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God's Jealousy

If you've been to London, you probably have been to Westminster Abbey. In the shadow of Westminster Abbey is a little church, St. Margaret's. Edward Pearse was the pastor of St. Margaret's in the 17th century. He died in 1673. I'd like to read something to you from this man:

A new covenant relation to Christ is a concern of highest importance to the sons of men. It is what lies at the foundation of all true happiness, both in time and eternity. Without it we are not Christians; we are only carcasses of Christians. My design is to woo and allure poor souls into a marriage covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ. In this marriage relation between Christ and his people there is a giving of themselves each to the other. Christ gives himself to the soul.
"I will be yours," he says to the soul, "to love you, to save you, to make you happy in me and with me. I, with all my riches and treasures, will be fully and forever yours." On the other hand, the soul gives itself to Christ. "I will be thine," says the soul to Christ. "I will be for thee and not for another."

God's jealousy is his perfect love.

What is the Bible saying when it calls God jealous? My dictionary defines jealous as "feeling resentment because of another's success." In Othello, Shakespeare calls jealousy the "green-eyed monster." Jealousy is the weed growing up through the cracks of a narrow, cramped personality, isn't it?

But remember the huge task the Bible is performing for us. It is describing God through the inadequate vehicle of human language. When communicating with us, human language is all God has to work with. So he accommodates himself to our little words when describing his incomparable self. That doesn't mean the Bible distorts the truth of who God is. But it does mean that when we interpret the Bible's words about God, we have to make allowances for who God is. We don't stuff God into the smallness of our human words; we stretch our human words to fit the grandeur of God.

So is God jealous? Yes. But not the way we are jealous. Nothing about us is entirely right; nothing about God is at all wrong. The jealousy of God must be like human jealousy in some ways, or the Bible would have used a different word; but the jealousy of God must be unlike human jealousy in other ways, because this is about God. So whatever the jealousy of God is, it is perfect jealousy.

The word translated jealous in Exodus 34:14 describes the intense emotions of wounded love. The same language is used in Numbers 5 for a husband who fears his wife has cheated on him. God is jealous when his people share themselves with any other. That is the logic of the verse: "Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God". God is jealous the way a loving husband is properly jealous toward his wife. God is wounded when he loves us with endless, intense, sacrificial love, in response to which we treat him as if he alone were not enough to make us happy. When we look to others for the love and security and provision we need but which is provided by God for us, when we look to others for our needs rather than trust in God and wait on him and receive from him, then, as the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel would say, we are committing spiritual whoredom.

And God our husband feels the torment of our rejection. That's the point of this jealousy language. He takes it personally. It hurts him. Whatever it is that almighty God feels in his being that the Bible calls jealousy is comparable to what a faithful husband feels when his wife is sneaking off to other men.

But the jealousy of God is unlike human jealousy, because his love is unlike human love. His love is never controlling, neurotic, insecure, selfish, or irrational. His love for us, his sinful people, is the passion brightening his face as he looks upon us through Jesus Christ crucified. It is his passion, moving him to pour out his riches and treasures in Christ even though we are sinners.

So when we refuse the all-sufficient love of God—and we do so more than we realize—we are slighting and insulting the greatest gift in the universe. The jealousy of God is the pure flame of his love burning for us and yet rejected by us, his love slighted by us, his love trivialized by us. God will vindicate his honor, and he will win our hearts completely.

We have an exclusive union with God.

When I counsel couples about to be married, I talk about the one-flesh union of marriage that comes out of Genesis 2:24. I describe that one-flesh union as a circle into which that man and woman will step on their wedding day. That circle into which they will move through their intentions and vows is a morally impenetrable barrier excluding all other human beings on the face of the earth.

If I had never read the Bible and somebody said to me, "You have a one-flesh union with somebody else on the face of the earth, and who do you think it is?" I would say, "My mother, because I came out of her body." But the Bible says the man will leave his father and mother, cleave to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

That is marriage. That is intimacy. It is good for us to give ourselves away irrevocably, to yield ourselves to this mega-commitment called marriage and discover, there in that self-abandonment, intimacy. The step we take to go inside that circle is terrifying, but the intimacy inside that circle is so desirable we're willing to swallow our terrors and enter in. That is marriage—complete self-giving in a lifelong relationship of absolute exclusivity.

Our relationship with God is of a marital nature. The Bible says we are one spirit with him. Our marriage to the Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate marriage. Our intimacy with him is the ultimate intimacy. He steps into that circle of exclusivity with us. He takes us as his bride, both corporately the church and individually each one. He enters into marriage with us, giving us all he can give. And in response to him we, in becoming Christians, pledge to him that we will love him with all we are and have, forever, in a relationship of absolute exclusivity.

That redefines sin, doesn't it? Sin is more than doing something bad. It is more profound. When we sin we are responding to the voice from some false lover who is offering us happiness or love or security or provision or significance or justice or even righteousness. And when we say yes to that false lover we are running into a spiritually adulterous liaison. We are not just doing something bad; we are taking our eyes off our all-sufficient, all-loving Husband. We are rejecting and insulting his love. We are not trusting him, but turning away from him. We are not desiring him, but insulting him. And he sees it. We commit our adultery in full view, and he is wounded.

Deuteronomy 32:16: "They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger". Deuteronomy 32:21: "They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols." Psalm 78:58: "For they provoked him to anger with their high places; they moved him to jealousy with their idols." The love of God tolerates no rivals, because our union with him is of a marital nature. He gives himself lavishly to us, and we promise to devote ourselves to him alone.

The ethos we live in every day says, "Hey, whatever gets you through the night." Our tolerance levels are off the charts. So when you live faithfully for Jesus alone, turning away from the seductions coming at you from all sides, do not expect to be understood by the world. They will misunderstand. Francis Schaeffer used to say, "The early church was not persecuted because they worshiped Jesus; the early church was persecuted because they worshiped Jesus only." That put them on a collision course with the radical pluralism in which they were swimming, as we are today. But the favor we would gain with the world is intimacy we would lose with Jesus Christ, and we would rather have him than all the approval of the world.

We must be zealous for God's honor.

Exodus 34:14 says God's very name is Jealous, and as his name is so is he. When we reject the fiery love of Jealous for empty things that cannot honor him or satisfy us, he burns. When you and I became Christians, this is what we entered into. We did not just step into moral reformation or devotional disciplines. We entered into a marriage covenant with God in Christ. We entered into a new life of being loved by the all-sufficient one and returning to him, and him alone, all that we are and have. That's how the jealousy of God translates into our actual experience. The practical corollary of the jealousy of God is the pure exclusivity of our devotion.

Numbers 25:1-13 is one biblical illustration of how this works:

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices of their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord's anger burned against them. The Lord said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord's fierce anger may turn away from Israel."
So Moses said to Israel's judges, "Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor."
Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman's body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

The Lord said to Moses, "Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites." (NIV)

Phinehas saw the glory of God being dragged in the dirt. He was so offended that he killed that Israelite and his pagan prostitute. The word translated zealous in verses 11 and 13 comes from the same root as the word translated jealous in Exodus 34. Phinehas was passionate about God. He did not love God moderately. He was jealous for the honor of God alone. He couldn't stand to see the name of God diminished among God's own people.

Phinehas was similar to Jesus Christ, who also hated apostasy. Jesus ran the crooks out of the temple in Jerusalem. John 2 says, "Zeal for your house will consume me." Jesus was jealous for the honor of God alone, and Jesus is better than Phinehas, because Jesus, our High Priest, offered himself up in death to make atonement for the sins of God's people. And as Phinehas wielded a spear, Jesus received a spear into his own body.

Paul was jealous for the glory of God alone when he confronted Peter in Antioch for excluding Gentiles from Christian fellowship. Peter's cultural elitism violated the all-sufficiency of Christ alone, and Paul could not endure to see Jesus dishonored. So he confronted Peter.

Numbers 25 applies to us all. We should all follow Phinehas and Jesus and Paul with zeal. God's love should take complete possession of our hearts. We should not settle for compromise in our church.

We must test our passion for God.

Now, there's a problem here. Christians have done terrible things out of zeal for God. Think of the Crusades, for example. There is no real love for God without a no-nonsense, earnest passion, but a jealousy for God can also go bad. It can be destructive even as it can be beautiful. So how can we tell the difference? How can we tell whether our jealousy for God is fleshly or spiritual, especially since both are bound to be controversial? You can't tell from the way people respond to you. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2 that as he tells people about Jesus, he gets radically different responses. To some people, he's the smell of death; to other people, he's the aroma of life.

So how can we judge ourselves? How can we tell the difference between fanaticism and devotion? Islamic fundamentalists will hijack airliners and fly them into buildings, shouting, "God is great!" Paul recalled his life before Jesus got a hold of him and said, "As for zeal, persecuting the church." What's the difference between godly jealousy that purifies and fleshly jealousy that persecutes?

First, the self-doubt prompted by that question is itself good. We must never lose a wholesome self-doubt. The psychological corollary to faith in God is doubt in self. We are not Christians just by putting our faith in God; we become Christians by withdrawing our faith in ourselves. We admit we have been wrong all along, and Christians should never graduate out of a wholesome self-suspicion. As long as you and I remain sinners in this life, until we go to be with the Lord and see him as he is and become like him, we can be certain that even at our best moments we are infested with sin more than we know. Let that humble us and moderate us as we pursue the honor of God with a holy jealousy.

Secondly, I'm going to read from a letter John Newton wrote to a minister friend of his. John Newton wrote Amazing Grace and became a minister in the Church of England. He had a friend in the ministry who was wading into some theological controversy of his time. Newton was worried about him and wrote to him:

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper [in other words, he had an intense personality], my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side, for truth is great and must prevail, so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence in victory. I am not, therefore, anxious about the outcome of the battle, but I would have you to be more than a conqueror and to triumph not only over your adversary but over yourself.

When you do battle for the glory of God, conquer yourself first. I believe Phinehas thrust a spear into his own heart every day through what Paul calls mortification. We should never stop placing ourselves under the judgment of the Word of God. The only Christian qualified to fight for the glory of God is one who is more indignant about his own sins than about somebody else's sins.

Finally, remember the jealousy of God is his wounded love. It is a mighty love that weeps and woos and restores. It is a passion intense enough to sacrifice itself. So ask yourself, Is this battle I'm going to fight about God's will? Or is it about my will and, therefore, myself? Is love my real motive?

But I want to do more than caution us. I want to energize us. When you've examined yourself and admitted you have to be wrong to some degree, then put your trust in God to forgive you and cleanse you even as he uses you, and stand up for the peace and purity of the church. It's your membership vow. Do not need human approval so much that you offend divine love. Put God above yourself. Put God above your own comfort. Like Phinehas, Jesus, and Paul, stand up for the triumph of the beautiful love of God.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

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Sermon Outline:


I. God's jealousy is his perfect love.

II. We have an exclusive union with God.

III. We must be zealous for God's honor.

IV. We must test our passion for God.