In my last post I began to look at an Old Testament take on sin, and it’s not a pretty picture. Until we understand the gravity of sin, and its horrific consequences in human existence, we’ll have a hard time understanding and accepting that God could be angry about it, and that wrath is an understandable response of a holy God. We can’t know this through human speculation, although we all know the anger against horrible injustice when we see or experience it. Multiply that anger by infinity because God is omniscient, and he knows the ultimate injustice of every act of rebellion against him, in thought, word, or deed. Where human speculation ends, we must depend on God’s revelation to us in Scripture to educate us about sin, and his attitude toward it.
This gravity struck me, powerfully, when reading through Exodus several years ago, and an event recounted in chapter 4. There are no accidental words in the Bible, no fluff; everything is there for a reason. The story is about Moses, and the Lord has commanded him to go back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh. This is a big deal, the beginning of the Exodus of God’s people from 400 years(!) of slavery, and a powerful metaphor God used over and over throughout redemptive history to point his people to his power to deliver them from the slavery of sin. Then we read these bizarre words:
24 At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)
Seriously? The Lord is going to kill Moses? And he was fully ready to do it? The same Moses he just commissioned to go to Egypt to set his people free? It sure looks like it.
There is a lot going on in these few brief words we have to assume, but ultimately it makes my point about God’s holy being and his relationship to sin and sinful human beings. For whatever reason, Moses didn’t circumcise his son, and in God’s economy he deserved death. He and Zipporah must have known of the Lord’s command to circumcise every eight-day old male. To not do this was to break his covenant, and to be “cut off from his people.” Moses was about to experience God’s wrath, until his wife saved him.
Then once God’s people escape from Egypt we see numerous examples of God’s wrath, sin’s wages called in. One example is when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, comes down and the people are worshiping a golden calf. Moses commands the Levites to kill their “brother and friend and neighbor,” three thousand of them, and commends them for it. This seems nuts to us. Really? Three thousand for worshiping a silly golden calf? Not to God.
There are numerous other accounts in the Old Testament (see a Bible word search for the word “wrath”—it’s sobering to read) of God’s judgment against sin, but what really made it hit home for me was God’s command to the Israelites to build a tabernacle as his dwelling place among them in the wilderness. You can read the minute details the Lord gives to build it in Exodus and Leviticus, but at the heart of this building was the ark of the covenant. This represented God’s presence to his people, and in order to experience this presence required the sacrifice and blood of animals to pay for the people’s sins. God was teaching them, and us, that having a relationship with a holy God is a bloody business (the word blood is used 88 times in those two books alone!). It started with the Passover, when the Israelites sacrifice lambs, take their blood and put it on the door frames of their houses so the angel of death will pass over and not harm them. Then continued in the operation of worship in the tabernacle.
What does all of this tell us? That God’s justice must be satisfied if sinful human beings are to have a relationship with him, and that sin’s wages must be paid. I’ll end this with a quote from a piece I recently read in the latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine. The author of a piece about a “wrathless God” makes my point much better than I could:
Christianly speaking, forgiveness is a vapid, meaningless concept apart from justice. The sacrifice of the God-Man on the cross is a sign that something in the world is terribly wrong and must be put right. The sin-bred injustice of the world requires rectification. Only God can right what’s wrong, and the cross is how he has done it. God pours out himself into Jesus, and then on the cross, God pours out his wrath against Jesus and on the sin that nailed him there.