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The Power Of Basics Duncan Heaster  
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God In Covenant Relationship

We need to reflect also what it means for God to be in covenant relationship. God has allowed Himself to be bound, as any party is in some way bound once they enter such a relationship. In a sense, God gives up some freedom; for commitment and promise within a relationship involves some restrictions upon freedom. This ties in to the issues of how God appears at times to limit His power, His knowledge [cp. “surely they will reverence my son”], even His presence. God could exercise His sovereign and ultimate power, knowledge, foreknowledge etc., but the phenomena of His pain, hurt, surprise etc. all indicate that to some extent He chooses to limit them. To pass off these many descriptions of God’s feelings as mere anthropomorphisms seems to me to miss the essential point- for even if they are not to be read dead literally, even if they are anthropomorphisms, what would be the point of them if they do not to some extent reflect the actual feelings and experience of God?

Relationships which have integrity involve some sharing of power. One party to the relationship will not overly dominate the other one, especially by the exercise of power and ‘physical’ advantage. And this giving up of legitimate power is, it seems to me, what God has done with those with whom He is in covenant relationship. Thus God can state His purpose, e.g. concerning the destruction of Israel and making of Moses a greater nation- but because He ‘shared power’ with Moses, Moses was able to reason with God and actually get Him to change that stated purpose. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He passed between the sacrificial victims in the form of a torch of fire (Gen. 15:17). According to the research of E.A. Speiser, it was the weaker of the two contracting parties that passed between the dead animals, in order to show that they wished to die as those animals had done if they broke the covenant (3). Now all this exemplifies what we have been saying here- that by entering into covenant relationship, God was allowing Himself to be weak; although He cannot die by nature, He was willing to envisage Himself dying, such was His desire to demonstrate to us [for we too have had the Abrahamic promise made to us] how sure and certain His covenant is. Remember how the book of Hosea portrays the marriage of a passionate prophet and a promiscuous prostitute. There was a huge inequality and imbalance in the relationship- the whore and the holy man, the prostitute and the prophet, were bound to have problems of balance and inequality in coming together as a successful married couple. But this was all intend to reveal the covenant relationship between God and the faithless Israel whom He so deeply loved. And today with us, His love and the fickleness of human response remains the same tragedy. We complain to ourselves of the pain of our broken relationships [which, it seems to me, is the root of so much of our hurt]- and yet the more we enter into the pain of God as portrayed in the God / Israel, Hosea / Gomer relationship, we ought to end up asking ourselves: "Is my pain deeper, than the pain in God's heart?". God is the God of colossal forgiveness; and yet forgiveness can only be granted, it's only an item, a possibility, for One sensitive enough to feel the pain of having been wronged.

In the same way as God wishes us to enter fully into our covenant relationship with Him, He has very fully entered into the relationship with us. Ultimately He showed this in His even fuller entry into and understanding of human experience through the life and death of His Son, in whom He was supremely manifested. But even in the Old Testament, there are many examples of how God entered so painfully fully into the covenant relationship with His people.

God And Time

It’s often been commented that God is beyond or even outside of our kind of time. God pre this present creation may have been like that, and He of course has the capacity and possibility to be like that. But it seems to me that particularly in connection with those with whom He is in relationship, He chooses to not exercise that possibility. Instead, God Almighty throws Himself into our experience, by limiting Himself to our kind of time- with all the suspense, hope, excitement, joy, disappointment which this involves. Time and again we read of how God says He is “shaping evil against you and devising a plan” against His enemies (Jer. 18:11; Jer. 26:3; Jer. 49:20,30; Jer. 50:45; Mic. 2:3; 4:12). For the faithful, He says that He is making plans for them for good and not for evil, “to give you a future” (Jer. 29:11). The Lord Jesus had this sort of thing in mind when He spoke of how the Kingdom will have been being prepared for the faithful from the beginning of the world (Mt. 25:34; Mt. 20:23). John the Baptist was to “prepare” the way for the Lord’s coming- evidently a process- in reflection of how God had been working a long time to “prepare” [same Greek word] the way for His Son’s coming (Lk. 1:76; Lk. 2:31; Lk. 3:4). We likewise, in our preaching work in these last days, are working in tandem and in step with God. The idea of God 'preparing' implies that there is therefore a gap between the plan being made, and it being executed- hence “The Lord has both planned and done what He spoke concerning the inhabitants of Babylon” (Jer. 51:12; Jer. 4:28; Lam. 2:17; Is. 22:11; Is. 37:26; Zech. 1:6; Zech. 8:14).

This ‘gap’ is significant when we come to consider the idea of God’s ‘repentance’ or change of mind- stating something is going to happen, but then changing His mind because of human behaviour during the ‘time gap’ between the statement and its’ execution. All we can say is that past, present and future are meaningful and significant for God. We read of God ‘remembering’ His covenant (Ex. 2:24; Lev. 26:42; Jer. 14:10,21); and of God ‘not remembering’ of forgetting the sins of His covenant people (Is. 43:25; Jer. 31:34). If words mean anything, this surely implies that sins which God once remembered, He then stops remembering and ‘forgets’. Such language seems on one hand inappropriate to the God who by nature doesn’t have to forget and can recall all things. But my point is, that He has willingly entered into the meaning of time which is experienced by those with whom He is in covenant relationship. He allows Himself to genuinely feel it like it is. The 'gap' between God stating His plan and its actual fulfillment is the opportunity for men and women to plead with Him, as Moses did, as Abraham did regarding Sodom (Gen. 18:17-22), as so many have done... and He is most definitely open to human persuasion. Because He is in covenant with us, and this relationship involves a sharing of power, a respect and 'hearing' of each other. The very use of the terms 'remembering' and 'forgetting' suggest God is so fully willing to enter into our kind of time; for a Being cannot forget and remember simultaneously, an element of time is involved. Likewise at times we read of God being slow to anger (Ex. 34:6), at others, of Him not restraining His anger, or restraining it (Ps. 78:38; Is. 48:9; Lam. 2:8; Ez. 20:22), and holding His peace (Is. 57:11; Ps. 50:21), and being provoked to anger by the bad behaviour of His covenant people (Dt. 32:21; Ps. 78:58; Is. 65:3; Jer. 8:19). God clearly has emotions of a kind which are not unrelated to the emotions we experience, as beings made in His image. But those emotions involve a time factor in order to be emotions. We read of the anger of God "for a moment" (Ps. 30:5; Is. 54:7,8), and of His wrath coming and going, leaving Him "calm" and no longer angry (Ez. 16:42). When we sin, we provoke God to anger- i.e. at a point in time, God sees our sin, and becomes angry. This is attested many times in Scripture. But it's meaningless if God is somehow outside of our time and emotions.

What Might Have Been

Although God presents Himself to us as having a memory which functions not unlike our memories, who are made in His image, there is with God the capacity for total recall of history; and hence His pain is far greater than ours, not least because He knows, with all the power of infinite analysis of possibilities, 'what might have been'. And it is the 'what might have been' syndrome which is one of the greatest sources of our emotional pain. His pain and hurt is therefore and thereby so much greater than ours. Hence the pain, the pain which comes from understanding and the potential of total recall, behind Jer. 2:2: "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness". God recalls how "When Israel was a child... the more I called them, the more they went from me... yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk" (Hos. 11). His love, like any parent, is simply such that He can't let go of the memories. He saw how they could have been sons which made Him proud, a faithful wife: "I thought how I would set you among my sons... I thought you would call me, My Father... surely as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel" (Jer. 3:19,20). God's knowledge of possible futures is brought out several times in Jeremiah. He considered how even if Coniah were the signet upon His right hand, yet He would still have to uproot Israel (Jer. 22:24). He fantasized about how if the prophets had been faithful and if Israel had heard them, then Israel would have repented (Jer. 23:22). Because of His capacity to imagine, to see possible futures to some extent, God feels rejected both by His children and by His wife at the same time. Hence the poignancy behind His words in places like Is. 48:18: "O that you had hearkened to my commandments!", "Oh that they would have a mind such as this always" (Dt. 5:29), "O Israel, if you would but listen to me" (Ps. 81:8,13). It's as if He could see the potentially happy future which they could've had stretching out before Him. We can better understand the sadness with which God had to tell Hophni and Phinehas: "I thought this, that your house, and the house of your father, would eternally serve Me: But now, the Lord, says, Be it far from Me; for them that honour Me I will honour, and they that despise Me shall be despised" (1 Sam. 2:30). Note how God opened His heart to those who had so hurt Him, at the very time they had hurt Him- just as Paul did to Corinth. Such sharing of dashed hopes with those who have dashed them seems to be part of what condemnation is all about; and, given Paul's doing this to the Corinthians, it is perhaps even a useful tool for we who cannot condemn others, but may need to walk separately from them in this life.

God's experience with the Jews in exile was a classic example. He set them up with the possibility to return to Judah, to establish there a Messianic-style Kingdom, giving them the commands in Ez. 40-47 for a glorious temple; but most of them preferred the soft life in Babylon, and those who did return proved small minded, selfish and disinterested in the vision of God's glory. In this context, Isaiah ends his restoration prophecies on a tragic note from God: "I was ready to be sought... I was ready to be found" (Is. 65:1) by the unspiritual exiles in Babylon. But Israel would not. He pictures Himself standing there crying "Here am I, here am I!"- to be rejected by a people more interested in climbing the endless economic and social ladder in Babylon and Persia.

The pain that arises from knowing what might have been is so poignantly brought out by the grief of Martha and Mary over their brother's death- they knew that if Jesus had have been there, Lazarus wouldn't have died (Jn. 11:21,32). Jesus as God's Son had something of this ability to see what might have been- hence He could state with absolute confidence that if Gentile Tyre and Sidon had witnessed His miracles, they would've repented in sackcloth and ashes (Lk. 10:13). He lamented with pain over the fact that things would have been so much better for Jerusalem if she had only known / apprehended the things which would bring her ultimate peace (Lk. 19:42). The Lord Jesus was deeply pained at what might have been, if the things of God's Kingdom had not remained willfully hidden from Israel's perception. His pain was because of realizing what might have been. In this He was directly reflecting the mind of His Father, who had previously lamented over Jerusalem: "O that you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river" (Is. 48:18).

God in fact wants us to be independent, as good parents wish for their children; He wants us to serve Him on our initiative and not merely obey a set of legal codes. Thus He carries us an eagle teaching its young to fly, pushing them out of the nest, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them (Ex. 19:4; Ps. 17:8; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4). The pushing out of the nest in Israel's context refers to their leaving Egypt (cp. baptism for us); and throughout the wilderness journey the Father was teaching them to fly independently. But does God know in advance every failure we will commit? It seems to me that He doesn't, for in our efforts to 'learn to fly', we have freewill- the whole enterprise could go this way, or that, or the other.

Does God Limit His Foreknowledge?

This leads in to the implications that God doesn't actually know for sure how His people will respond to His word. The limitation of God is shown by how He speaks about prayer: "The Lord's... ear [is not] dull, that it cannot hear... your sins have his His face from you so that He will not hear" (Is. 59:1,2). In this sense God limits His possibilities. He can see all things, and yet in the time of Israel's apostacy He hides His face from them (Mic. 3:4 cp. Dt. 32:19,20). The Hebrew word ulay, 'perhaps', is significant in this connection. "Perhaps they will understand", God says, in reflection upon Ezekiel's preaching ministry to God's people (Ez. 12:1-3). Of Jeremiah's prophetic work, God likewise comments: "It may be [Heb. ulay] they will listen" (Jer. 26:2,3; Jer. 36:3,7; Jer. 51:8; Is. 47:12). This uncertainty of God as to how His people will respond to His word reflects the degree to which He has accommodated Himself to our kind of time. It has huge implications for us, too. With what eagerness must God Almighty look upon us as we sit down to read His word daily! 'Are they going to listen? How are they going to respond?'.

It's this which gives our relationship with God Almighty the dynamism and excitement and importance which is beyond us to paint in words. One has to experience it. It's all this which makes Bible reading, study and response to it so thrilling. This feature of our God enables Him to legitimately express a sense of hopefulness in His people, and therefore also, all the pain of disappointment and dashed hopes and expectations. Take Jer. 3:7,19: "I thought 'After she has done all this she will return to me'; but she did not return. I thought how I would set you among my sons and give you a pleasant land... And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me [But] as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel". So on one hand, God can know the future. But it seems to me that so often, He chooses not to, and like us, faces futures which are in some sense unknown. Perhaps this explains God's apparent experimentation to find Adam a "helpmeet" in Gen. 2. The very thought that we can break the heart of God with disappointment surely motivates us to serve Him and be faithful and responsive to His word. Think of God's bitter disappointment with Israel when He invites Moses into the mount as their representative, in order to enter into further covenant with them. Down below, they started worshipping other gods. When God says to Moses "Leave me alone..." (Ex. 32:10), He may well refer to the desire for isolation / solitude which a person in extreme grief desires. And of course we are aware of how Moses reasons with God, and asks God to consider His own future and how it might turn out, and how that can be avoided. And God takes Moses seriously, with integrity, and appears to even acquiesce to his arguments. It's amazing. This God is our God.

We have another example in Samuel- God tells Samuel of His rejection of Saul, and Samuel cries to Him all night. I think the implication is that Samuel was pleading with God to consider another future with Saul (1 Sam. 15:11,35; 16:1). Amos 7:1-6 is another case- God reveals His intention regarding Israel, but then Amos makes a case against this and is heard. In fact, these and other examples suggest that this is almost a pattern with God- to devise His purpose, and then in the 'gap' until its fulfillment, be open to the persuasion of His covenant people to change or amend those plans. This could be what Am. 3:7 is speaking of: "Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets". It's as if He reveals His plans to them so that they can then comment upon them in prayer. And maybe this is why God tells Jeremiah not to pray to Him to change His stated plans against Israel (Jer. 7:16 cp. Jer. 11:14; 14:11; 15:1), and why He asks Moses to 'leave Me alone' and not try to persuade Him to change His mind (Ex. 32:10). He didn't want, in these cases, His stated plans to be interrupted by the appeals of His people to change them. Interestingly, in both these examples, Moses and Jeremiah know God well enough, the relationship is intimate enough, for them to still speak with Him- and change His mind. Those who've prayed to God in cases of terminal illness [and countless other situations] will have sensed this 'battle', this 'struggle' almost, between God and His friends, His covenant people, and the element of 'persuasion' which there is going on both ways in the dialogue between God and ourselves. The simple fact that God really can change- there are over 40 references to His 'repentance' in Scripture- is vital to understand- for this is the basis of the prayer that changes things, that as it were wrestles with God.

And all this opens another window on the self-questioning which is associated with God- e.g. "What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?" (Hos. 6:4; Hos. 11:8); or "How can I pardon you? Shall I not punish them for these things?" (Jer. 5:7,9,29; Jer. 9:7,9). Viewed from the understanding I've been exploring, such passages cease to be purely rhetorical questions- they come to reflect the actual and real self-questioning of Almighty God, reflective as it is of the turbulence of emotion which is part and parcel of being in a relationship which has gone painfully wrong. There even seems at times a difficulty on God's part to understand why the people He had loved could hate Him so much: "Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness? Why then do my people say, We will no more come to thee?" (Jer. 2:31); "Why then has this people turned away?" (Jer. 8:5); "Why have they provoked me to anger?" (Jer. 8:19; Jer. 2:14; Jer. 30:6; Is. 5:4; Is. 50:2). "What more could I have done for my vineyard... why did it yield wild grapes?" (Is. 5:1-7). This is so much the anguished cry of bewildered middle age parents as they reflect upon a wayward child. This Divine struggle to understand reflects the extraordinary depth of His love for them; and it warns us in chilling terms as to the pain we can cause God if we spurn His amazing love. Jer. 8:4-7 records God reflecting that even the stork 'returns' predictably; but His people have inexplicably not returned to Him. This reveals a powerful thing- that our rejection of God's love is inexplicable even to God Himself. And yet mankind persists in this utter madness. For all our education, business sense, scientific knowledge- we are revealed as inexplicably foolish in rejecting God's love and not 'returning' [repenting] to Him.

Equipped with this understanding, a new window opens upon the "Woe...!" passages in the prophets. The Hebrew word doesn't really imply 'Woe to you, you'd better watch out for what's coming on you!'; rather is it an expression used to express the pain of the speaker over a broken relationship, e.g. at a funeral. And yet the pain of God leads Him to hope, even desperate hope; and again that hope is expressed and felt in terms which are relative to our kind of time. Hence His many questions relating to 'How long?': "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe me?" (Num. 14:11,27); "How long will it be till they are pure?" (Hos. 8:5; Jer. 4:14; 13:27). These aren't merely rhetorical questions. There's an element of literality about God's question- He doesn't know how long it will be, He can only imagine and hope- for Israel has free will, and will not turn to Him just when He says so. For He is in covenant relationship with them, He loves them, and as we've emphasized, that must involve each party allowing the other to function independently and to have their own time and free choice for returning. These questions, and other similar statements from God, are almost God's probing of possible paths into the future- the future which He could, of course, choose to know, but it seems He chooses not to fully know.

All the above indicates that God has allowed Himself to be made vulnerable. Lev. 5:15,16 records: "If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance in the holy things of the Lord... he shall make amends for the harm that he has done in the holy things". I find this wonderful; a sin of ignorance, an unintentional mishandling of Divine things, causes "harm"- to the sensitive soul of God Himself. A French proverb says that to understand all (as God does) is to forgive all; but it also means to be hurt by all so much the more. Just as little children assume their parents are insensitive and mere rocks of strength and provision, so we can fail to appreciate our Heavenly Father's sensitivity. Love, promises, covenant relationship, feeling for others, revealing yourself to the object of your love- this is all part of what it means for this sensitive God to enter covenant relationship with us. The vulnerability and sensitivity of God is reflected in the way that He is concerned that His covenant people, His wife, who bears His Name, might profane His Name (Lev. 19:12; Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11). His repeated concern that His Name be taken in vain doesn't simply refer to the casual use of the word "God" as an expression of exasperation. God is concerned about His people taking His Name upon themselves (Num. 6:27) in vain- i.e., marrying Him, entering covenant relationship with Him, taking on His Name- but not being serious about that relationship, taking it on as a vain thing, like a woman who casually marries a man who loves her at the very core of his being, when for her, it's just a casual thing and she lives a profligate and adulterous life as his wife. When God revealed His Name to His people, opening up the very essence of His character to them, He was making Himself vulnerable. We reveal ourselves intimately to another because we wish for them to make a response to us, to love us for what we revealed to them. God revealed Himself to Israel, He sought for intimacy in the covenant relationship, and therefore was and is all the more hurt when His people turn away from Him, after having revealed to them all the wonders of His word (Hos. 8:12). God revealed Himself to Israel alone, in all the detail of His law and prophets (Am. 3:2). And they didn't want Him. Hence His very deep hurt; and also, His excited joy that we grasp that same word with eager minds and seek to love, understand and serve Him faithfully to the end. Given the rejection experienced by God, and the genuine and very real nature of His emotional response to it, it's natural that He would earnestly seek another relationship- and this is just the huge emotional energy He puts into searching for His new bride. He so wants intimacy, a relationship of meaning and mutuality. In our efforts to help each other perceive that, in our sharing of His word with the world and with other believers, in our efforts to help people get baptized into covenant with Him... we are working in step with His earnest desire for relationship with people. And He will bless our efforts. And as we seek to root out of our lives and characters those things which come between us and Him, we likewise will enjoy His very special and joyful blessing and empowerment.

This understanding of God assists us in comprehending how on one hand, the Lord Jesus knew from the beginning who should betray Him; and yet He went through the pain, shock and surprise of realizing that Judas, his own familiar friend in whom He trusted, had done this to Him (Ps. 41:9; Jn. 6:64; 13:11). He knew, and yet He chose to limit that foreknowledge from love. This is in fact what all human beings are capable of, seeing we are made in the image of God. Thus Samson surely knew Delilah would betray him, and yet his love for her made him trust her. And we as observers see women marrying alcoholic men, wincing as we do at the way their love makes them limit their foreknowledge. There is an element of this in God, as there was in His Son as He faced the cross. Thus we read of the Lord Jesus being silent before His slaughterers, being led out to death as a sheep (Is. 53:7). But this idiom is used about Jeremiah to describe his wilful naivety about Israel's desire to slay him: "I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me" (Jer. 11:19). In this Jeremiah was indeed a type of Christ.

The Pain Of God In The Cross

The things we have discussed above lead us ultimately towards another window onto the sufferings of God in the death of His beloved Son. God speaks of being burdened by Israel's sins (Is. 43:24)- and yet this is a prelude to the passages which speak of the Lord Jesus bearing our sins on the cross (Is. 53:4,11,12). We even read of God being wearied by Israel's sins (Is. 7:13; Jer. 15:6; Ez. 24:12; Mal. 2:17). Even though God does not "grow weary" (Is. 40:28) by nature, it seems to me that in His full entering into His people's situation, He does allow Himself to grow weary with the sins of those with whom He is in covenant relationship. It was this kind of capacity which God has which was supremely revealed in His 'sharing in' the crucifixion of His Son. God's long term 'holding His peace' at Israel's sins resulted in a build up of internal forces within God: "For a long time have I held my peace... restrained myself, now will I cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant" (Is. 42:14; 63:15; 64:12). God crying out, gasping, panting... leads straight on, in the context, to the suffering servant. This is the same idea as God's heart growing warm and being kindled in internal struggle about His people in Hos. 11:8,9. And all this went on supremely at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. I have elsewhere commented upon the very intense connection between Father and Son at that time. Crucifixion meant humiliation. God's experience with Israel had led to His humiliation before the nations. For example, seeing the ark represented the very presence of God, the capture of the ark was in a sense the capture of God (1 Sam. 5:7,11 cp. 4:7). Ps. 78:61 comments: "He delivered his power to captivity, his glory to the hand of the foe"

In the death of Jesus we see the Son whom God had so dearly hoped His people would reverence- but they rejected Him. As something of each of us dies in the death of those we love, so "God was in Christ", sharing in His sufferings and death. It was not of course that God died. But He fully shared in the sufferings of His Son unto death. There is in the Hebrew text of Jud. 10:16 something which defies translation. We read there that God was so hurt by Israel's sufferings that in sympathy with them, "His nephesh ["soul"] was shortened" or expended. The phrase is used in Num. 21:4 and Jud. 16:16 about death or the diminishment of life. God's pain was such that this was how He felt, because He so internalized the sufferings of His people. And how much more in the death of His Son? He even feels like that for the sufferings of Gentiles- in the same way as Moab would weep for their slain sons, so God says that His heart would cry out for Moab, "therefore I weep [along] with the weeping of Jazer... my soul moans like a lyre for Moab" (Is. 15:5; Is. 16:9,11). God "pitied" Nineveh- a Hebrew word meaning to pity with tears (Jonah 4:11). The mourning of the prophets over Tyre (Ez. 27:1) and Babylon (Is. 21:3,4) was an embodiment of God's grief even over those not in covenant with Him. And how much more does He weep and suffer with His people Israel in their sufferings (Jer. 12:12; 23:10; Hos. 4:2,3); "my heart yearns / moans for him" (Jer. 31:20). Note in the context of Jer. 31:20 how Rachel is weeping for her children and would not be comforted, and then God as it were takes up that weeping for the same children (Jer. 31:15,20). God mourns over the fact that He can see in the future how His people will be mourning their children in the streets (Am. 5:17,18). In all this we see that God is not only a judge, but a judge who suffers with those to whom He gives punishment. And yet how much more did He weep for His beloved Son, suffering as He did not because He had sinned. And He weeps for us too in our weeping. There are tears and the yearnings of God in Heaven. We are told to weep with those that weep- and this is a reflection of how God weeps for and with us.

The Urgent Desire Of God For Us

The urgent desire of the Father and Son for us, for our spiritual growth, is so great that it involves them in an element of dynamism in their relationship with us. They're not merely passively awaiting our efforts to please them, grow in appreciation of them, and adopting their spirit as ours. As in any truly legitimate, inter-personal relationship, there's an element of dynamism; nothing can remain still, expectations and hopes rise, are dashed, delayed or realized, with all the emotions that are involved.

The Lord Jesus won't turn over a different face tomorrow when judgment day comes. He's the same yesterday as today as for ever. The spirit He showed in His ministry and which He reveals today, will be the same He operates by at the judgment encounter. The eagerness of the Lord to accept us, to find in us spiritual fruit, is perhaps reflected in the way that He begins inviting people of 'His' level to the feast of the Kingdom, but ends up lowering the bar as time goes on, to try by all means to get at least somebody in there (Lk. 14:21-23). This theme of lowering the bar is perhaps continued in that same passage by the way the Lord says that His disciples must forsake / 'bid goodbye to' all that they had (Lk. 14:33). This is the same word found earlier in Lk. 9:61, where some time before, a potential disciple who first wished to go and "bid goodbye to" his family was judged as not suitably committed to the urgency of the task. But now, the Lord says that this is acceptable in His definition of discipleship. This Lord is our Lord.

Think of how eager the Father and Son have been to find spiritual fruit in us. Through the centuries of His involvement with Israel, God had expected to find the fruit of justice in the vineyard of Israel- but He found only poison berries (Is. 5:4), instead of justice He found abuse and oppression of others (Is. 5:7). And all that despite doing absolutely all He could for that vineyard. But according to Mt. 21:34-38, this didn't stop Him from having a hopeful, fruit-seeking attitude. He sent His servants the prophets to find the fruit- but they were beaten and murdered. He finally sent His Son, reasoning that "surely they will reverence my son" (Mt. 21:37; Mk. 12:6- here we have a unique insight into God's internal thought process). But they murdered Him. I have suggested elsewhere that this language can only suggest that God in some sense limited His omniscience and omnipotence in order to fully enter into our dimensions; and hence His experience of dashed hope and deep disappointment. Amazing as the Father's hopefulness was, His Son's was even greater. This Father who had had all this experience of simply not getting any fruit, asked His vinedresser (the Lord Jesus) to cut down the tree of Israel, as for the three years of Christ's ministry He had sought fruit from them and not found any; and further, this tree was 'cumbering the ground', taking away nutrients which He could have given to another (Gentile) tree. But His servant argues back with Him; the servant asks to be allowed to dig and dung around the tree; and then, he says, 'You can cut it down, although you asked me to do this job'. This was quite unusual for a servant to talk like this; but it's an insight into the way the Lord Jesus was even more hopeful than His longsuffering Father. The Lord was prepared to dig around the tree- and digging was the lowest, most shameful occupation (Lk. 16:3). Further, He would shovel dung, making Him unclean and despised of men. He so wanted fruit on Israel. This describes the intense effort of the Lord Jesus during the last six months of His ministry. His attitude was summarized when shortly before He died, He came hungry to a fig tree, expecting to find just the immature beginnings of fruit there, which He would gladly have eaten. But that particular tree had nothing on it. His deep hunger and willingness to eat anything reflected His willingness to find some spirituality from Israel. But He "found none", just as there was "not found" any of those Jews He healed who would glorify God (Lk. 17:18 s.w. Lk. 13:6). This longsuffering, patient, passionate desire for spiritual fruit in the Lord Jesus is presented as being even stronger than it was in His Father. No wonder John the Baptist misunderstood the extent of Christ's grace- he proclaimed that Jesus already had the axe aimed at the bottom of the trees (Mt. 3:10; Lk. 3:9), and was about to fell them. The situation truly demanded this- but actually the Lord Jesus waited three years for fruit, and when it didn't come, even then He pleaded with the Father not to fell the tree but let Him dig and dung it... We must factor all this into our understanding of Mt. 7:19, where the Lord apparently in a bland, matter-of-fact manner teaches that the tree that doesn't bear good fruit will be hewn down and burnt. This burning is ultimately at the judgment day; but all our lives He is earnestly seeking to develop spiritual fruit upon us; as in the parable of the sower, only those who produce totally nothing will be rejected. Of course our fruit must be the fruit that abides- the changes in personality which are permanent, the converts who remain, the forgiveness which is maintained on a felt level, the generosity never later regretted... But if there's even something of this, then it seems this is what the Lord is so eagerly seeking. Earlier, Israel were the vine and the Lord Jesus the vinedresser (Lk. 13:7). But now we are the vine, and God Himself the vinedresser (Jn. 15:1). We are in good hands; and the Father and Son who through Biblical history showed themselves so sensitive to spiritual fruit are the very same ones who will meet us in the last day.

God's Forgiveness

God is outstanding in His forgiveness of us. But what is forgiveness? It worries me that so many of us actually haven't thought through basic questions like this. It seems to me that forgiveness is far more than a vague decision in the mind; I like the definition of forgiveness which my wife thought up, and which I jotted down as profound: "A valuing of the relationship more than and above the hurt caused by the sin". It is on the basis of His relationship with us, and His valuing of that relationship so highly, as a covenant relationship, which empowers God to forgive us so wonderfully. And the same should hold true for us in our forgiveness of others in covenant relationship with us.

Reflection upon the nature of God's covenant relationship reveals His grace. There are no lack of Bible passages which speak of His love and blessing in the covenant as being conditional- if the people were obedient, then God would keep His covenant "and he will love thee and bless thee and multiply thee" (Dt. 7:13). Yet the record of the history of Israel shows that Israel were not obedient; and yet God still kept His covenant, loved them and multiplied them. It's rather like a parent setting conditions for a child, and yet not abiding by the deal, so great is the love felt for the child. God's covenant is in a sense conditional; and yet in another sense it isn't, because His love has the characteristic of unconditionality about it, simply because we are His children. The whole history of Israel is encouragement in this.


(1) E.A. Speiser, Genesis [The Anchor Bible] (New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 171.

(2) David Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis, 1992).

(3) E.A. Speiser, Genesis [The Anchor Bible] (New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 112.