What comes to mind when you think about God?
A.W. Tozer, in his book Knowledge of the Holy, famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
Our ideas about God and the questions we ask about him never stay locked up in our minds or hearts. Those ideas and questions will always find a way out and will color the way we interact with the world, the people around us, ourselves, and God himself.
In Jeremiah 18, the people of Judah needed to be reminded of who God is. They had broken their covenant relationship with God, so God sent a prophet named Jeremiah to teach and remind them who their God really is.
The Broken Covenant
Up to this point, and all the way up to Jeremiah 25, Jeremiah has been detailing the sinfulness of the nation of Judah. The gravity of the evil of their sins was due to Judah’s breaking their covenant. God had redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt and had given them his law, and they had absolutely and repeatedly failed to keep that law (11.6-8).
Under the Mosaic covenant, the people of God had two choices: obedience or exile. Jeremiah warns Judah of the immanence of that exile throughout this book.
The God Who is Not Like Us
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel”
Jer 18:1-6, ESV
This is what God wanted Judah to understand from this apparently simple story of the potter and his clay: God is not like us. He is Creator, he is incomprehensible, and he is just.
Even the distinction between potter and clay pales in comparison to the distinction between God and us. In this passage, God is moving from a small picture to a big picture. I call this “How much more…” reasoning, and it is all over Scripture. It is one of Jesus’s favorite ways of teaching. God is saying here, “If the potter is this much greater than his clay, how much greater am I than you?”
Because God is our Creator and is more real than we are, this means that we cannot know God exhaustively. He is incomprehensible. Although the Bible give us pictures like the potter and the clay, we would do well to always remember that, while we can know God truly, we cannot perfectly wrap our heads around him. Our heads just are not that big. God is greater than our greatest thoughts of him. Thinking about God is like standing in the Pacific Ocean and scooping up handfuls of water. You are, in one sense, holding the ocean in your hands, but in another sense, your hands could never contain its total immensity. Although we can think true thoughts about God, our thoughts cannot even come close to containing the total immensity of who God is, and this is because he is not like us.
This passage also shows us that God is just. He is perfectly and inexhaustibly righteous. As we continue reading this passage in Jeremiah, we see God once again call the people of Judah to turn away from their evil, covenant-breaking pattern of living:
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds’”
Here we see God’s justice, in all its perfection, expressed in a patient warning and call to repentance. God tells Judah that, as Creator, he is free to bless whom he will and curse whom he will. He tells them that disaster is on their horizon, and that if they were to repent, God would relent of that disaster that he had planned. He tells Judah that he will by no means curse the repentant, nor will he bless the wicked. This is another way that he is not like us.
The New Covenant
So how does Israel respond to this self-revelation of their God?
“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart’”
Judah refuses to turn away from their sin because they loved their sin and they had grown indifferent toward their God. They had been given a choice: obedience or exile. Judah had made their choice.
In Jeremiah 19, Jeremiah pays another visit to the potter. This time, he buys a clay pot, calls together the elders of Judah, and smashes the pot on the ground in front of them. Their Creator God, incomprehensibly just, has given the people what they want. Just as the covenant was broken, just as the clay pot was broken, so also this people will be broken (19.10-11).
So, is that it? God chose a people, they sinned, and he judged their sin. Is that the end of the story? God was not finished.
In chapter 31, God sends another word to Jeremiah that he is to speak to a people broken and in exile: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”
The old covenant had been broken, but a new covenant was coming that would be un-breakable. The new covenant would be unbreakable for two reasons: the law would be written on the hearts of every single one of God’s people, and every single one of God’s people would know him. In the new covenant, there would no longer be any need for someone like Jeremiah to remind Judah of who their God is. There would be no more trips to the potter’s house, no more broken vessels. In the middle of all this evil and tragedy, God promised that things would not always be like this.
The God who Became Like Us
The people of God needed new hearts and a new covenant, but how could God, in his incomprehensible justice, end one covenant and begin another?
This is the New Testament answer: God, in all his inexhaustible and incomprehensible greatness, God who is greater than our greatest thoughts of him, stooped down so low that he became a man. And he became like us so that he could die like us, in our place. The God who is not like us was made to be like us.
This week, we also read Colossians 1: “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” (Col 1.19). This ought to blow your mind. The potter has made himself clay. This was not what anybody expected, but it was exactly what we needed. This is like the entire Pacific Ocean being poured into a child’s hands, only greater. But we did not invent this; this was always God’s plan.
God had planned, from all eternity, to come as a man and to be broken like a clay pot, the atoning sacrifice for all the sins of his hard-hearted, unrepentant, covenant-breaking people: “…and through him to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1.20).
Jesus perfectly fulfilled all the requirements of the old covenant, and he took on himself all its curses. In so doing, he earned the right to inaugurate a new covenant with God’s people.
Let me close with a prayer from an old Christian writer named Anselm:
“I pray, O God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may rejoice in You. And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness. Let the knowledge of You grow in me here, and there be made complete; let Your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in reality.”