As followers of Jesus, when we read stories about Yahweh’s anger or wrath or judgment, we feel like we need to apologize to our friends or explain it away or hide this socially unacceptable part of God away in the back room, as if Yahweh needs a little PR help to survive in the modern world.
The imagery of an angry God is passé. We’ve moved on, evolved to a more progressive world. It’s time that we update Yahweh for the twenty-first century.
And with this move to recast God comes an even more disconcerting move to redefine love. For a lot of people, love has come to mean tolerance.
Think of the common slang in our culture:
“Hey, what’s good for you is good for you.”
“Who am I to judge?”
“Live and let live.”
I can’t help but think, Really? Would you say that about an ISIS bomber? A deranged killer sneaking into an elementary school with a machine gun? A pedophile?
I’m guessing no. So, clearly tolerance has a limit, even in our late-modern world. There’s a line; we just disagree on where to draw it.
Keep in mind that there are two versions of tolerance. Classic tolerance is the idea that we can agree to disagree rather than kill each other or go to war over some petty thing. This was a revolutionary leap forward in social evolution. I’m all for it.
But modern tolerance is the much newer idea that right and wrong are elastic. In this view, to call out somebody’s action as sin is to “judge” them. To disagree with somebody is to hate them. So, for example, if you disagree about sexuality, no matter how gracious and kind and intelligent you are, you immediately earn the label “bigot.” But we all know that’s ludicrous. To disagree with somebody is just to disagree. My wife and I disagree on a regular basis, but we love each other deeply.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” At some point, tolerance starts to slide dangerously close to apathy.
Love—at least the kind of love Jesus talked about—often leads to anger. We get angry about things we care deeply about. Things we’re passionate about.
This is the kind of anger we see in Yahweh. Anger that is patient, just, and unselfish—that comes out of a place of love. Anger that comes from a Father who cares about his kids.
In spite of all the current rebranding of God to fit the Western world, if we’re going to take the Scriptures seriously, then we have to take this part of God seriously.
Let’s step forward to Jesus. Often this move to recast God as a progressive and love as tolerance is supposedly based on Jesus’ teachings.
I recently heard a preacher say, “The message of Jesus was all-inclusive love.”
The writer Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message is this: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Jesus’ central, overarching message was that what he called the kingdom of God—the long-awaited age of peace and justice and healing for humanity and the cosmos itself—was finally breaking in through his life. That Yahweh was about to become king over the world and lead humanity into a glorious new stage of development. So we need to repent, to come over to his side, so that we can enter and enjoy his new reality.
In fact, contrary to all the clichés about Jesus and love, Jesus says more about the coming judgment than any teacher in the New Testament. It was one of his major themes. He is constantly warning Israel, calling her to repentance in light of the coming day of Yahweh.
The caricature of Yahweh as the angry, violent “God of the Old Testament” and Jesus as Mr. Rogers with a beard just doesn’t hold up.
One story in particular does a profound job of capturing this reality. In it, Jesus goes to the temple in Jerusalem. For first-century Jews, the temple was the axis point between heaven and earth, a sacred space. But what Jesus finds there is beyond disturbing. The priests had become the aristocracy of the day and were in bed with Rome. The spiritual leaders of the nation had become corrupt. It’s a tragic story that we’ve seen play out hundreds of times.
Here’s what they did: you would come to the temple with say, a lamb, to sacrifice to Yahweh. Maybe you had to walk for two or three days just to get there from your village. You brought a good lamb, one of your best, because the Torah said the sacrifice had to be “without defect.” But the priest would inspect your lamb and say, “I’m sorry, but you’re lamb isn’t good enough. But . . . we just happen to have one for sale that’s already been preapproved.” And then he would sell it to you for a rip-off.
Or let’s say you came from Rome or Alexandria—a much longer journey. Instead of a lamb, you would bring money to buy a sacrifice on-site in Jerusalem. I mean, who wants to walk hundreds of miles with a goat? It’s not very fun. But when you got to the temple in Jerusalem, the money changers would say, “I’m sorry, but the priests don’t take Roman currency here. You need to pay with the temple coin.” And of course, they were the only bank in town, so they could charge an exorbitant exchange rate.
So what does Jesus do? He gets mad. Really mad. He makes a whip—true story—and starts chasing the money changers out of the temple, turning over tables, dumping money and animals on the ground, screaming at the religious establishment: “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
The writer John has a great ending line to the story: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ ”
Is this how you picture Jesus? Whip in hand, fire in his eyes, knocking over tables and screaming at the money changers as they duck for cover and bolt for the parking lot?
This is one of those stories we skip in Sunday school . . .
I grew up in the 80s. Uh-huh. Anybody remember the flannelgraph? This story never made it onto the flannelgraph. We had Jesus the Good Shepherd, and Jesus walking on water, and Jesus with the children—but we never had angry eyes Jesus with a weapon in his hand and spittle dripping off his chin.
Nope, never had that one.
But it makes sense. He’s facing nauseating injustice. And he is livid. How else is Jesus supposed to feel? Anger is the mature, emotionally healthy response to this kind of corruption and gross defamation of Yahweh’s name.
But here’s what you need to see: this story happens at the end of Jesus’ life, right before the cross. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons that Jesus is put under arrest and then killed—you don’t upset the status quo of the religious hierarchy and live. But Jesus has been to the temple dozens, if not hundreds, of times. He’d been coming there since he was a boy. It’s not like he just walks in, sees the money changers’ racket, and goes postal. Nothing about this story is spur of the moment. No, this is a thought-out, deliberate, on-purpose kind of anger.
A judgment. A reckoning. A line in the sand.
After years of calling Israel to repentance, Jesus says, “ENOUGH!”
This may be a very different Jesus from what you’re used to. A Jesus who is loving, but still gets angry and isn’t afraid to mete out judgment.
We need to live in the tension between love and anger. Most of us think of love and anger as incompatible. How can you love somebody and be angry at them? That just shows how much we still have to learn about love.
In Jesus we see that Yahweh’s anger is born out of his love. The truth is, if you don’t get angry occasionally, then you don’t love. When you see somebody you love in pain, it should move you emotionally. And it should move you to action, to do something about it.
That’s why Yahweh’s love is an attribute, but his wrath isn’t. The Scriptures teach that “God is love,” but we never read “God is wrath.” Wrath, or anger, is Yahweh’s response to evil in the world.
The story about Jesus in the temple, clearing out the corrupt bureaucrats with a homemade whip, is a preview of what’s to come, a glimpse over the horizon. There is coming a day when Jesus puts evil six feet under the ground. When the world is finally free. And it’s because of Jesus’ love, and because of his wrath, his passionate antagonism against evil in all its forms, that we can look forward to this glorious future.
In God Has a Name pastor and writer, John Mark Comer, shares a fresh yet ancient way to understand God. Comer speaks to today’s seekers and believers trying to understand who God is and what He’s like by focusing on God’s own powerful statement about himself.
John Mark Comer is pastor for teaching and vision at Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon. He holds a Master’s degree in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary and is the author of two previous books: Loveology and Garden City. Comer is married to Tammy and they have two boys, Jude and Moses and a little girl, Sunday.
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