July 31, 2021 - Can God Change?

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Today we want to talk about the question: Can God change? Does God change, or does God remain forever the same? Has God always been what God is now? Does God grow greater as time goes on? A related question: Can God change his mind or his plan? Can God change his rules, or are there principles that God creates to be fixed and unchangeable?

Picture a God who starts out as a human being, who becomes God, and who is now in the process of becoming an even greater being. That’s change, on steroids! Not even today’s process theology proposes such radical change for God. Imagine also that this God is always changing his mind on an extraordinary scale about matters that ought to remain settled. God may issue a firm statement this year, but who knows what God will think next year? Who can rely on the word of such a God?

Let’s begin with the question whether God can change. In Psalm 102:25-27, the writer sings to God, “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They shall perish, but you shall endure. They will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you shall change them, and they shall be changed. But you are the same, and your years shall have no end.” The NT repeats all these words in Hebrews 1:10-12.

“You are the same,” the psalmist says to God. That doesn’t sound like a changing God to me. Nor does Malachi 3:6, where we read, “I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Imagine if God’s character or fundamental powers were always changing. You’d never know whether God was for you or against you; you’d never know if God was able to save you from harm.

We find this truth repeated in the NT: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) You ask, “How can that be? Christ had no body before he was born on earth, now he does. Isn’t that change? And his glorified, resurrected body is a huge change from what he was born with.” Yes, but these are all outward, superficial changes. At his core, Jesus Christ is the same second person of the triune God that he always was.

God has always been there, and has always been God. No verse says it better than Psalm 90:2: “From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” Psalm 93:2 agrees: “Thy throne is established from of old; thou art from everlasting.” Habakkuk 1:12 says the same, where the prophet asks, “Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my holy one?” Notice: all 3 of these verses say, not that God is everlasting (which is also true), but that God is “from” everlasting, meaning that God has existed from before time began. We find this to be true, not only of God our Heavenly Father, but also of Christ, as we read of the prophecy of the Messiah in Micah 5:2, where we are told that the Messiah’s “goings-forth” (his origins) are “from of old, from everlasting” (as far back as anyone can go).

Now, contrast all this with a God who was once a human being who then was exalted to become God. If God was once a man, there has to have been a time when this God did not exist. To not exist, and then to exist, is as total a change as you can get. The Biblical God goes through no such changes. He always has been God, and will always remain the same.

A lot of folks get the mistaken idea that the supposedly angry God of the OT becomes the God of sweetness and love in the NT. The truth is that God never changed. God’s love and God’s no-nonsense wrath have always existed side-by-side in both Testaments. God loves Israel, even though they stank to high heaven with sin, and that very love of the OT God led him to come to earth and personally pay the penalty for the sin of the whole human race on a cross in the NT. At the same time, the no-nonsense wrath of God remains in the background for those who refuse to accept God’s merciful and costly provision for their sin offered in the NT.

Does God change the rules on us? God may change minor details here and there. God may give us temporary commands. But bedrock principles do not change with time. Don’t tell me racism is wrong today but was OK with God in the days of Jim Crow. Don’t tell me that sex outside of marriage was wrong in the Victorian age but is right today. If racism is wrong today, it was always wrong, whether we acknowledged it or not. I believe sex outside of marriage is sin. If it’s not sin, then it was wrong for anyone to ever forbid it. But don’t tell me that God has flip-flopped on these issues, as if God can’t make decisions for all time on such matters.

Objection: Doesn’t God set aside the Law of Moses for Christians? And what about God’s seeming turnabout on eunuchs? Eunuchs are forbidden to enter God’s sanctuary in Deuteronomy 23:1, but they receive a blessing from God for doing what is right in Isaiah 56:4-6. How do we explain how God issues this decree in Deuteronomy, but then apparently sets it aside in Isaiah?

Isaiah’s declaration of God’s blessing on eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and do what pleases God does not throw out the ceremonial law on who is permitted to enter the Temple. In the same way, Jesus’ heart for the blind and the lame in Luke 14:13-14 does not set aside the ceremonial laws about them in Leviticus 21:16-24. Isaiah 56 and Luke 14 merely clarify that God still loves these classes of people, and that the Temple ceremonial laws are not intended to teach us otherwise.

God reserves the right to make such changes through his prophets. We see this here in Isaiah’s word on eunuchs. We see this in the way God declares that he will replace his broken covenant with Israel with a new covenant in Jeremiah 31. Deuteronomy’s collection of laws given by Moses seems to be an updated version; here the Passover must be celebrated in the holy city instead of at home, and people are allowed to slaughter meat without offering it in sacrifice. Who has the authority to update God’s law like this? God can send a prophet to do so; my personal theory is that God may have used Jeremiah to issue such updates.

As for the Law of Moses, Jesus is central to our answer to the question of changing God’s law. Jesus has harsh words for anyone who would relax even one tiny letter of God’s law. Early in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:17), Jesus says he did not come to destroy or annul the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. What does Jesus mean by “fulfill”? Does he mean to fulfill by doing? Does he bring the Law to its fullest expression? Does he fill in the loopholes? The verb he uses here means to fill up or complete. It is used 16x in Mt, and every other time it is used, it refers to fulfilling a word of Scripture. So a strong case can be made that Jesus is saying that he is the One who embodies or fulfills the Law of Moses, the one of whom that law speaks.

Jesus goes on to say in verse 18 that until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke, shall by any means disappear from the Law until everything has happened. The rabbis could argue about whether one could change the meaning of God’s Law by adding or subtracting a tiny Hebrew vowel letter like a waw or a yod. Jesus says, No, not one tiny detail of God’s Law can be set aside, until the end of time.

Jesus indicates that the Law has an expiration date. But what exactly does Matthew mean by “till all has taken place”? Matthew’s language leaves us wide open to speculation. Jesus could be talking about the end of time, or he could be talking about his future sacrificial death.

Luke has a slightly different spin on this word from Jesus in 16:16-17: “The Law and the prophets (were) until John; from then on, the kingdom of God is proclaimed (lit. “evangelized”), and everyone tries to force themselves into it.” Luke’s translation of Jesus seems to say that the Law’s authority has already come to an end with the arrival of John. Or maybe not. Jesus doesn’t say that the Law has been set aside. He says that from the time of John, the preaching of the Good News has led everyone to try to bust down the door to God’s kingdom.

What’s Jesus trying to say? I think he’s trying to say that people are trying too quickly to set aside the Law. Why do I think that? Look at the next verse: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of the Law to fall.” What’s Jesus saying here? “Not so fast – God’s Law still stands.” Both Matthew and Luke give us this teaching. It has the ring of a word from Jesus that refuses to be put in a box.

Jesus goes on (only in Matthew) to utter harsh words against anyone who tries to invalidate any single law from God: “Whoever loosens one of the least of these commands and teaches people so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus declares that those who relax God’s law are as low as you can get.

We may wish to contrast this with Jesus’ radical moves in Mark. In Mark, he appears to be not merely setting aside human additions to God’s law, but relaxing God’s law itself. Is Jesus being hypocritical, or is he simply defining where to draw the line between trashing God’s law and explaining God’s intentions? That could involve changes in how the law is implemented, changes that uphold the Law’s eternal validity even while setting parts of it aside in practice.

Is Jesus giving us a new legalism here in Matthew? Or is this legalism more about ethics than about salvation? We can see why there was strong reason for Jewish followers of Jesus to stand their ground on this issue.

Jesus goes on in Matthew 5:20 to say that there is an even greater righteousness than those who attempt to follow every detail of the Mosaic Law: “For I tell you than unless your righteousness overflows more than the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless your righteousness exceeds the Billy Grahams, the champion fundamentalists, you will not be saved. Ouch! This sounds like super-legalism. Is this really from Jesus? One could take this as a Lutheran move to get people to despair of trying to earn their way to God. However, as we have already seen, Jesus has a different purpose here. These verses introduce those verses in the rest of Matthew 5 where Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said to them of old, but I say to you.” For the rest of the chapter, Jesus spells out, “Here’s what it takes for your righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.”

Is Matthew giving us genuine words from Jesus? I believe they are from Jesus – they are a challenge to both Judaism and the early church. If Jesus truly affirmed the Law, then why don’t we hear the early church quoting these words in their debate on the Law? Perhaps they did, but Peter does not quote Jesus at the Jerusalem Council, and Paul does not quote Jesus in Romans 3, although Paul does declare in his own words, “Do we therefore nullify the Law by faith? By no means! Rather, we validate the Law.” Paul goes on to say in Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the Law.” By “end,” one could rightly argue that Paul means the saving purpose of the Law, the reason for which God ultimately gave us the Law, to drive us to Christ, the only one who truly fulfilled the Law.

According to one scholar, Matthew argues that the entire Law of Moses is preserved in/through the teaching of the Church. Rather than giving us a new Law-free religion, Jesus gives us God’s true take on what the Law is all about. Jesus is our authoritative interpreter to explain to us what the Law means.

Yet according to Mark, Jesus was implicitly “cleansing all foods” (i.e. setting aside the kosher food laws) when he declared that nothing that goes into a person can defile a person (Mark 7:14-23). In another radical move, Jesus says that God permitted divorce in the Law of Moses “because of your hardness of heart…but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8) Jesus sounds like he’s throwing out a law, which he just told us not to do.

How can Jesus make such breathtaking pronouncements? The reason he can do that, and the reason we should listen, is because Jesus is our authorized interpreter of God’s law. Being God in the flesh, he is uniquely qualified. This means that no one else is authorized to issue any such radical updates to God’s law. And because Jesus says that he came “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it,” Jesus makes all of the Hebrew sacrifices unnecessary, because he has already offered the ultimate sacrifice that takes away sin on the cross (Hebrews 9:23-26).

Can God change his mind (= repent)? We are told that God “was sorry” (nicham) to have made the human race in Genesis 6:6, that God “was sorry” to have made Saul king (1 Samuel 15:11), and that God “changed his mind” about destroying Israel (Exodus 32:14) and Nineveh (Jonah 3:10 – all the same word). But the Bible also says that God is not a human being, that he should repent (same word – see Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29).

The same word can and does cover all the above meanings. Should we suppose that God did not know what would happen under Plan A, so God changes his mind to a better plan? I prefer to think that God’s mind does not change, but that God enacts first one course of action that God knows will be disastrous, then switches to a better course of action, purely by sovereign choice, to prove what would happen under Plan A.

Does that solution sound complicated? To me, it sounds a lot better than the idea that God keeps making bad decisions that have to be changed. How do you make a deal with a God who can’t be counted on to keep promises? If those promises were conditional, we can understand why they would be withdrawn. But we reject the idea that God breaks promises because they were mistaken planning on God’s part.

Let's look at how this solution works to explain what we see in God’s word. God chooses Saul, who embodies much of what Israel wants in a king: he’s tall and handsome, and he’s a man of bold action. But Saul proves to be undependable and shaky in his relationship with God: he cuts corners and caves in to popular opinion. God can see that Saul will unravel under pressure in the end, which he does when he consults the witch at En-Dor. So God declares that he is sad that he made Saul king, not because God thinks he made a mistake, but because Plan A is proving to be as bad as God knew it would be. God hates to watch this train wreck unfold. That’s what God means when he says he is sorry that he made Saul king. So God finally intervenes and chooses David to replace Saul. David also has his serious defects, but David is better suited to carry out God’s will than Saul was. But we had to see Saul first, in order to appreciate David.

The same is true where it says that God was sorry that he made the human race in Genesis 6:6. Did God make a mistake? No, creating the human race was God’s absolute, “no one’s going to change my mind” plan. But God grieves in this passage about the ugliness that God knew would take place as a result of creating us and giving us freedom to reject God and how that would play out. God allows a lot of evils that grieve God’s heart, not because God is powerless to prevent them, but because God is working out a better plan in the long run.

Having a God who can always change his mind and issue new revelations to cover up mistakes may be convenient, but it’s not true to life. Having a God who is too much like us always leads to messy complications. How much better to have a God who does not change, a God we can depend on!

A huge part of God’s identity is that God is the creator of all that exists. Or is he? Did God create it all out of nothing, or did God just reorganize previously existing material? And where would that previous material have come from? Who is the original Creator? There’s a lot of debate about how to read Genesis 1. We’ll talk about the issues surrounding Creation next time on Biblical Words and World!