In the fall of 2017, we as a church participated in a sermon series which covered several chapters from the Old Testament book of Joshua. It was very beneficial for me to be refreshed on some powerful stories of God’s continued faithfulness towards His people, despite their significant shortcomings and frequent defiance of His desires. However, the study also led to some formidable questions about God’s character and the manner in which He carried out His promises through the Israelites. At times, the Old Testament scriptures can seem not only foreign to today’s culture but can also appear harsh or even ruthless. Even in the small section of Joshua we covered, there are some glaring examples of God’s judgment in the face of sin:
- When God gave the city of Jericho to the Israelites, the Scripture says “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old…. with the edge of the sword” (6:21)
- Achan, son of Zerah, was stoned by the Israelites because of his disobedience in taking things from Jericho, which God strictly forbid.
- With regards to the city of AI: “But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of AI to destruction” (8:26)
Even though it might be easier to skip over these kinds of sections, we should not for the following reasons:
- As believers, we are called to pursue God relationally and seek His calling for our lives on earth. Part of this pursuit is acknowledging those characteristics that are plainly revealed to us in the Scriptures.
- Agnostics and other skeptics of Christianity often struggle with this same topic of God’s character. How can the God of the New Testament possibly be the same God described in Old Testament stories? We must be confident in our conviction when we are faced with such questions from believers and non-believers alike.
- Most importantly, we believe that all Scripture is authoritative and suitable for addressing our faith as Christians. If we can’t accept the Scriptures in their entirety, we simply cannot accept them at all.
So how do we proceed with this? Obviously, this blog post is not a comprehensive review of such complicated subjects. Rather, it is a demonstration of my thoughts and approach for dealing with some of the questions I encountered during the sermon series. I hope this is uplifting to you and provides some encouragement to know God for who He is as opposed to who we might envision Him to be.
The inescapable subject of this post is the apparent judgment seen in the Old Testament compared to the glaring theme of grace and mercy throughout the New Testament. However, if we take a closer look at some New Testament passages, we might be surprised by some examples of judgment there as well. Check out some of the first several verses in Acts 5:
"But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last."
Regardless of whether we are looking at New Testament or Old Testament scriptures, we are forced to consider examples of God’s judgment applied to different groups of people throughout history. When I first started thinking about these topics, I was struck by the overwhelming weight of my sin and additional consequences it renders.
The sin I’m committing isn’t just distancing me from God; it’s actually creating a Holy wrath in God that must be carried out as part of His perfect nature.
Contrary to popular belief, examples of God’s judgment are not illustrative of a harsh ruler bearing down on His lowly subjects but rather Good vanquishing Evil. This is where the cross of Christ comes into play. Sometimes it’s challenging to fully appreciate what we’ve been given until we understand the true extent of our depravity. This leads us to the familiar verses, Romans 5:8-9:
“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.”
God, in His infinite love and mercy, decided that despite our sin, we were worth not only His love but also the sacrifice of His one and only Son. God put the wrath we deserved on His Son so we could share in the Father’s goodness. This is the Gospel. Instead of thinking of God’s judgment as, “If God is good, He should forgive everyone’s sins and refrain from judgement altogether,” I think the approach should be:
- God is good
- We are evil
- Punishment is fair
- Jesus = unthinkable grace for disobedient people
Even if we can accept that God is unchanging, we can still struggle with the difference in how He has interacted with His people throughout time. Once again, we are redirected to the cross. Although it’s easy to miss, the following verse, written about the time of the crucifixion, sheds important light on how our relationship with God was forever changed.
“… And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23:45)
This verse refers to the curtain in the Tabernacle, which blocked off the Holy Place, where God’s presence dwelt. Due to the Israelites’ sin, God required them to perform a detailed list of sacrifices in order to be cleansed sufficiently so they could commune with God. Furthermore, the Holy Place could only be entered once a year on the Day of Atonement by the Chief Priest. See the requirements handed down to the High Priest Aaron before entering the Holy Place:
“This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” (Leviticus 16:3-7)
Certainly, we can appreciate that we don’t have to sacrifice a bull each time we come before the Father in prayer! We can clearly see there was a complex sin barrier throughout the Old Testament, preventing an intimate relationship between the Israelites and their Creator. Even when sacrifices were made, they could only alleviate the barrier momentarily.
The crucifixion of Jesus broke this barrier once and for all, giving believers the constant opportunity to enter this sacred Holy Place. This was the fundamental shift in how God meets with His people. There is no longer a need for prophets to deliver messages from God or wait once a year for the High Priest to enter the Holy Place to receive God’s Word. Jesus has become our High Priest and goes to the Father on our behalf. For me, this is helpful in understanding the development of God’s relationship throughout history. Hebrews 7:27 reiterates:
“Unlike the other High Priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”
I’ll be the first to admit these topics are challenging.
However, the more we seek God, the more we’ll discover how worthy He is of our lives and how lost we’d be without Him.
Unfortunately, there are many events that have happened in history and will happen in the future that are tough to explain and understand in light of our faith as Christians. However, we can take heart knowing that our Father is not only good, but He is also all-knowing, all-powerful, the Alpha and the Omega, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the Creator of the Universe. He is worthy of our praise and our trust in things we will never fully understand.