A Compelling God. How the Justice and Mercy of God Point to the Reality of God.

Is the God we meet in the Bible a God of justice? In being gracious and merciful, does God turn a blind eye to sin and injustice, and say “I don’t care”? We often care about justice and have concern for those who experience injustice. Shouldn’t God? If a worldview or religion is to be compelling, then won’t it point to the importance of justice? Indeed a God that has no concern for justice is a God that does not love. If God is love, we will expect God to be perfect in his justice.

So is the God of the Bible a God of justice?

We are introduced to the theme of justice very early in the Bible;

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know, ” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Genesis 4:9-10 (NIV)

We can assume that the blood of Abel was crying out, metaphorically speaking, to God for justice. Not too further along in the Old Testament we hear another cry for justice;

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. Exodus 2:23-25

Someone has pointed out that the Hebrew for the last part simply says “God saw the Israelites. He knew.” He knew they were experiencing injustice. Justice for Israel meant judgement for Egypt. In the plagues the Egyptians found out what it was like to be picked on. The death of the firstborn males in the final plague mirrors the deaths of the Israelite male infants at the hands of the Egyptians. One is reminded of the Biblical “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Justice is held up as important.

We also find in the Book of Exodus a  concern for God’s people becoming a just society. The Book of Exodus moves at a very quick pace until the people reach Mount Sinai and everyone, and everything, comes to a stop. The fast paced action ends and suddenly we find ourselves reading about various legal matters, such as, what should happen if your ox gores someone. It is often said that as Christians, we are not under the old covenant, we are under the new covenant. This is true, but we should also point out that as Canadians we are not under the old covenant law, we are under Canadian law. So if your neighbour’s ox gores your friend, do not wave a Bible in their face, call the police! In these civic laws, given to a specific people at a specific time, God is ensuring that the people He just rescued from the injustices of Egypt can themselves become a just society. If those laws seem like a tedious read, try reading the Canadian law books! Both are important for the existence of a just society.

In many ways, the laws given to Israel signalled a step forward from other ancient societies with regards to justice. There were laws to ensure that no one goes hungry, that the vulnerable were taken care of, that foreigners were treated fairly, and that no child was sacrificed for religious purposes as was happening in surrounding societies. Indeed, the justice of God rings throughout the entire Bible.

While I originally planned on the title of this “Shrunk Sermon” to be  “Compelling Justice,” I had to go with “Compelling God” instead. Why? Because in Jesus the justice of God and the mercy of God come together in a beautiful and compelling way. Consider

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6 (NIV)

For God to be considered just, sin must be punished. Sin cannot simply be wafted away as being unimportant. Yet for God to be considered merciful, our sin must be lifted from us somehow, for no one is without sin. There can be no future in God’s presence for us without mercy. In Christ, God has taken away our sin and yet punished it at the same time. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Keeping in mind that Jesus is God the Son, God Himself has been both merciful and just by bearing the punishment we deserve.

In this bringing together of justice and mercy, Christianity is unique among all the religions of the world. As Peter points out in a sermon in Acts,

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12 (NIV)

Salvation is found in no one else because there is no one else who could bring justice and mercy together as God has done in Christ. There is no one else who could have done for us what God Himself has done for us.

God is consistent in his justice and mercy. The Old Testament is a record of people experiencing the justice and mercy of God. The New Testament is a record of people experiencing the justice and mercy of God. God will be experienced as a God of both perfect justice and mercy in the future.

What will be the focus in your future? Will you experience the justice of a merciful God? He will not force you to spend eternity with Him if that is not something you want. He will do the right thing, the just thing. No one will say “that is not fair” when He sends those who reject Him away from His presence. Of course, God is merciful and it does not need to end that way. Will you experience the mercy of a just God? On our own merit, we do not deserve to spend eternity with God. Yet “by his bruises we are healed.” God will do a really good thing. He will show mercy, yet it will be consistent with his just nature.

Any religion that presents God as either all justice, and no mercy, or all mercy and no justice, is not compelling. Any religion that presents God as either lacking justice, or lacking mercy, is not compelling. The God we meet in the Bible, in revealing Himself supremely  in Jesus, shows Himself to be the God of perfect justice and perfect mercy. This is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

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Was the Flood of Genesis a Hate Crime?

Was the flood in the days of Noah a hate crime?

Imagine you are alive sometime between Noah and Moses but you are not part of the Hebrew people of Moses. There are stories of a great flood being passed down from generation to generation. How do you suppose people accounted for the reason behind this flood? You might think of a god or several gods hating people.

Indeed there were stories of a flood being passed down in those days which were quite similar to the Biblical account. One such story is called the “Epic of Gilgamesh”. According to it, the people of the earth were so noisy that they were disturbing the peace of the gods. Extermination would fix that! These are the kinds of things people came up with as they tried to make sense of life’s experiences in a prescience and very superstitious time and place. However, the Bible was coming into existence. The Biblical account of the flood, though being very similar to other flood accounts in some ways, is very different in others. It sets the record straight.

In setting the record straight, the reason for the flood is given:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Genesis 6:5-6

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Genesis 6:11-13 (emphasis added)

The evil of humankind was the reason for the flood, and a very specific kind of evil; violence. Indeed, upon leaving the ark, violence is addressed as being of first importance:

For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind. Genesis 9:5-6

The very first ethic given to Noah and his family for dwelling on the earth is an ethic of flourishing in a world of non-violence. The flood was to be a new beginning for humanity, a new beginning without the violence of the past.

The Biblical flood account of the flood continues to set the record straight in our day. Did God flood the earth because He hates people? Was this a hate crime?

What God hated was the violence people committed against one another. Had he hated people we would just be talking about the flood, and not Noah’s ark. Of course we would not be talking at all for humanity would have ceased then and there! God would have acted in complete justice to end all life at that flood.

. . . the wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23

But instead there was a new beginning, and a promise of mercy. This is not a story of God hating people, but of God heading down the road of loving and loyal relationship.

Most translations have “bow” where we expect “rainbow”. This is on purpose for the Hebrew word behind “bow” literally is the kind of bow used to fire arrows. The bow is a weapon. Some Bible teachers have pointed out that when God puts the bow in the sky, it is symbolic of how He is hanging up his weapon. God is refusing to use a weapon to bring about justice. He is giving mercy rather than letting His perfect justice roll.

A rainbow is a very fitting symbol for God’s love and mercy. To have a rainbow you need just the right amount of light and moisture. To have the existence of life itself requires just the right amounts of light and moisture. God commits to keep providing both. Jesus speaks of light and moisture when He teaches about love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Matthew 5:43-45

God has been keeping His promise. He has been holding back the immediate execution of His justice. He has been merciful to every generation.

As Bible teachers have pointed out, if mercy is not being treated as we deserve, then grace is being treated as we do not deserve. The Biblical account of the flood is a prelude to grace. God hung up His bow, His weapon, and called for humanity to do the same. But then God came to us in Jesus and we hung Him up on our weapon of choice for violent execution. God Himself was the One to suffer human violence in Jesus. If ever a worldwide flood was appropriate it was as Jesus hung on a cross. But instead of letting justice roll, God let forgiveness flow:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

If the flood account in Genesis is setting the record straight as to what God is like, how much more is Jesus Christ setting the record straight as to what God is like.

“God is love” 1 John 4:16

Far too many people think they are rejecting God when they are rejecting an image of God created in their own minds or in the minds of others. Let God speak for Himself. Let Scripture set the record straight. Let Jesus set the record straight. Let us not create an image of God according to our own way of thinking, but look to God to set the record straight on His Justice, His mercy, and His grace. The Biblical account of the flood sets the record straight on these things, Jesus Christ does even more so.

Was the flood a hate crime? It was the justice of God rolled out upon a hate filled world. The fact that humanity is still around speaks of God’s mercy. The offer of eternal life in Jesus speaks of God’s amazing grace.

Shall We Condemn God for Bad Behaviour?

7678682874_37c388fb78_nI was planning on preaching on Deuteronomy 7:7-11, but verse 2 kept getting in my way. It is the kind of verse we Christians love to gloss over but the super-sceptics love to dwell upon. God’s people are almost ready to enter the Promised Land following their desert wanderings, but the question arises as to what should happen to the peoples who are already living in that land. Verse 2 tells us:

. . . and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:2)

Ouch, that does not sound much like the “Jesus loves you” that we are used to. In fact it sounds like the kind of thing that would get a nation into deep trouble at the United Nations. It has caused many people to wonder if this God is credible. Can we believe in a God who commands destruction without mercy? Shall we love the LORD or shall we condemn Him as unjust and unworthy of devotion?

First off, let me recommend Paul Copan’s book “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.” Some of what follows here is written there but with greater depth and clarity. Let us consider the following points:

Strong language is used to make a strong point. Overstatement was a common practice in Biblical times and is found in the Bible. We still do it today, such as when I state that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to destroy every team that stands between them and the Stanley Cup this year. Obviously I am overconfident, but more obvious is that there really will be no “destroying” going on. The language of destruction is used to make a point about winning. Here in Deuteronomy 7:2 there is a strong point being made: The best chance God’s people have of staying in a close relationship with the LORD is to have nothing to do with the people already living in the land. It would be too easy to write up treaties and be assimilated into those peoples. But then how well could God’s people keep the Law, especially the ten commandments which begin with the call for the people to have no other gods beside the LORD? Indeed the point is not so much the elimination of people, but the utter destruction of an abhorrent religion:

But this is how you must deal with them:break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:5-6)

If “destruction” is used to make a strong point, “driven out” better reflects the reality. The Bible itself sometimes asserts that the Canaanites will not be destroyed but rather “driven out.”

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations–(Deuteronomy 7:1 NIV emphasis mine)

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land” (Deuteronomy 9:4 emphasis mine)

Additionally, not having aircraft or motorized vehicles, ancient wars did not rely on the lightning quick shock and awe attacks of today. There was time for people to flee. In fact the inhabitants of Canaan show up in the Bible after the days of conquest, so they were not utterly destroyed in a genocidal way we might have expected from the command of verse 2. Indeed our passage assumes that God’s people will be rubbing shoulders with the Canaanites in the days to come:

3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)

There is no need for commandments about intermarriage if the people are utterly destroyed.

The command to destroy the Canaanites must be read in the context of the entire Bible. There is the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. There are the laws God had already given that were designed to protect foreigners who may be poor and vulnerable. There is the book of Ruth where a foreigner is welcomed into God’s people and even becomes the great-grandmother of King David. There is the book of Jonah which challenges God’s people to allow or even expect God to love their enemies. There is the entire trajectory of the New Testament, where Jesus dies not just for the Jew; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); where the Holy Spirit is given to people from any background; where looking forward “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) One cannot read the entire Bible without getting the impression that God’s love stretches far and wide.

God had been very patient with the Canaanites, but his patience had run out allowing justice to be rolled out. When we hear about God’s people being told to destroy the Canaanites we might be under the impression that it would be like the nice people of Prince Edward Island being called to wipe out the nice people of New Brunswick. But ancient peoples were not that nice. In fact the rise of ISIS today gives us a glimpse of the kind of evil ancient tribal peoples could be capable of. Not too many of us would be sad to see ISIS destroyed. Actually ISIS displays better morals than the Canaanites for they know better than to sacrifice children in religious rites. The Canaanites had hundreds of years of descent into darkness, now it was time for God to express His justice through judgement. It is: “because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4)

God’s command to destroy the Canaanites should be read with this important truth in mind: God owes no person another minute of life. This is something we learn from the flood in Noah’s day which was not genocide, but the just judgement of God. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, and in the flood the payment of those wages were brought forward. More accurately, those wages were no longer held back. God is holy. We are not. That anyone should live to see another day, another hour, another minute, is a sign of God’s grace and mercy. God would be just if even Noah and his family were not spared. They did not deserve life. None of us do. That we experience life at all is a sign of the grace of God.

That God’s people stood ready to enter the Promised Land was a sign of the grace of God. They did not show themselves worthy of the honour:

6 Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place. (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

So why was God being kind to Israelites? It was because of love:

7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.8 It was because the Lord loved you . . . (Deuteronomy 7:7,8a emphasis mine)

Salvation begins, not with people and their righteousness, but with God and His love. Your salvation, and mine, begins not with our righteousness, but with God’s love.

And God was kind to the Israelites because of promise:

8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:8 emphasis mine)

God had promised Abraham a blessing and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. This wee bit of justice poured out on the peoples of Canaan was part of a plan that would lead to a whole load of grace being poured out and made available to the whole world. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the single greatest focus of God’s blessing. But it is a long journey from the promise of blessing to Abraham to the fulfillment in Jesus. The destruction of the Canaanites is part and parcel of that journey to blessing.

What kind of God is it that calls for the destruction of people? The same God that was ensuring that we need not face destruction: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) God’s nurture of His people through dark and dangerous places and times is part of the unfolding of His grace so that we will not face condemnation when we turn to Him in repentance.

Shall we condemn God for working out His purposes of salvation? We have no right to condemn God. He has every right to condemn us. But out of love He has made reconciliation possible.

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

Unless noted otherwise all scripture references are taken from the NRSV.
photo credit: The Army via photopin (license)