Theme: Get the Complete Picture of God
Take a moment and think about someone important in your life; someone you know well. It doesn’t matter whether this particular individual is a friend or foe, it’s probably hard to describe him or her in just one word. That’s because the more you learn about someone the more layers you see about who they are. We tend to make quick, analyzed judgments and decisions about people, but usually only those that we don’t know very well. The more time you spend with a person, the more you see who they are, and beneath the surface everyone is multi-faceted.
For example, when you read a good book you may be introduced immediately to a character but you never truly know them until you finish the story. Have you ever finished a book and had a different feeling about a character than you initially had at the beginning? This is because you learn more you start to understand things that weren’t apparent at the start. Sometimes the more you know about someone the harder it can be to define who they are or fully describe how you feel about them. They become greater than just the passing details you once knew.
This is where we often see our relationship with God. We know a lot about God and the Bible tells us a lot. On top of that God is infinite and eternal, and we’ll never fully understand or know Him while we’re in this sinful world. The Bible contains more than enough information about God to give us conflicted feelings about how to describe who He is. It’s hard to narrow down just one thought or feeling about God because there is so much to Him. But it’s always necessary that we understand the complete picture of who God is. If we divide Him into bits and pieces here and there, we will struggle in our relationship with Him.
In our text for today, Jeremiah talks about several attributes of God, but he trusts in them with one understanding. We read from his record, chapter 11 verses 18-20: The LORD made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their deeds. 19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, "Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more." 20 But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.
These distressing words came about 600 years before Jesus was born. Jeremiah was in the thick of his ministry to the southern tribes of Israel and was not receiving much support. In fact, he was under threat of death. The Lord commanded Jeremiah to tell the people a number of times that they needed to obey the Lord’s Word and follow the dictates of His covenant with them. But the people would not listen. Jeremiah recorded God’s description of this in verse 8: “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart. Therefore I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.”
Not only had the people turned their back on Jehovah, they were now threatening to kill His prophet. These people were led by men from Anathoth, which was Jeremiah’s hometown. They were telling Jeremiah to be quiet and complaining about his message of repentance. We’re told how God allowed Jeremiah to see and understand these things and what the people were plotting against him. But even with this knowledge, Jeremiah was powerless against this revolt on his own. With the Lord’s revelation also came an opportunity for Jeremiah to trust by faith, and that’s exactly what he did, and he showed it through this confession: “But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.”
This is where we start to have troubles in understanding the many dimensions of who God is. It seems to be against the principles of Christianity to support vengeance and judgment. After all, those are two aspects of human nature that have caused a lot of sin and heartache throughout history. Why would God display these attributes if He is holy? How could He since He is also the one who calls for to “love your neighbor as yourself,” “to avoid everything evil,” “and to love and pray for your enemies.”
To many this is a blatant contradiction in the person of God and Christian theology. For others it represents a supposed difference between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus Christ. And for some, including ourselves, it can be an example of the difficulty we have in knowing and perceiving God. The root of all of these misunderstandings comes from the same place – when we impose our own way of thinking upon God. When we hear the words “vengeance” and “judgment” we automatically think of the human side of these attributes. Vengeance fueled by hatred comes to mind. Judgment motivated by selfishness permeates our thinking. We think of all the times these things have entered our hearts and minds and the wicked thoughts that gave birth to them. We recall the times when we saw others practice these sins in wickedness and especially the many times we were on the receiving end of them.
Those are our experiences with vengeance and judgment and other attitudes like them. Another one that comes up in the Old Testament is jealousy. In several passages God calls himself a “jealous God” and uses that as a basis for His interactions with mankind. How can that possibly be appropriate? We’re taught from early on that jealousy is one the worst things to feel toward others and display in our lives. And yet, our God gets to be jealous? Therein lies the fundamental misunderstanding in projecting our views and opinions upon God’s inspired Word and upon His nature. When God is described by human words, there is always a limitation in the way we can understand Him. No words can fully express or explain who He is. But what we do know is that God is not the same and sinful men and women.
In Romans chapter 12 Paul quotes the book of Deuteronomy when talking about the sin of vengeance. He says, Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19)." This shows us that there must be a difference between the vengeance we show and the vengeance that God shows. There must be a difference or God is a liar. We know deep down what that difference is. The problem is that we, and the world, are often too scared or defiant to be honest about it. The difference is our sin.
Think about how Jeremiah described Jehovah in His confession. Before he even got to the Lord’s vengeance he said this, “But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind…” There we have two aspects that separate our actions from God’s. Our motivations and deeds are thoroughly laced with sin. Every thought and expression is corrupted by sin, so much so that we can never complete God’s holy requirements on our own. The many times that Jesus pointed out God’s standards to others were ultimately painful reminders that we are helpless on our own. We need God’s intervention. He alone is righteous. That is the most defining quality about His nature and it stands in utter contrast to who we are.
God is also the one who “tests the heart and mind.” All of His dealings with people have the singular goal of bringing them closer to Him. One of the amazing aspects of this is that God is able to work through the effects of sin to build us up as stronger Christians. When He tests the heart and mind He is presenting an opportunity for us to be blessed through a difficult circumstance. Often those circumstances involve a sin that either we or someone else has brought into our lives. Without God’s ability to test us through these negative effects there could never be a positive outcome from sin. Keep in mind, sin itself is never positive and God never wants anyone to sin. But through His power and grace He is able to refine us in our faith, even when sin has taken place. That is nothing short of an amazing example of God’s care for His children, and also how His actions are different than ours.
Paul put it this way when speaking to the Corinthians, No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Satan is the sole author of deception and temptation. When temptations come upon us, they come from Satan. But God always provides an escape plan, not just so that we can avoid danger but so that we can come out stronger through having experienced it.
When it comes to understanding God, it is absolutely necessary that we remember these aspects about His nature, especially when we see attributes like vengeance and jealousy that can create confusion. Just like in any relationship, to know God as best we can we have to keep in mind everything that He is. Separating what the Bible says about God, or isolating one attribute in contrast to others, will only give us an incomplete picture; and ultimately it’s unfair for us to do this with God. None of us would like it if others only picked out one or two of our characteristics and always defined us according to these things. That’s because we are much more than what we appear to be on the surface. If, on top of this, they also blatantly misrepresented our attributes we would be even more outraged. The same principles apply in an even greater way to God. Yet, there are many in the world who do this very thing with God. They isolate the seemingly disconcerting qualities of God and blatantly misrepresent them on top of it. Who God is for them and how they describe Him to others then becomes false and skewed.
We certainly have become guilty of this in our lives too, even if not to the same degree as others. At times, we have focused too much on God’s righteous judgment and vengeance while ignoring His grace. At other times, we have allowed ourselves to become discouraged because we forget that God has all control and a plan for our lives. At times we have discredited His care of our lives and the ability He has to turn momentary events of pain into lasting examples if His love.
This is the lesson we see in this single event from Jeremiah’s life. What we are impressed with is the difference that faith makes. Jeremiah was met with the unbelief of his fellow countrymen. They turned from God because they didn’t like God’s message to them. They wanted to stay comfortable in their sins and unbelief. God, in His love, wanted to break them free from this bondage through repentance. The people focused only on what they considered to be the oppressive attributes of God. The law and requirements that He demanded in their lives. They either forgot or choose to ignore that qualities behind these attributes and the reasons why God would be so demanding. Every moment of discouragement through the law was meant to create a void only filled by the eternal encouragement of the gospel. But if you only focus on one, you miss out on the importance of the other.
Jeremiah had every opportunity to respond to his adversities in the same way. In fact, he had even more reason according to human standards. He was God’s just prophet. He didn’t indulge in idolatry like the people did. He was faithful to Jehovah and His Word. Why would God allow him to be subjected to persecution and death? It would have been easy for Jeremiah to complain under such circumstances; surely we have done worse under far less.
But what we see from Jeremiah is the response of faith in God. He focuses on all of God’s attributes. He doesn’t minimize God or force God into his own definition of who He should be. With all honesty, Jeremiah readily admits that God alone is righteous. He has claim to and control of all things because He is the Creator, and the only example of pure holiness. All sinners are subject to God and have no right to complain or resist His will. These things are all true about who God is. He judges and avenges sinful actions because His holy nature demands it. If He didn’t do that He would cease to be God.
But if this was everything about God, Jeremiah certainly would have been led to complain against Him and reject Him as his fellow citizens did. If this was the sum total of God we too would be led to respond in skepticism and rebellion for God would be nothing more than an all-powerful deity who hated us because of our sin. But faith makes the difference and faith does not come from the law. Faith is not born from the struggle between God and men because of sin. Faith comes from a full understanding of God, from His complete nature. God is not only righteous, just, and demanding. He is loving and compassionate and full of grace.
God has a plan and calling for our lives even when we rebel against His will. God takes vengeance on sin but He does it with a purpose, to keep us protected from sin. And there is ultimately hope with God because He has accomplished that plan of vengeance and not one sinful human had to suffer for it. God’s nature is only fully understood when Christ is known, because Christ was the one who suffered for sin. The vengeance that the Bible talks about from God is indeed holy and right, but it was also thrown upon Jesus as the worthy sacrifice for sins. That’s why Jeremiah could respond with faith, and why you and I can too. Because in Christ we have a complete picture of God’s nature. Perfectly holy, hating sin and pursuing holiness, but also paying for sin freely by grace. No one will ever know God if they don’t know all of those qualities, because Christ is the complete example of God. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.