Richard Kendall.
Part II - Doctrine
I. GOD THE CREATOR
Genesis 1:1—2:3; Psalm 104:I—9; Proverbs 8:22—34; John 1:1—14
The Bible opens with a lengthy statement of the doctrine of creation. Like most doctrines in the Bible it is set forth in the vivid, dramatic language of poetry rather than in the cold, abstract language of philosophy.
The first chapter of Genesis is certainly not to be taken as a scientific description of the origin of the universe. It is merely the Hebrew version of a widespread myth of creation, but differs from pagan versions of the myth in at least two particulars. The first is that only one God is involved instead of many. Whereas the pagan stories leave one with a sense of disgust at the puerile behavior of many gods, this one conveys a feeling of awe at the lonely majesty of God, the sole Creator.
The other great difference lies in the thought of purpose and plan which runs through the Bible story. Creation was not the result of a momentary whim, but is the gradual unfolding of a plan which leads steadily to a final goal. Or, in more modern terms, the world is not the result of chance, not a shapeless confusion resulting from the accidental interaction of physical forces, but the beautiful and orderly expression of a single Divine Mind. "It is very good" (1:31).
One needs to emphasize again that this profound doctrine is expressed in poetic language. The Hebrews themselves could tell the story of creation in quite different language from that of Genesis. The opening verses of Psalm 104, for example, tell the tale in a much more obviously mythological form. Here God is pictured as an architect or engineer, building foundations, setting beams and covering all with the curtain of the sky. He is also a giant, shouting at the enemies, symbolized by the waters of the sea, who threaten to undo His work. Although the imagery of the myth is different, the doctrine it teaches is the same: the whole creation is the product of a single God whose power, intelligence and purpose underlie it all.
The idea of purposefulness runs even more clearly through the fine poetry of Prov. 8:22—34. The speaker in this passage is "Wisdom," a personification of the concept of order and purpose. The Hebrews of the late period in which this poem was written had come to feel that there is a rational order running through the world, a set of observable principles by which one must live if he would be a successful and happy person. One who lived this way they called a "wise" man; the body of principles they called "Wisdom." The point the poet is making is that the principles are not something which man has invented for himself, but are simply an expression of the divine order of creation which existed from the beginning. The truly wise man, therefore, is one who perceives the meaning and purpose which run through the universe and orders his life accordingly (v. 34).
The last selection, the familiar prologue to St. John’s Gospel (1:1—14), brings the Old Testament doctrine of creation into direct relationship with the life and work of Jesus Christ. In the first chapter of Genesis we read that God created all things by means of His Word. ("And God said . . ." vv. 1, 6, 9, etc.). The author of the Fourth Gospel wants us to understand that the creative power by which God created the universe has now appeared upon earth in the person of our Lord. He was and is the divine Word which the Creator spoke.
But the chapter in John also reflects the thought of Proverbs 8, as a comparison of the language makes quite clear. The "Word" of God in John is the same as the "Wisdom" of God in Proverbs. The chief difference is that the former expression suggests the Creator’s power to command whereas the latter suggests rather His plan and purpose. The author of John wishes to say that God’s plan in creation is no longer hidden, but is evident in Christ. To know the mind of Christ is to know the mind of the Creator. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (v. 14). (Some readers may wish to look up other references to this set of ideas: I Cor. 1:24; 8:6; Col. 1:15—17; Heb. 1:1—3.)
The doctrine of creation was perhaps not a part of Old Testament religious faith in its earliest form. In early times the Hebrews were more concerned with God’s work in history than with His work in creation. But with the passage of time and the growth of reflective thinking, it became clear that the doctrine of creation is the most basic doctrine of all. The God whom Israel had come to know in her historical experience must be the same God from whom the physical universe took its origin. So, in the Bible, as in the later creeds of the Church, this doctrine stands first of all, the foundation stone upon which all the rest are built.
Our understanding of the manner in which the world was created has changed greatly since the days of the ancient Hebrews, but our doctrine of creation is identical with theirs. Although we think of creation as taking place by a gradual evolutionary process occupying inconceivably long periods of geological and cosmological time rather than by a series of abrupt beginnings occurring within a single week, Christians continue to affirm the essential faith: that God stands at the beginning of the process and the whole is the unfolding of His plan.
This is not only the starting point for Christian thinking, but also a basic axiom for Christian living. We shall return to this later, but even now we can perceive the far-reaching practical importance of the belief that it was not Chance, but God, who created heaven and earth— and ourselves.
II. GOD THE ALL-POWERFUL
Exodus 19:10—18; Isaiah 40:21—31; .43:11; Psalm 115;
Long before the people of the Old Testament had developed a fully articulated doctrine of creation such as we find in Genesis 1, they had ample experience of the overwhelming power of the God whom they served. Indeed one of the commonest Hebrew words for God (El) seems to be derived from a verb which means simply "to be powerful." From the beginning of her religious history this thought of tremendous, terrifying power was a central element in Israel’s consciousness of God.
This is very clear in the story of God’s revelation of Himself to Moses when the Covenant of Law was established at Sinai (Exod. 19:10—18). As with so many of these Old Testament stories, one must of course understand that the passage is less a literal description of an historical event than a record of the profound impression which the event made upon those who experienced it. The deliverance from Egypt, and the covenant which followed it, were the two basic experiences upon which Israel’s faith was built. Through both of them the nation had come to know a God whose power was infinitely greater than the insipid gods of the heathen and utterly beyond the comprehension of feeble man. Many stirring passages of the Old Testament bear witness to the continuing centrality of this sense of the power of Cod. In the theological language of later time one might speak of it as a "doctrine of divine omnipotence," but (perhaps fortunately) the men of the Bible had no such abstract terms to use. They used, instead, vivid concrete language drawn from the violent forces of nature. In the present passage the sense of God’s power is expressed in terms taken from two of the most awe-inspiring phenomena of the physical world—a thunderstorm (v. i6) and a volcanic eruption (i8). Although the poetry comes from a different thought-world than our own, it still has the capacity to arouse in men’s minds a profound feeling for the majesty of the power of God.
In much later times the same thought would be expressed in less violent, though no less effective, terms. The Second Isaiah, who is often called the theologian of the Old Testament, was the first to give unambiguous expression to the thought of the absolute uniqueness—in being and power—of the God of Israel (see, for example, Isa. 43:1 i). It seemed clear to the prophet, surveying the long history of his people, that the God who had known, judged and saved them must be the only God who exists at all, the creator of all things and the sovereign possessor of all the powers of the universe. God reigns, he says, in tranquil majesty over His creation, fashioning and directing it (Isa. 40:21—31). Kings have no power except what God gives them (vv. 23—24). The stars, which the Babylonians thought to be gods themselves, are only servants of God, created to do His will (26). From this passage we get the impression that God’s power is not primarily destructive, but creative and beneficent. Most encouraging of all, God gives His power to those who love and fear Him (27—31). Weak, helpless man is not so helpless after all. Those who "wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint."
One of the hymns of ancient Israel (Ps. 1:15) expresses in the language of popular devotion this thought of the unique and absolute power of God, and the consequent sense of dependence and gratitude which should fill the hearts of His worshipers. Incidentally, the psalm comes as close as the Old Testament ever does to putting the doctrine of God’s omnipotence in terms of a simple formula: ". . . our God is in the heavens; he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased" (v. 3).
When we turn to the New Testament we find there was little need by that time to dwell on the thought of God’s power, since this had already been so firmly established in the Old Testament as part of the basic faith of Israel. But it is important to notice that one of the things which most impressed the contemporaries of Jesus was that he himself was able to manifest this divine power among human beings as no other had ever done. His deeds of healing were particularly striking, and men must often have said, as it is reported in Mark 7:31—37: "He hath done all things well; he maketh both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak."
We shall not understand either the Old or the New Testament unless we see first of all how the consciousness of God’s power permeates them both. Without this primary sense of power, God’s other qualities, His love and mercy and even His righteousness, are likely to seem merely forms of weakness. The God of Israel, who is also the God of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is worthy of our worship because in the first place, He is the sole creator of all that is and the absolute possessor of all power, whether in the world of nature or human society.
A rather curious passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:18—29) compares Israel’s experience of God at Sinai with the Christian’s experience of God in Christ. We are perhaps inclined to think that they are utterly different, but the author of the epistle sees them as similar and parallel. The passage is worth reading if only to correct the sometimes too-sentimental view of our relationship to Christ. As in Exodus, the emphasis here is on the reverence and awe with which man must always approach the Omnipotent God—at Bethlehem and Golgotha as well as on Sinai.
III. GOD THE ALL-KNOWING
Genesis 11:1—5; I Samuel 16:1—13; Psalm 139:1—6;
If God is all-powerful, He must be all-knowing too. Throughout most of biblical history men understood that this was so. But we must remember that the full implications of God’s self-revelation came only gradually and the Bible still contains traces of an older point of view. Primitive man thought of the gods as having much more knowledge than men, but not as knowing everything. There are some passages in the Old Testament, part of the Hebrew inheritance from earlier times, which reflect this more limited conception of God’s knowledge.
The first of the passages to be examined here illustrates this early theology (Gen. 11:1—5). The story is that of the building of the Tower of Babel. The people of Babylon are represented as trying to obtain security for themselves by building a tower to reach the sky. The oldest version of the tale no doubt pictured an attempted assault upon the dwelling place of the gods. In the Hebrew version, however, the purpose of the tower is never made clear and the story is told merely to illustrate the absurd presumption of a fallen race. It is taken for granted that there is only one God, but we cannot help noticing that God has to "come down" (v. 5) to discover what was going on. It is doubtful that the Hebrews in historic times ever thought of God as really having to acquire knowledge in this way. Such stories were told simply because they were old and picturesque and could be used to exemplify great truths, but the conception of God which they contain had long been outgrown.
The men of the Old Testament understood perfectly well that the omnipotent God who created heaven and earth also possessed all knowledge and did not need to be instructed by anybody. This is a frequent theme of the philosophical Wisdom Literature (Job, for example), but was also part of the theology of daily speech. One popular account of the manner in which God chose David to be king expresses the theme of divine omniscience in classic form (I Sam. 16:1—13). It was said that when the prophet Samuel came to visit the family of Jesse, believing that the future king of Israel would be found among them, he was first tempted to select Elijah because of his handsome appearance (v. 6). But it was revealed to him that the man whom Yahweh had chosen was the youngest and apparently least important member of the family. Samuel could judge men only by their superficial qualities, but ". . . the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh upon the heart" (7).
This was the aspect of God’s omniscience which seemed most important to men of the Bible. It seemed wonderful that the Lord knows all the secrets of the universe; but it was even more wonderful that He could look into the human heart and know all man’s hidden thoughts and impulses. This profound and sobering thought has never been put into finer words than those of the very late Psalm 139 (vv. 1—6): "Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off" (2). If we contrast the sublimity of these verses with the crudity of tile idea of God in the Babel story, we shall have some real conception of the gradual refinement of the theology of Israel which took place during her long history.
The New Testament view of God is, of course, precisely the same. In the Sermon on the Mount the theme of God’s secret and all-encompassing knowledge occurs repeatedly in our Lord’s discussion of almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Matt. 6:1—18). The test of value to be applied in each case is not the opinion of men, whose imperfect understanding is based only on what they see, but the judgment of the heavenly "Father, which seeth in secret" (vv. 4, 6, 18). It is as imperative for men to be reminded of this principle today as it was for the contemporaries of Jesus. The thought of God’s omniscience is not an academic theological principle, but a doctrine which has the deepest significance for man’s moral and devotional life. In the tradition represented by the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is represented, even in his life on earth, as sharing the unclouded vision of the Father: ". . . he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man; for he knew what was in man" (John 2:23—25). The Synoptic Gospels do not lay so much stress upon this, but we can hardly doubt that theologically the Fourth Gospel is right. The eternal Son of God who lives in us and we in him certainly knows the secrets of our hearts. To realize this, even momentarily, is to experience some of the purifying power of His presence. It is the best of antidotes for the poison of hypocrisy and pretense and the best cure for the anxiety and frustration to which they give rise.
At first glance, the thought of divine omniscience might seem merely terrifying. One whose mind is full of dark, uninhibited passions (and to a greater or less extent this means all of us) may find it intolerable that there is no corner of his being so remote as to be hidden from God’s knowledge. Judgment for him will be an ever-present reality. But the Bible shows us the &ther side of the picture also. God is not only our judge. The All-knowing is All-loving too. He understands us better than our neighbors do and better than we understand ourselves. "If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things" (I John 3:20).
IV. GOD THE INESCAPABLE
Jonah 1; Psalm 139:7—12; Jeremiah 23:23—24; Acts 17:22—28;
It took men longer to realize that God is everywhere present than it did to understand that He is all-powerful and all-knowing. The psychological explanation of this is easy, for God’s power and knowledge can be conceived in terms of human qualities raised to an infinite degree of magnitude; but there is no human analogy to the universal presence of God. Men, however powerful and wise they may be, are always limited to certain places and it is hard to think of God as not limited in the same way.
This was true even in ancient Israel. Since Yahweh had revealed Himself to the ancestors in particular places, what could be more natural than to suppose that these were the places in which He actually dwelt—Sinai, the Temple, or at best the land of Israel? It was not until a late period in the nation’s history that even its great leaders became completely adjusted to the view that God—in His nature, as distinguished from the mere manifestation of Himself to men—must necessarily be equally present everywhere.
The Book of Jonah is the greatest milestone in the progress of Israel’s thinking along this line. It is unfortunate that the book is still widely misunderstood so that ordinary discussion of it is usually confined to arguments about the physiological structure of whales. One must realize at the outset that the book is fiction of a common oriental type and is meant to be read as a parable, not as history. The wonders which it relates were introduced in order to make the story more interesting and memorable so that the reader would not easily forget the great truths about God’s universal love and universal presence which it was designed to teach.
The first chapter tells of a man’s failure to escape from God. Jonah is represented as being a rather stupid person who still held to the old view that the presence of God is confined to the soil of Palestine. When given a distasteful job to do, he tried to avoid it by fleeing on a ship to Tarshish at the far end of the Mediterranean, but to his dismay he discovered that God is just as truly present and just as powerful on the great sea as in the land of Israel. We are intended to see him as a foolish and laughable figure, whose God was too small to fit the realities of life. The unidentified author of the book must have known many whose doctrine of God was as inadequate as Jonah’s and he wants us to feel how ridiculous this is.
The 139th Psalm, which contains in its opening verses so beautiful an expression of God’s omniscience, goes on to picture in even more sublime language the thought of His divine omnipresence (vv. 7—12): ‘If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." It is worth noting again that the doctrines of the Bible are rarely expressed in doctrinal terms. In the Book of Jonah the vehicle of the doctrine is a parable; in the psalm it is a prayer. The psalmist is not interested in expressing an abstract idea in abstract language; the doctrine emerges almost unconsciously in the course of his devotions as a product of his life with God.
The third Old Testament passage to be considered (Jer 23:23f) is more doctrinal in form than the others, but even here the context is a practical one—a denunciation of false prophets—and the words are placed in the mouth of God Himself: "Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth?" Although Jeremiah lived a century or so before the author of Jonah or Psalm 139, he had already arrived at a fully matured conception of the omnipresence of God.
By New Testament times the best even of pagan thinkers had come to think of God in the same terms, so when St. Paul came to speak before the philosophers of Athens he felt he could appeal to them, in this matter at least, on the basis of a common faith (Acts 17:22—28). Like the men of the Old Testament they had come to see that God cannot "be far from every one of us" and that "in him we live, and move, and have our being" (vv. 27f).
What is new in the New Testament, with respect to this doctrine, is the application of it to the person of Christ. What the Old Testament says of God the Father, the New Testament says of the Son also. We find it already clearly stated in the Synoptic Gospels. A familiar verse in Matthew (18:20) says that wherever the disciples of Christ are found, Christ himself will be "in the midst of them." By this time the reader will probably have noticed that when the Bible speaks of God’s omnipresence it is almost always in terms of His relation to persons. The Bible writers were not concerned so much to assert that God is present in the farthest star or in every part of inanimate nature (although common sense tells us this must be true) as to show that He is always near to men that seek Him. The universal presence of Christ can be a meaningful reality only for those who love and obey him and who gather together "in his name."
The final passage (Eph. 1:15—23) is an exhortation to enlarge our conception of the greatness and glory of Christ. In the Old Testament we learn of the inescapability of God; from the New Testament we must learn also of the inescapability of the cosmic Christ, whose Church is "the fulness of him that filleth all in all."
V. GOD THE RIGHTEOUS JUDGE
Genesis 18:23—33; II Samuel 12:1—10;
In our study of the biblical doctrine of God we have as yet learned nothing of His moral character. Conceivably God might be all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere present and yet neither good nor loving. Pagans have sometimes believed in gods like this. But the Bible leaves us in no doubt as to the morality of deity, for it is far more concerned with God’s moral character than with what theologians call His "metaphysical" attributes.
The first of the moral attributes of God to be distinctively emphasized in Israel was His righteousness. God, as He is revealed in the Bible, can always be depended upon to do what is right. He does not act capriciously, doing one thing today and another tomorrow, nor does He apply different standards to different people. It is, of course, not possible always to understand why God behaves as He does, because, from our finite, mortal point of view, we have so few of the facts at our command, but we may be sure that what God does is always right and fair. To put it another way, God will be at least as just as human beings would be in the same situation.
Our first reading (Gen. 18:23—33) makes exactly this point. The passage is not history, but a dramatic philosophical dialogue in which Abraham and God are represented as discussing the justice of God’s intentions toward the city of Sodom. Should all the people of Sodom be destroyed because some—or even most—of them are guilty? The ancient author of the tale obviously believes it would be wrong. This is implicit in Abraham’s argument: the enlightened human conscience does not approve of indiscriminate punishment and God cannot be less just than man. "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" (v. 25). The story intends to answer this question with an emphatic affirmative: the justice and righteousness of God are as certain as His knowledge and His power. As the psalmist puts it so impressively: "Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains; thy judgments are like the great deep" (Ps. 36:6).
Since God is righteous, He expects righteousness from His children. Because God is both all-knowing and all-just, no one can please Him who does not strive to be just and righteous himself. There are no short cuts to God’s favor; over and over again the Bible—and especially the Old Testament—emphasizes that sacrifices, prayers and ritual acts have no value if they are not accompanied by righteousness of life. "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (Mic. 6:8)?
No one was exempt from this demand for justice, not even the king himself. II Sam. 12:1—10 tells the story of a courageous prophet who confronted the greatest of Israel’s monarchs to denounce him for a cowardly crime and to tell him of God’s anger and disgust. This was also the typical message of the great "literary" prophets, as could be illustrated by innumerable passages. Just one (Isa. 5:1—7) will have to suffice. Here the prophet appears as a minstrel singing of the feelings of God toward His people, picturing Him as a farmer addressing his vineyard. The song starts softly, as if love were to be the theme; then suddenly, at the end of v. 2, the mood changes to satire. The farmer, says the prophet, looked for grapes and found only wild grapes. God "looked for justice, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry." (7) The verse is far more effective in Hebrew than in English because it uses two striking puns, but even in English the point is unmistakable—Israel’s divine Lover has become her righteous Judge.
It is sometimes thought that emphasis upon the justice and righteousness of God belongs exclusively to the Old Testament, but there arc many passages in the New Testament which speak of it quite as forcibly. For example, the words of Matt. 23:23—28 are as uncompromising as anything in the prophets. We must be careful in reading them not to generalize too broadly about the Pharisees, for certainly many Pharisees were sensitive and upright people. But amongst them, as all too often among Christians of today, there were those who thought they could make of religion a cloak to cover their moral nakedness. Our Lord declares that though they may succeed in tile sight of men, they cannot in the sight of God. God’s righteousness is a fierce light which exposes man’s secret sins; a fire which consunies hypocrisy.
In Romans 2:1—11, we find St. Paul, also, speaking of the righteousness of God, but in sober and measured terms quite unlike the emotional utterances of the prophets. Tile conviction that God is absolutely righteous was the first article of tile Pauline creed, but also the source of Paul’s greatest intellectual and spiritual problem. For God’s perfect righteousness must require perfect righteousness from man; and how can man, with his corrupt and sinful nature, ever attain such righteousness? How can he ever hope to cross the gulf which separates him from the perfectly just and righteous God who is "of purer eyes than to behold evil" (Hab. 1:13). Later we shall consider Paul’s answer to this question, for it is a problem which all thinking men must eventually face; for the moment it is enough that we thoroughly grasp the basic Pauline—and biblical—truth that God is perfect in His righteousness and demands that men be righteous also.
Exodus 34:1—7; Jeremiah 31:1—9 Psalm 103 Luke 15:11—32; 1 John 4:7—12
God’s righteousness and His love are not incompatible qualities. At different times men have tended to emphasize one of them to the exclusion of the other, but if we read the Bible carefully and as a whole we can see that God is always perfect in both His righteousness and His love. He is righteous precisely because He is a God of love; it is because He cares so much about men that He is concerned for justice and right dealing among them.
In much of the Old Testament the emphasis seems to be more on God’s righteousness than upon His love, because this was the lesson the people of Israel needed most to learn. Throughout much of their history they were too sure of God’s love and were inclined to misinterpret it in two directions. On the one hand they were inclined to think that God loved them alone among all the nations of the earth, and, on the other, to think of Him as a kind of unmoral, indulgent father who was indifferent to their conduct so long as they continued to honor Him with sacrifices and prayers. It was the special task of the prophets to disabuse them on both counts. The great prophets taught that God loved other nations just as He did Israel (e.g., Amos 9:7) and also, as we saw in our last set of readings, that one cannot please God by any expression of pretended religious feeling which is not accompanied by righteousness of life.
All the time Israel and her great prophetic teachers knew that God, above all else, is a God of love. The most frequent statement made about God in the Old Testament is the one we find embedded in the account of Yah.. weh’s revelation to Moses upon Mt. Sinai (Exod. 34:1—7). God is "merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . ." (vv. 6— 7). While we cannot be sure in what particular age this formula arose, it is significant that the historians of Israel felt it to be so important that they associated its proclamation with the fundamental revelation upon which the very existence of Israel as a nation depended. In later literature it is quoted again and again (e.g., Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; Jonah 4:2). The full sense of it is brought Out even more clearly in the Revised Standard Version, in which the word translated above as "mercy" is rendered more accurately as "steadfast love." The modern reader will perhaps be offended by the words which follow and which speak of God punishing the guilty for several generations. Since we have no space here to explain the full meaning of this expression, the reader should either turn to a commentary for a fuller account or at least accept the assurance that it does not contradict the first part of the formula. It is intended to prevent those who recited it from supposing that God’s love meant that He was indifferent to wrongdoing.
As we have previously seen, Hosea was the special prophet of God’s love in ancient Israel. While in some ways Hosea was even more severe in his pronouncements of judgment than other prophets of his time, he was the first to speak habitually of God as Israel’s Father and Husband, whose love had been violated by her unfaithfulness and who longed for her to return to Him in penitence. Once Hosea had introduced this kind of language, it became natural for others to use it, as we see in the passage, Jeremiah 31: 1—9, which promises the restoration of Israel after the Exile. Notice especially v. 3 (which has sometimes been called the motto of the whole Bible story), and the concluding words of v. 9.
The most extended and impressive account of God’s love in the Old Testament is that of the 103rd Psalm, a hymn composed in late times when men could look back upon the long history of the nation and see that, however hard the road may have been, it was God’s love which had guided them all the way. In v. 8 the formula of Exodus 34:6f is quoted once again, but the author no longer feels the need to repeat the concluding words about the punishment of the guilty. He is content to say, "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him" (v. 13).
From these words we turn naturally to our Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11—32), where the meaning of God’s Fatherhood is displayed more clearly than anywhere else in Scripture. The central figure of the story is, of course, not the prodigal, but the father who stands in the door of his home waiting in love for his foolish and errant son to return. In a sense this parable summarizes in brief the entire drama of the Bible: mankind is the prodigal son and God has always been waiting for the race to "come to itself" (v. 17) and find its way home.
Our final passage is the familiar one from I John (4:7—12) which states simply that God is love. This means that if we could attribute only one quality to God, it would have to be this. But the author goes on to say that God can be truly known only by men in whom the same quality predominates. God cannot be known by the mind alone; only those can know Him who in some profound respect are like Him. As God’s righteousness demands righteousness in men, so His love requires that men be loving also. "Everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God." (v.7).
Genesis 6:11—13, 18—22; 8:13—9:1; Jeremiah 17:5—9; Job 4:17—21;
Although man is the creature of God, made in his image and intended for a glorious destiny, the Bible never lets us forget that he is a wayward creature—a sinner—who prefers to follow his own will rather than God’s. His natural tendency is to do wrong rather than right. This is what the Church means by the doctrine of "original sin." The term itself does not occur in the Bible, but the idea certainly does. All through the Bible there runs the thought that there is something essentially wrong with man, some corruption of his nature which makes it easier for him to sin than to be what he ought to be. In the Bible, sin is not just an occasional, unfortunate transgression of the Divine Law, but a dead weight which must be lifted, an enemy which must be conquered, a disease which must be healed.
The classic expression of this doctrine is, of course, the account of the "fall" of man (Gen. 3), which we have already examined as a part of the Bible story. The tale of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6—8 is yet another attempt to put the doctrine of the universality of sin in vivid, narrative form (Gen. 6:11—13, 18—22; 8:13—9: i). It is said that after man was expelled from the Garden of Eden and began to spread over the earth, his wickedness became so great that God determined to destroy him utterly. "The earth was corrupt . . . and filled with violence" (Gen. 6:1 i). Only one man, Noah, was saved from the catastrophe, but God recognized that even this drastic purge would not solve the problem, for it was still true after the flood, as before, that "the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth" (8:21).
This story is no more to be taken as literal history than the story of the Fall. It is rather a dramatic expression of ancient Israel’s conviction that God loathes tile sm which is lodged in the heart of man, and longs to destroy it. The story contains primitive elements and represents God as acting in ways which later generations would find incredible, but it would be difficult to think of a more forceful way of expressing the three basic ideas it is intended to teach: (1) that sin is a universal fact of human nature, (2) that God hates sin with all His Being, and (3) that He nevertheless loves our sinful race and seeks to bless it (8:21—9: 1).
The preaching of the prophets of later times is filled with denunciations of the sinfulness and incorrigibility of man. Innumerable examples could be found, but the prophet who came closest to formulating his pessimistic view of human nature in doctrinal rather than merely hortatory terms was Jeremiah (17:5—9), who first of all warns his disciples against putting any trust in human nature (v. 5) and then states the principle that "the heart [of man] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (9). By the "heart" he does not mean merely our obviously fickle emotions, but the very deepest springs of our being. Jeremiah is no more a total pessimist than any other of the biblical writers, but he is sure that human nature can never be trusted to do what is right apart from the transforming grace of God.
The author of the Book of Job puts a similar thought on the lips of one of his characters (4:17—21, RSV is best). In God’s eyes all men are sinners and untrustworthy. Viewed objectively, man is a pretty contemptible thing: small, insignificant, transitory and evil. This is, of course, not the whole story, but it is an important part of it, and one cannot expect to have a full understanding of the nature and destiny of man unless he sees that this proposition, as far as it goes, is essentially true.
Psalm 51 is tile finest devotional expression of the doctrine of man’s universal sinfulness (vv. 1—5, 10—11). Tile author of it is not so much concerned with particular sins he may have committed as with the sinfulness of his heart, and with his need for a new one which only God can create (v. 10). The familiar words of v. 5 are not to be understood as an indictment of the psalmist’s mother. They merely express, in exaggerated language, his conviction that he had always been a sinner, even from the moment of his conception. Only God’s Holy Spirit (11) can save him from himself.
Turning to the New Testament, we see in the epistle to the Romans how deeply Paul felt the sinfulness of his own nature. In chap. 7 (especially vv. 14—25) Paul shows that the doctrine of original sin was not an abstraction for him, but a reality by which he was constantly haunted. Much as he desired with his mind to do what is right, his unruly nature always drove him to do what is wrong. The kind of discouraging moral experience which Paul describes here so vividly has its counterpart in the life of every thoughtful Christian.
Finally we see how our Lord enforces the same lesson in his own gentle way in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9—14). The man who goes "down to his house justified" is not the proud church member, confident of his own rectitude, but the contemptible tax gatherer who at least knows that he is a sinner. For the Bible, our approach to God must always begin with an acknowledgment of both our creaturehood and our sinfulness, with the recognition that "there is no health in us" and that only God can restore the health which should be ours.
X. THE UNITY OF MAN’S NATURE
Genesis 2:7; Deuteronomy 28:1—6; Song of Solomon 2:8—13;
The Bible regards man as a unity of soul and body. He is not, as some of the Greek philosophers taught, a soul somehow unhappily imprisoned within a body which is really no proper part of him. This latter view, found in certain oriental religions and some types of Puritanism, gives rise to an unhealthy kind of asceticism which seeks to degrade and even destroy the body so as to free the soul entirely from association with it. But whenever the Bible has been allowed to speak clearly, it has always been heard to reaffirm the dignity of the body and the physical world of which the body is a part. Man is not an immaterial soul burdened and trammeled by a material body, hut a unified being composed of two inseparable parts created to live harmoniously together.
Since the Bible is not a philosophical treatise it never formulates this view in precisely chosen words. The nearest it ever comes to stating categorically that man is a psycho-physical unity is in the story of creation, Genesis 2:7, where we read that "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul" (or, as the RSV more correctly says, "a living being"). The bare, disembodied "breath" was not the man. Man came into being only when the immaterial breath was united with the material body.
This is the assumption which underlies the whole biblical view of man and is implied in many passages which ostensibly deal with quite different matters. Everyone who reads the Old Testament is aware of the uninhibited way in which the Hebrews describe the rewards of righteousness in terms of physical blessings and the satisfaction of bodily needs. Deuteronomy 28 is a classical example, vv. i—6 summarizing the thought of the whole chapter. Here it is promised that those who obey the Lord’s commands will have many children, rich harvests and fruitful cattle, with no lack of good things to eat (4, 5). For the Hebrew, the productivity of the physical world and the adequate satisfaction of the body’s healthy needs were a kind of sacramental token of God’s favor. The Hebrews were not crude materialists, but men who saw in nature’s harmonious care for their physical needs a symbol of the inner harmony of their bodies and souls with the will of their Creator.
In the little book called the Song of Solomon there is an appreciation of the physical world and the pleasures of the body which rises at times to high poetry, as in 2:8—13, a passage which rapturously celebrates the love of the sexes, the beauty of spring and flowers, the singing of birds, and the smell of new blossoms in the orchard. The language of this book is not typical of the Bible, but it is significant that it is found there at all.
Likewise, in their view of the future, men of the Old Testament could not conceive of a paradise either in heaven or on earth in which the body would not have its part. Some verses added by a late writer to the Book of Amos (9:13—15) describe the miraculous fertility of the land in days to come when "the mountains shall drop sweet wine" and God’s people will have an abundance of food and drink. When the Hebrews came later to think of a future life, it had to be in terms of a resurrection of the body (see Isa. 26:19).
If in the Old Testament the emphasis perhaps is laid too exclusively on the body and its satisfactions, the balance is corrected in the New Testament in favor of the soul and its profounder needs, but this is merely a correction of stress, not a reversal in the point of view. Although the New Testament shows a deeper concern for the spirit of man, there is no rejection of the body or denial of its legitimate place in the totality of man’s being. In the time of Jesus Judaism had already become partly infected by an unhealthy oriental asceticism, but Jesus would have none of it. He did not engage in extreme ascetic practices like John the Baptist and was accused of being a winebibber and a glutton (Luke 7:33f); his disciples evidently followed his example (Luke 5:33).
The story of the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1—11), whether strictly historical or not, bears striking testimony to Jesus’ reputation for being at home among the normal, healthy pleasures of his countrymen.
One must not, of course, go to the extreme of exalting the body above the spirit or of supposing that the Bible allows men to indulge their physical appetites without restraint. In the harmony of soul and body which is the nature of the ideal man, the soul must always be the ruling principle and there will always be need for some kind of asceticism (which means "exercise") to keep the body in its proper place.
The point is simply that the body must never be regarded as evil or unclean and the physical world treated as beneath contempt. The whole world is God’s creation and is good (Gen. 1:31; Rom. 14:20); the body is an integral part of man and must be treated with respect. It has its important part to play in worship—eyes, tongue and posture. We receive God’s grace through elements which normally minister only to the body’s needs—water, bread and wine. The truly Christian attitude is not to despise the body, but to present it to God along with the soul as a "reasonable sacrifice" (Rom. 12:1) to treat it as a temple of the Holy Ghost and thus to glorify God with the whole of our being (I Cor. 6:19f).
XI. MAN’S CAPACITY FOR REDEMPTION
Psalm 146:1—4; Jeremiah 10:23; Romans 3:9—20;
If man, though sinful, is the wonderful being the Bible describes, a marvelous harmony of soul and body, godlike in his abilities, created to walk in fellowship with his Maker, can he be allowed simply to persist in his tragic, fallen state? Is there not some way in which the tide of his affairs can be reversed, and the frustrations of his existence alleviated? In later Israel, whose outlook on the existing state of the world had become increasingly dark as a result of the disaster of the Babylonian Exile and the discouraging years which followed the Return, the question was raised chiefly in connection with the possibility of a material restoration of the nation. But the answer to the question was often given at a far deeper level than this (e.g., Jer. 31:31—34; Ezek. 11:17—20), and the frequency with which other nations were pictured as sharing in some way in Israel’s restoration (e.g., Isa. 2:2—4; 25:6,7; Zech. 8:23; 14:16) shows that at least the greatest men of the Old Testament were aware the problem was not merely that of the redemption of Israel, but of the whole of mankind. Granted, however, that humanity stands in need of redemption, by what agency can it be accomplished?
The biblical answer has both a negative and a positive aspect. On the negative side, the men of Israel became increasingly certain that there was no help in man himself— that, as the Book of Common Prayer concisely states it, "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves." Many passages express this thought, but we need note only a few typical examples. Psalm 146: 1—4 puts it quite clearly, "put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them (v. 3)." The voice is not that of some theoretical pessimist, but of a nation which had exhausted its human resources in the effort to find a satisfactory basis for living in a sinful world, and had finally been forced to the conclusion that human nature is too fragile and ephemeral to provide it (~).
A verse in Jeremiah (10:23) gives succinct expression to the same conviction: "It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." Man’s vision is too limited for him to make out the road by which he should travel. It is in Paul, however, that this basic biblical certainty finds its classic expression, particularly in the great epistle to the Romans. In 3:9—20 Paul insists upon man’s universal sinfulness and absolute helplessness. He begins by putting Jews and Gentiles upon the same plane; however different they may be in other respects, they are identical in their common sinful humanity (v. 9). He proves this by a series of quotations from the Old Testament (10—18) and then turns to consider the ordinary Jewish view that if a man by his own efforts could keep the Covenant of Law he would be saved. Paul declares this to be impossible; he says elsewhere that man is incapable of keeping the Law, but here asserts merely that the purpose of the Law was not to provide a means of salvation but to make men realize how sinful and helpless they are, "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (20). So even the best and most well-intentioned of man’s endeavors are unable to deliver him from the bondage of a sinful nature. If this seems like harsh doctrine, one can say only that the experience of every generation brings additional evidence that it is profoundly true.
The dramatic story of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water (Matt. 14:22—31) may be taken as a parable of the human situation and a guide as to the source from which help must come. With the best of wills, Peter attempts to imitate Jesus in defying the storm and the waves, but his weak human nature is inadequate to the demands that he puts upon it and he soon finds himself beginning to sink. At this point, driven at last to realize his inadequacy, he calls for help and Jesus immediately puts out his hand and helps him.
This is exactly what St. Paul and the great men of the Old Testament were attempting to say. Although man cannot save himself, God is prepared to save him; man’s redemption has, indeed, always been a part of God’s plan. If we turn back now to the 146th Psalm, we find the thought jubilantly expressed. No trust can be put in any "child of man," but "blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help" (v. 5). The men of the Old Testament were confident that God was able and ready to help His people and would be their "King forevermore" (10).
The basic paradox of biblical faith could hardly be set forth more clearly than in this psalm—almost complete pessimism with regard to man, but unlimited optimism with respect to God. The Old Testament story is in many ways simply the account of Israel’s increasing certainty about these two fundamental ideas. The later prophets and apocalyptic writers exhibit a growing disillusionment with the moral possibilities of human nature, but a rising tide of confidence in God’s purpose to redeem mankind and establish His Kingdom.
We have already, in different contexts, read many passages in which the hope of redemption, running like a golden thread through the later parts of the Old Testament, is the principal theme. just one more, from a postexilic section included in the Book of Isaiah, will be sufficient for another illustration—Isaiah 61:1—3. Undoubtedly the thought of Israel’s deliverance from political oppression is in the forefront of the author’s mind, but greater thoughts are there also and he wrote more deeply than he knew. The peculiar poignance of this passage, apart from its intrinsic excellence as religious poetry, arises from the fact that it is reported to have provided the text of our Lord’s first sermon, when He arose in the synagogue at Nazareth and proclaimed that God’s redemption was no longer merely a future hope, hut was within men’s grasp as a present reality (Luke 4:16—21).
XII. MAN’S NEED OF A REDEEMER
Numbers 24:15—19; Psalm 2; Psalm 72; Isaiah 42:1—4;
It is natural that men should hope not only for redemption, but for a Redeemer. The word redemption suggests an impersonal process, but man is a person and his personality is the most important quality he possesses, the thing which makes him closer to God than any other creature. So it seems only fitting that deliverance should come to him through the activity of a person rather than through some abstract arrangement such as a new set of laws. The conviction that God would send such a personal Redeemer at the proper time was one of the foundation stones of the fully developed faith of ancient Israel; the declaration that He has sent him is the first principle of the distinctive theology of the New Israel.
It is not certain just when faith in a future Redeemer arose in Israel, although it can hardly have been before the time of the Hebrew monarchy, since the Redeemer was ordinarily pictured as a king. Many passages in the Old Testament which originally referred in somewhat fulsome terms to a reigning monarch were later reinterpreted to refer to the future King. It is hard in some cases to distinguish these passages from those which are genuinely "messianic," but the distinction is really unimportant, since all such scripture eventually became a vehicle for expressing Israel’s God-given faith in the coming of a personal Deliverer.
One of the oldest passages of this kind is contained in the Book of Numbers, 24:15—19. Almost certainly this passage, which is placed on the lips of the heathen prophet Baalam in the days just before Israel’s conquest of Canaan, was intended as a flattering reference to King David and was written by one of his court poets, but with the eclipse of the Davidic Empire and the degradation of his dynasty the words were hopefully transferred to that figure of the future who would one day arise as "a star out of Jacob" (v. ‘7) and deliver Israel from bondage. It is known that this passage sustained the Jews during some of the darkest days of their later history.
Israel’s hymns, also, naturally gave expression to the messianic faith, though here again we meet with the phenomenon of songs originally composed to glorify a contemporary, secular ruler being adapted in later days to celebrate the power and dignity of the future Redeemer. Psalm 2, one of the most frequently quoted of the so-called messianic psalms, is a good example of the way in which older materials were re-used in this way. Composed to celebrate the coronation of a new ruler by the promise of victory over all who attempted to oppose him, it was later used, somewhat incongruously, to prophesy the purely spiritual victories of the Messiah (as in Acts 13:33).
A more attractive picture, both of the reigning monarch and the future Deliverer, is found in Psalm 72, where the function of a king is said to be that of establishing peace and prosperity for his people and of bringing justice to the oppressed. It is strange that this pleasing portrait is nowhere quoted in the New Testament as a prophecy of the Christ.
In our previous study we have already examined most of the original specifically messianic passages of the Old Testament (such as Isa. 11 and 33:17ff). We need add to our list here only Micah 5:2, which declares that the Redeemer will, like David, come from Bethlehem and will be a member of the age-old Davidic family.
The image of the king, however, is not the only one under which men conceived the figure of the future Redeemer. Two others are especially important, since they show how varied the portrait might be. One is that of the suffering servant, an entirely non-royal figure who, as we have already seen, is found in certain passages of Second Isaiah, such as 42:1—4. Here the Deliverer—perhaps originally merely the nation of Israel—is represented as a gentle, kindly and courageous prophet. (Isa. 52:13—53:12 is, of course, the classic passage dealing with the Servant.)
The third image is that found in a mysterious chapter of the Book of Daniel (7:9—14) which tells how, in the latter days, God will judge the earth (v. 9f) and destroy the kingdom of evil (11f). At the end, it is said, there will come "one like the Son of Man" (meaning "one like a human being") who will establish an eternal and indestructible kingdom of righteousness (13f). Whatever the author of this difficult passage may have had in mind (and the reader must be referred to the commentaries for more detailed discussion), his later readers took it to be another portrait of the coming Redeemer. This interpretation forms the background for understanding the frequent references to the "Son of Man" in the New Testament (e.g. Mark 14:62).
Finally, in Matthew 2:1—11, we read a story which, in dramatic language, pictures men of various nations as eagerly awaiting the coming of a personal Redeemer. The Gentiles are represented as watching for his sign in the heavens; the Jews, as searching their sacred books. This is an accurate picture of a large part of the world in the days of Jesus, when multitudes of both Jews and Gentiles were searching anxiously for some kind of personal saviour and for a religion which promised redemption from the futility of ordinary human existence. Men are still, though often unconsciously, seeking a redeemer of this kind— one of their own flesh and blood who can give them God’s peace and restore meaning and value to their apparently purposeless lives. The Bible tells us that such hope is not vain and foolish—that God has promised a Redeemer and that, indeed, he has already come.
XIII. JESUS THE FULFILLMENT OF MAN’S NEED
Isaiah 35:3—10; Matthew 11:2—6; John 4:25—29, 39—42;
Central to the developed faith of the Old Testament is the assurance that a Redeemer would come and the Kingdom of God be established among men; central to the New Testament faith is the certainty that the Redeemer has already come and the Kingdom of God has begun to take visible shape in his person and his works. In dealing with this theme we shall naturally be concerned chiefly with passages from the New Testament rather than the Old, but it will he well to begin by looking at one Old Testament passage, both because it will remind us of the intensity of Israel’s hope and because there is a reflection of this particular passage in the first of our readings from the New Testament.
This passage (Isa. 35:3—10), probably from Second Isaiah, is especially attractive because it lays less stress upon the triumph of Israel as a nation than upon God’s care for the sick and unfortunate. Although there is no specific mention of the Messiah, the picture is, in the broad sense of the term, a sketch of the glories of the Messianic age, when order will be restored to a disordered world and its present miseries finally abolished. There will be courage for the faint-hearted, joy for the disconsolate and healing for those who are sick in mind or body.
For those who knew Jesus in his earthly ministry such things provided the chief evidence that he was indeed the expected Redeemer. So we read in Matthew 11:2—6 that when John the Baptist, who preached the nearness of the Kingdom of God, was imprisoned for castigating the morals of the royal household, he sent two of his followers to see if Jesus was really the Messiah or only another preacher like himself. The answer was given in terms of the Old Testament passage we have just been reading. They could see for themselves that Jesus’ main concern was with the weak and helpless and that he had power both to bring healing to the sick and good cheer to the discouraged. The extent of this power was the surest proof that he was in fact the one "that should come."
The story of the long conversation Jesus is related to have had with the Samaritan woman is intended to typify the way in which the Redeemer was desired and accepted even outside the borders of Judaism. The Samaritans, of course, shared the Messianic faith of ancient Israel, but they were not Jews and could represent, in the mind of the evangelist, the larger, non-Jewish, world, which was also in need of redemption. It, too, was awaiting the arrival of him "that should come." The emphasis in the story is not upon the mighty works of Jesus, but upon his insight into the human heart and his ability to satisfy the deepest needs of man’s spirit (John 4:25—29). The more intimately men came to know him the more certain they were that he was indeed the Saviour of the world (39—42).
For the most part Jesus was content to let men draw their own conclusions with regard to his character and mission, but when he was brought before the high priest and challenged directly to state his claims he at last spoke so unambiguously that his condemnation and death came as an immediate consequence (Matt. 26:63—68). It seemed for a moment as though the forces of chaos and evil had defeated God’s plan, but the events of Easter and Ascension Day showed that ultimate victory belonged to the Messiah and his Kingdom.
The Christian Church was built upon the simplest of creeds: Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the long-expected Redeemer of mankind. This was the chief burden of early Christian missionary preaching, as we see from such a passage as Acts 18:5; this is also the theme of our present written Gospels, as is evident from the original conclusion to the Gospel of John (20:30f).
The Church was not content however, to live with this bare statement of the essence of its faith. Christian thinkers soon began to meditate upon the significance of the great new truth in which they believed and to draw out its implications. Centuries later Christians would start dividing all time into two great periods, B.C. and A.D., illustrating their belief that the birth of Jesus was the chief turning point in the history of the world. In New Testament times they had not yet begun to do this, but already St. Paul saw in Christ’s coming the climactic point of the human drama—"the fulness of the time" (Gal. 4:4)—and either he or one of his disciples pictured in rhapsodic language how the advent of Christ had restored the broken unity of the human race (Eph. 2:11—22) and introduced a new element into man’s understanding of history and time. "in time past" (v. 11) the Gentiles had lived without hope, aliens and strangers (12), but "now" (vv. 13, 19) in Christ their alienation was ended; the wall of partition was taken down and the way of peace and free approach to God was open to everyone alike (17f).
There were others, like the author of I John 5:1—5, who were concerned not so much with picturing the vast, majestic sweep of history rising to its climax in the coming of Christ as with showing the effect of his coming on individual human lives. To have faith in Christ, as the Son of God, he says, makes men also sons of God (v. 1) and this sonship comes to full expression in a life filled with love toward men (2) and God (3) and in giving its possessor a sense of personal participation in Christ’s triumph over the evils of the world (4, 5).
Isaiah 32:1—8; 50:4—9; Mark 2:15—17, 23—27; 6:30—44; 14:32—42;
The Redeemer whom the Bible offers us is not only God of God, but man of man. We must begin with his manhood if we are truly to understand his deity. In the early ages of the Church there were several heresies which denied the truth of this paradox and rejected the idea of Christ’s perfect manhood, making him either wholly divine or a kind of demigod, halfway between God and man. But the Church has always rejected such views whenever they have appeared and insists that Christ is as perfect in his humanity as in his divinity. He is not only our Lord and God; he is also our Brother.
It is not certain that the first passage selected for reading is (Isa. 32: 1—8) Messianic in the strict and literal sense. But in the broad sense it undoubtedly is so, since it describes the rule of a future king under whose strong and righteous government the noblest qualities of human nature will have a chance to become evident. Men will be able to make clear and accurate judgments (vv. 3f); hypocrisy will no longer be able to deceive (5); the wicked man and the fool will appear as what they really are and the noble man will be recognized at his true worth; " …a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." (2). This emphasis on the essential manliness of the future king and his kingdom provides an important counterbalance to some of the supernatural and even fantastic features attributed to them elsewhere.
The second Old Testament passage (Isa. 50:4—9) is another of the so-called "Servant songs" of II Isaiah. In contrast to the usual portrait of the Messiah, who in the Old Testament is a royal figure, the portrait of the Servant always emphasizes his common humanity, his sympathy with other men and the physical weakness which he shares with them. He comes, not to overwhelm men with his power, but to "speak a word in season to him that is weary" (v. 4). Like any other prophet, he must expect his message to he received with hatred and contempt (6), though he is always sustained by the confidence that God will help him (7—9). From our previous study we know how important these Servant songs are for understanding the New Testament doctrine of Christ. The person of whom Pilate said, "Behold the man!" (John 19:5) is precisely this intensely human and appealing figure of the Servant of the Lord.
Jesus frequently shocked the staid church people of his time because he acted as though human need was more important than ecclesiastical regulations. This did not mean that he was indifferent to the Law, but only that he felt an even greater obligation to minister to the necessities of his sinful and suffering brother men. The two incidents recorded in Mark 2:15—17, 23—27 are excellent illustrations. In the first he disregards the law of ritual purity in order to associate with men who were in need of spiritual help; in the second he permits his disciples to violate the Sabbath in order to satisfy their hunger.
Innumerable other stories in the gospels testify to the humanity of Jesus, none perhaps more attractively than that of the feeding of the multitude (Mark 6:30-44). It opens by telling again of Jesus’ care for his disciples’ physical needs. As a man himself, he understood that men cannot work indefinitely without rest and food and so led them to a lonely place where they could find quiet and refreshment (vv. 30—32). When the crowd followed him even there, he was "moved with compassion toward them" also (34) and began to make plans to feed them. The most moving thing about the story is not the divine power which made the miracle possible, but the divinely human compassion which made it necessary. As Jesus moves among the crowd we see in him, of course, the divine Redeemer who satisfies men’s needs; but we see in him, first of all, the perfect man who understands those needs.
The next to the last scene in the life of Jesus is the one which best reveals his profound identification with our humanity. In the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32—42), he felt the aversion to pain (v. 36), the loneliness (37) and the general weakness (38) which are such characteristic elements in ordinary human nature. The nature which endured Gethsemane and Calvary and rose on Easter was not that of a demigod, but that of our own humanity. We recognize ourselves in him and, because we know him in his frailty as our Brother, we are able to receive him in his strength as our Redeemer.
This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us in the sonorous words of our next two passages (Heb. 2:11—18; 4:14—16). It is remarkable that this epistle, which has so much to say about the dignity of Christ, is also the most insistent on his complete humanity. This fact should encourage those who are afraid to acknowledge the full humanity of Christ for fear of detracting from his deity. The divinity and humanity of Christ are not antithetical qualities; always, as in this epistle, they are complementary and inseparable. It is through our humanity that Christ approaches us, and it is through his humanity that we must first draw near to him. His humanity is the door through which we must come into the throne room of his deity. "Let us therefore come boldly . . ." (4:16)
XV. LIFE THROUGH HIS DEATH
Job 3:1—16; Psalm 22; John 3:14—17; 13:1; 15:12—13;
A considerable part of the reflective literature of the Old Testament is taken up with the problem of the suffering of the innocent. Why is it that so many apparently undeserving people have to bear what seem unreasonable burdens of disaster, disease and mental agony, often leading even to death? No sensitive person can be indifferent to this problem and no intelligent and honest person can simply pretend that it does not exist. It is the hardest of all the facts of life to reconcile with the existence of a good and loving God. Israel’s later history was filled with examples of innocent suffering and undeserved death, especially in the lives of her prophets. It was not without reason that Jesus accused Jerusalem of being a city which habitually killed its prophets and stoned those who were sent to it (Matt. 23:37). Jeremiah was an outstanding instance of a suffering prophet, and his book is full of anguished questionings of God about this problem (e.g., 12:1; 20:14—18).
But the classic treatment of the subject is in the dramatic dialogues of the Book of Job, from which our first selection (3: 1—16) is taken. This passage is one of the most moving laments in the literature of the world, the cry of desolation of a blameless man confronted by the mystery of pain in almost unendurable form. It is impossible here even to suggest the nature of the long debate which follows, beyond saying that in the end (42:1—6) Job is reconciled to God, although his questions are never answered. The very existence of this book and its nobility as literature, show how profoundly the Hebrews were concerned with the problem it discusses. In Christian discussion the sufferings of Job have often been taken as dimly prefiguring the sufferings of Christ.
Our second selection (Ps. 22), a hymn composed to be recited by one suffering from mortal illness, is especially significant for Christians because it was used by Jesus as an expression of his own final agony (Matt. 27:46). Although its anguish is as deep as Job’s, the psalm raises the solution of the problem to a higher level, since it ends with a song of praise and triumph (vv. 22—3 1), thus suggesting to the devout reader that suffering may not necessarily lead to defeat but may be the essential prelude to victory.
The most profound of the Old Testament passages dealing with the sufferings of the innocent is one we have already studied—Isaiah 53. Since it is so important for understanding the Christian view of the meaning of Christ’s death, it might be well for the reader to review it once again. Whereas Psalm 22 more or less accidentally suggests that suffering may lead to triumph, Isaiah 53 declares unmistakably that in one case at least this was certainly so. The "Servant," whoever he may have been in the mind of the author, accomplished his great redeeming work, not in spite of his sufferings, but precisely because of them (vv. 4, 5, 11, 12). He did not abolish the evils of man’s lot by waving them away with an imperious and godlike hand, but by bearing theni away on his own shoulders, voluntarily bowed to suffering and death.
This is the Christian interpretation of the death of Christ, an interpretation which sets the whole problem of innocent suffering in a new light. Christ’s death was not a tragic accident; he did not die because he was weak and helpless, but because he was strong, strong in love such as no man had ever shown before. To save men, he became a man; to conquer suffering, he learned to suffer; to overcome death, he died as all his brethren must die. This is a theme which occurs repeatedly, especially in the Gospel of John: the death of Jesus was not evidence of his failure, but of his love and his will to save. Furthermore, his love was not the love of a pitiable and impractical prophet, but a manifestation in human terms of the very love of God Himself. All our quotations from John’s Gospel (3:14—17; 13:1; 15:12—13) repeat this theme in some of its different aspects.
St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans (5:6—19) also emphasizes that the death of Christ was a sacrifice of love (v. 8), the effectiveness of which depended upon his complete identification with sinful and suffering mankind. As the original and imperfect man brought disaster into the world by disobedience, a true and perfect man must, by obedience, even to suffering and death, remove it (12, 15, 17—19).
In all these things we are, of course, dealing with mysteries. How the suffering and death of Christ effect our redemption we can neither comprehend nor express in purely logical terms. But where the mystery of innocent suffering by itself is dark and frightening, the contemplation of redemptive suffering brings to men the light of hope and courage. Once we apprehend, even dimly, that the suffering and death of one man can bring life to many, we begin to see all suffering in a new perspective. We come to realize that God may use even our own sufferings for redemptive purposes.
Because redemption is necessarily a mystery, the nature of the process can best be expressed in poetic and imaginative language. Christ can be pictured (in Paul’s terms) as the Last Man undoing the evil of the First Man; or as the Divine Hero defeating man’s enemies in battle (Rev. 19:11); or by the best and most basic image of all, as the great High Priest offering the final sacrifice and opening the way into the Holy of Holies. This is the favorite image of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Much of the Pentateuch is occupied with the ritual of sacrifice; for Christians, and especially for the author of Hebrews, all this merely foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ. The meaning of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament is to be found only as men see Christ offering on their behalf the perfect sacrifice—that of his own life (Heb. 10:19--25)—and as they endeavor themselves to follow him along this "new and living way."
XVI. VICTORY THROUGH HIS RESURRECTION
Ecclesiastes 9:1—6; Psalm 16; Acts 13:26—37;
For ordinary sinful man, death is the final defeat; for Christ it led to the ultimate victory. He shared our common nature and suffered our common mortality, but only to show that our true destiny is not death and corruption, but eternal life as the children of God. The resurrection of Christ is the central article of biblical faith and, once grasped, throws new light on the rest of the Bible, and on the total meaning of human life. For the old-fashioned paganism of the Greco-Roman world, the realities of life were essentially somber, and even for most men of the Old Testament the life of individuals had no ultimate meaning. The joyousness and sense of purpose which are characteristic of the Christian view of life are due entirely to the fact of Christ’s resurrection.
The contrast between the Christian view and that of paganism or of Old Testament man at his unregenerate worst is well illustrated by the passage from Ecclesiastes (9:1—6) which is our first selection. This book is far from being typical of the Old Testament. Indeed it is so different from anything else in the Bible that readers frequently wonder why it is found there at all. But, whatever may have been the original reason for its inclusion, it has great value as showing what life is like without the resurrection faith. The author, a sophisticated Jew who lived at a late period in Israel’s history and no longer shared the ancient hope of his people, can find no meaning whatever in life since death is the end of it all. His final, cynical and unheroic conclusion is that "a living dog is better than a dead lion" (v. 4).
Far more characteristic of the outlook of the Old Testament is Psalm i6, a hymn which, like Psalm 22, expresses the emotions of an invalid seeking deliverance from serious illness. He speaks of his absolute trust in God and his almost mystical feeling that a sense of God’s nearness is the greatest blessing a man can have (vv. 2, 5, 11). He is sure that God’s will for him is not death, but life, and that God will not permit his present sickness to end fatally (v. 10 should be translated "thou wilt not abandon me to Sheol [meaning, the realm of the dead]"). It is not likely that he hopes for personal immortality, but at least he is sustained at each stage of this earthly life by a serene confidence in the goodness and power of God.
As we noted above, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection throws new light on the whole Bible story and when men of the New Testament read this psalm it seemed to them that the author (whom they assumed to be David) must not only have come near the resurrection faith, but must have actually anticipated it. So they understood the words of v. 10 to be a prophecy of Christ’s rising from the dead. This is the way it is interpreted in Paul’s sermon at Pisidian Antioch, part of which is recorded in Acts 13:26— 37 (note especially 35—37). While a careful reading of the psalm shows that the author was speaking of his own deliverance from sickness rather than of the Messiah’s resurrection, Paul’s use of the passage is not entirely unjustified, because faith of such intensity as the author exhibits ultimately requires for its object a God who will deliver men (and therefore, above all, the Messiah) from death itself. As often happens, the psalmist spoke more largely than he knew.
The centrality of the resurrection faith in early Christian thought is illustrated by the passage from I Corinthians (15:12—19). St. Paul insists that neither his preaching nor his readers’ faith has any meaning if Christ did not rise from the dead (vv. 14, 17). There were evidently some in the Corinthian congregation who, like some in the modern Church, felt one could be a good Christian without believing in the resurrection of the dead (12). For Paul the two things are inseparable—the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of those who believe in him; the former is the assurance of the latter. If we believe in one we must also believe in the other. If we can believe in neither, then it would be better to have remained a pagan, without faith or hope, for our religion is an empty delusion and "we are of all men most miserable" (19).
The passage from Philippians (3:7—21) shows how profoundly the resurrection faith affected Paul’s whole attitude toward life. This letter is the most attractive of all the Pauline writings, written late in his life, warm, mellow, non-argumentative, the ripe fruit of a life spent in Christ’s service. He tells how his knowledge of Christ had come to seem the only possession worth having (vv. 7, 8). Dissatisfied with his old religion and its attempt to make men right with God through obedience to the Covenant of Law, he had found perfect harmony with God through faith in Christ (9). He had learned to be like Christ by sharing with him "the fellowship of his sufferings" and by this means had come also to know "the power of his resurrection" (10, 11). But Paul wants his readers to understand that his new-found strength has not caused him to be smugly satisfied with his achievements. He is in no danger of falling into a new kind of Christian Pharisaism. The resurrection faith is not a narcotic but a stimulant. The Christian, far from being content with what he is, must continually press forward toward a bright future in which he shall be more perfectly conformed to the image of the risen Christ (12—14, 20f).
XVII. THE KINGSHIP OF CHRIST
Judges 8:22—23; Psalm 98:5—9; Psalm 110; Acts 2:32—36;
It is one of the great paradoxes of the Bible that he who is our Brother is also our King. This means that we are not only to admire Jesus as a man and love him as a friend, but to serve and obey him as our Lord and Master. In his earthly life, and still in his heavenly glory, he is one of us, but through his atoning death and victorious resurrection he has earned the right to reign as King over all God’s creatures.
The search for the perfect king is one of the themes which runs through the Bible. Israel’s adoption of ordinary monarchical government was inevitable, since this was the usual form of government in the ancient world, but there was always a party which opposed it and maintained that her perfect and only king was God. Such feelings naturally existed in later times when most of her kings had proved to be selfish and oppressive, but even in the days before the kingdom was established there seems to have been a strong anti-monarchical tradition.
Back in the obscure days between the Conquest of Canaan and the establishment of a central government under hereditary kings, Israel was ruled by a succession of military heroes—the Judges—who claimed to govern only by the direct authority of God. They obtained their power by achievement in battle, not by inherited right.
One of the greatest of these was Gideon, whose exploits in defending his people against Bedouin raiders from the desert are described in Judges 6—8. At the height of his power Gideon was offered the privilege of becoming hereditary king, but refused it because of his conviction that imperfect, human kings had no place in the Constitution of Israel (Judg. 8:22—23). God alone should be Israel’s King.
Even when Israel had lived for centuries under monarchical rule and was all too familiar with the failings of kings, it still seemed natural to use the language of kingship when speaking of God, as is shown by a psalm such as g8 (vv. 5—9). Disillusioned by the rule of sinful men, people longed for the perfect justice of the divine rule. "With righteousness shall he judge the world, and the peoples with equity" (9).
As we have already seen, there finally arose a conviction that someday God would send a human ruler, perfectly conformed to His will, who would establish on earth the Kingdom of God and exercise sovereignty on God’s behalf. This ideal king of the future was called the Messiah or (in Greek) the Christ. Psalm 1 io, although not originally a Messianic psalm (it seems rather to refer to one of the reigning kings), was always understood in later times to be a prophecy of Messiah’s rule. Some of it is difficult to understand, but the opening verses are clear enough. The king will sit at God’s right hand, victoriously ruling (vv. 1, 2). This psalm was particularly appealing to New Testament readers because it combined two favorite symbols of the character of Christ: kingship and priesthood (4).
So Peter, in his sermon on Pentecost, uses part of this psalm to illustrate Jesus’ new relationship to men (Acts 2:32—36). Just a short time before, he had been—to all appearances—only a wandering prophet, brought at last to a miserable death through misunderstanding and treachery. But now, by raising him from the dead, God had proclaimed him as the long-expected Messiah, the King who should reign at God’s "right band" as ruler of creation. "Therefore," Peter says, "let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God bath made that same Jesus whom ye have crucified both Lord and Christ" (v. ~6). The search for the perfect king was ended. ft is well to realize that the word "Lord," used so frequently of Jesus in the New Testament, had for Gentile ears much the same connotations as the term "Christ" had for Jews. The word Christ, or Messiah, being Jewish, was almost meaningless to Gentiles, but they understood perfectly the word Lord, which was a common title for gods and emperors and implied the right to command obedience. One might almost translate the phrase in Acts as "both Lord of the Gentiles and Messiah of the Jews," meaning "Jesus is now the king of all."
It is sometimes suggested that the kingship of Jesus is an invention of the Church and that our Lord Himself made no such claims. It is impossible here to discuss either the reasons for such an opinion or the arguments against it since the subject is a highly technical one, but there can be no doubt that the Gospels in their present form unanimously represent him as accepting, or at least as not rejecting, the title of Messianic King (Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3). The claim is characteristically amplified and interpreted in the Fourth Gospel (John 18:35—37), where it is further made clear that Christ was seeking a moral and spiritual, not a grossly political, kind of kingship. His kingdom "is not of this world" (v. 36)— that is, it is not to be established by military force, but by the power of God and the loving obedience of men.
Our last selection (I Cor. 7:20—23) does not use the concept of kingship, but conveys the same thought by means of the metaphor of owner and slave. As Christ’s disciples we are no longer free to do what we will. We are his possession, "bought with a price" (v. 23)—the price of his death on the cross. It is impossible for Christians to obey him with only half their hearts. He is not merely our teacher; he is the Master and we are his servants; he is the King and we must be his faithful subjects.
XVIII. THE DEITY OF CHRIST
Exodus 29:42—46; Ezekiel 43:7—9; John 8:54—59; 14:1—11;
Greater even than the paradox that Christ our brother is also our King, is the paradox that he who was perfectly man was also the perfect manifestation of God. That the prophet of Nazareth is "Very God of Very God" is the final and crowning affirmation the New Testament has to make about Jesus.
The roots of this doctrine are to be found in the Old Testament and its conception of the God of Israel as a God who desires to dwell in the midst of His people The God of the Old Testament is often said to be a completely transcendent God, that is, one who is so high above the earth and so remote from men that He can have no contact with them. But this is only one side of the picture, for those parts of the Old Testament which are most insistent upon God’s transcendence are the parts which also insist most strongly upon His desire to live in intimate fellowship with His children.
This concern with God’s nearness took two different forms. First of all there was the priestly view which taught that God was already present in the temple in Jerusalem or in the tabernacle which was said to have been its prototype in the wilderness many generations before. This is the point of view of the first of our readings, Exodus 29:42—46, an excerpt from the rather tedious instructions given for the building of the tabernacle. The purpose of the building, and the ritual connected with it, is described as that of providing a suitable place where God might "dwell among the children of Israel and ... be their God" (v. 45). This was exactly the function which the temple fulfilled in the life of the people of the Old Testament. It was the place where He could be found and His Presence be available to those who loved Him. Many of the psalms testify to the almost mystical rapture with which the devout worshiper approached the place of God’s earthly dwelling (e.g., Ps. 84 and 42—43).
While the priestly writings speak of God’s presence in the past and the present, the prophets, profoundly conscious of man’s unworthiness, thought of the presence of God as being perfectly manifested only in the future. So Ezekiel (who tended to combine the priestly and prophetic points of view) sees the Glory of God, once driven from Jerusalem by the sins of its inhabitants, returning in the ideal future to take up its abode once more, and forever, in the midst of a purified people (Ezek. 43:1—9; 48:35).
Just as the Old Testament theme of the coming Messiah reaches its proper conclusion in the kingship of Christ, so the thought of the God who tabernacles among His people comes to fulfillment in the doctrine of the deity of Christ. This is one of the special emphases of the Fourth Gospel. The most explicit passage is part of a section we have studied in another connection—the prologue (John 1~ 1—14). It declares that the Word which was "with God" and "was God" (v. i) "became flesh and dwelt among us" (14). The peculiar Greek word here translated "dwelt" was deliberately chosen by the author to suggest to his readers God’s "dwelling" in the tabernacle in the wilderness. He wants them to understand that what was imperfectly foreshadowed in the ritual of ancient Israel has now been perfectly realized in the earthly life of Jesus.
Other passages in the gospel are quite as explicit in identifying the mind and presence of Christ with the mind and presence of God. One must of course remember that the discourses in this gospel are not always literal transcriptions of the words of Jesus, but in many cases represent devotional expansions of the actual words or, in some cases, simply the writer’s meditations set down in dialogue form. We have no reason, however, for doubting the essential validity of the judgments they contain.
In John 8:54—59 we have Jesus represented as saying that he had existed before Abraham (vv. 56, 58), the words acquiring special force from his use of the phrase "I am," the very words with which God Himself addressed Moses in Exodus 3:14. Again in John 14: 1—11 Jesus is pictured as claiming perfect unity, and even identity, with the Father. "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (v. g). "I am in the Father and the Father in mc" (11).
Using different language and imagery, Paul teaches the same doctrine in Colossians 1:12—20. This paragraph is an almost complete summary of the highest Christological teaching of the New Testament: Christ, who has achieved our redemption (vv. 13, 20) is the perfect man, the true image of God (15; cf. Gen. 1:26); he was God’s chief agent in creation (16), is the ground and principle of all existence (17) and possesses the divine fullness (19; cf. Col. 2:9). Here is the solid New Testament basis for the tremendous affirmations of the Nicene Creed.
Finally, turning from the world of theology to that of poetry, we notice that the Book of Revelation (1:12—18) opens with a vision of the Heavenly Christ in which words and images used in the Old Testament only of God the Father are unhesitatingly applied to Jesus (compare, for example, v. 14 with Dan. 7:9 and 15 with Ezek. 43:2; also v. 17 with Isa. 44:6). Daniel’s Son of Man, God’s representative (Dan. 7:13), has now himself become the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9). To the titles Prophet, Priest and King, the Christian must now add the solemn confession "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28).
XIX. SALVATION BY FAITH
Psalm 23; Isaiah 30:15—17; Habakkuk 2:1—4 Galatians 3:9—14;
Once we understand that Christ, by his life, death and resurrection, has accomplished the redemption of the human race, the question naturally arises: How can individuals obtain the benefit of this redemption? Obviously, God is not going to force salvation on those who have no desire for it and make no effort to obtain it. Is there anything we can do to show that we wish it? Is there any price we can pay or any prescribed deeds we must perform?
The Bible answers unequivocally that there is only one thing to do and that is to commit our lives, by a continuing act of love, faith and trust, into God’s hands and allow Him to use the merits of Christ to save us. This is what the Bible calls "justification by faith." "To be justified" means to be right with God and, in this sense, is really only another name for salvation. There is but one road by which we can arrive at the goal of salvation in Christ and that is the road of faith.
In our study of the Bible story we saw that faith is the basis of biblical religion, a fact which is symbolized by the narrative of the Covenant of Faith which God made with Abraham. "And he believed in the Lord," says Genesis 15:6, "and he counted it to him for righteousness." So, throughout the Old Testament, in spite of the later Covenant of Law, faith rather than obedience is the fundamental quality required of a man, not because obedience is unimportant, but because true faith always includes it. Obedience without faith is sterile; faith without obedience is impossible.
The three Old Testament passages we have included in our study are all expressions of this basic attitude. The first is one of the psalms (23)—typical of many others— in which the worshiper sings of his perfect trust in God. In vv. ‘—4 he is the sheep and God the shepherd; in 5—6 he is the guest and God his generous host. The mood of the poem is one of unreserved submission to God, not merely because He is powerful, but because He is trustworthy and good.
In the second extract (Isa. 30:15—17) we find the prophet Isaiah contrasting those who put their trust in material weapons, which in the long run will certainly fail (vv. 16f), with those who put their trust in the Holy One of Israel who can always be depended upon for victory and strength (15). It should be noted that the word "returning" means "repentance," so the attitude which the prophet demands is not one of pious relaxation but of concentrated moral effort. This is what was meant above when it was said that faith, in the biblical sense, always includes obedience.
The third Old Testament selection (Hab. 2:1—4) is one of the two crucial passages (Gen. 15:6 being the other) on which the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith is based. Habakkuk lived in the days when the New Babylonian (or Chaldean) Empire was ruthlessly extending its power by military conquest (see 1:6ff). The prophet who, like many others, found it difficult to understand how God could permit such things, tells us that God sent him a vision in which it was revealed that justice and truth would eventually prevail, however long the time might be (2:3), and that in the meantime the righteous man must live by his "faith," a word which in the Old Testament always includes the idea of "faithfulness."
Paul, in Galatians 3:9—14, makes this and the story of Abraham the great proof passages for his doctrine that man can "get right" with God only by exhibiting this kind of faith (note especially v. 11). The Pharisees of Paul’s day maintained that justification was a reward for obeying the Law of Moses. Paul’s argument against this, based upon the idea of the "curse," is difficult for us to follow and not really valid, but the true basis for his doctrine is a profound and unshakable conviction that men cannot really do anything to earn salvation. They can only accept, in faith, love and trust, the gift which God is willing to bestow.
The contrast between salvation by law and by faith is made even more strongly in Romans 3:19—28, where it is stated explicitly that the function of the Mosaic Law was not to save, but only to make men realize that they arc sinners who need to be saved (v. 20; note also 4:2f and Gal. 3:6).
Since there were some who misinterpreted Paul’s doctrine to mean that it was no longer necessary for men to live righteously or do good deeds for others, the author of the little epistle of James (2:14—26) felt it important to insist again that true faith is not simply an attitude of mind, but must find its proper expression in obedience and in acts of love and mercy. The great men of faith such as Abraham, he points out, were also men of great deeds. "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works" (v. 18).
This, of course, is only relatively true, since good works, in this sense, are not always possible and, in any case, it is the underlying motive of faith, rather than the good works themselves, which obtain salvation. There is no better picture of the way in which justification by faith actually operates than in the story of the penitent thief in Luke 23:39—43. The man was no longer able to do good deeds of any kind; the only possible recourse for him was to effect quickly a basic change in his attitude toward life, to empty his heart of cynicism and self-will by offering it wholly to Christ and trusting in his goodness. But this was enough, for Jesus immediately responded, "Today thou shalt be with me in paradise."
XX. THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Judges 14:1—6; Isaiah 63:10—14; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22—8:1; John 14:16—17; 16:13;
The greatest blessing which comes to those who have been redeemed by Christ and are justified by faith in his redeeming power is the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have previously seen how men of the Old Testament came to realize that no one could achieve holiness without this gift (Ps. 51:10f); how they had come to believe that in the future God would make His Spirit available to everyone (Joel 2:28f); and how that hope was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1—4). The New Testament regards the age of the Spirit as already present and sees the Christian—the new man of the new age—as one who lives in the joyful consciousness of possessing the Spirit.
Unfortunately a good many Christians no longer have a clear understanding of what it means to have God’s Spirit dwelling in them and no real comprehension of what the Spirit is. As with so many other concepts in our religion we need to go back to the Old Testament to see what the words originally meant. Our first selection (Judges 14: 1—6) takes us to a book which at first glance seems to have very little theology in it and to a strange story which bears all the marks of an ancient folk tale. Its hero is Samson, a kind of Hebrew Hercules or Paul Bunyan, remembered more for his deeds of strength than for his acts of piety. This particular story tells how he became enamored of a Philistine girl and went down from his hills to the plain to win her for his wife. On the way, it is said, a young lion met him and, when it roared, "the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid" (v. 6). The story seems about as remote from the thought-world of the New Testament as one could get and yet it tells us the first, and most essential, thing about the Holy Spirit, which is that He is the giver of strength. Later on the Hebrews would come to understand that this means moral and spiritual, rather than merely physical, strength, but in the Samson story the doctrine appears in its earliest form. Primitive as the story is, it shows that when the Bible speaks of God’s Spirit it means that power from God which makes men able to do what they could not do by their own unaided might.
In Isaiah 63:10—14 (some parts of which are difficult to understand) at least two more things are evident. One is that the Spirit gives not only strength but guidance, for the whole passage is concerned with God’s guidance of His people through the desert at the time of the Exodus. The other is that the Spirit is not simply an impersonal force, like electricity, but is something like a person, since it is said that men can grieve it (v. 10;: KJV "vex"; cf. Eph. 4:30).
The third passage (Wisdom 7:22—8:1) comes from the Apocrypha, the link between the Old and New Testaments. Here we find the Old Testament conception of Wisdom, which the New Testament sometimes connects with the work of Christ, used as a synonym for the Holy Spirit (as became common in later Christian theology). Combining ancient Hebrew ideas with the language of Greek philosophy, the author describes how Wisdom, or the Spirit, which is the very image of God Himself (vv. 25ff), pervades and sustains all things (22—24; 8:1) and "entering into holy souls . . . maketh them friends of God and prophets" (27).
According to the Fourth Gospel (John 14:16f), Jesus promised his disciples that after his departure he would send them "another Comforter," the Holy Spirit, who would continually instruct and guide them (16:13). The Spirit would no longer be the occasional possession of a few choice souls, but would be freely given to all those who live by faith in Christ.
St. Paul, of course, has more to say about the Christian life as a Spirit-filled life than any other New Testament writer. In Romans 8:5—17 he describes various aspects of it. It is, first of all, a life in which men are ruled by God’s Spirit rather than by their gross physical passions (vv. 5—9). (When Paul speaks of "flesh" and "body" he does not mean to suggest that the material body is evil in itself; it is evil, for him, only when it is allowed to usurp the place which properly belongs to the Spirit.) In the second place, life in the Spirit is a life in which immortality has already begun (10f); heaven is a present fact (10), not simply a future hope (11). And, finally, it is a life in which men live in the full and joyful assurance that God is their Father (14—17).
In I Corinthians 12:7—11, Paul is not concerned so much with the inner life of the Spirit-filled man as with its outward manifestations. All Christians possess the Spirit, he says, and all have some special gift which proves it. Such gifts are to be used for the benefit of the Christian community and not merely enjoyed privately and selfishly (v. 7). The particular gifts he mentions—healing, the power to perform miracles, the gift of tongues—are those most characteristic of the church to which he is writing. But there is an infinite variety of such gifts and all are valuable. In a passage we shall read later (I Cor. 13), St. Paul says that the greatest of all gifts is the power to love. The most important gifts of the Spirit are certainly the moral gifts, the capacity for faith, courage, goodness and love to a supernatural degree—that is, beyond the ability of ordinary unredeemed men. All Christians have, potentially, at least one of these gifts; our obligation is to use them—for the sake of Christ and the brethren.
XXI. THE HOLY TRINITY
Numbers 6:22—27; Ezekiel 1:1—5; 1:24—2:2,
We have not been ready until now to finish our study of the biblical doctrine of God, because the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit, which we studied in the previous chapter, is such an important element in it. Looking back over the long history of biblical revelation we can see that the knowledge of God was not given all at once, but gradually, as men became increasingly able to receive it. As a rough rule we may say that the Old Testament reveals to us God the Father (that is the Creator and Law-giver); the Gospels reveal to us God the Son (the Redeemer); and the rest of the New Testament, God the Holy Spirit (the Strengthener and Sanctifier). This revelation did not come in the form of sudden, unprepared-for, flashes of new knowledge, but through the growing understanding of biblical men as they reflected on the meaning of God’s activity among them.
When, finally, Christians received the full gift of the Holy Spirit, it became necessary to put into some intelligible form the whole biblical doctrine of God in order to answer such a question as this: "What is the true relationship of God the Father, as revealed in the Old Testament, to God the Son as revealed in the gospels and God the Hoiy Spirit as experienced in the life of Christians? Are there three Gods or only One?" The only possible answer was the one already given in the Old Testament:
"Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord thy God is one . . ." (Deut. 6:4). In this way the doctrine of the Holy Trinity—the paradoxical belief that God is both three and one—arose as the final summation of the biblical revelation of God. Later theologians would spend much time and many words in defining the nature of the Trinity; the Bible itself states merely the basic fact—the One God is Father and Son and Holy Ghost.
Naturally we should not expect to find any specific mention of the Trinity in the Old Testament, although the ancient Hebrews certainly knew something about the Holy Spirit and had intimations of the coming of the tabernacling God. Some Christian interpreters have tried to find more definite statements of Trinitarian doctrine in passages such as the sonorous priestly blessing in Numbers 6:22—27 with its threefold repetition of God’s name. But the most we can honestly claim for passages such as this (or Isa. 6:3) is that they show how natural it is to use the rhythm of three when speaking of God. They can, therefore, readily be used in Trinitarian Christian worship.
Much more important are the many Old Testament passages which emphasize the infinite mystery and complexity of the Godhead. None is perhaps more striking than the account of Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet (Ezek. 1:1—5; 1:24—2:2). The God he met upon the vast plain of Babylonia was One beyond all human comprehension. When the prophet speaks of God, he can find no adequate words to describe Him: he can only use such terms as "the appearance of the likeness of the glory" (v. 28). The God whom Ezekiel experienced was the Father—remote and mysterious—but also a spirit who entered into him (2:2). While Ezekiel had never heard of the doctrine of the Trinity, he would not have found it either strange or repugnant
It is really only in the opening scene of our Lord’s public life, the Baptism, that we catch our first clear glimpse of the triune God (Matt. 3:13—17). The voice of the Father claims the Son for His own (v. 17), and the Holy Spirit (16) provides the bond of unity between them. Even here there is no doctrine of the Trinity, but the threefold God is plainly present.
The nearest we come to an explicit Trinitarian formula in the New Testament is in the familiar blessing with which St. Paul concludes his second letter to the Corinthian church (II Cor. 13:14): "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all." Christ and the Father and the Spirit are spoken of in one breath, on one level; and the blessing which the prayer asks for is sought equally from all of them. (Note also Matt. 28: 19).
More typical is the passage from I Peter (1:1—12) where the writer speaks quite easily of the work of the Father, Son and Spirit as different parts of an indivisible process of redemption. It was the Father who purposed our redemption; the Son who accomplished it by the shedding of His blood; and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies those who are faithful and obedient (v. 2). Our salvation is the gift of the Father’s mercy and became effective through the resurrection of the Son (s). But the manner of the redeeming process had long been intimated by the Holy Spirit (10f; notice that He here is called the Spirit of Christ, as in the Nicene Creed which says that He "proceedeth from the Father and the Son"). And it is the Holy Spirit who still gives men grace to preach the Gospel (12). From passages such as this one sees how natural it was for New Testament writers to use Trinitarian language even though the doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere precisely formulated. To put the doctrine explicitly into words was the task of a later and more philosophical age.
The statement that the New Testament nowhere explicitly formulates a doctrine of the Trinity might seem to be contradicted by I John 5:7 in the King James Version. It has long been recognized, however, that this is a later addition to the book and so is omitted in all the Revised Versions. But, although we cannot treat it as a part of the Bible, we need have no hesitation in accepting it as an accurate statement of the biblical doctrine of God set forth in language provided by the later Church.
XXII. THE CHURCH
Genesis 13:14—18; Deuteronomy 7:6—11; Hosea 2:14—23;
There is no place in biblical religion for selfish individualism. Redemption comes to men through their membership in a redeemed and redeeming society, not through some special arrangement made directly between themselves and God. To say this is not to depreciate in any way the importance of individual faith and personal righteousness, but only to assert that, in the Bible, faith always leads men out of selfish isolation into the divine community and that righteousness always implies right relationships within a communal framework.
As we have already seen from our study of the Bible story, God chose from the beginning to redeem men by means of a family, a society, a nation—or, to use the language of later times, a Church. Looking back on the account of God’s dealings with Abraham, we see God promising that he shall be the father of a vast family (Gen.13:14—18) and elsewhere declaring that by means of it "shall all the families (or nations) of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3, 22:18). Although the meaning of this statement is not quite so clear in Hebrew as in English, it is certain that the greatest men of Israel, such as Second Isaiah (and the unknown author of Isaiah 10:24f) understood it to mean that it was God’s purpose to save mankind through the family of Abraham. Here we see one of the fundamental patterns of the Bible: God working in history to save men through the instrumentality of a special, chosen group.
At the next stage in the history of salvation, the group is conceived of more in terms of a nation than a family. Under the leadership of Moses, the loose association which previously existed among the tribes claiming descent from Abraham became an organized community living under common laws and held together by a common faith and common worship. This is the stage in the Church’s history represented by such passages as Deuteronomy 7:6—11:
"Thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God." The word "holy" here does not necessarily mean "morally good"; it means rather "consecrated to God’s service." The next two verses (7f) emphasize that God’s choice of Israel was not based upon any special merit on her part, but solely upon the inexplicable love and mercy of God. The concluding verses (9—11) warn that the continuance of God’s favor is dependent upon her willingness to walk in His ways.
The next chapter in the story is that of Israel’s final failure, in spite of her tremendous spiritual achievements, to finish the task for which God had chosen her. This was followed by God’s promise to create in the future a transformed community to bring His work to perfection. Seeing her with somewhat kindlier eyes than those of the prophets, we shall probably feel that the passing of the old national Israel was a necessary stage on the way to the universal Israel of God, but the prophets could see her history only in terms of failure and judgment. Most of them, however, could also look beyond the evil present and see God’s purpose ultimately being achieved by a renewed and purified people. This, for example, is the point of view in Hosea 2:14—23. God loves his people as a husband loves his wife and someday the affectionate relations of early days will be restored between them (vv. 14—20). To those who are no longer worthy to be called His people He will say again "Thou art my people," and to those from whom His justice was compelled to withhold mercy He will show mercy again.
I Peter 2:1—10 sees this promise at last fulfilled in the Christian Church (v. 10). Part of this passage (9) is also an echo of Exodus 19:5f, which we have read in another connection, and shows that the pattern of redemption through a redeemed and redeeming community is the same in the New Testament as in the Old. Although God’s Church is no longer limited to those who are physically descended from Abraham, the spiritual descendants of Abraham—those who have faith in Christ (Gal. 3:7)—still constitute "an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation," whose purpose is to declare to the world "the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his own marvelous light."
The same writer, in vv. 4f, uses another image for the Church—that of the Temple. The individual Christian is only a single stone in a great spiritual structure erected for the worship of God. This thought is developed further in Ephesians 2:19—22. Verse 19 emphasizes the continuity between the old national Israel and the new Israel built upon faith. There are not two churches, but one. What happened through the work of Christ was that the community of the old Israel was expanded to include the Gentiles (to whom the letter is addressed) so that they are now "fellow-citizens . . . of the household of God." Jews and Gentiles, in so far as they both have faith in Christ, are part of a great temple which provides a fit habitation for God the Holy Spirit. The foundation stones of the temple are the prophets of the Old Israel and the Apostles of the New, and Jesus Christ himself is the cornerstone.
The mention of a cornerstone inevitably calls to mind the familiar passage about the founding of the Church in Matthew 16:13—19. While the interpretation of the passage is still a subject of much debate, it is at least clear to everyone that the stone upon which the Church—the new Israel—is to be built cannot be merely Peter the man, but Peter as the first to declare boldly his faith in Christ (v. 16). The true cornerstone of the Church is not Peter, hut the faith which he expressed.
XXIII. THE MINISTRY
Deuteronomy 33:8--11; Numbers 25:10—13; Malachi 2:1—9;
Like any other society, the Church has its officers and ministers and both the Old and New Testaments testify that the ministry was not created by the human members of the society, but by God Himself. Although the form of the ministry, and to some extent its function, are different in the Old Israel and the New, the principle of its divine authority remains the same.
Our first selection is from one of the oldest poems of ancient Israel, called by tradition the Blessing of Moses. In the course of it each of the twelve tribes receives a blessing determined by its history and character. The one in which we are especially interested (Deut. 33:8—11) is that of Levi, the tribe which exercised the functions of the ministry in the Old Testament Church. Just as membership in Israel was a matter of birth rather than of choice, so the priesthood in the developed religion of Israel was a privilege conferred by birth on the members of a particular tribe. As a matter of fact the priesthood in the full sense (at least according to the so-called "priestly" document of the Pentateuch) could be exercised only by the members of one family within that tribe, the family of Aaron, while ordinary Levites were restricted to certain menial tasks.
The "blessing" begins, rather obscurely, with a reference to the mysterious Urim and Thummim, part of the sacred equipment of the priest, probably used for divination, and then speaks of some unknown test to which the tribe had been subjected in the past. Verse 9 says that the priest is to serve God with complete dedication, not allowing himself to be influenced by family ties. The most important passage is v. 10, which speaks of the two great functions of the priesthood: to teach the people God’s will and to lead in worship. These two functions remain constant throughout both the Testaments. The passage closes with a blessing on the Levites’ work (11).
In Numbers 25:10—13, the descendants of Aaron are singled out for the priesthood and promised the gift of an eternal covenant with God as a reward for their zeal in the service of sound morals and true religion.
Since a priest, in spite of his authority, is only a man, he is subject to the same temptations as other men; so it is not surprising that individual ministers often proved unworthy of their vocation and that at times the priesthood as a whole became corrupt. The prophets often speak of this, but none more eloquently than Malachi (2:1—9), whose denunciation of priestly sins gains added force from his obvious sympathy with the basic principle of priesthood. He recalls the covenant which God made with the ancestors of the tribe (vv. 4f) because of their goodness and pastoral effectiveness (6), and emphasizes again the importance of the teaching function of the priest (7). But the present generation has failed in its duty and must expect God’s curse rather than His blessing (1—3, 9).
The divine authority of the New Testament ministry is stated in the strongest possible terms in John 20: 19—23 which claims for the Christian minister a dignity parallel to that of Christ himself ("As my father hath sent me, even so send I you"), and gives him the right to make authoritative decisions in cases of conscience which are brought before him (v. 23; cf. Matt. 18: 18). To make it possible for him to carry such a heavy weight of responsibility, he is given a special endowment of the Holy Spirit (22). While no special mention is made here of the apostles’ right to transmit their authority to others, the nature of the Church as a continuing institution made it necessary for them to do so. At least two New Testament passages refer to the ordination of younger men by the laying on of hands (I Tim. 4:14 and II Tim. 1:6).
The first seven chapters of II Corinthians, which are largely taken up with St. Paul’s discussion of his own ministry, show the tremendous authority which the apostle—with the utmost personal humility—claimed for himself. After a moving reference to Paul’s pastoral work in the Corinthian church, the first of the two passages Selected here (3: 1—6) tells of the grace which God gave him to bear the difficult responsibilities of his office as "minister of the new covenant" (vv. 4—6). In the second (5:18—20), Paul describes his work as a "ministry of reconciliation" between men and God, and calls himself and other ministers of the Church the "ambassadors" of Christ (20). The underlying conception, as in John 20:21, is that of one who is sent by a king or another powerful person to act in his name and on his behalf.
From Titus 1:5—9, we see that it was considered important that authorized ministers should be appointed in every church. But we also see, from the list of qualifications, that ministers of the New Covenant, like those of the Old, are weak, fallible human beings who are sometimes no better than they should be in spite of the dignity of their office. It would surely not have been necessary to give a list of such rather prosaic and self-evident requirements, if there had not been some who failed in precisely these ways. God can use even the most unpromising materials to do His work, but the Church, like the individual minister himself, must be constantly on guard to keep the material as fine and pure as is humanly possible. The Bible shows that the ministry is an office of great dignity and great danger—the dignity is from God, the danger from man.
XXIV. THE SACRAMENTS
Genesis 17:1—2, 9—14; Exodus 12:21—28; Matthew 28:16—20;
The Bible tells us that the Old Israel and the New both had definite ceremonial acts which served to bind the community together and continually remind it of its dependence on God’s grace. In the later Christian Church these acts, believed to have been ordained by God himself, came to have the name of "sacraments." For both the Old and New Israel the most important of them were a ceremony of initiation and a regularly recurring family meal.
By the ceremony of initiation the new member was effectively incorporated into the life of the Israel of God just as a new branch can be effectively grafted into a tree. In the family meal the community did not merely remember that it had once been redeemed, but underwent again the experience of redemption and once more received the benefits of it. When the Passover was celebrated each year, Israel passed once again through the waters of the Red Sea; and, when Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper, they stood again at the foot of the Cross and by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood received the benefits of his Death and Passion.
The first of our readings (Gen. 17:1—2, 9—14) contains the account of the institution of circumcision as the initiatory rite in ancient Israel. While, strictly speaking, one was made a member of the Israelite community by being born into an Israelite family rather than by being circumcized, yet one could not remain a member without receiving upon his body the sign of God’s covenant (v. 14), so there is a real analogy if not a precise parallel between this rite and Christian baptism. It was evidence of a special relationship to God and a reminder of all the obligations which that special relationship imposed upon those who enjoyed it. Like all such marks of particular favor, it was easily abused and we learn from the New Testament that it often became an occasion for selfish pride rather than a stimulus to grateful humility. Because of this and because circumcision had so long been associated with a purely national religious community, it was abolished in the New Israel and a new initiatory rite took its place (Col. 2:11f).
Exodus 12:21—28 tells how, in the time of Moses, the religious life of Israel was strengthened by the establishment of a commemorative feast—the Passover—to remind the people that during the terrible events which provided the Exodus God had spared ("passed over," v. 27) their homes, bringing them safely out of Egypt and settling them in the Promised Land. The first twenty verses of the chapter give explicit rules for celebrating the feast. The ceremony was divided into two principal stages: the slaying of the lamb, and the banquet which followed. After the Exodus 12:21—28 tells how, in the time of Moses, the religious life of Israel was strengthened by the establishment of a commemorative feast—the Passover—to remind the people that during the terrible events which preceded Crucifixion, which took place at the Passover season, Christians could hardly avoid connecting the death of Christ with the killing of the lamb and seeing in his sacrifice the fulfillment of all the Passover signified (I Cor. 5:7 f).
It was firmly fixed in the tradition of the early Church that Jesus Himself instituted the sacrament of baptism and commanded his disciples to administer it to all who were receptive to their preaching (Matt. 28: 16—20). Significantly, the initiatory rite of the New Covenant, by its use of water, suggests the need for moral cleansing and renewal and is not, like circumcision, merely a mark stamped on the body.
From Acts 8:35—38, we can see how closely baptism was connected with the preaching of the Gospel and how it was associated from the beginning, just as today, with a profession of faith in Christ and his redeeming work.
The great sacrament, which week by week binds together the members of the New Israel and unites them with Christ and his saving death, is the Lord’s Supper. Luke 22:14—20 contains one of the stories of its institution. While there are small differences in the various accounts, they agree in telling how Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread, identified the bread and wine with his Body and Blood (that is, himself) and then distributed them to his disciples. Luke records also the command to "do this," that is, to repeat what he did, as an effective act of recollection and memorial (v. 19).
The most extensive account we have of a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the early Church is in I Corinthians 1 1:17—34. Since the purpose of Paul’s letter was to correct certain abuses in the Corinthian Church, we find in it that curious mingling of the divine and human which has necessarily marked the life of the Church in every age. On the one hand, there is the wonder and solemnity of the sacrament, in which the mystery of Calvary is continually renewed (v. 26) and the Body and Blood of the Lord are truly received (27); on the other hand, the sinfulness and selfishness of men, which intrude even into the most sacred moments of the Church’s life (18—22). For St. Paul—as for us—the Lord’s Supper is not only an act of gratitude and a means of grace, but must be made also an occasion for self-examination and judgment (28—32).
XXV. LIFE AFTER DEATH
Job 10:20—22; 14:7—15; Daniel 12:1—3;
Strange as it may seem, the ancient Hebrews, until the very end of the Old Testament period, had no hope of a happy life after death. For early Old Testament man, death was no problem; it was merely the natural end of life. Man was born from the dust and to the dust he must return (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 3:20). The Hebrew emphasis was upon the group rather than the individual and, so long as the group continued, the death of its individual members seemed of small importance. The only immortality the individual could hope for was the continuance of his family, and hence of his "name," after him.
But, although Old Testament man did not hope for a happy afterlife, he could not quite conceive of the complete extinction of conscious existence--In Hebrew thought the dead retained a faint, shadowy consciousness even in Sheol, the dark underworld to which they all had gone. Under certain conditions they might even be restored temporarily to a state in which they could speak and be spoken to (like Samuel, in I Samuel 28:3—19). But life in Sheol was not immortality in our sense of the term; it was either a matter of indifference or an object of superstitious terror. One of the best descriptions of it is found in our first selection, Job 10:20—22.
Toward the end of the Old Testament period men became more reflective. They began to ask questions rather than simply accept the old primitive beliefs which had been handed down to them. Then death became a problem, particularly in view of the obvious inequities of life in the present world. They began to see that many of the insoluble questions which life presented would be answered if only God would use His sovereign power to give men a new life beyond the grave. This is the stage of thought represented by Job 14:7—15. The author points out that a tree, although cut down, can be expected to live again (vv. 7—9). This is not true of man (l0—12), but what if it were! (13—15).
The author of Job never arrived at belief in eternal life (not even in 19:25f; see the commentaries). It was not until the time of the Maccabean persecutions, of which we read in the Apocryphal Books of Maccabees, when so many thousands of loyal Jews were slaughtered for their devotion to God and religion, that the thought of full, self-conscious existence after death came to seem the only possible way to reconcile belief in God’s power and justice with the appalling injustices of life in the present, evil world. This is the stage represented by Daniel 12:1—3, written at this period, which promises resurrection of the righteous dead to "everlasting life" and the wicked dead to "everlasting punishment."
In the period between the Testaments this became a fixed article of belief for many Jews (particularly the Pharisees), as we see from Wisdom 3:1—8, probably the most exquisite passage ever written on the subject of human immortality.
But, though there were many Jews who accepted this belief, there were others who did not. The Sadducees of New Testament times categorically rejected it. In Matthew 22:23—33 we find them trying to trap Jesus by asking what seemed an unanswerable question about the conditions of life beyond the grave. Suppose a woman (in accordance with the law of Deut. 25:5ff) had seven successive husbands, who would be her husband in the future life? The question was a contemptuous one, intended to make Jesus look ridiculous, but he answered it seriously, pointing out that conditions in the other world, where there is no need to continue the species by procreation, must necessarily be quite different from the conditions of this world (vv. 29f). He then went on to give a new interpretation of an old text: If God said "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" must not this mean that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive? The method which Jesus used for interpreting the scriptures being one which the Sadducees themselves accepted, the question was a difficult one for them to answer.
However many Jews might accept the idea of life after death, it still remained only a pious conjecture, not a biblical doctrine, for it was not founded on any definite, historical, revealing act of God. It was still necessary for God, by His mighty act, to stamp the belief as true. This was—at least in part—the significance of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus showed the power of God to raise the dead and became himself the visible "first-fruits of them that slept" (I Cor. 15:20). It is important to notice that the emphasis in the Bible is not just on "immortality"—that is some natural privilege, inherent in man, but on "resurrection"—that is the power of God. He who created life in the beginning is able to re-create it and sustain it anew.
St. Paul, in I Corinthians 15:35—58, gives the classical statement of the biblical doctrine of the afterlife. The body must have its part in it, for the body is good, and an inseparable part of man. But it will not be the same body we know now, just as the plant which rises from the ground is not the same as the seed which was originally buried beneath it (vv. 36—38). The immortal body will be incorruptible, strong and controlled by the Spirit (42—44). The keynote of the chapter is "victory’ ‘—Christ’s victory which is also ours (55—57). But it is not a victory which leads men merely to a self-satisfied assurance of their own immortality; rather it inspires in them a heroic determination to do God’s work with all their power (58).
XXVI. THE GOAL—FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD
Job 38:1—7; 42:1—6; Psalm 27; John 15:1—11;
The Bible, as we have seen, teaches a doctrine of life after death, but it does not make everlasting life itself the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. The real goal is not the indefinite prolongation of human existence, but rather its transformation—already in this world—through the attainment of fellowship with God. Human life as most men live it is not worth being extended into eternity. Until men have learned to know God and live with Him in this world the idea of living with Him eternally in another can hardly have much meaning.
It is perhaps largely for this reason that the ancient Hebrews had no doctrine of eternal life until late in the Old Testament period. Israel had first of all to learn the full meaning of life with God in the present world. Then, when the time came, the idea of eternal life arose as a natural, and almost inevitable consequence. But even then the essential content of eternal life never became merely the survival of personal identity; for biblical man eternal life means a life lived in such firm fellowship with God that even death cannot destroy it.
The author of the Book of Job never arrived at the idea of eternal life beyond the grave, but he did discover that the greatest good in life is the assurance of God’s nearness. Most of his great book is occupied by a long dialogue in which Job and his friends discuss the goodness and justice of God. All of them agree that God is all-powerful; but is He also all good? Job is pictured as a man who has lost everything that seems to make life worth living—property, family and physical health. He cannot understand why these things should have happened, for he had always been a good, devout man who had done nothing to make such a fate seem just. So he rails bitterly at God in language which stops barely short of blasphemy, and his friends are unable to comfort him.
The argument is too long to be summarized here, but toward the close of the book it is increasingly evident that Job is beginning to understand that his greatest disaster was not the loss of property and health, but the loss of a sense of companionship with God. In the closing chapters God suddenly appears in person (38:1—7) and Job’s complaints and bitter questionings come promptly to an end (42:1—6). He realized that all his life he had known of God only by hearsay; now, for the first time, he knows Him in his own experience (v. 5). Although the book’s final paragraph tells of the restoration of its hero’s fortunes, this is really irrelevant, for Job has already learned that the highest good in human existence is not health or wealth, but the personal knowledge of God (the same thought appears also in Ps. 73:25—28).
While the Book of Job is the dramatic story of one man’s discovery of God, Psalm 27 is the lyrical outpouring of another man who had been long accustomed to live in the daily consciousness of God’s presence. His one desire was to have the vision of God his whole life through (v. 4); his basic attitude was to "wait for the Lord" (14)— to listen for His voice and to respond in love and obedience.
For Christians the goal of living in fellowship with God is much easier than for the men of the Old Testament. Christ has broken the power of sin and evil, the things which separate men from God, and has made it possible for all men to appropriate the fruits of his victory for themselves. And Christ himself, as both God and marl, provides the natural meeting place for God and man. So, in John 15:1—11, he is described as the vine through which the divine life flows to his disciples, who are the branches. The chapter repeatedly makes use of the word "abide," for the relationship between Christ and his followers must be a permanent one, not just to be felt in rare mystical experiences but the profound reality underlying every thought and deed on every common occasion. It is not a relation based on feeling alone, but on a love which finds its natural expression in obedience (v. 10). And the end of it is a fullness of joy which cannot be known in any other way (11).
The partial experience of God’s presence which one may have now is only the first step in an expanding life with Him (I John 3:1—3). We can know Him now as a child knows its father, but the future contains the promise of a relationship so close that no human words can describe it (v. 2). "We shall see him as he is." It is important to notice that, in biblical thought, the goal is not to be attained merely by some kind of formal mystical exercises, however valuable they may be; soundness of the moral life is even more important. Men must struggle constantly to purify themselves from evil, for God Himself is pure and will not walk in fellowship with those who are impure (3). Mysticism without morality is abhorrent to the biblical mind.
Finally, we notice that the biblical idea of fellowship with God is not a selfish one. Unlike some of the ancient religions of the orient, the religion of the Bible does not picture the goal of life as living in solitude with God. We shall return to this theme later, but it would be improper to conclude our present study without at least taking note of the fact, so strongly emphasized in I John 3:16f, 23f and 4:12, that fellowship with God can be found only by those who walk in fellowship with other men. God’s love for us demands love for each other; our only assurance that God "abides" in us is the fact of our own sincere and abiding love for the brethren (4:12).