Saturday, November 1, 2014

Holy, holy is he

In my Old Testament class we have been reading through Exodus, Leviticus, and the beginning of Numbers. I've read this material before, but I read it this time wearing an "academic" hat. I was trying to be unbiased, analytical, and careful, hoping to have fresh insights and a new perspective.

But the reality is, these texts are challenging. God's behavior is somewhat shocking, and his anger seems to be, well, out of control. At one point the Israelites push him to his limit, and he declares to Moses a desire to wipe them all out and start over. Moses, by reminding God of his own character and his own promises, talks God off the ledge--and God repents (Exodus 34:14). The Scriptures actually use that word. Which doesn't indicate that God had sinned in anyway, because "repent" simply means "to turn 180°." In other words God was going towards an annihilation scenario, and he changes his direction and chooses to rescue rather than destroy the wayward Israelites.

Still, the idea of God “blowing his top” is unsettling to us New Testament believers who like to view God through the lens of Jesus. It is not wrong to understand God’s character through the person of Jesus Christ. After all Jesus said that if we have seen him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). But then what do we do with the Old Testament texts that show God to be angry enough to kill off his chosen people.

And it’s not like this is a novel concept, because God had already started over with Noah. In other words, the God to whom Moses was talking had a history of destroying people and starting again.

So for weeks I wrestled with these texts, getting into heated discussions with my classmates. We were each dealing with the God of the Wilderness Wanderings in different ways. Some tended to think that the Old Testament writers must have gotten it wrong. Believing that these descriptions of God were not accurate, these classmates suggested demoting these texts in our theology. I couldn’t go there.

Yet, I wasn’t sure where to go.

Then I went to a worship service. As I sang “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. Holy, holy is he,” I felt big tears well up in my eyes. In that moment it hit me. All of that anger that God shows in the Old Testament, that righteous, red-hot anger, did not just evaporate one day. That anger was poured out on Jesus, when he bore the sins of the whole world on the cross. God restrained himself from expressing his anger just until he could take it upon himself. And he did it because he longs to be gracious to us.

But if I minimize the anger of God in the Old Testament, I also minimize the work of Christ on the cross. If I am tempted to say, “God wasn’t THAT mad” or that “sin isn’t THAT bad” I misunderstand both his holiness and my wretchedness. And I miss the profundity of the reconciliation that Jesus, our mediator, makes possible.

The point of the cross is that Jesus paid it all. I’ve always understood the reality that Jesus took on my sin. But I’ve failed to recognize that in taking on my sin, Jesus also took on the wrath of God—God’s holy and righteous anger about my sin.

And so I wept. As a result of deep, intellectual and theological exegesis I had a deeply emotional spiritual experience. In such moments the experience of Seminary becomes highly personal. Head knowledge informs heart knowledge, and I am moved.

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