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The Living God

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). Now, there is no getting around this verse. We can’t sugarcoat the meaning here by trying to soften the writer’s intent to mean something like “it’s an awesome thing,” or “it’s a thing demanding our respect”.
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There are many titles for the Lord God in scripture. For example, Abraham uses the expression “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25) and Lord, God of heaven, and God of the earth. During the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, Moses and Aaron address God as “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num 16:22). Each title seems apropos to the circumstances. This is also true of the expression “the Living God”. It seems to stand out from many of these titles as special, likely because it occurs at crucial points in the Biblical narrative.

A fearful thing

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).  Now, there is no getting around this verse. We can’t sugarcoat the meaning here by trying to soften the writer’s intent to mean something like “it’s an awesome thing,” or “it’s a thing demanding our respect”. The original word for “fearful” occurs only 2 other times in Scripture, both in Hebrews: “a fearful expectation of judgment” (Heb 10:27 ESV) and “so terrifying was the sight” (Heb 12:21).  “Fearful” clearly means “frightening”. The context for Hebrews 10, though, concerns the rebel believer: the one who keeps on sinning deliberately (or willfully) after receiving the knowledge of the truth. For that person, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, because they have “…trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and have outraged the Spirit of grace.”(Heb 10:29). Clearly, this refers to someone who is not struggling to overcome a chronic sin, but rather has succumbed completely to a sinful way of life and has chosen to spurn and disavow the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice and personal love for them. We love God because He first loved us. If we repudiate that love, then the consequences are dire.

“Living God” versus idols

But what of other uses of the phrase “the Living God”? Let’s look at 1 Thess 1:9:

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God”

The contrast here is to the many (implicitly dead) Greek gods that the Thessalonians believed in, versus the one true “Living God”.  Idols and idolatry (idol worship) were a fundamental part of everyday life in both the Middle East and Asia Minor at the time of nascent Christianity in the first century. There are several accounts referencing idols in the gospels and the book of Acts.

Consider:

  • Caesar himself was worshipped as an idol, being considered the “son of God.”
  • Herod, in Acts 12, is angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. In an attempt to curry his favor they shout “the voice of a god and not of a man,” with pretty serious consequences for Herod. (Acts 12:20-23).
  • Paul and Barnabas are called Zeus and Hermes at Lystra, and the priest of Zeus set out to worship them as gods (Acts 14:11-15).   Paul tells the crowds to turn from vain things to the “Living God”.
  • The Jerusalem conference dealt head-on with the problems of idolatry and sexual immorality. The two often go side-by-side, because being intimate with temple prostitutes was believed to be a form of divine worship  — a problem the Jews of the Old Testament were also not immune to. (Acts 15:19-21)
  • In Thessalonica the prominent Jews in the city used the common superstition regarding Caesar being the “son of God,” part of their ingrained idolatry, to their advantage to try to discredit Paul and Silas: “…they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.”  (Acts 17:7)
  • Acts 19:23-34 demonstrates how idolatry was an integral part of the economics of Roman society, too. When Paul preached Christ, he was threatening the livelihood of merchants and craftsmen, not to mention butchers, farmers, etc. (meat offered to idols). This caused great socio-economic as well as spiritual disruption.     
  • And, of course, when Paul arrived in Athens, he “…saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).

Clearly the title “the Living God” is meant to teach that God is the only true God — a reasonably self-evident conclusion. But beyond that is the implication that we are to have a meaningful relationship with God — to “serve Him”.

The Enduring Word commentary has this to say about 1 Thess 1:9:

“Their reception of the Word and their faith in God was shown as true because they did something with the Word of God.”
To serve the living and true God: It seems that the verb douleuo (to serve) was apparently never used in a religious sense in pagan literature. Hiebert quotes Denney: ‘No Greek or Roman could take in the idea of “serving” a God… There was no room for it in his religion; his conception of the gods did not admit of it. If life was to be a moral service rendered to God, it must be to a God quite different from any to whom he was introduced by his ancestral worship.’1Reference

This is a fascinating insight into the contrast between worshiping Greek and Roman gods versus the true Living God. Not only were those gods many, specific to certain aspects of life and capricious, they were also distant, remote, requiring nothing in return from the worshippers than the mere acknowledgement of their existence and superstitious reliance on their supposedly divine intervention.  The true God of the Bible earnestly desires not only our salvation, but also our company, our fellowship — as expressed in our faith in Him.

“The lesson is that God is not just alive, but that He gives and nurtures life….”

Old Testament usage

The first occurrence of the phrase “the Living God” is in Deut 5:26: 

“For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived?” (ESV).

Here, Moses has just delivered the 10 commandments and is reflecting on the experience at Sinai — the miracle of being so intimately in God’s presence, and, despite the fear it engendered, living through the experience. The lesson is that God is not just alive, but that He gives and nurtures life. For Israel, Yahweh was a true, life-giving presence. The chapter concludes with this message from God for Moses to share with the people: “You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” (Deut 5:33 ESV). Again, the imperative is for us to be in relationship with God, to serve Him faithfully.

A hint of a greater meaning

Joshua and the people of Israel came to the banks of the Jordan in preparation to cross over into the promised land.  Joshua shares God’s message of deliverance for them all:

“Then Joshua said to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.’” “And Joshua said, ‘Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan.’” (Josh 3:5,10,11 ESV.)

Recall that the willful sinner of Hebrews 10 is described as having “profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified”. The ark of the covenant spoke of God’s grace and mercy towards God’s people. It was not only the meeting place of God with man but also the expression of his covenant love towards man. It embodied the notion of the Living God — a God of deliverance, one who gives life, and life eternal. Jesus Christ is our mercy seat (Rom 3:25) and it is by His blood of the covenant that we have an enduring hope. We have been called to serve a Living God, through Jesus Christ His Son.  We will continue exploring this theme in the next article.

Duncan Kenzie
(Saanich Peninsula, BC)

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