It’s in the Bible that God chooses to reveal Himself to us. And yet, it sometimes feels as though the Bible gives us only a small picture of God, because there aren’t words to adequately give us a full picture. We wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway; our minds couldn’t comprehend it. It’s one reason why it’s so important to continually read, study, and meditate on Scripture.
I have a schedule which, if followed, allows me to read through the entire Bible in a year. There are many such schedules and plans, and all are valuable tools to help us develop the discipline to read the Bible each day. Just recently, my daily reading included Psalms 23, Genesis 22, and Luke 15, three of my favorite passages. As I read them, I realized how each presented a snapshot of God’s personality.
Psalms 23 is very familiar to most everyone, even those who may know very little about the Bible. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. The Psalm (a song written by King David) describes God’s wondrous care of His own. He feeds and waters them until they are satisfied. He leads them carefully and protects them against danger. He gives them periods of rest. He shows great love for the sheep. He is always present, even in the most dangerous and fearful times. As a result, his sheep love and trust Him. The psalm shows us a God who loves and cares for us, one we can trust to look after us under any and all circumstances.
Genesis 22 is a bit more troubling; it is the account of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. For those unfamiliar with the story, Isaac is the son of promise, the one through whom God would make Abraham’ descendants a mighty nation, more numerous than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the shore. The promised son that took over twenty years to show up. The one true heir to Abraham and Sarah. Several years after his birth, when Isaac had grown into a young man, God came to Abraham and told him to go to a certain location and offer Isaac as a burnt offering to God Himself.
Our first reaction to this story is most likely something along the lines of, “How could a loving God demand such a thing”? How could he give this son of promise, only to demand his death, and in such a horrible way? Someone once said to me that they thought of God as ‘sort of a narcissist’, demanding our obedience and absolute worship and adoration. If we read this story only from our own human point of view it would certainly seem that way.
It’s only when we realize that God is so much more than how we think, plan, and define justice that we can begin to get a ‘bigger picture’ of what’s really going on here. God demands our absolute devotion because He is worthy of it. He is our creator, the embodiment of Love and perfect Justice, one who loves us like no other, who cares for us like the Shepherd of Psalm 23. Our devotion and desire, however, needs for be to God Himself and not just what we can get from Him like a cosmic vending machine, so sometimes it becomes necessary to put that devotion to the test. This was not a narcissistic demand of a capricious God; this was a test to allow Abraham to learn whether his devotion and obedience was genuine, or just a result of having been blessed with livestock, servants, and riches. The question to Abraham was a rather simple one: who do you love more, this promised son, or Me? Are you following Me only for what I have provided and promised, or is it because of your love for Me? Abraham needed to know the answer, and it would only come from his passing the test.
You see, God sort of rigged the test. He had enough trust in Abraham’s faith in him to allow Isaac to be bound (which speaks well of Isaac as well; there’s no indication that he resisted being tied up and placed on the altar), with the knife raised over Isaac ready to be plunged, before He intervened. And in answer to Abraham’s previous statement that “God will supply the lamb”, that’s exactly what He did, in a foreshadowing of how He would ultimately offer His own son as a sacrificial Lamb for the salvation and reconciliation for all of the world. As a result of Abraham’s faithfulness, that plan was ultimately brought to fruition through his lineage.
Luke 15 has three parables, each building on the one before it. The first tells of one of a hundred sheep that becomes lost, and the lengths to which the shepherd goes to find that sheep and return it to the flock. The second tells of a woman with ten coins, one of which becomes lost, and how she sweeps out the entire house until it is found. In both cases, discovery is followed by celebration. But it is the third that impacts the deepest, because it feels very personal, as though Jesus is talking directly to me and about me.
It’s called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, although it would be just as accurate to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Sons, or the Parable of the Loving Father. It may be familiar to some; “prodigal son” has been a familiar meme for a long time. A younger son, who is of a rebellious nature, demands his share of his father’s inheritance, a request considered to be very disrespectful while the father was living. However, the father grants his request, and the son goes on his way to ‘a far country’, where he proceeds to waste his inheritance on wine, women and song (referred to in Scripture as “riotous living”). Now broke, the only employment he can find is feeding pigs (an abhorrent prospect to Jesus’ Jewish audience), and he’s reduced to thinking about stealing the pig’s food to avoid starving.
The parable says, “When he came to his senses”, he realized that even the lowliest servant in his father’s house had more to eat and better living arrangements than he did. He makes the decision to return home and beg his father’s forgiveness, seeking only a servant’s place in the house. It’s at this point the story becomes wondrous. The father, who has been watching for his son’s return, runs to meet him on the road, embraces him, and orders the servants to make arrangements for a great celebration for ‘my son who was dead and in now alive”. At this point we meet the older brother, who in a fit of jealousy and indignance refuses to even come into the house. The story is left at that point, never saying whether the older brother changed his mind and heart.
So, what do we learn about God from these three passages? First, God loves us as no one else could ever love us. He created us in His own image, and He considers each of us absolutely precious. He is not willing to lose any of us, and he will go to great lengths to bring us ‘home’ to Him. At the same time, He gives us the freedom of choice to turn our backs on Him and go our own way. But when we do, He is still watching, hoping that one day we will ‘come to our senses’ and come back home. He cares for those who are devoted to Him, provides for their needs and gives protection from the evil spiritual forces that would destroy them, and ultimately will dwell with them for eternity.
Thinking back to Abraham’s story, it mirrors the story of God’s plan for salvation. Here is a father, willing to sacrifice his son because it was what was demanded. But here too is the obedient son who shows absolute trust in his father. The difference is that God’s plan had been put into place even before the words, “Let there be light”. God knew what we would need before He created us, and in order to satisfy both His perfect love and perfect justice He took it upon Himself to provide the perfect Lamb that would take away the curse of sin that we are all born under and to which we are enslaved. When we begin to understand the full meaning of God’s sacrifice of His own Son, it should break our hearts to think we were the cause of such a thing needing to be done.
If you haven’t already given your life in surrender to Jesus, I urge you to ‘come to your senses’ and come home. The Father is watching for you, and all of Heaven is waiting to celebrate your return. And if, like the older brother, you’re standing outside, jealous and complaining because the Father never threw you a party even though you have faithfully served Him all these years, remember the words of the father in Luke 15: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” If we are His, we should reflect His heart, and that means rejoicing when a lost one returns home.