In this series of posts, I am working sequentially through the Scriptures to complement what I have set out in my book** regarding divine providence, identifying passages that I have been shown (by the Spirit I believe) have traditionally been misinterpreted or dismissed as “difficult texts” and their significance eluded. This post may not directly fall into that category, but it reinforces what has been emphasized in the series concerning God’s condescending and compassionate nature towards mankind. More than that, it should encourage those of us who have already been reconciled to God through a personal knowledge of his Son to take the subject of PRAYER very seriously indeed.
The background is the extraordinary sin of the children of Israel who had prostituted themselves to idols in Moses’ absence (Ex32) as a result of which their leader was informed that Yahweh intended to destroy them and fulfil His promises through Moses alone (v10). Yet that great leader interceded for his people; he dared to reason with His God (vv11-13) and HE PREVAILED! God relented, or as the KJV translates verse 14 “repented”. In this context the word can have nothing to do with sin but indicates a change of mind or heart or the act of being moved to compassion so as to relent; the Hebrew “nacham” (H5162) affirms as much. At least this is how the matter is presented in Scripture: the Spirit as Editor-in-chief clearly intends us to understand that God hears our prayers and is willing to respond positively to our requests providing our motives are right, as Moses’ assuredly were – (see also Gen6:7, Gen18:21,26; 1Sam15:11,35; Mt2:19-22 concerning Gods willingness to review His own actions).
As I am constantly asserting, God is no remote, deistic divinity, concerning whom human reason may not be applied (such notions oppose the ministry and teaching of Christ Himself – cf. Lk11). Yahweh had said to man “Come let us reason together” (Is1:18) and as we see with the example of Moses (and earlier with Abraham regarding Lot in Sodom) He takes our petitions seriously and is prepared to act upon them. He truly does regard His chosen and faithful people as His own friends (Ex33:11) and we are privileged to approach Him as such.
** The Little Book of Providence – Free PDF of e-book HERE
These posts are promoting my latest book. Like its predecessor “Fellowship of the Secret”  it concerns divine providence which I believe to be the subject of THE Little Book referred to in Revelation chapter ten.
It is possible that the very servants of Satan may be transformed into ministers of righteousness and become greatly revered amongst the righteous (cf. 2Cor11:14,15). But there is a bench-mark that can be applied if they happen to be theologians or spiritual teachers in the Church and it is God’s depiction of His own character:
“I AM who I am: the God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining my faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault crime and sin, yet letting nothing go unchecked, punishing the parent’s fault in the children and in the grandchildren unto the third and fourth generation” (Exodus34:6-7 New Jerusalem Bible)
Such is God’s nature; these are His judgements which are evidently right and just and in accordance with human reason, by which I mean they are exactly how one would expect a loving and just God to behave in judgement. There surely can be no better theologian than God Himself, so if anyone has presented a markedly different picture or declared God’s nature to be quite incomprehensible or inexplicable to man, he is no theologian at all however revered he may be: (relief may be at hand – cf. Rev10:7-10).
Whilst one may be mystified by God’s ways at times, this is a Being that we as human beings can truly love and adore as well as fear; not merely for the grace and mercy we believe He has shown to us but because He is genuinely good from the perspective of those created after His own likeness. Yahweh is forgiving, tender and compassionate just as a saintly human is uniformly tender and compassionate, only more so. Like a good parent He will have a special affection for His own (or rather His Son’s) immediate family but will show generosity and kindness to all, for that is His nature. As such He makes full allowance for the human weakness unavoidably inherited at birth; toleration being a vital ingredient of love as any parent will know, yet He will come crashing down on those who wickedly offend those He loves. He will take vengeance on behalf of His people (cf. 2Thes1:6); being all who fear Him and seek to do justice in accordance with the measure of revelation they have received from Him. Truly it may be said:
“I will praise you with uprightness of heart WHEN I learn your righteous judgements” (Ps119:7)
“I shall make your
(Isaac)’s descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and I shall give them
all these countries- and all nations shall bless themselves by your descendants’
Isaac’s father had effectively become the father of covenantal
faith, but it was never faith alone:
shall do this) as a result of Abraham’s obedience; for he
kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws” (following
The Apostle Paul writing to Christians in Galatia said that they, like Isaac, were the children of promise (Gal4:28). But as outlined in an earlier post, Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael was also blessed by God yet excluded from the Abrahamic covenant. That is one of many indicators of the broader benign providence being outlined in “The Little Book of Providence”, a free PDF of which is available HERE
Wherever in scripture punishment for human sin is quantified, it is typically specified at double the offence. This principle is applied quite literally in the Law of Moses for all manner of theft (e.g. Ex22:4,7,9). Likewise in the Prophets, God’s rebellious people are said to pay double for their sins (Is40:2, Jer16:18) as at the universal level do the wicked (Jer17:18, Rev18:6). “Double” need not be taken literally in the latter cases but it is indicating that punishment in God’s eyes is proportional and finite, for nX≠∞ (where n is the multiple and X is the offence). Confusion has arisen in view of how references to post-mortem punishment in the New Testament are usually translated from the Greek (“aeonian” referring to an age or a prolonged period of time, not usually eternity). Even so, thinking back through human history and applying such a principle it is no surprise that Jesus said of a few: “it had been better for them if they had never been born”, especially those who through megalomania or merciless psychopathy have brought untold misery to numerous lives, for they will pay a heavy price.
Such souls will not suffer because of any deficiency or “limit” to Christ’s atonement; nor is final punishment presented in the gospels in terms of offences against God but against humanity (Mt25:41-46). Why? – because God makes full allowance for ignorance – man’s knowledge of the Divine Glory is at the very best incomplete, especially for the majority who have not received a faithful account of the Gospel. But there is less excuse with regard to dealings with our fellow man, for the requirement to be caring and compassionate is intuitive (Mt25 again), being discerned through the faculty of conscience. To the astonishment of some Christians Paul asserts that many without the Law do, however feebly, the one thing required to fulfil its purpose – namely, LOVE:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14)
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom13:8)
Love does no harm to a neighbour therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom13:10)
And one can take it from Jesus Christ that human sin will be punished in accordance with the criteria stipulated by Himself, applying standards that are perfectly intelligible (Mt6:14; 7:2). Thankfully for us there will also be forgiveness a plenty, but retributive post-mortem punishment resulting in exclusion from the blessings of God’s future Kingdom for some is a biblically inescapable reality. It will be seen to be right and just and indeed necessary once a new heaven and earth is established under Christ with His saints, in which righteousness shall dwell (2Pet3:13).
I am in the process of working through the Old Testament and highlighting the areas where God’s broader providence is indicated but not generally perceived. In doing so I must not fall into the typical proof-texting trap of being selective – drawing on the passages that support the emphasis I am endeavouring to put across whilst ignoring narratives that might appear to contradict the fundamental principles I wish to impart, being that God is Love personified and is impartial and fair to all. In Paul’s language, when it comes to judgement, God is “no respecter of persons” in spite of what he might appear to be writing in Romans 9 with regard to Isaac and Rebecca’s twin boys. Frankly, the apostle’s own proof-texting in verse 13, dare I say it, is somewhat inventive – he is taking Malachi out of context. [If the apostle actually understood himself to be “composing scripture” rather than preparing pastoral letters, I’m sure he would have given more consideration to how his words were likely to be interpreted centuries later – likewise verse 16, so beloved by Augustinians and Calvinists]. Here Paul is quoting from Malachi where God speaking through the prophet declares that although Esau, patriarch of Edom was Isaac (Israel’s) brother he hated Esau (i.e. Edom) BECAUSE HE WAS INDIGNANT AT THAT NATION’S WICKEDNESS (1:4). But Paul uses that quote to imply that God hated the hairy little infant in Rebecca’s womb even before it was born. That indeed may have been the case in view of God’s foreknowledge of his character though the context of Malachi was the wickedness of the nation that would be Esau’s inheritance as the prophet makes clear.
The point Paul wished to impart was that God’s choice, i.e. His elective grace was not based on a person’s virtue but His sovereign will. That is absolutely the case, but as I say that was not the aspect that God wished to get across to His people through His prophet in Malachi 1. Yet this principle of election by grace alone does not in the least impugn God’s impartiality or equity providing the nature and purpose of such election is properly understood. God’s choice is not referring to who is arbitrarily to be delivered from eternal punishment (which as His Son makes quite clear is determined by faith evinced by works of compassion – Mt25). Election or predestination pertains to who are to be His chosen nation and royal priesthood, the faithful of whom are destined for betrothal to His own Son. Confusion also arises from Paul’s references in this context to God “showing mercy” to whom He so chooses. Again that is not referring to final judgement (the same general criteria will apply to all albeit allowance is made for ignorance and incapacity). Rather the mercy refers to deliverance IN THE PRESENT from “the body of this death” which the Christian alone can experience through the purging of his sin, empowerment to live a holy life and a restored relationship with His Creator providing joy and hope for the future. That is mercy indeed and it is quite underserved on the recipient’s part. It also can pertain (as in Paul’s example of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Romans 9) to how God chooses to deal with the profoundly wicked or seriously misguided (Saul of Tarsus had been the latter); He may show mercy as in Paul’s case or harden the heart further as with the Pharaoh. But even here, Paul makes the point that God had shown mercy towards him because he did what he did in ignorance (1Tim1:13).
Reviewing the lives and destinies of Jacob and Esau as individuals, the former was something of a crafty, cheating deceiver whilst the latter had despised his birth-right and gone on to choose Canaanite brides in defiance of his parents’ wishes. Yet these two flawed brothers are finally depicted together (illustration) showing an extraordinary degree of mutual respect and deference to each other (chapter 33) and later to their father Isaac (who actually favoured Esau), attending to his burial together as Isaac and Ishmael had done with their father Abraham.
Illustration: Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation – Rubens (1624) courtesy Wikipedia
“The Church having received this preaching and this faith although scattered throughout the whole world yet as if occupying one house carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had one soul and one and the same heart and proclaims and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she only possessed one mouth. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain or Gaul. . . But as the sun, that creature of God is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth”
So wrote Irenaeus (AD130-202), acknowledged by many to be the major theologian of the second century, having been instructed by Polycarp a disciple of John the Evangelist. His depiction of universal doctrinal uniformity may be exaggerated but equally it could not have been the case that the essential doctrines concerning the nature of faith and salvation could have uniformly been in error given that each of the churches he refers to could trace its origins just two or three generations back to the apostles. They cannot ALL have interpreted Paul’s teaching wrongly yet their surviving writings bear little resemblance to the Protestant Reformers’ distinctive teachings on faith, works, law, grace and free will or indeed the distinctive teachings of Augustine, who, particularly following his disputation with Pelagius came to reject any positive role for natural law in terms of innate spiritual faculties. Yet it is clear from their writing that such principles were understood by Irenaeus himself and fellow second century spiritual masters including Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr, later affirmed by the testimony of 3rd century Church historian Eusebius [note 1].
In terms of the essentials of the gospel it is not that all the second century churches will have come to agreement through a sublimity of biblical exegesis, it is because a good number of these assemblies will have been founded and superintended by the great apostle to the Gentiles himself or his direct appointees. These leaders knew what Paul was writing about because they or their leaders had heard him and talked to him; they did not have to rely entirely upon his pastoral epistles that even his fellow apostle Peter observed were “hard to understand” and already being misunderstood by many (2Pet3:16). Such an historical affirmation with the earliest Church Fathers cannot be provided for all the assertions I make in my book, for as (third century) Origen later observed, certain mysteries were left to be explored and resolved over the course of the Church’s pilgrimage. But such progressive revelation cannot apply to the means of obtaining eternal life through Jesus Christ which was made clear from the start and has always been adequately set forth within the Apostolic Church in East and West. For Scripture makes clear enough that God wishes all redeemable humanity be healed and come to a knowledge of the Truth. To that end He has chosen a people to form a messianic community, informed by divine teaching and empowered by His Spirit to bring light, healing and salvation to the world that He loves. In Paul’s words:
“The grace of God has appeared FOR THE SALVATION OF THE HUMAN RACE teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts to live sensibly, righteously and devoutly in the current age, anticipating the blessed hope and Shekinah of our Great God and the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sake so that we should be delivered from lawlessness and be purified as a SPECIALLY CHOSEN PEOPLE FOR HIMSELF burning with zeal to do good works. This is what you (Titus) are to say, rebuking with authority; let no man despise you” (Paul’s letter to Titus ch2:11-15)
That “specially chosen people” is the Church – but my book  systematically demonstrates from Scripture that it is God’s intention to reconcile humanity as a whole to Himself, not just the proportional few who are soul-healed (“saved”) in the present, being the elect of God. Natural law (so-called) plays an essential part in the broader reconciliatory process. The term can be misleading for “natural law” in the anthropological context is not antithetical to divine grace. It pertains to God-given innate moral/spiritual faculties, evident in the functioning of the conscience, and is a form of common grace. I show in my book that whilst such is effectual in providing fallen humanity with a moral compass, a measure of restraint and crucially the ability to show compassion to others (which according to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapter 25 determines where the soul is heading after death), these innate spiritual faculties are incapable of saving the soul such that it can relate to and serve its Creator whilst embodied within what Paul refers to as “the body of this death” inherited from our parents, ultimately from Adam. Such requires spiritual rebirth provided (in Paul’s language) through “the exceedingly abundant grace which is in Christ Jesus” provided to those “predestined to become conformed to Christ’s image” so that they might serve as God’s royal priesthood whilst on earth and be fitted to reign with Christ through eternity. This is worked out in some detail in my book  and, crucially, reconciled with the whole of Scripture.
 Irenaeus recognised that God in His providence is present with all “who attend to moral discipline, paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified” [“Irenaeus against heresies” Book IV chap 13 para 1] whilst Justin Martyr spoke of God’s benevolence towards those who walk uprightly and in accordance with right reason ; “a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him” [first apology of Justin chaps. 43 & 46]. Such a perspective on free will and a role for natural law is affirmed by the witness of Eusebius AD260-340. Known as the Father of Church History, Eusebius documented the succession of the apostolic sees in East and West, commenting on the faithfulness (or otherwise) of some of their bishops, providing in the process an invaluable perspective on the doctrinal understanding of his time. In view of his own perspective on the matter, Eusebius indicates that a positive role for natural law was subsumed within the theological/anthropological perspective of the early Church when he wrote as follows:
“The Creator of all things HAS IMPRESSED A NATURAL LAW UPON THE SOUL OF EVERY MAN as an assistant and ally in his conduct, pointing out to him the right way by this law; but, by the free liberty with which he is endowed, making the choice of what is best worthy of praise and acceptance, because he has acted rightly, not by force, but from HIS OWN FREE-WILL, when he had it in his power to act otherwise, As, again, making him who chooses what is worst, deserving of blame and punishment, as having by his own motion neglected the natural law, and becoming the origin and fountain of wickedness, and misusing himself, not from any extraneous necessity, but from free will and judgment. The fault is in him who chooses, not in God. For GOD HAS NOT MADE NATURE OR THE SUBSTANCE OF THE SOUL BAD; for he who is good can make nothing but what is good”.
[Quotation from “The Christian Examiner”, Volume One – my highlighting]
 “The Little Book of Providence” – free PDF of e-book HERE
The physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah’s union were intended to be the holy nation that God called to be His priesthood for the world. They would learn the ways of Yahweh and thus be equipped to become the light of nations. His exclusive covenant with Israel had been as follows:
So if you are really prepared to obey me and keep my covenant, you (Israelites) out of all peoples shall be my personal possession, for the whole world is mine. For Me you shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Ex19:5,6)
So in due course He gave them the Decalogue along with more detailed requirements concerning how they were to conduct themselves, set out in the Torah of Moses or Pentateuch which scripture generally refers to as “the Law”. It was to be their schoolmaster up until Christ, for contrary to the teaching of many, justification by faith in a Saviour was not disclosed even to God’s chosen people before His coming, as a careful reading of Gal3:23-27 (referring to Greek interlinear) affirms. When Paul asserts in that passage that justification on the basis of the faithfulness of Christ for those who had exercised faith had “not yet been disclosed” (v23 Greek) he was not saying it had not availed for those Jews who had been faithful, but their instruction had always been to “keep Torah” not to “acknowledge their moral impotence and trust in God’s mercy or the merits of a coming Saviour” or suchlike as Augustine and later the Reformers asserted. At the same Paul was making it clear that no one had ever been justified on the basis of a perfect fulfilment of the Law (v21); it had always been on the basis of Christ’s faithfulness availing for those with “faith”.
Yet once that was disclosed, the Torah as schoolmaster would be filled out by the teaching of Christ, and with the enabling that would be provided through an interior participation with Him and the Spirit, the children of God would come to obey what James referred to as the “royal law” of love for God and neighbour (cf. Jam2:8) and would do so “in spirit and in truth” rather than the deadness of the letter. In the meantime it is quite clear from the above quote from Exodus that the chosen nation were to be obedient to their covenant with Yahweh if they were to occupy a land that He had promised to Abraham.
The occupants to be displaced were the polluted seed pool of Canaan, the accursed son of Ham that we considered earlier. Their supplanters were to become a divinely disciplined and holy nation to act as a salvific bridgehead to the rest of creation (Dt4:5,6). It had never been intended that the whole world “become Jewish” but neither was it destined for the cosmic waste-paper basket; many in the world would be enlightened by the Jews and come to revere Yahweh.
Moving on to Exodus, Moses and the Law, and once again the broader providential perspective has been eluded by the many, who, following the pattern set by Augustine have adopted a highly allegorised approach to interpreting the Old Testament, endeavouring to read Christ and the “Pauline gospel” (as they have understood it) into too many narratives, failing to pay due care and attention to the ancient text within its own context. As a result, the PURPOSE and context of the calling of God’s chosen people has itself been misconceived by many who understand Isaac’s seed that prefigures the Church to be the sole beneficiaries of God’s benign providential care. In the words of Augustine of Hippo commenting on the cosmic horror story depicted in Book 21 of his “City of God”: “Many more people are to be left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all (mankind)”.
It is the purpose of my book** and this series of posts to expose that sentiment for what it is – a travesty of the Good News concerning God’s plans for the people created in His image. To be fair, the Creator’s magnanimity and merciful compassion were always prone to be obscured or misunderstood as a result of the extraordinary plan He has devised for humanity. For He has determined that the re-embodied souls of His earthly children currently contained within morally disordered intellectual vessels (cf. Rom7:24; 1Thes4:4) should attain to a glorious destiny in association with His Son, to Whom He has assigned universal authority (Mt28:18).
All this is not to say that Israel and the Church are not favoured and exclusive groupings, they assuredly are. But they were brought into being to be the FIRSTFRUITS of God’s creation (James1:18) and the means by which the Creator would work from within to restore His fallen world through His own sanctified, divinely tutored people. The true “Israel of God” (of which the Church has become a part) is privileged indeed, and as Scripture makes clear (e.g. Jn6:44; 2Tim1:9, Jn1:13) its participants’ calling and election was not on the basis of merit, either actual or anticipated, but free grace. Yet God is no respecter of persons and has been fair (indeed generous) to all.
Under the Old Covenant, faithful Israelites were intended to act as God’s suffering Servant in the world – those who were unfaithful to their calling would pay a heavier price than the Gentile nations who acted in ignorance:
Paul to the Athenian pagans:
“Truly these times of ignorance God HAS OVERLOOKED but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts17:30 NKJV)
But note the Lord’s address to His chosen nation of Israel:
“You alone have I intimately known of the families of the earth. THAT is why I shall punish you for all your wrongdoings” (Amos3:2NJB)
Likewise, Christians have been called to a life of self-discipline and endurance. In Christ’s own words His followers must lose their own lives in order to find Life. In Paul’s words those who are to reign with Christ in the future must be ready to suffer with Him in the present (2Tim2:12 – note tenses). Undoubtedly, those closely associated with God’s Son are especially dear to the Father, but He desires the wellbeing of every soul created in His image, for that is His nature.
“Surely I will praise you with uprightness of heart when I have understood your righteous judgements” (Ps119:7)
Then God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Gen15:5)
For now, we are the
children of God and it has not been manifested what we shall be, but we know
when He is made manifest we shall be like Him” (1Jn3:2)
“I know a man who
fourteen years ago (in the body or out of it I’m not sure) who was caught up
into the third heaven. He heard words that cannot and may not be spoken of
by any man” (cf.2Cor12:1-4)
“He that overcomes and keeps my works to the end, to him I will give power over the nations. ‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’ — just as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’ (Rev2:26-29)