I was a secret smoker in high school. My friends knew it, but I hid it from my family. My reasoning was that since my father and grandmother smoked secretly, it was in my genes, and I just couldn’t help myself.
But the truth was, the cool kids in my high school smoked, and I was determined to keep (what I imagined was) my cool reputation.
Being a victim gave me permission to do as I pleased.
This is something like the mindset of the Israelites. There was a popular proverb in ancient Judah, “ The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” and it was widely believed in the days of the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. It meant that while the older generation might have fooled around in sin, their kids had to pay the price.
The mindset behind the proverb was that God was unfair, that the judgment he brought Judah was because of the wickedness of the folks who lived in it in the past, not because of those alive in the present. It was a mindset aimed at what Israel perceived as God’s injustice.
The proverb was so widely spoken and believed that it got God’s attention, and he decided to address it. Chapter 18 is his response to it and includes his charge that those who say it are the unjust ones, misjudging him so they can continue to sin without concern for the consequences. Blame-shifting isn’t God’s game, and he calls them out on it.
The context is this: the southern kingdom of Judah has been conquered by Babylon and is forced to support their economy and their king, Nebuchadnezzar. God’s been warning Judah for generations that he will judge them for their idolatry, but only a very few folks have listened. The nation continues to spiral into more heinous acts of idol worship, and in three waves of takeovers, Nebuchadnezzar takes captives from Judah back to Babylon and eventually, completely destroys it.
God sends his prophet, Ezekiel, to the exiles who’ve been deported to Babylon to tell them the same message Jeremiah’s been preaching to those still in Jerusalem, “Repent!” But the people are stubbornly committed to life on their terms, both in exile and in Judah, and they don’t listen. Even so, God keeps giving Ezekiel words, and Ezekiel keeps saying them.
The teeth-on-edge proverb has become the thing the people say to explain what’s been going on during their country’s decline. Jerusalem at the time of Solomon had been known throughout the world for its power and prosperity, but it’s been dulled by idolatry and defeat ever since. It reached an all time low as a vassal nation to Babylon with a fool for a king. Despite all the warnings and warfare, the temperature of the times is dialed way up for other gods and way down for God Almighty.
The local mindset goes like this: “God’s judging us for a past we aren’t responsible for. Who can serve a God like that? He’s out of touch with our times–a fuddy-duddy. No sex in worship? No proving piety with child sacrifice? These are the newfangled acts of worship that jangle nowadays. His prophets go on and on about justice, but concern for widows and orphans is so last year. Helping the poor won’t get Babylon off our backs. We need something edgier than that.”
But what does God say?
He flat out contradicts them. He says a righteous person will be judged for his own behavior and an unrighteous one for his. There’s no living under the shadow of an ungodly parent and also no protection of a godly parent for their children. Everyone will stand before God for themselves, as individuals accountable for their own faith-and-action, not for anyone else’s. “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him,” 18:20.
Further, God says that if a righteous person falls into sinful living, his righteousness will be forgotten. Likewise, if a person living sinfully repents and lives rightly, his wickedness will be forgotten. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?…Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” 18:23.
This is a remarkable piece of news, that both good and bad slates can be wiped away by a person’s present way of living. It’s what we do now that counts, not what we’ve done in the past, whether for good or ill. There’s no coasting on the fumes of past good deeds and no need to stay stuck in shame over bad ones, either. God is all about the present, about how a person is living now. I love God’s do-over—he never withholds the opportunity to begin again and again.
Next, God takes his people to task for saying he’s unjust. If each person is accountable for their own lives, what’s unjust about that? And by the way, isn’t calling him unjust, unjust? 18:25-29. It’s bold, their turning the tables on God, the Merciful Judge, and calling him unjust. He’s the one who embodies justice, the one who created it, for goodness sake. We wouldn’t know what it is in the first place had he not created us in his image and told us about it in his law.
All this sounds fair and reasonable until I realize, wait. Is anyone truly righteous? Isn’t even the righteous-living-person still full of sin? What keeps him or her from reaping consequences for just everyday sorts of sin? God must have expected these sorts of questions, because here he hints answers:
“‘I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!'” Ez 18:30-32.
Get a new heart and a new spirit. This isn’t the first time God’s mentioned their needing a new heart or spirit. He’s already let the exiles know that one day he’ll bring them back to Jerusalem, and they’ll be given new hearts with God’s law written on them. He says it 24 different times in the book of Ezekiel alone (Holy Bible app). And yesterday, Hebrews said the same thing, 8:10. But those new hearts don’t sound like they’ll arrive in two days by Amazon Prime. From what little I know of Bible history, it’ll be about 400 more years before Jesus comes and the Holy Spirit is given, who’s known for his extreme makeover, heart edition.
So if new hearts are 400 years away, why does God keep telling his people now to “Repent and live!” Can they repent and live without new hearts and new spirits? I’m guessing that because God is just and merciful, he’s not unreasonable here. If he’s saying “Repent and live!” it’s because they’re capable of repenting and living now, of being righteous now, even before Jesus comes and actually opens the door into God’s presence.
How is that possible?
Remember the temple of God in the middle of Jerusalem? This is the model for what Jesus will one day do for them. It’s the picture-of-Jesus they’ve been given with its priests and animal blood and offerings. The temple showed them what was needed to have a relationship with God, down to the incense and the lightstands and the lambs. All of it was rich in meaning and all of it pointed to the Savior who would come and live and die and rise and pay for the sin that keeps us from God. There wasn’t power in the temple, but there was power in the work the temple symbolized and in the Savior who would do it.
Repentance in 600 BC could bring them into right relationship with God because it was a look ahead to the Savior that believers today look back to. It’s in the looking that we’re made right with God, the faith. It’s always been a faith-in-Jesus’ righteousness that connects us to God, then as well as now.
Jesus’ actual life on earth would one day do away with the temple and its picture of him, the same way you don’t continue to talk to a friend on FaceTime once they show up at your front door. But back then, temple worship was a marker for faith. Right living was keeping God’s laws, repenting at the temple as needed, and continuing to trust that one day, the Messiah would open up the heavens and pave the way.
God wouldn’t insist that we “Repent and live!” if repenting and living wasn’t possible. The truth was, the Jews didn’t want to repent-and-live. They wanted to skip repentance altogether and get right to the living part. But real life can’t be had apart from repentance. They’re mutually exclusive.
And because God loves his people and knows how he made life to work, he insists that we live his way, because he doesn’t want us to wander away and miss out. We can leave it to the Guy who thought up everything we call good–love and beauty, loyalty and luxury, adventure and thrills–to be dependable when it comes to giving us all that he intends life to be.
It’s his enemy that whispers our fears of missing out. FOMO was his tease to Eve in Eden. God didn’t create everything we see to keep us from enjoying it, did he? Now that would be a tease. But he says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” He tells us to “…take hold of the life that is truly life.” He’s got good things we haven’t yet tasted, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” Ps 34:8; 1 Tim 6:19; Jn 4:32.
The psalmist said, “You make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand,” Ps 16: 11. The God who prompted these words knows all that he had in mind in them, but I’m guessing that “eternal pleasures” beats anything I’ve ever heard of.
It’s faith in Jesus’ goodness, the Lamb of-the-temple and the Lamb-of-the-cross, and not my goodness that connects me to the source of life. This news goes deep. It’s a piece of good news that I’m constantly surprised by: I can’t make the connection to God on my own. But I don’t have to, because it’s already been done. Jesus did it, and I get to rest and enjoy him.
I’m allergic to resting and enjoying, but when I get a glimpse of what God offers me as I have today, I’m overwhelmed by him. Jesus’ invitation to come to him for rest sounds too good to be true, like, it can’t be this easy:
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble of heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,”
But since Jesus said it, I believe it. Thank you, God, for the Savior who invites me to hang out and who takes my back pack at the door.
As if right on cue, Hebrews comes in with a description of the layout of what’s inside the tabernacle, God’s temple:
—In the Holy Place was the lampstand and the table of consecrated bread.
—In the Most Holy Place (behind a curtain) was the incense altar and the ark with the cherubim above it.
The priests entered the Holy Place often, but only the high priest entered the Most Holy Place once a year, bringing blood for his sins and for the people. “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way in to the Most Holy Place (the way to God himself) had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing,” 9:6-8.
It would take Jesus, the highest priest, to show us “the way in.” Since he didn’t have to offer his blood for his own sins (like human priests did), he would come bringing his own blood once for everyone. And when he did, the curtain in the temple was torn, literally, and the way in to God was thrown wide open.
Hebrews says that the temple was an illustration that shows what was offered there “couldn’t clear the conscience of the worshiper.” The offerings were only a matter of food and drink and ceremonial washings, “external regulations applying until the time of the new order,” 9:9-10.
But Jesus has now come. And he’s ushered in a “new order”—a whole new way to worship. We don’t have to go to a particular place anymore; we can worship him wherever we are. We don’t have to have a human priest saying things over us; we get to have the Son of God praying over us and telling God what we need. We don’t have to bring bulls blood with us to come to God, we get to bring a mug of hot coffee and hangout with him on the porch.
It’s all paid and all free.
Our job? Here it is all over again, in case we missed it the first time—to rest and enjoy.
The psalmist is a tattle-tale, detailing the sins of the desert wanderers as they travel to the Promised Land. They got huffy about not having water; they rebelled against God’s Spirit; they didn’t take over all of the land God said to; they intermarried with other nations and adopted their customs; they sacrificed their children to demons; they shed innocent blood; they defiled and prostituted themselves. It’s a sordid list that hints at more than what it says.
God gets angry and allows their enemies to “rule over them” and “oppress” them. But he never loses sight of them. He doesn’t turn his back. His anger isn’t because he doesn’t love them, it’s because he does. He is angry for them. Pastor Corby preached today and said that when God was angry, it was an anger for us, not against us, because of love, “…he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented,” 106:43-45.
Why is God such a forgiving Father? I’m not sure I approve of his parenting. Won’t people take advantage of such extravagant grace, particularly when they can be forgiven over and over, just for the asking? I’m guessing God’s not worried about that. And I’m grateful, because I depend on grace. His love has brought me out of my distress in my own desert and to my knees over and over (for a story of God’s love for those of us who don’t deserve it, see “The Comeback” on http://onetruelove.blog).
So what’s left for us to do? To rest and enjoy. To rest in Jesus’ work and to enjoy my relationship with God. I don’t have to pretend to be a victim to live as I please. I get to depend on what Jesus has done for me. It’s his work that gives me easy access to the God of the Universe, where I’m loved exactly as I am, cool or not.
Some believe the story of Jesus is a fairy tale, too good to be true, not practical or real. But the good news of Jesus is too wonderful a story than any person could make up. It’s the story-behind-the-stories, the one that whispers good news to our deepest selves despite our disbelief.
There are tastes of Jesus’ story in many fairy tales—Snow White’s bite of forbidden apple and the prince’s kiss that saves her, Cinderella’s rags-to-riches rescue, Pinocchio’s repentance and second chance, Aladdin’s ever present genie-in-a-bottle, Nemo’s father, who never stops looking for him—but none of them get it quite right, because the story of Jesus is too big a story to be expressed fully in fairy tale. It’s the story that transcends stories, the story, “too good not to be true.”
Quote by Frederick Buechner.
Ezekiel 18, Hebrews 9, and Psalm 106 are selected for today in The One Year Bible.
2 thoughts on “November 8–Too Good Not to Be True”
Thanks for your words yesterday, Eve! great insights about the righteousness of God’s people in all times!
Corby Shields Pastor of Families and Youth Rock Creek Fellowship
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Supportive words. Thank you 😊!