“The Father himself loves you...” or God’s “Greatest Sorrow”

John Owen, Communion with God (1657) 

Reflecting on John 16:27, “The Father himself loves you,” Owen recorded:
Jesus, in effect, says … “I do not have to pray that the Father may love you, for this is his special attitude toward you. He himself loves you. 
“It is true indeed that I will [ask] the Father to send you the Spirit, the Comforter. 
“But as for that free, eternal love, there is no need for me to pray for that, because above all things the Father loves you. 
“Be fully assured in your hearts that the Father loves you. Have fellowship with the Father in his love. Have no fears or doubts about his love for you. 
“The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is not to believe that he loves you” (13). … 
Let then this be the first thought that we have of the Father, that he is full of eternal love to us. Let our hearts and thoughts be filled with his love to us, even though many discouragements may lie in our way (28).

Noah, Pulling Weeds, and the
“One Who Shall Bring Us Relief”

When I was a kid, my dad used to make my sister and I pull weeds.

We didn’t live in the country, and the combined size of our yard plus garden couldn’t have been more than 500 square feet, but…

I hated it. 

Contrary to popular wisdom, there are actually a number of wrong ways to pull a weed. My sister and I were disabused of all of them.

You see...

Some families use chemicals, but you can’t always count on science doing its job, so (for us) that was out.

Some families use their hands, but grabbing a weed by the base and just yanking means you risk leaving behind the root, so again… no luck.

Some families get those hip-height tools that you step on releasing a claw into the ground and pulling up a chunk of soil. I never understood the flaw in that method, except that maybe this disturbed the surrounding greenery more than was desired.

Not us.

We were surgeons. 

The only right way to pull a weed is to take the intruder by the base, carefully dig out the infected area with a 6” hand-held weeder (see above), and then exhume the malignancy in its totality: bloom, leaf, stem, and root.

(On a side note, the laziest way is to scour the yard for yellow blooms and just pluck the heads. To this day, I still get an uneasy feeling when I see a dandelion going to seed unattended.)

All this to say…

“I feel you, Noah’s dad… I feel you.” 

In the wake of the fall, fratricide, and the mounting, cosmic fall out, Genesis 5:28-29 introduces the first hint of hope… a son named Noah:
When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” 
This “one” who “shall bring us relief” is a reference to Genesis 3:15—sometimes called the protoevangelium (that is, the “first gospel”)—where God curses the serpent and promises:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,  
and between your offspring and her offspring;  
he shall bruise your head, 
and you shall bruise his heel. 
Two families are thereafter created: the family of the serpent (recorded in Genesis 4) and the family of the woman (recorded in Genesis 5). Noah and his father’s declaration are the first culmination of this promised deliverer.

So, what’s the connection between the ground, the curse, and the relief?

The ESV’s rendering “out of the ground” make it possible to interpret the phrase as referring to Noah’s own origin: as in, Noah is the one “out of” the cursed ground who will bring relief.

A quick comparison of other translations, however, clears up this misunderstanding. The point is not that Noah himself is “out of” the ground, but rather that Noah will bring relief from the ground—the “work” and “toil”—“caused by” (NIV) and “arising from” (NASB) God’s curse.

As John Goldingay explains,
Noah is a sign of hope … . 
Noah is the first person since Seth on whose name there is a comment. It resembles the word for “rest,” though oddly the comment refers to a different word that is less similar, the word for
“relief.” … 
If we have forgotten what God said life would be like east of Eden, Lamech reminds us. 
Work is hard … . Work is painful … . [And Lamech] longs for relief. (Genesis for Everyone: Part One, 89) 
How does Noah bring “relief”?

That is a good question.

For anyone familiar with the story, you know that things are about to get worse—“cataclysmically worse”—before they get better.

Building from this seed of hope, Noah’s own story is one of rescue from wrath; salvation through judgment.

The story makes plain that there are consequences to sin—drastic, world-wide consequences whose scope and intensity often seem disproportionate.

And yet for Noah, who finds “favor” (or “grace”) in the “eyes of the Lord,” there is deliverance.

Moreover, as we’ll see in the following chapters, there is also rebirth and renewal: the creational promises from Genesis 1 and 2 are reinitiated in Genesis 8.

In the end, however, drunk and naked, Noah was not the “one.”

To whom, then, does Noah point?

Noah points to another “one,” a coming “one.” One who took upon himself not only “our work” and “the painful toil of our hands,” but the full measure of the Lord’s curse.

One who invites:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30) 
(Of course, I’m still gonna make my daughters pull weeds.)

“Cosmic Homelessness”:
Cain, the Pattern of Exile & Grace

The theme of “exile” permeates the Biblical story.

What is exile?

To be exiled is to be cast out, driven away, a wander, alone.

The pattern is set, of course, with Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden.

But that same theme is reenacted over and over again, beginning immediately with Adam and Eve’s eldest son Cain in Genesis 4:12-17:
Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 
And the LORD said, “What have you done? … You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”
And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.
Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 
However you interpret the “primeval” chapters of Genesis 1-11—literal or parabolic—the meaning is the same: the world, as the title of Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s book reads, is “not the way it’s supposed to be.”

We are not at home.

Tim Keller puts it like this,
The Bible says that we have been wandering as spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings.
It is no coincidence that story after story contains the pattern of exile.
The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home (The Prodigal God, 96-98). 

There is, however, a strange grace haunting both stories:

God’s grace to Adam and Eve took the form of sewing them clothes because they felt they needed them.
God’s grace to Cain takes the form of guaranteeing him protection because he feels he needs it (John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone: Part One, 75). 
This grace (of course) ought to surprise us. Shock us, in fact.

In the midst of his sentencing—where guilt is beyond question—the Judge (though just) suddenly suspends the gavel, descends the bench, and (like a father) meets His defendants’ deepest needs.

To the first: “I will clothe you.”

To the second: “I will protect you.”

It is almost as if God cannot help himself.

Moreover, this grace is a pointer—a road sign of sorts—not only toward God’s gracious character itself but of the ultimate grace found in Jesus.

“He came,” as Keller explains, “to bring the human race Home. … He took upon himself the full curse of human rebellion, cosmic homelessness, so that we could be welcomed into our true home” (101-102).

The “True Meaning” of God:
Divinity Defined

This summer I’ll be teaching two rounds of PHL204: Philosophy of Religion.

The first question we address is (quite naturally):

Is there a God? 

In other words...
Should people believe in God? Is there “sufficient intellectual warrant (i.e., epistemic justification)” for faith?
Ironically, this is a question the Old and New Testaments ignore.

Scripture offers no defense for belief in God (or at least very little, especially in the way most philosophical systems address it).

All it offers is an assumption: “In the beginning, God…”

From that, the rest of God’s story--and with His, the world’s as well as our own--unfolds.

The second question, however, (which follows logically from the first) is a different matter altogether.

Who is God? 

Upon this, the entire Bible, and in particular Philippians 2:5-11, turns:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
God, as N. T. Wright puts it in his commentary on Philippians, is (by his own self-defining nature and actions)...

The “God of self-giving love”:

Only when we grasp [the Greco-Roman view of “heroic leaders” like Alexander the Great and emperor Augustus] do we see just how deeply subversive, how utterly counter-cultural, was Paul’s gospel message concerning Jesus of Nazareth, whose resurrection had declared him to be Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord.
[T]he eternal son of God, the one who became human in and as Jesus of Nazareth, regarded his equality with God as committing him to the course he took: of becoming human, of becoming Israel’s anointed representative of dying under the weight of the world’s evil.
This is what it meant to be equal with God.
As you look at the incarnate son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is.
He is the God of self-giving love (101-103). 
So yes, God is sovereign.

Yes, He is powerful.

He is great. He is mighty. He is omnipotent. He is supreme.

And yes, three times over the angels declare in Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.”

But over and above both His sovereignty and His holiness (or perhaps we should say, “in, through, and as the perfect expression of” these attributes)... God is love.

This is the defining predicate--the grand substantive claim--not only of 1 John 4:8 but of God’s cumulative self-disclosure.

God is not, however, love in the abstract.

He is not merely emotional love nor psychological love.

God is not the “feeling” of love (though this is certainly part of that claim).

God is love in action. He is love personified and embodied

He is love incarnate: love with flesh, blood, and bones.

And even this--“the true meaning of who God is”--is not left up to our imaginations.

The true meaning of God--the true meaning of His love--is a crucified Jew, resurrected.

Here is sovereignty, power, greatness, might, omnipotence, supremacy, and holiness.

Here is divinity defined.