The wrath of God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

About a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger InsanityBytes and I had a conversation at her place (See, there’s this thing called biology) about the wrath of God. IB was speaking against “Christian wrath-mongers,” those who emphasize the wrath of God to such an extent that they scarcely leave room for his love and mercy and forgiveness. In particular she has been disturbed by another blogger who persistently describes the cross of Christ in terms that smack of violence, hatred, and abuse. While I agree with her that the third blogger has badly misstated his description of our redemption at the cross, I also found it necessary to reply to her suggestion that the wrath of God is not real, that it does not exist.

Now, had IB said, “The wrath of God no longer exists for Christians because it was consumed at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” I would have joyfully agreed with her. To negate the wrath of God in its entirety is to drain the cross of its power. Granted, other descriptions of the cross still have power: that Christ paid the debt of sinners, that he offered a ransom to reclaim sinners from the enemy, that he fought the enemy (the devil, evil, sin, and death) and won. Any single description of redemption is incomplete. To remove God’s wrath from the equation, though, is not a valid option, since the Bible clearly teaches about God’s wrath.

I promised to study the Bible and report upon the wrath of God. I found that—depending upon which English translation of the Bible one uses—the word “wrath” appears roughly 200 times in the Bible. “Anger” and “angry” show up another 275 times, and “fury” is mentioned 70 times. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as wrath, anger, and fury are correctly translated; the various words all have the meaning of “anger, fury, indignation, ire, wrath.” While they are sometimes used to describe the anger and wrath of humans—and, in some cases, even warn against those qualities—by far the larger number of instances attribute wrath to God. Often that wrath is reserved for the Day of the Lord (Judgment Day), but frequently God’s wrath is a response to sin happening in the present world. Sin makes God angry.

When I sin, I hurt myself. When I sin, I harm my neighbor. When I sin, I damage God’s creation. When I sin, I defy God and declare independence, as if I could rule my own life. For all these reasons, God is right to be angry at sin.

Someone might counter that God’s nature is love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness—and God never changes; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All that is true. But God is also holy and good, and a holy and good God must respond to sin because of his love for all that he made. When my sin harms my neighbor, God is angry; when my neighbor’s sin harms me, God is angry. A holy God cannot let sin and evil go without atonement; evil must be countered and not merely ignored.

Because Christians are holy people, we also should be angry about sin. For a Christian to shrug and say, “Oh, well, another mass shooting; another child abducted; another fatal overdose; another person abused. There’s so many problems, it just doesn’t matter any more”—that would be cold hearted, unholy, and not like God. Sin should offend us. Evil should anger us. Like God, we should feel righteous wrath toward those who do wrong in this world.

But the Bible does warn Christians against anger and wrath. Wrath is included in lists of sins that God does not accept. Jesus equates anger—anger that causes us to shout insults—with murder. How do we reconcile these teachings with righteous wrath?

The Bible advises us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger can be a powerful temptation to sin. God cannot be tempted and never sins; his wrath is always righteous. Our wrath can push us into sin, which is why we need to handle wrath with care. When anger is selfish, when it comes from inconvenience to us and not from rejection of evil, such anger is sinful. Jesus calls that kind of anger murder. God’s wrath toward sin is never murderous anger; it is always holy, righteous, and just.

When the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Aaron build them a gold calf to worship, God was angry. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded for the people, and God relented from his wrath. The intercession of Moses is a picture of Christ’s intercession; what Moses did was only possible because of what Christ would do. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9).

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

(To be continued) J.

Advent thoughts: December 22

“The latter glory of this house [the Temple] shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9—read Haggai 2:1-9).

When they sacked Jerusalem, the Babylonian soldiers destroyed the glorious Temple that Solomon had built for the Lord. Seventy years later, the Persians sacked Babylon; the Persian emperor allowed the Jews to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Some of the elderly Jews could remember Solomon’s Temple, and they wept, seeing the far more plain Temple that was being erected on the same spot.

God sent his prophet Haggai to comfort those who mourned over the simpler second Temple. Speaking for the Lord, Haggai promised that the glory of the second Temple would exceed the glory of Solomon’s Temple. God promised that he would be present in this new Temple. He said that he would bring the wealth of nations into the new Temple. He said that in that place, the new Temple, the Lord would give peace.

All these promises were fulfilled when Jesus came into the Temple. His first arrival was as a baby, forty days old, when Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to fulfill the ceremonies required by the old covenant for the birth of a first-born son. Simeon and Anna both recognized their Savior in that infant, and they spoke to others about the promises of God that were being fulfilled in their time.

When he was twelve, Jesus spent three days in the Temple, discussing Torah with the Bible experts and amazing them by his wisdom and understanding. During those three days Jesus was missing, lost to his family as far as they knew. This loss was a picture of the Passover when Jesus would be arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. Once again he was lost to his family and friends for three days, but on the third day he rose from the dead, and they found him alive, just as he had promised.

As an adult, Jesus taught in the Temple and debated his enemies. Once again, by his presence Jesus made the Temple holy. Its glory was greater than the glory of Solomon’s Temple, not because of silver and gold, but because the true Temple was making his presence known in this new Temple in Jerusalem.

Both Solomon’s Temple and the second Temple were pictures of Jesus. A god dwells in a temple and is accessible to his people in that temple. In the Person of Jesus God dwelt among his people, and Jesus still makes his Father accessible to those who come to the Father through Jesus. The Church is the body of Jesus and is therefore also his Temple. In the Church the nations have entered the Temple, bringing their silver and their gold, making a far more glorious Temple than Solomon’s one building in Jerusalem.

The nations of the world still suffer strife and violence and war. The nations gathered in the Temple—the Church, the body of Christ—have received peace. The Prince of Peace bestows his blessings to all who come to him in faith. Peace on earth is promised by angels. Through Christ we receive the peace that surpasses all human understanding. Thanks be to God! J.

The Festival of All Saints

The early people of Europe, both Celtic and Germanic, observed a holiday roughly halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Known by various names, this holiday was inspired by the fact that nights were getting longer, days were getting shorter, and nature was shutting down to prepare for the winter. Dark thoughts inspired images of ghosts, goblins, witches, and other monsters and fearful beings. Christian missionaries working among the Celtic and Germanic people countered with a Christian holiday, the Festival of All Saints. With this festival, Christians remind themselves and others that we do not need to fear ghosts and monsters, that the spirits of believers who have died are safely with Jesus in Paradise, and that the work of Jesus has conquered evil in all its forms.

A message being passed around Facebook claims that the Christian holiday is older, that Christians were celebrating the Festival of All Saints on the first of November long before Halloween became an observance on the thirty-first of October. Technically, this is true, since Christians were using the Julian calendar of the Roman Empire while Celts and Germans were still using a lunar calendar. Only rarely would their annual festival come the night before All Saints’ Day, but the festival of darkness and evil beings was being observed in Europe long before Christians began the Festival of All Saints.

Who was first in marking this time of year does not matter as much as whose observance is more significant. Let the creation of All Saints’ Day be a Christian response to the pagan observances that have become Halloween. The message about all the saints is still more meaningful than any message about ghosts and goblins. All Saints’ Day is a reminder of Easter on the far side of the calendar. Jesus is still risen, and all who trust in him are still rescued from death and the grave and are protected from every kind of evil.

Who, then, is a saint? Every believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a saint. Peter and Paul wrote letters addressed to saints, not addressed to spirits with Christ in Paradise, but addressed to Christians still living on the earth. It is customary on All Saints’ Day to think of those saints who have died and who are waiting for the Day of Resurrection; but for Christians alive on earth, this is our day too. We remember that we are saints, not because of what we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

Saints are holy people. Anything that is holy is the property of God. God’s name is holy, because it belongs to him (and Christians pray that God’s name be holy, or hallowed, among us). Times set aside for worship are holy times, because they belong to God. Places where Christians gather for worship are holy, because they belong to God. When Moses stood on holy ground—ground that belonged to God—he was told to remove his shoes so that common everyday dirt would not be tracked onto God’s holy dirt.

Holy people are also meant to be different from other people. Holy people are meant to be reminders of Jesus. We are different from other people because we love God and try to obey his commands. We are different from other people because we love our neighbors and seek to help them for the glory of God. Christians do not always succeed at this business of holiness. If we had to make ourselves holy, we would be total failures. But we do not make ourselves holy. Jesus makes us holy by his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus makes us holy through the gifts of his Church. Jesus makes us holy by claiming us as his own people.

What then of Halloween? Christians are free to observe Halloween or not as it suits them, provided they do not offend one another by their celebrations. Christians who want to give out free candy on Halloween are free to do so; those who do not wish to share candy do not have to share. Christian parents can send their children out to receive free candy or can find other things for them to do on that night. For some Christians, Halloween is a grim reminder of the evil from which they have been freed, and they would rather not think about evil at all. For other Christians, Halloween is a time to laugh at evil, our defeated enemy, and to celebrate the freedom we have received through Christ.

Christmas trees and Easter eggs and Halloween jack-o-lanterns might distract some people from the promises of Christ, but they are also fitting reminders of the promises of Christ. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and therefore anything in creation can be used to celebrate his love. Have a blessed Festival of All Saints this weekend, and also a happy Halloween. J.