16th January 2004
Through the bible from Genesis to Revelation God always draws his people's attention to himself - not to personal holiness or social justice or any of the other good things that follow from a good relationship with God, but to himself. When his people's attention wanders from him, he's quick to draw them back.
This attribute of God is known as his ``jealousy''. We usually think of jealousy as an ugly emotion, as when we want the success or money that someone else has. But there is also an absolutely right kind of jealously, and that is the reluctance of someone to allow others what is rightly his and his alone. The classic example is of a husband and wife - each of them is, in the right sense, jealous for the other. Neither will share the other with anyone else: the very idea is abhorrent to them. In the same way, God will not accept the idea that he has to share our passion and affection with anyone or anything else.
We may be used to the idea that God the Father is, and demands to be, central in all things. But we're more surprised to see the same thing from Jesus. He was not afraid to say shocking things like ``Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest'' (Matthew 11:38), ``The Scriptures [...] testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life'' (John 5:39-40) and ``I am the way and the truth and the life'' (John 14:6). [This is one of the ways that we can clearly see Jesus' claim to be God himself. In the Jewish culture in which he lived, no-one but God could possibly make the claims that Jesus did, including the ability to forgive sins (Luke 5:20) and to raise the dead to eternal life (John 6:20).]
We're going to zoom quickly through the entire bible, seeing how God always makes himself central in creation, in the law, the kings, the psalms, the prophets, the gospels and the letters, in Revelation and at the end of the world.
The very first four words of the bible clearly establish its focus:
In the beginning, God [...]— Genesis 1:1
Although the bible has lots to say about people and the human condition, it is first and last a book about God himself.
The first of the familiar ten commandments is God's demand to be first in the hearts of his people:
God spoke all these words: ``I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.''— Exodus 20:1-5
The history of Israel and Judah (the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah) is full of episodes in which God's people turn away from him - sometimes to follow other gods, sometimes just because they are comfortable and self-satisfied. Each time we see God call them back to himself through a prophet, often in dramatic circumstances.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah spells out the issue with devastating clarity:
Elijah went before the people and said, ``How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.''— 1 Kings 18:21
The point here is that the Israelites at the time of this story had not completely deserted God. They still worshipped him, but they also worshipped Baal. That half-commitment was not good enough for God, who demanded all or nothing - just as later God's message to the Laodicean church was ``Because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold- I am about to spit you out of my mouth.'' (Revelation 3:16)
The Psalms are about many things, but the main recurring theme is a awe of and desire for God himself:
I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.— Psalm 16:8, 11
No wonder God calls David, the author of this Psalm, ``a man after my own heart'' (Acts 13:22, after 1 Samuel 13:14)
This kind of message is not uncommon in the prophets:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Before your eyes and in your days I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in this place. When you tell these people all this and they ask you, ``Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us? What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the LORD our God?'' then say to them, ``It is because your fathers forsook me,'' declares the LORD, ``and followed other gods and served and worshiped them. They forsook me.''— Jeremiah 16:9-11
We've already listed some of the outrageous claims Jesus made about himself, and how he was quite unashamed about drawing attention and even worship to himself. This example is one of the clearest:
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ``If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.''— John 7:37-39
Again, notice that while Jesus said lots of things about lots of subjects (money, military service, divorce, morality), the heart of his message is always himself.
Consider Paul's classic confession:
I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ— Philippians 3:8
This from someone who's done more to serve Christ than pretty much anyone else we can think of: ``Beaten with rods [...] stoned [...] three times shipwrecked [...] laboured and toiled and often gone without sleep'' (2 Corinthians 11:25-27). All of that he considers worthless compared with the simple thing that is knowing Christ. In other words, his relationship with God is more important to him than what he does as a result of it.
This from the letter to Ephesus, one of the seven letters to churches from the early chapters of the book of Revelation:
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. [...] You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.— Revelation 2:2-5
No amount of hard work - even if it's genuinely done ``for God's name'' - is an acceptable substitute for God himself being central. As soon as we allow the church to become more important to us than he is, we're off the path. The threat is a very serious one: by ``remove your lampstand from its place'', God seems to be threatening that he will close the church down. Why? Because if he is not at the centre of it, then it's not really a church anyway.
And so we come to the end of the bible.
[The angel] carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. [...] I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.— Revelation 21:10, 22-23
And in the very last chapter of the bible:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.— Revelation 22:13
Is God just an ego-maniac? Does he need our attention? Hardly.
He knows two things that we find hard to see and constantly forget even after we've seen them. First of all, he is central - he just is! It's just true! So God's wanting us to make him central in our lives is nothing more than requiring that our lives reflect absolute truth. Second, God knows that the best possible thing for us is to be absolutely taken up and obsessed with him. He knows that he's the ultimate source of all our joy and comfort, and wants us to come to the source.
There is a hard question for us to ask ourselves at this point. We are all aware that, despite all the good things about this church, it is not growing as we'd hoped it would. Could it be that God is not blessing this church as we'd wish because our affection is fixed elsewhere? On sport or some other recreation? On our jobs or our families? Or even on the church? Are we like the Israelites in Elijah's time trying to divide our worship between two gods? Or like the Ephesian church that seems to be doing everything right but has lost its first love? If it's true, then the remedy is simple: ``Repent and do the things you did at first'' (Revelation 2:5)
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/jealous.html