Worthy of Full Acceptance
Introduction and Synopsis
We are going to reflect upon matters connected with the trustworthiness and credibility of the gospel of Christ. As we all know, this good news is experiencing much opposition, which hostility touches the heart of every child of God. As a matter of fact, one could go as far as to say that it strikes a responsive chord in that heart.
We are going to single out one complex component from the many views, and we shall concentrate on the questions that are being raised in this connection: namely, the incalculable sufferings of mankind in this world. Should this overwhelming reality not force the church into retreat? Or should the church, as a consequence, not be obliged to revise its message and confession radically? Does her confession of God's providence have sufficient scope to support the Christian faith on the frontlines of twentieth-century thinking?
In this article we are in four points going to give some commentary on these contending voices.
We aim to point out the significance of our confession regarding God the Father and our creation and God the Son and our salvation.
Next we are going to deal with the reality of God's wrath on earth and are finally going to consider in this connection the stance of our confession with regard to God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. From this position we shall try to answer the challenges that come our way.
In the concluding part we shall return to the beginning of this article and consider the question whether (and if so in what way) the gospel of Christ can be legitimized and certified in the twentieth century.
The One Gospel and its Many Opponents
Whenever the apostle Paul starts to speak about the reliability of the gospel of Christ, he trumpets the message, as it were, like a fanfare. He himself was at a certain time in one single moment completely overpowered by the majesty of the living Christ.
From that day on he was willing to forego everything, provided only that he could keep the faith in his Saviour (cf. Philippians 3:7 et seq.). To him Christ had become everything (cf. Philippians 1:21, Galatians 2:20). As truly as this Christ is alive, so trustworthy is the Word which He causes to be preached to all nations. It is the only realty liberating word for the world.
And so we can understand the exalted tone the apostle uses at certain moments, as for instance in his letters to Timothy and Titus: "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance…" (1 Timothy 1:15, cf. 3:1, 2 Timothy 2:11; Titus 3:8), or: "worthy of all acceptation" (K.J.V.). Whoever can say that of the message he must preach throughout his life has a breadth of vision that enables him to get out into the world and has the right to knock on every door with it.
This expression of the apostle has a somewhat festive and triumphant ring. It makes one think of that expansion on the Day of Pentecost, when about three thousand souls were added to the congregation in one single day. It is reported of them that they were "convinced by his arguments, and they accepted what he said" (Acts 2:41) about the crucified and resurrected Christ. The Holy Spirit had convinced them deeply ("cut them to the heart") of the trustworthiness of the apostolic message regarding the death and resurrection of Christ. In Paul's strident call about the absolute trustworthiness of the Word, we hear thus the resonance of the apostle's intense motivation for living. We can also find expressions having a similar meaning when we examine the evangelists (e.g. 2 Peter 1:16-19; 1 John 1:1 et seq. In this context one may think about the motivation of the gospel writers, e.g. Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 20:30; 21:24).
It is just because of the impact of these and similar words from Scripture that the opposition against the gospel of Christ must hurt us deeply. The most beneficial and trustworthy message in the history of the world has right from the beginning been surrounded by all kinds of jamming stations. At times the message is barely able to cut through them. In the book of Acts we can read about this situation, and the apostle has to encourage Timothy and Titus before they start giving battle to their opponents; (cf. Acts 28:22; 1 Timothy 4:1 et seq.; 2 Timothy 2:14 et seq.; Titus 1:9). The Word is trustworthy "and worthy of full acceptance."
But the hard fact is, nonetheless, that an unspiritual person simply refuses to accept the gifts of the Spirit of God. To him they are folly "and he is not able to understand them." (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This opposition has been there ever since the day man started to resist the Word of God. If we want to become informed about this opposition, we don't have to undertake long voyages to savage people and uncivilized pagans. Instead, by staying right at home we might in our own environment carefully listen to ourselves for a few moments. We will then get to hear those opposing voices sound off in our own hearts, too.
We can also get an earful in our own immediate surroundings. It's not just those self-confident atheists that contradict the Word. Even the voices of the Bible owners and Bible experts have a way with it. And those opposing voices always seem to find a spot in our hearts where a string starts to reverberate. This is because our own hearts are tuned in to it and we are inclined to speak that way: we, in ourselves, as covenant people are "a disobedient and contrary people" (Romans 10:21), know-it-alls before God's countenance.
Forms of Opposition
You as reader would hardly be puzzled by the question in what way this opposition manifests itself. The trustworthiness of the gospel is undermined in various ways through the many questions man can ask. Let us point out a few typical examples.
Can a faith that is in conformity with the Scriptures survive when we consider the terrible suffering on this earth? Given the doctrine of God's providence ("all things come not by chance but by His fatherly hand"), man is not able to make sense of the meaningless, irrational suffering of countless people on this earth, is he? Diseases, famine, senseless accidents, cruel tyranny – who is to probe the human suffering caused by these adversities? How is the church coming to grips with the barbarism of Auschwitz? How does she propose to speak a wise word about the injustices and the poverty of the third world?
On what grounds could the church in this world assume any pretensions if we do pay attention to the history of Christianity? How many wretched conditions did it, in fact, generate or tolerate? What did the church do about the social injustices that the proletariat of all nations had to suffer? Has the church not always stood up for the ruling class; has she not, only too often, fallen victim herself to her own greed?
What did the church do about slave trade, racism, the humiliation of the working class, the exploitation of women? Did the church not incite witch hunts and persecute Jews? Did her religious zeal not drive away many nations into the dark misery of fanatical religious wars?
How can a church ever make an appeal to love, peace and mutual understanding when she herself is barely able to offer little more than a spectacle of discord, hate, envy, disputes and self-repeating schisms? Would it not be a wise thing to do if she started to silence her pretentions until further notice? It is preposterous that Christianity, divided as it is, could ever retain any recruiting-power in our society, does it not?
Why should exclusively the word of the Christian church be the only message worthy of faith? Where do those Christians get the nerve to hold forth their exclusive pretentions? Granted, a person can't live entirely devoid of any religion. Everybody in the course of his life needs a framework in which he can orient himself – a meaning which will allow him to combat his menacing feelings of purposelessness. But why would Christianity then have an edge over other religions whether of an older or more recent period? Is it not high time that those Christians at long last stop their endless monologues and start practicing some dialogues with the other world-religions?
In fact, Christianity is an extraordinarily intolerant and discriminatory system which must be pushed back inside its own boundaries by anti-discrimination rules. This is the more obvious since statistics in the Netherlands prove that church affiliations are decreasing at the rate of one percent per annum. The volume of Christian broadcasting (let's call it "the broadcasting time") should, as a consequence, be proportionally reduced. After all, we're living in a pluralistic society, don't we? The prime minister (of the Netherlands) reiterated this recently. He was speaking on behalf of the V.V.D. as well as the C.D.A. political parties.
The Opposition Presents a Challenge
When the opposition thus opens fire upon church and Christianity, we are going to feel challenged and are, perhaps, even forced on the defensive. We are inclined to quickly pick out a few counter-arguments in an attempt to halt the attack and break the power of the opposition. Our hearts then long for some convincing countercharge which strikes both friend and foe speechless and proves to be incontestable.
Large religious movements try to find a solution, for instance, in spectacular miracle healings, speaking in tongues and immense revival meetings. Once a triumphant mood has captured the hearts in this manner, one is propelled of one's own accord into colossal projects and towards world-conquering ideals. These people want to display their scale model of the new world to all nations, with this earth as the huge exhibition grounds. Any problems one might like to bring up are simply melting away like snow before the sun. High technology is mobilized for this crusade against secularization. "This is our product; take it or leave it" is the rule applied in this situation. This is the language of the salesman who is sure of his business.
One can also approach this same objective with less noisy devices. We think of efforts of the World Council of Churches launching an attack on many fronts to humanize the battered lives of nations and endeavouring (within that wide framework) to re-establish the unity of the churches.
For our purpose, let these two examples suffice for the moment. They may convince us of the intense longing found within a Christian-fashioned culture to come up with the definitive counterargument that can stand up to any critical inspection: that is, the introduction of a universal world vision and style of living that ought to convince all right-minded people. Should this succeed, then one of the most important conditions for the great world peace would be fulfilled. The chorus of angels in the fields of Ephratah would finally receive worldwide acclaim and legitimation, and then the millennium could not be far off any more.
In a number of articles we intend to reflect upon the subject of trustworthiness: that is, the credibility of the Word of Christ in this world. This means at the same time the trustworthiness of the God and Father of Jesus Christ and of the Spirit He has sent into this world. Since we cannot deal with all issues at the same time, we shall limit ourselves to those questions that are connected with suffering in this world.
Human Suffering – Acting as a Damper on L.D. 10?
Given the many options, one should not be surprised that we wish to broach the problem of human suffering when we reflect upon the trustworthiness of the gospel. This topic concerns all of us. Both in our personal life and in the community in which we live, we are time and again harshly confronted with this problem. Not a day passes by without our running into suffering of some kind, often in a grievous and painful way. We meet it in all sorts of illnesses, handicaps, sorrows and disasters.
Each day certain terrible things happen that bewilder us and make us ask how in the world it is possible that people can treat one another in such a heartless manner.
All of us are aware of the terrifying arms race, which exceeds all bounds of human understanding.
We feel threatened by these and many other things in our lives and society. We feel the enmity against our existence. We sense something of the complete hold of death, a stranglehold from which nobody is able to save himself.
Of course, not only our own generation is confronted by this antagonistic force. All the way back to the days of Adam and Eve has mankind been preoccupied with this issue. All generations have wrestled with this issue. Should we wish to look for spectacular examples, any period of history could serve the purpose. Antiquity tells us about massacres, carnage and cruelties that defy belief, even today.
The Middle Ages, the period in history when Europe took shape under the tutelage of the Christian church, reveal to us a desecration and degradation of human life that fills us with repugnance and that should make us thankful to be alive in the twentieth century.
In the fourteenth century the bubonic plague made so many victims that at least one-third of Europe's total population lost its life. In 1755, when Lisbon was struck by an earthquake, some sixty-thousand people died in one single day.
The extent of suffering brought about by the Napoleonic Wars is indescribable. Also the use of so-called conventional weapons can radically destroy life as we have learned, for instance, from the battle of Verdun during World War I.
So, in the event someone is looking for an alibi to justify his unbelief or his leaving the church, here is a wide choice of arguments to do so. Yesterday's facts can always supply him with that kind of justification. For that purpose one doesn't even need to be referred to the hideous drama of Auschwitz or the manifestation of some dreadful cancer.
Yet, however true this all may be, it is also true that in our own day the problem of suffering seems to have a vitality that hits us more intensely than ever before. Never before have our communication systems been as perfected as they are now. Every day and right in our comfortable living rooms, television puts into plain sight the most poignant images of human suffering and human calamities. Also, there is no denying the acceleration in the production of life-destroying weaponry. We could admire the technological sophistication and the ever-increasing precision of it, but for the fact that they are employed in the annihilation of life.
In this century we have witnessed the barbaric murder of six million Jews by one of the most cultured nations of Europe.
All these and similar things make us realize that we lack the capacity to grasp completely the nature of human suffering; nor can we appropriately respond to it emotionally. Actually, we hardly know any longer what we are talking about when we discuss the stupendous destruction of life which daily threatens our society. Admittedly, in connection with problems at this level, the Christian church has for centuries on end made pronouncements about God's providence. She has reflected on how God governs all things and how God (actively) allows evil to happen. The church has made profession of this in her public writings.
That profession means in a very specific way that a Christian is able to meet his God in all situations of life: in both positive and negative things, in both understandable and perplexing matters. Or, to use the time-honoured language of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 10:
God "so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come not by chance but by His Fatherly hand."
But also this confession seems no longer able to cope with current issues. It is, or so it seems, unable to offset the overwhelming questions, problems and perils of the age we are living in. There were times when the confession of Lord's Day 10 was cherished.
Many generations have comforted themselves with the stately diction of the Catechism:
We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love.Answer 28
But those days are apparently gone. It is, in fact, trendy or "in", no longer to be satisfied with this confession. From widely divergent trains of thought and the most dissimilar circles arise loud protests against Lord's Day 10. By means of prayer-healing sessions and charismatic movements we are informed that Lord's Day 10 is akin to a serious ''industrial accident." Does Lord's Day 10 not preach 'resignation' at the very moment we should be called to arms? And does he who preaches surrender to the inevitable, during the hour of battle, not betray the city under siege?
Sickness and death are not allies but enemies of life, are they not? When such enemies are encamped outside the city gate, you simply don't teach the citizens songs like these by Georg Neumark:
Be still! What God in His good pleasure
To you in Wisdom may impart
Is given you in perfect measure;
Thus be content within your heart.
To Him who chose us for His own
Our needs and wants are surely known.(Hymn 48)
On another front there is the battle cry in the camp of the theology of revolution. They rebuke the church because of its doctrine of God's providence that is said to be siding with the establishment, the rich and the affluent. Lord's Day 10, they say, belongs to that kind of opium the proletariat uses to deaden the pains of their misery. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that in our own age a popular and widespread slogan appeared: "Since Auschwitz I can no longer believe in the God of Providence (that is, the God of the Christian church)." It is held that there is no future in Europe for any church that does not quickly adapt its message on this very point!
"God Cannot Help it Either"
This way an ancient problem is attacking us with renewed vitality, namely the problem of the so-called 'vindication of the justice of God.' If you wish to express this idea in a concise and elegant way, you might in this context use the word theodicy. How is it possible that God can do this, that or the other thing, or else: how can He allow it or approve of it?
Here we are facing the problem of the: "why?" We meet it in the child of God who is laying down his grief, his sorrow, his wretchedness before the presence of God. We meet it in a completely different key in the study of the philosopher who, sitting like a judge behind his desk, puts God in the dock.1
Whenever we let this "why?" question sink in, or feel it rise up out of our own life, we as children of God feel challenged. Can we still get along with a Bible which assures us that not a sparrow falls on the ground and not a hair from our head without (the will) of the heavenly Father? Do we still have the courage to say what we believe about God's government of all things, and defend that belief as well? Are we not forced by the superiority of the facts to relinquish the confession that "all things come not by chance but befall us by God's fatherly hand" – as we heard it in answer 27 of the Catechism just a moment ago?
Is it not much more logical, simple and clear-cut when we put the matter like this from now on: God has the best of intentions towards us, and all good things come from His hand. Our God has nothing (whatsoever) to do with evil, whether the evils of injustice, disease, disasters, or affliction. Evil originates in a hostile power, a power we can only hate. We have to throw that power out of our lives and chase it away like a burglar. After all, God can't help it either that the enemy is still able to develop so much power. God is fighting on our side against those burglars. He shows solidarity and shares in our suffering. And if you are unable to believe this right away, they say, just take a good look at Jesus.
It is not without good reason that this supreme sufferer is called the 'son of God,' is it? From this anybody can infer God's immense solidarity with mankind. And yet the fact remains that in spite of all God's good intentions evil often lashes out in the wrong places. It's too bad that evil often strikes good people. They deserved a better lot, didn't they? So, it is concluded, we ought to have quite a bit of patience with this God.
This is more or less the recipe of the American rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his bestseller: When bad things happen to good people.2 But a pleasant theodicy it is not! We can hardly say that this book offers much comfort. Yet it has the charm of being manageable and well-structured. To be sure, God's hands remain clean, but we better be astute enough not to talk about the almighty hand of God any longer. Also, we had better put an end to that confession about all things coming "by His fatherly hand"; nor should we tell one another during those trying circumstances that we must "be patient in adversity," or that "all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move." Further, we should be more careful with our obituaries and be a little more frugal in our use of words like "comfort" and "acceptance." Turn in these irrelevant concepts and you'll be given an acceptable and marketable image of God in return.
Commentary on the Opposition’s View of Suffering in this World
Now we intend to begin with our commentary on what has previously been said. This commentary will be presented in four points.
The Myth of the Chaos or the Revelation of Genesis 1 to 3
Behind many modern narratives about sickness and suffering in this world the idea of the imperfection of God's creation is rearing up its head. An energy of chaos is active among us; evidently this power has the run of this world, unhindered. It is a power of darkness and death, a power which God (so far) has been unable to subdue; or, so to speak, God has so far not succeeded in His option to bring about a blissful world. If we are to take another step in this direction, all of us will end up in the old heresy of Gnosticism. If so, the reasoning goes as follows: this world is not really God's world at all. This world is a product of an antagonist of the exalted God. Beyond the creation of this world – we might also say prior to that creation – there was a fall, an act of apostasy against the supreme God and we, without our assent, happened to be dragged along in this fall. We are condemned to live in this world, but only to the same extent to which a good patriot during the Nazi occupation belonged in a prison; so we, too, are really out of place here on this earth. Strictly speaking, we are the hostages of chaos in its battle with God.
If we don't want to stretch out that far in our thinking, because we might defame creation too much, then we are stuck with only one choice: we must remain loyal to this world, and we are therefore obliged to mobilize all human powers for a gigantic act of liberation. The reason for this is that the arch-burglar must be driven out if this world is ever going to be reconstructed into a paradise. So we must give God considerable assistance in this war of liberation. Good can only be victorious when we, human beings, totally dedicate ourselves to this goal.
This amounts to the titanic effort of man within the framework of the humanistic view of life.
In this context we should pay special attention to the way in which this view and similar views about God are discussed.
His name is not kept concealed but is actually frequently mentioned. But this mentioning often lacks respect for the self-revelation of God.
The living God, we know, started to speak with His people in Genesis 1. Here we are not being told some kind of story about God's capturing a piece of the world from the powers of chaos. Instead, we see Him call forth a radiant creation by means of His almighty power. "And God saw everything that He had made (in creation), and, behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31 a). The fall did not precede creation; on the contrary, the fall that did take place was a falling away from God by His most splendid creature, in His own image and likeness, namely, man on this earth, the very same earth we are living on today. True, it happened 'being prompted by the devil,' but that does not at all diminish our 'deliberate disobedience' – as our children are taught in catechism class. We, as humanity, abandoned the word of life; we knew better than God (cf. Belgic Confession, Art. 14). The creation of this world was not caused or preceded by a falling into sin. Sin invaded creation and was given admittance by its steward (cf. Romans 5:12). We should not talk about an imperfect act of creation but about a creation that is defiled by man himself. From that day on another king rules this earth. This ruler is the power of sin, and whoever is in the service of this king receives death as wages (cf. Romans 5:12, 6:6, 12-14, 16-23). This power of death is a formidable opponent of God. At the same time, death is a formidable instrument of wrath in the hands of God. The entire Bible attests to this: God knows how to make use of enemies of Himself and of His people and of His kingdom, by manipulating His foes as instruments of His wrath before He ultimately destroys them. That is the state of affairs ever since the event described to us in Genesis 3. We must not speculate about a mysterious blank page in the narrative of Genesis 1, but we should instead humble ourselves because of the catastrophe of Genesis 3.
God is the Father of His Son Jesus Christ
Also our second comment deals with how we speak about God. Certainly, people talk about God but not about Him as the Father of Jesus Christ. That is why a liberal-Jewish publication like Kushner's became such a tremendous hit. But he, who talks about God without talking about Jesus Christ, does not talk about God at all. He relates a number of things about his own concept of God. Yet, "no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27b). The true God is the Father of His Son Jesus Christ. This is also the decisive idiom of our theme. What is the essence of this theme? We shall try to answer that question in the next three points.
In the first place it should be pointed out that the love of God for His creation and mankind became manifest in Christ. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son" (John 3:16); and in its apostolic creed the church has from the beginning extolled before God this word about the Only Begotten Son of the Father and professed this word before man. Among other things, this word means most definitely that whatever God wanted to communicate and give, He communicated and gave in His Son. Without Him there is no love of God, because in Him the love of God was manifested. That is why the Scripture reference about the Only Begotten Son lets us know that no alternative route to salvation exists. Trying to figure out another route is a futile undertaking. There will not be a second revelation of God's redeeming love, because there is not another beloved Son (cf. 1 John 4:7 et. seq.). That is precisely why so much in this world is doomed to failure. All suffering and all misery that are generated by these failures do exist to teach us that we must renounce our own alternatives.
The true God is the Father of Jesus Christ. This, moreover, means in the second place that God takes our revolt, our sin and His resulting wrath so seriously that He did not spare even His own Son (Romans 8:32). In His unsearchable love He surrendered for us all His only Son to inexpressible anguish and agony – the excruciating pangs of hell. If there is anything that surpasses and exceeds our intellectual capacities: here is the prime example of it. Just think: to be God's Son and then to be abandoned by God; always having lived in the pure love of God and then to be drowned in His wrath; never having known sin and then to be made one and all sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) – is there anything on earth more paradoxical than this? This was truly an authentic "holocaust," a sacrificial offering that is totally consumed by fire.3
One can meditate on and talk and complain a great deal about Auschwitz; one doesn't hold it for possible that man is actually able to treat his fellow man in such a beastly manner. But he who begins at Auschwitz actually begins far too late. He has to begin at Gethsemane and Golgotha. Then and there God took His own abhorrence of sin so seriously that He sacrificed His own Son because of it. In the total, unrestrained reality of His wrath He delivered up His own Son to die the hellish death of being forsaken by Him.
God can, namely, renounce everything but Himself. Thus he cannot renounce either His love or His wrath.
It is also with a view to this reality that the apostle calls out to us that the Word of God is "sure and worthy of full acceptance"! We can read this in 1 Timothy 1:15, 4:9.
This is the reason the apostle can write in another letter: When God put forward Christ Jesus as an expiation by His blood on Golgotha, He demonstrated His righteousness even when, from that day forward, He is going to perform a most unprecedented act: justifying sinners who have faith in His Son (Romans 3:25, 26). Quite a "theodicy," this! Wouldn't you agree?
The self-justification of God is evidently given in His Son, whom He gave up for us all. Whenever man starts asking questions about the origin of all the misery in this world, God's answer will be called out to him from Golgotha.
Therefore, when the church speaks about "His fatherly hand" by which all things befall us (L.D. 10), we should realize that we are talking about the hand of this selfsame God, the Father of Jesus Christ (L.D. 9). We are talking about that very same hand which had previously determined the course of events in Jerusalem, namely, the suffering and death of His own Son (Acts 4:28). That is why the apostle spells it out so clearly for us: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). But also: "if anyone has no love for the Lord (imagine that!), let him be accursed" (1 Corinthians 16:22).
Just assume now for a moment that someone after the events at Golgotha wanted to live without Christ; that someone was bent upon shaping and healing this world in an alternative fashion, again without Christ. How would such a person ever be able to hold his ground before God? For if God did not spare His own Son, why should He spare the enemies of the cross of Christ?
No sacrifice exists for the sin of treading underfoot the only sacrifice for sin (cf. Hebrews 10:26-31). Yes, this response is an answer coming out of a thunderstorm. It is coming to us out of the thunder of Golgotha. Should someone wish to speak up before God's presence, Golgotha is the place to do it.
The true God is the Father of Jesus Christ. In the third place this means, too, that God has highly exalted His Son, because of His self-abasement into the agonies of hell (Philippians 2:6-11). He saved Him from the power of death and made Him Lord of all things. He has subjected to Him "all principality and power" (Colossians 2:10) and made them subservient to His rule. He entrusted to Christ both the rule and the judgment of the world.
This world has to deal with Him and will be dealt with by Him. The Bible tells us about the Lamb standing, as though it had been slain (Revelations 5:6) and of the wrath of God and of the Lamb (Revelations 6:16). Everybody, one day, will be confronted with Him who carries about in His own body the scars of God's wrath.
That is why it is not possible for a Jewish teacher to dispense words of wisdom to us about the problem of suffering in this world. For he does not know the Son. He is putting his faith in virtuous man. He does not know about the Lamb who was slain, and neither does he expect the Lamb's wrath.
It is a bad omen that a book like Kushner's can become a bestseller in a country4 where, in the course of time, the Christian church has expounded to millions of people the name of the Only Begotten Son of the Father. This publication success is symptomatic of spurning the Christ of the Scriptures, of negating the cross and of having an aversion to the cross as the place of God's wrath and the propitiation for our sins.
The Reality of God's Wrath on this Earth
Our third comment concerns itself with the real manifestation of God's wrath in the existence of this world. In the course of history many attempts were made to disarm the testimony of the Scripture on this very point.
Yet the Bible continues to speak about the reality of God's wrath here on earth. It is neither a primitive concept of a primitive religion nor the product of a human being who is projecting his existential anxiety into some godhead. To speak about God's wrath is to acknowledge the power of God, Who takes objection to the spurning of His goodness and His love. As little as we can comprehend Christ's course in Gethsemane or Golgotha, so little can we grasp the history of mankind when we let our eyes be closed for the reality of God's wrath and power of judgment.
When the apostle Paul in Romans 1:16, 17 has finished proclaiming the heart of the gospel for all people, he apparently has to introduce God's wrath in verse 18. He says: "for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men…" The gospel of justification is being proclaimed among the people, exactly for that reason. For in the gospel is life. The just shall live by faith. That is why this gospel must, of necessity, be proclaimed; for there is under God's wrath so incredibly much death here below under the dome of heaven.
Only when we are alive to these realities, first of all, may we venture to talk sensibly about the state of affairs on this earth.
If we continue to examine Romans 1, we shall also find that the course of action of the wrathful God is revealed.
In the first place, He expresses His wrath by giving people up to themselves and to one another. Evidently, God's wrath is visible even then when He just lets people go their own way, or "do their own thing."
Thus, much light is shed on the unimaginable extent of misery throughout the history of this world. God lets people have their own way for a while, until such time as they have got themselves and one another into a complete fix, and have together been debased into total foolishness, beastliness and hopelessness.
In addition to all this, there are eruptions of God's wrath in catastrophes, and there are judgments in the destruction of numerous human accomplishments. The book of Revelations shows us these destructions in all their stupendous dimensions. And these events are merely the heralds of the great day of wrath of God and the Lamb.
No wonder, then, that the universal fear for that particular day (Revelation 6:15-17) is so impressively portrayed! That day will stand for the ultimate bankruptcy of all human attempts for "survival." All insurance companies will then go bankrupt, simultaneously.
In all these things man, with all his splendid potentialities, is going to be deeply humbled. God is cutting him down to size and is keeping him that way by means of disasters and wars, illnesses and death. In this way God cuts off all the alternatives and puts mankind into training for its final destiny: to look upon the One, the man of Golgotha and Easter. "Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, everyone who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so, Amen" (Revelation 1:7).
Right now, there is as yet no hell on earth. So far only Golgotha was visited by hell. All the same, this hell on earth has been announced. Occasionally God permits man to make it into a hell within its own limitations. To bring this about, God only has to loosen the reins briefly.
Whenever God is leaving us to our own devices and is withdrawing His patience only to the minutest degree, by next day this earth's society will have become unrecognizable and unlivable. Then is happening what the book of Revelation tells us: God gives the beast elbow-room (Revelation 13).
This kind of language is completely different from Kushner's "God can't help but make way for the power of evil."
"Whoever is wise, let him understand these things" (Hosea 14:9a). When right in the midst of the highly developed civilized world of 20th-century Europe extermination camps emerge with names like "Auschwitz" or "Tremblinka", we are to discern therein the awe-inspiring ways of the revealed God. To the great humiliation of us all, God demonstrated there how quickly "civilization" can revert to "barbarism." This happens when we do not fear God in the pursuit of our cultural faculties. God has smashed to pieces the humanistic concept of man and his cultural idealism. He exposed, too, the folly of unilateral disarmament. Thus, disarmed, we ourselves made way for the beast. God taught us a lesson on the inherent perils of dwelling together as human beings in our society. God only has to let us (decent, civilized and artistic people) go our own way for just a few moments and give us a rifle and let our sadism take off, and, voila, we all turn into concentration camp brutes, violators of God's most precious handiwork. The devil is going on a rampage in this world and, if God does not prevent it, this devil will, in his frenzy, chase us all into that kind of abyss.
In Auschwitz God's wrath was manifested first of all in giving latitude to the executioners. Not from the very outset did those executioners form the dregs of society. That would be, in retrospect, a most convenient rationalization which we, decent citizens, could use to soothe our consciences with. The truth is, however, that those brutes represented a society that was forgetting God and was busy trading the service of God for the pagan Germanic gods that had been renounced many centuries before. Thus, paganism did get an opportunity to demonstrate its life-destroying power in all its gruesomeness. The evil spirits did return (cf. Matthew 12:44,45).
At the same time the bankruptcy of humanistic idealism was publicly exhibited, and the rejection of the God of the Old and the New Testament was horribly punished. But contemporary man, born after W.W.II, wonders while placing his wreaths at cenotaphs and looking back at Auschwitz: "Where was God, actually?" And so he starts philosophizing about the "twilight of the gods" and the "absence of God." But God was not absent in Auschwitz. There, in particular, He was present in a most fearful way. He was present in the dreadful energy of his wrathful activities. God was present in the moral dissolution of life and the society of human beings whom He had collectively placed on this one-and-only world. Then and there, God had us as collective mankind deeply humiliated. But the Scripture has this to say about a generation that survived the Great War: "The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot either see or hear or walk; nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immoralities or their thefts'' (Revelation 9:20, 21).
That is to say: those who escaped the executioners of World War II, hastily returned after 1945 to the idols of materialism and the pursuit of affluence, liberty and lawlessness, sexism, autonomy and individualism. They complained about Auschwitz and were insolent to God and then went on to build their abortion clinics which, meanwhile, (in the so-called 'free West') have already destroyed more defenseless lives than all the extermination camps lumped together. Still, among all those complainers about Auschwitz, there has yet to arrive one person who stands up and says: "Since the inception and legalization of abortion clinics in Europe and America I can't believe in God any longer."
This is giving us plenty of food for thought. At any rate, considering the heinous drama of Auschwitz, it should prompt us to speak out of our own personal faith in the living God and His genuine wrath, and this first of all with a view to the perpetrators of injustice.
And what, then, about those millions of victims of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps? We feel deeply humbled and ashamed when we think of all those destroyed families, those broken lives of both old and young.
Evidently, that is what we, human beings, can do to one another. No words can adequately describe these things; all human words fail us. But, at this juncture we do have to speak a word of God: "Do you think that these victims were worse sinners than all the other Europeans, because they suffered thus? No," says Christ to you, "but unless you repent and follow Christ you will all likewise perish" (cf. Luke 13:2, 3). In truth, Auschwitz is not really the end or the lowest point or the final act. In all its colossal dimensions it was only a prologue of hell.
We must yet speak another word of God, a word that is being called out to us amidst the atrocities of our society: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
The Holy Spirit Teaches Us Wisdom
Nothing is more understandable than man's desire for an airtight, foolproof argument concerning the great mysteries of human existence. The ills of adversity (for instance, suffering because of disasters, sickness, injustice and violence) strike both the evildoers and the righteous. This was a distressing matter for psalmists, for those who pray, for Job and the author of Ecclesiastes alike.
For us, too, this is a distressing matter; it can torment and haunt us.
"God makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). Much thought can be spent on this issue, and we may invite one another's opinion about it. Not that this question normally worries us a lot. Far from it; it is a comforting observation, and we witness the goodness and patience of God blossoming forth in the life of His creatures. But misfortune strikes its blows daily, and this hard fact of life tests our faith that wishes to confess the providence of God to the honour of His glory and to the comfort of man.
Thus we can understand the desire for a convenient answer to the "why?"-question. During the process of our investigation we gave some attention to the notion of Kushner. He sends us home with the message that God does want the best for all good people but He, unfortunately, can't bring this about (as yet).
We refused to accept his conclusion, as it is nonsense before the God who revealed Himself in His Son.
Another idea might be presented as follows: God rules over both good and evil; whatever is good is destined for His children and the bad for His enemies.
This, too, would be a convenient recipe, but it is plainly incorrect. When the Scripture tells us that "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28 K.J.V.), it does not mean that "all things" have, thereby, suddenly become "good things.” We can't look at society and our own lives by making a simplistic division like that – no matter how clear and systematic everything would then become if we did. The actual existence of man is apparently less clear-cut than the formulas which the heart of man is longing for. The Holy Spirit who is leading the church in all truth, teaches us differently.
The Spirit Teaches Us to Confess our Collective Debts
At this point we wish to call to mind a remark of Abraham Kuyper. With a view to the suffering in this world he sounded a warning against the Pelagian heresy of representing suffering as an incidental happening or to conceive of it piecemeal and thus give it an individualistic character.5
In other words: in pondering the difficult questions on human suffering, we have to consider sincerely our own faith regarding original sin and affiliated matters as: remaining weakness and how it affects the life of God's children. We refer to Canons of Dort 1,1;
The children of God belong to the world of mankind. They are and remain Adam's offspring. The call of the devil to fall away from God still touches a responsive chord in their hearts and lives. They are born as children of God's wrath. Adopted through baptism to be in Christ, they are delivered from the wrath of God, but are not yet completely delivered from the power of their sinful hearts. That is the reason they are continually calling God's wrath down upon themselves. Although this wrath is not the retributive punishment of the Judge, it is, nonetheless and rightly so, the corrective punishment of the Father. This is the reason even the children of God are cast down under God's mighty hand. God humbles also His own children in their bodies (illness), in their careers (adversity), in their course of life (aging and dying), in their living together with other people (injustices, sufferings and tragedies that hit them all). All these things demonstrate the untenable position man and his society did get themselves into in the presence of their Creator.
Thus we can understand that God's children have been groaning together with the entire creation, which "has been groaning in travail" ever since the fall of Adam (cf. Romans 8:26). Evidently, God does not set up a separate, paradise-like society for those who are His children, as an adjunct to the troublesome and broken society of man and nations. Behind the longing for this situation or the dreaming about it, looms a presumptuous and perfectionistic idealism (background of many churches today!), which notion we will be completely cured of when we start taking seriously the confession of the church in Lord’s Day 44 (Q. & A. 114 & 115) of the Heidelberg Catechism. There you will find reiterated and summarized the profound words of the apostle in Romans 7 and 8.
This is also the substance of Canons of Dort V, Article 1:
Those whom God according to His purpose calls into the fellowship of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by His Holy Spirit, He certainly sets free from the dominion and slavery of sin, but not entirely in this life from the flesh and from the body of sin.
Therefore, we should (in the first place) not be too surprised when God's punishments are also visited upon our lives. We have to keep up growing spiritually, and we have to keep up examining our consciences in the painful awareness that still so many sins and shortcomings are left around in our hearts and lives. Then we mortify our flesh "by holy exercises of godliness" (Canons of Dort V.2) and by living God-fearing lives. These "holy exercises" should not take place removed from the avenue of our real, daily existence, in order that we might piously dream away the harsh reality of this world. These "holy exercises" ought to take place within the very sphere of our daily existence; that is: in the midst of the troubles and problems caused by the iniquities and the suffering and distress of this earthly existence. It is no coincidence that Paul's praising the Word as a "faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation" (K.J.V.) was written down at the moment he started to speak about "godliness that is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8,9).
All this has its own specific meaning for our lives on this earth and for our participation in the society of man. We should be aware of a sense of kinship with all other sinners on this earth. When we see blatant injustice and bitter misery in this world, we shouldn't shake our pious head and point at those other people. We should say this: "It is not at all self-evident that we will escape the fate of our fellow man who has to undergo intense suffering and extreme degradation (cf. Luke 13:1-5). Moreover: whatever that tyrant over there is able to accomplish, we can do, too, as soon as God lets us go our own way and gives us up to one another's willfulness." This is how we as human beings together mess up life that God has created on this earth. This is the plight of man – so miserable and so degenerated. So much for our accomplishments that are displayed before God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth. It is the Spirit who teaches us this humbling confession, right in the midst of our human society.6
The Spirit Leads Us to the Lord's Supper
By acknowledging the power of sin in and around us, we are brought to humble ourselves deeply before God. Whatever came over us people on this earth? What is it we have been doing since the fall of man? Thus humbled, we may and should take refuge in the crucified Christ. Only there, with Him, we can find peace for our hearts; because there, out of the thunderstorm of Golgotha, God's peace is proclaimed to us. Only this way can we also quieten down our hearts amidst all the questions and perplexing problems we can carry around with us.
In other words: we should frequently celebrate the Lord's supper so as not to run the risk, at any time, of losing sight of the crucified Christ, whenever we are preoccupied with our sorrows, questions and problems.
The Lord's Supper portrays to us the Christ of Golgotha: a completely debased and totally deprived Man of sorrows, who for our sake took upon Himself the anguish and pains of hell because of God's judgment. That is, ultimately, what man himself deserves when he has to approach the judgment seat of God. See the Man! See yourself!
Nowhere will man become more insignificant than at the cross of Golgotha; and insignificant people dare not be insolent before God. Far from it, in particular when they are standing in the place where the love of God together with the wrath for His Son reached its culmination. It is advisable to celebrate the Lord's Supper not in a secluded quiet corner of our clamorous society, as if it were some kind of intimate little feast of the pious soul with its God. The table of the Lord's Supper stands right in the midst of this world, as truly as the crucifixion was an international event.
No doubt, we have too often celebrated the Lord's Supper in an individualistic manner. We wanted to confine the event of Golgotha to the narrow prospect of our own lives. Sometimes we did not see the world – the world with its suffering, its misery, its lack of perspective and its unsolvable problems. Yet, this sacrificed and wholly-consumed man of Golgotha is God's answer to all the cries of despair in this world. There, as you know, He shed His blood of the Covenant for many. In particular at the Lord's table, God declares: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of this world! For God so loved the world that he rather gave His only Son over to death than letting the sin of the world hold sway and abandoning the world to sin. Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him now, before this Lamb is going to present Himself for the second time, this time as Judge of the living and the dead. "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15).
The Spirit Teaches Us the Struggle of Conversion
Some moments ago we reiterated the words of the Canons of Dort (Ch. V, Article 1). Making an analogy at this point, we can impress upon ourselves and one another the following version:
Those whom God according to His purpose calls into the fellowship of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by His Holy Spirit, He certainly sets free from the dominion and bondage of death and the fear of it (Hebrews 2:14, 15), but He does, in this life, not altogether deliver them from its power, from its sting and effects.
Death is God's last enemy (1 Corinthians 1:26). For the time being, this enemy in all its manifestations is to serve as an instrument in God's hand to exercise God's children in leading God-fearing lives. Whenever one finds sin, there is death in all kinds of forms, because 'sin' is "death": the state of being-dead-before-God! Wherever there is sin, life will be in retreat and has to yield ground to the enemy, death. There, life is no longer functioning before God. Even though the imperium of sin and death has, indeed, been vanquished by Christ (Romans 5:14, 21; 6:9, 12, 14; 2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2:14), this does not yet mean that the formidable opponent has become idle (1 Corinthians 15:24-26, 56). This illustrates the basic duality of our human existence. The apostle has, particularly in Romans 7 and 8:6-13, defined this dramatic situation for us.
In our existence much can be found that must die because it is not really living, not living before God. At the same time, much has to be coaxed into life, until now having been barren ground untouched or just barely touched by the Gospel and the law of Christ. We call that the "mortification" of the old man and the "resurrection" of the new man: that is, the two parts of the true conversion. In this process God also wields the instrument of suffering in our lives.
This outlook compels us to say this: In the context of a God-fearing life we have to admit to the existence of our disturbing experiences with sin and God's wrath because of it (Canons of Dort, V. Article 2). And this is not only because we have a constant reason to humble ourselves before God and to pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit and to long for the goal of perfection, but our exercises of godliness also encompass the "mortification" of the flesh; that is to say: the destruction of everything still remaining in us as vital remnants of our rebellion against God, of our desire to quarrel with God.
We can also put it this way: In the struggle for the daily renewal of our lives, we must take into account (or take into consideration) the troubles that our sins cause, as well as the expressions of God's wrath. We have to die unto ourselves with Christ in order to be resurrected with Christ. Guided by the Holy Spirit we must learn how to deal with our specific, perplexing experiences in life. For the Spirit sighs with us when we do (Romans 8:26). These perplexing experiences will make us specifically understand what that "heartfelt sorrow" is, as mentioned in Lord's Day 33 (Answer 89) of the Heidelberg Catechism. And gradually it will begin to dawn on us what that "heartfelt joy in God through Christ" is supposed to be, though our hearts be still filled with questions and unsolved mysteries. The troubles of this earthly existence do not obscure the outlook on God. The bitterness of the present cannot obscure the outlook on the future; this would be impossible within the terms of godliness. (cf. 1 Timothy 4:8 "It holds promise for the present and also for the life to come.")
The children of God acknowledge their God as the Father of Jesus Christ. Because the Spirit is bearing them witness, they may call themselves children of God (cf. Romans 8:15). Through the Spirit they have been made members of Christ. Christ is dwelling in them and they in Him. Their life is, therefore, living with Christ; their suffering a suffering with Christ, their death a dying in Christ. Together with Him they are also moving onward through life and suffering and death, to that incorruptible life that is revealed in Christ on the third day since the total debasement of Golgotha. If we suffer with Him, says the apostle, it is that we may be also glorified with Him (Romans 8:17). Especially this word, too, shows us how trustworthy the Gospel is according to 2 Timothy 2:11.
The Holy Spirit makes the communion with Christ very real for us in the daily renewal of our lives and resurrection, which we call conversion. That is why we as children of God, in our communion with Christ, can make room for the inroads that illness, suffering, handicaps and grief make into our lives – all those forms of declining life and impending death. Because of Him all this has become a dying in order to gain life.
What appears to be demolition and also that which, actually, is demolition must serve the construction of the new building. What is now blocking our way must become a thoroughfare. This "must" is the glorious commitment of God's plan of salvation for us. Thus the lowest point becomes the highest point; a blind wall becomes an impressive passageway: "Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life" (Lord's Day 16, Answer 42). Citing the apostle Peter, we could also put it this way: "for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin" (1 Peter 4:1). This is not because of the intrinsic value of suffering, but because of the communion with the suffering Christ occasioned thereby. The apostle says, furthermore, "arm yourselves with the same thought." He doesn't say: "entertain that thought," but: "take that thought with you as your weapon in the warfare of your life."
This kind of spiritual discernment we don't find with the aid of conveniently manageable formulas. Only the daily guidance of the Spirit will be able to point out the way our thoughts must take and will take. It is the way of the desires of the Spirit over against the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:16, 17; Romans 8:5, 11).
The Spirit Delivers Us from Human Schematization
We observed a moment ago that the road we have outlined is not the comfortable one which would be offered to us by some human scheme. On the contrary, it is the road of faith that is challenged and of faith triumphant. One can take possession of a scheme; one can master it, learn it by heart or keep it to fall back on in case of bad times lying ahead. It is at one's disposal and will do the job whenever it suits him. It gives a feeling of security that difficult questions or experiences should not alarm him, because the scheme is ready at hand. No matter whether those schemes are liberal or orthodox, they are and remain – nonetheless – dead things which only in appearance can put heart and conscience at ease.
Faith is characterized by the fact that the Spirit is always giving it to us as a new present. The continuity of faith does not lie in our ability of locking it up in a safe-deposit box. It does lie, however, in the great faithfulness of God the Holy Spirit, who continuously works, strengthens, defends and preserves faith in our lives. Faith is a matter of seeking, time and again, our peace outside ourselves and our human certainties and of finding it only with Christ and Him crucified. How great was the insight of the church when she spoke of "a constant reason" to "flee to the crucified Christ" and spoke of "holy exercises of godliness," (Canons of Dort. V, Article 2). In this context, the Confession has recited for us those words about trials and doubts and temptations that daily assail us (cf. Canons of Dort, V, Articles 3, 4, 11, 12).
We acknowledge the Christ of Golgotha as our exalted Lord (cf. Romans 8:34). Working through His Spirit, He uses in the lives of God's children also their troubles and sufferings as His instruments. Thus He directs them to the goal where He wants them to be (Romans 8:29). Not only did the apostle Paul tell us this, he also demonstrated it in his own life when he related to us his own great difficulties (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
When we know our Lord and understand the work of His Spirit, after holding onto Romans 8:17, we will be able to appropriate the inexhaustible words of Romans 8:18-39. These words, one by one, make us perceive God's ways with our lives, right in the midst of our scourged and ravaged world. And then we will learn the true answer for all the challenges that emerge from our own hearts or come our way from our community. The apostle was acquainted with all provocations as described in the verses 35 to 39. He let us know that none of them is able to thwart our communion with Christ or to obstruct our view of the glorious future. For the fundamental love of God is going to prevail over all the manifestations of His wrath which, daily, we are still calling down upon ourselves. This is as certain and truthful as His ultimate love He has shown to us in Christ. And it is exactly at this very point that Answer 28 of the Heidelberg Catechism, held up to scorn by its critics, lays hold of us and wants to capture us. The rendition of the finale is in a major key.
The Gospel Legitimized in the Death and Resurrection of Christ
The Gospel is indeed completely trustworthy, but this should not give us the notion as if the certainties of faith present themselves as self-evident and rationally explicit. This much should be apparent from the previous articles. Merely referring to the suffering in the world will call forth within ourselves a great number of contradictory emotions. Continuously we have to wrestle ourselves free from the grip of temptations, if we are to find rest in faith through the love of God revealed in Christ. This certainty of faith does not bear the mark of being naturally self-evident, as though anyone who is in possession of some of his mental faculties has to concur with it. To be sure, our hearts long for those handy, manageable formulas, but that is not the way it works in the school of the Holy Spirit. Surely, the Lord Himself knew that for people like us it is not easy, yes even impossible to make room in our hearts for His Word. In fact, no one knows this better than He. We know our own misery only to a very limited degree. It is also because of this that Christ, while proclaiming the salvation of God's kingdom, has accompanied His message with signs and miracles. These accompanying activities turned into compelling proofs for both friend and foe: the new world of God is breaking through in the proclamation of the kingdom. The miracles were, indeed, specifically focused on the restoration of life: the healing of illnesses, the feeding of the hungry masses, the deliverance from madness, the rescuing out of dangers, and the resurrection from the dead. One by one these activities made it clear that God had arisen7 to rescue the life of mankind from being caught in a tight corner and from anxieties: illness, misery, starvation, the power of the grave – all these have to make way for His power, because the guilt and the power of sin are going to be expelled!
These miracles had, therefore, a strong referential character. They referred to the glorious reality of God's new world. Because of this referential character Scripture is calling the miracle a sign. In this manner Christ has demonstrated His glory as the Only-begotten of the Father, and thus legitimized the Father Him (and His authority) to the people. It was "the works which the Father has given Me to finish" declares Christ Himself (John 5:36) in the context of giving evidence about His authority. Wherever people are saved from their sins (Matthew 1:21), illness, starvation and other miseries can no longer hold out. It is evident, then, that all those who heard Christ's preaching and saw Him actively engaged doing His works were confronted with the decisive choice of faith. Both the words and the deeds of Christ put these people under the obligation to listen to God's call for conversion. One cannot as an interested onlooker observe Christ's work without committing oneself. Christ does not accept that attitude (cf. Luke 13:26, 27). It is for this reason that Christ, at a certain moment, says to the skeptics and those that contradict Him:
But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you … He that is not with Me is against Me; and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth abroad.Matthew 12:28, 30
Those who even after the words and works described for us in Matthew 12 still continue in their skepticism, pedantry and slander, are committing an unforgivable sin as we hear Christ say a little later in verses 31 and 32. Such a person pertinently refuses to accept the irrefutable miracle as a sign of Christ's glory and trustworthiness. Also in John 6, we can read something similar: a person may have eaten of the bread that Christ had multiplied and yet fail to discern therein the manifestation of Christ's glory (John 6:36).
The situation in Matthew 12 is of the same kind. Here the tension between Christ and the Pharisees has increased to a feverish pitch (cf. vs. 24). Next, the experts, the scribes arrive to reinforce the ranks and they together with the Pharisees are then demanding that Christ should legitimize Himself by means of showing them a sign (vs. 38), thus enabling them to verify His claims.
After the miracle of vs. 22 and its explanation (vs. 25 to 30) they "would like to see a sign" (vs. 38).
At this point Christ tasted in their request the venom of the wickedness and waywardness of the Jewish opponents who wanted a messiah according to their own preferences and concepts. In this request He tasted their resistance against his Person and their contempt for the supreme gift of God's love. The relationship between God and these leaders is apparently thoroughly spoiled. As a concession, they are giving Christ the opportunity to earn the love of His people by giving a sign; a sign, namely, that the pedantic scribes would appraise and verify. Christ is permitted to submit to an examination so that He, after successful result, may be awarded the diploma of certified rabbi. His credibility will consist of a label which the experts, after the successful examination will attach to His public appearances. It is, as it were, as if we were overhearing the philosophers and disputants of all ages (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20).
The answer Christ gives to this challenge plainly settles the question and is conclusive for all centuries to come. Christ replies: you will be given the sign of the prophet Jonah; and that sign should be sufficient for you. (cf. Matthew 16:4)
What does this riddle mean?
It is about Jonah, the prophet – the man who has spoken to the Ninevites (cf. Matthew 12:41). The reader is acquainted with the story: Jonah has proclaimed the judgment of God, urged repentance and promised salvation. It was a most incisive sermon, and it was listened to!
Suppose those Ninevites had asked Jonah to identify himself (after all, who does that little Jewish chap think he is in this mighty city of the Assyrians?), Jonah could have demonstrated overwhelming proof of his authorization. He could have told them the powerful story of his calling, and such a story even the Ninevites had never heard before. Jonah's route from Gathhepher in Canaan (2 Kings 14:25) to Nineveh had for him gone through the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. What manifestation of the power of God who had sent him! What judgment! What salvation! Never yet had any prophet been able to produce such proof of identity and authorization.
In fact, it is so unique that to a human mind it appears to border on the absurd – right up to our own days. Imagine: a story about running away from God, and then being plunged into a tumultuous sea, and having to stay inside a sea monster for three full days and nights; this is, to put it briefly, the story of an unimaginable humiliation and an even more inconceivable exaltation through the mighty hand of God. To prove his identity Jonah could have told his story. He could have said: as truly as I'm standing here all this has happened to me. Otherwise I wouldn't be here, and you would never have had the opportunity to listen to my sermon.
But the curious fact is that the prophet's legitimation cannot be had all by itself, or separately. The 'sign' begins and ends with the trustworthiness of the man himself, through the word he is proclaiming. The sign that has to support the word is transmitted to the hearers only via that word. It is not some 'objective' sign existing independently of Jonah, to be examined in a laboratory and verified by experts who can handle the objective, generally accepted standards of man. The sign is, so to speak, in the prophet himself: the very fact that he was standing there was the greatest miracle a man could ever think of.
The 'sign of Jonah' is, therefore, a sign which is Jonah himself. Jonah (himself) has become for the Ninevites a sign, as we read in Luke 11:30. It is an incredible sign: you'll never get to the end of thinking about it, or else you'll find it so absurd you don't even want to think about it. It is, consequently, a sign that does not replace the demand for coming to a decision of faith, nor does it make this demand redundant; instead, it makes the claim the more stringent. It is not a substituting sign but a radicalizing sign. We are to glorify God and say: today we have heard and seen strange things (cf. Luke 5:26), or else say: this nonsense isn't worth talking about (cf. Acts 26:8, 24).
What does Christ, therefore, say about Himself in Matthew 12? He is going to be swallowed up, just like Jonah, by the monster of death and thereafter He will be returned in a measureless miracle to the human community where He will present Himself to the people in the proclamation of the Word. He, Himself, will be the personification of God's mighty wrath and all-surpassing quickening power. Soon, 'on that third day,' there will be God's great judgment among the people.
Whoever entrusts himself to Christ will, on that day, be permanently founded in his faith as well as in his expectations of life.
He who does not entrust himself, will neither give in at that time; Matthew 28:11-15 tells us this sad story. Continuously requesting legitimation and verification, they resorted to hiring soldiers in order to lock up, beforehand, that crucial legitimation in the tomb. Even today there are many theologians and other scholars acting as busybodies in their attempt to station crafty guards in front of the tomb. Reasons aplenty, does it not, to declare Jonah's great sign of the Easter morning to be impotent. For how could the like of that ever be possible? Being rational creatures, we know the laws of nature and of reason, don't we?
Unbelievers will not be able to ignore that word about those three days (cf. Matthew 27:62-66), but they are saving it up to do battle with the good tidings. Even on the very day of Easter unbelief cannot be silenced, although it happens to make itself look utterly ridiculous.
Faith, however, shall find its solid foundation in that word. Throughout the centuries the church will joyfully confess the great event of that third day in the articles of her undoubted Christian faith. That is the way it is for the Son of Man when He reveals His identity in the presence of an onlooking, distrustful world.
Therefore, Christ's death and resurrection should be sufficient for us whenever we feel challenged by provocative questions about the verification of the Gospel. Our God has guaranteed the message of Christ, who died because of our sins and was resurrected because of our justification. That is God's grand answer to the many problems people throw at Him because of their anxieties or fault-finding. The Christ who died and was resurrected is the sign which God grants to this generation and all generations. God did this even before we were able to ask Him for a sign. Both baptism and the Lord's Supper have documented these essential moments for us all.
The church stands in a world that is filled with questions and contradictions. Seemingly defenseless, she stands there with her sermons, her font for baptism, and her table for the Lord's Supper. And much like the church standing there is our own situation, with all kinds of questions and problems that are left behind in our hearts and lives.
We better become very humble at this point. For we were born as partakers of the debt. We have been called out from the power of sin, but are still lacking the perception to have insight into the work of the Lord. We do not nearly grasp the extent of our own misery. If we do not rightly know ourselves, how can we expect to have insight into God's majesty?
We are unable to conceive of or reason out our own salvation, because we are still far removed from seeing all things in their proper relationships. True, we are often so busy and are acting so important, but actually we can't pull any strings. Only that which the Father has initially given to us, will we be able to put before Him. The only thing we know to be absolutely sure is the reliable word of the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is, therefore, ultimately not one area in our life that does not compel us to take it to Jesus. This way, we are, indeed, taking our refuge in the Son, who died for us and rose again.
And being with Him we are no longer able to assume the role of the plaintiff before God. Man can only do this when he has not yet seen the great love of God. But whoever celebrates the Lord's Supper is proclaiming the death of Christ as the supreme good news in his life. There, in particular, man gets broken of his habit of wanting to be the plaintiff.
There, man is learning, slowly but surely, to find refuge in and to take delight in the communion with God through His Son and the Holy Spirit. There he learns to expect the day on which he together with all God's people will praise God for His governing of history.
Thus, it is apparent that faith in God's reliable Word does not remain unchallenged. It is at the same time apparent, however, that it is invincible. It is unmistakably that incredible news about the arrival of the Son that is making the Gospel so trustworthy.