ONLY YOUR BEST FRIEND WOULD SHOW YOU
The prophet Hosea begins his book by telling the story of God asking him to do something that he must have found almost unbelievable.
God asked him to marry a woman who behaved like a prostitute. If she wasn’t acting promiscuously like this already, God knew she soon
Now, this is not the kind of direction God included in his laws for daily living. It is not a command that obviously makes such good
sense that one would go on doing it anyway, even if God never asked again.
This was a unique command, like the one to Abraham. God had something of great importance he wanted to say to his people, and he asked
his friend Hosea not only to convey the message, but also to demonstrate its meaning.
Since Hosea knew God very well, as shown by the rest of his book, he obeyed the command and married Gomer. They had three children.
Depending on how you read the story, perhaps only one of them was his. Later she left him to live with other lovers.
“God, does that mean I’m finished with what you want to say,” Hosea may have wondered.
“No, the most important part is still to come. Now go and find your wife. Take some money with you in case you have to buy her
back. When you find her, see if you can persuade her to come home and be your faithful wife from now on.”
So Hosea went to look for his wife. And I have imagined him going from place to place asking, “Have you seen Gomer?”
He finally found her. If you had been in Hosea’s place, what would you have said to your wife? If you loved her, would you have condemned
her for what she was doing? Would you have grabbed her and tried to drag her home? If so, do you think she would have wanted to live with
you again? If she had absolutely refused to come, would you have been willing to give her up and let her go?
In the emotion of the moment, could you have said anything? Except, perhaps, “Please come home.”
“Are you sure you want me to?”
“Yes.” Or maybe just a tearful nod.
Whatever it was that Hosea did, Gomer went home with him.
How God Feels About His Promiscuous People.
The story of the prophet and his wife seems to represent the relationship between God and his faithless people. For a long time God
had tried to persuade rebellious Israel to come back and trust him again and behave like trustworthy people. But though they were the
children of his best friend Abraham, they mocked his love and spurned his every advance.
Since trust can not be won by force, what else could God do but sadly give them up and let them go? But without his protection,
the results would be disastrous.
Sorrowfully God recalls the long centuries of frustrated love.
When Israel was a child, I loved him
and called him out of Egypt as my son.
But the more I called to him,
the more he turned away from me.
My people sacrificed to Baal;
they burned incense to idols.
Yet I was the one who taught Israel to walk.
I took my people up in my arms,
but they did not acknowledge that I took
care of them.
I drew them to me with affection and love.
I picked them up and held them to my cheek;
I bent down to them and fed them.
They refuse to return to me, and so they must return to Egypt, and Assyria will rule them. War will sweep through their
cities and break down the city gates. It will destroy my people because they do what they themselves think best.
They insist on turning away from me. They will cry out because of the yoke that is on them, but no one will lift it from them.
How can I give you up, Israel?
How can I abandon you?
Could I ever destroy you
as I did Admah,1
or treat you as I did Zeboiim?2
My heart will not let me do it!
My love for you is too strong.3
Phillips translates the first two lines of verse 8:
“How, oh how, can I give you up, Ephraim!
How, oh how, can I hand you over, Israel!
Paul Must Have Read Hosea
The apostle Paul, as a well-educated Jew, had often read the writings of Hosea. I wonder how he felt about this description of what
God does to those who refuse him. Is it possible that the memory of this passage was part of what was troubling his conscience as he
set out on the Damascus road to do such violence to people he thought were rejecting God?
At least, when it came his turn to write on the subject, Paul explained three times at the beginning of his letter to the Romans that
God “gave up” and “handed over” people he could not reach with the truth.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness
suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen
through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to
him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human
being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because
they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. . . .
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. . . .
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be
How consistent this is with the picture of a God who wants the love and cooperation of understanding friends. Notice that God is not
described as punishing people by darkening their minds. Their minds became dark and senseless as a natural result of their suppression and
rejection of the truth. They had “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” and had even begun worshipping animals. Some people those days
even worshipped beetles and crocodiles!
Since it is a law that we tend to become like the things we worship and admire, imagine the effect of worshipping a beetle.
“Dear Lord Beetle,” the children might pray. “Bless Mummy, bless Daddy, and help us to be more like you.”
At the beginning of his explanation of what God does to those who refuse the offer of salvation, Paul speaks of God’s wrath.
This is evidently not like human anger, for notice how God shows his wrath. Paul agrees with Hosea: What God does to those who do not want
him is to tell them of his love and disappointment and then sadly let them go.
When people persist in rejecting God and suppressing the truth, what else can he do but give them up and leave them to the inevitable
consequences of their senseless thinking and rebellious choice?
But how serious are the consequences when God gives us up and lets us go? Could they even be fatal? And if so, why?
Doctors Don’t Kill Patients Who Won’t Cooperate
Imagine yourself in the office of a physician. He is a renowned specialist in the treatment of your particular condition.
As he hands you a bottle of the special antidote for your disease, you seem to hesitate a moment.
“Doctor,” you ask anxiously, “what is it that you do to patients who won’t take their medicine?”
“Why are you looking so worried?” he replies. “And what do you mean by asking, ‘What is it that you do?’ Have people been talking
about how I treat my patients?”
“Yes, doctor, and that’s why I’ll admit I’m a little scared. There’s another doctor, who must be no friend of yours, who says that you . . .”
But you hesitate to go on. The physician seems so professional and has such a friendly face. He invites you to continue.
“What I was going to tell you, doctor, is that some people say that if patients won’t take their medicine, you punish them severely.
Even torture them. Even kill them. They say that you do this to discourage other patients from wasting your precious time. And I suppose
it does help them pay their bills more promptly.”
“Then why have you come to my office?”
“Well, I’ve tried everyone else, and no one’s been able to help me. I hear that you’ve had the most success in treating my problem, so I thought
coming to see you would be worth running the risk.”
The doctor seems quite understanding. “All I can say is, please take your medicine. And I want you to take it exactly as prescribed. Your condition is
so serious that if you don’t let me help you, you won’t live much longer.”
Doctors don’t kill patients who won’t cooperate. But sometimes they have to watch them die. And sometimes even doctors cry.
Sometimes the dying patient is the doctor’s own child. As both father and physician, he has tried hard to persuade his son to change
his self-destructive way of life. The son has steadily refused, and a loving father has no choice but to let him go. Now all the
father-physician can do is stand by the bedside and watch his child die.
Can the Heavenly Physician Be Trusted?
God has presented himself as our heavenly Father and Physician. When Jesus was here, he spent much of his time healing the sick.
He had so little time to accomplish his purpose. Why didn’t he spend more of it preaching?
It is apparent from all sixty-six books, that God’s way is not only to explain but to demonstrate. What was Jesus showing about the Father,
and about God’s treatment of sinners, by healing all kinds of people the way he did? Some of them never thanked him. Some of them may even
have been among his enemies at the end.
Obviously Jesus had not come to picture God as a destroyer. And God will not change in the end. Those who are lost come face to face with a
God who is still their Physician, still just as dedicated to helping people live.
Then why does the Bible picture the lost as perishing? They have not been willing to listen. They have not accepted their medicine. They have not
followed the Doctor’s prescription. What else, then, could the heavenly Physician do but sadly give them up to the consequence?
But why should they go to a doctor they don’t trust? Would you trust a doctor who is reputed to be careless with the truth? Would you risk
trusting your life to a physician who is said to become angry with his patients and even threaten them with violence?
Ever since the Adversary lied about God in the Garden of Eden, God has suffered from a forbidding reputation. Even those who present themselves
as his friends have often pictured God as arbitrary and severe. The Father understands why so many of his children stay away or go to other healers.
That’s why before Jesus went out to Calvary to answer questions about the ultimate consequence of sin, he first lived among us for a while.
He wanted us to be assured that the one who finally will have to let some of his children go is an absolutely trustworthy Physician and Friend.
He showed how infinitely loving the Father is by loving everyone, including little children. The disciples assumed that the Savior would
be too busy to have time for boys and girls. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.”5
He showed how infinitely patient the Father is by treating everyone with utmost courtesy and understanding—even though he was often
rebuffed in return. One day the disciples asked if Jesus wanted them to call down fire from heaven to consume the rejecters of his love.
The Lord rebuked them for their heartless impatience. He had not come to destroy but to heal.6
Jesus wanted us to know that every detail of our lives is of concern to the Father. In all the excitement following the raising of
Jairus’ daughter, it was Jesus who made sure she had something to eat.7
The Supreme Demonstration
Then at the end of his matchless life there came the supreme demonstration of what God is like. On Thursday evening Jesus was arrested.
He was illegally tried. He was falsely accused. He was grossly insulted. But not once did he become angry.
Twice he was horribly beaten. All night long he was allowed no sleep, no food. But did he become irritated? Not for a moment.
Men made a game of hitting his wounded head. They jeered at his mysterious birth as illegitimate. They even spat in his face.
But did his patience run out? Did he become angry with his tormentors? Never!
Even as they nailed him to the cross, he kept on saying, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.”8
For Jesus to ask the Father to forgive his tormentors meant that he had already forgiven them himself. None of them had asked for pardon.
No one had pleaded with Jesus to forgive them. Jesus forgave them anyway. And remember, Jesus, too, is God.
As Jesus told the disciples, there is no need for him to pray the Father for us, for the Father is just as loving and forgiving as the Son.
If the Father had been hanging there instead of Jesus, he would have been just as ready to forgive his tormentors as was the Son—even though
no one interceded for them.
What Won the Thief on the Cross?
Two criminals had been crucified with Jesus, one on either side, with Jesus in between. The men were bandits or robbers.
The King James Version calls them thieves, and many of us have become accustomed to talking about “the thief on the cross.”
At first, the two robbers joined in mocking Jesus. Then one of them said to the other, “You know, we deserve to be here, but this man
has done nothing wrong.” He looked at the inscription posted on Jesus’ cross. It read in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, “This is Jesus, the
King of the Jews.”
Then Jesus heard words that must for a moment have relieved his pain and made all his suffering seem worth while. “Jesus, remember me
when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus agreed that he would.
What was it that won the thief on the cross? Was it hearing Jesus forgive his cruel tormentors? Since the thief had acknowledged he was a
criminal, he may well have wondered where he would find himself after he died. A safe place for a man like him would be in a kingdom
ruled by such a forgiving king.
“Jesus,” the thief may have been thinking, “if you’re going to have a kingdom, please let me be there.”
Then Jesus noticed his mother standing by the cross. Though he was suffering indescribable pain, and though his mind was crowded with thoughts
about the meaning of what he was doing, he was concerned about Mary.
John was standing nearby. “Please look after my mother,” Jesus asked. From that time on, John kept her in his home.
Soon after this, Jesus died. And as he died, he did not ask, “God, why are you killing me? Why are you executing me?”
Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you given me up? Why have you let me go?”9
Though he had never been rebellious for a moment, Jesus was experiencing the final consequence of sin. God was treating him as if he were
an unsavable sinner.
“He made him to be sin who knew no sin,” was Paul’s explanation later.10 As the Revised English Bible puts it, “Christ was innocent of sin,
and yet for our sake God made him one with human sinfulness.”
I’ve often heard it said that when sinners die at the end, God will be “pouring out his wrath” upon them.
At the cross, God “poured out his wrath” on his Son. That means, as Paul explains in his letter to Rome, that God
“gave him up,” “handed him over,” “let him go.” And in Romans 4:25, Paul states that when Jesus died, he was indeed
“given up”—the same Greek word Paul used in Romans 1:24, 26, 28, to explain what happens when God shows his wrath.
Some translations of Romans 4:25 say that Jesus was “put to death.” When he was “given up,” he did indeed die. One could say that he was
“given up” to death. But the Greek only says he was “given up,” or “handed over.” Paul may have deliberately chosen that Greek word to
help us understand what it was that Jesus’ death was meant to demonstrate.
The Purpose of the Demonstration
In this memorable passage in his letter to Rome, Paul states the ultimate purpose of Christ’s death on the cross:
God showed him publicly dying as a means of reconciliation to be taken advantage of by faith. This was to demonstrate
God’s own righteousness, for in his divine forbearance, he had apparently overlooked people’s former sins. It was to demonstrate his
righteousness at the present time, to show that he himself is righteous and that he sets right everyone who trusts in Jesus.11
Paul could not have stated more emphatically that the purpose of the cross was to demonstrate the truth about God’s own character,
the truth that is the basis of our friendship and trust.
The View from Gethsemane and the Cross
I have often imagined being there the day Jesus was crucified. In fact, I like to imagine going earlier to watch him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
There Jesus begins to experience the separation from the Father that comes from being “given up” like a sinner. As he feels his unity
with the Father breaking up, his agony is almost too much to bear. Mark records that Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to
the point of death.”12
Luke the physician reports that an angel from heaven appeared to Jesus and strengthened him. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly,
and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”13
Angels, Too, Have Questions
Is God punishing his Son? Is he about to kill him? Angels are watching.14 They, too, need to see the answer to Satan’s charge that
the Creator has lied. They were listening in Eden as the Serpent mocked God’s warning to Adam and Eve that if they sinned they would die.
If God has failed to tell the truth, that is the end of trust. And without trust, there can be no friendship in the family.
Angels have watched as the Adversary has led to a perversion of the meaning of those words of warning. The warning of sin’s
inevitable consequence has been changed into an arbitrary threat.
Angels have watched the baleful effect of this distortion of the truth. How it has poisoned people’s attitude toward God and their practice
For thousands of years people have offered sacrifice—sometimes even their own children—to win the favor of offended gods. Even in the
Christian world, some teach that had it not been for Christ’s appeasement of a wrathful God, we would long ago have been destroyed.
Is it true that if the Son were not constantly pleading in our behalf, the Father could not find it in his own heart to forgive and heal
his children? In the upper room with his disciples, Jesus plainly and clearly stated his correction of that misunderstanding.15
Now angels watch as God the Father and God the Son together demonstrate the truth. What angels witness here in Gethsemane, and later on
Calvary, will answer their questions with evidence that will preserve trust and friendship in God’s family for eternity.
The angels know who Jesus is. He is their Creator and their God. They watch to see what is happening to the one they love and adore.
Is the Father taking away the life of his Son?
The angels listened to Jesus’ explanation to his disciples: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to
lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”16 Angels know that only God has such power. Now they watch as Jesus falls
dying to the ground.
The Questions Are Answered
Is it true that sin results in death?
Yes. Jesus died the death that is “the wages of sin.” God had told the truth to Adam and Eve.
Did God kill his Son?
No. He gave him up, as he will give up sinners at the end. It’s true that “the wages of sin is death.”17 But God is not the one who
imposes those wages. It is sin itself that pays. “Sin pays its servants: the wage is death,” is Phillips’ translation.
A Third Question
We could ask another question: “Why, God, is it necessary that we understand you are not the executioner? As Sovereign of the universe,
you have a perfect right to destroy disobedient servants.”
“That’s just the point,” God might reply. “I don’t want to treat you as servants. I don’t want you to stay just servants.
I want you to be my friends.”
“My children throughout the universe,” I can almost hear God say, “I want you to understand that the obedience that springs from fear can
produce the character of a rebel. Even as you fearfully obey me, you will be turning against me. Please go to Calvary and see that
There, as in Gethsemane, Jesus experiences separation from the Father. “Why have you forsaken me, why have you let me go?” he cries.
Again God does not lay a destroying hand on his Son.
But this time, on Calvary, Jesus is tortured, and in one of the slowest and most cruel ways his enemies have available. If they could have
burned him slowly in the fire, they might have chosen that instead.
But who is demanding that Jesus be treated this way?—some of the most obedient servants God has ever had. At least, they certainly appear to be.
They believe in God the Creator, and greatly reverence his authority and power.
They believe in the Bible and read it all the time. Jesus commended them for it.18
They accept all ten of the Ten Commandments, and have even added extra rules to help them obey in detail.
They pay more than a double tithe. They eat nothing that is forbidden. And they keep themselves separate from unbelievers,
lest they be contaminated.
They may look like obedient servants, but they can hardly be God’s friends. At least, they are not the friends of Jesus, and they seem
confused as to who he might be. They told him he must be demon-possessed to describe God the way he does.19
Now in God’s name they demand he be tortured to death. They must think their heavenly Master will be pleased with such faithful service.
What about the Fire?
Frequently the Bible describes the destruction of the wicked in “eternal fire.” Jesus himself spoke of the day when he would have to
say to the lost, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”20
But what is this “eternal fire”? The prophet Isaiah describes people who are not destroyed by “the everlasting flames.”
“Who among us can live with the
Who among us can live with
Those who walk righteously and
who despise the gain of
who wave away a bribe instead of
who stop their ears from
hearing of bloodshed
and shut their eyes from looking
The glory that surrounds God is often described in the Bible as having the appearance of fire. When God came down to Mount Sinai,
“the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of
When Daniel recorded his vision of heaven, he described God’s throne as “fiery flames, and its wheels were burning
fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence.”23
When Ezekiel described his vision of God, he spoke repeatedly of the appearance of brightness and fire: “This was the appearance
of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”24 When he described the position of the angel Lucifer before his fall, he pictured him
in the very presence of God, walking “among the stones of fire.”25
Even when such a trusted friend as Moses asked to see God in his glory, the Lord replied, “My face you cannot see, for no mortal
may see me and live.”26 Yet when Moses came down from talking with God on the mountain, his own face reflected so much of the divine
glory that he had to wear a veil out of consideration for the people.27
When God said that no mortal could see his face and live, he was not threatening that he would kill anyone he caught peeking.
To people, in their present sinful state, the unveiled glory of God would be a consuming fire.
Sin so changes the sinner that it actually results in death. Out of harmony with his Creator, he cannot endure the life-giving
glory of his presence.
How, then, could God save sinners? How could he come close enough to win them back to trust? How could he show them that he
is a Friend of whom there’s no need to be afraid?
God’s answer was to send his Son in human form. Though he is himself the “radiance of the glory of God,”28 Jesus
“emptied himself, . . . being born in human likeness.”29 He veiled the dazzling splendor of his divinity that human beings
might come to know God without being consumed.
Some day God will unveil his glory. He longs to return this world to normal, as it was in the beginning. In Eden, God could walk
and talk with our first parents without any veil between.30 But ever since sin began to work its deadly changes, God in mercy has
veiled his glory. As Peter explains, our heavenly Father is very patient with us, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to
come to repentance.”31
Repentance means changing our minds. Graciously God continues to grant us time and opportunity to consider the evidence.
If we decide he can be trusted, and then go on trusting him enough to stay with him and let him heal the damage sin has done,
the time will come when once again we can live in that glory.
Moses and Elijah were healed, or they could never have stood with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. On that memorable day,
two former sinners stood in the unveiled glory of God.
But when God unveils his glory in the end, all that is out of harmony will be consumed. On that awesome day, the saved and the
lost alike will all be standing in the “devouring fire,” “the everlasting flames,” of God’s glory.
Why are the lost the only ones consumed? There is nothing arbitrary about this. It has nothing to do with legal standing.
God doesn’t finally give the order, “Burn these, keep those!” The difference is simply in us.
As God watches untold numbers of his rebellious children die, he will be crying, as in the book of Hosea, “How can I give you up!
How can I let you go!”
While God is weeping over the loss of his children, I can’t imagine that any of the saved would be engaged in joyful celebration,
as I’ve heard some suggest that they will. I see them gathering around the Father, as Peter, James and John could have done as Jesus
suffered in Gethsemane. Perhaps John, the one who watched Jesus die, might even venture to say, “Don’t cry, God. There’s nothing more
you could have done.”
The Price of Answering the Questions
Think what it cost the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of Truth, to answer these essential questions—not just to state the answers, but
to demonstrate the truth.
The demonstration was so painful that surely only someone who is our best Friend would be willing to show us. But since the only one who
could answer these questions is God himself, only our best Friend could show us.
The Power of the Cross to Win Friends
Near the beginning of this book I told of the Shakespearean actress who stood outside the theatre in the Bard’s old home town
and explained her rejection of God. You may recall that she said, “The gods of other religions are less cruel than the God
of the Old Testament!”
A young actor was standing beside her. He did not argue with what she had said, because he could understand what had led her to that
position. But he did say that he believed in God himself. In fact, he said he was a Christian.
“How did you become a believer?” I inquired.
“Well, I haven’t been one all my life,” he replied. “It happened only recently. Someone gave me a copy of the Gospel of
“What did you read there that made you want to be a Christian?”
“The story of the cross,” he answered without hesitation.
“What was it about the cross?” I asked, wondering what theory of the atonement he might have heard.
“It was the way Jesus behaved on the cross,” he went on very thoughtfully. “To think that such a good person would be hanging
there. Jesus had never done anything wrong, or hurt anybody. Yet they were torturing him to death.
“And while they were hurting him,” he continued, “Jesus was saying that he forgave them. Then he said that the Father was just like him.
There was something about Jesus that made me want to believe that. And if God is just like Jesus, I surely would trust him.
“That’s what made me want to be a Christian.”