“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”
In Psalm thirty-four verse eight David says that ‘the Lord is good;’ yet what does the word ‘good’ really mean and how do people view the word ‘good?’
For Boko Harem in Northern Nigeria the word ‘good’ could be used to speak of their abduction of over three-hundred young teenage girls and forcing them to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. To Boko Harem this abduction was a good thing to do, they were living up to what they thought was right and just.
For Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator it appears that he thinks it is good to rule his people with an iron fist and totally ignore the basic needs of North Koreans, many who suffer torture and imprisonment or starve to death.
We live in a world where there is a lot of talk about good and evil and where, in recent years, we have had blockbuster series of films like the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Wars’ series. In both series of films we have dualism – powers of good that are almost evenly matched against powers of evil. Inevitably good overcomes – but good and evil are very much spoken of as forces and little more.
For others, the word ‘good’ speaks of living a good upright life, although there may be many different ways that people define ‘upright life.’ In recent years a prominent atheist once said something along the lines of, “You don’t have to be a Christian to be good.” Yet what does it mean when he says ‘good’? By what standard or rule does he measure Christianity with before coming up with this statement?
The word ‘good’ can speak of being able to adhere to a set standard or way of living, but how is it used in the context of scripture? In looking at the word ‘good’ in the Bible we shall see that at its heart, ‘good’ is a relational word and we begin doing this by looking at the first chapter of Genesis.
In the first chapter of Genesis the word ‘good’ is used seven times in relation to creation as the Creator looked at His handiwork and ‘saw that it was good.’ In the final occurrence of the word ‘good’ (in Genesis chapter one), we read of God surveying all that He had created and saying that it was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). But in what sense was everything very good?
Firstly, we see that everything was pronounced ‘good’ by scripture in that the building blocks of creation came together and functioned according to the Creator’s design. Atoms and molecules were spoken into existence and a world was birthed into being. Yet why was the world created in the first place? In answering this question we shall see that the heart of the word ‘good’ goes much deeper than we might have first thought.
The word ‘good’ is used in relation to the purpose of creation and helps us understand why we are here: God created this world for us to live in. God created a world of beauty and order, of amazing sunrises and sunsets, incredible colours and breath-taking scenery. Having created the world, God then created man (Gen 1:27-8) and placed man in His creation as an incredibly powerful being who is able to have fellowship with God and to benefit from God’s love. Therefore good and goodness speaks of that which is in relation to God and in accordance with His purposes.
In the beginning, the all-powerful One who is compassionate and caring like a loving father fattened a world in preparation for our arrival. To think of it in a modern day setting we can imagine an empty house then being filled with all sorts of furniture to make it fit for purpose. The house is then given to us as a gift with the giver supporting us in all that we do. God created this world and placed us in it so that we could benefit from His love and receive from the presence and heart of God our heavenly Father – the ‘all-powerful and loving One’ (1 John 4:8).
Fit for purpose
The world we live in was specially designed for man and at each stage of creation, God, like a father preparing a home for a soon-to –arrive child, steps back and says “it is good.” In other words it is fit for the purpose it has been made for – for mankind. Everything was created by God and for God’s purpose and that purpose involves you and I; we have been created to know, receive and share His love in a deep abiding relationship with the One who can be known as a father.
This deep commitment which God has towards all He has created is conveyed in a word that is found throughout scripture, that word being ‘covenant.’
A covenant speaks of a deep binding agreement; a giving of self, and not just advice, ability or resources. God gives himself as is seen in the arrival of Jesus, His sacrificial death and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of those who have come to Him in repentance and faith.
A covenant is the expressed goodness of God, of living in a relationship with God and therefore goodness speaks of living in and according to the Covenant. In this sense goodness is much more than simply a moral term; it is a relationship terms and speaks of that which is within and according to the covenant.
When God created the world it was perfect and fit for man (hence, “It was good”) who was created to live in covenant (deep abiding relationship) with God. God has committed Himself to creation (Jer 33:20), and made man in His image (Gen 1:27-8) so that we can personally benefit from His love (1 John 4:8). All of these ideas are captured in our word, ‘good.’
Goodness is about covenant living, living the right way and firing on all cylinders, so to speak, as physical and spiritual beings. Due to the fall into sin man is a flawed and is often a rebellious being, yet still retains something of what it means to be made in the image of God. This is why we can do good things such as building hospitals, providing for those in difficulty, reaching out to others and so forth. Yet, this ‘doing well’ is far short of God’s ideal for man because we are sinners and therefore flawed and separated from the goodness of God. The evidence of this is seen in that, whilst man is now more powerful than at any other time in history, man allows more people to starve to death than ever before, fights more wars than ever before and has more people enslaved than ever before.
On his own man is independent from God and therefore unable to fully benefit from the goodness of covenant living. Yet the One who created a world and placed man in a garden called Eden (meaning, ‘delight’) has not given up on us. The parent, who created and decorated the room for the child’s arrival, has not turned His back on His creation.
God seeks to help us turn from evil and enter His goodness. ‘Good’ is about functioning the right way in covenant blessing with a loving Father. Evil, on the other hand, speaks of being dysfunctional, out of covenant and even counter-covenant in man’s thinking. But why did everything go wrong in the first place – why was man given freedom of choice?
In answering this question we need to recognise that freedom of choice was necessary if man was going to be able to respond in love and not live as a programmed robot. Yet at the same time we need to understand that the fall into separation, dysfunctional thinking and rebellion was not a necessary counterpart to this freedom being given. Man did not have to fall into sin as can be seen in the second totally sinless man (pre-fall Adam being the first) who came and stood on planet earth: Jesus Christ (John 8:46). Jesus is the One who expresses the goodness of God, showing us what covenant relationship between Father and son can be like. As the incarnate Son of God, the perfect son, He stood in our place of judgement so that we could find, in Him, the place of forgiveness and reconciliation.
God is good and His goodness includes the attitude of being generous towards others, speaking of a person who is happy to do more than is legally required. In light of this it speaks of far more than practical generosity or doing a favour for someone. It is not so much the “I have to do this for someone,” but more the, “I want to do this for someone for no other reason than love.” An example of this sort of love can be found in the true story of Maximillian Kolbe who took the position of a condemned prisoner (Franciszek Gajowniczek) in Auschwitz. In a place where human life was regarded as valueless at best, Kolbe died in the place of a family man who survived Auschwitz and lived until he was ninety-one.
In Jesus God does not come to us with an ‘I have to do something good for this rebel who deserves condemnation” but with “I offer the greatest good possible to those who are my enemy – I offer myself.” The goodness of God is therefore the attitude of being loving and generous towards others and doing much more than is legally required. This is clearly revealed in the words and actions of Jesus; in His life, death and resurrection.
The Lord is good
The goodness of God – His love and generosity without compromise to His holiness, is clearly seen in Jesus eating with tax collectors and marginalised people. He is the One who wept with Mary and Martha, washed the disciple’s feet and after His resurrection made a meal by the shores of Galilee, whilst helping Peter see what forgiveness and love was about, all over again. During His ministry Jesus continuously spoke of the love of the Father, speaking of Him as a father who clothed the prodigal (Luke 15:20f) and being like a ruler who personally goes out in the heat of the day to help people (Matt 20). Throughout His ministry Jesus engaged with the unlovely, seeking to transform broken lives and bring them back into life – aligned with and benefitting from covenant living. This then is why scripture says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” Ps 34:8. God has drawn near enough for us to experience the goodness of His presence.
In His words and actions Jesus showed us what covenant living – good living – is all about. It is about a deep abiding relationship with God the Father and a reliance on the presence, leading and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel is good news because it reveals a person who desires nothing but good for us and clearly shows us that this person wants to be a Father to us. The gospel is good news because it clearly shows us that we are not, nor ever have been, expected to ‘go-it-alone.’ We have a heavenly Father; the “I will never leave you nor forsake you” One who became our Father though the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. So the good news is that I don’t have to get caught up with trying to prove myself to Him or to earn His approval. I am accepted – totally accepted – through the work of His Son Jesus the Shepherd King.
Putting all things together we see that, scripturally speaking, the word ‘good’ speaks of functioning properly, of living the right way in covenant blessing with our heavenly Father. He is the only One who really knows how all things work together – He knows all about our lives and what has gone wrong – the ‘not good’ of the fall.
God is the One who knows exactly how everything should really work together in harmony. He knows all about the world we live in and all about our hearts and minds which so often plague us with wrong thoughts. He knows what we should really be like – and exactly how everything should fit together in both our hearts and minds and the world around us. In light of this we begin to see what love and justice is about. Love and justice is about the restoration of a relationship with the God who seeks to bring all things back into harmony through kingdom rule and reign – the rule and reign of sacrificial love.
God brings us home as sons and daughters
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
If we quickly skim over the above verse we can end up seeing it as saying little more than, “Get on with the work that you have been appointed to do.” Yet in taking a closer look at the verse we will see how breathtakingly powerful and beautiful it is in its real setting.
Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus that has seen many people turn to Christ from occult practices as stated in the book of Acts. Time moves on and Paul now seeks to encourage the Ephesians and remind them of who they are in a world where so much is stacked up against them. In the light of their past experiences and the power and might of Rome many of those in the church could have been feeling small and vulnerable in a world that was hostile to the gospel. Apart from this there was also an accuser (Satan) who sought to put distance between the church and God. Yet in all that is going on we find Pauls’ words reminding the church of an important truth, “You are God’s workmanship.” No matter how they felt the truth remained that they were noticed, loved and totally secure in the work of the One in whom they had found forgiveness and reconciliation with God: the Lord Jesus Christ now has authority over all things (Eph 1:20-23).
Paul reminds his readers of this in saying, “You were created in Christ Jesus” and in doing so reminds them that they were surrounded and protected by the one we know as the Good Shepherd – the true Shepherd of the covenant (John 10:11-14). We have been clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27), brought into the environment of the Kingdom love of our Father and we are indwelt with the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). Like us, the Ephesian church could have confidence and find great security in whose they were in Christ. They were restored, accepted and blessed totally because of the work of another. They did not need to prove themselves or to try and earn blessing in their own strength: they belonged to someone who had paid the price for everything and in that person – the Incarnate Son of God – all the promises of God are yes (2 Cor 1:20). They were God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus; they were reborn ones (2 Cor 5:17).
Paul then continues his line of thought in saying that the Ephesians were created for good works which God prepared in advance for them to do. Before looking at the good works we ask ourselves the question: How did God prepare good works in advance? The answer is clearly seen in looking across scripture.
For example, in Titus 1:2 we see that God promised eternal life before the beginning of time. In other words there was a decision within the Trinity that, no matter what happened, God would make a way for man to receive eternal life – but how? The answer is found in 1 Peter 1:19-20 where we read that Jesus was chosen before the creation of the world, He willingly coming to show us what a true relationship between a Father and son was like. He came as man and stood in our place of judgement and having paid the penalty for our wrong-doing offers eternal life to all who turn to Him. This is why Rev 13:8 speaks of Christ slain from the foundation of the world and from this we see that the world is built on the sacrificial love of another. All of what God has done in history has come about because of this preparation from the foundation of the world. If Jesus had not chosen to come then there would have been no world to save because dysfunctional counter-covenant living is not static, nor will it remain unjudged.
Earlier in Eph 1:4 we read of Paul saying to the Ephesians that they were chosen in Christ before the creation of the world. In other words, no matter what was going to happen there was always going to be the place of church – called out ones under the headship of the Chosen One – Jesus Christ. So the incredible truth is that God has always been coming for us and the whole history of the Bible is therefore the story of all that He has done in reaching out to us, this being ordained from the foundation of the world.
Before the world began there was a decision between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to create man. As a created being man was given free will so that he could then receive experience and share the love that resides within the Trinity. The heart of love is choosing to give out of self for the benefit and blessing of others. This love and decision within the Trinity to share with another is so great that there was also the decision made that if and when man failed, God would pick up the pieces and come and stand in man’s place. In light of this we see how it is that the world is built through sacrificial love. But what about the good works that Paul speaks of - where does this fit in to the picture?
In its purest, simplest and deepest form the ‘good works’ our heavenly father has prepared for us to do is all about living in covenant-relationship as His son or daughter. He prepared a way for us to come home through the blood of the second person of the Trinity and we can now benefit from the fruit of His work receiving as cherished and loved sons or daughters in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. All else flows from this as we then reach out to others in the fruit and gifting of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, at the risk of labouring the point, the heart of the good works we are called to do is about receiving the fruit of another’s work. The good works prepared in advance speak of receiving the blessing of God. Therefore the good work that Paul speaks of is not first and foremost about what I do, it is about what I receive which enables me to grow as a son or daughter, no matter what comes my way. This is what my Father has always wanted for me – to grow in His love and grace. Therefore the heart of the matter is that good works are about experiencing and receiving all that God has for me as my heavenly Father. This is something He has always prepared for me as the One who loves me with an everlasting love – a love that has a quality, depth and power that is far beyond anything else I will ever encounter. If I am to receive this love in full measure then I have to have the same attitude as Christ and be willing to share with others all that I freely receive.
All that I now do in reaching out to others is to come about through the fruit and gifting of the Holy Spirit who indwells my life – out of my relationship with God and not out of wishful thinking. This fruit will then be evidenced in every believer’s life in the development of their nature and character, whilst the gifting of the Spirit will take different forms as and how the Lord works with us.
In a very real sense we are ‘wired’ to live this way – it is part of the original design – receiving and sharing. Therefore if I am not willing to share in a world built on sacrificial love, then I am going to be dysfunctional and unable to benefit from all that God freely gives.
In putting everything together concerning the verse we have been looking at, we see an incredibly beautiful and deep picture. What it is telling both the Ephesians, and us, is that our heavenly Father had always been preparing for us to come home and to live as we should live as sons and daughters – in intimacy and harmony with heaven as Kingdom people: the ‘raised up ones.’
As we have already pointed out, the word ‘good’ speaks of living in the intimacy and fellowship of God’s presence through the covenant which has Christ as our representative. In coming back to the house of fellowship we can grow in grace as old, destructive and dysfunctional (counter covenant-goodness) thought processes are broken and replaced with right thinking and empowerment in the Holy Spirit. Paul says to the Ephesian church, that this is what God had always been seeking to do: to restore us to fellowship with Him so that we can live out the original mandate for man as His representatives on earth. At the risk of sounding repetitive let’s underline the point again that primarily the ‘good works’ that Paul speaks of is all about living as a son or daughter of the living God and finding healing and wholeness from the destructive ways of self and the world that we live in as we grow in grace far beyond our natural abilities.
God is like a father who reaches out to wayward sons and daughters, yet is also the father of heavenly lights (James 1:17) who is Lord of heaven and earth (Mt 11:25). He is the all-powerful One, depicted, as we already noted, as the one who runs to greet the prodigal son. He is also like a merchant who sells everything he has in order to make us His very own (Mat 13:45-6). In all of this we see the goodness of covenant – we see sacrificial love. And when we look at Jesus feeding the crowd, weeping over Jerusalem and birthing hope into the most hopeless and difficult of situations, we see what our heavenly Father is really like because Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In Jesus we have a great Shepherd, our great Shepherd, of whom the psalmist writes…
“The LORD God is my shepherd too. I lack nothing. In quiet spots of soft green grass the LORD lets me settle down in peace. My Shepherd leads me out to flowing waters giving rest. The LORD brings me back to myself. The LORD leads me in the tracks of doing what’s right for the sake of God’s holy name.” Psalm 23:1-3
God wants us to come back to our true self in Him – to come home and to fire on all four cylinders, so to speak. We are able to do this because He is the LORD – the One who has always been there, the life-breather who resurrects.
Biblically speaking, ‘good’ speaks of living within covenant and therefore functioning as we should do – with balanced, healthy minds, knowing who we are and resting in the blessing of the Lord. In so far as we receive from Him we are able to grow and give out from Him with the support and encouragement of the Holy Spirit. (Gal 5:22-23). So let’s be open to His challenge and be prepared to change our ways, to exchange our rags for His richness of fellowship and blessing (2 Cor 8:9). Let’s ask Him to draw us deeper into covenant goodness and to remove what we have become and replace it with His goodness – the wisdom, knowledge, understanding, power, love, blessing and presence of a heavenly Father. We were not made to live alone; we are created to know Him and to reach out to others in the love that we have received.