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30th March, 2009

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Full of grace and truth

Humble folk who diligently apply sound principles of interpretation to the reading of the Old Testament will come away with a fair grasp - limited as it must be by dint of the inability of a finite mind to plumb the infinite - of God's boundless goodness. May we Christians reject the hubris of some who make it a practice to mock the understanding of sincere, God-fearing Jewish readers of the Tanakh, or Old Testament. Anybody who "fears and trembles" (Phil. 2:12) at the words of Israel's God, the Father of Jesus Christ, can learn much about His perfect character from the words that God Himself inspired for our illumination, just as those who marvel at the material creation can learn much about His infinite power from it.

Nevertheless, the revelation of God's nature given in the law, the prophets, and the writings lacks. well. completeness. Yes, completeness is as pointed a word as I can think of. You do, of course, know what I'm talking about. God chose to perfect the revelation made earlier through His words and His acts by the greatest of all miracles - the Incarnation. God entered flesh in the form of Jesus Christ; His words and deeds add "flesh and bone" to the picture of God provided earlier. The apostle John makes a remarkable statement:

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (1:18).

The RSV renders "He has declared" as "he has made him known". Noted scholar, F. F. Bruce, comments on this phrase, ". the verb here rendered 'made known' is exigeomai, so that Jesus might be described as the living 'exegesis' of God". Jesus adds an invaluable dimension to our perception of God's infinite goodness, particularly at this time of year when we remember His suffering and crucifixion. Over and over the Old Testament Scriptures emphasize two attributes of God as being of the utmost importance to us: His love and His faithfulness. In His infinite love, God cares deeply for every human being who has ever lived. His boundless faithfulness lies behind His total commitment to His plan to save all mankind. These concepts are expressed by the Hebrew words hesed and 'emet. Unfortunately, translators have been quite inconsistent in translating this couplet, the most common rendering in the KJV being "mercy and truth" (13 times). Few people, therefore, realize just how often they appear (245 times for hesed and about the same number for 'emet and its synonym, 'emunah). The classical statement is found in Exodus 34:6:

The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [hesed] and truth [emet].

The theme recurs in spirit-lifting passages such as Psalm 108:4, which says, "For Your mercy (hesed) is great above the heavens, and Your truth ('emet) reaches to the clouds".

Not only is it of such staggering magnitude, it also "endures forever" (Ps. 136:3, etc.) The concept is also found in "hidden" passages such as Genesis 24:27 where Abraham's servant praises God inasmuch as He "has not forsaken His mercy and His truth toward my master". When the apostle John declared that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) he undoubtedly had this prominent Old Testament motif in mind (not to mention what he had seen with his own eyes through the person of Jesus).

These "backbone" characteristics of God are the very attributes John 1:17 ascribes to Jesus Christ:

For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Bruce notes that this "grace and truth" is synonymous with the "goodness and truth" spoken of in Exodus. Jesus, the incarnation of Israel's God, contained in His being "the fullness of the Godhead" (Col. 2:9); He encapsulated and demonstrated God's attributes in a unique way. Indeed, when it comes to God's "hesed and 'emet", nothing demonstrates this divine attribute better than the Passion of Jesus Christ. Sure, we can see God's love shown again and again in His merciful dealings with Israel of old and His provision of all their physical and spiritual needs. He prospered them when they didn't really deserve it, He corrected them with the perfect mix of mercy and justice as needed, and He even extended to them atonement for their sins. We see His love for all mankind as a whole in the magnificent planet He has given us to call home; He has "given us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17). We see His faithfulness in His scrupulously abiding by His covenant obligations even when Israel consistently failed to fulfill its promises to Him. Brilliant stuff.

But nothing illustrates God's goodness with greater clarity and intensity than the life, works, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ. The very creator of mankind willingly died an agonizing death for an ungrateful race of sinning creatures, all of whom put together are "reputed as nothing" (Dan. 4:35). He could have called it off (Matt. 26:53), but He didn't, even though He understood full well the unimaginable pain and humiliating shame about to befall Him. Tomes of philosophical meditations could never present as stark, as vivid a picture of the love of God as the shredded, torn, blood-drained body of Jesus Christ - Our Maker, our Redeemer, our atoning Lamb - hanging limply from the cross.

Can we trust God to be faithful to all His promises? If He was faithful to His promise of providing atonement for man through the horrendous sacrifice of the promised seed how could we ever doubt any other promise? The painful part is done. You can be fully confident the joyous promises won't be forgotten. Resurrection and eternal life here we come.

1 New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes, p. 20, n. 10


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