Norman De Jong
Hundreds of bumper stickers proclaim, "God loves you." Some of them add, "And so do I." Love is great and love is grand. Best of all, you can find biblical support for such sentiments. Paul says, "Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). Peruse the gospel and epistles of John and hear him say, "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:8). Yes, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
John is one of the gospels, but it is not the only one. It may be the most popular part of Scripture today, for many insist that it is the most powerful tool for bringing people to Christ. After all, people need to hear the good news that God is love. If you want to introduce a potential convert to Jesus Christ, the door through which to travel is the one that proclaims LOVE.
The gospel of John is not the first book in the New Testament. Neither is it the only one. God in his wisdom has given us the whole Bible. He has truly inspired John, but he has also seen fit to inspire Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the prophet Malachi.
In the book of Hebrews, we see Christ repeatedly described as the Mediator of the covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24; see also 1 Tim. 2:5). Because none of us could possibly keep the demands of the law, God graciously sent his Son to meet those demands for us. He demonstrated perfect obedience, so that we could live and not have to die. He became the propitiation for the wrath of God, so that we might be able to stand in his presence as white-robed saints. As the Mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ demonstrated such awesome love for his people that he suffered the most ignominious death in order that we might live. That is true, indescribable love. Such a focus is good and is at the heart of the gospel. It is the core of the good news.
But that is not the whole message of God's Word. Jesus is not only the Mediator of the covenant, but also the Messenger of the covenant. God is love, but not only love. He is also just, holy, righteous-and jealous (Ex. 34:14; 20:5). If we want to make an evangelistic statement to those who tailgate us down the road, a sticker like this might be more effective: "God is righteous! Run for your life!" Or, "God sees everything you do!" Or, "God is jealous; he tolerates no rivals!" The purpose of such a bumper sticker would not be to scare people into heaven, for that never works, apart from the Holy Spirit. The purpose would be to proclaim more accurately the message of the Scriptures, notifying people of the truths that come directly from God.
Malachi prophesied that God would send his messenger. He would "suddenly come to His temple" (Mal. 3:1). That messenger turned out to be Jesus, but not the baby meek and mild, nor the embodiment of love and compassion. This messenger "is like a refiner's fire and like launderers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver" (Mal. 3:2-3). This image of a furnace where gold and silver are refined is anything but pleasant. Those fires are heated to such levels that all the impurities are separated from the gold to be refined. Those fires are so hot that one can hardly look at them without protection.
When one thinks of fullers' or launderers' soap, used to remove grease and grime from clothes, one thinks of potent cleansing action, scrubbing and stomping to drive the dirt out. Growing up on an Iowa farm, I remember my mother commonly using soap made from lye in order to get our clothes clean. That soap was so strong that she could not put her hands in the tub, but had to stir it with a stick. That is what God the Father says about his Son. He will come "like launderer's soap." He will come like a refining fire! (cf. Lev. 14:33-57). That is what the Messenger of the covenant is called to do.
That Old Testament prophecy is pointedly fulfilled in the gospel of Matthew. Whereas John is the apostle of love, Matthew is the apostle of confrontation. The first reference in Malachi's prophecy is to John the Baptist, the one who came preaching repentance (Matt. 3:2). John the Baptist confronted Herod and called him to repentance for having an affair with his brother's wife (Matt. 14:1-12). John was called to announce and pave the way for the real messenger.
Then Jesus himself did "come to His temple," early and often in His ministry, and finally with hammerlike blows in the days before his death. Against his disciples' advice, he came with deliberate purpose and transparent plan to offer himself as the Lamb of God. But the lamb that Matthew pictures for us is not merely a meek and willing sacrifice. He is also the "controversialist" of whom John Stott speaks (Christ the Controversialist, Inter-Varsity Press, 1970).
He strode deliberately into the den of pharisaical lions and challenged them. In that final week, he strode daily into the courts of the temple, so that no one would have to go looking for him. He wanted to be at the center of the action, like the Passover lamb of Exodus 12, humbly awaiting the fifth day, when his accusers would crucify Him. After the Jewish leaders vowed to kill him, the messenger of God's righteousness went directly into their midst and called them vipers, snakes, sepulchers, and hypocrites (see Matt. 23).
That Jesus fully understood his role as Messenger of the covenant is manifest in his proclamation:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to "set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law"; and "a man's enemies will be those of his own household." (Matt. 10:34-36)
In a similar vein, Luke the physician records these words of Jesus: "I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!... Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division" (Luke 12:49-51).
Early in his ministry, Jesus proclaimed, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). Jesus did not come to abolish the law, for, as one person of the Trinity, he originally gave the law. There could be no legal relationship with all that he had created if there were not within that relationship a binding, moral framework of justice and righteousness.
The seeming paradox that confronts many pastors is that of speaking about both the love of God and the holiness of God. Jesus displayed an unending love for his sheep, but he also dared to challenge the scribes, Pharisees, and high priests of his day. To them he addressed the parables that only Matthew's gospel includes, those which warned his adversaries that he, the righteous judge, would "cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness" (Matt. 25:30). He warned those same ecclesiastical bigwigs, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:31).
Not enough pastors dare to proclaim such powerful messages. To preach such parables takes more courage and more insight than it does simply to push the love formula. Some would even say it is a sin to make such pronouncements, but Jesus did. He knew no sin.
To suggest that we need "a fresh perspective on Jesus Christ" is not to suggest that it is wrong to proclaim the love of God. Nor is it wrong to study and preach from the gospel of John or from his letters, where the themes of love and compassion flow freely.
To insist that we need "a fresh perspective" is to plead for balance in our preaching and in our study. If we only focus on the Mediator of the covenant and ignore the Messenger of the covenant, we are closing one eye to the riches of the Bible's message.
To focus only on the love of God, without any reference to the law and the righteousness of God, is to miss the "amazing grace" of which John Newton wrote. To see only love and to ignore the law is to conclude that the only covenant of which God speaks is the covenant of grace, which some Reformed folk have mistakenly equated with election.
To borrow the parlance of the Westminster divines, we need to see the covenant of works before the covenant of grace will have any significance for us. We need to feel the holy wrath of a righteous God before his saving grace fills our hearts with gratitude. We need to see his holiness before his love can overwhelm us.
The author is an OP minister. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2005.