It was a comment that I have heard often but am never ready to hear. I was on the phone with someone who confessed that they wished the revealed nature of God in the Old Testament was more aligned with what they see in the New Testament. The struggle stemmed from Numbers 16 and the rebellion of Korah. Specifically, it was the realization that Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up with their families.
How can the loving and merciful God revealed in the Son, Jesus, be the same as the God who swallowed up these families?
Theologically, we believe in the immutability of God. Scripture makes it clear that God does not change in verses such as Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, and James 1:17. The answer is not that God changed between in the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew, but that the object of his righteous wrath has. The heart of our misguided question, I think, lies in our misunderstanding of two issues: the righteousness of God and the weight of sin.
First, while we love to focus on the examples of compassion in the ministry of Jesus, we must also recognize that he demonstrated his righteousness with equal power. Yes, Jesus welcomed the little children, but he also turned over tables, whipped those engaged in predatory behaviors in the temple, pronounced condemnation on those who obscured the true worship of God, and spoke hard truths that led some to leave dejected.
Jesus was no stranger to righteous wrath when he walked among us, and he warned of it frequently in his teaching. I’m far more terrified of the reality of Matthew 7:20-23 than I am of Numbers 16. (“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord…”)
Second, our sins against God are not the same as our hurting another human. We are taught to forgive those who harm us, but God cannot simply forgive sin. The two are not the same.
Righteousness requires wrath, and his wrath looks different in the two Testaments because the object of that wrath changed. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Before Jesus could become our Savior, he willingly became the object of God’s wrath. This, friend, is the true nature of the Cross.
When we see the Cross, we must see more than death. Crucifixion was used by Rome not to execute criminals, but to inflect as much pain and humiliation as possible. It was a means of psychological warfare that was designed to sear the brutal cruelty of Rome into the mind of every witness, to remind them of the consequences of going against the Empire.
To put it simply, we must be reminded and confronted by the wrath of God poured out on our sins. Our sins do not merely hurt God’s feelings. They are so egregious to our righteous God that the full weight of his wrath had to be brought to bear. Jesus willingly endured it to preserve God’s righteousness and to secure our salvation.
A perfect example of our squeamishness regarding God’s wrath is in the story of the modern hymn “In Christ Alone.” Some denominations tried to change the lyrics and eventually just decided not to sing it. The reason? Verse two:“…till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”
Some wanted to change the wording to read, “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” Composers Stuart Townend and Keith Getty objected to change because, yes, the cross is the ultimate display the love of God—in that Jesus was the ultimate recipient of God’s righteous wrath.
If we do not return to the brutal beauty of the cross and the cost of our salvation, then we can never truly appreciate the just nature of God, and we will forever be tempted to deny the severity of our sin. We need to see the blood that makes us white as snow. We need to witness the humiliation endured by Jesus because of our sins. We need to see justice executed by a just God.
At Easter, don’t skip the cross. It’s easier to focus on an inanimate object such as an empty tomb than to gaze on Jesus and his cross. The tomb is made sweeter because “on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”
Jeremy Byrd is senior pastor of Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Illinois.