John E. McKenna, The Little Credo of the Great I-Am

John McKennaJohn E. McKenna was adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific Seminary. He studied under Thomas F. Torrance at the University of Edinburgh and received his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He died in 2018. 

Dr. McKenna explains Exodus 34:6 and the continuity of grace in Old and New Testaments.

Edited transcript

JMF: Today we are going to talk about the grace of God in both the New and the Old Testaments. Most Christians tend to think of the New Testament as the Holy Scriptures of Christianity. We have the stories of Jesus, we have the letters of Paul and other apostles. But the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible, it’s the Holy Scriptures of Israel – of the Jews. And yet it is included in the Christian sacred text as well, as Old and New Testaments. Why is the Old Testament part of the sacred book of the Christians?

JM: I teach two courses at the university. One is entitled “The People of God,” and the second is “The Kingdom of God.” In both of those courses I spend three months respectively talking about the answer to your question – which is the reality of God as his grace in the Old, and the reality of God as his grace in the New – holds together the two Testaments – the two covenants: the new covenant with the old, the old with the new. The only way we can understand the relationship between the Old and the New is through the grace of God. It’s a very important concept.

JMF: We’re going to ask you to boil down six months’ worth of instruction to the 25 minutes or so that we have remaining in the program. That will be a challenge. But if you had to start somewhere, you would start with grace?

JM: Yeah, I start the course work with the passage in Exodus 34:6, which I have come to call the “Little Credo of the Great I AM.”

JMF: And a “credo” is a statement of description of who God is in this passage.

JM: Who God is in his covenant relationship with the people – his people that he’s just delivered from Egypt and their bondage to Egyptian gods under the Pharaoh.

JMF: A lot of people think, “Isn’t the God of the Old Testament more of a harsh, legalistic God?” where Jesus is kind and merciful – a difference between the God of the Old Testament, and God of the New Testament.

JM: We find that appearing right away in biblical interpretation in the early church. When I became a Christian, I found it in the communities where I fellowshipped early on. The idea that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and law, and the God of the New Testament is a God of grace and sweet love, was everywhere. The divorce between them is something that I had to learn to overcome, more or less on my own, because a lot of people think that way and continue to think that way.

JMF: But this passage you’re talking about, where God reveals himself for who he is with his people, really gets at the heart of something most people haven’t thought about.

JM: It does it in such a way that I don’t even believe that we can read, for example, Genesis without understanding this way that God has in his freedom to be the Great I AM he is, and to define himself in his relationship with his people.

JMF: “The Great I AM” refers to what?

JM: I ask my students to, when you read the little credo, Exodus 34:6, you read it in the light of Exodus 3:14, the great revelation of the name of God.

JMF: Where he is talking to Moses. Moses says, “Who shall I tell them has sent me?” …

JM: “I AM WHO I AM.” That self-naming of the self-revealing God is … You can find libraries full of books on that one phrase.

JMF: “Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent me, has sent you.” Let’s read this passage in Exodus 34:6, “The Lord passed before him (Moses was in the rock and God was going to show himself to Moses) and proclaimed the Lord, the Lord – a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

JM: Five terms which he’s used to define himself in his covenanted relationship with his stiff-necked people. The context here is, “I’m defining myself, Moses, so I don’t have to kill those who prefer a golden calf to who I am. I’m not going to kill them, and when I do not kill them, this is the way I’m going to be with them.” Five terms.

JMF: You are probably, having taught it so many times, dying to give us those five terms as they appear in Hebrew and then talk about each one.

JM: I prefer to think of it as “living to give it to.”

JMF: All right, go ahead.

JM: I don’t even like to put these terms into English when I teach them.

JMF: They’re translated differently from translation to translation – we were just looking at it this morning, and this translation is much more faithful to each word than the other two we were looking at …

JM: I make my students learn the Hebrew terms – because they’re terms with which they’re not familiar, everybody thinks that they know what grace is, and it’s very familiar to them.

JMF: Let’s talk about each one of those terms…

JM: The five terms are: rachum, hannun, ’erek ‘appayim, hesed ve ’emeth. Rachum is cognate with the Hebrew “womb.” It has to do, as far as I am concerned, with beginning. You can’t begin anything without the rachum of God. He is the God who gives birth, the way that the womb of a woman conceives her fetus. When you’re talking about rachum (“compassion,” a lot of times it’s translated), it seems that you’re talking about the care it takes to begin something that is of God.

JMF: Compassion, and here in the New Revised Standard it’s translated as “merciful.” That is the opposite of what this golden calf…

JM: …doesn’t have … for his people.

JMF: In the second term…

JM: The second term, hannun, – has to do with the way that God favors what he’s begun. If he begins something, he sustains it with his favor. So I like “favor.” In your translation they use the English word “grace” for favor or hannun – grace, I like to reserve for the term that comes after – the “slow to anger” term. Because that’s the term that we can follow all the way through the history of Israel on into the New Testament. I think it’s an important one. Don’t believe that you are familiar with the way God defines himself as the “I AM” he is, as the Lord and God of Israel. Seek to allow him to show you the significance of these terms that he’s used in order to establish himself in his relationship with his stiff-necked people, or people who prefer a golden cow to who he is.

JMF: What are the rest of the terms then?

JM: ’Erek ‘appayim is a wonderful, vivid concept. Literally, it is “long of nostrils,” has to do with a face, and an angry face will have a nose that has on it nostrils.

JMF: Flared nostrils.

JM: Flared nostrils, and when a face gets as angry as it can get, those nostrils are flared as formidably as they can be. When those nostrils are as far apart as they can get, he strikes. But he is very slow to get like that. So you get this slowness to anger, because he’s got large nostrils, or however you want to …

“Slow to anger” is a very important concept. God begins something, God sustains it, and he is slow to anger with it. I associate slowness to anger with patience – and with patience, the wisdom of God. You and I would not be here talking together alive if God were not patient, if God were not slow to anger, if God was not free and willing not to minister his wrath against us.

JMF: Even after he gets to the flared-nostril point and determines to punish Israel for its transgressions, its unfaithfulness to the covenant, in Hosea 11 we find a description of that where “I brought you out of Egypt, I have cared for you as my child, and yet you always rebelled and rebelled. And so finally, I’m going to just let you have the fruit of your rebellion and you can go to the Egyptians as you want to, only you are going to go in chains and all.” Yet after that he says, he can’t stand that. He can’t think of doing that or letting that stand. So in the end, he will bring them out from all their captors and restore Israel, and a prophecy of what he will do with Israel in the future through Christ. It’s not only slow to anger, it’s …

JM: Rachum, hannun, ’erek ‘appayim, hesed ve ’emeth.

JMF: There is a point where he blows, and then all is… when God gets mad, that’s it. It isn’t it. Because God’s anger is tempered with all of these other words, we haven’t talked about the last two yet.

JM: I love that passage you’re referring to in Hosea 11 because it’s an opportunity for us to learn in prophecy who God is. And who God is, is the source of his compassion and favor, his slowness to anger and his grace and truth, I’m going to translate those last two terms with. “I can’t give you up – not because you shouldn’t be given up, not because you deserve it, but because I AM WHO I AM. I will not give you up. I will not be the God I am without you.” To discover that source for the grace of God in the Old Testament is absolutely necessary.

JMF: “My heart recoils within me,” he says, “and I cannot give you up.” That’s his own response to the judgment, his own judgment that he’s brought on his people that they very well deserved. And yet he will not let that stand.

JM: In chapter 11 in Micah, it’s a father-son relationship, all throughout the rest of the book of Hosea you have a marriage relationship being used to articulate God in covenant with his people. You have the marriage between Hosea and Gomer. The first ten chapters and 12 through 14, all those chapters utilize the marriage relationship in order to speak about the covenant relationship God has with his people. But here in 11 it’s a father-son relationship. It’s very telling, because it’s in the father-son relationship ultimately that we have to understand the source of the kind of rachum, hannun, ’erek ‘appayim, ve rab chesed du emeth God is toward his stiff-necked people.

JMF: Let’s talk about the last two terms.

JM: Chesed du emeth – I like to think of them as God’s faithfulness to what he has begun, to what he cares to sustain, and to that with which he is wisely patient. The future of the people of God is what it is because of his chesed du emeth, or chesed ve emeth, I guess it is.

JMF: “I change not, therefore you sons of Jacob are …”

JM: I like chesed as “grace.” We should always read “grace” for this term chesed. My students can spend the whole semester doing a word study on chesed YHWH in both “The People of God” course and in “The Kingdom of God” course, to come to appreciate the dynamic way that God is free to choose to be this way with a people who do not deserve him. That’s grace.

JMF: I took that course under a different professor and did a word study on that very word, just in the Old Testament. I found it surprising and encouraging and reassuring to see the way this word is used all throughout the Old Testament, and I came away from that study with anything but the idea that this so-called harsh God of the Old Testament exists. Instead we see the kind of God who’s revealing himself here.

JM: Think about this: God is whispering these words into the ears of Moses in this Exodus 34 context, so that Moses can understand why the enterprise will continue, why he will not kill his people. We can trace this – what I’ve called the little credo – asking my students to become sensitive to it. Throughout the whole history of Israel, from Numbers, from the wilderness to Nehemiah, to the post-exilic people, you can see the use of these five terms throughout that history whenever they’re going to be renewed in their relationship with the Lord God, with their Lord and God, as the great “I AM” he actually is, they invoke Exodus 34:6, in some form. Once you become sensitive to that, you can see the shape and form and struggle of God’s passion to be who he is in covenant with Israel.

JMF: It’s a covenant he established and he keeps it even though the people are unfaithful to it. He keeps it anyway.

JM: Their future is bound up with his willingness to keep who he is in covenant with his people – that’s what their future is bound up with. The last term, emeth, everybody knows, because it’s cognate with “Amen.” It is translatable as “faith,” grace and faith, or truth. Faithfulness, ’emeth is an abstract feminine form of emuna or amen. Those two terms ought to be understood in the New Testament as charis kai alētheia – grace and truth. Chesed ve emeth, grace and faithfulness.

I try to persuade my students that the way that God has defined himself with this grace and truth in the Old Testament, becomes embodied in his servant Messiah in the New Testament, so the change from old to new is a change from a pre-incarnate definition of God to an incarnate definition of God. That is, he’s not embodied – he’s talking to Moses from the flames in a burning bush in the Old, but in the New he is incarnate as the Word become flesh, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once you understand that, you see how he has poured himself into this covenanted relationship with his grace and truth, with this grace and faithfulness as the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

JMF: So we’re not talking about some “other” God in the New Testament.

JM: The same.

JMF: We’re talking about the same God who endures, who describes himself this way, endures with Israel and all of us are Israel, in that sense we are all in this rebellious struggle with God where we have our moments, just as Israel did. When we’re very faithful, we return, and then we have our departures and our rebellion, and he’s faithful, the same God who leaves us this legacy in history of everything that he has been to his people and his faithfulness to them – is the very God who becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. When we talk about the Trinity being one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we’re not talking about three Gods, but we’re talking about one God, and we’re not talking about the Father being the Son and so on. We’re talking about one God who is in community as Father, Son and Spirit, and the Son who becomes flesh is one with the Father.

JM: The revelation of God. He is the way that God is free to choose to reveal himself to his stiff-necked people. What you were saying about the way we are in this relationship – if you trace that through the Old Testament, you’ll see that in the Exodus, the people of God proved themselves to be stiff-necked – “I prefer a golden calf to whoever you are.” In the book of Leviticus, they proved themselves to be high-handed, willing to offer alien fire rather than to worship him the way that he’s freely chosen to give them – fellowship with himself. They try to create other kinds of fellowship with him.

JMF: We can read those stories and we think, “Israel was this way, and Israel was that way,” and yet we’re all this way and that way, we’re just like Israel.

JM: You go from stiff-necked to high-handed in the wilderness murmuring, complaining and then beyond that, with the creation of the monarchy, you find a self-centered people becoming more and more wicked in relationship to him to the point where he destroys everything sacred to them – their Jerusalem, their temple, everything. But in doing that he’s faithful to his word for them. He’s faithful to his Torah with them. That willingness to deal with a wicked people out of himself and to be their God, whether they like it or not, is what you find Jesus facing when he’s born of Miriam of Israel, the house of David fallen, and God willing to make a new beginning in her womb to give us Jesus Christ.

JMF: He says he chose Israel for the sake of the whole world.

JM: Of the testimony of himself to the nations. Always, that was Israel’s task. But she can’t complete that task while she’s worshipping cows or being high-handed.

JMF: “She” being Israel.

JM: Yeah. Or complaining and murmuring that the world isn’t the way I would like it to be for me, and all of that.

JMF: Those sentiments are not unfamiliar to anyone of us as Christians. We are believers, we trust in God, and yet how often are we high-handed [self-centered], and wanting what we want, and trying to re-make God into the way we want him to be instead of the way he reveals himself to us. Yet through it all, he’s faithful to us. He was faithful to his love for us, he won’t let us go.

JM: Otherwise we’re not talking. One of the things we probably should mention in this context is to remind ourselves that when the book of Genesis becomes a part of Moses’ confession, it’s in the light of the Exodus, and in the light of this great “I AM” of the little credo that Moses can confess God as the Creator. It’s in the light of the great “I AM” that you need to learn how to read Genesis – that will solve a lot of problems in the debates we’re having today. All we’re saying is this great “I AM” was the pre-incarnate Word in the Old Testament and in the new covenant prophesied by all the prophets – he has come as the great “I AM” embodied in the person of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus.

JMF: All of the seeming injustices that we see in the Old Testament – I was always, as a child, we had to read everyday in Bible class, we would read through the Old Testament and we’d read all these stories in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles and you wind up reading the same story over again in many of those books, and the story of Jonathan the son of Saul the king of Israel whom David replaced, always troubled me because here was a very good faithful guy – Saul was not faithful, but Jonathan was, he was faithful in his friendship to David, and he was faithful to God, and he was a great warrior and a great leader – the people liked him because of his integrity – and yet he gets killed and does not receive the inheritance of kingship that’s given to David. That never seemed fair. It was fair to David as far as that goes, but not for Jonathan. And many other things like that. The girl who gets sacrificed because the father made a rash vow and so on. In Christ, all these things are resolved, because this is the same God.

JM: God has his grace with his people, yeah. You mentioned Jonathan – Jonathan gets killed because he’s faithful to his father Saul, whom the Lord has rejected.

JMF: And Jesus is also killed because he is faithful to why he came and to us.

JM: Saul participates this way in the grace of God. He gets bad press in Sunday schools. But he should not get bad press the way he gets it in Sunday schools. Saul is God’s elect, David won’t touch him, he is the anointed one. David respects that. And not only that, Saul’s sins never even come close to David’s sin. Never. The giving of his grace to David rather than to Saul doesn’t have to do with our measure of sin, the way we would measure sin. Adultery and murder is far worse than impatience. Impatience is what Saul’s problem is.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2019, 11:05 PM