This God is our god
At a time when false images of God abound – in other cultures as well as in our own – it is both encouraging and challenging to be reminded of the character of the one true God, the God of the Bible.
Is he a God who fosters hatred and violence, as some think? Is he a fickle, chameleon-like being, constantly changing his moral and spiritual demands because his world has changed? Is he a God who condones most things but seldom condemns? Is he even a God who, having created the world, has lost control over it?
The God of the Bible is none of these. They are all idols cast in the image of fallen man – the products of man’s own imagination.
What, then, is the God of the Bible like? Where can we go for a truly accurate view of our God? Perhaps nowhere better than Isaiah 61:1-2, where we find a cluster of pictures illustrating the nature of God and validated by our Lord himself – the one whom the pictures portray.
When Jesus entered the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, he read Isaiah’s words aloud. Then he sat down and announced: ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:18-19). What he had just read was a description of himself.
Isaiah gives us six pictures in these two verses. In the first five he shows the coming Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, as a God of compassion and mercy – not just in word but in action.
The sixth picture, a much more sombre one, is different from the rest (though closely related to them). We’ll look at that later.
Seeking and saving
‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God’ (Isaiah 61:1-2).
Clearly, everything in the first five pictures relates to a God of love, care, compassion and mercy. The Messiah, we read, will bear good news to a poor and needy people. He will also come as a physician, bringing healing to the broken-hearted. He will be a herald, proclaiming liberty to those taken captive. He will effect the release of those bound in prison. Finally, he will be a special messenger proclaiming a time of mercy before God (‘the acceptable year of the Lord’).
No violence here, then. Not even a breath of it. We find only a God with a specific mission of mercy to people in need. To put it another way, the Lord Jesus was going to bring benefits and blessings to people without threats or accusations.
This, of course, is exactly how Jesus viewed his own ministry. He said he had come ‘to seek and to save those who were lost’ (Luke 19:10). He pointed out that he had come, ‘not to condemn but to save’ (John 3:17). He also explained that he had come, ‘not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Mark 2:17).
In particular, he declared that he came to earth to give his life ‘a ransom for many’. Describing himself and his work he said: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11).
The Lamb of God
It is specially significant that when John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus to ask if he really was the Messiah, Jesus responded: ‘Go and tell John the things you hear and see. The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them’ (Matthew 11:3-5).
All the words and actions of the Lord Jesus Christ were evidence of his essential mission – to be his people’s Saviour. His teaching and healing ministry were vindications of his deity. Nevertheless, John knew perfectly well what Jesus’ ultimate purpose was: ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
In its arrogance and desire to maintain man’s independence, the human heart may reject all this, but it cannot alter its truth. For example, some may gag at the thought of Jesus being ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter’ and dying on the cross ‘smitten by God and afflicted’ (Isaiah 53:4, 7). But the truth remains truth.
Furthermore, those who fail to discern God’s absolute standards of moral and spiritual purity may gasp in disbelief that Jesus needed to die at all, ‘bearing our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24). But such people also fail to see the enormity of man’s sinfulness and total alienation from God.
And those who ignorantly convince themselves that God is not in control of his world will be confronted by the words of the Saviour himself. Speaking within days of his coming crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus prayed: ‘For this purpose I came to this hour’ (John 12:27). His passion was no accident suffered by a failing God, but rather the occasion of God’s greatest act of love – a sacrifice planned before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8).
God’s vengeance not ours
But what about the sixth picture in Isaiah’s prophecy (61:2) – the statement that the Messiah would proclaim ‘the day of vengeance of our God’? What is he speaking of here? Does this contradict the previous pictures?
Before we answer that question, notice that Isaiah speaks of God’s vengeance, not man’s. There is no place in Christianity for man’s vengeance. God has given a specific command in this matter: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ (Romans 12:9; Deuteronomy 32:25).
Christians should follow their Master. A clear mark of God’s people must be that they ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matthew 12:39). They are givers, not enforcers – ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matthew 10:8). They are to love their neighbour, whatever his creed or colour (Luke 10:25-37), being impelled by love for God and others (2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 13).
And if someone objects, ‘What about “fight the good fight”?’, let them read what immediately precedes those words – ‘pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness’ (1 Timothy 6:11). The apostle is speaking of a spiritual battle, not a physical one here.
Love and judgement
What, then, does Isaiah mean by ‘God’s vengeance’? At the beginning of verse 2 he has spoken about ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’ – an era of grace when the gospel is freely offered. When he goes on to speak of God’s vengeance, he is speaking of the final day of judgement, when those who have rejected God’s mercy and spurned the finished work of Christ on the cross will pay the ultimate price for their sin and rebellion (Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:11-15).
God’s love and God’s judgement are not mutually exclusive. The apostle Paul preached about both to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17:30-31). And to prove that God does not change, we need only turn to his words to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7: ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, [and] by no means clearing the guilty …’
Father and Son speak the same language and express the same character. Jesus said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). False gods are no substitute for the living, loving Saviour.
Two well-known verses from John 3 sum up the Bible’s portrait of the character of God. John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’ – and John 3:36: ‘He who believes in the Son has everlasting life, and he who does not believe in the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides in him’.
This is our God. Let us praise and worship him.