I cry out to you; save me, and I will keep your testimonies. Ps 119.146
Salvation to many has come to mean escape from Hell. Having left sin behind, we receive eternal life. We get to live forever with God in Heaven. Yeah!
Destined for Heaven, we wait out the ride through this life, which can get rough.
When we’re strong, we hold on through the storms and glide through the calms.
When we’re weak, we try harder to work up more favor with God. We get to church, at least in time for the sermon. We read the Bible, or at least a devotional. We pray, or try to.
That’s life, we say, and leave it at that.
We don’t know what to make of Jesus’s promise never to leave us.
The abundant life he came to provide doesn’t apply to this side of the grave, judging by how many Christians live without the help of Almighty God even to put a smile on their face.
Where do we get this incomplete view of salvation? Some of it, obviously, comes from not knowing Scripture. But a far more important reason is that the Gospel we heard sometimes focuses more on sin and behavior modification than on God. Such theology places man’s happiness or goodness at the center of reality rather than God himself.
That translates to the notion that God’s primary goal is to help us avoid Hell. This narrow gospel says little about living with God in this world, except to remind us we’re a breath away from the eternal fires.
But this was not the Old Testament meaning of salvation. There are a few verses that mention resurrection and everlasting life. Some others say, in varying ways, that God’s righteousness and salvation are forever. And of course the entire story of the Hebrew people is of an everlasting covenant.
But that’s the thing. We mix up everlasting and eternal all the time. Everlasting means something won’t end. It will last forever. Biblically, this also means it has always been. When Scripture calls Yahweh the everlasting God (El Olim), it uses a word that literally translates “the vanishing point,” the horizon. God is there beyond what we see or know or experience in the here and now. He is beyond time past and future. The concept of everlasting rests on time, it just comprehends all time.
It isn’t the same as being eternal. Eternal is a quality of existence that transcends time. Something eternal doesn’t depend on time. And because time is part of created reality, this means the eternal is not created. Time manifests eternity in creation, that’s all. When Scripture refers to the eternal God, (Qedem Elohim), it’s talking about God as the one who is always in front of us. He was before creation, yes of course, he created all things. But more than that, he is present with us like someone standing on our path.
Biblically eternal is often phrased as being in the East, as if the world is moving in that direction, and God is ahead of it. Think what this picture means. Everything in all creation, both natural and personal, is heading toward God. Is bringing us to him. Is designed specifically to get us to him.
Moses called the eternal God our refuge. We escape to God beyond our circumstances. Better still, our difficulties in this life exist to bring us to God. A beautiful picture of retreat to the strong tower, where the righteous run and are saved. We’re actually running to the One who made us—and saves us—for himself.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely were the biblical idea of salvation departs from much of the contemporary church’s expectation.
Old Testament salvation was about needing a God in this world to handle events that were bigger than individuals or social structures. For ancient people, being pre-industrial and agrarian, that primarily meant weather, crops, fertility, natural disasters. It also meant protection from invaders. A God who could save his people from their enemies was a good God to have, but as long as life went well, the need for an eternal being was irrelevant. That’s why they worshiped the stone and wood idols of resident tribes—until oppression set in.
The Israelites had not just an able god, they had the one true God. The only God. “Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone.”
Always it was a question with God of his presence, he wanted relationship. He created a people for himself from the descendants of Abraham in order to manifest himself in the world. Through his dealings with them, he said, the whole world would come to know that, “I am Yahweh.” The world would see what he was like by how he acted toward his people.
Because God is spirit, it’s hard for our physical nature to relate to him, especially when our spirits are dead in sin. Knowing this, God made clear how to maintain his presence among them. If they didn’t keep his laws, they experienced his withdrawing as a lack of favor. Under the law, if crimes were committed, sentences were carried out. This teaches us about the righteousness of God and his just judgments.
Yet he continues to love even when we disobey. He corrects us because he loves us. But when we reject him, we lose his favor. This we have all done, and for this Christ died, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring as back into God’s favor.
Disobedience isn’t the same as rejecting God. This I think is where we get into trouble. When the Israelites were in distress, being under the Law, they wanted rescue without relationship. And when we preach a Gospel that defines sin as broken laws rather than as broken relationship, we end up seeking salvation as escaping punishment rather than as reconciliation.
The true Good News is that God has not changed. He still wants to show the world who he is, through the lives of those who trust him to be their God.
God loves. In fact, as John put it, God is love. He helps those who wait for him. The righteous who live by faith are a people who display the glory of his Name. This pleases him, for nothing matters more to God than that he be known for who he really is, in this world as much as the next.
That’s what salvation is all about. Our circumstance and crises give God an opportunity to put his nature on display, so that others will be drawn to him and accept him as their God by faith.
We don’t have to hold on and ride out the storms. Neither do they.
We can run to the Strong Tower, the Fortress, the Rock, the Refuge, the Deliverer.
God will save in the here and now.
Why not take that Good News and share it with a world in harm’s way?