Iron sharpens iron
I occasionally hear people saying they prefer the God of the New Testament over the God of the Old Testament, on the grounds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, judgmental, and ruthless, while the New Testament God is loving and forgiving. This notion ignores, of course, that they are the same God, and ignores that Jesus pronounces judgments in the New Testament that are far more severe than anything in the Old. Jesus foretells about the day of judgment that the King “will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Mt 25.41). This severity is seen even more clearly in John’s Revelation, in which Jesus appears wearing a blood-soaked robe, with eyes “like a flame of fire,” slaughtering his assembled enemies with a sword that comes from his mouth and then calling all sorts of animals to feast on their remains—and that’s just chapter 19! Afterward, the souls of the dead are judged, and those whose names aren’t written in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire.
So, the general impression that God somehow changed, or softened up between the Old and New Testaments is mistaken. However, it is not terribly difficult to see where people have gotten this impression. For one thing, most of them simply haven’t read the whole Bible. For another, they generally focus on the physical, and the punishments incurred in the Old Testament are generally much more physical than those in the New. Finally, the Old Testament prophets tend to devote the majority of their words to judgment, and less space is reserved for restoration and reward.
But in practically every case, God does turn from his wrath. He does explain his long-term goals of peace and restoration, for those who turn back to him. The examples are too many to list, but we can see the pattern by looking at a couple.
In the book of Ezekiel, God tells the Israelites during the early stages of being taken captive to Babylon that worse things are coming, as a result of their sin. The city of Jerusalem will be destroyed (ch5), the idolaters will be killed by sword, famine and pestilence (ch6), the evil rulers will be killed for their sins against the people in their charge (ch11), God will remove his remaining protections from the people of Judah and allow the surrounding nations to treat them in horrible ways (ch23), and then he will turn his wrath against those surrounding nations and punish them for all their evil acts, as well (chs 25-32, 35). Then, beginning in chapter 37, God tells the Israelites, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Eze 37.14). This goes on for the rest of the book, with chapters 40-48 describing in detail the new Temple he will cause to be built in Jerusalem, and the abundant blessings that will flow from its center, his throne.
In Hosea, God describes himself as husband to an adulterous wife, and spends nearly all of the first 13 chapters describing Israel’s sins against him, their spiritual adultery, and many punishments he sends to turn her around, culminating in the most extreme results listed in 13.16:
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword;
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open. (Hosea 13.16)
Yet, this isn’t what he wants, or where he intends to leave matters. Rather,
I will heal their apostasy;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily;
he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive,
and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hosea 14.4-7)
This pattern continues in Joel, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Zechariah, and Malachi, often introduced with some version of the phrase, “in that day” (e.g. Jl 3.18, Am 9.11, Mi 7.11, Zc 3.10). That's not the only way the phrase is used, but it highlights the ultimate plan, the goal that God is pursuing, even in the judgments he pronounces, and the protections he withholds. Over and over again, he reminds his people, it doesn’t have to be this way. It won’t always be this way. There are much better things coming, for those who are patient, who trust the Lord and do his will.
The year 2020, still only two-thirds completed, has been the most tumultuous in several decades, prompting many striking (and often hilarious) comparisons to the Ten Plagues in Exodus, and the Seven Seals in Revelation. Yes, it has been a crazy time. Yes, it seems to be unending. Between political uncertainty, a worldwide pandemic, murder hornets, hurricanes, wildfires, lockdowns, domestic insurrection, rioting, looting, and arson, some days I think I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Ohio River running red (cf. Ex 7.20), or footage of three frogs hopping out of some politician’s mouth (cf. Re 16.13).
But remember, as God repeatedly told his people over the centuries, this will all end. We don’t know the day or the hour beforehand, but it will come. And in that day, none of this will matter anymore. The unrest, the uncertainty, the violence, the strife, the natural disasters, the unnatural disasters… it’s all a tied to the evil of this world, but God is not bound by such things.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6.19-21)
Be ready for that day.
The New Testament talks about submission, obedience, and conformity to a standard that has been imposed from above. Jesus is the king of creation, and he is currently putting “all his enemies under his feet” (1Co 15.25). Yet, in the present time, he doesn’t compel you to do anything. Contrast the old covenant, in which “anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (He 10.28). That is in line with the rest of the world through history, in which cultural norms were, and often still are, strictly enforced in order to keep people in line and keep bad, or even just different things from happening. This is considered a success, and why shouldn’t it be? The goal was preservation of custom, tradition, and the integrity of society, and in that case, it has been achieved.
That’s not the way Jesus treats his subjects. To be clear, it’s not as if he has no expectations. In fact, he promises very clearly to pass judgment, and is described as being “ready to judge the living and the dead” (1Pe 4.5). A time will come when choice is taken out of the equation, and then “at the name of Jesus every knee [shall] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Php 2.10-11). In order for it to be universal, and also to include both the living and the dead, it’s clear that on that day, there will be no more room to choose rebellion.
Yet, what will be the result? Will everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord on that day be ushered into glory? Of course not—Jesus tells us that on that day he will say to some, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25.41). But they obeyed! They knelt and confessed! Why are they still to be punished? Because they didn’t do it willingly, when they were offered the choice.
Paul gives us a lesson in the value of choice in his short letter to a Christian named Philemon. This was a wealthy man, host to the local church and also the master of at least one slave. His slave, Onesimus, ran away from him and crossed paths with Paul, as a result of which he became a Christian. After a time spent working alongside Onesimus, Paul decided it was time to send him back to his master. Consider the way Paul approaches the conversation with the man against whom Onesimus had sinned:
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Philemon 8-10)
He goes on to imply that he’d love to have Onesimus’ services back at his disposal, but chose to send him home, because “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (Phm 14). He’s hinting that it would be good for Philemon to send Onesimus right back to Paul, but won’t even directly request it. Why? Because good deeds done of Philemon’s own accord are better than those done under compulsion. It’s only after all of this that he gets to his actual request in v17, “if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” He’s alluding to the fact that Philemon has good reason to be very angry with Onesimus, to treat him badly, and to never again trust him. Yet, how much better would it be, if he could instead forgive Onesimus, and “have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (vv15-16)? That’s a pretty tall order, and although Paul could have termed it that way, he instead put his effort into demonstrating it was not an order at all. He leaves the choice up to Philemon. There’s still a right and a wrong, a course that pleases God and a course that displeases him; but it’s much more meaningful, if Philemon chooses the better path when both were available, than if he goes along simply because he has no real choice in the matter.
Paul is sure Philemon will make the better choice, saying “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v21). The very fact that Philemon saved the letter and shared it with other Christians suggests strongly that he complied. While it’s obvious this is a better ending than if Philemon had rejected the appeal, it should also be clear by now that the way things turned out is actually better than if Paul had simply ordered him to take back his slave and treat him well. In that case, would Philemon have really done anything good? He’d likely have a terrible attitude about it, harboring a bitterness in his heart that would harm his relationship to both men. If that had been the case, Paul would have brought about a desirable short-term end, but resorted to the notion he elsewhere rejects, “let us do evil, that good may come” (Ro 3.8), to say nothing of the long-term consequences. If that had been the case, Onesimus wouldn’t feel gratitude or motivation to behave better in the future; instead, he’d feel entitled to others’ help in getting away with insubordination. Is that good?
If we serve in the church, we ought to do it “not under compulsion, but willingly” (1Pe 5.2). We are to give “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2Co 9.7). This should extend to the rest of our obedience to God. Compliance because you have no other choice is not good. Deliberately surrendering your will, actively choosing the good and rejecting the evil when both options are available, and especially going above and beyond in the way Paul expected Philemon to do, are not the sort of things that just anyone would do. For that, you need Jesus. Not only does he provide us the best example of this selfless behavior, but it’s also the appeal he makes to each one of us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16.24). It’s not that a cross is laid on your back. You must pick it up, willingly.
The Old Testament is full of types of Christ. This is a strange idea to us, but refers to an impression, a stamp—as in type-writer. These people serve to foreshadow much of God’s overall plan that he established before the foundation of the world, and they also create a useful contrast between the shadow, and the reality.
One of these types is an obscure high priest in the early 8th century BC, named Zechariah. He is not to be confused with Zechariah, the slightly later king of Israel to the north, or Zechariah, the literary prophet in the post-exile period, or Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, or any of the other several, lesser known men of the same name. The Israelites clearly liked this name, and who can blame them? It means the Lord remembers, which is certainly a thought worth repeating from time to time. But this particular Zechariah holds the distinction of being the only one specifically mentioned by Jesus, when he told the Pharisees that the blood of all the persecuted prophets, “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary,” would “be required of this generation” (Lk 11.51). That should spark our interest. How did he come to be killed within the temple?
Let’s start with the backstory, which is long and confusing, but I’ll give you a condensed version of the story told in 2 Kings 8-12 and 2 Chronicles 18-24. The king of Judah during Zechariah’s lifetime was Joash. Joash had been the target of a political purge when he was just a baby. His grandmother, Athaliah, saw a power vacuum when her son, King Ahaziah, was assassinated. Not wanting to be passed over and lose her position as queen mother, she murdered the entire royal family. But one member of that family, a sister of the dead king, managed to sneak baby Joash out of the royal palace and over to the Temple, to her husband—the high priest Jehoiada. They kept him hidden away for six years, while Athaliah ruled the kingdom. When Joash was seven years old, Jehoiada staged an uprising to oust the usurper Athaliah and put the rightful king on his throne. They succeeded, and Jehoiada, who’d already acted as the adoptive father to young Joash, also served as the new king’s most trusted adviser until his death.
Now comes the story of Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah. While Joash is generally remembered as a good king, he went downhill in his later years. With Jehoiada no longer around to advise him and keep him on the straight and narrow, he listened to bad advisors, and
they abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord. These testified against them, but they would not pay attention. (2Ch 24.18-19)
One of these prophets was Zechariah. You might expect that the son of his beloved adoptive father, mentor, and trusted advisor would gain the king’s ear, but that’s not what happened. Instead, “they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord” (2Ch 24.21). How telling, that King Joash, who had been sheltered from his grandmother’s wrath in that very Temple, didn’t let it serve as a shelter against his own wrath directed at his adoptive brother, Zechariah.
Of course, the chief sin here is against the victim, Zechariah; but the chronicler ties it to the previous generation, as well:
“Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah's father, had shown him, but killed his son. And when he was dying, he said, ‘May the Lord see and avenge!’” (2Ch 24.22)
Joash did not remember the good deeds of the past, or act in ways that were appropriate as a result. But God does remember. We’re reminded of this by the name of the martyr, but if that wasn’t enough, he himself appeals to God to remember this injustice and visit wrath upon those responsible—a request God swiftly granted, in the next part of the story.
So, how is this guy a type of Christ? Well, let’s list some of the details again: he was the high priest. His father established a king on Zion. He was sent by God to speak against civil authorities that were blatantly disregarding God’s will. He was betrayed by someone close, and a conspiracy of elites led to a gross injustice right there in God’s holy city. All of these things would be repeated in Jesus, and that was pretty much Jesus’ point when he brought up Zechariah in the context of Luke 11.
But there’s a big difference in the ending. While Zechariah’s dying utterance was, “May the Lord see and avenge,” Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23.34). On one hand, the Lord remembers is a comforting thought, because it means he won’t forget us, and will visit us in our affliction and rescue us from the dangers of this world, and more importantly, the next. On the other hand, it’s a terrifying thought, because it means he won’t forget our deeds, including the awful sins of which we are all guilty. And, without Jesus to intercede, that’s exactly right. Thank God, for sending us his Son, to usher in a new covenant, in which he would remember our sin no more.
This world takes the Bible for granted, failing to appreciate it for what it really is. It’s always there, always available, easy for us to access, carried around in our pockets in the form of smartphone apps so that it creates not the slightest inconvenience, in this day and age, to have God’s Word with us no matter the location, no matter the time, no matter the occasion, basically for free.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when you’d have had to buy a Bible, in order to have access to God’s Word. At least they were cheap. Not so long before that, they were expensive family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Before that, they weren’t available to the common people, being held securely by Catholic clergy—and in Latin. They were generally fastened to pulpits with actual chains, and for a long time, in many places, possessing and even reading the Bible in private was banned by the Catholic church.
None of that rises to the level of difficulty Christians faced before that, however, because in the early 4th century AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian mandated the destruction of all Christian Scriptures in the midst of his efforts to eliminate Christianity. Even before that, while the church was flying under Rome’s radar, the Scriptures were scarce, difficult to come by, difficult to replicate, and treasured deeply. This scarcity didn’t cripple the attempts to spread the Gospel, though. The church spread rapidly, even though it was persecuted, and even though its foundational texts were scarce.
This followed a period of what Amos called a famine of “hearing the words of the Lord.” In that time, he said,
They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8.12)
We have no such shortage. In fact, we have an abundance. Yet, how much do we appreciate it? We’d miss it, if it disappeared, as with other things we take for granted, but it’s all too easy to ignore it, while it’s in front of our faces.
The Jews in the 1st century were in a situation fairly similar to ours, in which centuries of a culture that enormously valued God’s word had led to an astonishing availability of the Old Testament texts, as well as a literate society encouraged to read, as well as memorize, vast portions of the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Many of them kept those traditions; but many others thought of them as antiquated, excessive, and unnecessary. The religious-political sect called the Sadducees fell into this latter category.
On one occasion, some of these fellows tried to trip Jesus up, by presenting a hypothetical case to be adjudicated:
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” (Mt 22.23-28)
It’s quite a conundrum, especially because we’re just not accustomed to this sort of law, and struggle to see the rationale behind it. But Jesus’ answer is beautifully simple:
“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt 22.29-32)
His argument hinges on the tense of a verb. God said, “I am the God of Abraham,” not “I was the God of Abraham,” and Jesus says that this implies Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t forever gone, not annihilated in the sense that the Sadducees thought. This wasn’t exactly an obscure reference, it’s from Exodus 3, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. We teach that story to little kids. But these people hadn’t paid attention to the details, and were thus led astray. They didn’t know the Scriptures, or the power of God.
How in the world could they attain resurrection and heaven, without believing they existed? They had the tools, of course, and they thought they had the answers. But although they had easy access to the Scriptures, they didn’t make use of them. They didn’t study them. They didn’t take them as seriously as they should have. They believed they already knew the whole truth, and missed out on God’s plan as a result.
Today, we have even better access to the Scriptures than the Sadducees did, and on top of that, the New Testament, in general, speaks much more clearly about things like resurrection and final judgment. God has made it easier for us than ever before to learn and understand his word and his will. But it still requires effort on our part. In order to do his will, we need to know what his will is. In order to know what his will is, we’re going to have read what he said.
It’s dangerous to tie small details in one book of the Bible to offhand remarks in another. It often descends into the kinds of weird, numerology-based superstition that quickly turn cultic and idolatrous. These 66 books were written by dozens of hands, over more than 1500 years, and not every fine point is intended as a deliberate, technical commentary on every other fine point. However, there is one hand that crafted and shaped the entire thing, as Peter reminds us:
No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2Pe 1.20-21)
Paul pushes it a hair farther, saying that not only obvious prophecy, but “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Ti 3.16-17).
On top of that, most of the Bible is, as I’ve heard it aptly described using a modern analogy, hyperlinked. That is to say, much of the text is interactive with other parts of the text, including quotations, allusions, direct and indirect references, and an underpinning of common understanding that so saturates the whole, that you can’t fully understand Hebrews, without having a solid awareness of Genesis and the Psalms, as well as the Law of Moses, and the Major Prophets, and the Minor Prophets, too—so, the entire Old Testament. Likewise, all of the laws and regulations of the Old Law were “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Co 2.17), so that you can’t fully comprehend the Old Testament, either, without seeing its fulfillment in the New.
So, while we must be careful and discerning, we also ought to avail ourselves of the vast wealth of lessons found even in the minute details of God’s extended letter to mankind. Many of these tidbits can stick with us for a lifetime, springing to mind when we encounter a similar scenario, helping us along our way as we strive to be like our Redeemer and to take actions that please him. One of these lessons is found in the connection between two details, one of which is found in Mark’s Gospel, the other in Luke’s.
Mark casually tells us, as he is listing off the twelve apostles early in his book, that to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Jesus “gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3.17). He leaves is at that, offering no explanation and immediately moving on to the others on the list. Well, thanks a lot, Mark! It sounds like there’s a story behind that, but he piques our interest, and then leaves us hanging.
Luke, however, helps to explain. Whether he deliberately included this detail in order to explain what Mark had written is a matter of pure speculation, as is the question whether Jesus gave them this nickname solely as a result of the incident we’re about to examine; but it’s fair to say that the incident shines a light on the character of James and John, which surely was, one way or another, the reason behind the affectionate appellation Jesus gave them.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (Lk 9.51-56)
Jesus pronounced clear judgments pretty routinely, and warned sinners of the fate that awaited them, of the unquenchable fire of hell. Additionally, James and John had, so to speak, clicked all of the hyperlinks and connected the dots between Sodom (Ge 19), Egypt (Ex 9), Carmel (1Ki 18), and the road to Ekron (2Ki 1), and thus over-applied the principle of God’s righteous anger and judgment on those who shamelessly reject him. We can see pretty easily what they had in mind and how they got there, but it’s also obvious, from Jesus’ response if nothing else, that they went a little overboard!
My wife once encountered a man in an environment uncomfortable to her, who just creeped her out. When she voiced this to our oldest son (four years old at the time), he very thoughtfully replied without a hint of jest, “I could kill him for you.” The look of joint alarm and amusement that accompanied her verbal response probably compares closely to the look that was on Jesus’ face after James and John made their suggestion. There’s something slightly humorous about the childishness of jumping to such a misguided and extreme solution, and it shows the level of spiritual maturity James and John had attained, by this time. They had loud, powerful words to say—warnings of violent, destructive, and unpredictable flashes of fire from the sky. But they lacked the ability to back it up, they lacked precise direction, they lacked the sense to wield such power properly. They were…thunderous.
What does this teach us? Perhaps many things. The most important is to confine our judgements to the ones God pronounces, and not presume a higher level of authority than we really possess. People are passionate about the things that matter to them, and often moral imperatives are (quite rightly) near and dear to our hearts. It’s easy to develop a malevolence—a desire to see harm done, or even to actively participate in doing harm—toward those whom we deem unrighteous, but we must remember that doling out rewards and consequences to all of humanity is God’s job, not ours. It’s a good thing, too, because every one of us would make a mess of that process, while conveniently ignoring our own worst shortcomings. Destruction will come to the wicked, and Jesus will wield that sword himself (ever read Revelation?); but remember that his purpose is salvation, not destruction (Jn 3.17, 12.47). Make sure that you’re on the proper side of the battleground, and busy yourself with bringing others out of his line of fire.