How can a loving God be jealous, as the Bible describes? Is God envious? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with Erik Thoennes about the proper understanding of God's jealousy. According to Dr. Thoennes, godly jealousy is a misunderstood and yet beautiful attribute of God that can deeply shape our daily lives.
Erik Thoennes is committed to teaching biblical and systematic theology so that he and his students love God and people more fully. He strives to make the necessary connections between the study of theology, obedience to Jesus and fulfilling the Great Commission. He has taught theology and evangelism at the college and seminary levels for several years and is a frequent guest speaker at churches, conferences and retreats, in addition to co-pastoring a local church. Thoennes has received the University award for faculty excellence and professor of the year. His research interests include godly jealousy, the atonement, the exclusivity of Christ and theology of culture.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics.
Scott Rae: We're here for a long overdue conversation with one of our favorite faculty colleagues here at Talbot, Dr. Erik Thoennes, who teaches theology in the undergrad biblical studies in theology department, is a great brother. He's also a pastor on the staff of Grace Evangelical Free Church here in La Mirada. He's got a varied history in sports, he's semi-professional football player and has the scars to show it, but also is just a first rate theologian, not only in what he's teaching, but what he's writing. And one of the things he's written on is a subject that you, as our listeners, may not have heard much about. And that is the whole subject of godly jealousy. Now, before you conclude that that's an oxymoron, let us give Erik an opportunity to spell that out. So Erik, we're delighted to have you with us. Thanks for your coming on with us to talk about this subject that we just don't hear much about. Why do you think we don't hear much about it?
Erik Thoennes: Well guys, thanks for having me. I love this podcast. It's my favorite podcast with two brothers that I have great respect for and colleagues that I love being on the same team with here at Talbot. So it's a joy to be here. This topic of godly jealousy has become a defining attribute of God for me in my life. And it actually grieves me that it either gets so little attention among Christians or is terribly misunderstood or we're even embarrassed by it and almost wish it weren't true of God. And it's been vital for me to learn about this attribute and understand it. And a lot of times good definitions help us clear a lot of the confusion away and to understand jealousy as an attribute of God who is committed to our faithfulness to him in a covenant relationship and is deeply offended by our unfaithfulness, is a wonderful thing about God and something that actually drives him toward us when we rebel and when we're a wayward bride. And it's a tremendous, tremendous attribute of God that we've got to value.
Scott Rae: Now, you've said it was actually very formative in your own spiritual development. How so?
Erik Thoennes: Well, I would say there's a broader issue when you study an attribute that is not the favored attribute a lot of people will have, or one we focus on. We tend to focus on attributes like love and mercy and grace. It seems like almost every worship song focuses on those attributes. It's pretty seldom you hear about the wrath of God or godly jealousy, or even a kind of godly hatred that opposes sin and evil. And so first of all, I think it's important to not have a selective hierarchical view of attributes that value some and appreciate some and not others. And so there can be a selective approach to the biblical portrayal of God, and then a selective approach to who God is, that ends up with a deficient view or a warped view of God.
Erik Thoennes: And so the first thing it's been helpful is seeking a whole Bible understanding of God and not a selective one based on what the culture may find palatable these days or what I'm inclined to like of about God or not. It's not a designer God we're to have. And so to lean into attributes that are difficult or hard to understand is vital. I would say that's the first and most important thing I've learned from this.
Scott Rae: You mean we don't get to make God in our own image?
Erik Thoennes: No. That's maybe our biggest problem right there. Yeah.
Sean McDowell: So Exodus 34:14 says, "You shall worship no other God." Of course, to the Israelites. "For the Lord, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God." Help us understand this passage and what it really means biblically for God to be jealous.
Erik Thoennes: Well here the Israelites are about to go into the promised land. They're going to be surrounded by pagan religions that have false gods, idolatry, pagan worship, fertility rites that are just offensive and destructive to human flourishing and to the honor of God ultimately. And so he's warning them as they go in to not have other gods besides him, the one true God. And he does that because he loves them, but he's doing it ultimately so that he'll be honored and glorified in their midst, which is the best thing for them.
Erik Thoennes: And so when he says I'm a jealous God, he's saying my name is jealous. That's how essential jealousy is to my character. You just go ahead and call me that and make a name out of it for me. And so it's a vital attribute of God, which again, is his adamant commitment to our faithfulness so that he responds with jealousy in the face of unfaithfulness, like any good husband or wife would when he or she finds their spouse being unfaithful. If you really love someone, it's got to have a healthy jealousy where you're not ambivalent in the face of adultery.
Scott Rae: Erik, I've often heard the idea of the jealousy of God referred to as more a zealousness for a people whom he loves. Is that an accurate portrayal or is that more of a euphemism?
Erik Thoennes: Well, the Hebrew word canna and the Greek word, zelos can be translated various ways. One of them is zeal. Another is envy. I don't think there's actually an occurrence in the Bible where a good translation would be envy, but zeal is this general deep desire to see something happen. So there's certainly zeal in jealousy, but if you just stay with zeal, then you miss this edge of this attribute of God that is focused on marriage metaphors, sexual metaphors that the Bible uses to talk about deep covenant relationship. And envy can be another translation, where I think I might have misspoke. Envy is a translation that we find in the Bible of zelos or canna, but not emulation. Maybe I said it right. But in the Old and New Testaments, you get examples where zeal is the right translation, it's just a general desire to see something come about. But when unfaithfulness and a covenant relationship is present, jealousy's the right translation, it loses its edge if you go at the more general translation.
Sean McDowell: So you've mentioned envy a couple times and it seems to me, envy is the desire for something you shouldn't have, but jealousy, when properly understood, is a desire for, like you said, with a spouse that one should have and would want to protect, is that fair? And is God jealous and envious or just jealous?
Erik Thoennes: Well, I think envy's always sinful. I don't think there's a godly envy because envy is the desire to gain possession of something that isn't yours. And that's very different than jealousy, which is the desire to maintain faithfulness in an exclusive relationship. And so there's a relational component of it and there's a rightness to it when it's godly. And there can even be malicious envy where it's not even good enough for me to have what you have, I don't want you to have it. And it goes to another level of envy. And so envy's always sinful. Jealousy often is on a human level, never is with God. And it's a precious attribute of God that his jealousy for our faithfulness, because that's what's best for us and what's best for his glory, would drive him to the redemptive work he does in our lives.
Scott Rae: So let's be really clear about this. What is the difference between godly and ungodly jealousy?
Erik Thoennes: So on a human level, and this is why we have such a hard time with it, I understand why we have a hard time with this because on a human level, the majority of the time probably, jealousy is sinful. One, because it's often unwarranted. You have this husband, his wife has done nothing that's unfaithful, but he'll still be jealous and it's maddening or it can even be warranted, but then it's expressed in really ungodly ways, in an abusive way or a dominating way and that certainly isn't godly. And so because we see it expressed on a human level so frequently in ungodly sinful ways, it's hard for us to imagine that God could have a pure version of this because on a human level, it's so often a destructive attribute.
Scott Rae: Well, and I can see in lots of cases on a human level, jealousy emerges out of some sort of insecurity.
Erik Thoennes: Yes, absolutely.
Scott Rae: That's not obviously not applicable to God.
Erik Thoennes: Right. And that's a vital starting point, Scott, thanks for highlighting that because we tend to project our insecurities and our frailties and sin on God. And so, because jealousy for us is so often driven by feeling unaffirmed or insecure that we would go pursue faithfulness to somehow fill up some void in us, but God's independent. He has no unmet needs. He doesn't need us or the rest of creation for anything. So we've got to really redeem this idea by banishing any thought of God doing this out of some sort of insecure need based motivation.
Sean McDowell: So it sounds like one of the confusions people have with jealousy is we import our sinfulness and our brokenness onto the Scriptures and God. What other confusions or misunderstandings are there about approaching a godly view of jealousy or what other things might lead to us not understanding what the Scriptures really teach?
Erik Thoennes: Well, I think the first thing is letting God be God in his pursuit of his own glory, within his creation. So for a human being, it's always wrong to have our glory as our primary goal. That's always ugly, even in a culture like sports, where self exaltation has become the pattern. You can even go over the line there and people say, ah, come on. That's too, come on, chill out, act like you're not God of the universe. So we keep that sort of thing in check. But this is one of those times that God is so different than we are. His pursuit of his glory is unique to him. It's always wrong for human beings to pursue their own glory, but it's always right for God to do that.
Erik Thoennes: And the primary way he's glorified is by the daily faithfulness of his people. That very practical, daily, working out of our faithfulness is a vital part of this. Our faithfulness to God that glorifies him takes place in daily life in ways that very often God is the only one that knows it's going on. So when I refrain from self exaltation or from stretching the truth or from tearing someone down, God's honored by that. And sometimes people don't even realize it happened besides you and God. And so simply obeying God in daily faithfulness is the most honoring thing to him. And so it's right for him to pursue that. Augustan said, "What am I to you that you would command me to love you and threaten great miseries if I don't?" And so he saw God's pursuit of his faithfulness as an incredible, mysterious wonder that was wonderful because God cares that much about him.
Scott Rae: So Erik, where else in the Scripture, what other characters, even I'm sort of curious, do you see godly jealousy expressed in the life of Jesus in the gospels or other biblical characters in the Old Testament? Where else do you see it besides the character of God?
Erik Thoennes: God's jealousy for his own glory through our faithfulness goes from Genesis to Revelation. It's amazing what a theme it is in the Bible, how often it drives God and what he's doing in very obvious ways. And then we consider, well godly people actually experience this as well, on behalf of God seeking his glory in their own lives and the lives of God's people, but then in general in life. And so there are lots of examples I could give, but there are a few in particular that really highlight this attribute of these individuals.
Erik Thoennes: And as you go through the Bible, the first would be in Phineas in Numbers 25, where there's a plague going on among the Israelites, because they've done the very thing God said not to when they got into the promised land. And they've intermarried with people from pagan religions, and they've entered into the worship of their gods and God's brought judgment on them. And in the midst of this, a man comes into the site of the tent of meeting with an Midianite woman and apparently begins to have sexual intercourse, that's visible to people and no one does anything about it, except this man Phineas. And he takes a spear and puts them both to death. It stops the plague.
Erik Thoennes: And then God interprets this action of Phineas as something that atoned for the sins of the people. And he says, "Because Phineas was jealous with my jealousy for my honor, he's atoned for the sins of the people." And then he becomes a Christ type. He gets a perpetual priesthood and does this atoning work. And it's amazing his actions aren't highlighted, but his heart is, his attitude of a jealousy for God's honor in the midst of gross unfaithfulness is something God highlights is worthy of great honor.
Erik Thoennes: And so you get Phineas, you get David running to Goliath and we need to realize he does that out of godly jealousy. What does he say as he goes, "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine talking about the armies of living God this way?" And this punk kid takes on this giant and throws caution to the wind because he just can't handle God being dishonored this way. And you get to Elijah after he takes on the prophets of Baal and old Jezebel's after him still. And he's pouting, and God says, "What's wrong, Elijah?" And he says, "Oh, I alone am left with a jealous heart for your honor." And God says, "No, you're not. I've preserved 7,000 who haven't kissed the mouth of Baal in Jerusalem." And so the Old Testament has these vivid examples, and then you get to the New Testament.
Sean McDowell: Okay, hang on. Now, let me jump in here. Before we talk about Jesus and some of these New Testament examples. You talk about this in your writing. I want to make sure we don't miss it. That when they saw dishonor, this is a spear and a sling that kills people. You're clearly not, even though the honor and the attribute transcends the Old Testament, make that connection, you know where I'm going with this.
Erik Thoennes: Yeah, I do. This is an example of how a study like this actually forces you to think about broader issues that applicable to all sorts of issues. One is the interpretive issue I was mentioning previously that we can't be selective in what we focus on in the Bible. I'm writing a book right now called 20 Things Christians should Probably Stop Saying, and one of them is, and people are going to be so mad at me for this, I think we should stop saying, "This is my favorite verse, or this is my favorite book." Now I think what we mean by that is, God has powerfully used this in my life, which is great. That's how God works. But once we whip out favorite language, it's kind of how we talk about ice cream and not portions of Scripture. And so when we have favorite portions of Scripture, we end up with favorite aspects of who God is. And that's firstly, the unity of the attributes is one of the massive things here.
Erik Thoennes: The other thing is the way we interpret the Bible, just in general, we can't parachute in to Phineas or Elijah or David, unaware of where we are in redemptive history. That we need to understand the old covenant context of that. That's talking about a theocracy. It's talking about the laws. So when you look at those stories, Phineas, as a priest in charge of maintaining the purity of the tabernacle court, David, as a king, Elijah, as a prophet of God, they're function right within their old covenant roles. Doing exactly what they showed according to the commandments of God.
Erik Thoennes: When we get to the new covenant context, I don't think we lose godly jealousy just as intensely. It's just now our weapons of warfare are very different. Rather than a spear or stones, it's now the sword of the spirit, the gospel of peace, the word of God. Paul writes an epistle out of godly jealousy to the Corinthians. And so now we exercise godly jealousy in pursuing holiness among God's people, through the preaching of the word, through the ministry of the spirit, through our lives, as we live holy lives and call others to do the same.
Scott Rae: Do you also see it when Jesus cleared the temple?
Erik Thoennes: Well, yeah. So, when we get to the New Testament and there's an example of, oh, so it's not just really soft and nice ways once we get new covenant, Jesus sees that the house of worship has become defiled in the way it has in the marketplace there. And he can't handle it. And he flips over tables and what's amazing is John two, after he does that, his disciples remember David's words in Psalm 60:69, "Jealousy for your house will consume me." And they say there's a connection here between David's expression of godly jealousy and Jesus in the temple. And so there he is taking decisive action.
Erik Thoennes: I think what's important to realize there about Jesus too, is he knew that was going on in his temple his entire life. He didn't fly off the handle when he walked in and saw it. He knew for his entire life that was going on in his temple, at least since he was 12 and was there. And now here he is a man in his thirties and it says, "Now is the time to cleanse my temple." So he moves in and does that.
Erik Thoennes: And then we move to Paul, who, as I said, writes to the Corinthians and says, "I'm jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I betrothed you to one husband and I want to present you to him as a pure virgin." There again, drawing from the sexual imagery, the marriage imagery, to be intentionally offensive when we talk about our unfaithfulness before God.
Sean McDowell: Is there a better word you would suggest than jealousy because people automatically associate the negative things we've been talking about, or is it just a matter of clarifying and redeeming the term?
Erik Thoennes: I wish there were an English word that didn't lose any of the intentionally offensive punch of that word, but I've looked, I tell you.
Sean McDowell: Really?
Erik Thoennes: I've sought a better word that doesn't bring up-
Sean McDowell: Are there any close ones that just like-
Erik Thoennes: I really, I think jealousy a really good one.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Erik Thoennes: And I think one of our main jobs as teachers and preachers and leaders is to help people at times, redefine words that have redemptive possibilities and not just run from them and constantly be changing them. So I frequently we hear people say, "Well, it's not really the fear of the Lord we're supposed to have. It's just a reverence." Well, yeah, but when you read fear of the Lord in the Bible, there is a boot shaking element to it. That means fear's probably a good translation, which is why translators stick with words like that because they don't want to dilute what's going on there. And so I understand the baggage it brings with it. I really do, but I want to work really hard not to be changing words that I think are well translated. I want to explain in ways where people learn to love those things about God.
Scott Rae: Erik, this may be a question that you've had students raise to you when you talk about this subject in your classes. But I wonder if, take the whole notion of God being jealous for his own glory, does that portray God as self-centered, selfish, narcissistic? And if not, why not?
Erik Thoennes: Right. Absolutely. It does if God were not God. To pursue your own glory is self-absorbed and narcissistic and a very ugly thing in any human being. But for God, it's the best possible thing. If God didn't pursue his own glory, he wouldn't love us well. He'd let us settle for cheap imitations of himself. And that's called idolatry in the Bible. And that's the worst thing for us. If he really loves us, he's not going to let us settle for anything but himself as the ultimate object of our affections, as our greatest joy, our greatest pleasure and who we're devoted to more than anything else. And because he loves us so much, he wouldn't let us settle for idols instead of himself. And he wouldn't be just either, he would be letting us believe a lie that isn't true if he just said, "You know what? I'm just going to let you go your way."
Erik Thoennes: And another important interpretive thing in this is we can't just look for ideas in particular words. So for instance, when we look for jealousy in the Bible, we're going to find it in places we don't expect it. I mean, an example of what I'm saying is, for instance, the word grace never appears in the prodigal son story, but what's that story about? It's about grace. So if we just do word studies all the time, concordances have their value, but the downside of a concordance is you can think meaning is always attached to particular words.
Erik Thoennes: Well, the same thing in this jealousy study, one of the most powerful portrayals is in the book of Hosea where God uses this righteous prophet to marry a prostitute who betrays him and then he pursues Gomer in her unfaithfulness to image himself. And so that is a wonderful realization. I remember the first time I studied that story in Hosea, I had myself, I had all these feelings of, oh, Hosea, let her go. She's not worth it. And then I realized, wait, I'm Gomer. Yeah, Hosea. She's an idiot. She doesn't know what she's doing. She's prone to wander. Lord, I feel it, go get her. And he does. And so to know that God loves us that intensely, where he doesn't just shrug his shoulders when we stray from him as his bride, but he pursues us, even in our ugly unfaithfulness, it's one of the most glorious, gracious things he can do.
Sean McDowell: So this is a fair way to look at it. When people have asked me, how can God tell us to worship him? This is so self-centered? The illustration I've used is I said, well, take a mountain. If you look at a mountain and you're stuck on your phone and you don't say things like, wow, something's wrong with you. You're not responding to the mountain the way that you should. Well, that's something that's created. Imagine the creator behind this who made the mountain, how much more should we be in awe? So if you take that mountain, give it a mind and intelligence, it's going to want to help us to respond properly. Is that fair as it relates to jealousy?
Erik Thoennes: It is. I think it's really vital to view it that way. And again, getting back to Scott's point that God is not insecure in this. He was completely self sufficient and secure for all of eternity past before we ever showed up. It's not like he's saying, oh, come on, give me the credit I deserve, in some sort of insecure way, but he creates us as image bearers and he creates us for relationship with him. And he knows that we will never be satisfied and never filled with joy and delight as he created us to be, until we find our greatest joy and delight in him. And so pursuing our worship of him isn't some just self-absorbed thing. It's a loving thing. It's a profoundly good thing for him to never let us settle for what's best. And so there is a God focus of God, a God priority, but that's a good thing that we are part of glorifying him. And the greatest privilege we have is to glorify him.
Erik Thoennes: The struggle we all have with this indicates the state of our frail, fallen hearts that we say, "God, you're the greatest. God you're glorious," but we'd sort of prefer if he said, "Aw shucks, you're embarrassing me. Come on, you're taking it as this a bit too far."
Scott Rae: Come on, God, have some humility about it.
Erik Thoennes: Exactly. Right. We think, you deserve the glory and he should sort of kick the ground and say, "Oh, we're embarrassing me." But the fact is he does the opposite, he says more and louder and spend your lives with seeing more people worship me and even risk your lives to see more people come to worship me. Because that's what he created us for and that is glorifying to him and that's what's best for us.
Erik Thoennes: I remember hearing Oprah Winfrey say years ago that the thing that drove her away from biblical Christianity was the jealousy of God. She said she was sitting in her early twenties in a, she said, "And I was Baptist. I was sitting in this Baptist church and this Baptist preacher said the Lord that God is a jealous God." And Oprah said, "And I thought, why? Why would God be jealous of anything I could do? And I said, that can't be right anymore." And she drifted from her biblical moorings and her Christian faith at that point. And I would love to be able to sit with Oprah and say, "Oprah. The huge word is of. God is not jealous of you. He's jealous for you though. And that's a world of difference. He's not wanting your billions. He's not wanting your fame. He's the creator. He made you Oprah and he made you for himself. And so he is jealous for you. And that's the best news in the world." I would give all my money to have lunch with Oprah and be able to tell her that.
Sean McDowell: Erik was interesting about that is I've heard my dad contrast when he was an unbeliever, it was understanding God's jealousy and God's love. The evidence got his attention, but properly understanding it is what drew him to the faith, the opposite experience of Oprah.
Erik Thoennes: Wow.
Scott Rae: Erik, a good of many of our listeners are leaders, pastors, elders in their churches, leaders in their communities. How would this concept of godly jealousy apply specifically to Christian leaders?
Erik Thoennes: Well, I think if a leader is an AmErikan context in particular, if you're leading the United States, I think it speaks directly to things like consumerism, a marketing mentality with ministry, a popularity mentality that we're somehow on some popularity campaign. And it speaks right to that, because we cannot be driven by the latest opinion, polls or trends or things you must do or else your church is going to be obsolete. And it's not wrong to consider those sorts of things. But for so long, they've dominated our perception of good ministry.
Erik Thoennes: Rather, we need to say, "Will God be honored be this? Will he be pleased by this? Will he be glorified? Will people get an understanding of who the glorious God of the Bible really is?" Not, will they like it? Will they come back? Will they put money in the plate? But will God be honored? And when that is your driving motivation in ministry, doesn't mean you don't care about whether it's connecting with people, we want to do things wisely, but it shifts the focus in an incredibly freeing way. If you're convinced God is honored, say by the preaching of his word and not just feel good messages, you're going to be freed up to preach the word. And even if people criticize you, or if you lead worship in a way that people are convicted by and not just celebratory because of it, that's okay, because people being pleased with your performance is not what you're driven by anymore, but you're driven by God being honored in your life, in your ministry.
Erik Thoennes: And it brings a weighty fear of the Lord and a desire to please him and answer to him one day for the stewardship of ministry he's given us. And that it becomes so weighty for us, we're not yanked around by everybody's latest opinions.
Sean McDowell: Before we wrap up, tell us a little bit about your book. And by the way, I know this is not just a popular, like More Than a Carpenter level book, there's some depth in theology here, but I think it's very readable to people who want to take this topic and go further with it.
Erik Thoennes: Yeah. The book is called Godly Jealousy, A Theology of Intolerant Love. And that's another issue I know you've done a lot of work on Sean, this idea of tolerance and as the greatest good. But here we have a God who's intolerant of our faithfulness. He's not cool with it. And so to recognize that is a good thing. And so the book is a biblical theology, which is another vital aspect of theological method I so want people to appreciate more, and that's tracing an idea as it develops in redemptive history historically throughout the Bible, respecting the nature of Scripture itself as theological truth unfolding throughout redemptive history in time. So there's a progressive nature to this idea.
Erik Thoennes: And there's a repetitive nature to it. So we trace everywhere throughout the Bible, starting with creation, right through the consummation of this idea where God is pursuing his glory through the faithfulness of his people. And then we focus on human examples of this when it's at its best and then make application to contemporary culture. So yeah, it's a biblical theology that traces a theological theme through the Bible, which I so want Christian to do a better job of. And again, not just proof texting or parachuting into portions of the Bible unaware of your surroundings, but realizing where we are in the progressive theological teaching we have throughout the Bible.
Sean McDowell: So reading this book is super helpful to go more deep on the concept of godly jealousy, but people who read it are going to get methodology about how to take any other topic. You mentioned favoritism earlier, you could take salvation, you could take marriage, it's a model for how Christians should approach Scripture. So double value, check it out, Godly Jealousy by our guest today, Erik Thoennes.
Scott Rae: Hey, next time, try to be a little bit more passionate about this subject, would you?
Erik Thoennes: We'll see what I can do. I'll have more coffee next time.
Scott Rae: This has been great Erik, thanks so much for being with us. I want to commend into our listeners again, your book, Godly Jealousy, great stuff. And thank you, especially for what I think you've become well known around here for, is your sense of clarity and your theologically well groundedness. So very appreciative of that. Appreciate your good work on this, your leadership in the church and especially your ministry to our students.
Erik Thoennes: I'm very grateful guys. Thank you.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoy today's conversation with our colleague and good friend, Dr. Erik Thoennes, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.