Since that 'Fall' God has put into effect his long-term plan to bring everything back to himself. It is a very long-term plan because God refuses to trample on the freedom and dignity he installed in us, and it causes him huge pain. There are two sides to his plan: God gets involved with us, and he reveals things to us. He gets involved because of our helplessness, but he reveals things to us because of our dignity in his sight: he wants us to know what he is doing and to work with him in it. He doesn't treat us like robots under command, not even like privates in an army to be ordered around; his aim is to breed mature 'sons' (male and female) - at least that seems to be what he has revealed to us.
Part 2 tells the story of God's involvement, in brief - a Brief History of God. History is interesting, but what relevance does it have for us today? Of course, it has produced what we are today, so is relevant for that reason. But the greatest relevance of this Brief History of God is what God has revealed to us throughout his involvement with us. What he has revealed we can learn, and hopefully use to affect our own lives.
For this reason, the major part of this site is Part 3 which outlines what God has revealed to us, and each lesson is discussed in detail by following a link from Part 3 (and also from the lists of links below). Revelation and involvement are intertwined, and both are the main topic of what Christians call the Bible. As explained in the Introduction this site is an attempt to set out what the Bible seems to reveal when we take a broad view of it.
God's involvement seems to have several main phases, and in each phase he reveals different things to us. Most of the things he reveals are still valid, though their outworking might differ in each generation and culture. Different people have different ideas what the phases are, but the ones we will use here are:
God's involvement takes several forms, and most of them begin with the letter 'C' in English:
The sad thing is that we don't realise when we get things wrong. This is not only because we misbelieve, but often because we are actually blind to certain options because of the world views we hold and the presuppositions we make. We have forgotten, overlooked, ignored or even refused to learn and believe.
Consider the following:
"What we should be giving the world
(the love and acceptance of God)
we keep for ourselves.
What we should be applying to ourselves
(the morality of God)
we dish out to the world."
Christians in particular often get things wrong about God. That's not because Christians are nasty, wicked people, but rather because we have got a wrong view of our role as God's people, our relationship with the world, the target of God's acceptance, and the nature of morality.
(When I say, we have these wrong, what right have I to do so? Not much. Only that I am one of these Christians myself, but, realising I have seen things wrongly, I have tried to gain an holistic view of the big issues that God has communicated to us.)
So God has to step in and teach us, to reveal things to us that we would not realise for ourselves. And God, who created the whole world, is the Living God, and what he reveals is relevant to all people, in all cultures and at all times - though it requires adapting to any particular culture or situation we find ourselves in.
Here are some things that people tend to see of God via the creation (there are many others):
But the problem with this kind of communication is that it can be rather vague in its content, and depends on the listener taking the initiative. Also, it can convey only certain types of message, usually about God's qualities, and not often about what he wishes or demands from us. We cannot learn how we should live with each other, for example, just from looking at the animals, since they live in many different kinds of ways. As sociologists and anthropologists are finding out. So God opened other channels of communication with us, many other channels, and ones in which he took the initiative.
One was the Flood. Humankind had become altogether wicked, turning to evil and injustice. It had to be told in no uncertain terms that this was not on. So God chose Noah and his family to built an ark and thus save the animals so that another start could be made.
Another was the splitting of humanity's languages when they tried to build a tower to get to God. This story also occurs in China, and has much the same lesson: humanity was too clever and tried to get to God, so he made them not understand each other, via different languages. The precise reason why we should not be allowed to get to God by our own efforts and cleverness had to come later, when finer channels of communication had opened. So, in the absence of the why - which was to do with the fact that we, having turned away from God, would destroy his wonderful creation and each other, if we retained full power - the idea grew that God was capricious and jealous for his separateness from us. As we shall see, this could hardly be further from the truth. But it needed more than shouts; it needed verbal communication to bring out the finer points.
But why that particular punishment; why not another flood or an earthquake, which would have destroyed the tower? Because they were not just proud but going against God's declared purpose for humanity of spreading throughout the earth and blessing it by caring for it. Instead, they all wanted to keep together, centred on their "sweet, stinking selves" (as the saying goes).
God's punishments are usually not revenge, nor even mere punishment; they have meaning and a purpose of trying to steer people into better paths even though their hearts might still be against him, because God still loves his creation and does not want it harmed more than necessary.
Sometimes his shouts were not to punish. But they were always to get people taking him seriously. Later that those, when Israel escaped from bondage God parted the sea for his people to cross, and then let the sea back to drown the army who were pursuing them. For centuries after that, all the peoples around were at least respectful of, and often terrified of, what they called the God of Israel. When God's people came to Mount Sinai, God came down on the mountain with a furnace-like smoke. The people were terrified and listened carefully to what God told them of his laws for them.
Even today God might use shouting when we are hard of hearing.
(Notice again how God is economic: he uses things such as these disasters for several purposes. Not just punishment, not just communication, but also to achieve better things. We will come across this economy and diversity or purpose in God's doings many times.)
In time a man called Abram appeared on the scene. He was one of those individuals who were nearer God's design, who were more 'upright' and noble of character, though he still had his faults. God met him and spoke with him, and made a promise: he would have many descendants and through them blessing would eventually come to all peoples. Abram was renamed Abraham. To him was born two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and to Isaac, Esau and Jacob, who was a nasty piece of work but at least had some God-consciousness. He was renamed Israel, and bore 12 sons and several daughters. One of these sons, Joseph, his favourite, was sold as a slave to Egypt, where he rose to a position of supreme authority under Pharaoh, and Jacob and all his family settled in Egpyt.
Though seemingly just the story of a family, we start to see God's hand at work in more precise ways than in the early days. For example, we can see that Joseph's misfortune resulted in preparation of a special people through which God would gradually work out most of his global plan over thousands of years. We, in the rest of the world at the start of the third Millennium CE, can see this in retrospect, but Joseph himself said to his brothers "You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good."
The book of Genesis, from chapter 12 onwards, tells the story, and in a surprisingly human and direct manner.
The account of this can be found in the book of Exodus in the Bible.
Sadly, as we can see only too plainly, this People with a Purpose continually disobeyed God. Just a few months after the glorious deliverance they were hankering to go back to Egypt, and ever since then they have turned away from God. But, lest the rest of us become glibly complacent, we should learn a lesson that is so obvious that most of us do not recognise it: if God's special people turn away, then we all turn away from God and need God to save us - but those lessons do not become clear until many more centuries have passed.
Note that this communication was not just to the Israelites, but to other peoples too. The fame of 'Israel's God' in delivering them from slavery against all odds, and many of his other actions, went far and wide.
The content of this verbal communication was largely of two parts - how the people (sinful and limited) were to relate to their holy God, and how they were to order their society.
The first covenant he made was with the whole animal kingdom, including human beings, that he would never again wipe everything out with a flood. The second that we know of was to Abraham. These two were in the form of promises. But the third involved two parties: God and the Israelites, his People with a Purpose. He promised these people his blessing and protection, and his prosperity, if only they would keep his laws. This covenant was very precise, containing many mechanisms and means as well as ends, and much of its detail is held in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Without taking upon ourselves the detail (OK because God replaced this covenant later on), we can learn several important lessons:
Its purpose was to cleanse the world of a destructive world view: one in which peoples were subjugated to tyrannical deities and their priesthoods, trapped by fear on the one hand and the fleeting 'pleasures' of temple prostitution on the other. Children were sacrificed in order to seek some boon from the deity, and self-centredness of the rich led to the ordinary people, the land and the Creation itself groaning under injustice. Idolatry and gross injustice are closely tied to each other, in a self-reinforcing world view.
God, who, as he had already started to reveal, has pity on the oppressed, and as we learn clearly much later on is a lover and is deeply hurt by our devotion to things that are not God, wanted to wipe out this world view. It could not be removed by any other means, at least at that time. Utter destruction was the only way. (Note: God required everyone and everything in the offending cities to be destroyed, whereas in other types of battles which were more conventional sort he allowed the taking of plunder and even wives.)
How could this cleansing be achieved. The chosen people had been slaves and so had very few weapons of war and little training in their use. Then they had wandered for forty years, and thus had not been able to develop military technology or techniques. The answer was: with the help of God. For example, Jericho was destroyed by God first of all undermining morale and then by the timely falling of its defensive walls.
(But not everything the Israelites did at that time was of God's will. They misunderstood God's purpose, seeing it mainly in terms of giving themselves a land to live in. So, for example, many of the Canaanites remained, and others who should perhaps have remained were destroyed.)
However, the accounts of this period is told with honesty, in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua.
So he wanted his people to learn settled life that was to be an example and model to the rest of the world. He had already given them laws for this via verbal communication with Moses, and these words had been preserved in written form.
Part of the settling involved military conquest. But this was not just a conflict between two peoples. In many cases it had a purpose of cleansing, and so there was to be no looting or raping; all had to be destroyed lest remnants of the poisonous cultural assumptions transferred over to the Israelites, and God's model society of justice be compromised. (In fact, this happened, but that comes later.)
Sometimes the settling did not involve military conquest, but rather treaties. Since God was a covenant-keeper, his people also had to be be covenant-keepers, and follow God's character.
The form of society was of a loose federation. Since they had no single leader, they would always feel slightly vulnerable, and thus retain some dependence on God. But that was to change.
Through the Israelites' own fault, this settling process was only partial, yet God was patient. It was not complete even hundreds of years later.
The account of much of this conversion is to be found in the books of Joshua, Judges and I Samuel.
Now they were settled, and especially when God protected them from enemies, they had more time to reflect, to write, to engage in learning together. Knowledge of God and his ways percolated their culture, deeply influencing habits, expectations and lifestyles.
Such a model was necessary to avoid the rest of the world claiming that they did not know. God placed on the stage of human history a very public and long-term demonstration. Nobody with open eyes could fail to see the demonstration.
For instance, when they kept a covenant, it was to show God's character as very different from that which prevailed in some other cultures. In these, the strong need not keep covenant with the weak, but can do as they please; the philosophy of 'Might is Right'. But this goes directly against the grain of creation, in which the little ones and the weak are to have their own measure of joy and security and dignity. hence the importance of keeping covenant.
For instance, the idea of Jubilee. In almost all societies there has been a tendency for power and wealth to concentrate over time in the hands of a few. While it is proper that the industrious should benefit more than the lazy, there comes a point at which inherited wealth becomes an evil. So God commanded that every fifty years all debts should be cancelled and all land be returned to its original owners. An interesting non-socialist means of redistribution than does not breed a dependency culture?
For instance, provision for the poor. The wealthy were not to maximize their efficiency in order to achieve yet more wealth. In their culture this meant that the farmer was not to sweep up every grain of corn, but leave it and allow the poor of their community to come and glean. An example of social security that does not breed dependency?
For instance, though God had a heart for the poor, the legal system was still to be unbiased as much as possible. He explicitly said that it was not to lean in favour of the rich nor of the poor. It was the structure of economic relations that was to take the poor into account, not the legal system.
The upshot of all this was that even a thousand years later many who were not Israelites were attracted by this just society and by the God represented by it and became 'proselytes'. But we can even detect something of this same principle at work before the nation came into being, as the Philistine King, Abimelech, came to Isaac requesting a covenant of friendship "because the Lord is with you".
Some of the things shown by the operation of this model society (even if not very good one) let us know the nature and character of God. He is not as the unaided (by revelation) mind would expect, but we find lessons reinforced on some of the things that had been revealed earlier, and also some new lessons.
God's people served as an indicator of the way things were, a kind of litmus paper, an visible indicator of the human condition. The effect of a certain way of living was amplified among God's people and land, in order to be a demonstrator or warning to the rest of humanity. The amplification is both positive and negative. If we actively and lovingly depend on God, we are rewarded to such an extent that we prosper beyond the ordinary. But if we turn from him, we fare worse than others than do so.
For instance, the land God led them to was fertile, but also extremely fragile. It would yield wonderful harvests as long as they treated it aright, but once injustice, idolatry and corruption started to come in and they drifted away from God, then the land itself seemed to respond in similar vein, drifting away from them. Like humans do, the land itself needed its own rests, its sabbaths.
Partly this is because God is, as became plain much later, a God of love. We find hints at it in the Old Testament: "a jealous God".
Whether the amplification effect comes from God giving events a 'push' in one direction or the other, or comes merely from the nature of the situation we find ourselves in where God has led us, cannot be said for sure. It is certain that the 'fertile crescent' in which they settled was fertile by nature, but also that it was more than normally sensitive to misuse. But also we see God actively pushing events. So it is probably both; God's creation is precious to him and responsive to him, and shows his own handiwork, so it is not surprising to find it acting to a similar end to his own actions, though in a different manner.
We find this kind of active, amplified dependency even today. God seems to have amplified the effects of some of the environmental indicators, in order to give us public warning ahead of time. We return to this later.
Various things were communicated by their being a model society about how we human beings should live or how we should expect life to be like.
First, during the trek he chose the descendants of one person, Aaron Moses' brother, to have the task of being priests, people who stood between a sinful people and God, though they were themselves sinful, and officiated on their behalf.
In this period he chose 'judges' who had some authority of leadership in this fledgling nation. They had no king as yet, only special people with authority who wandered about from place to place giving advice or justice or deliverance. Some of these included Deborah, Samson and Gideon.
In later periods, we have the emergence of prophets as special people. The first of these was Samuel, who appeared at a time when "there was no regular word for the Lord [God]".
However, as we shall see, these special people were not special by any virtue of their own, but merely for God-appointed tasks. In particular, though Abraham was a reasonably just person, his grandson, Jacob, who was renamed Israel and had the privilege of having the nation named after him, was a cheat and something of a coward. So we learn, even during this period, that God's choosing does not depend on any merit of the chosen person. This is good news for the rest of us, and later on we find a mechanism whereby God chooses people much more widely.
So God first warned them of the damage that a king would do - building a special place for himself and extorting taxes from them to keep up his army and lifestyle. (Rather ironic, given the 20th century's obsession with getting rid of kings who had done just that! And, according to some historians, the Viking-Norman notion of a warrior elite imposed on England a thousand years of class-ridden society from which it is still suffering.)
Then God acceded to their request and chose a king for them. But this king proved poor and another was chosen, whose heart was like God's (see below). This person, David, was an activist, and responded very well to adversity. Eventually, God used him to bring the nation of Israel to some measure of greatness, and to lay the foundation for a long dynasty. (Indeed, God promised that David's dynasty would never end - but as God of surprises, this turned out not to be a political dynasty.
But even David, Israel's greatest king, was flawed. As a look at his story shows, after he became secure he proved poor and indecisive at handling his family. His qualities only emerged during crisis. Furthermore, he started emulating the wrongs of the surrounding nations, such as in amassing hundreds of wives and concubines for himself - in direct contradiction to God's verbal communication from Moses' time that kings should not do so.
While God adapted to the notion of kingship, the king must be one of the people, not separated from them. The king was merely a specially-chosen individual with a particular role of godly leadership and unity; he was not to have an elevated status.
David's successor, Solomon, who started well became worse than David. Though he built God a temple, he turned away from God in his heart. He imposed heavy tax burdens on the people, and took many into slavery.
From then on we seen mere decline. There were a few good kings, but most were enamoured of the transient baubles of the surrounding nations and turned away from God to their false deities. They even started sacrificing their children. they oppressed the poor. God's warnings proved only too true.
As we shall see, this is what God expected, and eventually taught the nation a lesson. (In fact it had split into two nations immediately after Solomon, because Solomon's son refused to lift the tax burdens. The idea of kingship deteriorated from one of leadership under God to one of mere political leadership as we have today.
Thus these writings can show us people's experience of something of life as God intended. Doubtless a mere shadow of the real thing, but a likeness nevertheless.
During David's reign the songs took on a new theme - a more personal relationship with God. God was king, the protector of his people, but he also could be known personally. And that not just by the specially chosen individuals, but by anyone with the right heart. While the means to a full personal relationship with God had to wait another thousand years, the idea that such a relationship was possible started to germinate.
This was not just the relationship of obedience to God as a servant, nor of submission (which the Muslims emphasize and is the meaning of the word 'Islam') but one of delight in him. In this way we find expressions of the joy that God intended for his creation. (==== this is duplicated in hg3)
Through such a personal relationship God can communicate with us in new ways, such as inner nudgings, words of knowledge, etc. While the prophets obviously had some of this, because of their special role as prophets, there are only a few instances of non-prophets being spoken to via their personal relationship with God until much later. In fact, it only came into the mainstream once the Holy Spirit of God had been poured out into the hearts of people. But, as we shall see later on, this new type of communication came with its own problems.
We even have them today. There is the 'gift of prophecy' that the Spirit of God brings upon some people in his today-people. But also there seems to be evidence of God speaking through individuals in other cultures, especially with primitive religions. We will see some of this later.
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
One of the important parts of this relationship was the part God played. On one instance, Israel lost God's ark, the symbol of his presence among them, it being captured by the Philistines who had come over from Crete. The Israelites could do nothing. But God himself acted. This 'trophy of war' was placed in the temple of their god, Dagon. In the morning they found the statue of Dagon prostrate before the ark. Furthermore, they were inflicted with illnesses, which motivated them to send the ark back where it belonged.
(Interestingly, while many concluded that the presence of the ark was a danger, when it arrived at the house of a man of Israel, it became a blessing to him and his family prospered. So, we could learn from this that even the most holy religious symbol was not a lucky or unlucky charm, but was linked with an active and responsive Person who is God.)
This relating to the surrounding nations changed through the centuries as some started to take on the nature of regional powers and eventually empires. This was to become a key in God's plan.
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
Babylon is often used as a symbol of worldliness-against-God, the order and set of cultural assumptions of a world which is trying to be self-dependent and self-seeking. The fact that God let such an empire defeat his chosen people is a very powerful symbol. It does not mean that God as portrayed via the Israelites is weaker than the world order, but, as God himself pointed out through the prophets, he is not just confined to the nation of Israel but is master of all nations. Rather, he used Babylon as an instrument in the next part of his plan.
As Erich Sauer puts it (The Dawn of World Redemption), "In Babylon they were cured of Babylon". Up till that time the Israelites had always tended to turn away from God to the deities of surrounding nations, and from the ways of God to the unjust ways of the surrounding nations. They could and would not be the demonstration that God wanted. All the while, they hankered after 'Babylon', to be self-seeking and self-dependent like the rest. So God gave them Babylon, their desire.
But this wrought a cleansing change. They were cured of their desire to be like the rest of the world, once they got there. They stayed there for seventy years (forecast by God via his prophet Jeremiah) and then were allowed to return by the Persian emperor, Cyrus. (Persia had overcome Babylon in the meantime.)
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
Things communicated during this period: (old version)
Also, the rest of the world had to go through processes of preparation for his coming. The prophet Daniel was given a vision of four stages in world history from his time to that of the Messiah. First there was Babylon. Then there was Persia. Then there would be Greece (Alexander). Then there would be Rome, hard as iron. Finally, a tiny stone, not made by man, would demolish Rome, and become the kingdom that would fill the entire earth. Neither Daniel nor those in the 400 years understood this, but that is what happened; the stone was the Messiah.
God's purposes were not centred on Israel (though he chose them for a very special purpose, and they would remain special to him to the end of days) but on the Messiah. Because his desire was that all the world should be saved, not just a tiny nation.
The messiah was unbelievable - he was God in human form. Now, even we who accept this as a concept do not understand it.
But there are logical reasons why it is the case. Try this one, about his being God: If one of the purposes of the Messiah is to bring salvation and forgiveness to the world, if God himself had not forgiven the sins of the world before that time, it meant that the Messiah did something that God was unable to do, it follows that the Messiah was greater than God - which is ridiculous. So the Messiah must be God himself in some form. Now try this reason for his being human: If the messiah had been some non-human being, such as a great Spirit, then human beings could rightly say to God, "Well, you don't understand the sufferings we have had, so you have no right to judge us." There are several arguments like these, which you can find in various places if you look, that make it logical (even if not understandable) that the messiah has to be God in human form.
In Israel at the time around the date we now call 0, many interpreted him to be a conquering hero; he was to be a descendant of David, the warrior, after all. At the time when Israel was suffering the Roman yoke, many expected him to free them from Rome. This growing expectation might have been the yearnings of an oppressed people.
But God thought otherwise. The messiah was coming for two main purposes - to show what God himself was like, the perfect model, and to take effective and complete action to save humankind and the whole creation. No partial solutions here. The nature of God is, as we have partly seen, humility and self-giving. So the messiah had to be humble and self-giving. And salvation required tackling the problems of Evil, Guilt and Death. So the messiah was to die, and conquer death.
The Messiah fulfilled many other roles too. Many prophecies were written but not understood until he came. One was the idea of "God with us", as opposed to being separated from us. And what deeper way could God be with us than to take on our humanity?
But God thought otherwise. God's messiah would come as a baby, and grow up as a human being, tasting all the joys and trials of such growth, experiencing first hand the limitations of dependence and weakness of mind and body. He would "learn obedience by the things which he suffered" (Letter to Hebrews).
But if the messiah was to come as baby, who would be the father and mother? Whose seed would start him off? Whose womb would bear him? The answer to the first was: nobody's (no man's) seed would start him off; he would be started off by the Spirit of God. The answer to the second was: a woman of humble dedication and courage, and the willingness to work with God. The woman chosen was called Mary.
One was the gradual workings of history. The prophet Daniel had been given a vision of four great kingdoms - gold, silver, bronze and iron (interpreted as Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome) - at which the 'little stone' would come and demolish them all and become a great mountain. When the Roman period came, to whom the people of Israel were a vassal state, the people were groaning for liberation. Expectation of the promised messiah (the little stone) was growing. So the time was culturally ripe.
At messiah's birth a number of special signs are recorded. Some heavenly object appeared, and brought people from the east. An angel appeared to shepherds. The historian, Luke, records two people as waiting expectantly, and recognising the baby when he came to be dedicated in the temple, an ancient prophetess, Anna, and an old man, Simeon, who was told that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When the Spirit of God told him that this was the Messiah, and he uttered his memorable prayer,
"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, For I have seen you salvation ..."
Finally, did God overcome the low-profile nature of his emergence onto the (adult) human scene? By raising up a high-profile man to precede him. This was a man known as John the Baptist. He was eccentric, yet a commanding character. When he spoke, people of all kinds took notice. He preached the need for repentance toward God, and made people go through a visible sign of their doing so (baptism in the river). But he recognised the messiah when he came, and said "He must increase but I must decrease."
There were several major messages that the Messiah gave during his short human life, messages that had been only partially glimpsed or taken up in previous generations. Since he was God himself, the communications he gave can be seen as adding to the previous communications rather than replacing them. Those that had been well learned he did not need repeat; those that had not been he had to give. (This is yet another example of the humble Living God adapting to the human condition.)
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
From a point of view of sociological analysis (yawn!) it was an inevitable outcome of the way Jesus confronted the leaders and the powerful of the time. Many who do not wish to see any other significance in his death have rightly argued for this as a cause. Where such commentators are wrong is to elevate cause to purpose, and refuse to see any other reason, especially any unpalatable divine reason.
Yet there was a divine reason: salvation of humankind and indeed the whole world. We can never truly understand this remarkable event, nor the heart of the living, loving God behind it. But down the ages we have ascribed metaphors to it. Here are some:
Some of these are unpalatable to civilised Western sensitivities. Because the full meaning of this event was foreshadowed in the sacrifice system that God put in place, in which sin required the sacrifice of a life. In the end, God gave his own life.
This event is conversion of the condition of God's people, the whole human race and of the world. From hopeless lostness to, potentially, glorious homecoming. The event is deliverance from evil and death. The event is choosing of a wider people of God. This event is the ultimate communication of the nature of God - one who stoops so low as to fix the problem that we rebels have caused, and do so at great cost to himself. Indeed, this event was and is the very centre of history - the history of the world, the history of humankind and the history of God himself.
The earlier sacrifices down through the ages were tokens and symbols looking forward to this one sacrifice.
But the ointment of our healing contains no fly. God proved more powerful than the last enemy. God raised Jesus from death.
Even Tolkien's mythology, which was greatly informed by his Christian roots, missed this vital point. There, Eru, the One, the equivalent of the living God, remains outside the whole story except as a final arbiter and ultimate power. But the true, living God came into the world and put things right himself.
So humanity enters, potentially, yet another stage in its history with God. Not only God for us, not only God with us, but God in us. This is called the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit.
This happened first at Pentecost, and was accompanied by symbols of fire landing on people. They were given various gifts, the most famous being speaking in unknown 'tongues'. The Holy Spirit within them started a slow change of their beings, gradually cleaning out the various rooms of their lives, chucking out the junk, cleaning out the nooks and crannies of their lives. It is a process that Paul likened to fruit growing. A more apt metaphor than one of room-sweeping since that can be hidden while fruit growing is colourful and tasty. The 'fruit of the Spirit' (Gal 5:23,23) is meant to be publicly known, but founded deep in the (renewed) nature of the person.
The Holy Spirit gives power, such as to work miracles, though he remains the master of that power and cannot be taken for granted. He comes with conviction, a sense of awe towards the Holy God and sense of our own unworthiness. The Holy Spirit often brings a sense of freedom-in-God that was lacking before. According to standard doctrine, the Holy Spirit comes into every person who turns (genuinely) to Christ. But sometimes this is so weak that a 'second touch' (====) is often experienced when the person *really* turns later on. Sometimes the Holy Spirit falls on whole communities, causing what has been called 'revival' since this has happened in places where God's people have become rather flaccid and in need of 'reviving'. Some recent revivals include: Wales (1908), East Africa (1930s). Scottish Hebrides (1960), Canada (1970s), Korea and Taiwan (1970s to present), and many more.
My own closest experience is of the charismatic mini-revival in England in the 1970s. As I observed my colleagues, with whom I was at University at the time, I noticed a change as the Holy Spirit came upon them: from either passive about or antagonstic to God, to being in love with him. Suddenly God mattered to them. No longer as a religious duty, but one whom they loved deeply and who was precious to them. God was wonderful to them, and filled their whole life-horizon. Suddenly the whole of their lives - not just their beliefs and morals - was related to God and God was interested in them. There was of course much emotion involved, but it was deeper than emotion (at least in the genuine cases; see below). Me? It happened to me too, but without the speaking in tongues and emotion until much later, though with this love for God, which has stayed with me ever since.
However, as with all human situations, they tend to deteriorate over time:
Sad. But what it means is that the various outpourings of the Holy Spirit should be welcomed, but not without caution. The pattern seems to be that at the start there is only joy and freedom and love, but after a few years, once the revival has started to become accepted, these problems occur, and increase gradually over perhaps two decades. So, while we (who are outside the revival) tend to be cautious at the start and gradually accept it, the proper attitude is to welcome it at first but become gradually more cautious after a few years.
Note that the Holy Spirit is "God in us" rather than "God is us". The latter is what the New Age tends to believe. It is richer and more satisfying than the New Age concept, and also less likely to lead to gross injustice. While both concepts have the idea of God being inside-rather-than-outside us, the New Age idea tends towards human centrism and all the injustices that come with it. We are (part of) God, they say, as our very natures. This means that whatever we find within ourselves is part of God and therefore should be developed and expressed. Problem: what of the selfishness and tendency to arrogance? Result: injustice and oppression for many.
But no! the reality is richer and safer. We are still separate beings, created in the image of God, and still can enjoy real person-to-person relationship with him, but he comes and lives in us, right next to our very spirits as it were. He allows us to be ourselves, but his Spirit is at work in us (Phil 2:13) to change our heart orientation and to empower us.
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
The ancient prophet, Jeremiah, spoke of this. He told of a 'new covenant' between God and his people, in which, among other things, everyone would know and relate to God directly, without any intermediary to get in the way. No priests. But also no special nation either, to stand as an intermediary between the people and God. Because nowadays God is inside each person.
This is what surprised the early leader of the young church, Peter. He found God telling him that even 'gentiles' (non-Jews) were now acceptable to God, by first a repeated vision, and then the visible signs of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit immediately afterwards onto a family of gentiles. Thus what Paul called "the dividing wall of hostility" between Jews and non-Jews was broken down.
This was indeed part of God's original plan, his plan from before his early choosing of the descendants of Israel to be a special nation. His plan had always been to come into people in an intensely individual yet public and communal relationship. And, as we have seen, his choosing of a special nation was part of the slow outworking of his purposes, for various purposes we have discussed above.
But one purpose was to designate the idea of a special, chosen people. This still applies since not everyone receives the Holy Spirit. Who does? Those who turn towards God in humility (dependence and repentance). Anyone and everyone can. But only those actually do so turn receive the Holy SPirit and have the immeasurable blessing of his living in us. And such of us who do this become part of God's chosen, special people, spanning all nations and all culture and all time. (But, of course, we should remember the lessons of God's first prototype people, and not assume we immune to them all, even with the power of the holy Spirit inside us.)
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
However, some take the doctrine to mean that no interpretation is possible. I reject that meaning. The doctrine was used in recent centuries as an answer to those who would seek to add to God's revelation things that were antithetic to its roots, such as the high ideas of Aristotle (in particular the mediaeval Roman Church). But arguably using such an argument did not really work since most of Protestantism has been infiltrated with pagan ideas of the mutual exclusiveness of secular and sacred.
Revelation has ended in the sense that it has come to its climax in the appearing of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and in the sense that with Scripture we have all the important things we ever need to know. However, these things need interpreting in our day. The principles of God need discerning and then re-applying in our different context. As discussed elsewhere, we can do this with cautious boldness because God is at work in us.
Things communicated during this period: (old vsn)
But just as the nature of the choosing has changed, from a separate nation to a people among all nations, so has the relationship with the rest of the world's people. There is no longer any need for public displays of major themes like humanity's inability to sustainably live justly nor to please God; those essentially negative messages have been pouring through for 2000 years. Now the message has to be positive: good news: God has done all that is required.
This message, climax of the story, is now ready to go to the whole world, and the world is ready to receive it. It has heard of the power of the Living God, it has heard the bad news, so now it is ready for the good.
So began the taking of the gospel ("good news") to the world. It began in the Roman era, when communications were long and easy, and so this, the best of all news, travelled fast in the first two hundred years.
(Here again we see God's intricate variety. Not only did he fore-tell the coming of the Messiah in the Roman era (Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar's dream statue in which the 'stone not made by man' would arrive at the kingdom of iron-and-clay) but that it would demolish not only it but all kingdoms of that ilk, but also he used the good communications for the quick transfer of his message.)
After a few centuries the missionary thrust lessened, until it was picked up again in the 18th and 19th centuries, when again an empire had widened and lengthened communication channels across the entire planet.
In both these major missionary movements God spoke to pagan cultures. We evangelicals and reformed and pentecostals maybe have it wrong today; we think that God can only speak to those who are 'born again', and these people are the mouthpieces of God to others. But in fact, while the majority of the message channel is through the people of God, God spoke and speaks at times directly to those others. Don Richardson, in his book Eternity in their hearts, gives many examples of how God spoke directly into pagan (often animist) cultures all over the world.
(But, let it be said, this is not a communication that simply caresses the culture in which it falls, but one that stresses that culture's own incompleteness and promises that the completion is just about to arrive. No room for human pride here; only human dependence; remember the major communication content of human dependence.)
Master, speak, Thy servant heareth, Longing for Thy gracious word, Longing for Thy voice that cheereth; Master, let it now be heard. I am listening, Lord, for Thee, What has Thou to say to me?
Speak to me by name, O Master, Let me know it is to me; Speak, that I may follow faster With a step more firm and free, Where the Shepherd leads the flock In the shadow of the rock.
Master, speak, though least and lowest, Let me not unheard depart; Master, speak, for O Thou knowest All the yearning of my heart, Knowest all its truest need; Speak, and make me blessed indeed.
Master, speak, and make me ready, When Thy voice is truly heard, With obedience glad and steady Still to follow every word. I am listening, Lord, for Thee; Master, speak,! O speak to me!
Notice the devotion contained there, the intense nature of the personal relationship, just as we have seen above. But, with a personal relationship comes an expectation of personal, specific communication.
And that type of communication seems to have happened. We saw that God spoke to certain, picked individuals, like Abraham and David. But, since Jesus opened the way to God to all, God now speaks to anyone on an individual level.
This goes hand in hand with God's declared love for 'little ones', the unimportant nobodies: the Great Ruler of the Universe speaks to the 'least and lowest'. Once the scholastic view of there being a priest set between people and God diminished, with the accompanying oppression of ordinary people, it proved a highly attractive idea that God would speak to ordinary people.
We can see some evidence of this in the New Testament, though it is sparse. God spoke to Ananias (Acts 8?), to Stephen (Acts 9?). The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian Christians, says a very personal thing: that God told him that his 'thorn in the flesh' had a purpose. Paul also discusses what he called 'word of knowledge', which is usually interpreted as a communication spoken directly into the specific situation of a specific individual.
For instance, my mother once heard Jesus Christ say to her, "Can you follow me without D. [who had been the previous leader of her church who had helped her enormously].">
There seem to have been four main media for such messages.
1. Bible verses and phrases
The Holy Spirit seems to have sometimes used the Bible as a kind of word-book, making short phrases or verses stand out to people to speak to their individual situations. It would make sense that he does this, since he was the inspirer of its authors.
An example was of a member of an Anglican church who wanted a friendship with a particular woman, against the advice of his fellow Christians, and he gradually lost all interest in things of God, and hardened his heart against God. He wanted nothing to do with God any more, but was miserable. In this state he was involved in serving communion, having agreed to do so months before, and meaning it to be his last. It meant nothing to him. But during the ritual, the Bible was open and the words "I will come to you" jumped out of the page at him. That rung a chord in his heart - the unconditional love of God - and he yearned again for God. He came back, repented.
This was not, of course, the original application of the phrase, but one could argue that there in both its original and its out-of-context meaning there is a common underlying truth, that God is proactive and comes to people in love. This, certainly, is what touched his heart.
This kind of use of Scripture, lifting phrases out to apply them to a different context, was prevalent when I was a teenager and has remained so. It seemed in some circles to be regarded as the main way in which God would speak to us. Yet I was perplexed: why did we not find it happening much in Scripture itself? And, if not, what was its validity? My father in particular was very sceptical about it. I now believe it does have some validity, though not as the primary means of communication.
Its popularity probably has to do partly with the impersonal nature of much of modern life, and with the increased emphasis on the individual from the time of the Renaissance. Having God make a verse of his holy book jump out at one, to apply personally, gives us reassurance that God regards us as individuals of some value. Of course, if we truly believed this from the other means of his communication, discussed earlier, then we would have little need for this extra reassurance. Paradoxically, therefore, attending to such special verses is perhaps a sign of lack of faith, not of faith.
Francis of Assisi was told, audibly, "Go and build my church" by God. He obeyed, even though he was led in tortuous ways from physical to metaphorical building. Many today hear voices from God (and many hear voices not from God), so that it seems to be a common means of specific communication that God uses.
But not with all people. Why not? Maybe God treats each person according to their psychological make-up, speaking the 'language' that each person understands rather than rigidly sticking to one.
The popularity of this medium, of vocal messages, is probably based on the same reasons as for out-of-context Bible phrases.
3. Nudges and Feelings
I remember a speaker stopping suddenly and saying "I have a nudge to tell you about ...". Many of us feel an urge, a nudge to do something, to stop something, etc. from time to time, and we often take these to be promptings from the Holy Spirit of God.
Why should nudges be seen as God's messages? Maybe it is because they are non-rational, cannot be explained, and in a culture in which rationalism has long held an oppressively dominant position, any thumbing of the nose to rationalism is attractive. Nudges and other such feelings provide such an opportunity. Among Christians there is the added attraction that rationalism has also been the enemy of Christianity.
Perhaps the least valuable specific messages are coincidences that we detect and use as indication of a message from God. Many have been led astray by these. When God is involved then coincidences will happen.
Treating coincidences as God's actions and communications is popular among twentieth century Christians, maybe because of the onslaught they have endured from the atheist mechanists, who claim that there is nothing in reality but physics or biology. In a purely mechanical world coincidences would not happen, at least not more than mathematical probability theory would allow. So if we find coincidences happening then it proves that the mechanistic view is false - a thing we find rather comforting. Coincidences are part of a meaning-centred universe, not a mechanistic one, and the human spirit yearns for meaning. This tendency is perhaps heightened among Christians in cultures, like the West, where God's specific acts are few in the public arena.
It is not clear when this kind of word of knowledge started to occur. It does not seem to occur in New Testament times. Francis aod Assisi had
Over, say, the last three centuries, and occasionally before that (e.g. Francis of Assisi)
For example, we have the Wesleyan revival. Wesley preached to the miners, opening up to them their value to God and their responsibility before him. For these men this was a new concept; till that time they had absorbed the prevailing attitude that they were of a lower class of humanity than that which the clergy (and thus God) would be interested in. The key that was both the convicting factor and the good news to them was the fact of a personal, individual relationship with God. Each one of them had sinned, each one of them was guilty, not just as part of mass, yet for each one of them God the Son had died, and each one of them was offered by the Living God the chance to return to him and find their sins wiped out and become sons of the Living God. For those with no status, this was revolutionary. No wonder masses of them turned to God. Such things are now happening in South East Asia.
The gospel is good news, not for the comfortable, but for the poor. That is why when it is broadcast to the poor revival can happen.
Of course, not everyone joins, and some join wrongly. Because the revolutionary good news is also a revolutionary challenge. To become a child of the Living God you cannot just pick it up; you have to agree with God concerning your own sinfulness and your own inability to do anything about it. As we shall see, the personal relationship with God that is real does not pander to people's egos; so it is actually extremely hard. Jesus emphasised the difficulty of taking "the path that leads to life" (====).
This modern phenomenon has echoes back 3000 years and more, in which we find that God acts in a saving way not when people fancy they might like some blessing but when people are at their wits end. Hannah was infertile, and thus desperate, and instead of getting angry cast herself on God's mercy. He heard her and Samuel the first of the great prophets was born. Later, the people of Israel had gathered to worship God, led by Samuel, when their enemies saw the opportunity to destroy them while defenceless. They were desperate, at wits end, cried to God, and he heard them and destroyed the enemy by thunder.
In the same way, most true revivals seem to have been when the good news of God's salvation comes to large numbers of individuals who are downtrodden and desperate.
In most situations what we might call spiritual logic might suffice. For instance, when faced with the idea that someone had sold their soul to Satan, we could deduce from the fact that Jesus has overcome Satan that a covenant with him is possible. Most times we are called upon to work out such deductions for ourselves, and act on them. But there are times when deduction has no power. Only a direct word from God has power. The girl had no power in herself to make a change because she had given her soul to someone more powerful; God himself had to step in, and come in with authority.
Sometimes God even takes his own words out of context. Those words were to the people of Israel; here he used them to speak to a single girl. That usage has at least some vestige of link with the original context, meaning the same kind of thing. Roy Hession (I think) once told us of a more blatant example of God taking his own words out of context. A colleague of his had been a keen follower of Jesus, but had got involved in an unsuitable match, and had chosen that instead of Jesus. His life became miserable, though he still maintained some religious activity on the outside. He was helping serve in communion one day, his last one; he didn't want Christ any more, and his life was in tatters. But the Scripture for the day held the words "I will come to you", and they stood out as though lit up to him. That sparked off a deeply latent desire in him to return to this God who was proactively and in humility going to come to him. The words had power, were effective, and led him back to repentance and full life in God. But they were out of context.
However, though God does use phrases of Scripture in this way, we should not expect him to do so. He does so in his own sovereign wisdom, and always specific to a particular situation, just as with words of knowledge. We should not see it as the 'higher' way of communicating. Legion are the stories of Christians attempting to gain guidance from randomly selected verses, thinking that this is a more 'spiritual' way of hearing from God.
In Idols of Our Time Gouzewaard suggests we have (at least) four idols today. They are not physical but conceptual, not geographically local but global in extent. But we still sacrifice to them, and we still hope they will bring us what we value in life. They are: ====.
==== how we sacrifice to them
God's action: the counterproductivity of idols is built into the creation and harms us
The recent saga in South Africa deserves mention. After years of obdurate apartheid, the Prime Minister, de Klerk, publicly apologized for it. And, after years of implacable hostility by the African National Congress, and years in prison, Nelson Mandela publicly forgave. De Klerk was a seriously committed Christian, and Mandela had become a Christian through Billy Graham's preaching while in prison, so it is not surprising that, amid the pressures of their respective sides, they would want to go God's way. The world's way of solving such problems is discussion and compromise, and ensuring that neither side loses face. God's way is repentance and forgiveness, repentance by the dominant party and forgiveness by the oppressed. Though there are many problems still in South Africa, it is very different from the attempts at peace in Israel and Northern Ireland, where the world's failing way has been attempted. Only God's ways really work, even though they require us to forsake our pride - or maybe because they require us to do so.
In the 1980s a hole appeared in the planet's Ozone layer, first over the Antarctic. The curious thing was that it appeared earlier than scientists had predicted. The reason was found to be special wind systems around the Antarctic which sealed off the polar air to prevent its ozone being replenished from outside, with the result that the year on year rate of depletion was greater than expected and the first hole appeared much earlier.
This might be just a coincidence, but there are grounds for thinking that God had built early warning systems into the planet's atmosphere. Being a God who wants to "fix the problem" rather than "fix the blame", he wanted to give humankind a major, unambiguous warning that if we continued in the evil, affluent, arrogant, uncaring ways we would ruin the planet.
A similar warning occurred with global warming: seven out of the ten years of the 1980s were record-warmest years. Just a blip? Or was global warming happening faster than expected? Or, again, was it that God had designed a non-linearity into the planetary system so that we would have warning ahead of time?
If the rate of deterioration were linear and gradual then humankind would not listen until it was too late and the damage had been done. So perhaps there is a deliberate non-linearity in the systems that could act as an early warning. And who designed the planetary systems, but God.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 1998-present, but you may use this material for any purpose you like as long as
Created on the Amiga with Protext: 1 October 2000. Last updated: 1 October 2000: Started major revamp in order to bring this file in line with bhg3.html and all its details that I have been developing. Up to today the contents of this page had not been renewed since May 1998. 10 December 2000 new contacts pointer. 14 July 2002 Moved intro from bhg3.html to here as 'God Communicates with Humankind'. 6 October 2002 Examples of God shouting. 3 February 2007 unet. 26 June 2011 rid disclaimer; new .end; links to files from titles.