Written by Paul J. Bucknell on April, 27, 2019
God’s Unconditional Love (Part 2) Questions on Chastisement
The original reason I used the phrase “unconditional love” to describe a husband’s love for his wife goes back to my book, Building a Great Marriage. The argument comes from Ephesians 5:25-33 where Christ’s magnificent love for the church presents itself as the model for a husband’s love to his wife due to its sacrificial nature and ongoing commitment.
A Question on Unconditional Love
It would be good if your article explains how the nature of “unconditional” love is illustrated in Christ’s loving rebuke of the assembly in Laodicea, especially regarding His ultimatum to vomit her out of His mouth if she did not repent.
I, first of all, appreciate sincere questions, those that seek the heart of God and the truth of His Word. I sense this question follows that honorable path. Furthermore, the question seems to direct itself to Christ’s own love through which we can better understand the husband’s devotion to his wife.
A Foundational Love
There are several levels at which the questions on chastisement’s relationship with unconditional love can be addressed. Before diving into further explanation, however, it is essential to bear in mind that God founded His eternal redemption plan on His unconditional love. I have argued for this “everlasting love” in the first article on unconditional love.
Once chosen, forever loved. God’s devoted love for His people, the church, continues for eternity for it comes from God’s loving nature.
God’s everlasting love is based on His personal character and is expressed towards those He so designates, in this case, His elect and bride. His promised love reveals His ongoing loving affection towards her. And so, for us to understand apparent contradictions of unconditional love, we need to recognize the issues are not about whether God’s unconditional love exists, but on how it applies to other biblical passages and concepts like chastisement.
Insight from Marriage and Parenting
The marriage image wonderfully illustrates the eternal devotion of Christ towards His bride, the church—“as long as we both shall live.” But for us to relate this question to chastisement, we must follow the Lord’s example of using the illustration of parenting. This common switch between referring to His people as His beloved bride and His children or sons occurs throughout the scriptures. This probably is due to the complexity of the issues involved, and God’s purpose not to confuse categories. The Lord, for example, does not want to give a man assumed permission to treat one’s wife as a son. While God does not confuse categories and with His eternal wisdom and power can properly exercise His love, we are very limited and selfish.
Hosea’s Hard Lesson
Hosea’s choice of a wife pictures God’s election of His unfit people. God chose an unbecoming bride but, despite her imperfectness, continues to demonstrate His ongoing commitment to her.
2When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. (Hosea 1:2-3)
Hosea does not divorce or otherwise banish or hurt his wife, but pursues her to the nth degree, even buying her back (Hosea 3:2). God uses Hosea’s marriage to demonstrate His persistent love for His wayward people.
God presents an unlikely yet sure, prophetic picture of His eternal love, even for the very unfaithful, in the Book of Hosea. While marriage serves as a good backdrop, notice how Hosea switches from the marriage terminology to parenting words.
Hosea 1 and Parenting
God uses Hosea’s marriage throughout the Book of Hosea to depict God’s faithfulness to His unfaithful wife. We can observe the marital stress starting from chapter one. The Lord’s marriage starts with calling Israel “My people” but note His disappointment with her when He names her, “Not my people.”
9And the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi (not my people), for you are not My people and I am not your God.” 10Yet the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered; and in the place where it is said to them, “You are not My people,” it will be said to them, “You are the sons of the living God.” (Hosea 1:9-10)
The Lord is willing to broadcast His ongoing disappointment with His people to call her back home.
Contend with your mother, contend, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband; and let her put away her harlotry from her face. (Hosea 2:2)
The Lord does, at times, speak about the husband’s actions towards a wayward wife such as in Hosea, but notice that He slides into referring to His people as His children (“the sons of Israel”) when addressing them.
Hosea’s marriage is a type for God’s marriage with His unfaithful people, but for us to understand God’s way of handling His erring children, we are directed to turn from marriage to examine the God-ordained societal construction of parenting which naturally flows from marriage. In order to preserve the sacredness and honor of marital love, the Lord steps back from using the marriage illustration and instead uses the parenting image to instruct us on how He handles His disobedient children. (This too becomes a model for us as parents—but not as husbands!)
The Lord has not sidestepped the issue. A biblical view of chastisement does not threaten or otherwise undo the notion of eternal love but issues from it. God’s eternal love requires an eternal relationship. Chastisement is the means this relationship is, at all cost, protected.
Though first referring to His people as His wife with the terms “My people” or even “Not my people” (Hosea 1:9-10), the Lord instead starts describing “My people” as “the sons.” The Lord speaks about discipline with respect to His children rather than of His wife. He speaks now of them as His sons: “You are the sons of the living God.”
God uses this pattern when referring to the chastisement that He feels compelled to pour out on His people. God is not only our Husband who cherishes us but as our Father who necessarily corrects us as needed. God’s people equally belong to Him during this chastisement, as is seen in the possessive “My.” But to retain that cherished devotion relationship, He differently speaks to them when exercising the needed periodic chastisement.
This passage, in a most mystical way, reveals the Lord’s ongoing love for them, by the way, He jumps ahead into the future, indicating His continued work with His “sons of Israel.”
Yet the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. (Hosea 2:10)
He boldly states the ending result of this necessary grievance will reveal something much greater. This is because God’s overall commitment towards His people, due to His Word, will somehow assure a spectacular end to this otherwise very disappointing section of the story. Paul later in Romans quotes these verses to prove His faithfulness to Israel. The Lord’s love perpetuates into the distant future and will wipe away the memories of the periods of chastisement.
Old and New Testament Chastisement
God revealed His magnificent (2 Peter 1:4) promises early on, hinting of His everlasting commitment to His chosen people, not only by the creation of mankind but the creation of the institution of marriage (Eph 5:32). But sin had entered the picture, requiring the Father’s corrective mode.
And so the Old Testament continues right through the exilic periods. They look dejected, but God repeatedly promises a remnant to return (“remnant” used 83 times in the Bible). So why does it surprise us that this disciplinary action also shows up in the New Testament? There is a certain element of judgment coming upon God’s people.
- God chased Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) but kept them alive.
- God kindly dealt with the rebellious Israelites in the desert for forty years, but, at the same time, many perished (Exodus 16 onwards).
- Thirty-six Israelite soldiers died in the battle of Ai because Achan stole banned goods at Jericho (Joshua 7). Achan’s whole family perished, but Israel survived.
- All through the Book of Judges we astonishingly observe how God repeatedly sends another judge to deliver His people every time the wayward Israelites turn to God in repentance and cry out to Him for help. (Judges)
“For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17)
The Lord clearly outlined the form God’s judgment would take on His people if they persisted in their disobedience. The Lord pre-stated the given consequences. “You will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Later, the Lord highlighted other judgments that would come to them if they persisted in wandering from God. These pre-statements help us recognize that it is not God who changed in His basic commitment to favor His people but that under some conditions, they would suffer various troubles. His love for them, however, would remain. His reproof demonstrated His love. The absence of these consequences would reveal a lack of commitment to them (Hebrews 12:4-6).
5And you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” (Hebrews 12:4-6)
The above quote from Hebrews come from the Old Testament in Proverbs 3:11-12. God has not changed a bit either in His consistent love for His people or His willingness to chastise His children for the greater purpose of maintaining a cherished relationship. Wise Solomon observed this.
Chastisement is always seen as serving a greater purpose and therefore becomes good and needed. Note how the Psalmist saw blessing and the faithfulness of God even in severe times of chastisement.
Blessed is the man whom Thou dost chasten, O LORD, and dost teach out of Thy law. (Ps 94:12)
The LORD has disciplined me severely, but He has not given me over to death. (Ps 118:18)
I know, O LORD, that Thy judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me. (Ps 119:75)
Old Testament’s Warning of Chastisement
God forbids disobedience and clearly stated the progressive levels of judgment that would come to His people to correct them (Leviticus 26:5-39). Notwithstanding, an overriding theme of love and God’s kind treatment steadfastly remained actively at work due to His covenant love. God made it very clear that His people could always escape their troubles by turning back to Him (Leviticus 26:40-45).
Let us turn to Moses’ Song in Deuteronomy 32 which not only indicates God’s response to His disobedient people but gives evidence of His constant commitment to them.
19The Lord saw this, and spurned them because of the provocation of His sons and daughters. 20 Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; For they are a perverse generation, sons in whom is no faithfulness.’ (Deut 32:19-20)
These prophetic words depict how the Lord will respond to His people when they go astray. This is not new, of course, as the Lord faithfully responded to His people the same way all through the wilderness journey, but the Lord establishes His faithfulness to His people even after Moses left the earth. Remember, it was Moses that many times interceded for these people of God. The Lord is assuring His care beyond the time of Moses’ life.
So what do we find here? The Lord will spurn them due to the “provocation of His sons and daughters.” The Lord again uses the image of parenting here as He cares for the Israelites as His children. The deliberate commitment seen in marriage originates the correction, and so, is firm and ongoing even when disobedience takes place.
The Lord has expectations of His children. They ought to obey and enjoy a rich relationship with the Father. It is during this time of obedience, they “grew fat” (Deut 32:15), but the blessings became a point of ensnarement when His children forgot the source of their blessings and arrogantly stepped away from the Lord. They became perverse and ungrateful so the Lord turned His face from them (Deut 32:20).
21They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation, 22For a fire is kindled in My anger… (Deut 32:21-22)
Verse 21 provides a lucid picture of God and why He turns from His people. The Lord points to His jealous nature. The people begin attaching His blessing and care to others while totally rejecting Him. This is spiritual adultery. It is not the Lord who has dropped His love but the One who preserves His relationship with them by temporarily withdrawing the blessings to secure their love. So God gets jealous—an upright response to His wayward people. Jealousy and anger are presented as twins here, both being repeated in these few verses. Jealousy describes His unwillingness for them to falsely think their welfare comes from another while His anger, when released, is like a fire kindled against His people.
God pledges in verse 21 to kindly treat other nations so to get His own people jealous and turn back to Him (this hints at how God uses the Gentiles to provoke His people to jealousy in the church- see Romans 10:19; 11:11).
God’s jealousy should not be interpreted as the cheap jealousy that lacks love (1 Corinthians 13:4). Nor should God’s jealousy be seen as an inferior trait that is irrational, over-demanding, or unpleasant. God’s jealousy is His amazing way of proving His love while securing the commitment of His undeserving people. Cheap jealousy arises over selfishness and therefore is impatient, whereas God’s love is long-suffering, and His jealousy is but another demonstration of His gracious way of dealing with His people so to preserve His love to them.
23I will heap misfortunes on them; I will use My arrows on them. 24 They will be wasted by famine, and consumed by plague And bitter destruction; and the teeth of beasts I will send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust. (Deut 32:23-24)
Verses 23-24 point out the terrible judgments that God will use to awaken His people. He will wait a long time, if necessary, to stir their affection back to Himself. But whenever they turn back and cry out to Him, the Lord God is there. In Judges, He sends a judge. Later, He promises a King or sends another prophet. And indeed, all these foreshadow Jesus the Messiah in whom God greatly extends His mercy by perpetuating His relationship to His people by giving them life forever.
But in the meantime, they will face horrific disciplining actions: famine, plague, destruction, beasts, and poison. Even the exile, how undesirable it was, became a means to get His people back (i.e., Ezra, Nehemiah)—not to separate them from Him! Do not underestimate the severe means the Lord will use to bring His people back to Himself (i.e., Esther).
There could be no better place than with Solomon to highlight God’s exceedingly great mercy. At a pinnacle in Israel’s history, Solomon sought God’s favor on behalf of His people if they would turn from Him. King Solomon asked the Lord to rescue them from the many terrible predicaments listed in 2 Chronicles 6 if His people humbly confessed their sin and turned to Him. He agreed.
Solomon not only understood the Lord would judge His people like sons but grasped the ongoing backdrop of God’s love. No matter where they were at, if they turned back to Him, He would restore them. God’s love is ongoing, but this does not preclude judgment. Rough treatment is sometimes needed to preserve the relationship between Him and His people—otherwise, they are no longer His.
New Testament and Chastisement
God is the same in the Old and New Testaments; His determination to preserve His relationship with His people remain critically important to Him. On the one hand, we see Christ’s deep love given to His promised bride and the assurance of His return for her (i.e., Christ’s second coming). But we also observe the threatened judgment if His people dare to go astray (John 15:2). Behind any chastisement is the ongoing massive canvas of God’s faithful love. Instead of concluding that God has forsaken His people when disciplined, they are to recognize chastisement as God’s call to return to Him. God protects His relationship with His children by discipline. He loves us enough to chastise us even if it hurts much! The preservation of the relationship remains more important than the presence of temporary pain.
The world’s willingness to associate a parent’s chastisement with evil derives from a horrible misjudgment. God reveals His love through chastisement because He cares for His erring children. Parents need to discipline their children to show their love and establish an honorable relationship with them (see the third article).
Of course, we do not need to suffer consequences to awaken us. He calls us to simply obey Him! But alas, the church sinks into a dangerous swarm of slothfulness and forgetfulness. Doctrinally, we might be okay, but we can get so dull of heart that we put our affection on others. God’s jealousy assuredly will seek out endless ways to keep His people as His own. The Lord will carefully guard His children’s relationship with Him and, as necessary, bring chastisement to them. This is where the Lord’s addresses to the seven churches come in (Revelation 2-3), but we will focus on the Church at Laodicea.
The Church at Laodicea
14To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15”I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked….(Rev 3:14-17).
In the above verses, we see it is the Lord, without shame or coverup, openly rebuking a church congregation for their lackluster love for Him. The Lord, as in the Old Testament, has expectations of His children—“I know your deeds” (15), but their deeds were wanting. Their activities no longer manifested their love for the Lord. They lived as “atheistic Christians,” that is, they live as if God and Christ are not present. “Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” (17).
Again, we see their hardening of hearts is largely attributed to the many blessings stemming from the New Covenant. They have become so satiated with God’s blessing that they forget the Lord Himself, the source of all good things.
19Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. 20Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ ” (Rev 3:19-22)
This element of chastisement commonly appears in Christ’s remarks to His people at Laodicea—which redirects us back to the originating question. Those whom the Lord loves, He will “reprove and discipline” (3:19). It is not as if this jealous response from God is unavoidable. The Lord exhorts them, “Therefore be zealous and repent” (3:19). The Lord is there at the door knocking, persistently trying to engage His people. There is no doubt that Jesus, by the knocking, was touchingly referring to Song of Solomon, verse 5:2.
“I was asleep but my heart was awake.
A voice! My beloved was knocking:
‘Open to me, my sister, my darling,
My dove, my perfect one!”
“My beloved was knocking.” The Lord, out of His love, and even now in this address to the church strove to restore affection. Again, if we take anything from Revelation 2 to 3, it should be that the Lord is the Caretaker of the Church and, similar to the Old Testament, seeks to share a close companionship with them.
We should not take these rebukes as signs that God will abandon them or falsely assume their acceptance is based upon their good works. God is unwaveringly committed to His people. He rebukes them to restore their relationship with Him and to get them back on course to fulfill the good purposes the Lord has for them in this age.
Satan lures the church into a state of spiritual dullness, doctrinal perversity, antinomianism, and legalism, but the Lord beckons us to remain close to Him so that He can powerfully work in and through us. Yes, there is a threat to vomit her our of His mouth if they would not repent, but this only reflects a willingness for another level of chastisement to come on them to win them back. Of course, they might prove they were never really of the Lord by never turning back to the Lord (1 John 2:18-19).
What do we see here? Whether in the Old or New Testaments, we find the same eternal love of God using the necessary hand of discipline to preserve and bless His ongoing relationship with His people. You don’t see the Lord forsake the church, but instead His determination to use whatever means to cause His people to flourish. He sets the stage so that, at any point, they can return. God chastises His own to keep them His. He seeks for them to surrender in a conscious delight of being wonderfully and graciously cared for by their God so that they will live out the same kind of life to others around them.