We need to know how our Lord regards us. Are we perfectly safe? Beloved? Forgiven? Utterly free from any possibility of condemnation? The way we answer these questions will determine how we feel about God, our brethren, and even ourselves.
I have a pastor friend who has endured some of the most horrific trials including the suicide of his son. However, he and his wife have not only remained faithful, but they continue to be the source of encouragement for many.
How can this be? They are convinced of the love and mercy of their Savior. Despite the many setbacks, they know that everything will work out for good in the end. They certainly don’t understand everything that has happened to them, and they continue to suffer because of these things. But they do know and understand their God, and this knowledge has made all the difference.
Let me guess what you’re now thinking:
- This “knowledge” is miles away from me, and sometimes I even doubt whether having such a confidence is possible for someone like who doubts and questions.
Certainly, there are many reasons to doubt and question. While the Bible gives us many assurances that God is love, there are also a number of verses that make it seem like His love is quite limited. Take, for instance, Hebrews 12:14:
- Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
This verse, among others, is a doubt-producer. Here are some of the doubts it might produce:
- How holy must I be? It doesn’t seem that any of my thoughts, motives or deeds are entirely holy. They are all sin-infested.
- Is there a certain level of holiness that I must attain before I can be saved? This verse says that holiness is about me and my performance and not God’s gift to me. That’s why it says “make every effort!”
- Isn’t the Bible therefore a collection of contradictions?
Can we truly be confident of the grace of God when these questions remain unanswered? Not entirely! Consequently, I think that we need to take a deeper look at Scripture.
Jesus’ actions didn’t often look like love. He continuously criticized His own disciples. At times, it seemed, according to Jesus, that they couldn’t do anything right. He commended faith only twice in Scripture, and it was the faith of Gentiles – the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28) and the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:10) – never of His disciples. He never told them anything like this:
- You men are really first class. Choosing you was the best thing that I had ever done. You’re such quick learners and, oh, so spiritual!
Jesus never encouraged them – not exactly the way to win and sustain a following! Rather than building their confidence in their heavenly destiny, many of Jesus’ teaching served to undermine their confidence. However, after His final discourse with His disciples, Jesus prayed to the Father. This prayer illuminates a different perspective, a heavenly one! And this is as it should be, because Jesus is no longer addressing His disciples but His Father:
- "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” (John 17:6-8)
Perhaps you’ve read these verses too often to notice their transcendent perspective. These words do not represent Jesus’ usual words of censure like “get behind me Satan” or “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matthew 26:40).
Instead, Jesus words are other-worldly. About His fumbling disciples Jesus prays, “they have obeyed your word…they accepted [the words You gave me]. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”
These words are astounding and perplexing. From our earthly perspective, they didn’t even understand His Word, let alone obey His Word! Just to illustrate this point, I will quote each one of their five preceding statements. All of these words demonstrate their lack of understanding:
- Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" (John 14:5)
- Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14:8), unaware that they had already seen the Father in Jesus.
- Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 14:22)
- Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying." (John 16:17-18)
- Then Jesus' disciples said, "Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God" (John 16:29-30), but they were just about ready to disown their faith
These ignorant statements weren’t unusual for the Apostles. They often seemed clueless about their Master, and Jesus wasn’t hesitant to let them know this. However, when Jesus talked to His Father, we perceive a different perspective. From these heights, we are invited to view an entirely different landscape, one through which we learn that the disciples “have kept Your Word!” This is the gracious heavenly reality.
You might think that this distinction between the earthly message and the heavenly one is just a weird anomaly. However, this same distinction is found throughout Scripture. Let me just take a few examples. The prophet-for-hire Balaam had also been granted a view from this same mountain-top. He had been hired by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse Israel. However, God had warned Balaam to say only what He would reveal to him. God had opened his eyes so that he could penetrate the haze and see reality from the perspective of God. And this is what he saw:
- The oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:4-5)
- "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)
There was probably little that was “beautiful” about Jacob’s tents, especially after wandering 40 years in the desert. Balaam was beholding a transcendent reality. Clearly, there was gross “iniquity in Jacob” and no shortage of “wickedness in Israel,” but this is not what God was seeing! He sees a different reality, a transcendent one. He sees the end from the beginning. Jesus also saw His Apostles in their glory, a glory where we are already seated in “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephes. 2:6).
In the eyes of our Lord, our status is dramatically transformed when we repent of our sins. When we do so, we are transported into the kingdom of His beloved Son, where we sit “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” We become His vessels of glory.
Job had made many rash indictments against God during his lengthy trial. However, God brought damning charges against Job’s three friends:
- "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." (Job 42:7-8)
This is peculiar for many reasons. For one thing, Job seemed to have talked far worse of God than had his three friends. Second of all, God, against the evidence to the contrary, said that Job had spoken correctly of Him! Clearly, this wasn’t accurate, or was it? From God’s heavenly perspective, Job had just repented twice of his rash words (Job 42:6; 40:4-5), and all had been forgiven and even “forgotten.”
There is the heavenly perspective that transcends the temporal – all of our this-worldly failures and sins. God does not see as we do. While He is not blind to the earthly, He sees a high and eternal reality, one in which everything is wiped clean, where love and righteousness remove from sight everything that makes us cringe in shame.
Lot cringed in shame regarding the circumstances of his life. He lived in Sodom and willingly partook in its life. When the two angels showed up to investigate the sinfulness of Lot’s home-town, Lot hurriedly rushed them off to his home, hoping to dispatch them, without consequence to his town, early in the morning.
Every step of his life had been soiled by compromise. However, this isn’t the final word about Lot. In the New Testament, we find that in God’s eyes Lot was regarded in an entirely different light, as “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7).
The Bible speaks of two distinct realities. According to the first reality, we have fallen short of God’s standards (Rom. 3:23) and deserve condemnation (Rom. 6:23). However, there is another reality that trumps the first one. It is a reality where “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” according to James 2:13. It is a reality where we are new creations in Christ – children of the light.
Let me again guess what you are thinking:
- Well, you make salvation sound unconditional, like it’s a done-deal. But how about that verse you cited before which says “pursue holiness without which shall no one see God?”
Well, the Book of Hebrews illustrates what it means to pursue holiness. Yes indeed, it is a matter of making Jesus our role model. However, Hebrews illustrates what this means through the example of Esau:
- [See to it] lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it [the blessing] diligently with tears. (Hebrews 12:16-17; NKJV)
Esau wasn’t rejected because of his sins – we are all sinners. He was rejected because he was unwilling to repent of the fact that he sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, demonstrating that he did not esteem the things of God. Although he wept over loosing his father’s blessing, the things of God were mere foolishness to him.
How does God regard us? We lack the superlatives to answer this question. Paul wrote of the love of God this way:
- I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephes. 3:17-19)
God’s love for us is a love that “surpasses knowledge.” Why then can’t we see this? Why does our God obscure our vision to this glorious reality and make us walk in darkness? We are not ready for the light. As Jesus told His disciples, there were certain things that would not yet be good for them to see:
- "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12)
We too cannot bear to behold the beauty of the tents of Israel and certainly not our own glory. I think that it was C.S. Lewis who said that if we could see our glory, we’d worship each other.
However, sometimes He does open our eyes to glimpse this transcendent reality. For example, Paul claims that for those who are being saved, “we are…the [sweet] aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). This is amazing to us! How can we, with all of our spiritual warts, manifest as the aroma of Christ!
However, we can’t handle this light in sustained doses. We lack the mental maturity to assimilate this light in a profitable way. In the midst of a life-threatening and bloody chain saw injury, I was lying in a pool of blood, thinking that this breath would be my last. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I was so overcome by the presence of God that I was in ecstasy. I knew that even if I died, God would be there with me, and that I was totally safe and loved by Him.
I was miraculously rescued and spent the next four days recuperating in the hospital. On the second day, my surgeon warned that I would have to exercise my half-cut-off wrist or lose its functionality. However, after my divine encounter, I was convinced that the God who had saved me was great enough to restore my hand without any exercises. Well, I didn’t exercise it, and it wasn’t restored as it might have been.
My theology did not measure up to my experience – my encounter with God. Although many truths had been revealed to me through this encounter, I made some wrong deductions that cost me. Although God is all-powerful, I now understand that this doesn’t relieve me of my earthly responsibilities.
Our Savior knows what is best for us. He requires that “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). I’d like to see His heavenly realities. However, I trust that He knows what He is doing!