Saturday, August 24, 2013

GOD: the Maker of Vintage Christianity (1 Timothy 1:11,17)

In Matthew 18, Jesus asks us to put ourselves in the place of the servant who owed his master 10,000 talents. To think about how much this is, consider the fact that in that day one talent represented about 20 years’ wages (ESV note on Matthew 18:24). Thus, 10,000 talents represents about 200,000 years’ wages. In today’s terms, if a yearly wage is $15,000 (this guy was a slave, after all), then 200,000 years’ wages = $3,000,000,000. There is no way the servant could pay his master back. (Actually, the Gk word for “ten thousand” is the word from which we get “myriad.” The emphasis here is not so much on the exact amount, but the fact he owed a LOT of money. If the ten thousand amount is not enough to impress you, you may substitute any sufficiently large number.) 

Now suppose that the other servant who owed 100 denarii (in modern monetary units, this would be about $2000) to the servant who owed 3 billion dollars came to him and offered to pay his debt for him. Such an offer would be meaningless; after all, he was having a hard time paying off the much smaller debt! He just didn’t have the resources to do it. In fact, it’s obvious that no other servant would be able to help this guy out.

On the other hand, the master was able to forgive the servant. How? Not only because he was the one to whom the money was owed, but more importantly, because he evidently had enough resources to absorb the loss. Not too many businessmen, even if they are billionaires, can absorb this kind of loss. You would have to be unimaginably wealthy to absorb a loss like this.

We know from the parable that the master represents God, and we the indebted servant. When Jesus originally told the parable, the point was forgiveness. God forgives our sins against him, so we should forgive the sins of others against us. But another lesson we can draw from this parable is the fact that God has unimaginable resources, resources that no one else can even come close to having. God is so impossibly great that a 10,000 talent loss is nothing to him. Infinity minus a trillion is still infinity. 

And we are the servant with the 10,000 talent debt. Our indebtedness is not monetary, however. We have accumulated this debt in a myriad of ways, and it expresses itself in another myriad of ways. Our indebtedness and its consequences are as numerous as the sins we commit. The marks of our sins are evident in the selfishness of our hearts and the misery that this spawns in our own lives and the lives of others. It has led to our own bondage and the bondage of our spouses and children.

Our indebtedness is not something we can just shrug away. It follows us everywhere we go, even if we try to avoid and deny it. The specter of its shadow hovers over every thought and deed. Its consequences show up in every war and disease and famine and tsunami and earthquake. And ultimately, the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). 

God is the master with limitless resources and we are the servant with the impossible-to-pay-back debt. What the Bible says elsewhere is that God is the only being in the universe with the quality of infinite resources. Just as the indebted servant could not look to his fellow servants for help in relieving the indebtedness, even so we would not be able to find another being in the universe that can save us from our indebtedness to God. 

Every human being in some sense is trying to flee the shadow of the death, the consequences of their sin. We are all flying from misery out of a longing for happiness. What the Bible tells us to do is to pursue this longing in God. Salvation in Jesus Christ is the cancelling of our debt. And he is the only one who can do this. When we try to find salvation in someone or something other than God, we are like the Israelites whom God condemned in Jeremiah 2:11-13:

Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit. Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the Lord. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Compared to God, everything is just a broken cistern. It tries to hold water, but in the end our hopes leak out into hopelessness. 

This is the reason we need to have before our minds and hearts the reality of who God is. If we are not continually reminded that God is the only one with infinite resources, the only one who can cancel our debt, then we will try to find salvation in broken cisterns. You forsake the fountain of living waters before you turn to broken cisterns.

Paul and the Glory of God

In our text, Paul exalts God in Christ as the only one who can cancel our debt. He is the only one who can save the chief of sinners (ver. 15). This is announced through the gospel, the good news, with which Paul had been entrusted (ver. 11). But Paul also wants us to know that God has the resources to cancel our debt. He can fulfill the promise of salvation. And so Paul bookends verses 11-17 in which he speaks most clearly of God’s saving grace with exultation in the glory of God. Grace can only live in an environment of glory, the glory of God. And so in this passage, we have a very majestic view of God’s greatness. In this chapter, God is described in the following ways:
  1. God is glorious. Verse 11
  2. God is blessed. Verse 11
  3. God is a King. Verse 17
  4. God is eternal. Verse 17
  5. God is immortal/incorruptible. Verse 17
  6. God is invisible. Verse 17
  7. God is wise. Verse 17
  8. God is unique. Verse 17
And so, at this point, let us meditate with Paul on the God who is so described. For only when we are convinced that God is glorious, will we be truly willing to embrace his grace.

1. God is glorious. In the KJV, “glorious” modifies “gospel.” However, the authorities are convinced that we should read verse 11 as follows: “According to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, which is committed to my trust.” In this case, “glory” now modifies “God.” Either way, the meaning comes out about the same, for the gospel can only be glorious because it reflects the glory of God. 

“Glory” to a Jew like Paul would carry the meaning of its Hebrew equivalent, kabod. This Hebrew word carried the sense of “heaviness” and thus “importance.” 

In my dining room, we have a chandelier. It looks fancy. It looks expensive. It looks like silver or something like that. But I tapped on it the other morning as I was eating breakfast, and noticed immediately that it was plastic. Not heavy. Not expensive. Not really that important. If it breaks, we could replace it without too much trouble.

A lot of things in the world are like my chandelier. They look heavy and important, but they are not. They are fake. God is the only being in the universe that is truly glorious. He is the only being in the universe that is of consequence. He is the only being in the universe that is really important. Everything else is as the Preacher put it: vanity of vanities, all is vanity (Eccl. 1:2).

2. God is blessed. God is not miserable. He is infinitely happy and fulfilled in every way. This is important, because a person who is beset by trouble and misery is in no condition to bring you out of your misery. Another indebted slave cannot pull his fellow out of bondage. But God knows nothing of bondage or misery. He is blessed.

As blessed, God can bless us. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). And true blessing can only be found in God. We are all seeking blessing, but we miss the true blessing if we miss the God from whom all blessing flows. God is the giver of every good gift. The mistake we make so much of the time is to mistake the gifts for the Giver. On the other hand, a moment’s reflection should convince us that the Giver must be greater than his gifts. Each gift is but a ray from the God in whose light we are truly blessed.

3. God is King. All the descriptions of God in verse 17 are describing God as King. This is the main thing in Paul’s mind as he praises God. He is King.

But God is not just another King. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the supreme ruler over all the universe. He is sovereign. “The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all” (Ps. 103:19). This is one of the reasons why God is blessed; he is blessed because no plan of his can ever be thwarted. He counsel can never be defeated. He is not a frustrated God.

God is King over all. The entire universe belongs to him. He has made it and holds sway over it. Therefore, our sins are not just human foibles; they are treasonous acts against our Sovereign. He is the Master and we are his slaves. We live in his dominion. If you would be happy, you can only achieve it by his blessing. To hold out for happiness in rebellion against God in a universe ruled over by a sovereign God is pure futility.
God can dispense grace because he is King. He has the right and the resources to do so. No other being can dispense grace. No other person can or even has the right to grant you the forgiveness of your sins. But God can, and he does so to all who believe in his Son, the Lord.

4. God is eternal. What this means is that God is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 90:2). The human soul may live forever, but every human soul has a starting point. God has no starting point. He is independent of time. Jesus told the crowds, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, “I AM THAT I AM. . . . Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Exo. 3:14). This makes no sense unless God cannot be measured by time as we mortals are.

This staggers the imagination. Everything we know has a beginning. The universe has a beginning (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1), and thus everything in it. We therefore cannot point to anything in the universe and say, “God’s eternity is like that.” Illustrations here would be almost blasphemous, and we can see why God is so revolted by idolatrous images. 

What does this mean for us? It means that the bedrock of our hope is solid. God will defeat and outlast all his and our enemies. I just finished a biography on George Washington. Reading it, I realized again that what defeated the British armies was not Washington’s genius in military strategy (he actually lost more battles than he won), but his staying power. He just outlasted the British. God, the King eternal, both defeats and outlasts his enemies. Jesus is able to save us “to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth so make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).

5. God is immortal. The word means “incorruptible” or “unchangeable.” Paul uses the same word in Rom. 1:23, “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man….” God is not only eternal; he is immortal, and thus unchangeable. 

The fact that God does not change is full of hope for the believer. Paul says that he was an example for those who would hereafter believe on Jesus to everlasting life. How long “hereafter?” What if God changes his mind? But this is not a possibility, for God changes not. “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). God will not let a single promise of his fall to the ground. Once he has committed himself, he is committed forever.

God’s word does not change, and his promises do not change, because God himself does not change. We change in every sense of the word every day. Our bodies are growing older, feebler, bending toward the grave. But God is the same, and his years shall not fail.

6. God is invisible. One of the catechism questions I ask my children is, “Can you see God?” To which they are supposed to respond, “No, I cannot see God, but he always sees me.” John tells us, “No man hath seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18). He is invisible.

Why is this so important? It is important because our eyes are designed to see material objects. The fact that God is invisible tells us that God is not material. He is not part of the stuff of the universe.

When the first Russian cosmonaut came back from space and said he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that going into space to find God is like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle to find Shakespeare. God made the universe; he is not part of its furniture. We should not look for God as if he were hiding behind the moon.

This is the reason why God is immortal. Created things are mortal, and they do not have life in themselves. But God is not created; he is the creator. And as the creator of material objects, he is not himself material. He is invisible, and thus, eternal and immortal.

7. God is wise. The wisdom of God is not even comparable with the wisdom of men: his is infinitely above ours. In fact, Paul tells us elsewhere that the wisdom of men is foolishness with God (1 Cor. 1:19,20). God, speaking through Isaiah tells us:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8,9)

That God is wise means that we can trust in him, even when we cannot see why. Our eyes are dim, but God sees all things. Nothing is hidden from God. He knows the best way that we should go. 

8. God is unique. When Paul says, “the only wise God,” I don’t think he meant for us to take “only” as referring to God’s wisdom alone (in fact, the better Greek texts omit the word “wise”). God in every sense of the word is the “only God.” There is no one other than him. And I think that one of the reasons behind Paul’s choice of words here in this verse to describe God – eternal, immortal, and invisible – is to highlight the uniqueness of God. We cannot call ourselves these things. There are communicable attributes and then there are incommunicable attributes, and the latter is what Paul is pointing us to in this verse. Though we are made in the image of God, we are not God. In Isaiah 40:18, God challenges us: “To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” The answer is obvious: there is nothing on the earth or in the universe that is like God in the ultimate sense. That is why, when we say, “God is like…” we must always qualify ourselves. When we say, “The Trinity is like…” we immediately find ourselves in trouble! 

However, it is the glory of the Christian religion to point frail, time-enslaved, sinful people to the only wise God who is not like us, for this is our only hope. Man has been trying to save himself since the beginning of time, and it has never worked out. The more advanced we become, the more dangerous we become to ourselves. Our wisdom has not saved us; it has put us more at risk.

This is why the incarnation is the greatest miracle that has ever happened or will ever happen. “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” The God who is not like us became like us. He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh to save us from our sin (Rom. 8:3). 

The Doxology

“Now unto the King . . . be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” For Paul, theology always led to doxology. Mediating on God and the salvation through Christ moved him to wonder and worship. We need both theology and doxology. The latter will be meaningless if the former is misinformed. On the other hand, it is so easy to be slothful with our theology – to just sit on it, without it transforming our hearts and minds. Theology ought to be life-changing. This was no idle “amen” that was uttered by Paul. It was the amen of his life. It was the echo of his heart. If the glory of God falls on us lightly, it means that it has never really fallen on us.

Can you say “Amen” with Paul? Do you know the salvation from sin that comes to the chief of sinners? If you have felt the weight of your sin pressing upon you as you come face to face with the weightiness of the glory of God, I invite you to look to Christ. He alone, the God-man, is able to cancel your debt. He says even today, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22).

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