What the Bible says about
Building a Relationship with God
(From Forerunner Commentary)
This does not contradict Deuteronomy 30:6, where it is said that "the LORD your God will circumcise your heart." It is instead a clarification. The changing, the growing, the overcoming, the transformation of the heart, the writing of the laws on the heart, is cooperative. God does His part; we do our part. If God would do everything, then what would be the need of removing the fault? Why do it? God removes the fault so that we can do our part! It is a cooperative effort.
How does God do His part? He calls us and gives us His Spirit. As John 14 tells us, the Spirit shall be with you and in you. The goodness of God by His Spirit leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). So God calls and opens up the mind, working with us by His Spirit in a way that He never did before. He makes things mean more to us in a far deeper and more meaningful way. He provides us with greater understanding and more passion so we desire to yield to Him. He begins His miraculous work of changing our hearts.
What remains to be seen is what will we do with this altered situation? He does His part by giving us knowledge and increasing our faith. He reveals to us the true Christ, His law, and what the purpose of life is. He spurs an interest in His Word that we never had before. What are we going to do? We must respond. As we respond, changes begin to take place.
Sometimes, Israel's attitude toward God was good, and He delighted in it. However, they could never sustain it. In the book of Judges, when Israel had an outstanding leader like Gideon, things went along smoothly for a good while. But Gideon died, and the country went downhill. God had to raise up another leader. Such is the gist of the historical relationship between God and Israel.
We have had relationships with people that were similar—good for a little while, bad for a long while, good for a little while, bad for a long while. However, God does not want to marry someone about whom He must always worry whether or not He must fight with them. He wants to have a marriage with someone like Him—who thinks as He does, whom He can really be "one" with. He does not want a relationship that is "hot" one minute and "cold" the next, nor one in which the couple throws their arms around each other and everything is warm and fuzzy, but in an instant, one is giving the other the cold shoulder.
That is the kind of relationship He had with Israel. He does not want that kind of a relationship with the "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). Thus, there must be a cooperative effort between God and the believer to change our hearts.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part Twelve)
Seeking God makes the heart live. How many times have we seen heart, spirit, mind, and thoughts in the same context? Is that not what we want in this relationship with God? We want our heart to live. What is it that makes it live? It is the Spirit of God energizing it because of the close communion.
A biblical example of this is when Moses went up on the mount to be with God for forty days and forty nights. While he was gone, the Israelites made the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from that close association with God, he came down with his face glowing, shining, reflecting the glory of God through close communion with Him all those days. This situation is a form of what the psalmist means about the close communion with God. Seeking Him, dressing and keeping the relationship, and submitting to Him are what make the heart live because His Spirit is flowing into it. When that happens, we are living the life He lives, what the Bible calls "eternal life." Eternal life is to live as God lives.
We are seeking to have a relationship with One who is not far from us. He is close to us—in us by His Spirit—and He delights to pour Himself into our hearts and minds. We seek Him through desire. Do we really want this One to be our Husband? Do we really want to be like this One we are to marry? If we do not desire Him, He will not reciprocate with any zeal, and the relationship will just sputter. We seek Him by turning our thoughts to Him by communion in prayer and in Bible study.
The desire to be like Him in every way drives our submission to Him in obedience. We are in the midst of a courtship. Can there be any passing of spirit when one is so far from the other that desire is completely absent? Desire rises when we know Him so well that we are constantly thinking about all His wonderful attributes.
This is not a "cure-all" for every spiritual problem. As Christ's letters to the Ephesian and Laodicean churches show, it was so important to Him that He threatened both groups with destruction. One had lost their first love, and the other was complacent. Neither was close to Him.
Are we attracted enough to Him to be affectionate toward Him?
Spending time in fervent communion with God in prayer, Bible study, meditation, and occasional fasting all lead to a pure submission to Him. It enhances the closeness. It is essentially the same process that brings human beings together—talking and experiencing things together as we go through life.
A fervent attitude of sincerely wanting to be like God will bring a positive response. The principles are simple and are as old as the hills. They work because that is how spirit is transferred to create oneness. That is why people marry one another. The same principle and process work in our courtship with Christ.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part Seven)
The Living Bible paraphrases the first phrase, "Where there is ignorance of God the people run wild." For us, that ignorance is gone because of God's calling. We have a prophetic vision, and we discipline ourselves to restrain human nature, to keep it from exercising its will. Thus, we are now governing ourselves as a normal part of life. This has to be, or we will not be prepared for God's Kingdom. We must do as Christ did.
We need to be a people with a sharp vision of where we are headed in life. The gospel tells us why we were born and provides us with detailed knowledge on how to prepare for that goal. The relationship with our God frames these elements into a vision that becomes our goal in life and helps to motivate us to do what is good in God's sight.
Hebrews 11:10 says that Abraham "waited for the city . . . whose Builder and Maker is God." This was a major part of his motivating vision. Hebrews 11:27 tells us that Moses "endured as seeing Him who is invisible." These men followed the vision that formed as a result of their relationship with God and what He taught them. As we walk with Christ, we are led along similar paths.
They believed thrillingly good news that provided them with the motivation to submit their lives to God's will. I Corinthians 9:24-27 shows us Paul's example of what every person who has achieved a great goal has had to learn and do:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
Those who achieve must be focused on a goal to a degree given to no other area of life. They must be determined, disciplined, and sacrificial enough to become exceptionally skilled at what they hope to achieve.
However, regarding what we hope to achieve in becoming part of the Kingdom of God, even going all out is not enough! We cannot achieve our goal without Jesus Christ, our sovereign God, Creator, Savior, and High Priest, by whom we are saved because He is alive and oversees our lives. He supplies every need for salvation and sustains us along the way. Salvation is absolutely, totally impossible without help from Him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Accepting God's Sovereignty (Part Four)
We should tie this directly to the truth of verse 1: “There is a time for every purpose.” The key word, of course, is “time.” In life's challenges to our faith, in which God is involved with us, some purpose is being worked out. In verse 11, we learn that both the timing and what is being worked out are “beautiful.” The event might be challenging, but God, who is involved in the Christian's life and in this challenge, calls it “beautiful.” With that hopeful knowledge, what should our attitude be?
The root of the Hebrew word translated beautiful literally means “bright.” The Hebrew word can be translated “fair,” “comely,” “beautiful,” “suitable,” “appropriate,” and “timely,” depending on the context. In Job 42:15, the same Hebrew word is translated “beautiful” when describing Job's daughters. It indicates something good and admirable, a blessing.
What an encouraging truth! God's timing, His oversight of events, and what He wants them to accomplish are something good! They are not merely broadly good but also suitable, fitting, appropriate, and timely.
Was the scattering of Israel and Judah beautiful in its time? If we read Lamentations without considering God's entire purpose, the situation appears very ugly indeed. However, over the long haul, the answer is undoubtedly, “Yes, it was beautiful and good!” It was suitable for that occasion.
What about the scattering of the church? Was it beautiful? The same is true. Our going through it may have been stressful, requiring painful adjustments while enduring to the end, but in the long term, it will most certainly be beautifully good.
Is correction good? Do we really want to continue doing things wrong? If God had not done what He did when and how He did it, how many serious spiritual character and attitude flaws would have gone uncorrected? How disastrous would they have been to the salvation of many?
How many nice people have we fellowshipped with in the past but who have seemingly been swept overboard and appear lost? The reality may be that they were “nice tares.” They indeed may have been fine people with many social graces but completely unconverted. Perhaps they no longer fellowship with us because God delayed their true calling, sparing them from the Lake of Fire.
Peter states clearly that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). There used to be a television program called Father Knows Best. Yes, He does! And because of the way God has acted, many more will enter His Kingdom in His image than if He had not intervened. It is even possible to consider that we may all have been lost except for His rough intervention!
It is critical for us to keep in mind always that God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). His overview captures the entire span of events; He sees the entire picture. We, though, live in a time-bound, material universe, and all we have is a mere point of view (I Corinthians 13:12). For the most part, we are restricted to grasping things from our narrow perspective. This is why faith is required of us and why Solomon states in verse 11 that we cannot “find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”
So how can we meet life's challenges in the right spirit?
If we think the scattering of the church has been difficult to accept in a good attitude, we need to be patient because prophecy reveals that things will become much worse as time moves on! I am personally becoming ever more aware that time is moving on for me. My mother, who lived to be almost 93, said to me once, “Getting old is not for sissies.” She was saying in her unconverted way that, regardless of age, the trials of life never do really end. As one ages, they simply morph into another form.
To help us through our current spiritual trials as well as the intensifying times ahead, we must come to know God through a personal relationship and trust Him to work things out. We must use our faith, knowing that we do not see the entire picture.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Three): Time
In order to fit within the context of the preceding verses, “dreams” in verse 7 does not mean the random mental activity a person has while sleeping and over which he has little or no control. Rather, it indicates the wanderings of a person's mind while seemingly fully awake—in other words, daydreams. For the most part, daydreams are nothing but sheer vanity, time-wasting drifts of the mind that lead nowhere positive. While daydreaming, we are not focused and disciplined, which is the opposite of what God desires of us.
Something else is of interest here. This verse contains both the major concepts that the book begins with, that is, vanity, and the thought or goal the book ends with, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Halfway through the book, Solomon is directly declaring what the urgent aim of every life needs to be. We need to proceed from the meaninglessness of an under-the-sun life to the fulfillment of life's purpose through fearing God, as shown in living an over-the-sun life.
The way to get and stay right with God is encapsulated in these seven verses. It can be stated in three simple principles:
1. Do not just hear God; listen to Him carefully with focused attention.
2. Speak with a matching level of focused attention.
3. Follow through in obedience to what we vowed when we committed ourselves to making the New Covenant.
A tension exists in what Solomon counsels us regarding our relationship with God. Though we may not think of it all the time, we understand that, for our own good, God demands our highest allegiance. We willingly accept that because we believe the gospel, knowing who He is and what He offers us. However, being human, we are sometimes easily distracted. There are times that we would rather do almost anything else short of an outright sin than to listen attentively to what God says.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Six): Listening
One commentator compared our desires to being like a tramp, a word not used much today but used frequently during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A tramp is a person who wanders aimlessly about and never settles down in one place to hold a job, put down roots, and prosper. He is never content to stay at home. Thus personified, carnal desire loves to “window shop,” always eager to find or do something new “to make life more fulfilling.” It is as though our desires are always traveling but never arriving.
Another commentator illustrates how quickly a person's attention can latch on to a desire, even in the face of grave danger. During the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius just outside of Pompeii, Italy, in AD 79, the gases and lava flows moved so rapidly that they caught people in the midst of various activities, entombing them right in those acts as though they had been sculpted.
One woman so “caught in the act” was apparently fleeing the eruption. Interestingly, her feet pointed in one direction, that is, apparently in the direction of escape from the dangers of the eruption, but her head, one arm, and hand were pointed behind her. It seems that even as she fled for her life, something behind her caught her attention. She reached back to grab it, but in that very instant, she died and was covered by the eruption's debris, evidently not even falling to the ground. Was she reaching for a beautiful piece of jewelry that she did not want to leave behind? Nobody knows, but her desire was never fulfilled. It appears to have destroyed her life.
Without saying it frequently or directly, God is gradually showing through Solomon's illustrations that it is He, giving His gifts within the relationship, who adds purpose and fulfillment to mere living. He has the power to gift us with what truly builds a life of satisfying and contented fulfillment.
Solomon is getting at something that is keenly important. Most of us live in areas where we can watch birds. Birds seem to spend all their waking hours looking for food to eat. All animals have this same characteristic. Their activity provides helpful insight: The birds are alive but not really living as we understand living. They merely exist. Yet, at the same time, they are fulfilling a purpose for which God created them, and they even sing about it.
Solomon is not suggesting at all that it is wrong to work or eat, nor is it sin that we should have desires, of and by themselves. Working, eating, and having desires can be quite enjoyable and profitable. But if that is all we do, we merely exist at an animal level. We must do something with our lives that is positive and purposeful and conforms to God's purpose, or we will waste them, achieving nothing within His purpose.
We are part of God's spiritual creation. A person being spiritually created in the image of God must not drift but deliberately choose to live for goals far higher, goals that God establishes. Solomon is not belittling anybody, but simply teaching a truth, a reality that material things of themselves cannot make life richly satisfying. A Christian's life must be rightly balanced toward his relationship with God, and he must strive to follow God by living in the same loving manner as Christ did as a human and continues doing eternally.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Seven): Contentment
Ecclesiastes 6:9 is Solomon's version of the cliché, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” He is essentially saying, “It is better to have little and purposely enjoy it than to dream about much and never attain it.” A problem with dreams is that, all too often, they never become a reality. Thus, a sense of satisfaction and contentment remains unfulfilled. Solomon is not saying it is wrong to have a dream on which to spend our ambition, but that our ambition must be motivated for the glory of God and not the praise of men—including ourselves. If we think material achievements will automatically produce these qualities, we are wrong.
True satisfaction and contentment comes when we do the will of God from the heart for His glory. When that happens, we get to share in real satisfaction. In John 4:34, Jesus says, “My food [meaning that which energizes Him and fills His life with satisfaction] is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.” David adds in Psalm 16:11: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” That is real satisfaction and contentment. These verses reinforce the truth that satisfaction and contentment in life is within a relationship with God.
True happiness and these qualities in life do not automatically result from “making a good living.” Rather, they are a blessed byproduct of making a good life with God as our Leader. If one devotes his life to doing God's will, satisfaction and contentment will be its fruit.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Seven): Contentment
Verse 10 is essentially saying that God is sovereign, and some things that He has established cannot be changed. Naming a thing is an indication that the thing so named is set. This is why the principles given in John 4:34 and Psalm 16:11 are so important to the converted. Being in God's presence is the overall solution. These statements by Jesus and David give assurance that contentment in life lies within the combination of properly blending the knowledge of God's purpose and deliberately choosing to live according to that purpose within a relationship with our very Creator.
This combination is what makes everything in life matter in a positive way, producing satisfaction and contentment in life. In this three-verse section, Solomon addresses four situations that revolve around not getting much in the way of these qualities from life because people do not give of themselves sufficiently to make the relationship work. Each verse, rather than answering, produces questions that, with a brief explanation, are helpful. If one does not get answers he can accept, then dissatisfaction and discontentment remain.
The questions that arise in these verses are expressions of justification that a converted person might give himself for not zealously throwing himself into the relationship with God. They are for the most part expressions of doubt that linger to support the lack of progress.
Solomon touches on five questions. The first is based in verse 10: “Since what's going to be is going to be, why bother to make decisions? Isn't it all predestined anyway?” This is broadly why some will not really cooperate with God in a relationship. Martin Luther gave this German proverb: “As things have been, so they still are; and as things are so shall they be.” In other words, the proverb is asking if there is anything we actually control. Things are so far from our control, why make an effort?
In this verse, the One “mightier than he” is God. We must firmly accept that God can indeed accomplish His purposes without our cooperation. He does not need us, but He most assuredly loves us! God indeed has “fixed,” that is, named what He will accomplish, but He has also given us free-moral agency.
We must know that the world we live in is not a prison. We are free to evaluate and then choose what our personal world will be, but we are not free to change what the consequences of our actions will be. This is why we should give everything thoughtful consideration. Stepping off the roof of a ten-story building may be our choice, but once we commit ourselves and do it, there is no altering the outcome! The reality is that our choices do make a great deal of difference. Like everything in life, they matter.
The second question is also based in verse 10. Why disagree with God? We cannot oppose Him and win, can we? This question suggests that God's will is difficult, painful to accomplish, and should be avoided at all costs.
Compare this with what Jesus says in Matthew 11:29-30: “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.” Add to this what He says earlier in His ministry about doing God's will being nourishing and energizing to a Christian (John 4:34). Why would anyone, making a fair analysis by comparing God's way with his self-chosen way and seeing what mankind has produced in this world, rather have his own way rather than God's? That makes no sense whatever!
If God really wanted to make life truly difficult, He would give man absolute freedom. It really builds satisfaction and contentment, right? No, not at all.
Like Job, we must know what our limits are, and one of them is that we do not have the wisdom to out-think and out-talk God. We must truly realize that the more we talk, the emptier our words become, which is exactly what happened to Job. This leads to the fact that humanity must accept that God, as sovereign Creator, is free to act as He sees fit in every situation. Such acceptance will help to produce the contentment that mankind yearns for.
The third question appears to be drawn from Solomon's many words in writing this book, in addition to all the words we might hear in sermons and the like. He asks, “What do we accomplish with all these words? Does talking about it solve the problems?”
Verse 11 in the New International Version reads, “The more words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” Are we not receiving a thorough education in this as we listen to all the convoluted political and economic arguments in recent times? Yet, these are all words of men. The Word of God is exactly what is needed because it is truth! God's truths do not bind people; they free (John 8:32). Satisfaction and contentment are the fruits of truth that is accepted and used. One must listen to God's Word and use it for satisfaction in life.
The fourth question arises from verse 12: “Who knows what is good for us?” This question is directly linked to the previous one. It brings to mind a saying that this same Solomon states twice, in Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
Human history proves that without the knowledge of God, mankind finds himself satanically deceived, drifting forever on a vast sea of human speculations. However, God knows what is good for us, and He is willing to share it with His children. Without the knowledge of God's truth, life remains vanity, meaningless. God's Word says, “He who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:17)—in, I might add, satisfaction and contentment.
The fifth question also derives from verse 12: “Does anybody know what is coming next?” This question must be understood within the context of the entire book. It is not talking about small, day-to-day issues, but rather the huge ones that pertain to the overall purpose being worked out on earth. Of course, the answer is that nobody knows perfectly except for God. Everybody else's opinions are largely speculations. If God gave us more specific detail, it might severely damage the vital use of faith. He gives us enough information to keep us looking ahead and to encourage us to be patient and make the best use of the time that He gives us to prepare, because time is valuable.
The proper answer to all of these questions—especially if it is correct that they are self-justifications raised by converted persons due to a lack of growth—lies in one's use of the faith that God has given us to function within the relationship that He has opened to us.
Life is God's gift, and He desires that we spend it involved with Him, using our faith to prepare for an eternal relationship with Him in His Family Kingdom. This will produce the enjoyable satisfaction and contentment in life that He desires for us. Involving Him is the above-the-sun life.
If there is no Kingdom of God, and if no grand purpose is being worked out, then nothing matters except for what is happening at the moment. This mindset is tilted toward either humanism or secularism, and its fruit is the moral and ethical depravity of a Sodom and Gomorrah. Those with this mindset have nothing glorious to prepare for, so why should they deny themselves any pleasure, any excitement, that their minds and bodies desire right now? God's children, however, because they possess the faith, cannot allow themselves to drift into such a destructive mindset.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Seven): Contentment
These verses briefly examine one of the properties that wisdom and money share. The key word is “share.” Notice that the term “better” does not appear in the context. The reason is that wisdom is so superior to wealth that it derives no additional glory from it. If a person has both, that is of course good. However, if they are personified, one must conclude that wisdom could do better without wealth than wealth could do without wisdom.
The attribute that they share is the power to protect, to be a defense or a shade, as some translations say, against life's difficulties. Even in regard to this quality, the comparison reveals that wisdom is of greater value. The comparison shows that wisdom is like a wall of protection whereas wealth is merely a hedge. In adversity, wisdom provides reserves of strength to the person who possesses it. Wealth, though, continues to feed a person's self-importance and lusts, and so it may even be detrimental to progress.
What does Solomon mean by “Wisdom is good with an inheritance”? This translation is vague and difficult. In its translation, The Revised English Bible reinserts “better” into the thought: “Wisdom is better than possessions and an advantage to all who see the sun.” The NIV reads, “Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun.” The Jewish Soncino commentary makes two suggestions: “Wisdom is good when it is an inheritance” and “Wisdom is good when there is an inheritance together with it.” Solomon seems to be saying that, even as receiving a family inheritance is an advantage, so also is receiving family wisdom an advantage. It thus becomes an admonishment to young people to learn from their parents.
The Soncino commentary catches the essence of what Solomon is saying. Biblical wisdom always gives a person an advantage regardless of age, and the younger the person is when he begins using what he learned from his family the better.
The counsel in the last phrase of this verse—“Wisdom is . . . profitable to those who see the sun”—can be taken in two ways. “Those who see the sun” may be taken generally, including all humanity. But it may be directed specifically toward those who truly see God as part of their lives, that is, he refers to “over the sun,” converted people. In this way, verse 11 carries strong counsel to those who have God-given wisdom that enables them to “see” God. Such a person's wisdom imparts even better judgment for facing the difficulty of the times with a much steadier walk and broader, deeper sagacity.
At the same time, to be realistic, some events may affect our lives that neither wisdom nor wealth can protect us from, such as a national economic cataclysm or a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake that one cannot be physically prepared for. Except for those extraordinary situations, from what does wisdom defend a person? It protects individuals who have this wisdom derived from a relationship with God from the ordinary trials of the times, whatever their time in history.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Nine): Wisdom as a Defense
Jesus takes the man aside from the crowd to show tender consideration for the feelings of one for whom life was very difficult. Once they are alone, the first thing Jesus does is to put His fingers in the man's ears. They must be healed if the tongue is to work normally, since the man was mute because he could not hear. This symbolic action sends a clear message to the deaf man, helping to awaken his faith and to alert him to the expectation of healing. Since he could not hear encouragement, it had to come from a compassionate touch.
For us, we learn that it is good for us to be alone in God's presence, away from the busy cacophony of a confused world, which is never conducive to spiritual reflection (Ecclesiastes 3:7). In the quiet of God's presence, we can build and improve our personal relationship with Him (Psalm 46:10). Each person needs time alone with the Father to keep a sharp focus on Him. Jesus instructs, "When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:6-7).
The popular belief at that time was that saliva had medicinal properties. This case and the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26; John 9:6) are the only instances where Jesus uses popular medical remedies in healing. However, He did not use His saliva for any medicinal virtue it contained but as a symbol of the spiritual power within Him and emanating from Him. By Christ's touch, the man was shown that the power to heal both his deafness and speech impediment completely came from Jesus. Even with this healing, the man would have to be willing to hear God's words; if not, he would waste his healing and the grace of God (Acts 28:26-28).
The account shows us that Jesus does not consider the deaf-mute as merely another case but as an individual. The man had a special need and a special problem, and with tender consideration, Jesus deals with him in a way that spares his feelings and helps him to understand.
When the healing becomes known, the people declare that He had done all things well (literally "beautifully"), which is also God's verdict on His creation (Genesis 1:31). In the beginning, everything was very good, but mankind's sins have spoiled it ever since. When Jesus came, bringing healing and salvation to the people, He brought the work of spiritual creation, beginning with His church. One day soon, Christ will bring back God's beauty to the whole world.
Martin G. Collins
The Miracles of Jesus Christ: Healing a Deaf-Mute (Part Two)
Hearing Christ's word and believing in God are not as simple as they appear; a single action or decision is not all it takes for these verses to apply. Even so, Jesus shows that the way is open now for some to avoid that eternal judgment of death and to pass from the state of spiritual death into spiritual life.
Passing from death into eternal life is a result of the relationship that God draws us into. A person who has been called by God, who responds by hearing Christ's word (in the sense of obedience), and begins to live a life of trust in God, is one who is now spiritually alive. If he remains in that state of spiritual life until the end, he will be in the first resurrection and given immortality.
“The hour is coming, and now is” means that from the time of His preaching forward, some of the spiritually dead would hear His voice, respond to Him, and begin living spiritually. In that case, the dead He is talking about are the spiritually dead of mankind.
But then the focus changes in verse 28 to the future: “The hour is coming.” A time will come when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and rise in a resurrection. “All who are in the graves” refers to those who have physically died. God, in His mercy, will resurrect each person at some point, “each one in his own order” (I Corinthians 15:23).
The fact that death is not the end is a major change from where things stood after Adam's sin. Each person will have the opportunity to live life spiritually, in union with God, because He “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). He will, then, give everyone a chance to repent, to come out of his or her spiritual death, and to experience a life of reconciliation with Him. That opportunity could happen in this age, or it could happen in the resurrection to physical life that takes place after the Millennium (see Revelation 20:5).
David C. Grabbe
What Is the Second Death?
John 15:1-6 deals with the productivity achieved in our lives after conversion begins. This teaching begins to make abundantly clear how much we need Him. Interestingly, what Jesus teaches in John 6 about being the bread of life—which also shows how much we need Him—occurred fairly early in His ministry. The exhortation here occurs at the end of His ministry, speaking to His disciples following His final Passover observance. He confirms that what the Father desires to be produced in our relationship cannot be produced apart from Christ. This passage is a final admonition for us to make every effort to remain "in" Him, not allowing what just happened with Judas to happen to us. By betraying His Savior, Judas abandoned the responsibility imposed by the New Covenant.
For the moment, consider the beginning of the relationship. We can overlook the arresting fact that, without Jesus paying the penalty for our sins, there would be no future except for death. Without it, there would be no looking forward to a joyous and productive life in the Kingdom of God. In fact, there would be no relationship at all. Without Him providing this for us, there would be no hope at all. Could we pay the penalty for sin and continue living?
Understanding the symbolism Jesus used is helpful in grasping how much we need what Christ did and does. To glean as much as we can from this, we need to tie it to its wider context, Jesus' final Passover with His disciples. Certain references to bread are made as part of Jesus' change of the Passover symbols, which helps to tie the symbolism together with His crucifixion for our forgiveness. Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:23-24:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me."
In John 6, bread plays an important role. It is frequently used as a metaphor for Christ Himself. I Corinthians 11 clearly ties bread, also named in John 13:18, to the giving of His body in the crucifixion. I Corinthians 11:25-26 adds:
In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying. "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes.
This second symbol is important to grasping what Christ teaches in John 15:1-6 correctly. The vine He speaks of is obviously the grape vine. He clearly states that He is the vine and that we are the branches attached to Him. Just as grapes can be produced only by a shoot that remains attached to the vine, we can produce spiritual fruit that pleases the Father and thus be in the Kingdom of God only if we remain attached to Jesus Christ. In this illustration, all nourishment that results in fruit must come from the vine. He not only pays the penalty of our sins, but He also supplies the spiritual nourishment to produce fruit that glorifies the Father and prepares us for life in God's Kingdom.
John 8:31-32 reminds us that continuing in His Word is the key to knowing the truth and becoming free. This greatly enhances the production of fruit. Thus, if we fulfill our responsibility, we are in that sense in partnership with Him in performing our duties under the New Covenant. A wonderful additional benefit of remaining in Christ is that those who faithfully fulfill their roles are not gathered up and cast into the fire, as John 15:6 warns.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Accepting God's Sovereignty (Part Four)
Without a doubt, our sins separate us from God (Genesis 3:24; Isaiah 59:2; Galatians 5:19-21). Graciously, our heavenly Father desires a closer relationship with us, His elect (John 17:3, 20-21). In Leviticus 26:12, our Creator promises, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.” In John 14:6, that same divine Being—in the form of Jesus Christ—testifies that He provides our ultimate path to God the Father.
In Romans 5:1-2, the apostle Paul flatly asserts that justification brings us access to His grace, the undeserved favor that He grants to His faithful, humble children through Jesus Christ (James 4:6). In Ephesians 2:18 and 3:12, Paul mentions this same access, strongly implying that such access is exclusive to our calling and not available to the world.
By declaring the repentant sinner not guilty, justification helps to remove, not only the disturbing guilt from his conscience, but also the fear of being called before God and condemned (Isaiah 57:20-21; Romans 5:9), replacing the guilt and fear with hope (Romans 5:2; Titus 3:7). Such peace enables the justified to draw even closer to God with a more confident assurance of His mercy (Hebrews 4:16; 7:19; 10:19).
Martin G. Collins
The Fruit of Justification
Verse 15 declares that being born an Israelite indicates a privileged birth. The privilege results from being part of the Old Covenant nation, thus having direct contact with God's Word, which contains His promises and instructions. This provides the possibility of faith because faith comes from hearing God's Word (Romans 10:17).
However, even having that privilege is of itself no benefit regarding justification. Why? Because a person is justified only through faith in Jesus Christ. Through this means and this means only, a person is declared righteous or innocent of sin. Thus, if one does not take advantage of its availability, the availability itself is of no value. Faith in Jesus Christ and His message is what is important about this way of life.
Paul makes a definitive statement regarding obedience following justification by faith in verses 17-18. The thing that he destroyed through faith and repentance was his former way of life with its mountain of sin accumulated during his unconverted life before justification. Paul was determined not to return to that sinful way. To do this, he had to live to God (verse 19), that is, to obey God's laws so that he would not sin and therefore bring to naught his justification through Christ's sacrifice. He is clearly stating that keeping God's laws is required, even though keeping them does not earn salvation.
We need to make sure that we understand this important reality: Being justified is a major step toward salvation, but this does not mean that the person's character is now fully changed. It means only that the charges for sin against him are removed, and he is legally declared innocent on the basis of Christ's divine righteousness.
Justification is a judicial action by a judge—God. The term indicates an aligning of a forgiven person with a standard. In this case, the standard is the law of God. Justification does not happen automatically to all but solely to those whom God calls, forgives, and unites with Christ because they believe in the efficacy of His death as the divinely given Substitute to pay the death penalty for their sins. They have humbled themselves before Him and fervently desire to glorify God through a vastly changed life.
Character is a group of qualities that cannot be transferred by fiat. It is created throughout life, either by experiences in this world or by experiences within a relationship with God. We desire to be in the character image of God. In His purpose, the creating of godly character takes place during the sanctification process.
The New International Version renders Romans 10:17 as, "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." Paul uses "faith," one's belief, in the sense of trust. At the point of justification in a person's spiritual life, faith is not producing works; it is merely the mental activity of believing. The works come later as the sanctification process begins and continues. This faith, this trust, has its foundation in knowledge that God has supplied by enabling the called person to reach the right conclusion, a conclusion based in fact. His trust is therefore not blind; it is based, not on speculation, but truth.
In Galatians 2:18, Paul shows that being justified by faith does not lead to a life of sin. Being justified by faith indicates a commitment in the mind of the justified to go forward, building on the relationship by being established with Christ. Verse 19 begins with the word "for," indicating the reason why the justified person will not return to the old way of life. By faith, Paul understands the reason: As far as the law is concerned, he is dead. His debt to it has been satisfied.
Verse 20 continues the thought. Like Christ died, the "old man," the carnal Paul, also died and was symbolically buried in the waters of baptism. Also like Christ, he has been raised from the dead—symbolically—from the waters of baptism. This is done for the sole reason that, by means of the very faith of Christ that he has been given, he would live life as Christ lived. The life Christ lived was sinless. He did not break God's laws, and that is the objective of the new creation and salvation.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Living By Faith and God's Grace (Part Two)
2 Timothy 3:4-5
Paul uses these phrases as an overall assessment of the cause of the horrible conduct he describes. The root cause is that a true relationship with God is missing. Despite having some knowledge of God, people are not living by faith. They are ignoring Him and feel free to pursue their own desires, on which they place a higher priority than on what God says. Their pleasure is what they desire in terms of conduct, and the behaviors that Paul lists reveal the lack of godly fear. He is simply not an all-the-time reality to them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Living By Faith and God's Sovereignty
The Apostle Paul mentions the Cretans, but then quickly shifts his focus to “Jewish fables.” Of what is he accusing these people? Of a practice that follows the Israelites throughout their history: believing that God indeed exists but showing by their conduct that they do not truly believe Him. He charges them with exposing in their behavior that they do not believe that they are truly, personally answerable to the sovereign God. In other words, they do not fear Him. The reality of what God truly is and requires has not affected them enough to make a difference in how they live their lives in actual day-to-day practice.
Since we live within this environment, it brings up a question for us to resolve: How can we live by faith if we do not have sufficient knowledge of the greatness, the closeness, and the awesome grace of God shown in the mercy He has already given? It is this mercy that allows us to begin even the barest of a relationship with Him, build on it, and come to know Him and fear Him.
A recent Barna poll revealed that over 80% of Americans believe God exists, but that belief has little influence on their conduct. Just about anything goes in this nation anymore. The great immorality of the American people reveals that they are not very concerned about being answerable to Him. Considering what has happened in Israel's history, should we not be concerned about what this might lead to in the near future?
John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Accepting God's Sovereignty (Part One)
The purpose of Christ's death was not merely to pay for sins but also to provide the means for a relationship with God. If we are at all mindful of salvation, we need to be concerned about such a relationship because that is the means of overcoming and growing toward the Kingdom of God. It is the relationship with God that counts, not merely that we are forgiven.
Would a woman like it if, instead of spending time with her and giving his attention to the things of common interest to their relationship, the man she is intended to marry paid attention to everything else? Perhaps he gives his attention to his work, working all hours of the day and maybe of the night. By the time he came home, he is so tired or there are so many other things he had to do that he cannot give her any time - and so she never has much of a relationship with him. Or maybe he spends his time on entertainment, hobbies, sports. If a woman intended to marry such a person and began noticing this in him, it would not be long before she moved on with her life. She could only conclude, "This guy is a loser." She could not expect any kind of healthy relationship with him.
Inserting God in the woman's place in such a relationship, would He be kindly disposed and eager to help the person who is ignoring Him, neglecting Him? God is no sap.
Let's turn this around. Would a man be inclined to help his fiancée if she were giving her attentions to every man who came along? The Bible frequently describes Israel in this way in the context of her relationship with God. All the woman wants to do is to party, drink, play games, and be frivolous and silly, while flirting indiscriminately with each man who caught her eye. How much and for how long would her intended be willing to help her? How soon would he break off the relationship?
God gives powers to those who involve their lives within the framework of His concerns - and His chief concern is to reproduce Himself (Genesis 1:26). To those people, God gives strength and benefits. Once we understand what makes a successful relationship with God, we must make every effort to harmonize with that process through prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting, submission, and obedience. God gives His Spirit and its gifts to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32), who submit to Him, communicate with Him, and allow Him to communicate with them.
With such people, He has a real relationship. God will bend over backward for them, which He has already showed He will do by giving His Son, as He could give nothing more valuable.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The apostle presents Christian living as a two-pronged endeavor that we can perhaps simplify or summarize even more. The first is doing good works: visiting orphans and widows in their trouble. The second prong is to become holy or build righteous character in ourselves in cooperation with God.
We could also divide it into the practical and the spiritual sides of life. Obviously, when a person does good works, it is a practical application of what he has learned and put on as spiritual character.
Another way to look at it is to say that James divides it into the outward and the inward. Part of Christian living goes on inside an individual, and something—a work, an action—comes out of him as a result.
However we want to name this two-pronged approach, we must realize that neither of these prongs is sufficient alone, which is why James presents them together. It is "pure and undefiled religion" to have an inward and an outward aspect or a practical and a spiritual aspect.
The apostle John agrees with James in I John 3:16-19. Pure religion requires both of these elements:
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him.
He says that, if we do not manifest God's love by giving, helping, and caring for others, then we have not fulfilled anything. We cannot be sure that the love of God is actually in us if it is not coming out in some sort of physical work that we do, some act of love.
In this church's teaching, we tend to stress only one of these prongs. It is not that we do not talk about the other, but we tend to stress the inward, the spiritual, the holy, the righteous character part—the second prong that James shows in James 1:27. There is good, sound, solid, biblical reason for this. Basically, it is that the spiritual aspect is the more important of the two.
The inward, the spiritual, the holy, the righteous-character part of Christian living is the foundation—the wellspring, the fertile soil—out of which good works grow. One could go so far as to say that effective and truly good works cannot be done without godly character or a right relationship with God.
This means that we must have godly character before we can even begin to do good works properly! Without godliness, good works are simply common and rather empty, humanistic philanthropy.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
"If I Have Not Charity"
1 John 4:7-8
These verses furnish Christians with critical marching orders and guidance while providing crucial insight into our Creator's nature—all centered around the word “love.” Twice in these three verses, John declares that “God is love.” He also implores us to “love one another” and to know God, and then he identifies God as the source of love. Furthermore, our Savior commanded His disciples, earlier in John 13:34-35 (see also John 15:12, 17), to love one another “as I have loved you.”
Consider that God has created humanity physically in His image (Genesis 1:26), and further, is re-creating those whom He has called into His spiritual image (II Corinthians 3:18). To that, we must add our standing orders to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), to seek Him (Matthew 6:33), and to establish an intimate relationship with Him that we might become more familiar with the image that Christ came to reveal and that we are to become (John 1:18).
Consider also the following quote from John Ritenbaugh's 1992 sermon, “Do You See God?”:
We are beginning to see an application to you and me. Will God be working in our lives if we don't see Him? If we don't recognize Him? If we don't understand His purpose, what He is working out in you and me? I don't think so!
In like manner, in his 2006 sermon, “God, the Church's Greatest Problem,” he opined:
Since eternal life lies in the relationship with God, it is extremely important how frequent and accurate our thoughts about Him are. We can conclude that what one knows about the true God Himself and how one uses that knowledge are the two most important issues in life.
A strong relationship with God is critical to attaining eternal life, and the strength of that relationship depends upon an accurate understanding of who He is—His nature. To that end, we have the written Word of God to guide us as it reveals the true nature of God. Moreover, since the Bible teaches us that God is love and that our ability to know God will be determined by our willingness and capacity to love, it is vital that we understand the true meaning of love, particularly as intended by the apostle John's inspired writings. In fact, without this understanding, how can we possibly proceed with our marching orders to seek God—to know Him—and to reflect His will in our interactions with all mankind?
But, everyone is familiar with the concept of love, right? After all, virtually all of civilization is absorbed—even obsessed—with the idea of love. Throughout man's history, countless writers, performers, pundits, and deep thinkers have devoted much—if not most—of their respective careers trying to define and even display love. So, determining the meaning of this simple, four-letter word should not be too great a challenge, right?
Perhaps it is not as easy as one might think. In fact, if we study the world's most common usages and descriptions of love, we find that they have little or nothing in common with the divine nature of our Creator. Stated another way, we discover that John's use of the word “love,” as translated from the Greek word agape, has little to do with our modern, worldly concept of love.
Joseph B. Baity
The Nature of God— What's Love Got To Do With It?
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