I want to focus on the following statements Paul made in his letter to the Romans:
“[T]he mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject[i]itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so….
“[C]reation was subjected[ii]to futility[iii], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free ….”
Romans 8: 20-21
Life and death, the universe and all the “stuff” that is, ever was and ever will be are “in God’s hands”. That is another way of saying that God created everything. God is timeless and immaterial and has created all that is material out of nothing, including us.
But the material world, the world as we know it, is passing away (1 John 2:17), even from the moment it was created! That’s what science (the second law of thermodynamics) tells us also. The world has been has been “winding down” since the “Big Bang”.
Paul’s statement about the “futility” to which the world has been subjected suggests that futility is part of God’s ultimate plan, because it was done “in hope”.
If that doesn’t add up for you, I don’t think you are alone. I have been puzzling on it for awhile. What possibly could be the plan?
The trite response that “God’s ways are not our ways” falls short. We want to know, though perhaps it’s true that we may never completely understand. Still, I have some ideas that are informed by Scripture that I will try to lay out in this article.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23 ESV
We have earned death. The “wages” we receive is what we have earned, God desires to give us the gift of life. He desires to exchange what we have earned for the gift of life.
We are from the dust, and to the dust we return. That is our natural lot in life. Death is our natural end, but God desires to give us life.
This is not unfair. Death is all we can expect as finite creatures. We cannot expect more, but God offers life. He offers us His life.
We did not create the world. We are not the captains of our own destiny. We are aliens in this place. From dust to dust we is our natural condition.
Yet, God inexplicably and unbelievingly offers us His life.
How do we know this? We know it because of Jesus. Jesus sad no greater love has anyone for another than to lay down his life for that person. (John 15:13) Then Jesus laid down his life. He laid down his life for us.
We know we can trust God because He became one of us. He emptied Himself of His power, glory, and privilege to experience the life we have. (Phil. 2:7-8 ESV) He didn’t have to do it. He did it willingly for us.
Then, he rose from the dead. He showed us that death has no hold on him. His life, the life that triumphs over death, is what He offers us.
It is not an automatic thing, though. We have to want it. We have to receive it. We have to accept it.
Some of us would rather accept only what we have earned. He came to the people with whom He long established a relationship, through whom He would reveal Himself to the world, but many did not receive Him. (1 John 1:11)
He chose to give us a choice. That choice He came to offer in person to the first century Hebrews with whom He cultivated a relationship over the centuries. Now He offers that choice to everyone, even us.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (john 1:12-13)
Jesus, of course, did not live in Babylon during the 30-some years he walked the earth. I am speaking figuratively here. Jesus urged people to follow him, to live as he did and to “walk” as he walked – to be imitators of Jesus as he was an imitator of God the Father. We follow Jesus wherever we are.
Most people reading this blog don’t live in Babylon either, as in the ancient city. Rather, Babylon is symbolic of our lives in this world. Just as the exiles found themselves living as foreign people in a foreign land filled with foreign gods, followers of Jesus today are aliens and strangers in this world living among people who do not bow down to our God.
When Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon right after they were taken captive, right after they lost everything (their homes, their lives as they knew them, the Temple around which their community was organized), his words would have difficult, perhaps, to receive.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….” (Jer. 29:4)
That God “sent” them into exile would have been a painful reminder of all the warnings of the prophets leading up to the final siege of Jerusalem, captivity, and long march to Babylon. Jeremiah had their attention, though. The unthinkable, that Jeremiah had long been predicting, actually happened.
In that context, this is what he said:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-10)
I don’t think we can emphasize enough the timing of these words: this was the very beginningof the exile. They just lost everything. They just got there. Their future was uncertain, though they had hope to return to their homes because the prophets who warned them of the exile also predicted their return.
We are not “of this world” if we belong to God in Christ. We are exiles in this world. This world is our Babylon. In the rest of this blog,
I will relate those words Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Jews to our lives in “Babylon” today, and I will add in the warning, and the encouragement, that Jeremiah gave in the letter that are also instructive to us today. I believe Jeremiah’s words of instruction are how we should follow Jesus in Babylon.
“Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Psalm 1:5-6 ESV
What does this mean? The Lord knows the way of the righteous. Doesn’t God know everything? Doesn’t God know the way of the wicked also?
God sees everything, and He knows everything. God numbered the stars. (Ps. 147:4) God doesn’t just number the stars; He knows each star by its own name! (Is. 40:26) He can count every hair on every person’s head. (Luke 12:7)
God knows our thoughts, our paths and our ways, and He even knows the words we speak before we say them. (Ps. 139:2-4) Why does Psalm 1 say God knows the way of the righteous (and not the wicked also)?
He certainly knows the way of the wicked. Nothing is hidden from God. (Luke 8:17 & Heb. 4:13) The statement that God knows the way of the righteous doesn’t necessarily mean that He doesn’t know the way of the unrighteous. I think He certainly does.
This passage is not talking about bare knowledge. Clearly God is all knowing. This is not a statement contrary to the omniscience of God. God must know the way of the wicked to judge them, which this verse says He will do.
This statement is about a different kind of knowing. It is a statement of familiarity and identification. God is familiar with and identifies with the righteous because the righteous have adopted God’s ways. God knows them in the sense that he knows his own ways.
It is a statement of intimacy. God is intimate with the righteous. The righteous turn to God in good times and bad. They have opened themselves to God, and God knows them as someone knows a confidant.
It is a statement of connection. God connects with the righteous. The righteous are aligned with God in their ways. Thus, God knows them. Jesus prayed that we would be one with him as he is one with the Father. (John 17:20-23) God establishes connection with the righteous.
What connection does this knowledge have with judgment, perishing, or eternal life? (Which is the focus of the majority of this passage ) God’s knowing is somehow tied into the judgment, the wicked perishing, and implicitly the righteous not being judged and not perishing.
God is eternal. He always is, always was, and always will be. If we are aligned with God, connected with God, we partake with God in his eternal life through Christ. This was the good news (Gospel) that Jesus preached.
Abraham was counted righteous by the grace of God because of his faith (trust and commitment to God). Through Abraham’s seed came Jesus, his seed, who blessed all the nations of the earth.
In Jesus was God incarnate, emptying Himself of His glory and privilege (Phil. 2:5-7) to “connect with” us on our level. In Jesus, God demonstrated His love and character for us to see and connect with. (1 Jn. 1:2)
That blessing God promised to Abraham is the right to be called sons of God (Jn.1:12), to be born again (Jn. 1:13 & Jn. 3:3-8), to die with Christ and to live eternally in him in connection with the Father. (Rom. 6:6-8)
I think of Paul’s great words, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) These are words of intimacy and personal connection. “Then we shall see face to face.” (Id.) This was God’s desire and his plan all along that we might have personal intimate connection with him and He with us.
God not only desires to “know” us – to have intimate connection with us; He desires to be known by us!
God the Father can seem distant and unapproachable. but He became one of us to connect with us and invite us to connect with Him in the form of Jesus. Jesus, in turn, leaves us the Holy Spirit, who is God who remains with us in intimate form who connect with us, and provides a way for us to connect with Him.
The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised…. (Eph. 1:14)
[He] has given us the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the guarantee of all that he has in store for us. (2 Cor. 1:22)
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (Rom. 8:16)
“When I attempted . . . to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light.”
“For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can: ‘Nobody [notices] us.'”
“A scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate, it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers.
“And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”
And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”