In this series we have been working through many aspects of salvation, including the role of Jesus at God’s right hand. We have seen that the fundamental purpose of the sacrifice of Christ is not about making things different for God; it’s about the effect it has on us. When Jesus gave his life, he gave the whole of his life; every aspect — he gave his ‘living’to us so that we could find life. Salvation is through faith and forgiveness. The Old Testament does not differ from the New in this; it has been consistent throughout all God’s dealings with mankind. God wants His people to come to Him in faith, and He reaches out in forgiveness. He calls man to Him, to have faith in Him so that it will be meaningful when He responds with forgiveness.
Something, however, is lacking in the story so far. And it has to do with Jesus himself. Why did God send him at all? Why not instead simply work salvation directly by Himself? That’s what we’ll tackle in the next few articles. In particular, we will take two familiar concepts that both apply to Jesus — that of a Savior and that of a Judge — and explore the thought that, in Jesus’ case, the two concepts represent different aspects of a single role.
God is our Savior
Let’s get one fundamental fact very clear: God is the Savior. Just look at Isaiah 43:11:
“I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no Savior.”
There are 31 occasions in the Old Testament where the word ‘Savior’ is used; all of them apply to God. Of the 24 similar references to ‘Savior’ in the New Testament, eight of them (one-third) refer explicitly to God as our Savior. The others apply to Jesus, of course. But Jesus as our Savior only makes sense in the light of Scriptures we’ve seen that show him to be doing God’s work. He is the mechanism by which God is saving us. So, fundamentally, salvation is from God; Jesus is the arm of the LORD working salvation. Salvation is from God — God is our Savior, and He saves us through Jesus Christ.
Saving and judging
I think it’s critical that the one who comes amongst us, who represents God to us, as Jesus Christ does, is not only there helping and supporting us but also assessing whether we are meeting the standard his Father has set. Now, you might say: “Why are there standards?” We touched on the topic of standards earlier in this series of articles when we discussed the ‘Constraint Triangles’. Because God wants to make a loving community of people who have freewill, we have to choose whether we want to be part of it or not. Thus the work of Jesus is to encourage us, to draw us in, to help us to want to be part of a community of love, and to give us the ability to participate in one.
At the same time, Jesus is continually looking deep into our hearts to see if we really do want it or not. It’s only when he can see that we are lacking something that he’s able to step in to try to build that aspect of our character. If Jesus couldn’t tell whether we loved one another or not, he couldn’t do much to help develop our love.
Imagine taking parachuting lessons. You wouldn’t want your instructor to be teaching you and not notice that you keep forgetting about this “rip-cord thing”. In the end the instructor says, “Oh well, never mind! I pass all my students anyway!” and you end up jumping into thin air. Disaster! You see, there are some things that have intrinsic requirements — you really want to know how to parachute before someone passes you on the test!
And it’s the same with salvation. I wouldn’t want to be in the Kingdom if, when Christ comes and looks closely into my heart, he finds that it’s not what I really want. If Christ knows that deep down I would resent and rebel against the kind of loving community that the Father is building in him, then the Kingdom would be “hell” for me. There are intrinsic requirements that need to be satisfied if we are to participate in eternity. Otherwise, the oblivion of death is an act of mercy.
So suppose we accept that ‘saving’ and ‘judging’ are two sides of the same coin. That still leaves the question as to why God doesn’t just do it. Why doesn’t God just say, “You know what? I am the Savior. I am the Judge.” Why doesn’t God just act, Himself, as the Savior and Judge? After all, He could. There would be no difficulty for God in doing that. He has all the abilities and capabilities. As we’ve seen again and again in these studies in salvation, we have to look for the shortcomings of ourselves to explain why God has provided something, not look for shortcomings in God. And so it is here. When we ask why God provided a Savior Judge distinct from Himself (though doing His work), the answer is bound to be something about us, a limitation or shortcoming on our part. And indeed it is. We see it spelled out in Deuteronomy:
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die’” (Deut. 18:15,16).
We are scared of the LORD Almighty! A whole nation of people, people just like us, were terrified by the presence of God. We come to the foot of a mount like Sinai and see the power of heaven ready to be unleashed — and we are terrified! We quake with fear! Finally we admit we are scared, and acknowledge that we don’t know how to come close to this awesome presence. “You go, Moses; see if God will talk through you and you bring His message to us,” they said. Anything to put a little distance between us and the dreadful mightiness of heaven.
I wonder if God was sad, wishing that people could trust His words of love and assurance. But God is God. He deals with the world as it is, not as He wishes it might be. He is the ultimate realist. So He continues to Moses:
“The LORD said to me: ‘What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death’” (Deut. 18:17-20).
The people needed an intermediary. They needed someone with whom they could directly relate, and God accepted the reality of it. Do we think we are any different from them? Even Daniel quaked and collapsed at the sight of an angel cloaked in the power of heaven. We are just the same as they were.
So God provides the ultimate prophet! Raised up among us, just like us. As it says in Hebrews, he himself likewise shared in our humanity (Heb. 2:14). Jesus, of the same flesh as ours, just like one of us. We aren’t terrified of him because he is, in some sense, no different from us. Human beings find it easier to come close to him.
The Word made flesh
Of course, Jesus’ purpose is to bring us near to God. He is not an alternative to God, but rather he is God’s presence among us. God declares above, “I will put my words in his mouth.” From the very start, everything Jesus said were the words of God — he was “the Word of God”, in fact.
God’s Word comes from His mouth and doesn’t return without accomplishing the thing it was sent to do. Everything God ever did was done through His word. Right from the beginning, “God said” and then “it was so”. And now, everything that God has been saying has been embodied in a man. The word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In earlier times God spoke through a variety of prophets, in a variety of ways; in these last days He has spoken to us through His Son (Heb. 1:1).
Throughout history God has worked through prophet leaders. He has always appealed to people like us through great and holy men and women. These mighty individuals bring God’s message, and reach out to the people around them. Noah was a great example, preaching the whole time the ark was being built. Abraham was another. And Joseph, going down to Egypt and saving a nation and, presumably, preaching and encouraging people to turn to God. Moses: again accomplishing a tremendous work, once more saving a nation, bringing them to the border of the Promised Land. Deborah, and Samuel, each leading and judging the nation; David, a king and man after God’s own heart; Hezekiah, dying, or close to dying, pouring out his heart to God on behalf of the people; and Zerubbabel, re-establishing the nation after they returned to the land. There was Peter, reaching out to a nation: “Men and brothers, this thing has been done in front of you,” he says. Paul, bringing the message of salvation not only to the Jewish people but more widely, to bring Jew and Gentile together.
The list could go on and on. God has always been working through prophet leaders, because we need to hear the word of God from someone like us. When we’re confronted by the naked power of God Almighty, we are terrified.
Stand in the breach
So God works to give us courage and reassurance. But to do so, He needs to find individuals who truly speak His words, who truly represent the things He is looking for. What happens when God can’t find someone? When His word of salvation is not getting through?
We’ll see a couple of scriptures that present a picture of God searching, searching, and searching, for one who can perfectly speak His word.
Look at Ezekiel 22. Starting at verse 25, we see that a rottenness pervades the whole nation:
“There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows within her. Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’ — when the LORD has not spoken. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice” (Ezek. 22:25-29).
It’s a terrible situation! Prince, priest, official, prophet, and people all come under condemnation. Corruption from the top to the bottom! They are a nation desperately in need of correction, of healing. They are a nation on the verge of being destroyed because of their rejection of the principles of God. And God says:
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none” (Ezek. 22:30).
The wall is broken down! Who will stand in the breach in the wall, and provide a reason to delay judgement? They are like a city without any protection, naked to any invading army. Who will lead this people? Who will guide this people? Who will change them?
Jeremiah’s there! But he’s done all he can and they don’t listen to him. In the end God has said, “I need you to stop, Jeremiah; it’s not going to work any more.”
The arm of the Lord
What happens with Israel is a picture of the situation with the whole of mankind. Here’s how Isaiah puts it:
“Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him” (Isa. 59:15,16).
God looks around. Where is the Savior among the people? Where is the prophet who is going to arise and lead them? It may have been written for Isaiah’s time originally, but the message is timeless. Where is the prophet who is going to arise and lead us? God looks at the sweep of history, and sees that there isn’t going to be one. Without His intervention, there is never going to be a true prophet who will be able to speak the words of God one hundred percent.
Faced with the absence of a prophet arising naturally, God’s own arm worked salvation for Him. In Isaiah, ‘arm’ is used as a metaphor for Christ, as in Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” That whole passage is about Christ and the sufferings of the Messiah. He is God’s right arm. So in effect, God said, “There wasn’t one just going to arise; I had to do it. I had to do it through a son, as an extension of Myself.” And so the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowed a young Jewish girl, and a son was begotten. A child, like us, but who would grow up and show himself to be the Son of God, in every sense possible.
Let’s close by looking at the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. This ties in with the topic of the first of these articles. Recall that when we were considering the notion of intercession, we saw that popular Christianity has it the wrong way round. Rather than Christ pleading with God on our behalf, we saw that God is already on our side, and He has provided Jesus to bring us salvation. God doesn’t need to be argued round to our side; what Jesus is doing is interceding in our daily lives, confronting Sin day by day.
The parable, however, could be read to be saying the opposite. Here it is:
“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).
At first sight it looks as though the owner is saying, “Cut this thing down,” and the vine-dresser says, “No, no, no! Please don’t…” as if he were pleading on behalf of the fig tree, trying to change the owner’s mind.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all. Here’s another way to look at what’s happening.
First of all the owner makes an assessment, “This fig tree is fruitless; it deserves to be cut down.” The vine-dresser has the same assessment. If you look at his response, he never disagrees with the assessment, not even by insinuation. There’s no disagreement there, no dispute. This tree needs to bear fruit, and if it does not, it should be cut down.
But that’s not all. The vine-dresser speaks up with an offer, “If you like, I can work with this tree for one more year. I offer for us to see if more of my personal time and effort will actually make a difference to this tree. If it still doesn’t produce fruit, well, we’ll have done everything we could possibly have tried. Then we’ll cut it down.”
You see the difference? One has come amongst us, to work with us, to see if we can be nurtured and encouraged to bear fruit. In the absence of that one, the owner would be saying, “Nothing is ever going to change” — either referring to Israel’s failure to respond to the teaching of Messiah, which is the primary meaning of the parable, or in the more general sense of people across the ages responding to God.
But with that one among us, he says, “I want to put one more year into it, or ten more years (or however long we have in our lives or until the Kingdom comes). Let’s see what happens.” Our Savior Judge is among us now. Jesus the Christ, who lived his life preaching first to the people of Israel, and now has spread his message to the world. He’s nurturing, fertilizing, watering… Will we bear fruit?
(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this series)