The call of God is attractive when it’s a message of love and grace, of forgiveness and mercy, of hope and acceptance. That kind of call is heartwarming. It lifts us up and encourages us when we are down and discouraged or weak and defenseless. But sometimes the call of God demands more of us, requires a degree of grunt work on our part to obey; it takes us the next step further in our process of spiritual growth and development. Sometimes God’s call entails warnings—even condemnations—and is designed to evoke in us a response of holy fear.
Introducing emotionally charged words like these is risky business; they are not culturally acceptable words these days. Warnings and condemnations brings to mind the ‘Hell, Fire and Brimstone’ sermons we cringe in recollection of hearing about in the post-enlightenment days of our Western culture—sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ address of the 1700s. Are harsh words and concepts like these really an aspect of the call of a loving God?
“By faith Noah,” the author of Hebrews continues in his eleventh chapter discourse, “when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
What was is that distinguished Noah from all the rest of his culture, that saved him and his family from peril while possibly millions perished? From what we read here in Hebrews and in the more detailed account in Genesis, Noah’s life was characterized by a “holy fear” of God. His worldview, his mental set point, his philosophy of life was distinguished by the acceptance of God as the rightful ruler of his life. He attended carefully to everything he had learned about God and applied that knowledge to his life. Genesis tells us that Noah “walked with God” and was both “righteous” and “blameless among the people of his time.” Those are terms used in the Bible to describe people who live with integrity the principles of God-honouring behaviour—whose day to day choices reflect their understanding of God’s character and His prerogative to set guidelines for human living, whose hearts admit God’s sovereignty.
In contrast, the culture around Noah was characterized by ideologies we currently call atheistic or agnostic. People had no fear of God. The Genesis account describes the situation from God’s perspective.
“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Note how it is the heart attitude of both Noah and his contrasting culture that God observes and to which He speaks when His call is a warning.
Noah’s response to God’s warning call was the next thing that distinguished him from his surrounding culture. Noah listened. He heard the bad news, believed that God was serious, and then as Genesis records, “did everything just as God commanded him.” Now that took faith. Building an ark of enormous proportions was one thing. Passing on the warning call of God to his community was another, perhaps even more daunting task. It is quite possible he feared for his life and liberty among those who would have considered his message ‘hate speech.’
We know the rest of the story. Noah completed the ark and filled it with his family, land creatures of every kind, and enough food for a year of crazy confinement; his culture refused to accept the rescue and perished enmasse. Later, when the floodwaters had subsided, Noah and his entourage disembarked their floating quarters and were welcomed back on terra firma with a rainbow, symbolic of a promise of blessing.
Did you notice how the Hebrews account of this momentous event ends? It explains that Noah “became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” This phrase is crucial. We might even say it describes the essential core of the Bible’s message, of God’s call to each of us as individuals. It speaks of faith, of becoming an heir, and of righteousness. It is saying that when we by faith choose to hear God’s call—be it of grace and love or of warning and judgment—and heed it, we become heirs. And what do we inherit? We become recipients of Christ’s righteousness, of His perfect heart, and we are accepted into an eternity with God. This is the result of listening to God’s call.
The warnings, like the expounding of God’s love and grace, run throughout God’s word. So let’s take advantage of the opportunity to take them to heart. Let’s hear and humble ourselves and obey God’s directions. Then we will become people characterized by faith, by holy fear, and (O great mystery) by righteousness.