Serving a Two-Handed God
Great and Terrible Love, A: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God
March 1, 2009
192 pp., $14.75
Holy Week presents us with a number of theological problems. One of them has to do with the nature of God's power.
On the one hand, we remember the "impotent" God of Good Friday. He's the one who dies on a cross and yet saves the world. So, some Christians conclude, power is found in weakness, humility, and death. We are not only not to wield the sword, we should also never be angry, aggressive, strong, or forceful. Gentleness and mercy, in every and all situations, becomes the ethical mantra.
On the other hand, Holy Week culminates in Easter, when we remember the omnipotent God who conquers all, including death itself, and thus saves the world. The conclusion of many today is that power is to be found in faith, hope, and even aggressive love. We can do all things through the power of the resurrected Christ. We are already victors! For some, this means exerting a positive, can-do attitude in daily life; for others, it entails a hope-filled and energetic work of justice. In either case, it's all about defeating the powers by holy strength.
So the theological problem of Holy Week is a very practical problem. Jesus gave us authority to confront evil in all its forms (Matt. 10:1). Our answer to the Holy Week question about power goes a long way in determining how we do God's work in the world.
On the one hand, the Bible reveals an extraordinary God of extraordinary ability. From the opening words of Genesis—"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1)—to the closing of the Book of Revelation—"the Lord God omnipotent reigneth" (Rev. 19:6, KJV)—the Bible showcases a divine being who possesses unparalleled power.
This is the God who, without any materials to work with, fashions a universe. He destroys the pretenses of the haughty in Babel, and creates life in the barren womb of Sarah. The biblical God causes famines, instigates plagues, divides waters, and destroys armies. He demands obedience from his people, and when ignored, he raises up other nations who drag his people into exile—and then, when it is in his good will, God ushers them back to their land.
This God does not strain nor sweat, but performs majestic deeds as easily as human beings talk. As the psalmist puts it, God "spoke and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm" (Ps. 33:9). It is no wonder we find Jeremiah sensing God telling him, "I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" (Jer. 32:27).
Apparently not, for this God shows up in the New Testament as one who makes possible both virgin conception and miraculous resurrection. The birth of the God-man is accompanied by an army of angels, and the life of the God-man is characterized by healing the blind, curing the lame, casting out demons, and raising the dead.
A Roman centurion, a man who understands power, intuitively grasps this. When Jesus offers to walk to the centurion's home to heal his servant, he refuses: "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it" (Luke 7:6-8, ESV). Jesus marvels at this, and tells those standing nearby that "not even in Israel have I found such faith." Faith in Jesus' power.
We smile knowingly when we read that Jesus' contemporaries looked for a political messiah who would usher in the kingdom with the sword. Yet for the longest time in Jesus' ministry, it was an easy mistake to make. Jesus comes across as one who very much looks like the God of Israel, who the prophet Isaiah said "comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him" (Isa. 40:10, ESV).