The Condescension of God

Anytime God interacts with creation he must condescend.  This isn’t in an insulting way, rather it is always done in love.  Like a loving parent stooping down to a child’s eye level.

Psalm 40 says

“I waited patiently for the LORD
  He inclined and heard my cry”

Some translations even use the phrase “stooped down” instead of “inclined”.

There is no other way for us to relate to God, unless he condescends to our level where we can begin to understand him.

Years ago I heard my Pastor, use the phrase “God meets us in our myths.”  I was captivated by that phrase and reflected on it for years before I started to fully understand it.

Since we cannot meet God on his perfect level, it means that God must communicate to us in imperfect ways.  Just being boxed into human language is an enormous limitation for an infinite being.  On top of the language barrier we are all limited by our context and experiences.

Imagine trying to explain generosity to an ant by telling the plot of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“The story is about a very rich ant named Ebenezer Scrooge…”

(Let’s assume the ant can talk).

“What’s a story?” asks the ant.

“Well it’s when we tell someone about something that happened” you might say.

“So this story is about something that happened to you?” the ant asks.

“Well, no this a fictional story, so it didn’t really happen at all.” You reply.

“Then why do you tell a story that didn’t really happen?”

“Don’t worry about that part for now, it will make more sense after you hear it.  So there was a very rich ant named Ebenezer Scrooge…”

“What is ‘rich’?” asks the ant.

“It means he had a lot of money.”

“What is money? asks the ant.

“Uhh, don’t worry about money.  It just means he owned a lot of things, more than the other ants around him.”  Thankfully you are a very patient story teller and you go ahead to explain ownership and how he owned more food and had a much bigger tunnel than all the other ants.

But now the ant is confused, “how could one ant own more than any other ant?  It all belongs to the colony and the queen is over the colony.”

You now imagine having to explain Christmas next and give up on the story all together.

In this case, it isn’t that this ant isn’t smart enough to understand, it just doesn’t have the context and experience.  If the ants continue to progress beyond just learning to talk, maybe someday they will be ready to hear the story of how the hard-hearted and selfish Scrooge was visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and how he learned to be generous.

It might take generations before they can begin to understand the story, but when they do, maybe they will see their colony as Scrooge and the story will help the ants to be more generous with other ant colonies.  Or maybe the story would be more subversive and expose the ant queen for exploiting her workers as slave labor.

Which is an interesting aside on how a story could mean different things to different cultures and at different times.

Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  Attributing his new understandings that will revolutionize the world as being built on the foundations of the great thinkers that came before him.

So when God first spoke to Abram (Abraham) He didn’t start with the sermon on the mount.  He didn’t teach Abraham to turn the other cheek, not to lust in his heart, or to give in secret.  No, he told Abraham to come out of the pagan world he was living in and into a new land under the one true creator God.

First he had to lay the foundation with Abraham that he was God.  Abraham didn’t have the law, he didn’t even know God’s name.  Hundreds of years later, God revealed his name to Moses, then he gave the Israelites the law.

Because we stand on the shoulders of giants and can hold the entire 1500 to 2000 year history from Abraham to Jesus in our hand it is easy to forget that they didn’t know everything that we know now.

For example, there are certainly hints all throughout the Old Testament of a coming Messiah that are easy to see in retrospect, but we don’t start to get a clearer view of Jesus until the prophets like Isaiah who arrive at the end of the Northern Kingdom as they are getting destroyed by Assyria.

Even then the Messiah as a suffering servant wasn’t understood by the disciples themselves until after Jesus’ resurrection when he explained it to them.

So God condescends to meet ants, I mean humanity, where they are at and progressively leads them to where he wants them to be.  Revelation isn’t instantaneous, it is a slow peeling back.  And this slow progressive revelation is evident in how God relates to us in scripture through history.  The image of God becomes more and more clear as the curtain is pulled back and light is let through.

First he is the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, but that may not be to the exclusion of other gods still existing, because they only understood gods as being tribal and regional.

Then God is the one true all-powerful God.

Then God is the ONLY God.

Then God is revealed in Jesus.

Then Jesus is revealed as Lord of all people, not just the Jews.

But in each stage God must relate or condescend to the understanding that his people are ready to see.

Sometimes this condescension means that God must settle on something that is only good, rather than the best, or even just better than bad, rather than the perfect.

For example, Moses gave the Israelites divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.  Samuel gave them a king because of the hardness of their hearts

So we have two Biblical examples of God giving humans something not because it was good but because of the hardness of their hearts it was the best they were ready for, first with divorce then with a monarchy, and these were better than the alternatives, such has hard hearted men staying with women they didn’t want to be married to and abusing them and Israel creating their own monarchy apart from God in the image of the nations around them.

Now I ask are there things that are not explicitly taught in the Bible that we would consider to be true now?

What about slavery?  Slavery was never expressly condemned in the Bible, but all modern Christians would condemn it by stating that slavery is against the heart of the Gospel.  In other words, Jesus and the teachings of the apostles, pointed us in a certain direction to respect the dignity and humanity of all people and one person owning another like property did not fit the spirit of Jesus’ life and teaching.

While there were many brothers and sisters over the last 2000 years who abhorred and strongly condemned slavery, it took around 1900 years for the church universal to reach a unanimous condemnation of owning other humans in a way that it will probably never go back on.

Not only was slavery never clearly condemend, but it was even condoned in the Old Testament law. Why did God give the Israelites rules on slavery? Was it because he wanted them to have slaves or that he was indifferent to it?

I think most of us would agree that slavery was not part of God’s perfect plan for his people.  The problem was that ancient peoples had slaves.  Rather than turn their entire world view upside down, God wanted to teach them to focus on worshiping him and in doing that they would learn that God is love and owning other humans is not acting in love, therefore not Godly. So instead Moses gave them humane laws, boundaries and limits on how to treat slaves, and he gave them laws to prevent intergenerational slavery, like with the year of Jubilee. 

It seems safe to say that God gave the ancient Israelites laws on owning slaves not because he condoned it, but because of the hardness of their hearts and to protect slaves at the same time.

In other words, God condescended to meet them where they were at.

Here are a few more explicit examples of how God condescended in the past, but then provided a better way in Jesus.

The law said that justice should match the crime, eye for an eye, Jesus said to turn the other cheek.

The law said love your neighbor, Jesus said to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.

The law said to not commit adultery, Jesus said that lusting in your heart is committing adultery in your heart.

The law said to not commit murder, Jesus said that even being angry with someone else or calling them a name is as bad.

Why didn’t the law go all the way and match Jesus’ later teaching from the very beginning?  Or for that matter, why didn’t Jesus or Paul come right out and condemn slavery?  Why did God have to condescend?

To answer those questions, we have to look at the law and Jesus and Paul in their context.  The ancient near east was a violent place and the strong always ruled over the weaker and the world wasn’t ready to invert everything like Jesus did, saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven the first shall be last and the last shall be first, or that the weak are blessed, and then ultimately sacrificing himself on a cross, although there are many hints of it scattered throughout the Old Testament.

Progress must always be made in stages.  Just as Caperneus made the world ready for Galileo, who made the world ready for Newton, who made the world ready for Einstein.  So Abraham made the world ready for Moses, and Moses the Judges, and the Judges David, and David the prophets, and the prophets Jesus.

Brian Mclaren gives the example of a 2nd grade math textbook telling students that you can’t subtract from more than you have, you can’t have less than zero.   So 2nd graders go on thinking it is impossible to take away 5 from 4.  And this is right for a 2nd grader.  By 7th grade these students are ready to think more abstractly so they learn about negative numbers and that you can subtract more than you have.  This didn’t make the 2nd grade textbook wrong, it was just right for what the students were ready to learn.

Just like in educating children you have to lay foundations and then build on that before addressing advanced math, so culture has to build on previous foundations.

First lay the foundation of who God is.  Then God is one, then God created all things, and there is only ONE God, God is holy, God is just, God is merciful, God redeems and heals, God desires salvation for his people, for all people, and finally for all creation.

Each step brings us closer to who God is revealed in Jesus.

This raises the question, in what other ways did God condescend and make concessions for the hard heartedness of his people? 

Consider the Israelites after escaping slavery in Egypt and coming to Mount Sinai.  Moses has just led them in a very dramatic exodus from slavery and pursuit through the Red Sea.  God calls him up to the mountain that is covered in smoke and lightning.  While he is there God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, but these commandments seemingly aren’t enough, God goes on to give Moses instruction on sacred religious practices of worship and sacrifice.

To modern people these practices seem very alien, but it’s vital to understand that to the Israelites these practices were not only very familiar, but normal, even desirable, they were like the pagan rituals and ceremonies in Egypt and everywhere else, except these new rituals focused on the God of Israel. 

If you think that is crazy, think of what the Israelites were doing while God is giving Moses the Ten Commandments.  They are creating and worshiping a golden calf.  It’s as if to prove that they CANNOT live by just these 10 simple commands, they need ritual, they need sacrifice, they need direction to focus their worship, they need detailed laws. 

So does God need blood sacrifices to appease him just like all the pagan Gods?  Or is it possible that God gave them a way to worship him using the language that they already understood?

Many would say yes, “scripture says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”, right?

Scripture says that life is in the blood.  The blood from sacrifice was sprinkled on the mercy seat to represent the Israelites giving of their lives to God and his mercy.  Hebrews 9:22, is quoting the Levitical law actually talking about initiating a new covenant, as was first done with the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, and the author of Hebrews is saying that Jesus initiated a new covenant. (Read a better explanation here)

Also, the Greek doesn’t actually say “there is no forgiveness of sins” it says “there is no aphesis”  The Greek word aphesis is more closely related to “deliverance” or “release”, like the Israelites being delivered from bondage in Egypt.

Rather than God being bloodthirsty for sacrifices to appease his wrath, the Old Testament is filled with God saying that he does not need animal sacrifices.  He requires mercy, NOT sacrifice, and Jesus even reiterates this to the pharisees.  He tells them to go and learn what that means.

In Ps. 50: 7-18 and 23  God says he owns all the cattle and birds already and doesn’t need their sacrifices.  He says if he were hungry he would not bother to tell them.  Instead he desires a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, that is the sacrifice that is pleasing to him.

In Ps. 51: 16-17 David says that God doesn’t delight in burnt offerings, but rather a broken spirit and contrite heart.

In Heb. 10:5 Christ says that God did not desire a sacrifice and offering but that God prepared a body for him, in other words God wanted his life.

In Jer. 7:21-24 God tells them to take their sacrifices and eat them themselves.  He says “When I led your ancestors out of Egypt, it was not burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted from them.  This is what I told them: ‘Obey me and I will be your God, and you will be my people…’”  Many translations add the word “just”, as in,  “it was not just burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted” But the word “just” is NOT in the Hebrew and adding it changes the meaning.

Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea (6:6) saying

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Matthew 9:13

If only you had known the meaning of ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Matthew 12:7

Therefore I contend that all the OT law around ritualistic sacrifice was not required by God in order to forgive Israel, but it was God condescending to Israel and subverting the only language of worship that the Israelites understood.

Yes, the OT scripture points to Jesus, but Jesus also reveals the truth of the Old Testament.  All scripture should be interpreted through the clearest revelation and lens that we have and that is the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus interprets scripture not the other way around.

Since God does not need blood sacrifice to forgive sins that means that the sacrifices of Moses were for the people, NOT for God.  Humans need sacrifice to relate to God.

The revelation of Christ is not that God killed his son as a sacrifice to appease his own wrath!  Heaven forbid, that is a purely pagan way of thinking and abhorrent to God on multiple levels.

No, the revelation of Christ is that God is always forgiving.  In fact God is never not forgiving.

But wait, didn’t Jesus die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins?

Did he?  If Jesus had to die on the cross to forgive sins, then why did he go around throughout his ministry forgiving people all over the place?  And here is the real kicker, none of them asked for forgiveness, but Jesus gave it away freely.  Sure they asked for healing, but Jesus was always taking it one step further and forgiving them too, sometimes even before healing them and then using the healing to prove that they were forgiven.

Then why did Jesus die on the cross?  Many books could be filled to try to scratch the surface on answering that, but for the purpose of this writing I will say that Jesus died not to forgive our sins, but to show that our sins are forgiven.

Even when we do our worst and crucify God himself he says “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Once again God condescends, lets us do our worst, then he forgives.

The Upside-Down Kingdom

I’ve been pondering lately how the Kingdom of God is upside-down.  I suppose that is just from our perspective, really it is right-side-up and we are upside down.   It is a kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, it is a kingdom where the poor are blessed because it belongs to them.  A kingdom whose citizens, when struck on one cheek, offer the other in return, beyond that they love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.

It is a kingdom where the powerful are to be vulnerable and servants to all.  where you must lose your life to gain it.  It is a kingdom where the shepherd will leave behind the 99 sheep in-hand to search for the one lost sheep.  It is where a widow will scour her house for a missing penny and then rejoice at it’s finding and invite her friends to a party.  You may say “that doesn’t even make sense”, but of course it doesn’t, it is upside down.

And ultimately it is a kingdom ruled by a servant God-king who laid aside his glory to enter into his creation as a poverty stricken servant, born in a barn, wrapped in rags, laid in a manger.  He became king not through conquest, but by surrender and his very coronation involved his own torture and death, where his throne was a cross and his crown was made of thorns.

Good Soil

In Jesus parable of the farmer scattering seeds, he describes the good soil at the end saying “And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it and patiently produce a huge harvest.” Lk 8:15 NLT.

Something bothered me about that parable. Continue reading “Good Soil”

What did Jesus do on the Cross?

Icon-CrucifixionThe question makes me think of someone asking me “how do you love your wife?”  Well, I can’t answer that in a simple statement, or even in logical terms at all.  We have poetry to help us understand questions like this and you can see it most in what I do and how I treat her.

The same can be said for the question “What did Jesus do on the cross?”.  It can’t be adequately described or understood in words.  Not that we shouldn’t try, but ultimately all the doctrinal statements to describe what Jesus did, while they may be true, although I would disagree with some of the common statements, they fall short, and not just a little short.  They fall short by lightyears.  Just like saying I love your mother a lot falls short of describing our bond. Continue reading “What did Jesus do on the Cross?”

The Importance of Freedom

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…”  Galatians 5:1

Maybe I am showing my American bias towards the centrality of freedom, but I don’t think so.  I think the idea is much deeper than America, or The Constitution.  The Bill of Rights even says that these truth’s are self evident.  They come from God, not from men.  In fact it is a gift given by God twice, both involving a tree.

The first tree was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  At this tree, the first Man (and Woman), was given the freedom to choose his own destiny and, ironically, in exercising this freedom, he chose slavery.

The second tree was an instrument of torture and death, the Cross. At this tree, the second man, the God-Man, was given the freedom to choose all of Man and God’s destiny and, ironically, in giving his life over to death, he gave life to all of creation.  For death was too greedy, and in swallowing up a man, he found he had taken in God and he was overwhelmed, because death could not hold him.  The bonds of slavery that en-shackled men were broken and he was set free.

But, I digress.  When considering all of the evil that freedom brought, why was this freedom so important?  If you don’t think freedom was that big of a deal, think of this. Before the fall, were their any wars?  Before Adam chose to follow his own desires, were there any Hitler’s, or Stalin’s, or Mao’s, or Napoleon’s, or Xerxe‘s?

Without freedom their is no poverty, there is no holocost, or slavery, there is none of the mass horrific pain, suffering and death throughout the centuries.

Since God is good, he takes no pleasure in the suffering of his creation, when we hurt he hurts, as can be seen on the cross.

I leave you with this one, “why?”  Why is freedom so important to allow all of this?

Backsliding? Or Learning to Swim?

Sometimes when we are making spiritual progress and then it seems like we are backsliding for one reason or another, it may not be backsliding. It may be that God has just stepped back so you can see who you really are without his full support. He doesn’t actually leave, no he is still just as close and just as ready, like a father teaching his son to swim. The son may start to think he is really swimming on his own, and may even exclaim, “look daddy, I’m swimming”, so the father lovingly loosens his grip and maybe even let’s his hands down so his son can see what it is like to really swim, and maybe they can. But you will never know until he let’s go. And just like a father would never let his son drown in a pool, neither will our heavenly father let us drown in our life.

By holding us up he shows us what it is like to swim; this way you can know what the goal is. But even that is nothing like what the real freedom of swimming on your own is like.

Our hearts are like onions and have layers, but as you peel back the layers with God, you find diseased parts that need removing, because, like yeast will works it’s way through an entire batch of dough, the disease portions can spread and hurt, corrupt or kill the good and living tissue of who we are.  Once that layer is clean, we think all is good.   But if you peel it back, there is more underneath.

You think you are swimming, you think all is good in your heart.  What may seem like backsliding, may actually be our father just pulling back his hands so we can see what our real “aquatic skills” are, or he may just be peeling back another layer and exposing more diseased portion.

Ultimately it is all part of growth, it is all part of healing and learning to swim.

He Is Risen

The Resurrection of Jesus2 Millennia ago a pebble was cast into a pond creating a ripple affect that rather than fading and diminishing over time has been amplified to spread and grow endlessly throughout all of creation.  God became man and lived among us.  He ate and drank with us, he grew up with us, He taught, He healed, He bled, He died, and on this day, He rose again.

The ripple from that day spreads, mostly unseen, through the hearts of men and women as they trust and believe in this risen savior, the God-Man.

As the God-Man, he was completely and utterly God and completely and utterly Man.  Just as the Trinity is a mystery beyond human understanding, so is this perfect unity and completeness of God and Man.

When Christ rose from the dead he became the first of many brothers and sisters to be reborn.  First we are made new in our spirit and we look ever forward to that day when we will be made new in the flesh, just as he is.

But it is not only us that will be healed and made complete, it is all of creation that groans under the weight of sin and separation from it’s creator, that will benefit eternally from his resurrection.  Not only is Jesus the first among Men, but when he arose, all of creation is being pulled out of the grave with him.  Everything is being made new.

This is why Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, or of Heaven, being close at hand or even arriving, but of course it is not yet complete.  But like the ripple in a pond it is ever spreading, ever widening, and will someday be all encompassing.

So the resurection of Jesus is the conquering of death, the forgiveness of sins, the salvation of mankind, the firstborn of all creation, the initiation of the Kingdom of God.

Father, let your Kingdom come and Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in Heaven.

Below is an early Paschal sermon from  St John Chrysostom which I would like to close with.  It should be read with much fervor and excitement for it proclaims the most important and happy truth’s known to man.


If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.

If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.

If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.

If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.

If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.

If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.

If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.

He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.

He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.

O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!

O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!

The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!

The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!

He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
It was embittered, for it was abolished!

It was embittered, for it was mocked!

It was embittered, for it was purged!

It was embittered, for it was despoiled!

It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!

It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!

It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?

O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept.

To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.


John Chrysostom Icon