The night was warm, and our group gathered expectantly, watching the desert sky. We looked past the dust and the distant light pollution, waiting to see something far beyond—and at that hour, the horizon began to glow with an unworldly splendor. This was not the harsh glow of civilization or the glimmer of dawn; it was the milky light of our home galaxy’s 200 billion stars. At that moment we were surrounded with light, for our horizon was perfectly aligned with the plane of the galaxy. We could imagine ourselves standing on our tiny island of earth in a vast ocean of stars one quintillion miles across.
Our Milky Way galaxy is a flat disc 100,000 light years wide and one thousand light years thick. Every day, our earth rotates around to show us the entire Milky Way. Under a dark sky we might see its wide band, broken into foggy clumps, curving over our heads. Those glowing masses of light contain billions of separate stars so distant they appear as mist. In fact, even the clearest views of the Milky Way show only a fraction of what is there. Most of our galaxy’s stars are obscured by clouds of gas and dust, hidden from even the greatest telescopes. To view a complete galaxy, we must go deeper.
For a few of us, galaxy hunting is a passion that drives us out into the wilderness where the wild things are. There the starry magnificence is accessible to everyone, and on a remote site with a large telescope, those “faint fuzzies” begin to reveal themselves as friends. We give them names such as “The Whale” and “The Silver Coin,” or even “The Mice.” Touring that distant but familiar galactic neighborhood was our travel plan that night in Joshua Tree as we gathered around the clunky 20” telescope.
We finally saw the Milky Way rise in the east, its cloudy arms stretching over the low mountains. They appeared motionless in the sky, as if long ago, great ocean waves were suddenly frozen. Astronomers say those foamy clouds are galaxy arms that act as “density waves,” clumping the stars together while they pass through.1 Every moment, we in our solar system glide by the Orion Arm along with our neighborhood stars.
What would we find if we could visit those stars? We know they have planets of all types, but most of those planets and their stars are extremely hostile for life, Stars often have lethal levels of radiation and are either too cool or hot to support living things, while nearly all planets have the wrong kinds of orbits, the wrong composition, and no liquid water. If there is any sort of life out there, it is probably very rare, as shown in the movie Privileged Planet.2
Our planet is always moving, taking part in many celestial cycles all at once. Right now, our earth rotates once every 24 hours; our moon circles us every 29 days, and we orbit our star every 365 days. However, one galaxy rotation takes a bit longer. Our solar system family orbits the Milky Way’s center at 515,000 mph. If that seems fast, consider how far those stars must travel for one galactic orbit. One complete lap around the galaxy’s nucleus requires 200,000,000 years3—and remember, our great Milky Way is but one galaxy among billions.
Scripture and the stars
All this talk of time and distance can make one feel dizzy and insignificant, and the more many people learn about the stars, the more irrelevant Scripture seems. Where is the need for a Creator—or especially, for a Savior? Many look at the Bible writers as ignorant, primitive men who had nothing realistic to say about the universe. Ironically, for many people, these feelings of insignificance go hand-in-hand with an arrogant fatalism. Most people accept this crude logic: the universe is great; therefore human existence is meaningless. Even the brightest secular minds can only spout the conventional wisdom about our supposed “mediocrity”:
The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.4
The conventional secular mind looks at the heavens and sees only the slow grind of celestial mechanics that, caring nothing for human suffering, will eventually carry us all into frozen oblivion. If we have ears to hear, however, we will heed Scripture’s wisdom that warns us about taking our fragile lives for granted. This great surrounding ocean of stars constantly speaks to us; their wordless voices reach all the earth (Ps. 19:1-3). They confirm our place in the cosmos, not as chemical scum, but as beings privileged to know the eternal attributes of our Maker. A true knowledge of the stars replaces our arrogant “insignificance” with humble assurance. They speak of a Mind that is infinite, personal, and not indifferent to our sorrows. Let us abandon our pride and revel in the overwhelming vastness of the universe. We have been given a sign.
Just a little while ago in galactic time, an ignorant, primitive man of southeastern Mesopotamia stood out under the stars one night, and a voice suddenly spoke to him: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…so shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). The voice promised to be that man’s shield and great reward. That covenant was to be a never-ending, cosmic-sized blessing. Abraham believed, and his tiny faith was counted as cosmic-sized righteousness.
The fixed order
Long before men pondered the meaning of the stars, their deep purposes were fixed. “And God said, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years…’” (Gen. 1:14, 15). Since the beginning the cycles of light and shadow and the seasons of cold and heat have given us signs and numbered our days. Later, at Mt. Sinai, Abraham’s children received an entire system of life built around new moons, sunrises, and sunsets to regulate their worship and to govern their nation.
Even though Israel broke their Sinai covenant with God and suffered many painful exiles and tears, the God of Abraham was speaking to their suffering even before their Babylonian invasions and ultimate exile: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:20).
How does the Lawgiver remember with mercy? He declares an unbreakable, permanent covenant, stronger even than the heavens, not like the weak Sinai covenant that Israel could break (vs. 32). Jeremiah 31 shows the new covenant’s power:
But 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 (Jer. 31:33-34).
This covenant relies on God’s choices and activities. For example, throughout Jeremiah 31 and 32 the phrase “I will” occurs over and over. It is God’s willing and doing that drives the new covenant, so it cannot fail.
He will remember His people by forgetting their sins “after those days.” None of their failures can end His original covenant to them, nor can men’s decrees against Abraham’s children terminate God’s original promise. Over the past two millennia, men carrying the name of Christ have persecuted the Jews, attempting to nullify God’s irrevocable calling (Rom. 11:29), but “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:2).
The strength of God’s promise to Abraham, however, does not require us to make sharp distinctions between the promises to the Jews and those given to the church. We can join Paul in affirming that, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28, 29).
Currently, Abraham’s physical descendants as well as the nations are in a general state of rebellion. This fact demonstrates that “God has consigned all to disobedience so that He may have mercy on all.” Furthermore, God’s mercy includes the fact that He will have “a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:6), and He will give them a “spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zech. 12:10). Moreover, God has used the unchangeable “fixed order” of the heavenly bodies as the sign to show us how certain His promises are:
Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name: if this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever (Jer. 31:35-37).
The fixed order of the earth and all the galaxies testifies not only that God’s word to Abraham and Israel is still in effect, but it also speaks to us Gentiles, those “afar off” who also are chosen by grace. God’s promised Servant is for all people:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is. 49:6).
Six hundred years later, Paul took the Servant’s salvation message far and wide and confidently tells the Ephesians: “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
Here is hope for the despairing and alienated. We have been brought near by the blood of Christ, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). Our lives don’t dangle on the frayed ropes of our promises; they rest on the faithful life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. He has guaranteed the following: He will remember our sins no more (Jer. 31:34); He will cause us to know him personally (Jer. 24:7; 31:34), and “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever” (32:39). As a pledge, He has attached His faithfulness to the most dependable demonstrations imaginable—the motions of the entire cosmos.
We tend to think of divine signs as miracles that violate the laws of nature. Unless we see God interfering with His own natural order, we think we are not seeing Him at work. God, however, has purposefully embedded signs into nature that testify of His everlasting covenant that comes with a glory that never fades (2 Cor. 3:10,11).
The natural order is fixed, not because it is a perfect physical system, but because it is upheld by a covenant-keeping God. The fine tuning of gravity, the speed of light, and the various atomic forces allow life to continue and are kept by His word: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). From the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy clusters, the fixed order of the heavens display His supremacy. God’s divine decrees stabilize the whole creation, and God intends that we observe His glory and character in what He has made (Rom. 1:20). The continuity of nature testifies that God’s new covenant is bound tightly to the power of His word and name. As Alexander MacLaren said,
God descends to ratify a bond with man. By it He binds Himself to give all possible good for the soul. And to confirm it, heaven and earth are called in. He points us to all that is august, stable, immense, inscrutable in the works of His hands, and bids us to see there His pledge that He will be a faithful God.5
The heights and the depths
The heavens declare yet another wonderful aspect of the new covenant. Not only does God guarantee His covenant will not fail, but His forgiveness is unbreakable also. Again, He swears an oath by Himself and declares its eternal certainty by comparing it to the unknowable breadth of creation:
Thus says the Lord: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the Lord (Jer. 31:37).
We will never know the limits of the cosmos, nor will God ever reach the limits of His mercy to those He forgives. Man’s inability to know the limits of creation is a comforting sign for all those who put their trust in Him. Moreover, this unbreakable promise of God means that there can be no place in the entire cosmos where He is hoarding our sins. Anyone who teaches that God keeps a record of the believers’ sins as “evidence,” or that He will ever use forgiven sins against His own, makes God a liar.
Astronomy is a wonderful science, and exploring beneath the earth’s surface yields useful knowledge of our planet. Knowing what God has done to show mercy to us, however, is the greater splendor. His covenant, underwritten by His own blood and sovereign grace, keeps we who are forgiven sinners from ever losing any promised blessing. The One who swore by Himself says:
…I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me (Jer. 32:40).
Which is easier to say?
The man lay still as he looked up through the falling chunks of dirt and dust where his four friends still held onto his ropes. As his rickety bed descended slowly into the darkened room, he heard voices from shadowy figures crowding around. He didn’t want their attention; people always said that his paralysis was caused by either his parents’ sin or by his own. He knew he was not a righteous man, so this filthy bed might be exactly what he deserved. Then one day, when his friends told him stories of how this teacher wielded the power to help the desperate, he believed.
He saw the plain-faced man looking at him intently, as if he knew everything about him. The teacher said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Lk. 5:20). The people in the room now became offended. “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Lk. 5:21). The desperate man felt a stab of joy and wondered, “Can I be healed?” But the teacher said to the men,
Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you,” or to say, “Rise and walk”? (Vs. 23).
This Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man, the Messiah in Daniel 7 who boldly approaches the Ancient of Days, receiving an eternal kingdom (Dan. 7:13, 14). And now He claimed the authority to forgive sin! Anyone can say to someone who hurts him, “I forgive you,” but only God can truly forgive sins. All sins are ultimately against Him (Ps. 51:4). But now Jesus’ critics hear Him speak the unthinkable:
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home” (Vs. 24).
The command surged through the man’s body, and he leapt to his feet. The crowd drew back amazed, and a man shouted, “Glory to God!” Now people came all around to touch him, and together they were leaping and shouting and praising God. The shadowy men had disappeared.
The new covenant is not for the strong and capable or for those who can add their spiritual muscles to God’s power. The new covenant kingdom is made up of the helpless and poor in spirit:
In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant… (Mic. 4:6, 7).
All the new covenant promises are summed up this way: “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer. 32: 38). He made that promise to Abraham’s children (Gen. 17:7, 8), and He gave it to us. What does it mean for God to be your God? It means that with all of His heart and soul (Jer. 32:41), He will draw you to Himself (Jn. 6:44), bring you to life (Eph. 2:1-5), and keep you following Him forever (Jn. 10:27-30). He will spare nothing to finish what He started, not even Himself (Rom. 8:32). Once our sins are forgiven, we will never lack for anything.
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).
Do not lose heart
Even so, as citizens of a broken world, we are subject to the bleak laws of nature. Sometimes we are even victims of natural or human evil, and we can be tempted to despair. Paul understood this temptation. After he met Jesus, he spent his days being pursued by mobs, only to survive floggings, stonings and shipwrecks. Yet he could say, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Paul was not being renewed by health and prosperity secrets, but from God’s power outside his battered body. His true, inner self, born of the Spirit, drank daily from the living drafts of God’s promises. Like a fragile clay jar, Paul carried the treasure of the new covenant gospel not as a spiritual dynamo, but in personal weakness (vs. 7). Because Paul carried about in his body the dying of Jesus, he manifested His life (vs. 10), showing us by example that although our bodies crumble away, the strength we desperately need comes faithfully from God morning by morning, just for today.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (vv. 4:17,18).
That night as our group stood in the Joshua Tree desert gazing at our own galaxy and into the deep space beyond, we saw God’s signs to us. His word is absolute and cannot fail, and He has given us the fixed order of His creation as a sign to us that what He promises, He will do.
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 (Jer. 31:33). †
Copyright 2013 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised October 1, 2013. Contact email: email@example.com
Martin L. Carey grew up as an Adventist in many different places, including Tacoma Park, Maryland, Missouri, and Guam, USA. During daylight hours he works as a psychologist for a high school in San Bernardino, California. He is also a licensed family therapist. He is married to Sharon and has two sons, Matthew, 11, and Nick, 25. He continues to pine for clear, dark skies with eight different telescopes up to 20”. Biblical research and classical piano take up his remaining energy. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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VOLUME 14, ISSUE 3