Who is God According to the Bible?

“THE TRUE GOD AS REVEALED IN THE SCRIPTURES” 

DR. JAMES MONTGOMERY BOICE

Foundations of the Xian Faith image

It is evident that we need more than a theoretical knowledge of God. Yet we can know God only as he reveals himself to us in the Scriptures, and we cannot know the Scriptures until we are willing to be changed by them. Knowledge of God occurs only when we also know our deep spiritual need and when we are receptive to God’s gracious provision for our need through the work of Christ and the application of that work to us by God’s Spirit.

Having established this base, we nevertheless come back to the question of God himself and we ask, “But who is God? Who is this one who reveals himself in Scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit?” We may admit that a true knowledge of God must change us. We may be willing to be changed. But where do we begin?

“I Am Who I Am”

Since the Bible is a unity we could answer these questions by starting at any point in the biblical revelation. We could begin with Revelation 22:21 as well as with Genesis 1:1. But there is no better starting point than God’s revelation of himself to Moses at the burning bush. Moses, the great leader of Israel, had long been aware of the true God, for he had been born into a godly family. Still, when God said that he would send him to Egypt and through him deliver the people of Israel, Moses responded, “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?” We are told that God then answered Moses by saying, “I AM WHO I AM. . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:13-14).

“I AM WHO I AM.” The name is linked with the ancient name for God, Jehovah. But it is more than a name. It is a descriptive name, pointing to all that God is in himself. In particular, it shows him to be the One who is entirely self-existent, self-sufficient and eternal.

These are abstract concepts, of course. But they are important, for these attributes more than any others set God apart from his creation and reveal him as being what he is in himself. God is perfect in all his attributes. But there are some attributes that we, his creatures, share. For instance, God is perfect in his love. Yet by his grace we also love. He is all wise; but we also possess a measure of wisdom. He is all powerful; and we exercise a limited power. It is not like that in regard to God’s self-existence, self-sufficiency and eternity, however. He alone possesses those characteristics. He exists in and of himself; we do not. He is entirely self-sufficient; we are not. He is eternal; we are newcomers on the scene.

Self-existence means that God has no origins and consequently is answerable to no one. Matthew Henry says, “The greatest and best man in the world must say, By the grace of God I am what I am; but God says absolutely — and it is more than any creature, man or angel, can say — I am that I am.1 So God has no origins; his existence does not depend on anybody.

Self-existence is a hard concept for us to grapple with for it means that God as he is in himself is unknowable. Everything that we see, smell, hear, taste or touch has origins. We can hardly think in any other category. Anything we observe must have a cause adequate to explain it. We seek for such causes. Cause and effect is even the basis for the belief in God possessed by those who, nevertheless, don’t truly know him. Such individuals believe in God, not because they have had a personal experience of him or because they have discovered God in Scripture, but only because they infer his existence. “Everything comes from something; consequently, there must be a great something that stands behind everything.” Cause and effect point to God, but — and this is the issue — they point to a God who is beyond understanding, indeed to one who is beyond us in every way. They indicate that God cannot be known and evaluated like other things can.

A. W. Tozer has noted that this is one reason why philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God. These disciplines are dedicated to the task of accounting for things as we know them and are therefore impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. Philosophers and scientists will admit that there is much they don’t know. But it is another thing to admit that there is something they can never know completely and which, in fact, they don’t even have techniques for discovering. To discover God, scientists may attempt to bring God down to their level, defining him as “natural law,” “evolution” or some such principle. But still God eludes them. There is more to God than any such concepts can delineate.

Perhaps, too, this is why even Bible-believing people seem to spend so little time thinking about God’s person and character. Tozer writes,

Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good — about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives.2

God’s self-existence means that he is not answerable to us or to anybody, and we don’t like that. We want God to give an account of himself, to defend his actions. Although he sometimes explains things to us, he doesn’t have to and often he does not. God doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody.

No Needs

The second quality of God communicated to us in the name “I AM WHO I AM” is self-sufficiency. Again it is possible to have at least a sense of the meaning of this abstract term. Self-sufficiency means God has no needs and therefore depends on no one.

Here we run counter to a widespread and popular idea: God cooperates with human beings, each thereby supplying something lacking in the other. It is imagined, for example, that God lacks glory and therefore creates men and women to supply it. He takes care of them as a reward. Or again, it is imagined that God needs love and therefore creates men and women to love him. Some talk about the creation as if God were lonely and therefore created us to keep him company. On a practical level we see the same thing in those who imagine that women and men are necessary to carry out God’s work of salvation as witnesses or as defenders of the faith, forgetting that Jesus himself declared that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Lk. 3:8).

God does not need worshipers. Arthur W. Pink, who writes on this theme in The Attributes of God, says,

God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to do so was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside himself, determined by nothing but his own mere good pleasure; for he “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). That he did create was simply for his manifestative glory. . . . God is no gainer even from our worship. He was in no need of that external glory of his grace which arises from his redeemed, for he is glorious enough in himself without that. What was it moved him to predestinate his elect to the praise of the glory of his grace? It was, as Ephesians 1:5 tells us, “according to the good pleasure of his will.” . . . The force of this is [that] it is impossible to bring the Almighty under obligations to the creature; God gains nothing from us.3

Tozer makes the same point. “Were all human beings suddenly to become blind, still the sun would shine by day and the stars by night, for these owe nothing to the millions who benefit from their light. So, were every man on earth to become an atheist, it could not affect God in any way. He is what he is in himself without regard to any other. To believe in him adds nothing to his perfections; to doubt him takes nothing away.”4

Nor does God need helpers. This truth is probably harder for us to accept than almost any other. For we imagine God as a friendly, but almost pathetic, grandfather figure bustling about to see whom he can find to help him in managing the world and saving the world’s race. What a travesty! To be sure, God has entrusted a work of management to us. He said to the original pair in Eden, “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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God also has given those who believe in him a commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15). True, but no aspect of God’s ordering of his creation has a necessary grounding in himself. God has chosen to do things thus. He didn’t need to do them. Indeed, he could have done them in any one of a million other ways. That he did choose to do things thus is therefore solely dependent upon the free and sovereign exercise of his will and so does not give us any inherent value to him.

To say that God is self-sufficient also means that God does not need defenders. Clearly, we have opportunities to speak for God before those who would dishonor his name and malign his character. We ought to do so. But even if we should fail, we must not think that God is deprived thereby. God does not need to be defended, for he is as he is and will remain so regardless of the sinful and arrogant attacks of evil individuals. A God who needs to be defended is no God. Rather, the God of the Bible is the self-existent One who is the true defender of his people.

When we realize that God is the only truly self-sufficient One, we begin to understand why the Bible has so much to say about the need for faith in God alone and why unbelief in God is such sin. Tozer writes: “Among all created beings, not one dare trust in itself. God alone trusts in himself; all other beings must trust in him. Unbelief is actually perverted faith, for it puts its trust not in the living God but in dying men.”5 If we refuse to trust God, what we are actually saying is that either we or some other person or thing is more trustworthy. That is a slander against the character of God, and it is folly. Nothing else is all-sufficient. On the other hand, if we begin by trusting God (by believing in him), we have a solid foundation for all life. God is sufficient, and his Word to his creatures can be trusted.

Because God is sufficient, we may begin by resting in that sufficiency and so work effectively for him. God does not need us. But the joy of coming to know him is in learning that he nevertheless stoops to work in and through those who are his believing and obedient children.

Alpha and Omega

A third quality inherent in the name of God given to Moses (“I AM WHO I AM”) is everlastingness, perpetuity or eternity. The quality is difficult to put in one word, but it is simply that God is, has always been and will always be, and that he is ever the same in his eternal being. We find this attribute of God everywhere in the Bible. Abraham called Jehovah “the Everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33). Moses wrote, “LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God” (Ps. 90:1-2). The book of Revelation describes God as the “Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). The creatures before the throne cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).

The fact that God is eternal has two major consequences for us. The first is that he can be trusted to remain as he reveals himself to be. The word usually used to describe this quality is immutability, which means unchangeableness. “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17).

God is unchangeable in his attributes. So we need not fear, for example, that the God who once loved us in Christ will somehow change his mind and cease to love us in the future. God is always love toward his people. Similarly, we must not think that perhaps he will change his attitude toward sin, so that he will begin to classify as “permissible” something that was formerly prohibited. Sin will always be sin because it is defined as any transgression of or lack of conformity to the law of God, who is unchangeable. God will always be holy, wise, gracious, just and everything else that he reveals himself to be. Nothing that we do will ever change the eternal God.

God is also unchangeable in his counsels or will. He does what he has determined beforehand to do and his will never varies. Some will point out that certain verses in the Bible tell us that God repented of some act — as in Genesis 6:6, “The LORD was sorry that he had made man.” In this example, a human word is being used to indicate God’s severe displeasure with human activities. It is countered by such verses as Numbers 23:19 (“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?”); 1 Samuel 15:29 (“The Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent”); Romans 11:29 (“The gifts and call of God are irrevocable”); and Psalm 33:11 (“The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations”).

Such statements are a source of great comfort to God’s people. If God were like us, he could not be relied on. He would change, and as a result of that his will and his promises would change. We could not depend on him. But God is not like us. He does not change. Consequently, his purposes remain fixed from generation to generation. Pink says, “Here then is a rock on which we may fix our feet, while the mighty torrent is sweeping away everything around us. The permanence of God’s character guarantees the fulfillment of his promises.”6

The second major consequence for us of God’s unchangeableness is that he is inescapable. If he were a mere human and if we didn’t like either him or what he was doing, we might ignore him knowing that he might always change his mind, move away from us or die. But God does not change his mind. He does not move away. He will not die. Consequently, we cannot escape him. Even if we ignore him now, we must reckon with him in the life to come. If we reject him now, we must eventually face the One we have rejected and come to know his eternal rejection of us.

No Other Gods

We are led to a natural conclusion, namely, that we should. seek and worship the true God. This chapter has been based for the most part on Exodus 3:14, in which God reveals to Moses the name by which he desires to be known. That revelation came on the verge of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. After the exodus, God gave a revelation on Mount Sinai which applies the earlier disclosure of himself as the true God to the religious life and worship of the delivered nation.

God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:2-6). These verses make three points, all based on the premise that the God who reveals himself in the Bible is the true God:

  • We are to worship God and obey him.
  • We are to reject the worship of any other god.
  • We are to reject the worship of the true God by any means that are unworthy of him, such as the use of pictures or images.

At first glance it seems quite strange that a prohibition against the use of images in worship should have a place at the very start of the ten basic principles of biblical religion, the Ten Commandments. But it is not strange when we remember that the characteristics of a religion flow from the nature of the religion’s god. If the god is unworthy, the religion will be unworthy too. If the concept of God is of the highest order, the religion will be of a high order also. So God tells us in these verses that any physical representation of him is dishonoring to him. Why? For two reasons. First, it obscures his glory, for nothing visible can ever adequately represent it. Second, it misleads those who would worship him.

Both of these errors are represented by Aaron’s manufacture of the golden calf, as J. I. Packer indicates in his discussion of idolatry. In Aaron’s mind, at least, though probably not in the minds of the people, the calf was intended to represent Jehovah. He thought, no doubt, that a figure of a bull (even a small one) communicated the thought of God’s strength. But, of course, it didn’t do so adequately. And it didn’t at all communicate his other great attributes: his sovereignty, righteousness, mercy, love and justice. Rather, it obscured them.

Moreover, the figure of the bull misled the worshipers. They readily associated it with the fertility gods and goddesses of Egypt, and the result of their worship was an orgy. Packer concludes,

It is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him. Thus you will in this sense “bow down” and “worship” your image; and to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth. That is why God forbids you and me to make use of images and pictures in our worship.7

“My Lord and My God”

To avoid the worship of images or even the use of images in the worship of the true God is not in itself worship. We are to recognize that the true God is the eternal, self-existent and self-sufficient One, the One immeasurably beyond our highest thoughts. Therefore, we are to humble ourselves and learn from him, allowing him to teach us what he is like and what he has done for our salvation. Do we do what he commands? Are we sure that in our worship we are actually worshiping the true God who has revealed himself in the Bible?

There is only one way to answer that question truthfully. It is to ask: Do I really know the Bible, and do I worship God on the basis of the truth I find there? That truth is centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, as seen in the Bible. There the invisible God is made visible, the inscrutable knowable, the eternal God disclosed in space and time. Do I look to Jesus in order to know God? Do I think of God’s attributes by what Jesus shows me of them? If not, I am worshiping an image of God, albeit an image of my own devising. If I look to Jesus, then I can know that I am worshiping the true God, as he has revealed himself. Paul says that although some knew God they nevertheless “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). Let us determine that this shall not be true of us. We see God in Jesus. So let us know him as God, love him as God, serve him as God and worship him as God.


Notes

  1. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 1 (New York: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), p. 284
  2. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 34.
  3. Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, n.d.), pp. 2-3.
  4. Tozer, p. 40.
  5. Ibid., p. 42.
  6. Pink, p. 41.
  7. J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 41

Author

Boice JM holding bible w smile

James Montgomery Boice held a B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Basel in Switzerland. He was the pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and the author of many books, including the three volumes in the series, “Foundations of the Christian Faith”. This article is taken from volume one of that same series, entitled The Sovereign God.

God Has Always Been and Ever Will Be by J.I. Packer

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” – Psalm 90:2

The Self-Existence of God: His Aseity 

Children sometimes ask, “Who made God?” The clearest answer is that God never needed to be made, because he was always there. He exists in a different way from us: we, his creatures, exist in a dependent, derived, finite, fragile way, but our Maker exists in an eternal, self-sustaining, necessary way—necessary, that is, in the sense that God does not have it in him to go out of existence, just as we do not have it in us to live forever. We necessarily age and die, because it is our present nature to do that; God necessarily continues forever unchanged, because it is his eternal nature to do that. This is one of many contrasts between creature and Creator.

God’s self-existence is a basic truth. At the outset of his presentation of the unknown God to the Athenian idolaters, Paul explained that this God, the world’s Creator, “is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:23-25). Sacrifices offered to idols, in today’s tribal religions as in ancient Athens, are thought of as somehow keeping the god going, but the Creator needs no such support system. The word aseity, meaning that he has life in himself and draws his unending energy from himself (a se in Latin means “from himself”), was coined by theologians to express this truth, which the Bible makes clear:

Psalm 90:1-4, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”

Psalm 102:25-27, “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.”

Isaiah 40:28-31, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

John 5:26, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.”

Revelation 4:10-11, “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

In theology, endless mistakes result from supposing that the conditions, bounds, and limits of our own finite existence apply to God. The doctrine of his aseity stands as a bulwark against such mistakes. In our life of faith, we easily impoverish ourselves by embracing an idea of God that is too limited and small, and again the doctrine of God’s aseity stands as a bulwark to stop this happening. It is vital for spiritual health to believe that God is great (cf. Ps. 95:1-7 below), and grasping the truth of his aseity is the first step on the road to doing this.

Psalm 95:1-7, “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

Article above adapted from J.I. Packer. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001, p. 26.

About J.I. Packer:

Dr. J.I. Packer is a British Theologian and has written over 50 books and numerous contributions to theological journals, reference works, and compilations. He is a a brilliant humble scholar who is best known for his works on Theology Proper – The Study of God. His classic work on the attributes and character of God – Knowing God is “must reading” for the Christian.

Dr. Erwin Lutzer on One of The Biggest Lies Moderns Believe About God

 LIE BELIEVED: “God Is More Tolerant Than He Used to Be”

“I’M GLAD NO ONE REALLY BELIEVES the Bible anymore, or they’d stone us.” Those were the words of a gay activist, replying to a Christian who was using the Bible to condemn homosexuality. The activist’s argument was clear: Since the penalty for homosexuality in the Old Testament was death, how can you say you believe the Bible? And if you don’t believe it, then don’t use it to argue against homosexuality!

How do we answer those who insist that God is more tolerant today than He was in the days of the Old Testament? Back then, the law dictated that homosexuals be stoned to death, along with adulterers, children who cursed their parents, witches, and blasphemers. I have discovered about a dozen different sins or transgressions that Jewish law considered capital crimes in Old Testament times.

Today everything has changed. Homosexuals are invited into our churches; parents are told to love their rebellious children unconditionally; adulterers are given extensive counseling. Yes, murder and incest are still crimes, but witches are allowed to get rich practicing sorcery in every city in America.

We hear no more stories of Nadab and Abihu, struck dead for offering “unauthorized fire.” We read no more documented accounts of people like Uzzah who touched the ark contrary to God’s instructions and was instantly killed (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Today people can be as irreverent or blasphemous as they wish and live to see old age. As R. C. Sproul has observed, if Old Testament penalties for blasphemy were in effect today, every television executive would have been executed long ago.

Is God more tolerant than He used to be?

We need to answer this question for two reasons. First, we want to know whether we are free to sin with a minimum of consequences. Can we now live as we please, with the assurance that God will treat us with compassion and not judgment? A young Christian woman confided to me that she chose a life of immorality in part because she was sure that “God would forgive her anyway.” She had no reason to fear His wrath, for Christ had borne it all for her. Her statement begs the question: can conduct that in the Old Testament received strong rebuke or even the death penalty now be chosen with the sure knowledge that God is forgiving, showering us with “unconditional love”?

At one time Christians in America might have been described as legalists, adhering to the letter of the law. No one would accuse us of that today. We are free—free to ski in Colorado and romp on the beach in Hawaii, but also free to watch risqué movies, gamble, free to be as greedy as the world in which we work—free to sin. Is it safer for us to sin in this age than it was in the days of the Old Testament?

There is a second reason we want an answer: we want to know whether it is safer for others to do wrong today. If you have been sinned against, you want to know whether you can depend on God to “even the score.” The girl who has been raped, the child who has been abused, the person who was chiseled out of his life’s savings by an unscrupulous salesman—all of these victims and a hundred like them want to know whether God is so loving that He will overlook these infractions. What is the chance that these perpetrators will face justice? We want God to judge us with tolerance; however, we hope that He will not extend the same patience to those who have wronged us. So we wonder: can we depend on God to be lenient or harsh, merciful or condemning?

Many people decry God’s apparent silence today in the face of outrageous and widespread sin. The question is, how shall we interpret this silence? Is God indifferent, or biding His time? Has he changed?

In a PBS program hosted by Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation, the participants agreed that there was development in God. He sent the flood to the world, but then, like a child who builds a sandcastle only to destroy it in anger, God regretted what He had done, felt duly chastised, and so gave the rainbow with a promise to never do that again. Most of the panelists agreed that the Flood was evil; it had no redeemable value. Choose almost any human being at random, and he/she would have been more benevolent than God, they said.

The panel assumed, of course, that the Bible is only a record of what people throughout the centuries have thought about God. So as we evolved to become more tolerant, our conception of God became more tolerant. Thus the New Testament, with its emphasis on love, is a more mature, gracious representation of God. This surely would explain the apparent difference between the Old and New Testaments.

Other religious liberals believe that the Bible reveals two Gods: the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the more loving, inclusive God of the New. Again, this is based on the same premise: as humanity changes, so our ideas about God change. In primitive times men’s ideas of God were harsh and unrelenting; in more enlightened times, men’s conceptions are more tolerant and loving. This, as we have already learned, is building a concept of God beginning with man and reasoning upward.

There is another possibility. We can affirm that God has not changed, His standards are the same, but He has chosen to interact with people differently, at least for a time. In fact, in this chapter we will discover that the attributes of God revealed in the Old Testament are affirmed in the New. Even in the Old Testament we see the severity of God, but also His goodness; we see His strict judgments, but also His mercy.

The neat division sometimes made between the Old Testament with its wrath and the New Testament with its mercy is not a fair reading of the text. Yes, there were strict penalties in the Old Testament, but there also was grace; in fact, looked at carefully, God appears tolerant. Note David’s description of his “Old Testament God”:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:8-12)

The fact is, the same balance of attributes is found in both Testaments. There are compelling reasons to believe that God has not changed a single opinion uttered in the Old Testament; the New Testament might emphasize grace more than law, but in the end God reveals Himself with amazing consistency. Properly understood, the penalties also have not changed. And thankfully, His mercy also remains immutable.

Join me on a journey that will probe the nature and works of God; we will see the magnificent unity between the Old Testament and the New. And when we are finished we will worship as perhaps never before.

 GOD UNCHANGING

Who made God? You’ve heard the question, probably from the lips of a child, or for that matter, from the lips of a skeptic who wanted to argue that believing the universe is eternal is just as rational as believing that God is eternal. If we don’t know where God came from, the argument goes, then we don’t have to know where the universe came from.

Of course there is a difference: the universe does not have within itself the cause of its own existence. The living God, and not the universe, has always existed, for He is, as theologians say, “the uncaused cause.” We can’t get our minds around the concept of an uncaused being, but both the Bible and logic teach that if there were no “uncaused being,” nothing would ever have existed, for out of nothing, nothing can arise.

Scripture tells us, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). From eternity past to eternity future, God exists, and as we shall see, He does not change.

 God’s Nature Does Not Change

God cannot grow older; he does not gain new powers nor lose ones He once had. He does not grow wiser, for He already knows all things. He does not become stronger; He already is omnipotent, powerful to an infinite degree. “He cannot change for the better,” wrote A. W. Pink, “for he is already perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse” (A.W. Pink quoted in J.I. Packer, Knowing God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 63). “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

God’s Truth Does Not Change

Sometimes we say things we do not mean, or we make promises we cannot keep. Unforeseen circumstances make our words worthless. Not so with God: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). David agreed when he wrote, “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens…. Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever” (Ps. 119:89, 152). God never has to revise His opinions or update His plans. He never has had to revamp His schedule. Yes, there are a few passages of Scripture that speak of God as regretting a decision and changing His mind (Gen. 6:6-7; 1 Sam. 15). In these passages Scripture shows God changing His response to people because of their behavior. But there is no reason to think that this reaction was either unforeseen or not a part of His eternal plan. As J. I. Packer put it, “No change in His eternal purpose is implied when He begins to deal with a man in a new way” (Packer, Knowing God, 72).

 God’s Standards Do Not Change

The Ten Commandments are not just an arbitrary list of rules; they are a reflection of the character of God and the world that He chose to create. We should not bear false witness because God is a God of truth; we should not commit adultery because the Creator established the integrity of the family. “Be holy, because I am holy” is a command in both Testaments (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God intended that the commandments hold His standard before us. “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).

The command to love the unlovable is rooted in the very character of God. God’s attributes are uniquely balanced. He combines compassion with a commitment to strict justice, describing Himself as “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).

Though we die, nothing in God dies; He unites the past and the future. The God who called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees called me into the ministry. The Christ who appeared to Paul en route to Damascus saved me. The Holy Spirit who visited the early church with great blessing and power indwells those of us who have received salvation from Christ. The Bible could not state it more clearly: God has not changed and will not change in the future. The prophet Malachi recorded it in six words: “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6).

Reverend Henry Lyte had to leave the pastorate in Devonshire, England, because of poor health. As he bade farewell to his beloved congregation, he shared these words, which many of us have often sung.

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:

When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,

O Thou who changest not, abide with me. (Abide with Me)

At the Moody Church where I serve, there is a motto in the front of the sanctuary that reads, “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today and forever” (see Heb. 13:8). Yes, the One who changes not abides with us.

 GOD’S ADMINISTRATION HAS CHANGED

How then do we account for the difference between the consequences of disobedience in the Old and the New Testaments? If God cannot be more tolerant than He used to be, why are the Old Testament penalties not carried out? Why does it appear to be so safe to sin today? God’s judgments abide, but His method of managing them has changed. He relates to us differently without altering either His opinions or requiring less of us. He is neither more tolerant nor more accommodating to our weaknesses. Let me explain. When a four-year-old boy was caught stealing candy from a store, his father gave him a spanking. Let us suppose that the same lad were to steal candy at the age of twelve; the father might choose not to spank him but to give him some other form of punishment, such as a loss of privileges or a discipline regime. If the boy repeated the practice at age twenty, there might not be any immediate consequences pending a future date in court. My point is simply that the parents’ view of thievery does not change, but they would choose to deal with this infraction differently from one period of time to another. Rather than lessen the penalty as the child grows older and has more knowledge, his parents might exact a more serious penalty. Just so, we shall discover that God’s opinions have not changed; His penalties are yet severe. But there is a change in the timetable and method of punishment.

The more carefully we look at the Scriptures, the more we become aware of the unwavering consistency of God and His intention to punish sin. He hates it just as much today as ever. Thankfully, He offers us a remedy for it. In Hebrews 12:18-29 we see the unity of God reflected in both Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary. Here, like a diamond, the fuller range of God’s attributes are on display. We see that God has not lowered His standards; He will in the end prove that He has not mellowed with age. Those who are unprepared to meet Him face a future of unimaginable horror. No, He has not changed.

This change in management can be represented in three ways. Stay with me—the contrast between Sinai andCalvary will give us the answers we seek.

 The Earthly versus the Heavenly

The author of Hebrews gave a vivid description of the mount at Sinai when he reminded his readers: You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear” (Heb. 12:18-21).

On Mount Sinai God’s glory humbled Moses and Aaron into silence and worship. God called Moses to the top of the mountain to see the fire, lightning, and smoke. Moses then returned to tell the people that they would be struck down if they came too close to the mountain. The physical distance between the people and the mountain symbolized the moral distance between God and mankind. Not even Moses was able to see God directly, though he was given special privileges. The word to the people was, “Stay back or be killed!” Imagine the power needed to shake a mountain! Even today we see the power of God in tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. God accompanied this special revelation with a physical act that would remind the people of His power and judgment. They were to stand back because He is holy. There was also a vertical distance between God and man. God came down out of heaven as a reminder that we are from below, creatures of the earth. He is separated; He exceeds the limits. To quote Sproul, “When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite. When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal. To meet God is a study in contrasts” (R.C. Sproul. The Holiness of God. Wheaton: Tyndale. 1985, 63).

Imagine a New Ager standing at Mount Sinai, engulfed in bellows of fire and smoke, saying, “I will come to God on my own terms. We can all come in our own way!” Sinai was God’s presence without an atonement, without a mediator. It pictures sinful man standing within range of God’s holiness. Here was the unworthy creature in the presence of his most worthy Creator. Here was a revelation of the God who will not tolerate disobedience, the God who was to be feared above all gods. Now comes an important contrast. The writer of Hebrews affirms, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22). When David conquered Jerusalem and placed the ark on Mount Zion, this mountain was considered the earthly dwelling place of God and later the word Zion was applied to the entire city. Centuries passed and Christ came and died outside of its walls, fulfilling the prophecies that salvation would come from Zion.

Mount Zion represents the opening of heaven, and now we are invited to enjoy six privileges. Look at Hebrews 12:22-24.

First, we come to “the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). As believers we are already citizens of heaven. As we have learned, we are invited into the “Most Holy Place” by the blood of Jesus.

Second, the writer says we come to the presence of hundreds of millions of angels “in joyful assembly” (v. 22). We come to celebrating angels whom we join in praising God. Don’t forget that angels were present at Sinai too (Gal. 3:19), but the people were not able to join them there; these heavenly beings were blowing the trumpets of judgment. Like God, they were unapproachable. But now we can join them, not for fellowship, but for rejoicing over God’s triumphs in the world. Whereas Sinai was terrifying, Zion is inviting and gracious. Sinai is closed to all, for no one can keep the demands of the law; Zion is open to everyone who is willing to take advantage of the sacrifice of Christ. In Jesus the unapproachable God becomes approachable.

Third, we come to the “church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven,” that is, the body of Christ (v. 23). Jesus said that the disciples should not rejoice because the angels were subject to them, but rather because their names were “written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). The names of all believers are found there in the Book of Life; all listed there are members of the church triumphant.

Fourth, we come to God, “the judge of all men” (v. 23), for the veil of the temple was torn in two and we can enter “the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).

Fifth, we come to “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (v. 23), which probably refers to the Old Testament saints who could only look forward to forgiveness, pardon, and full reconciliation with God. In Christ we receive in a moment what they could only anticipate. In a sense they had to wait for us (Heb. 11:40). The bottom line is that we will be united with Abraham and a host of other Old Testament saints. What a family!

Finally, and supremely, we come to “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but his shed blood could not atone for his sin, much less for the sin of his brother. Jesus’ blood, however, is sufficient for us all. The contrast is clear. Sinai was covered with clouds; Zion is filled with light. Sinai is symbolic of judgment and death; Zion is symbolic of life and forgiveness. The message of Sinai was “Stand back!” The message of Zion is “Come near!” Look at a calendar and you will agree that Christ splits history in two—we have B.C. and A.D.—but He also splits salvation history in two, even as the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Now that His blood is shed, we can come to God in confidence. Does this mean that God’s hatred for sin has been taken away? Has Christ’s coming made the Almighty more tolerant? It’s too early in our discussion to draw any conclusions. Let’s continue to study the passage, and our questions will be answered. There is a second way to describe this change of administration. The Old Covenant versus the New Covenant Jesus, we have learned, is the mediator of “a new covenant” (v. 24). What does this mean? If He gave us a new covenant, what was the old covenant?

In Old Testament times God made a covenant with the entire nation of Israel. He chose to rule directly through kings and prophets, revealing his will step by step, and expecting them to follow His instructions. The prophets could say, “The word of the Lord came to me” and tell the kings what God’s will was. There was no separation between religion and the state, as we know it; the state existed to implement the divine will of God. Obviously, there was no freedom of religion in the Old Testament era. Death was the punishment for idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me” was the first of the Ten Commandments given to the nation Israel. If people did not obey, the penalties were immediate and, from our standpoint, severe. Jesus brought with Him a radical teaching, the idea that it would be possible for His followers to live acceptably under a pagan government. He did not come to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel; indeed, His kingdom was not of this world. When faced with the question of whether taxes should be paid to the pagan Romans, Christ replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar‘s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). Yes, believers could pay taxes to a corrupt government, and yes, they could fulfill their obligations to God as well. There are two major changes inherent in Jesus’ teaching.

First, God would no longer deal with one nation, but with individuals from all nations. He would now call out from among the nations a transnational group comprised of every tribe, tongue, and people, to form a new gathering called the church. These people would live, for the most part, in political regimes that were hostile to them. But we who are a part of this program are to continue as salt and light, representing Him wherever we find ourselves.

Second, in our era, we are to submit, as far as possible, to worldly authorities; we are to do their bidding unless such obligations conflict with our conscience. Indeed, Paul, writing from a jail cell in Rome, said that we must submit to the governing authorities (in his case, Nero) because they were established by God (see Rom. 13:1). Our agenda as a church is not to take over nations, politically speaking. Of course Christians should be involved in government as good citizens, but our primary message is the transformation of nations through the transformation of individuals.

The early disciples had all of our national woes and more, and yet without a political base, without a voting block in the Roman senate, they changed their world, turning it “upside down,” as Luke the historian put it (Acts 17:6, NLT). When Paul came to the immoral city of Corinth, he taught what surely must have appeared a novel idea, namely,that it was not the responsibility of the church to judge the unbelieving world with regard to their morals, but only to judge them in relation to the gospel, which is “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

To the church he wrote: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:9-12).

If you work in the unbelieving world and decide not to eat with those who are immoral, greedy, or idolaters, you just might have to eat your lunch alone! Of course we can eat with such people if they do not claim to be believers in Christ. But if a Christian lives this way and we have fellowship with him over a meal, or if we enjoy his company, we are in some sense approving of his sin. To help such see the error of their ways, Paul says don’t even eat with them.

Now we are ready to understand why we do not put people to death today as was done in the Old Testament. We have no authority to judge those who are outside the fellowship of believers; the state is to penalize those who commit certain crimes, and those laws must be upheld. But—and this is important—all the behaviors that merited the death penalty in the Old Testament are infractions for which we now discipline believers within the church.

We do not have the right to take a life, we do not have the right to inflict physical death, but we can announce spiritual death to those who persist in their sins. Paul instructed the Corinthian church to put the immoral man not to death but out of the congregation (1 Cor. 5:5). Such discipline is our duty. It is foolish for us to think that we can sin with impunity just because Christ has come. The purpose of redemption
was to make possible our holy lives. It is blessedly true, of course, that God does forgive, but our sin, particularly deliberate sin, always invites the discipline of God. We are to pursue holiness, for “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

God has not revised His list of offenses.

A woman said to her pastor, “I am living in sin, but it’s different because I am a Christian.” The pastor replied, “Yes, it is different. For a Christian, such sin is much more serious.” Indeed, God takes our disobedience so seriously that the Scriptures warn: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:5-6). There is a final and important way to describe the contrast between Sinai and Calvary, and at last we will specifically answer the question of whether God is more tolerant than He used to be. Immediate, Physical Judgment versus Future, Eternal Judgment Continue to read this breathtaking passage. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. (Heb. 12:25-27)

We can’t miss it: if God judged the people for turning away from Him when He spoke at Sinai, just think of the greater judgment that will come to those who turn away from the voice that comes out of heaven, from Mount Zion! The Jews who heard God speak at Sinai did not get to enter the promised land but died in the wilderness. Their primary punishment was physical death, though for the rebellious there was eternal spiritual death as well. Today God does not usually judge people with immediate physical death, but the judgment of spiritual death remains, with even greater condemnation. If God judged the Jews, who had a limited understanding of redemption, think of what He will do to those who have heard about the coming of Christ, His death, and His resurrection!

If the first did not enter the promised land, those today who reject Christ will forfeit spiritual blessings in this life and will assuredly be severely judged by an eternal death. Imagine their fate! At Sinai God shook the earth. From Zion He is going to shake the whole universe. “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (v. 26). The phrase is borrowed from Haggai 2:6, where the prophet predicts that God will judge the earth (see Rev. 6:12-14). Everything that can be shaken, which denotes the whole physical order, will be destroyed and only eternal things will remain (see 2 Pet. 3:10). Don’t miss the first principle: the greater the grace, the greater the judgment for refusing it. The more God does for us, the greater our responsibility to accept it.

The judgment of the Old Testament was largely physical; in the New Testament it is eternal. If you, my friend, have never transferred your trust to Christ for salvation, the terrors of Calvary are much greater than the terrors of Sinai could ever be! Elsewhere, the author of Hebrews faces directly the question of whether God has relaxed His judgments as we move from the past to the present. If we keep in mind that the law at Sinai is spoken of as accompanied by angels, we will understand his argument, “For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:2-3,). He argues from the lesser to the greater: if the law demanded exacting penalties, think of the more severe punishment for those who refuse grace!

In a sense we can say that the harsh penalties of the Old Testament demonstrated an overabundance of grace: by seeing these punishments immediately applied, the people had a visual demonstration of why they should fear God. In our day, these penalties are waived, and as a result people are free to misinterpret the patience of God as laxity or indifference. Today God allows sins to accumulate and delays their judgment. Paul, writing to those who had hardened their hearts against God, said, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5).

Retribution and justice have not escaped God’s attention. Grace gives the illusion of tolerance and, if not properly interpreted, can be construed as a license to sin. Indeed, the New Testament writer Jude warned that there “are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4). They confuse the patience of God with the leniency of God. A second principle: we should never interpret the silence of God as the indifference or God. God’s long-suffering is not a sign of either weakness or indifference; it is intended to bring us to repentance. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It would be a mistake to think that His “slowness” means that He is letting us skip our day of judgment.

Solomon in Ecclesiastes warned that a delay in applying punishment encourages wrongdoing: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Eccles. 8:11). How easily we misinterpret divine patience as divine tolerance! In the end, all penalties will be exacted; retribution will be demanded; nothing will be overlooked.

At the Great White Throne judgment, the unbelievers of all ages will be called into account and meticulously judged. Those who see a difference between the severity of the Old Testament and the tolerance of the New should study this passage carefully: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13-15). Nothing that terrifying occurs in the Old Testament.

Is it safe to sin? In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis tells the story of four children who encounter

a magical world through the back of an old attic wardrobe. In this land, Narnia, animals talk, and one especially glorious creature, a majestic lion, represents Christ. Some beavers describe the lion to Lucy, Susan, and Peter, who are newcomers to Narnia, and they fear meeting Asian. The children ask questions that reveal their apprehension. “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Asian without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Macmillan, 1950, 75-76).

Is God safe? Of course not. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But thankfully, He is good, and if we respond to Him through Christ, He will save us. If we still think that God is more tolerant of sin in the New Testament than in the Old, let us look at what His Son endured at Calvary; imagine Him as He languishes under the weight of our sin. There we learn that we must either personally bear the penalty for our sins, or else it must fall on the shoulders of Christ. In either case, the proper and exact penalties shall be demanded. And because we ourselves cannot pay for our sins, we shall have to live with them for all of eternity—unless we come under the shelter of Christ’s protection. Only Christ can turn away the wrath of God directed toward us.

Is it true that justice delayed is justice denied? For human courts this is so, for as time passes evidence is often lost and the offender is freed. But this does not apply to the Supreme Court of heaven; with God, no facts are lost, no circumstances are capable of misinterpretation. The whole earthly scenario can be re-created so that scrupulous justice can be satisfied. Judicial integrity will prevail, and we shall sing forever, “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Rev. 19:1-2).

Is Jesus only, as the old rhyme goes, “meek and mild”? In the same C. S. Lewis story I quoted above, the children meet Aslan the Lion. Lucy observes that his paws are potentially very inviting or very terrible. They could be as soft as velvet with his claws drawn in, or as sharp as knives with his claws extended. Christ is both meek and lowly, but also fierce and just.

Read this description of Christ, and you will agree that the warnings of the New Testament are as terrifying as the Old: “With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:1-6).

What follows in this passage is an unbelievable description of the carnage that takes place after Jesus executes His judgment. With sword in hand, He smites His enemies and leaves them dying on the battlefield. Even if we appropriately grant that the account is symbolic, it can mean nothing less than the revelation of the vengeance of God Almighty. The Lord God of Sinai is the Lord God of Zion. Finally, figuratively speaking, we must come to Sinai before we come to Zion.

We must see our sin before we can appreciate grace. In the allegory called Pilgrim’s Progress, a man named Christian travels with the weight of sin on his shoulders, but the burden proves too much for him. Thankfully, he comes to Calvary, and there his load is rolled onto the shoulders of the one Person who is able to carry it. To his delight the terrors of Sinai are borne by the Son at Calvary. What a tragedy to meet people who are comfortable with who they are, people who have not felt the terrors of God’s holy law. Since they do not see themselves as lost, they need not be redeemed; absorbed in themselves, they have lost the capacity to grieve over their sin. To those aware of their need, we say, “Come!” Come to Mount Zion to receive mercy and pardon. Stand at Mount Sinai to see your sin, then come to linger at Calvary to see your pardon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Heb. 12:28-29). There was fire at Sinai; there will also be fire at the final judgment. A consuming fire!

Donald McCullough writes: “Fire demands respect for its regal estate. It will not be touched, it will be approached with care, and it wields its scepter for ill or for good. With one spark it can condemn a forest to ashes and a home to a memory as ghostly as the smoke rising from the charred remains of the family album. Or with a single flame it can crown a candle with power to warm a romance and set to dancing a fireplace blaze that defends against the cold. Fire is dangerous to be sure, but we cannot live without it; fire destroys but it also sustains life” (McCullough, The Trivialization of God, 20).

There is a story that comes to us from the early days, when a man and his daughter spotted a prairie fire in the distance. Fearing being engulfed by the flames, the father suggested they build a fire right where they stood. They burned one patch of grass after another, in an ever-widening circle. Then when the distant fire came near, the father comforted his terrified daughter by telling her that flames would not come to the same patch of ground twice; the father and daughter would be safe if they stood where the fire had already been. When we come to Mount Zion, we come to where the fire of Sinai has already struck. We come to the only place of safety; we come to the place where we are welcome. There we are sheltered from terrifying judgment. God’s Son endured the fire that was headed in our direction. Only those who believe in Him are exempt from the flames.

A PERSONAL RESPONSE

There is a story about some members of a synagogue who complained to a rabbi that the liturgy did not express what they felt. Would he be willing to make it more relevant? The rabbi told them that the liturgy was not intended to express what they felt; it was their responsibility to learn to feel what the liturgy expressed.

There is a lesson here. In our day some have so emphasized “felt needs” in worship that they have forgotten that in a future day our most important “felt need” will be to stand before God covered by the righteousness of Christ. The real issue is not how we feel, but rather how God feels. Our responsibility is to “learn to feel” what God does. Let us worship at both of the mountains that are symbolic of the two covenants. We must first come to Mount Sinai as a reminder of our sinfulness; then we stand at Mount Calvary as a reminder of grace. On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.

So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish.” (Exod. 19:16-21) And now we turn to Mount Calvary.

At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice,“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:33-39)

Let us join with the centurion and say, “Surely He was the Son of God!”

About the Author:

Erwin Lutzer image

Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.

Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The article above was adapted from Chapter 3 in the excellent book by Dr. Erwin Lutzer. 10 Lies About God: And the Truths That Shatter Deception. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009.