A Love Story

To walk with God is to love him and be loved by him. But he makes it very, very clear to his people that we cannot deserve his love. No matter how many good works we do, no matter how much money we give, no matter how much religious discipline we exercise, no matter how great our sacrifice, we simply cannot pay for love. In fact, it’s just like romance: “If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.” (Song of Songs 8:7)

So God’s affection, his salvation, and the offer of eternal life in heaven—it is all free. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) We are not indebted to Jesus and do not owe him anything. When he lay down his life, he did in joy—looking forward to the day when his people would come to a wedding banquet and praise him. As he was dying on the cross this was his hope: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” (Psalm 22:27)

So heaven is free. That is indeed good news.

But there is a catch.

Just as we cannot earn or deserve God’s love, so also he does not pay for ours. He paid the price for our sin, but he does not pay for our devotion. Just as Jesus lay down his life with joy, so also he calls us to lay down our lives for him with joy. That is to say, we follow him and obey him not because he has earned our affection, but because he gives us the courage and the passion and the zeal to worship him just because we want to.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Jesus explicitly told the churches that no matter how zealous they were for truth and good works and purity, if they did not love him then he would remove them from his kingdom. So love between God and his people trumps everything. He woos his people with romance until we are willing to lose our lives for the sake of walking with him.

So if we want to understand God’s revelation in the Bible, then we must also see it as a love story. He reveals himself to us not just rationally, morally, and politically, but also emotionally.

The Beginning of the Story

Naked and Not Ashamed

When God created Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden, in a world without sin, God said that it was “not good” (Genesis 2:18). He didn’t say it was bad, but just not yet good. He wanted to create something good and it wasn’t good until he had created a marriage. When he brought Eve to Adam, he didn’t just say it was good or even very good; he said it was the very image of himself. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man [literally, “Adam”] when they were created.” (Genesis 5:1-2)

So the Bible does not say that mankind’s creative, rational intellect is what makes us like him (thought that certainly may be part of it). Instead, it says that our marriages image him in the creation. When the two become one and give to one another, build up and bless one another, delight in and love one another with a rugged, enduring devotion: that shows us a picture of who God is.

The power of love, of romance and sex—which, in the Bible, are defined by marriage—easily, easily trump everything else in regards to happiness. Indeed, far beyond matters of intelligence or creativity or accomplishment or authority, it is marriage that equalizes people everywhere. That is to say that whether a person is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, oppressed or free, accomplished or forgotten, the one thing far above all others that will fulfill that person is a blessed marriage. It levels the playing field.

For example, no matter how handsome, how accomplished, how wealthy and generous and powerful a man might be, none of that would even begin to come anywhere near making him deserve marriage from even the most desperate, unknown woman in the world. He can suffer a broken heart and agonizing loneliness, while she can have a fulfilled life with a family. That’s how powerful marriage, romance, and sex are.

So when God created Adam & Eve, he said it was the very image of himself. And then he rested from his work. The couple walked with God in paradise, without a worry in the world. They were not even aware of their own nakedness.

But then they pulled away from God and rebelled. He had given them authority over the earth, to fill it and subdue it and have dominion over all the other animals. They didn’t earn this power, yet now they decided that they wanted more of it. Specifically, they wanted to be equal with God in his moral authority. He had told them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that if they did eat of it they would die. But they ate anyway.

Now although the Bible does not tell us the motive of their hearts in disobeying him, it does tell us the result in their hearts afterword: they felt ashamed, and wanted to hide. Suddenly they realized that they were naked, and did not want to be seen by God. They felt that they were not worthy of his friendship—or at least less worthy than before.

So God cast them out of paradise. Their fellowship with him was broken. Just as he warned him, they would die. But God had a plan for restoring their relationship. He had a plan for completely covering their shame. Someday his people would worship him and walk with him in paradise again—not because they deserved to, but because they loved him.

He was going to remove their shame and then woo them back.

The End of the Story

A Wedding Banquet

The Bible ends with a glorious beginning: a wedding banquet. Throughout history God compared his relationship with his people to marriage. In the Old Testament, Israel was the bride. In the New Testament, the church is the bride. And God always promised that one day the new creation in heaven would begin with a wedding banquet.

“And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.” (Hosea 2:19-20)

That verb “know” is the same phrasing from Genesis when a husband “knows” his wife sexually. “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” (Genesis 4:1) And throughout the Bible this sort of knowledge is intimately tied with morality, with notions of righteousness and justice and mercy: “I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice…” For God’s moral law—the Ten Commandments, for example—is not an end in itself. The purpose of it is joy, and to obey his commandments is to desire joy.

Perhaps we could compare it to a sports game. Football games, for example, are defined by a large rule book, and require expert judges to referee them—all for the sake of having fun. Similarly, the purpose for all of God’s commandments is joy. And the end result, the image of that joy, is marital union.

But God, in a very real sense, has mixed emotions. At the same time that he feels great tenderness and love for the world, he also feels great anger. (Many parents might be familiar with having such mixed emotions with their children.) He sees the gas chambers, the killing fields, the rich getting richer and the more getting more diseased, the oppression and deception and agonizing loneliness—and it all fills him with wrath. Somebody has to pay. If the words justice and righteousness are to have any meaning, then someone has to pay for all the injustice and wickedness in the world.

Added to that anger with the world is a great love for the world, so that God himself chooses to pay the price for our sin. That is why Jesus chose to lay his life down and die on the cross.

And he promised that someday, after a long war with the spiritual forces of darkness, he would present the church to himself as a pure bride. So at the end of the Bible, after the final judgment of the wicked, when God sends his enemies to their final death—enemies who had persecuted and oppressed and slandered his people—then there is a new beginning. He gathers his beloved from every tribe and tongue and people and nation together, and the real love story begins:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:1)

It will take an eternity to fully know God.

Between the Beginning and the End

God Woos His People

After God kicked Adam & Eve out of the Garden of Eden, what do you suppose their children struggled with?

They struggled with whether they deserved God’s favor or not. The first murder happened when one man, Cain, was jealous that God showed favor to his brother Abel. Both of them offered sacrifices to God, but God liked one more than the other. It doesn’t tell us why, and again it doesn’t tell us the motive of the brothers’ hearts. But it does show us the result in Cain’s heart: jealousy and anger. His sacrifice had not motivated by love but rather by pride.

And as people spread across the earth, their pride grew, and along with it heinous evil. At one point God judged the world fiercely with the great flood. Nevertheless, afterward, men continued to think they could make themselves worthy of heaven.

But God had his own plan for bringing them to heaven—a plan not just for teaching people how to be holy like heaven, but teaching them how to worship him. He actually wanted people to sing love songs to him—not because he deserved it (though of course he does) but because we truly love him. When he created the nation of Israel he taught them to sing song after song after song of praise and adoration. For he desires the heart of his people in very personal, fervent way—even as a groom desires the heart and life of his bride. It was not because God was needy or because Israel was so special. Rather it was because he is full to overflowing with joy. And no matter what Israel or the other nations did, and no matter what Satan and his minions tried, nothing could stop God from expressing it.

The Israelites did repeatedly provoke him to jealousy by worshiping idols, such that God finally sent them into exile—about 800 years after he had created them. Yet he promised them that someday he would give his people new hearts so that they would no longer be slaves of sin and desert him. “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” (Isaiah 54:4)

That promise was given in the 7th century B.C., and so the faithful had to wait many years for it to be fulfilled. But when the fullness of time came, a descendant of Abraham and Judah and King David appeared on the scene. A friend of sinners, he claimed of all things to be the bridegroom of Israel.

But the religious leaders wanted him to prove it. They wanted to be dazzled. They wanted him to earn their devotion, for they were righteous men. They wanted a mighty, conquering warrior who would reward the pious and faithful. But he refused all such overtures. Instead, he traveled around teaching the Bible and serving the needy, befriending the poor, the outcast, and the despised. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

In response, the leaders of Israel tortured him to death.

Yet he rose from the grave, gathered his disciples together, and told them to go into the entire world and proclaim the good news of his salvation. For “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

He never promised to rescue his people from pain and suffering. Instead, he gives us the courage to love and trust him unto death, and to look forward to new life. In this life we will struggle to understand and trust him with, but we can look forward with hope.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)

 

“The kingdom of God is at hand;

Repent, and believe in the gospel!”

What does “You only live once!” (YOLO) mean to you? Many today have taken it to by a slogan for taking risks, indulging in pleasure, and forsaking duty in favor of fun. But such an outlook—this zeal for fun—often fosters apathy toward the things of heaven. After all, who has time for religious ceremonies and being “good”? Life is too short.

But according to the Bible, however, complacency toward God masks passive-aggressive rage. That is to say, it is impossible to sincerely be neutral or apathetic towards him. Someone who acts disinterested concerning God is about as in touch with reality as a teenage boy who acts disinterested in sex. It is simply not possible, for God created us with an appetite for life that only his Spirit can satisfy. Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31)

So behind the world’s stubborn confusion and playfulness is a deep rebellion against the Creator. He has made himself very clearly known, and we must respond. We know God is there and we know that he is good. Suppressing this truth will demand ever greater amounts of obfuscation, mockery, and malice. (Isaiah 37:29) We will grow increasingly defiant towards God’s standards of holiness and righteousness, even though we know it angers him.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal god for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)

The inevitable culmination of this passive-aggressive behavior is that the rebels exalt the distortion of the image of God—sexual perversion:

       Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Someday God will bring the world to judgment for this, compelling everyone to acknowledge him. Slothful disinterest will no longer be an option. Yet God in his mercy gives us plenty of time to really think about what we are doing, and to truly decide where we stand. Everyone starts down the road of rebellion and self-righteous indulgence. But at some point we will stop, get our bearings, and then either turn back towards God in repentance or continue to move away from God in rebellion. If we willfully turn away from him then we will try to build our own little kingdoms, and grow increasingly angry towards anyone who threatens our plans.

“Enter by the narrow gate,” Jesus said. “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Mathew 7:13-14) Let us turn from our slothful rebellion, repent of our angry apathy, and zealously look for the day when Jesus will return.

Have you been beat up and cast aside by the world? Have your friends given up on you because you’ve disappointed them too many times? Turn to Jesus. Strong and mighty, yet gentle and humble and meek: he gives the afflicted and oppressed the faith and hope to sing.

The Lord your God is in your midst,
     a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
__he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
__so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
__with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
__and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
__and renown in all the earth. (Zephaniah 3:17-19)

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