Jesus is the Same–Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
By Sarah Rogers
My sophomore year of college, I took a Shakespeare comedies and romances class, which ended up turning into a discussion about how most of them were actually tragedies--but that is another argument entirely.
In our reading of The Merchant of Venice, I wrote my essay on the tension and hatred between Shylock and Antonio--the first Jewish, the second Christian.
Their disagreements and the stereotypes they threw in each other's faces were simply a demonstration of the deeper tension between the two religions, which essentially boils down to an argument on the Old Testament versus the New Testament.
The clash between Shylock and Antonio reveals a deeper argument that is sometimes made that says the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament, and that what he desires and how he conducts himself has changed.
It's a worn out mantra that God used to be all wrath and now is all love--equating the powerful and almighty Most High to the disposition of a toddler throwing a tantrum and then calming down.
I hear the words "God is love" frequently spoken, plastered on billboards, and shared on Facebook. While I agree wholeheartedly that God is love in its most untainted form, it would be an injustice to the character of God to claim that he is only love.
We have a tendency to present Christ as the gentle lamb, offering forgiveness to the sin-stained inhabitants of Earth. However, we struggle to fit in the God who shakes mountains when he walks and commands the Earth to swallow up people up for their sins into this rhetoric and so we simply leave it out.
What do we compromise when we try to mold the character of God into something more marketable?
We compromise true love for Christ. We compromise true obedience. And we are setting ourselves up for cultural politeness toward "being religious" without any inkling of what it means to truly follow Christ.
I think part of the problem is an incomplete understanding of what love is.
Love isn't a lack of discipline. A lack of discipline actually points to the opposite of love.
"Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them" (Proverbs 13:24).
Parents discipline their children in order to drive out folly from them--in order to make their children better. Parents who care nothing for their children will never bother with the time and effort it takes to administer discipline--they would simply leave their children to their own devices and demise.
A few months ago, I was reading in 2 Samuel 6.
The Israelites were instructed to carry the ark of God--a most sacred item--and just like with the building of the Temple, the Lord was very specific and clear as to how the movement of the ark was to take place.
Among other instructions, the Israelites were told not to touch the ark.
"When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God because the oxen had stumbled. The Lord's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God" (2 Samuel 6:6-7).
There are several points to make about this text. The first time I really looked into this verse, I was confused at the seemingly unnecessary act of striking Uzzah down.
It seemed an awfully lofty punishment for an arguably pardonable offense.
However, we tread on dangerous ground when we begin to put God on trial with our human understanding of what it means to be loving.
The Lord struck Uzzah down because God is holy and just. The verse specifies that Uzzah's action created anger within the Lord because Uzzah's reaching out was an irreverent act.
What does that mean?
The definition of irreverent is showing a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously. In this case, the lack of respect was neither shown to a person or a thing, but the almighty God. So why was reaching out to the ark irreverent?
Because Uzzah doubted the power of God to protect the ark within the guidelines he had put in place for the Israelites. Uzzah's arm was a prideful proclamation that the Lord's rules were merely suggestions for convenient times, but not binding by any means.
Therefore, the Lord was just in striking Uzzah down.
However, my larger point is not that the Lord is justified in his actions. It's not my place to validate the Lord's actions--there is no validation needed for the creator of the heaven and the Earth.
Yet, I bring this verse to light because it ties in seamlessly with the description of Christ as loving and just and holy and powerful, and I think it's important because verses like this are often brought forth as evidence that the Lord isn't loving or that he once was wrathful, but he has now calmed down or become loving in place of what he once was.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
In Exodus, we see the unrelenting mercy and compassion of Christ toward the Israelites.
In Exodus chapters 32-34, the nation of Isreal formed the golden calf to worship, which was a direct act of disobedience against the Sinai covenant, which specifically prohibited the nation from representing Christ with images of gold or silver.
The penalty for the disobedience, according to the covenant, was death.
However, Moses pleads for the lives of the Israelites and "the Lord relented from the disaster he had spoken of bringing on his people" (Exodus 32:14).
Miles Van Pelt, author of The Old Testament God of Compassion and Mercy, writes about this act of compassion on behalf of God.
"Consider now the incomprehensibility of God--his limitless excellence, his immeasurable strength, and his complete perfection. Now consider that God, from all eternity, had determined to reveal part of his incomprehensible and immeasurable being. The original context of this divine declaration helps us to understand the nature of God's mercy. Isreal had sinned against God and broken his covenant with them. It is truly amazing to discover, therefore, that the first thing God had determined to reveal to us about his name (or character) was that he is merciful. The one who called Abraham and delivered Isreal from Egypt is compassionate. They deserved death, but God relented. The mercy of God in this context is exemplified by his 'forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin' (Exodus 34:7), but this is not just a one-time event in order to portray one of God's 'weaker; attributes. Rather, this particular attribute is central to the movement of covenantal history as portrayed in the Old Testament (Psalms 78:38; 86:15; 103:7-14), and it provides motivation for true and genuine repentance (Joel 2:12-13; Chronicles 30:9)" (Pelt).
So, we see discipline and mercy in the Old Testament. Still not convinced? Let's look at 2 Samuel again.
We see forgiveness as well as consequences in the story of David.
David disobeyed the law of the Lord by sleeping with another man's wife and having her husband killed in battle to hide his actions. The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David to tell him that his actions would have consequences.
"This is what the Lord says: 'Out of your household, I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your eyes, I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Isreal'" (2 Samuel 12:11-12).
It was in David's broken confession and the realization that he had sinned against the Lord by breaking his law that Nathan was able to tell David about the Lord's forgiveness and also of his righteous wrath.
"Nathan replied, 'The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt, the son born to you will die'" (2 Samuel 12:13-14).
The Lord showed compassion for David's life, but the sin still needed to be dealt with. Actions still have consequences and we do not have the power to choose what those consequences are.
It is easy to see the Lord as mean or uncompassionate when he administers discipline, but the Lord never desires for us to sin in the first place.
The Lord never wanted David to have an affair or to murder someone. The Lord desires for us to choose obedience, but when we turn our back on God's law, it is his love that allows us to suffer the consequences of our actions so that we might learn.
And so to create an argument that claims the Lord doesn't discipline in the New Testament is to create an argument that the Lord doesn't love in the New Testament, which we know for a fact he does.
Something vital to understand when looking for consistency in the New Testament about wrath and judgment on those who sin is the role of Jesus Christ.
We just looked at two instances of judgment in the Old Testament where the Lord showed many attributes of himself--love, compassion, mercy, and righteousness in dealing with humanity's sinful nature.
But what we may not understand is that while those in the Old Testament were under the covenant of old, they were still being forgiven by the grace and mercy of Christ.
Yes, those living in the Old Testament sacrificed lambs to God as an offering, but the blood of the lambs did not save those people from their sins. God saved through his mercy and grace and compassion through the means of their worship offering.
Jesus Christ steps into the scene in the New Testament as the "final sacrifice." However, God did not change the way he forgives and saves. The worship offering simply changed.
And what Jesus means for those in the New Testament is that Jesus was the one who bore the wrath of God that he had once placed on individual people for their individual sins, in the covenant of new, all of that was placed on Jesus' shoulders (Isaiah 53:4-5).
I never realized the implications of Jesus bearing the wrath of God until recently.
God has righteous wrath, we see that clearly in the Old Testament. Sin makes God angry, and he deals with that sin accordingly because he is righteous and a good judge.
Now if God doesn't change--we know he doesn't (Hebrews 13:8)--this implies his anger toward sin is still just as great.
Imagine his immense anger at Uzzah for his disobedience--so great he struck him dead. Now imagine that anger multiplied for every single person on Earth for every single sin they ever committed.
Now imagine all of that resting on the body of our dying Savior.
God has not changed how he feels about sin, but instead of us bearing the weight of our own sinful nature, we hand that immense weight to Jesus to bear for us.
God has not changed, but the avenue in which he decided to administer justice has changed (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
You see, the sins we commit are still wrong and they still need to be addressed. God is a good judge and he wouldn't allow sins to go by unpunished or undealt with.
But instead of making us pay, God allowed Jesus to pay for us. For all of us (1 Peter 3:18).
It is worth mentioning that this exemption of God's wrath is reserved only for those who believe--for those who have confessed their sins and become followers of Christ (Romans 10:10).
For those who have not professed belief in Christ and surrendered to his will and purpose for their life, and for those who have not been transformed by the Holy Spirit, wrath awaits them (Ephesians 5:6).
So no, we are not struck dead for our acts of sin and disobedience. The Lord is long-suffering, slow to anger and abounding in love (Psalm 103:8), but does this mean we should act as if God is a laid-back dad who doesn't really care that much when we mess up? By no means (Romans 6:1-4).
Yes, we are under forgiveness and grace, but forgiveness and grace are not synonyms for indifference. Christ is not indifferent to our sins and we are in dangerous spiritual territory when we begin to feel this is the case.
Being redeemed by the blood by Christ is much more than having the shame of sin taken away. Redemption means we are given the opportunity to have a relationship with the creator of the universe, as well the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.
It means we are filled with the joy of our salvation that causes us to understand who we were before being transformed by the spirit of Christ. When we truly understand who we were before our redemption, this changes every single aspect of our lives, especially how we respond to God's commands.
We find obedience is a love offering to Christ--a way to demonstrate our love for him and our desire to become more like him. We have no strength to fully obey his commands before being transformed and saved from the bondage of our sinful nature.
In short, obedience is a gift Christ gives to us--the ability to choose obedience where before we had no choice but to choose sin.
And there is just as much love in allowing the consequences of our actions to befall on us as he showed the Israelites in sparing their lives.
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).