Each quarter of the year Adventists around the world study a new biblical topic or subjects, or sections of the Bible or a book or books of the Bible. The last quarter of 2011 Adventists were studying the Apostle Paul’s ‘Letter to the Galatians’. The letter centred on how we are saved by God to live with him eternally. The problem for the Christians in Galatia was that they had been introduced to another way of salvation that said that, whatever Jesus had done for us was not enough and that what Jesus had done needed to be supplemented, in the case of the Galatians it was the act of circumcision.
But forget what the ‘rules’ were, the Apostle Paul said that keeping any rule or law, including the Ten Commandments could not add to what Christ has done, but would even negate what he has done! The Apostle wasn’t dispensing with the Ten Commandments. They have their function. But they have no part in our salvation except to tell us we are in need of a Saviour.
During that quarter I dipped into the ‘Culture Watch’ Website run by Bill Meuhlenberg which set me going on my previous posts about the Law of God. Meuhlenberg expressed his concern and dismay about Christians who disparage the Law of God and dismiss the Law of God along with the Old Testament. They just belonged to the nation of Israel. It is alleged ancient Israel earned their salvation by law-keeping while Christians are given their salvation as a free gift through Jesus Christ: “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
I have since dipped into some of these anti-O.T. sources on the Internet and read something of their teaching. It seems to me that if it were true that God had provided two methods of salvation, the one as self-help for the ancient world and the other as a free gift for Christians, that surely would have been very unfair.
The truth is that God has only ever had one way of saving humankind. He took a risk in creating human beings as free moral agents; things could go wrong, and they did. But should anything go wrong he put in a plan to put it right. He would personally take on the consequences of human sin and rebellion (Romans 5:8). We get hints of this pre-Fall plan in Revelation 13:8b; Ephesians 1:4-5. Our salvation from eternal death comes by our accepting his forgiveness for what we have been and accepting his free gift of grace through Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
When it comes to the Old Testament Jesus stated that it taught all about him (John 5:39,40). He pointed out to two of his disciples on the Emmaus Road that if they had not been so slow of heart to believe that the Old Testament taught he would give his life for our disobedience (Luke 24:25-27; 44-47; cf. Romans 6:23). As they should have observed in Isaiah 53, the Messiah would become ‘the suffering servant’: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
When I began reading the Bible (re my story) surprisingly enough it was the Old Testament where I found the greatest encouragement for acceptance by God. He loved those ‘fallen’ characters and wanted to forgive them and save them from their sinfulness; if he did it for them he would surely do it for me. When I think about the Gospel in the Old Testament I can’t help thinking about the Book of Isaiah.
Isaiah has been said to be the Gospel prophet and even sometimes called the Fifth Gospel. When Israel was ‘light years’ away in God’s expectations of them God spoke through Isaiah in 57:15:
“For this is what the High and Lofty One says –
He who lives forever, whose name is holy;
I live in a high and holy place,
But also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
To revive the spirit of the lowly
And to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Isaiah prophesied during the reign of good King Hezekiah. Isaiah lived in the 8th century BC and saw the demise of northern Israel and its fall to the Assyrians in 722 BC. Judah was going the same way as Samaria in its moral and ethical conduct (Isaiah 3:8-26). Secret pagan worship was tolerated and the wealthy oppressed the poor. Judah’s exile, (captured in opera by Verdi in his Nabucco,) would be inevitable just as it had been for the northern Kingdom of Israel.
Mannaseh, the son of Hezekiah, had filled his reign with idolatry, immorality and injustice; it had got so bad that Israel was said to be worse than their surrounding neighbours. To see how far down the slippery slope Manasseh took Judah, we only have to read that horrific catalogue of his behaviour described in 2 Kings 21:1-18 and 2 Chronicles 33:1-20. He even sacrificed his son in a fire to the pagan god, Molech (2 Kings 21:6). The people of Judah eventually found themselves in Babylon after their own city and temple was destroyed, attributed in 2 Kings 24:3-4 to ‘the sins of Manasseh and all he had done.”
Isaiah had seen the writing on the wall for Judah in his own day, and he did his best to halt the spiritual and moral demise of the nation. And here in Isaiah 57:15, Israel was being challenged by God through the prophet Isaiah with this statement:
“For this is what the High and Lofty One says-
He who lives forever, whose name is holy;
I live in a high and Holy place,
But also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
The Greek astronomer Aristarchos lived further on from Isaiah; he lived in the 3rd century BC. He knew the sun was the centre of our solar system and worked out the distance the earth is from the moon and the sun. I don’t know how much astronomy Isaiah knew, he did speak of the circle of the earth, but when he says about God living in a ‘high and holy place, he may not be talking about a God who is above and outside of the universe in the sense that he is not part of the material universe. God is Spirit (John 4:24). It was God who brought the material universe into being. Earlier in chapter 40:25 Isaiah has God asking the question, “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” In verses 18-26 Isaiah sees God is in control of the universe. He is the one who has put the stars in place.
But, there is another sense that the God who is transcendent, (Isaiah 55:8-9), who is distinct from the universe he has made, also wants to be immanent, to be near and within; to be the personal God and Saviour of his people. Early on at the inception of Israel as a nation God commanded his people to make a sanctuary so that he could dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). Jesus was the One who led them through the wilderness (Exodus 21:13; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4). And despite the holy and moral nature of God contrasting with the wayward unholy and immoral nature of his people, he still wanted to forgive and dwell with the lowly and contrite. That is what we see of God’s grace towards his people in the Old Testament.
Whatever Isaiah knew or did not know about the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ or the ‘anthropic phenomena or fine-tuning of the universe that makes our world habitable, Isaiah could say God made the world to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18).
When one considers the sheer infidelity of his own people it is a mystery that God would still want to come and inhabit our world and dwell with us. But that is what Isaiah foretold in Isaiah 9:6, and that is what it says in John 1: 1-3, 14. The Word, who spoke the world into existence, came and dwelt with us. Through what Christianity refers to as the ‘miracle of the incarnation’, God became man. God was willing to limit himself and be willing to be known as our Friend, as well as our God and our Savour (Philippians 2:5-11)!
Social status and caste systems are a way of life for human beings, but not with God! Despite the ‘loftiness’ of his position, it was not beneath him to visit our world to help fallen humanity to be reconciled to himself.
God is perfectly free from what we call, “Pride of Position.” He does not hold himself aloof! Instead He is persistent in His endeavour to get in touch with people in our waywardness, and to rescue us from it. This is the most wonderful thing about God. In Isaiah 1:18 he invites his wayward people to talk things through with Him. “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
No salvation by law-keeping there. It is salvation by God’s forgiving grace – to be freely received. He promised that one day he would come and be born into the world to be the Saviour for all who will put their trust in him (Isaiah 9:6). It would be a costly exercise but he would think it worth it for anyone who would claim him as Lord and Saviour (Hebrews 12:2). There is said to be no clearer statement of what the Gospel is than we read in Isaiah 53. One can see why Isaiah has been referred to as the Fifth Gospel!
When it came to the Christmas season just gone, how many seriously thought of the implications when we sang carols about that birth in Bethlehem? Easter is the next big event in the Christian calendar. The Apostle Paul says that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8; cf. 5:1-3). How could that gap be bridged between God’s greatness and my complete indifference to him in my younger days? In my early years I was as far away from God as the earth is light years from the centre of the universe.
When I get into reflective moods over how I have arrived where I am, I think of the positive influences in my life that I had failed to recognise; but the impressions had remained in the recesses of my mind. There were those Christians who had influenced me without my realising it. Now, of course, I know that God was always looking out for me, I just didn’t recognise Him. It’s difficult to recognise someone you keep at a distance.
God in His humility, God Incarnate, stooped down into our world to help humanity, people like myself, who did not deserve His help! That is what Christians call ‘God’s marvellous grace’. As the old Moody chorus puts it:
“Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!”
I didn’t know it back then but it is through those who belong to him that God comes down from His high and lofty place to reach out to the indifferent. He uses those who have come to know him to reach out to the distant and lost for him, and welcome them into his family. The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) tells it all. Our Father in heaven completely removes the evidence of our sorry past and covers it with the ‘best robe’, the spotless life that Jesus lived, and sees us not as we are but as Jesus is.
That’s a marvellous exchange. All because God came to this world ready at all costs to save those willing to be saved in his kingdom. And what a cost! (Matthew 27:32-46). And what a value he has placed on every individual, who in his presence becomes contrite and lowly in heart. We read in the Bible of only one way that God redeems wayward humankind. Whether in the Old Testament or the New, it is all down to his doing, not our doing. It is all down to his forgiving grace. And for ourselves? It is all down to accepting what he has done for us (John 3:16).