But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.44-45)
If I could attribute any of the words of Jesus’ awakening my heart twenty-two years ago to a radically different picture of God from what was being presented by my religious community at the time, it would these words right here.
It was a brisk New England morning and I was sixteen. Through a series of events, I found myself early in the morning, at a dear friend’s home, alone with God, on my knees in tears. You see, I was experiencing something very close to what Peter called an ekstasis (see Acts 10.10). Up until that moment, the God I was endeavoring to “obey” was, in my mind’s/heart’s eye, a chiefly retributive God of strict adherence to a system of reward and punishment—punitively. What I received that early morning was an encounter with a God who had never, at any stage of my life, responded to me, nor my actions, retributively, punitively, but had each step of the way been endeavoring to save me, restore me, and heal me—even before any consciousness of my own need for salvation, as well as long before any requests on my part for such a salvation. This was a God who felt deep love and endearment for me; a God moved by such love and endearment to have been convinced of saving me long before I was even interested in being saved.
But I would not be so easily convinced. I had long been entrenched in a religious experience rooted in a very retributive/punitive picture of God. My heart fought back.
“Okay, God,” I prayed, “Let’s say I just take this life you’re giving me and I use it to become your enemy; I simply use You for my own selfish aims. Or worse, let’s say I take this life and use it to curse You and persecute those who follow you. What if I take this life you’re giving me and choose to become your enemy?!” (I was deeply entrenched in the lie that only the belief in a retributive God was powerful enough to affect the choices you make with your life.)
In a voice I still remember to this day, bizarre as it may sound, God spoke these words: “If you choose to take my love and the life that am giving you vainly and choose to hate me in response, I will continue to be good to you. If you choose to spend the rest of your life cursing me, I will bless you nonetheless for it. If you should choose to simply use me and my love and this life for your own self centered agendas, I will continue to intercede for you, leaning into that intercession for you with greater intensity and greater intent. In short, Herbie, if you should choose to take this life and become my enemy, I will love you and continue to love you all the more, because I am a God who LOVES my enemies!” (See Luke 6.27-28.)
It was at that moment I experienced a life-changing, transforming breakthrough deep within my own thoughts and feelings concerning God. I fell to my knees, tears began to flow down my cheeks as I knelt there alone with this God, no longer fearing how this God would treat me if I did not “obey,” but in deep heart-overwhelming awe and wonder at how this God would treat me even if didn’t. What happened next was the defining moment of my life. If this God was going to love me, giving me life, blessing me whether I served this God or not, my heart was overcome by really only one option: What else could I do? How else could I respond to a God this in love with me, but to take this life that was being given to me, no strings attached, and to give it back to this God, offering the rest of my life to helping others see what kind of a being this God really was? I had never seen God like this before, and I had a hunch there might be others like me, who God longed would see Him similarly. It was to this aim that I would dedicate my life.
What does it mean to truly encounter the God Jesus spoke of, as well as the love of this God, as truly being as indiscriminant as the shining sun or the falling rain?
“. . . For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.44-45)
In Luke’s gospel, Luke goes a step further and, without the comparison, only mentions Matthew’s “unrighteous.”
“. . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6.35)
A passage that is raised often to try and counter this radically beautiful picture of God is the parable Jesus told of the sheep and goats. “See, see, see,” some have said, “there will come a day when God treats two groups of people very differently!” If this is true, it will lose nothing by closer investigation. It is true that different children need relating to in different ways at times by their parents; and there are some differences in the way the sheep and goats are treated in this passage. But the question I want you to ask is whether or not there is a difference in the intended outcome within the heart God in this passage.
Let’s look at the phrase normally used:
“Then they [the goats] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] to eternal life.” (Matthew 25.46)
The Greek Word Matthew chose to place in the mouth of Jesus for “punishment” is kolasis. I will quote the Greek scholar Joseph Henry Thayer D.D., from his famous Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament. The two Greek words Matthew could have chosen for “punishment” were either timoria or kolasis. Matthew chose kolasis. Dr. Thayer states, “The noted definition of Aristotle, which distinguishes kolasis from timoria as that which (isdisciplinary and) has reference to him who suffers, while the latter (is penal and) has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts . . .” (emphasis added) .
There are exceptions, but in most occurrences in the ancient world, kolasis (which comes from its root word which means “to prune”) is restorative in nature while timoria is more punitive or penal. (William D. Mounce in Mounce’s Concise Greek–English Dictionary of the New Testament also agrees.)
God’s heart toward both the sheep and the goats is the same. Although the goats requirekolasis where the sheep do not, God’s goal is to restore, heal, and save. (Whether any of the goats will respond to the kolasis of God in the way God desires is not mentioned by Jesus in the parable.)
It is worth noting that the Pharisees, who were the theologically liberal (yet legalistically conservative) group of Jesus’ day, had embraced the belief in a conscious, eternal post-mortem torment. Many scholars today believe this is not found in ancient Judaism but was a belief that entered into Jewish thinking through the influence of the Hellenism of the Greeks. The words the Pharisees used to describe their belief in post mortem eternal torment wereadios timoria [adios—eternal in duration or time; timoria—punitive punishment]. Matthew subversively places two subtly different Greek words in the mouth of Jesus—aionion kolasis[aionion—eternal in quality or nature; kolasis—restorative punishment].
It is also interesting to note that within The Catacomb of Priscilla there is a very intriguing rendition of this parable. The Catacomb of Priscilla is on the Via Salaria in Rome, Italy, and is situated in what was a quarry in Roman times. This quarry was used for Christian burials from the late 2nd century through the 4th century. Within this catacomb we find ancient Christian wall paintings, as with most catacombs. The puzzlement is when we get to the painting called The Good Shepherd. Just as in Mathew 25, the sheep are to the shepherd’s right and the goats are to the shepherd’s left. But what has raised the most questions is that on the shoulders of the shepherd himself, we do not find him carrying his lost sheep; on the contrary, we find him carrying his lost goat. This would have been during a time when Christians needed reminding of one of the central tenants of the teachings of Christ, which was loving your enemy. Every person is sacred, even the goats.
Today there are three paradigms that presently exist within Christianity. For those who believe the fate of the goats will be torment, I’m quite sure the kolasis of God is not pleasurable. The psychological realities that those like Stalin, Hitler, and others will experience when they step into the presence of Him who is love and simultaneously encounter self-realization and the horrors of what they have done, I’m quite sure will be no pleasure cruise. For those who believe the fate of the goats will be annihilation, I’m quite sure that everything that is out of harmony with Christ’s Kingdom will be consumed. But for those who are endeavoring to reconcile the restorative justice Jesus attributed to His Father (rather than the humanly intuitive retributive justice), I’m quite sure that God’s intent in the end will be just what it always has been for both the sheep and the goats: restoration, healing, salvation. Again, the parable leaves unstated whether or not any of the goats will respond. But the difference between a sheep and a goat is not what is in God’s heart for either, but rather the difference is in what God must do to save both.
I’ll close this week with the depiction of the Great Shepherd in Revelation 19.
“Coming out of his MOUTH is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will SHEPHERD the nations with a STAFF of iron.” (Revelation 19.15, emphasis added)
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” (Revelation 3.19)
According to Jesus, there are no more “us” and “them” in the heart of God. God loves, blesses, does good to, and intercedes for even the goats.
1. How we see others directly affects how we treat them. How we perceive God thinks and feels toward others affects this even more.
Take time this week to prayerfully meditate on the picture you find at this link:
What is Jesus saying to you?
2. I have been accused at times of possessing a dysfunction inside of me, through things I have possibly experienced in my life, that give me a disposition, a need so to speak, to see a more restorative picture of God. As if this picture of God isn’t really found within the teachings of Jesus but superimposed on Jesus’ teachings by those who have some deep-seated drive for a God who looks like such. I could not disagree more. The events of my early life actually drove me toward a more retributive picture of God, and God through Jesus saved me from that. What I would like you to consider this week, instead, is what is inside of you that needs God to be a retributive God. What is it inside of you that needs someone somewhere to be punished? What is it inside of you toward those who have hurt you that you need a retributive, punitive God out there to justify the existence of what is in your heart toward them? What is it inside of you that must have God’s wrath, judgment, and punishment interpreted punitively rather than restoratively? What is this reluctance within you to forgive? What is it that you are afraid of?
Then take the time to submit each fear, one by one, to Jesus in your daily prayer time with him. Take time to sit with Jesus this week, and allow Him to guide you into a little introspection.
3. Share what you discover this upcoming week with your HeartGroup.
Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love and loving like Christ till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.
I love you guys.
See you next week.