Almighty Love    Steve Sweetman

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God's Love In Context


In a previous article I made this statement.  "The degree to which we can begin to understand the Almighty Creator God, is the degree to which we can begin to understand Him as our loving Father."  To put it another way, I don't believe we can begin to understand the love of God until we begin to understand the almighty and powerful nature of God.  I write the following to explain why I make this statement.  


Why Do I Make This Statement?


First of all, I believe that in the western world at large, and also in many Christian circles, we have adopted a lopsided view of God.  God created us in His image, but in our minds, we often recreate Him in our image.  We humanize God to be someone we want Him to be, not who He is.  Therefore, our mental image of God is often not Scriptural.     


Much of the prevailing thinking today views God as simply a God of love, or worse still, just love, and we know the world defines love differently than the Bible.  Viewing God simply in terms of love has implications.  From this lopsided view comes the philosophy of tolerance that has no concept of Biblical morality.  It also results in a non-Biblical idea that God holds no one responsible for his actions.  An over emphasis on the love of God can distract us from reverencing Him as we should.  A spirit of familiarity sets in, making Him our buddy, when He's not.  We think we know God, when we don't.  We only know the imaginary god we've created in our minds who is no different than the idols found in Old Testament times.  Both the idols and our imaginary concept of God are a product of the human imagination, not Scripture.    


How many times have you heard this question asked?  "If God is a God of love, why does He allow all the suffering in the world?"  This is a logical question when you simply believe that God is love.  When you begin to see God in His totality, the question is easily answered, and becomes almost irrelevant.   


Beyond this trend to humanize God in our thinking, what really motivated me to write my opening statement was the quote that opens chapter 6 of the book entitled "The Shack".  Jacques Ellul, a twentieth century French philosopher said,  "No matter what God's power may be, the first aspect of God is never the absolute master, the Almighty.  It is that of the God who puts Himself on our human level and limits Himself." 


The author of "The Shack" has pulled Ellul's quote from his writings which I haven't read, so to be fair, I don't know the context of this statement.  If I understand Ellul right, he is saying that the first and predominant way in which we should view God is as our loving Father who has placed Himself into the limitations of  humanity.  The idea that God is the Almighty Creator is a secondary aspect of God that we shouldn't dwell on.  I certainly believe that God is our loving Father, but He is much more than that.  The rest of who God is, is equally important.  I'm not convinced that one aspect of God is any less significant than another.  They are all equally important.   


I don't pretend to know God as well as some suggest they do.  I really don't think we can understand the totality of who God is.  I know some Christians will argue that point, but He is way beyond our human ability to comprehend.  I may get in trouble saying the following, and I know I'm generalizing, but I'll say it anyway.  When we were children, we played imaginary games.  We had imaginary friends, imaginary cars, imaginary castles, and imaginary everything.  We didn't need store-bought props.  We could get so caught up in our imaginary world that the imaginary seemed more real than the real world around us.  Sometimes I think we've carried this type of imaginary imagery into our adult lives as Christians.  What we believe of God and sometimes experience might be more imaginary imagery than Biblical truth.  I think this way because of some Christians I've met over the years who appear to demonstrate this tendency.


Our concept of God is vitally important.  If we misunderstand some basic issues of God, much of what we believe about Christian things will be misunderstood.  How we believe affects everything we do.  Biblical truth must be the foundation of our thinking.  Too often our imagination and our feelings take priority over the Bible. That shouldn't be, because truth matters. 


Here's an example of what I'm saying. In the King James Bible, Jesus called the Holy Spirit the "Comforter" in John 14:16 and 26, 15:26, and 16:7.  In the New International Bible Jesus called Him the "Counselor" instead of the "Comforter", and I think rightly so.  When mentioning this to one lady friend, she replied, "no way, the Holy Spirit is my comforter.  Counselor sounds too clinical."  Comforter was her mental image of the Holy Spirit.  That is what she wanted the Holy Spirit to be to her, despite what this verse said.   I'm not saying the Holy Spirit can't comfort us.  He certainly does, but once again, He is more than comfort. We can't place our feelings and mental images over what the Bible says and allow them to shape our thinking.  If we think differently than the Bible, we need to change our thinking.              


God is far above our comprehension.  That's one reason why He became flesh and blood in the first place.  The only way I can understand God is through Jesus.  Whatever Jesus said or did, is an exact expression of who God is.  So if you want to know God, take a very close look at "everything" Jesus said and did.  Don't leave anything out.  Sometimes we pick and choose what we want to believe.  I've heard people say, "my Jesus wouldn't do that" when in fact He did do that.  Yes, Jesus did get angry when He overthrew the money exchangers tables in the temple.  The Bible clearly states that apart from Jesus, it is not humanly possible to know God.   


The apostle Paul said that in this present life we know and understand these things dimly. (1 Corinthians 13: 9)  These words are from the lips of a man who on one occasion found himself in heaven.  He saw things that he was not permitted to tell anyone. (2 Corinthians 12:4)  Even with this exclusive knowledge, Paul said he understood things in part.  If this was so with Paul, how much more so is it with us?  Paul's understanding was limited.  My understanding is therefore even more limited than Paul.    

In the articles that follow, I will not attempt to explain who God is in His totality, because I can't.  I will merely point out a few Biblical passages and concepts that I believe give us a glimpse of who God is, and how He thinks about us and things we do.  So, the degree to which we begin to understand these things, is the degree to which we can begin to understand and appreciate the love of God.   I am convinced of that.   


God Almighty


Defining God in His totality is a subject way too big for this format.  Besides, I can't do that.  I only wish to share a few Scriptures that state the awesomeness of the God we serve.  I seldom use the word awesome because I think it should only apply to God, for He only is awesome.  If we can see just a little glimpse of God's awesomeness, it should humble us.  At that point, we'll begin to appreciate His love.  Therefore, the degree to which we can understand the awesome nature of God will be the degree to which we can begin to appreciate His love.   


Despite Jacques Ellul's quote found in chapter 6 of The Shack, the first aspect of God we see in the Bible is the Almighty Creator God, which Ellul says is not the aspect of God we should first think of  when we think of Him.   


Genesis 1:1 says that "Elohim" created the heavens and the earth.  Elohim is a Hebrew word and is the first name for God that we see in the Bible. It expresses His Almighty Creative power that Ellul says is a secondary aspect of God.  "Elohim" simply spoke all things into existence with absolutely no effort.  Man has hardly begun to understand His creation, even though many scientific minds believe we have.  The name "Elohim" clearly expresses the almighty and awesome nature of our God.


The next aspect of God we see in Genesis is that of "Yahweh".  "Yahweh" is associated with the loving nature of God because this name is often linked to God's covenantal promises he spoke to the patriarchs of Israel .  Yet beyond this association with the Abrahamic Covenant, "Yahweh" means, "I AM".  Thus "Yahweh" is the eternal "I AM" who lives in the eternal present, outside of our space and time domain.  So when we associate "Yahweh" with God's covenantal promises and love, that's only part of the story.  Fundamental to "Yahweh's" love is the eternal aspect of who He is.  That's pretty awesome, wouldn't you think?   Ellul, and the author of  The Shack seem to downplay this aspect of "Yahweh" when they only associate Him with love.   


The next aspect of God we see in Genesis is in Genesis  15:2 when Abraham recognized God as His "Sovereign Lord".  That's "Adonai Yahweh".  The Hebrew word "Adonai" implies ownership.  Abraham was saying that "Yahweh", the eternal "I AM", owned him.  "Yahweh" was Abraham's master.  Abraham did not think for a minute that "Yahweh" was his buddy.  Now that's something to think about in our "I'm my own master" world.             


The next aspect of God seen in the Genesis account is reflected in yet another name associated with God.  In Genesis 28:3 Isaac recognized God as "El Shaddai", or, "God Almighty" in English.  The earliest meaning of "El Shaddia" that we know of seems to be symbolized in the term "The Mountain One", suggesting strength.  Thus the term "Almighty" in English.  Once again, "almighty" according to Ellul is a secondary aspect of God.  


Exodus 6:2 and 3 in the NIV reads, "God also said to Moses, 'I am the Lord. (Yahweh)  I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, (El Shaddia)  but by my name the Lord (Yahweh) I did not make myself known to them."  God is saying that He appeared to the patriarchs as "El Shaddia", the Almighty One.  That was their mental image of Him.  Even though the patriarchs used the term "Yahweh", they understood Him as "El Shaddai", the Mighty One.   It appears that the name "Yahweh" was further clarified during the days of Moses.   


The reason why I mention Exodus 6:2 and 3 is for its context.  God was going to judge and deal with Egypt in a way that would benefit Israel and devastate Egypt .  Throughout the Old Testament God caused nations to rise and fall.   He brought Babylon to power and used her to bring judgment on an unrepentant Israel .  Then He brought Persia to power to bring judgment on Babylon for her mistreatment of Israel .  You might say, "that's Old Testament", and you're right, but the book of Revelation shows that God still judges nations today, causing them to rise to prominence and fall into obscurity. 


If you stop and think about it for a bit, "Elohim", "Yahweh", "Adonai", and "El Shaddai" are four inseparable aspects of God.  I don't see that any one aspect of God is more important and predominant than any other.  These aspects of God, and others as well, all show the powerful and awesome nature of God that Ellul says is a secondary aspect of God.  I don't think we can simply view God as love and ignore the rest of who He is.    


So there you go.  I've only scratched the surface of one Old Testament book that  clearly shows the Almighty Creator aspect of God.  We can't ignore this or else we are ignoring the Bible that Christians claim is the authoritative Word of God, or at least we used to make that claim.  That seems to be changing these days.


Just in case you think Elohim has changed since Old Testament days, we'll see that He hasn't changed in my next chapter when we take a look at the  New Testament.  


Jesus And The New Testament


Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus is the exact representation of God.  So, if you want to attempt to understand who God is, according to the Bible, you must take a serious look at Jesus.  That includes everything He said and did. Don't leave anything out. 


There's no argument that Jesus is the embodiment of love, but to bring balance to the discussion, He is more than love.  If  we simply view Jesus as being the embodiment of love, which I think the book entitled "The Shack" does, then we have a lopsided view of Jesus, and therefore a lopsided view of who God is.     


In John 8:1 to 11 Jesus meets a prostitute.  Did He show godly love to her?  He certainly did.  Did He "tolerate" her sin because He loved her?  No.  He told her to stop sinning.  That's called repentance.  His love for her did not minimize her sin.   


1 John 3:18 says we are to love in "action and truth".   We all understand the need to put our words of love into actions, although that doesn't always happen.  What we don't seem to understand is how to love according to Biblical truth, which is both responsible and intelligent.  Biblical truth places boundaries on how and when we express love.  We don't express love indiscriminately.  Indiscriminant love is both irresponsible and sloppy, and maybe shouldn't even be called love.  That's why Jesus didn't overlook the prostitute's sin.  Jesus cannot minimize sin by crossing the boundary line that God's truth sets down for Him.  This puts love, and especially God's love in proper perspective.     


In Matthew 18:6 Jesus said that if anyone causes a child to sin, he'd be better off with a rock tied around his neck and thrown into the sea to drown.  How can a loving Jesus say such a drastic thing?  The answer is simple.  Jesus expresses love responsibly, based on truth and  justice.  Jesus is the embodiment of love, but He is also the embodiment of justice.  You cannot stress His love to the exclusion of His sense of justice.  Biblical love demands accountability.  Standing on the side of truth is just as important to Jesus as loving one's enemy.  


Does Jesus love His enemies as He tells us we should?  The cross of Christ shows He does, but once again, Jesus' love is balanced by truth and justice.  In Revelation chapter 1 Jesus is portrayed as a mighty man of war who will bring all enemies, all nations on earth to their knees in severe judgment.  This judgment ends in the destruction of the earth as we presently know it, only to be replaced with a new earth.  Some people struggle with this image of God, but I remind you that God seldom thinks and acts like us.  We're lights years apart in that respect. (Isaiah 55:8 - 9)  We tend to tolerate sin.  God doesn't.  We confuse love with tolerance, thinking they're  the same thing when they're not.  God knows the difference.


I envision the various aspects of God on a bar graph.  I think many people see God's love on a bar graph as going right to the top of the graph, while other aspects, like His wrath, only rise slightly from the bottom of the graph.  I don't see it that way.  I see every aspect of who God is rising right to the top of the graph.  God's sense of justice rises to the top of the graph alongside His love.  He is 100% just, and He is 100% love.  He is the Almighty Creator, and He is our loving Father.  Ellul, who is quoted in chapter 6 of  "The Shack"  seems to disagree with me on this point.   


The Almighty Creator God is seen in the first chapter of the Bible.  The Almighty Recreator God is seen in the last chapter of the Bible.  From beginning to end, God is almighty and powerful.  This aspect of God is no less significant than any other aspect of God. I will close this chapter by reminding you of what Paul said in  2 Thessalonians 1:7 through 9.  Paul tells us that Jesus will return to earth in blazing fire to punish with everlasting punishment those who do not obey the truth of the gospel.  There's the word "truth" again.  Truth matters to God, and it should matter to us.  The Almighty Elohim will send Jesus in this blazing fire of judgment to the earth.  Now you tell me, should this aspect of who God is be ignored, or relegated to the back of our minds as "The Shack" suggests?  I don't think so.


I emphasize the almighty nature of God at this point in this series of articles to bring balance to the discussion.  I will speak to God's love later to maintain a proper balance, but once again, "the degree to which we can begin to understand the Almighty Creator God will be the degree to which we can begin to understand and appreciate His love."   


God And Sin


It seems to me that in many Christian circles we  downplay some central elements of the gospel of Christ.  Sin and repentance are two examples.  Talk of sin and repentance is too negative for our "hyper-positive confession" churches.  It's too bad John the Baptist missed out on this "hyper- positive confession" teaching.  It would have made his life much easier.  Instead of being a lonely voice crying in the desert, he could have been a renowned conference speaker at the Jerusalem Hilton.  


The Greek word "hamartia" is translated as sin in the New Testament.  The simplest definition of this word is "to miss the mark".  We've all heard that before, but there's more to understanding a Greek word than its simplest meaning.  More often than not, the context of a word gives further clarity to its meaning.  With this in mind, "hamartia" is used three ways in the New Testament.  It's used in reference to specific sins; to an external power that has influence over us; and to our sinful nature.      


Adam and Eve's failure to obey God resulted in God pronouncing judgment, not only on them, but on everyone born after them.  Subsequently, all human beings are born sinful.  Our nature, right to the core of who we are, is sinful.  That's why God judged the earth with a flood.  That's why He wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah .  That's why Israel fell to Babylon .  God has judged both individuals and civilizations throughout history.  The "mother of all judgments" comes at the end of this age when God pours out his wrath on a sinful world.  God does hate sin.  


Many people don't think a loving God hates anything. Look up the word "hate" for yourself  in a concordance. You'll see that's not so.  Here are some examples. In Psalm 5:5 God hates all men who do wrong.  In Psalm 45:7 God hates unrighteousness.  In Isaiah 61:8 God hates robbery and iniquity.  In Malachi 2:16 God hates the unfaithfulness that results in divorce.  


Amos 5:21 and 22 reads, "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies … Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps!"   What?  Did I read that right?  God hates something religious.  Can that really be?   I wonder if He hates any of our religious gatherings today?  Anyway, you get my point.  In case you think that's just Old Testament, lets turn to Romans.   


If you want to understand the basic concepts of the gospel, you must study the New Testament book of Romans.  It won't take long for you to see that God hasn't changed since Old Testament days.  In Romans, Paul explain the gospel in a logical and systematic way.  He sets forth the important and central elements of the gospel that we should cherish.  The first element of the gospel he speaks about is God's wrath and our sin.  That's only logical.  If we don't know we're sinners, we won't know we need a Saviour.  That's why talking about God's wrath, our sin, and repentance is important, even though it's unpopular in some pulpits.  A "positive confession" that ignores God's wrath and sin might be fine for the Oprah Winfrey show, but it's not fine for the pulpit.  In today's world, the idea that God can be angry is seen as a relic from a polytheistic past period of time, when people viewed the gods as being angry.  That's not what the Bible teaches.  


After Paul's opening remarks, he begins his discussion in Romans 1:18.  The NIV reads, "the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and  wickedness of men ..."   Paul would have failed homiletics in Bible college for beginning his message with such a negative thought.  Homiletics is the art of preaching, and you're taught not to lose your audience in your opening statement. 


The Greek word translated as wrath in this verse and elsewhere in the New Testament doesn't simply mean being angry.  It implies an uncontrollable explosion, or outburst of "serious anger".  It's a much stronger word than simple anger.  Like a volcano, God's wrath can't be contained. It explodes with violent and devastating force.  That may be hard for us to understand, but the book of  Revelation shows this to be true.  God is just as capable of exploding with horrific wrath as He is capable of expressing unprecedented love.


Romans 1:21 and 22 state that man's thinking became futile, and his heart was darkened with foolishness.  Paul says we're foolish because we've exchanged the Biblical understanding of who God is for our own man-made understanding.  In times past this was expressed in stone and wooden idols.  Today it's expressed in our humanistic mental concepts of who God is that look nothing like the God of the Bible.  Both are equally sinful.     


Romans 1:24 says that God gives us over to sin.  Simply put, God says, "if you want to sin, go ahead and sin all you want.  Just remember the consequences."  Romans 1:28 says we have a "depraved mind".  Paul probably lost a few intellectuals with that one.  It looks like we're all mentally impaired to one degree or another. 


You might want to study Romans chapters 1 through 3 yourself.  I'm just hitting some high-lights, or should I say some "low-lights".  Romans 2:2 states that God will judge the sinner and that His judgment is based on truth.  There's the word truth again.  God does judge, and His judgment is according to truth, not love.


In Romans 2:5 Paul says that every time we sin, we store up wrath for the day of judgment.  Every time we sin, a bit more wrath is set aside for us.  Of course there is a way to escape this judgment.  I'll get to that later.  


In Romans 2:8 Paul says that those who are self-seeking, who follow evil instead of truth will experience both God's wrath and His anger. Paul clearly differentiates between wrath and anger here by noting they are two different things.        


From Romans 2:17, into chapter 3, Paul says that religious people aren't any better than the blatant sinner.  Romans 3: 8 and 9 says that the religious man is under the power of sin just as much as anyone else.  We're all in the same boat when it comes to sin, and that boat is in the process of sinking.              


If you think all that is bad, read the scathing report of man's condition found in Romans 3:8 through 18.  It paints a dismal picture of us.  The conclusion is found in Romans 3:20.  I know it's not socially acceptable, but Paul says we're all sinners.  You're a sinner.  I'm a sinner.  Everyone's a sinner.       


I've just pointed out a few verses from one passage of Scripture.  I could say more.  I'm sure you get the picture by now.  I hope you don't fall into a deep depression because of what I said, and please don't jump off a tall building.  There are some really unbelievable good things I will share later that should make your heart leap with exceeding joy.  I just want us to understand that the degree to which we can begin to understand the almighty, powerful, and just nature of God is the degree to which we can begin to understand and appreciate His love.  


Unprecedented Love


You may find this comment strange, but the word love is one over-used and misunderstood word.  Listen to any pop song and you'll see how the world defines love.  1 Corinthians 13 provides the Biblical definition of love.  That chapter is often read at weddings but is often  forgotten about once the wedding is over.  I won't comment on 1 Corinthians 13.  I will attempt to show you a bit of how God Almighty demonstrates love instead. 


The world tells us that we can't love others until we love ourselves first.  Jesus thinks differently.  He told us to deny ourselves.  Denying self implies sacrifice, and Jesus doesn't tell us to do something He Himself doesn't do.  We'll see that God's love is all about sacrifice.    


In this series of articles I've briefly attempted to show that God is the Almighty Creator.  The motivation for what I've said is based on Ellul's quote in chapter 6 of "The Shack".  He said that God's almighty nature is a secondary aspect to who God is.  I say no aspect of God is secondary.  They're all primary. 


God is almighty.  There's no doubt about that.  He spoke all things into existence without any effort.  He is sinless.  He is perfectly good and right in who He is and what He does.  He hates sin.  He is just as much the embodiment of justice that demands judgment as He is the embodiment of unprecedented love. 


If God hates sin so much, you might wonder why He made us capable of sinning in the first place.  I could be wrong, but I think He made us capable of sin in order to show how serious He is about love.  Romans 5:6 through 8 says, "… Christ died for the ungodly … very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man … but God demonstrated His own love for us:  while we were still sinners Christ died for us."  Paul's point is simple.  Anyone can love a nice guy.  It's hard to love someone who isn't so nice, but if you can, you prove your love is real.  Making us capable of sinning, and knowing we would sin, demonstrates that God's love is real.       


Most of us think we're pretty good.  We think this way because we compare ourselves with others who we perceive aren't as good.  God thinks differently. He compares us with Himself, not to the murderer incarcerated in prison.  I may be just as good as the next guy, but compared to God, I'm a miserable sinner.  That's not a popular statement to make these days.        


Humanly speaking, you might think God has found Himself in a dilemma.  His wrath is raging because of our sin.  He has no other choice but to condemn us in judgment, but how can He when He loves us?  This is where sacrifice comes in.  God made His plans about this apparent dilemma before He even created us. (Ephesians 1:4)  It wasn't an after-thought once Adam and Eve sinned.  Prior to creation, God chose to demonstrate sacrificial love by joining us in sinful humanity.  It sounds like an incredible fairy-tale, but it's not.    


When God entered humanity, He wasn't born into wealth, power or prestige.  He was born into a simple working class family who lived in a hick town in the hills of Galilee .  It was a rough neighborhood for a nice guy to grow up in.  His so-called illegitimate birth probably made Him the centre of many jokes.  Things didn't get any better as Jesus got older.  When He finally came of age, He led a simple life.  He was a superstar for a brief period of time, but once He became a threat to Jewish society, He was falsely accused, arrested, and condemned to death as a criminal.


Before His death, Jesus wept bitterly for His murderers and for the city He loved.  I don't think the degree of  sorrow behind His tears has ever been felt by us. 


Jesus' death wasn't an ordinary death.  God's violent wrath exploded on Jesus in death.  He actually  "became" sin while hanging on the cross. (2 Corinthians 5:21)  That's why Isaiah 52:14 says that He became unrecognizable as a man.  Sin actually disfigured His body. It's hard for us to understand, but the One who hates sin, became sin.   That's sacrifice.   


Jesus did rise from death, and return to be with His Father.  Many of us haven't thought this one through.  Jesus returned to heaven, but not in the same state of being that He had before becoming human.  From my study of Scripture, Jesus was the divine Word, or mind of God, prior to His entrance into humanity.  He left that unity when Mary conceived Him, and will never return to it.  Instead, after His resurrection, his human body was transformed into what we call a glorified body.  When we see Jesus in the next life, we will see His glorified body,  nail-prints included.  For this reason, Jesus has altered His state of existence for all of eternity, just for us.  He didn't become one of us for 33 short years, but forever.  That's sacrificial love.  Anyone who rejects this love is left to experience the same wrath that Jesus experienced while on the cross. (Hebrews 10:26) That's "heavy stuff" as we used to say in the 1960's.  That's also a Biblical truth that is being rejected in many ecclesiastical circles these days.  


My explanation of  who God is and how much He loves us doesn’t come close to doing Him justice.  Humanity can't explain God properly.  If you take the time to think about these things, and study them in Scripture, you will begin to see who God is.  You'll also see who you are, which probably isn't who you thought you were.  Only at this point will you begin to appreciate God's love.  That's why I say, "the degree to which you or I can begin to understand the almighty, awesome, and just nature of God, will be the degree to which we will begin to appreciate His love."   For this reason I disagree with Ellul's statement in chapter 6 of "The Shack".  The Almighty Creator aspect of God is something that should never be relegated to the back of our minds. 



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