To believe in God is to wrestle. How could he create such a corrupt world? Where is he? Why does he allow the wicked to prosper and the innocent to perish? Yes, there is overwhelming beauty and joy in life—falling in love, raising children, watching a sunrise, eating and drinking together. But there is also deep darkness and evil—some 20 thousand children starving to death every day, some 15 million AIDS orphans struggling to survive, some two dozen wars raging across the planet, etc. How could a loving God allow so much suffering?
And yet to disbelieve in God would be to declare there is no ultimate standard of right and wrong, no absolute justice. We couldn’t actually say there is corruption in the world; instead, there would just be the lucky and the unlucky, and then we all die. In such case, any happiness, any peace, and any freedom are about as meaningful as a one-night stand.
And so we wrestle. Who is God? Where is he? Is it his fault that men do such terrible things to each other? What are we supposed to do?
These questions permeate the Bible from beginning to end. In fact, it teaches us how to ask them, how to wrestle. And when Jesus Christ appears on the scene, he leads us in this struggle. For God reveals himself to us not just rationally, emotionally, and politically, but also morally. In fact, Jesus is “The King of the God-Wrestlers,” and the answer to all our deep, probing questions about why a good God creates a corrupt world. So if we want to understand the Bible, we must see how this mystery unfolds from beginning to end.
The Beginning of the Story
Walking with God in Paradise
When God first created Adam & Eve, they walked with him in paradise and knew nothing of evil or death or corruption. According to the Bible, we can have joy without grief and peace without war and love without hatred and life without death. In short, evil is not necessary—in the same way, for example, that if we have an up then we also need to have a down, or if we have a hot then we must also have a cold. Evil and death are not the opposite of goodness and life, but instead they are different phenomena altogether. Death is not a natural part of life any more than black is a natural part of white, any more than madness is a natural part of reason. So the existence of evil is possible, but it is not necessary. Therefore, Adam & Eve did not experience or know about it in the beginning. They lived in perfect harmony with God and with one another.
And in this beautiful existence God had also given them great authority: “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
Yet they wanted more.
In effect, they decided that they valued his authority—in particular his moral authority over right and wrong—more than his friendship. So even though he commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they disobeyed. After they made that decision, their children and descendants kept struggling with the same desire. For example, in Genesis 11 they tried to raise themselves up to be like God by building a tower up to heaven. And throughout people repeatedly tried to simply create their own gods in the form of idols or religious figures—again, effectively taking over heaven and usurping his throne. We still struggle today with claiming authority over wisdom and justice and morality and rationality.
And just as God had warned them, the punishment for Adam & Eve’s rebellion was death. We can no more have input as to right and wrong than we can have input into his creation. We have to let God be God. So when they challenged his authority, they lost their lives—but not in the temporary sense. That is to say, their lives were not cut short by a few years. Instead, their punishment was to lose eternal life with God.
In fact, he did let them live a number of years more, because he had a plan for redeeming them. He had a plan for paying the wages of their sin himself, so that justice and peace would be kept but God’s children would not have to die. They could have new life and be restored to a right relationship with him—for eternity.
But getting there was going to be a mighty struggle.
The End of the Story
Again Seeing God Face to Face
Sixty-five books and many thousands of years later, at the end of the Bible, the final wrestling match comes to an end. God restores his people to paradise. They walk with him and see him face to face. No one is bitter about the trials they endured—any more than a new mother is bitter about the pains of childbirth, or than an Olympic medalist is bitter about the pain they endured. They walk in paradise again, and have access to the tree of life.
All the pain and suffering will be irrelevant in light of eternity, which is the end goal of God’s plan. So throughout the Bible God takes complete responsibility for all suffering and all death. Whether people die due to the Great Flood, or due to war, sickness, murder, famine, cannibalism, genocide, execution, assassination, for whatever reason—God takes complete responsibility for it all. It is his creation and a sparrow does not fall to the ground apart from his sovereignty. And yet no one will enter eternal life bitterly crying, “That wasn’t fair! How could you?!” Quite to the contrary, they will consider it a joy to share in having suffered together.
God’s enemies, however, will in the end writhe and curse in bitterness, absolutely sure unto death that they know right and wrong better than he does. They will curse him for violating their rights and judging their sins. In fact, to the very end they will continue to worship the gods (and the standards) that they themselves created. If that sounds unrealistic and absurd, take another look at the world. Self-righteousness has always led to barbaric, narcissistic, cannibalistic isolationism.
They will never understand or see God for who he is. Because they are unwilling to look and listen, all they see is a violent judge. 500(?) years ago the religious elite insisted that the sun, moon, and stars all orbited the earth, making mankind the center of the universe. It certainly might appear that way at first glance. They were unwilling to ask certain questions, because they didn’t like the answers. Therefore, they had no understanding.
Today many of the religious elite still insist that we are the center of the universe, the authors of morality and rationality. They are unwilling to ask some very simple questions, being very insistently uninterested in God.
But for Jesus’ beloved, they come to know his personality, which is infinite.
Between the Beginning and End
Wrestling with God
Between that mysterious beginning and that glorious end, God’s people strive with him. When he sent Adam & Eve away, he told them he was going to make life difficult for them—with thorns and thistles in the ground, with pain (in particular, pain in childbirth), and even with a power struggle between them as husband and wife. All this was not necessarily punishment. Indeed the punishment for their sin was death, which would come a number of years later. Rather, the purpose for making their lives difficult was so that they would seek God again, and not be satisfied with their own strength and accomplishments and authority. He made it possible for them to seek him in faith—to believe in and trust him not because of his power and authority and blessings, but because of his Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
Of course many people walk away from him bitter and apathetic, but others wrestle to trust him. As they encounter hardships and hunger, they seek to know why. As they enjoy prosperity and joy, and find that their appetite for such things is insatiable, they cry out for understanding. As they anticipate imminent death by one cause or another, they struggle to know who God is and what he is doing.
“Please tell me your name.”
The first person in the Bible to ask God “Who are you?” was a conniving shepherd named Jacob. The name Jacob means, literally, “one who takes by the heel” or, by derivation, “one who supplants.” He was a trickster.
Before he was even born God had promised to bless him greatly, but Jacob had a very difficult time taking God at his word. As a young man he swindled both his twin brother and his father, and then left home to seek his fortune. He then attempted to swindle his uncle out of several herds of sheep by using some silly folklore magic. He was willing to try anything and everything except to simply take God at his word. Although he grew very wealthy and strong, he struggled mightily to give God credit or thanks for his prosperity. He preferred to rely on his own shrewdness, and even give credit to magic if he had too.
According to the Bible, leading such a life will either refine a man’s pride or, when he realizes that enough is never enough, will compel him to cry out in desperation. He will either stiffen or break. Jacob broke. It happened when one day God showed up in person.
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Genesis 32:24-30)
Now this is a rather cryptic account of a spiritual transformation in Jacob. As wealthy and prosperous as he had become, he finally realized that nothing else would satisfy him but God himself. And though he had a reputation for tricking others, he still had the boldness to ask God for his blessing. So God gives him a new name, Israel, which means “he strives with God” and/or “God strives.” He is the God of a people who struggle to surrender their pride and ask for abundant life rather than try to earn it by their own strength.
Then Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, responded, “Please tell me your name.” He was asking for some kind of introduction—in effect, “Who are you?”
God’s answer: “Why is it that you ask my name?” What name could Jacob possibly understand? He had no context whatsoever that would give any meaning to any name. He did not even have a language for it. For example, if when you first meet someone and he introduces himself as Joshua, that name will already carry a lot of meaning. For consider that it would mean something different if he introduced himself as Иисус, 约书亚记, Ἰhsous, or يشوع.
So what difference would it make what God said? Israel and his family would have to wait about 400 years to get an answer to that question. It would be four centuries of extremely significant historical context orchestrated by God. At the end of it the Hebrews would be called a nation. Israel had started as a single man, a shepherd who changed from a life of swindling to a life of worship. Then, due to a series of outrageous circumstances scripted by God, and due to several dreams given by God, Israel’s family grew into a nation of slaves inside of Egypt. The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites for about 400 years before God stepped in again.
That was when he told a shepherd named Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom. In response, as had Jacob four centuries earlier, Moses asked God his name.
“What is his name?”
One day, when Moses was out tending his sheep, God led him to a cave and began speaking to him through a burning bush.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6)
God then told Moses to march into Egypt to ask that Pharaoh (i.e. the ruler of Egypt) to allow the Israelites to worship him. So Moses asked a very good question:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ (Exodus 3:13-17)
In Hebrew a proper noun is formed from the third-person masculine singular verb prefix of the root for HWH/HYH, “be, happen, become.” In English we translate it Yahweh or Yahweh. (Instead of using “Yahweh” or “Yahweh” many English translations use “Lord.” However, the title “Lord”, meaning master, is also common in the Bible. So to distinguish the name “Lord” from the title “Lord” small caps are used.)
What’s in a name? That depends on what the name represents—what the person says or does. So, according to the Bible, God introduces himself to the world as the savior of the oppressed and afflicted, and the language in which he reveals his name—the language in which it is spoken, in which it is written, and from which it is translated—is the language of a people born in slavery.
(Now this is not the first time the name Yahweh is used in the Bible, for it is used several times in the book of Genesis—even by Adam & Eve. But we should not assume that Adam & Eve spoke Hebrew. Instead, we just assume that when Moses wrote the book of Genesis, all of the dialogue was written/translated into Hebrew.)
After Israel’s delivery from Egypt, there are still about 1600 more years of very significant historical context before Jesus Christ arrives on the scene. During these 1600 years God is telling them his name. He is Yahweh-Jireh, the LORD our provider. He is Yahweh-Mekaddesh, the LORD who sanctifies. He is Yahweh-Nissi, the LORD our banner. He is Yahweh-Rohi, the LORD our Shepherd. He is Yahweh-Rophe, the LORD our healer. He is Yahweh-Shalom, the LORD our peace. He is Yahweh-Tsidkenu, the LORD our righteousness. Other names are formed with El, the word for “God.” Still others are formed with Adonay, the word for “master/lord”. Still another name is unique: when God warns the Israelites not to bow down to any idols he tells them, “for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Thus he is using history and the nation of Israel to reveal himself to the world. For according to the Bible, God first shows us who he is, and then translates the revelation into a spoken language, such as Hebrew or Greek.
By the end of the Old Testament the nation of Israel is in desperate condition. They have been beaten down again and again, passed from one empire to another, and are now under the Roman Empire. Once they were a strong and glorious tree, but now they have been cut down to a stump and then burned again. But many of them are still waiting on God, studying his word, looking and watching and hoping.
The King of the God-Wrestlers
Then one day a surprisingly humble miracle worker showed up. He said and did the most unusual things. They asked him who in the world he thought he was. He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58. See also John 6:35; 8:12; 10:9; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5; Revelation 1:8, 17-18; 22:13)
As holy as God is, the Bible also says that He was fully manifest 2000 years ago in Jesus—a common name (Greek for Joshua) for a seemingly very common man. Jesus made the outcast of society feel respected and comfortable. Born to a peasant girl in a small town, he was a friend of beggars, prostitutes and thieves. More at ease with poor fishermen than with the religious elite, he drew a very large following.
And yet those closest to him did not really understand who he was until the end, really until he was gone. For three years he walked among the common people, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and preaching the good news that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and that people can repent and have peace with God. Everyone kept expecting this peace to come through might and force, and that Jesus would raise up a military rebellion against Rome in order to establish peace for Israel. But he kept telling them that, to the contrary, he was going to lay down his life.
The Bible is very clear that one of the main reasons Jesus died was to absorb the wrath of God. After all, someone has to pay for all the sin in the world. A judge cannot tell a criminal, “It’s okay, just try to do better next time.” If the word “justice” is going to have any meaning, then someone has to pay. So God said, in effect, that he would pay the price. He created the world and loves the world, and he will take the blame for our sin.
So Jesus lay down his life. On the night that he was arrested he was praying in a garden called The Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane means “olive press”. He was under so much stress and grief that he was literally sweating blood. Three times he prayed that he would not have to go through with the crucifixion and die: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.'” (Matthew 26:39) Just like Jacob some two millennia earlier, he was wrestling alone in the dark. He is the King of the God-Wrestlers. About twelve hours later, hanging on the cross, he would cry out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?!” (Matthew 27:46)
Why did he go through with it? One reason was to conquer death for all time. Now he could take complete responsibility for all death, whatever the cause, and reverse it. Now, to anyone who would accept it, he could give new life—for eternity. Another reason was for joy—the joy of seeing his Father’s name exalted in both holiness and in mercy.
It would still take time for his disciples to finally understand and see clearly. When Jesus rose from the dead that first Easter morning, it scared them silly and totally freaked them out. When Peter, one of Jesus’ most radical disciples, saw that he really had risen from the grave, he thought about it for a while and then responded, “…I am going fishing.” And several of the other disciples said, “We will also come with you.” (John 21:3) They were dumbfounded and had not a clue what else to do. They had followed Jesus for three years and watched him perform many awesome miracles and make many bold claims to be God, yet they still did not understand him. On the very first day they met him they had said all the most profound theological and historical truths about Him (John 1:35-37, 41, 45, 49), and yet did not really grasp what they were saying.
The mystery of the ages was that the Creator of the universe did not cherish his power and authority, but instead he truly cherished and loved his people. Though he is holy and highly exalted, he came down and met us where we are and relates to us completely. He is right here with us. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:23)
“The kingdom of God is at hand;
Repent, and believe in the gospel!”
We have all sorts of ways of keeping God at a distance. We make caricatures of him like Santa Clause—an all-knowing, miracle-working, jolly old fellow. Or we make idols and then bow down to them. (And in the Bible, the word “idol” does not just refer to carved images, but rather to anything other than God which makes us declare “OMG!”) Or we appoint religious “fathers” and put them in fine robes and very lofty palaces that are far, far removed from our own lives. Then we do lots of good works and give lots of money away as a substitute or even an apology for keeping away from God.
Why do we keep him at a distance? We would rather run our own lives and not have to answer to him.
That’s the same reason that many people don’t believe in him. Ultimately, according to the Bible, it is not for rational reasons or philosophical or scientific reasons. To be sure, a lot of teachers will confuse us as to what is true, and a lot of religious leaders will enrage us as to what is sincere. But those are not sufficient for preventing us from wrestling with God. No, the reason, according to the Bible, is due to our own personal moral issues. We do not want God judging us.
The good news is that God does not want to judge us either. Quite the opposite: he wants to save us from judgment.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:16-22)
The salvation of God means many things. It means being recreated, born again. It means becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, and submitting to God’s sovereignty. And here, in light of the mystery of the ages, it means walking in the light, confessing our sins and wanting to give honor and glory to God. 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 (as Jacob did) 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.
But that means repenting of our pride, our desire to usurp God’s throne. It means having the courage to confess our sins. But when we do this, when we walk in the light, we can stand blameless before God, full of joy.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:5-10)