(Sunday transcript 09/14/14)
Last Sunday, Sam briefly mentioned that sticky subject of God’s sovereignty. It was just a quick mention, but that as it turns out, that subject stuck with me all during the week. So I decided to go ahead and speak about it!
Now, let me up front admit that I do not have all the answers. I like to think that I do, but when it comes down to it I don’t. The only one who is omniscient, the only one who knows all is God. So what I will be sharing today comes from reading, from studying, from meditating and listening to God’s Spirit within me. As I have been challenged on this topic, I pray that you will be too.
But before we go into the topic of God’s sovereignty, we need to look at how we come up with our Theology, and the doctrinal systems that flow from that. Theology is the study of God. God gave us each the desire to learn, grow, connect and build in this world. So we take natural resources and build amazing machines, amazing vehicles and buildings. As science progresses we categorize and document our findings in order to build and grow and learn more and more. We humans love putting things together. And when it comes to theology, we like to do the same.
When we look at the Bible, we don’t see one big book containing one specific kind of writing. What we see is a book of separate books each with their own styles and genres. There is poetry, song, narrative, teaching and prophecy and others.
When we want to understand God, what we in the church have traditionally done is find the parts in the Bible which can best be categorized and systematized and have built our theology on those. For example (take building blocks and begin building), we take some psalms here and add some law. Then we take some from the Epistles and place them here with a little prophesy and some of Jesus’ teachings. We build using these blocks until we have a system of theology which fits together nicely and can effectively and confidently be taught, written down and preached from pulpits.
This is how most of us want to understand God. We want to understand Him in terms of systems and structures. We want our understanding of Him to fit together nicely with a solid structure. But is that the best way to understand who God is? We have these amazing building blocks from the epistles and the law and the Psalms, but should those be our starting place when we want to understand Him? What does God say? Let’s turn to Hebrews, chapter 1…
1 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
Let’s look at these verses. The word “express” means “said or given in a clear way.” So who is the express, the clear, the explicitly stated and shown image of God? Jesus!
Now, if that is really what God meant, that Jesus is the perfect, clear, express image of Himself, then we can expect that God would mention it elsewhere in the Bible. Let’s turn to Colossians, chapter 1…
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.
19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
So, it says here that Jesus is the visible image of our invisible God. That means that even though we can’t see God right now, we CAN see a clear picture of God through Jesus. Jesus IS God, and when we want to know what God looks like, acts like, and thinks like, we are to look at Jesus. In verse 19 we read that it pleased the Father that in Jesus ALL of the fullness would dwell. That means ALL of God’s character, everything that is God was on display. The fullness of God was on display in Jesus.
This means that if we want to know God, we need to look at Jesus, the person. We need to look at his life in the Bible and talk to him today. That is how we begin to understand God. But to learn and understand God this way takes a completely different way of thinking from how we have generally understood God in the past. Remember how I used blocks to represent the epistles and so many parts of Scripture that can be easily systematized ? Well, if those scriptures are like nice blocks, then the life of Jesus is like this… (strum chord on the guitar). We like to build our systems of theology using blocks like these, but if we would do what God said and build our theology on Jesus, we need to stop and listen… (strum again). I played a chord, and you can build beautiful songs with chords. But to understand a chord is different from understanding a block.
To understand God by the life of Jesus takes a completely different way of thinking. Jesus is a person, not a doctrine, he can’t be easily stacked and put into systems. It takes more effort to build our theology on Jesus and his life than it does to take pieces from the epistles and Psalms and such. But if we truly want to know God, then we need to learn to know Him by Jesus. Jesus is the image of God, so He is all we need to look at to know what God is like. And then with Jesus as a foundation, we can take other pieces of the Bible and use them to deepen our understanding of God. But our baseline is always Jesus. And if we find something in the Bible that seems to contradict the image of God we see in Jesus, then we know that our understanding of that passage is wrong, not our understanding of God.
This all brings me to the topic of God’s sovereignty. I’ve talked about this in the past, but I wanted to hit it again, coming from this angle. We have all heard and read about God’s sovereignty. It means that God is sovereign, that God rules over the universe and everything in it. It grows out of our understanding of God’s omnipotence and omniscience. We know that God is all powerful, and that is a major part of our understanding of God’s sovereignty. The problem is that many people assume that because God is all powerful, He is all-controlling. It is very popular in the church today to believe that everything that happens has been willed to happen by God, that nothing in this world happens outside of God’s control.
This understanding grows out of our experiences as humans. We all know that in this sinful world, power always leads to control. If you give someone too much power, they will use it to try and control others. An example today is the US government. It is the largest and most powerful government in the world. And the United States uses this power to control people and events all around the world. For example, the US government uses its power to foment and feed violence in the Middle East and Africa. It uses its power and control to keep them from ever experiencing peace and prosperity so they will never threaten the lucrative power structures of the US and Europe.
Power in this world always leads to control, and nobody can be trusted with too much power. Power and control are forever linked in our minds because of our human experiences, and when we look at God’s power in the Bible we have a tendency to transfer our experiences onto God. Everyone in this world with power uses it to control, so we assume that since God is all powerful He must be all-controlling. But is that the case? Is that how God really uses his power?
These views of ours grow out of our experiences in this sinful world, but God is not a product of this sinful world. God is perfect… and He is God! If God has power to control us, then He has the power to control himself also. To say that God’s power means that He must control us is to say that God does not have power over his power. It’s to say that God is not sovereign over his own power! If God is all-powerful (which He is!), then doesn’t that mean that God would have the power to decide what to do with that power? Well, as it turns out, God does have power over his own power and when we look at Jesus we learn how God uses that power. Let’s turn to Mark, chapter 10…
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
37 They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.”
Ok, so you see what they are asking here? They are asking for places of authority, for places of power in Jesus’ kingdom. Let’s continue…
38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
39 They said to Him, “We are able.”
So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; 40 but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.”
41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.
Let’s take a moment to get this. Everyone became “displeased” and upset with James and John when they heard that request. Why is that? It is because James, John and the other apostles were human. The others understood that when James and John were asking for power, they were asking for rulerships, for control over the rest of them. They did not think that was fair, so they were upset… and it is understandable why! Let’s continue reading…
42 But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44 And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many .”
I love that passage. It is here that we learn how Jesus understands power. Jesus does not compare his view of power with the world’s view of power, He contrasts his view of power with the world’s view of power. The people in this world with authority, with power, use it to “lord over” or control other people. But Jesus, in contrast, used his power to become a servant to the world, a “slave” to all.
This illustrates the different between what Greg Boyd calls “power over” and “power under.” We humans like power over. This is power that is lorded over others and used to control them. But Jesus taught and lived a life illustrating power under. This power is used not over someone to control them, but under someone to lift the up, to bless them, to free them and make them better than they could ever be themselves.
When God made the world and humanity, we were perfect. But we, you and me, have done things which we know are wrong. We were no longer the perfect creations that God meant for us to be. And with that we lost much of the joy and peace that we were designed to enjoy. But when Jesus came, he got under us and in fact gave his life for us to lift us up and redeem us, return us to the place that we were mean to be, to lift us up so we can experience the peace and joy and life that we were always meant to experience.
Those are the two ways we can use power: power over to control or power under to bless. Sinful people choose power over, but Jesus chooses power-under. And if Jesus shows us God’s character, then we know that God chooses to use power under. So let’s incorporate that into our understanding of God’s sovereignty. We know that God is all-powerful and has sovereign rule over the universe. But with all this power, does that mean God controls us? Does that mean that we are mindless drones playing out a cosmic script which was written in eternity past? No! God created us as free creatures, with amazing minds and faculties to make our own decisions. Part of what it means to be “made in God’s image” is that we can determine our own destinies. We can decide for ourselves whether or not to love God. Whether or not to go to church. We can even decide whether to have cereal or eggs for breakfast each morning. God uses his sovereign power not to control us, not to “lord over us” as sinful humans do, but to lift us up and make us better than we could be on our own.
Jesus became a servant to the world in order to bless and redeem the world. God wields “power under” not “power over” us.
So what does this mean for us? How does this apply personally to our lives? Well, number one, it means that how we live our lives matters. Every decision every day is ours to make, whether right or wrong. We determine whether this world will get better or get worse. God has left our destinies in our own hands. But that does not mean that we are alone.
Number two, our prayers matter. God is all-powerful and He wants to use his power to lift us up and make this world a better place. It is up to us in prayer to invite Him to do this. When we pray, we unleash his power into the world to bless and redeem. The world is not running on a pre-written script. God himself is not running on a pre-written script. Our prayers matter to God. God listens to us and responds to us. We can excite God, grieve God, and even make Him laugh. Let’s always remember that as we live our lives and as we pray. God is a real person and responds to us.
And number three, my last point, let’s be like God! He uses his power to serve others and we must do the same. If we use our power to “lord over” and control others, we are no different from the world. If we are like Jesus then we will use our power to bless others and lift them up. This means, for example, that men should never use their power to “lord over” or control women. This means that privileged white people should not use their power and position to “lord over” or control those who are less-privileged. It means that pastor and politicians and business leaders should use their power and positions to bless and lift others up. Imagine a world where every person used their power to bless others, not to put down or control others. That would be an amazing world. But that is the world that Jesus is inviting us to be a part of. That is the upside-down kingdom of God.