God’s people, the Hebrews, knew God’s justice, because they had the Law of Moses, giving standards of right and wrong that no other nation possessed.
“By the law is the knowledge of sin,” according to St. Paul. The Hebrews knew that Jehovah would by no means clear the guilty, those who broke His law. They had seen the consequence for breaking the Sabbath, that is, death. They knew that blood must be shed to pay for sins, through the countless sacrifices offered year after year on the altar. They saw the violent deaths of priests who profaned the altar. They tasted the bitter consequences of flattering God with their mouths, while turning their hearts to idols: death by the sword and famine, captivity for the few survivors, and Jerusalem, the glorious city, and its temple, razed to the very foundations.
The Hebrews knew the terrors of the Lord, and the punishment for rebellion against God. They would have remembered Achan, who, for stealing a handful of banned luxuries, would, along with his family, lose his life. And the memory of King Saul’s fall from God’s blessing, due to a trivial disobedience, would be imprinted on the national memory.
But a profound mystery was also printed on the minds of the Hebrews. For in addition to knowing God’s fierce wrath, the Hebrews would have witnessed God’s mercy. King David commits adultery with Bathsheba, murders her husband, and yet lives, finding forgiveness. King Manasseh, whose atrocities made those of other evil kings look tame, repents in prison and is restored. Also, not only are Jacob’s deceptions forgiven, Jehovah gives him a gracious name that seems to fly in the face of all Jacob’s foolish mistakes: “Prince with God.”
The Old Testament was, among other things, a record of minor sinners fiercely punished, and major sinners bountifully cleared. What? Is God capricious, arbitrary, random? Is His justice lacking?
How, in light of God’s strict justice, can the Sons of Korah say
Lord, You have been favorable to Your land;
You have brought back the captivity of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people;
You have covered all their sin. Selah
You have taken away all Your wrath;
You have turned from the fierceness of Your anger.
And a few verses later,
Mercy and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed.
(from Psalm 85)
How can mercy and truth meet? How can righteousness and peace kiss? Truth and righteousness demand an exact blood payment, every ounce suited precisely to each sin. Mercy and peace demand complete absolution and rest, the worst sins remembered no more. Mercy and truth seem to be polar opposites. How to reconcile them?
Old Testament saints, through the words of the Prophets, saw a veiled answer, a mystery. But to us, the secrets of God have been revealed.
Abraham, God’s friend, once passed a test of faith that seems to me impossible. In one of scripture’s most ironice narratives, we see Abraham and Sarah laughing in disbelief at God’s promise, the promise that barren Sarah would have a son in her old age. But in the end, their laughter turned to the laughter of sheer joy, for God’s promise came true. Abraham and Sarah embraced a son, born of Sarah’s barren womb, and named him “Isaac,” literally, “Laughter.” God brought life from death, comedy from tragedy. The script leaves us weeping tears of joy, ready for the curtain to fall and the applause to begin.
But the most important scene was yet to come.
Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Abraham obeyed God, and journeyed to the mountain. As sorrowful as the journey must have been, even as he approached the mountain of sacrifice, Abraham had a striking moment of faith. For a moment, through Abraham’s prophetic utterance, God’s secret purpose, the kissing of righteousness and peace, flashes before our eyes, crystal clear.
So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!”
And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”
We know how the story ends with Abraham. Just as he was about to slay Isaac, the angel of the Lord stayed His hand. But two thousand years later, on the Cross of Calvary, the Lord God did not stay His own hand. He sacrificed His own Son, Jesus Christ, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God.
God’s mystery is no longer a mystery. God the Father is just because all our sins were fully paid for in the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. God the Father is the justifier because His wrath was spent on Christ. (See Romans 3.26) There is nothing remaining for us but mercy upon mercy, poured upon us who believe in Jesus Christ. Praise the Lord!
The Law remains. Christ Jesus warned that until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot or tittle of the law will fail. Men who have not put their faith in Christ still have the Law, and all it’s fiery punishment, to fear. And, for those who hide their sins under feigned belief in Christ, the harsh punishments of the Old Testament remain as a warning (see I Cor 10).
But we who have trusted in Christ are dead to the law (read Romans 7). It no longer has power to condemn us to Hell, because we died to the law. Nor will any righteous acts or good deeds on our part commend us in the sight of the law, because we died to the law. The law’s standard of righteousness remains a standard of righteousness, its warnings against sin in effect for us today, but it no longer remains the standard that condemns, or even commends, those who have run to Christ for mercy.
For us who have put faith in Jesus Christ, there is instead a promised share in the resurrection of Christ, who will one day transform our dead bodies into immortal bodies, so we may enjoy a glorious paradise with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forever.
Hebrews 9:26-28 says…
Now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.