God: Nice or Not?

One of my Old Testament professors once told me that he thought survey courses might better be left to the end of one’s program, that one could greatly benefit by a survey course after one had studied more deeply into the various elements. I agree, though I would suggest a starting survey and then a finishing survey. I think this idea works in Bible study too, though I put less emphasis on the later survey or fast read. Sometimes we use too narrow of a context in interpreting a passage, which is a hazard of serious study of the particular text.

So today I was read Hebrews 1-6 in Greek for my morning devotions, and some things started popping out at me as I read, just as though I had them highlighted. Some I did have marked in my text, and some not. Now I noticed this list of texts first, and then saw the question afterward, but I’m going to present you with the issue first, and then look at two questions that they help answer. (I added the second question in later!)

In Hebrews 6:1-2 the author lays out some elements that he sees as foundational. Now in context, we must look back at least to 5:11 to understand what’s going on here. There are some simple things that he thinks his audience should already grasp, and he wants to go on to some harder stuff. Some interpreters think that the harder topic is the priesthood of Melchisedek, and indeed they do relate to that. I’ve heard others wonder just what could be more difficult. Many are simply satisfied to note that many modern Christians don’t grasp those basic elements of the faith, and stop right there.

I have long believed that the more difficult topic to which he was headed is the doctrine of sanctification, and more specifically the idea of endurance. Don’t give up! That’s not so hard of a doctrine to understand, though we can debate its relationship to justification by faith for days, but the implementation of that doctrine, i.e. practicing an enduring, faithful faith is very difficult, or at least it is for me.

Here is a selection of the texts. I’m loosely translating the phrases myself so as to make the small portion stand alone. If you’ll read through all six chapters (or even go on through the rest of the book), you’ll find many more:

  • 2:10 – “make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering”
  • 2:11 – “the one who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one [Father], he is not ashamed to call them brethren”
  • 2:17 – “it was appropriate for him to be like his brethren in every way”
  • 2:18 – “he himself was tested by what he suffered”
  • 3:14 – “we have become partners with Christ, if only we hold the starting point of our confidence firm to the finish” (note the interesting use of the perfect tense, ‘we have become’
  • 4:15 – “we don’t have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, because he was tested in all things/ways as we are, yet without sin”
  • 5:14 – “solid food is for the mature/perfect whose thinking processes have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil”
  • 6:12 – “so that you don’t become lazy, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (one should look forward here to Hebrews 11 and the first four verses of Hebrews 12)

Now please note that I’m highlighting just phrases here. With those highlighted, look through this entire passage of scripture. I think it’s clear that the hard thing that the author wants to challenge his audience to perform is endurance in the task of being sanctified and used by Jesus. But what interests me even more is the foundation he provides for that challenge.

In that let’s look back especially at Hebrews 2:11–He [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. Then back up to verse 10. He was made mature or perfect through suffering. I don’t care how many times I work through the doctrine of the incarnation, and then to the humanity of Jesus, this one still gives me a jolt. It’s back to that moment at the foot of the cross. I can go and sing those songs for hours. It’s just amazing. When I look at this through the lens of the whole incarnation–God in human form suffered what I must suffer, lived in the same way as I must live, learned as I must learn, experienced what I must experience.

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?

In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
(Emphasis mine. Let me recommend CyberHymnal.org where I got this text.)

OK, song service over! 🙂 Those acquainted with the book of Hebrews will recognize a few other references. To me the impact of this is simply incredible.

I just came back from the Charisma Book Expo where I heard R. T. Kendall speak, and picked up a copy of his new book Out of Your Comfort Zone: Is Your God too Nice? Now one part of my reaction is this: How nice can you get?

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,b
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, — Exodus 34:6b-7a (NRSV)

Like I said, How nice can you get?

But then there’s the next part of that passage in exodus:

yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.” — Exodus 34:7b (NRSV)

Suddenly we’re not so nice any more. And that’s precisely the point, and a good portion of the point of the whole book of Hebrews. Early in his message (Hebrews 2:3) our author asks how we can escape if we neglect so great a salvation. You see, God’s niceness has a sting to it. It is also a challenge. If Jesus came and lived like I do and experienced what I do, that’s nice. But it also is a challenge to me. Jesus did it “without sin.” Is there something I ought to be doing in response to all of that?

But let me take this one step further. If there wasn’t a sting in the niceness would it really be niceness at all? Many of us will probably be content with a laid back, nice, tolerant friend right up to the moment that we are being attacked by a mugger, and our friend is too laid back to get active and help us escape.

Let’s go one step further. I love my wife and she loves me. Right now I’m trying (successfully so far) to lose some weight. I believe this is not just for my health and long life, but it is a discipline God has called me to go through. I have told my wife precisely what I intend to eat and not to eat and how much. Why? Well, I have also told her to hold me accountable to the standards I have set. Now I have set reasonable standards. I’m not starving myself, but I am changing an unhealthy diet for a much better one. She has my permission to nag! Is that nice? Absolutely. If she nags me (something she normally avoids), and helps me fulfil my goal it will be very nice. The process isn’t nice, but the result is.

In effect, God is so nice that he’s not nice at all, and that shows the limits of the word “nice.” Hebrews challenges us to have a Christianity that makes a difference, one that’s not merely a way of escaping the fires of hell and making our way into heaven, but rather a way to make new people, kingdom people of ourselves. It may not be fun all the time, or even most of the time, but it is worth it.

Similar Posts