Lest this seem to come out of nowhere, I want to flesh our an idea that we talked about in worship this morning, as we continued our journey through the New Testament letter 1 John:
Have you ever thought about how you mentally frame God’s commandments? The language of “command” automatically starts our minds down a specific pathway, one where God makes the rules and hands them down to us, and we receive them and follow them or else. And…there is something of that pathway that we need to take seriously. God is Sovereign, and is the one who establishes the code of conduct he desires from his people. These aren’t the Ten Suggestions, and this isn’t the first step in a negotiation.
And yet…might we also need to notice that God has something like a “dual role” with his people? Consider that in the introduction of his first letter, John writes:
that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3 ESV)
The tone of that passage is very different from the thought-world of God as Commandment-Giver, isn’t it? Fellowship is the translation of koinonia, a word which speaks of close relationship and sharing, mutuality and partnership – and this is the word John uses to describe the relationship he has (and his readers can have) with the Father and the Son. So, what do we do with the tension between these two ways of understanding God?
Most commonly, people resolve the tension by disregarding one side or another. Some try to explain away one of the two sides, but others simply “forget” one side, and frame God as either Stern Lawgiver or Welcoming Friend.
Why can’t God be both?
In the third chapter, John’s description of the Divine-human relationship resumes:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1 ESV)
This image is the resolution of the tension between Lawgiver and Friend. What’s more, I think it reveals the desire of God for the ongoing movement of his relationship with us. Within the parent-child relationship, there is intended and expected hierarchy, and there is mutuality. There is (at least at the beginning of the relationship) a clear expectation of superiority of understanding and wisdom, and there is tender-heartedness, and the hope that maturation will bring friendship between the parent and the child.
So it is, that God gives commands, because he loves us as children, and knows the world (and us) better than we do, and wants the very best for us. In fact, God knows the world and us perfectly, and God’s commands are given in light of that knowledge. God’s commands (and I do not soften the authoritative force of that word in any way) are also invitations into a quality of life which God desires for us and with us as we enter into ever-deepening koinonia with him. The commands do not cease to be commands, but as we mature, perhaps we begin to understand the heart behind them. When God gives us commands, he gives them out of love, and out of the desire that through following them we will be able to relate to God in more mature ways.
I am blessed that I am able to think of my father and mother as friends. I cannot recall if the idea really occurred to me when I was 11 (like my oldest son is now); even if it did, I surely did not imagine the depth of our relationship today. At 11, most of our relationship was still governed by the rules of the household which they set down; I cannot think of the last time one of my parents felt the need to identify a command for me to follow. Some of this is because I have internalized the rules of my parents’ household, and they have become an invisible part of our relationship – might this correspond to the Jeremiah prophecy of the new covenant?
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)
God’s commands may remind us that God is Sovereign and we are not, but they should not be a burden which we rail against. At the same time God rules over us, he loves us, and offers us the best path to wholeness and maturity, both within ourselves and in our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have invited us into their fellowship. Lawgiver and Friend.
So, what am I leaving out of this conception? What have I missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts.