A Scriptural Imperative

A 15th century Bible in the possession of the former Malmesbury Abbey in England. Photo by Adrian Pingstone

A 15th century Bible in the possession of the former Malmesbury Abbey in England. Photo by Adrian Pingstone

This if the third in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

Do you know which book is the most cheerful in scripture? It’s Revelation. Yes, Revelation: the book that talks about oceans of blood, terrifying beasts, firestorms, demonic torture, and the complete destruction of the world as we know it. This book full of the stuff of nightmares is meant to cheer us up.

If you don’t believe me, try flipping past the trumpet judgments, bowl judgments, the bit about Armageddon, the final destiny of the devil, and the eternal condemnation of most of mankind. You should be at chapter 21 now. This is where things start looking up.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And he said, ‘Write, for these words are faithful and true.’ Then He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son.’”

Revelation 21:1-7

This is a great passage of comfort, because it speaks of the removal of toil and pain for those who are followers of Christ. Here we find the end of tears, grief, and death. A new world is created that is unstained by sin. Hooray! Welcome to heaven!

However, that is only one part of the passage. These verses come not only at the end of the Bible, but also at the end of human history. They represent the culmination of everything God has ordained. In light of this, it seems a bit self-focused to view these verses merely in terms of how our comfort will be affected. If this passage is all about us, then we are the point of history. Yet, God was before us and He orchestrates all things for His glory, not ours. So let us ask ourselves instead, what has changed in this passage from God’s point of view? On what are all those nice human things predicated?

“Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…” (verse 3) This is the “new” thing mentioned in verse 5. This is the purpose of the “new heaven” and “new earth”. (verse 1) Again in verse 7, we are told, “He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son.”

There we have it: both corporately and individually, God is now going to dwell with man. He will be their God, and they will be His people. This naturally begs two questions. First, if God is omnipresent, then doesn’t He already dwell with us wherever we are? Second, if God is completely sovereign, Lord over both the redeemed and the damned, then why does He need to say “I will be his God” as if it were in the future tense?

It is no accident that these words are spoken by God right near the end of the Bible, at the culmination of all things. Indeed, the whole of scripture has been leading up to it, and I am not speaking metaphorically. Look it up for yourself: eleven books (one out of six) use the construct “I will be their God, and they will be My people,” or a very similar one.  It appears in the Pentateuch, the Old Testament prophets, both the Pauline and General Epistles, and the apocalyptic book of Revelation.  The heaviest concentration is in Jeremiah (six different chapters) and Ezekiel (five different chapters).

Overall, I count 24 unique examples. It is not the most repeated phrase in scripture – some variation of “don’t be afraid” seems to hold that record – but it is surely right up there. It isn’t just a phrase either: it’s a powerful idea that is thrown at us so often and by so many different authors that God was surely trying to hit us over the head with it. I consider this chain of related phrases to be the spinal cord of the Bible, the central message to which everything else is connected.

The phrase is about the relationship between God and human beings. We saw how that went wrong in the Garden of Eden. Whereas man and woman once walked with God in complete communion, sin severed that bond, and they hid from Him. Both Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, and you might also say they were cast out of the presence of God. A holy God cannot tolerate sin, so once it entered the picture, the relationship was broken. Humanity would never again enjoy the same communion with God unless that sin was somehow removed…and no man or woman had the power to do that.

At that point, God could have simply wiped out all life, as He almost did in the case of Noah and the Flood. The Apostle Paul wrote that “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), and confirmed that “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:22-23) Therefore, the justice of a holy God demanded payment for the sins committed by all mankind. Allowing us to reap what we sowed would have been in line with that aspect of God’s character, but it would have ignored another aspect: His desire for reconciliation.

Illustration by William Blake of Christ offering Himself to God the Father as a future sacrifice for the sins of humanity. From Blake's illustrations for John Milton's "Paradise Lost".

Illustration by William Blake of Christ offering Himself to God the Father as a future sacrifice for the sins of humanity. From Blake’s illustrations for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

In the epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton imagined the moment in which God foretold man’s fall into sin and the subsequent need for divine justice to be satisfied.

“In mercy, and justice both

Through heaven and earth, so shall my glory excel;

But mercy, first and last, shall brightest shine.”

Paradise Lost, Book III, Lines 132-134

Milton then tells of Christ offering Himself to be a sacrifice on man’s behalf, and giving His own prediction about the result of this action:

“Then, with the multitude of my redeem’d,

[I] Shall enter heaven, long absent, and return,

Father, to see they face, wherein no cloud

Of anger shall remain; but peace assured

And reconcilement: wrath shall be no more

Thenceforth, but in thy presence joy entire.”

Paradise Lost, Book III, Lines 260-265

Of course, this is only a fictional account of an imagined conversation, but it does reflect the desire of God to be reconciled with humanity. We first see this occurring in the Old Testament, where God makes a series of covenants with different people that reveal aspects of His nature, convict people of their sin, teach the ways of righteousness, and begin to restore the created with the Creator. One such covenant was made with Noah following the Flood, in which God proclaimed, “I establish my covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11) In essence, this was a pledge not to immediately bring down the judgement of death upon humanity. God later made an important covenant with Abraham.

“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:7-8

This passage is especially significant because it is the first time we see those special words: in this case, “to be God to you” and “I will be their God”. The next time this shows up is when the Lord speaks to Moses from the burning bush and tells him how the Jewish people will be delivered from slavery.

“Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”

Exodus 6:6-7

Here the particular phrase is, “I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.” This reminds me of the words that I spoke on my wedding day. “I, Amy, take you, Samuel, to be my husband….” God’s covenant with the nation of Israel, often called the Mosaic Covenant, was very much like a marriage. Unfortunately, as with many marriages, it was filled with tension. The people of Israel consistently failed to keep the statutes of the Law, and more to the point, they failed to love God with their whole hearts. In the book of Hosea, God speaks about this sin in metaphorical terms, calling Israel an adulterous wife.

“Contend with your mother, contend,

For she is not my wife, and I am not her husband;

And let her put away her harlotry from her face

And her adultery from between her breasts,

Or I will strip her naked

And expose her as on the day when she was born.”

Hosea 2:2-3

For the Lord to say “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” was equivalent to a verbal formula of divorce. In fact, God gave specific, symbolic instructions regarding the prophet Hosea’s son: “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not My people and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:9) This is an exact reversal of the wording pronounced to Moses. Elsewhere, He proclaims, “I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce”, (Jeremiah 3:8) once again using the language of a broken marriage to describe the broken covenant.

What should have been a coming together of God and His people turned into a tragic breaking apart. For all of the efforts of so many, the sin was always there, a permanent obstacle between humanity and God. There was no chance that Israel was ever going to be able to fulfill their end of the covenant, even as they were given second, third, and fourth chances to get things right. The sinful nature is a powerful thing. Even the good deeds that they performed were without merit.

“For all of us have become like one who is unclean,

And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;

And all of us wither like a leaf,

And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

Isaiah 64:6

The "Great Isaiah Scroll", dating from the second century before Christ, contains almost the entire book of the prophet Isaiah. Photo by Ardon Bar Hama

The “Great Isaiah Scroll”, dating from the second century before Christ, contains almost the entire book of the prophet Isaiah. Photo by Ardon Bar Hama

Eventually, Israel was forced to suffer the consequences of this sin. They had become so perverted that they followed after every foreign religion, offering their own children as sacrifices to the false god Molech and allowing oppression to reign. For these and other sins, God allowed them to be conquered by foreign empires and driven into exile, far away from the Promised Land that was the gift of the covenant. This was a dark period in Israel’s history, and one in which God appointed many prophets to speak His words to the people.

At first, they called for repentance, but finally the message was one of imminent judgement. Yet, while the prophets did speak of the wrath of God, they also spoke of a coming restoration. This section of scripture is simply full of references to that same word formula we have already seen, such as this one from the book of Jeremiah.

“For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them up and not overthrow them, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.”

Jeremiah 24:6-7

Here we see that the restoration of the nation will be linked to a change of heart: the people will seek to truly know God. This idea is laid out in further detail a bit later in the book.

“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

This heralded a new era in which there would be harmony between God and man. Hearts would be cleansed and softened. Sins would be forgiven. The people would seek after God and desire to know Him – in essence, to have a relationship with Him. But even though God says that He will accomplish all of these things, it still begs the question of how that can happen when both the nation of Israel and all humanity are trapped in sin.

"The Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones" by Gustave Doré, circa 1866

“The Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones” by Gustave Doré, circa 1866

This brings us to a very interesting conversation that the Lord had with the prophet Ezekiel. He led him out to a valley full of bones. These bones represented Israel, dead in trespasses and incapable of raising itself up. As Ezekiel watched, the Lord breathed on the bones – much as He did in bringing Adam to life from dirt – and they once again became fully functioning people. They stood up and breathed, completely restored.

“Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. They you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. They you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,” declares the LORD.’”

Ezekiel 37:11-14

Notice how God again refers to them as “My people”, emphasizing that intimate relationship. He also states that it will be the power of the Spirit of God that allows this to be accomplished, not any power of man. God Himself would allow this resurrection and reconciliation to take place. The exact method by which this would occur was less clear to those who only had the Old Testament to go by, but there is one passage that more than hints at what was to come. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes of a future “servant” who would suffer vicariously on behalf of the people.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore,

And our sorrows He carried;

Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,

Smitten of God, and afflicted.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,

He was crushed for our iniquities;

The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,

And by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,

Each of us has turned to his own way;

But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all

To fall on Him.”

Isaiah 53:4-6

Here, in history’s darkest hour, shines the light to all mankind. Here is salvation made possible, redemption purchased, and the way made ready for reconciliation. Now it is possible for us to be God’s people, and for Him to be our God. When Christ died on that cross, the veil in the Temple that blocked off the Holy of Holies – the area of God’s presence in which only the high priest could enter once a year – was ripped in two, symbolically opening the way for all who believe to approach God and have fellowship with Him. This is a concept that is discussed by the Apostle Paul.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.”

Ephesians 2:13-16

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”

Colossians 1:19-22

"Way of Calvary" by Andrea di Bartolo, circa 1400

“Way of Calvary” by Andrea di Bartolo, circa 1400

It might be tempting at this point to sit back and say, “The work of Christ is done, and so is mine. I am reconciled to Him.” This would be missing the point, for the reconciliation that God seeks is not a one-time, “let’s be good with each other” kind of reconciliation. It is a continual process – a lifetime’s work. It is a surrendering of everything we are to this urgent purpose. We must continue drawing closer to Christ, forever longing for that final picture in Revelation of complete communion. More than that, we must eagerly pursue reconciliation with our fellow human beings. Scripture teaches that a heart truly reconciled to God will naturally seek to reconcile with others, for it is not possible to really do one and not do the other.

“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

This is the meaning of Christianity: a scriptural imperative by which we all must live. Once you have caught that vision for reconciliation and come to accept that it is the divine purpose for every one of us, there is no option but to respond in obedience and seek to carry out this ministry of reconciliation. Call it the gospel, call it discipleship, call it peacemaking, call it sanctification – call it whatever works, but it must simply be done. Anything less is not true Christianity. This is the will of God for which Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself on our behalf. It is the work of Christ that allows us to have any hope of reconciliation, and it is also Christ who enables us to carry out His work, graciously allowing us to share in His mission.

The purpose of every one of us is to push toward that moment described in Revelation, when the mission is finally completed and the new heavens and new earth are inaugurated. Then we will stand side by side with all the redeemed, dwelling with our Creator for all eternity in a perfect, sinless relationship. If you are in Christ, this will become the desire of your heart. It is a goal worth devoting one’s life to, for what else matters beside reconciliation?

All else is temporary – all else is dust. Even the British poet Philip Larkin, no poster boy for Christianity, was able to write the line, “What will survive of us is love.” (“An Arundel Tomb”) But it is not enough to love as the world loves, extending that love to only those we wish, and never fully, for our own pride will rule the day. It is not even the general toleration that caused Lord Byron to jokingly declare, “I like all and every thing,” (“Beppo, A Venetian Story”, XLVIII) and William Blake to say in earnest sincerity, “Everything that lives is holy.” (“The Four Zoas”, Night II, ll. 551–86)

It is the commitment to that scriptural imperative: “They will be My people, and I will be their God.” That is a collective statement, using “they” and “their” rather than “you” and “your”. Christianity does not deny the individual by any means, but reconciliation cannot be performed with one’s self. It is for all of us, and it must be done: His kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Other essays in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just