This is Part 2 of my reflection on the Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16. Today I tackle an unpopular subject: God’s wrath. Why does a God of perfect love have wrath? I hope my words help make sense of it. Scripture is Numbers 21:4-9.
Devotional Text: Numbers 21:4-9
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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Thursday, March 15, and this is devotional podcast number 22.
And it is a jungle out there—at least if this 1974 hit song, written by Ian Anderson and performed by the band Jethro Tull, is true. I recorded this from their album WarChild. “He who made kittens,” Anderson tells us, referring to God, “put snakes in the grass.” And that’s literally true when it comes to today’s scripture in Numbers 21:4-9.
Remember, this is the second podcast related to John 3:16. To hear the first in the series, go back and listen to devotional podcast number 21.
As I said last time, to understand the Bible’s most famous verse, we have to look at this short passage from Numbers 21—because Jesus refers to it in John 3:14-15 when he says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In Numbers 21, the Israelites are nearing the Promised Land after almost 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And now, a new generation of Israelites is complaining to Moses about his leadership and God’s providential care. Verse 5: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” And what does God do in response to their ingratitude, their blasphemy, and their lack of faith? He sends poisonous snakes in their midst… to kill them.
Why? Because, as uncomfortable as it makes modern people feel, God has wrath toward sin. God is giving us a small picture of his wrath in Numbers 21. Wrath is God’s justifiable anger toward sin and evil. When we think of the word “wrath,” we probably think of losing one’s temper and being out of control with anger—flying off the handle. Needless to say, I hope, God does not lose his temper, nor is he out of control or flying off the handle. In fact, God’s wrath is a consequence of his love: Because God loves this world, and especially his image-bearing creatures within it, he is angry at all the sin and evil that harm it. I hope that makes sense.
If not, listen to the way pastor Tim Keller describes it in his book, The Reason for God. You might find this helpful:
When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.
Wrath, Keller says, is God’s love and justice being activated at the same time. You can’t have love without a commitment to justice.
Well, even if we’re still not sure about God’s wrath, I’m sure most of us can imagine God’s being righteously angry, for example, about that kid who shot up the high school in Parkland, Florida, a few weeks ago. The idea that a loving God could, figuratively speaking, shrug his shoulders at that kind of evil and say, “That’s no big deal,” is unthinkable to us! It’s the biggest deal of all. Of course God is angry about it, and if God is a perfectly loving and and perfectly just God, that kind of evil can’t go unpunished. Right? In fact, only an old-fashioned, biblical word like “wrath” can do justice to the emotions that we feel in the face of this kind of evil—so it’s not hard to imagine that God himself feels that, too. And that, my friends, is God’s wrath!
But here’s the hard part: God is an impartial judge. If he has wrath toward sin and evil, that means he also has wrath toward the sin and evil for which we are responsible.
“Yes,” we might say, “but we’re not all that bad, right?”
If you feel that way, this might help you: I was listening to a podcast the other day devoted to Christian apologetics—i.e., defending the Christian faith. The hosts of the podcast were talking about the issue of God’s wrath and punishment. And they argued that one reason we struggle to think of ourselves and our own sins as being “all that bad” is because of what our legal system teaches us about crime and punishment. They gave this illustration: Committing adultery is far worse, far more harmful, to human beings than stealing a TV set, for instance. Adultery can often and easily destroy families—it can cause lasting psychological and spiritual harm to the men, women, and children affected by it. It’s not for nothing that in 1 Corinthians 6:9 the apostle Paul says that adulterers—by which he means adulterers who are unrepentant—will not inherit the kingdom of God. Adultery threatens our souls like only a handful of other sins, according to Paul. But even short of the spiritual harm it causes, we can all see the the practical harm. Our society pays a price for that everyday—in the form of divorce and custody disputes, for instance.
So to get back to my point: Obviously, adultery is far worse a sin than stealing a TV. However… adultery isn’t even a crime under our law, whereas stealing a TV might land you in prison for ten years! I’m not saying that adultery should be a crime under the law! I’m just saying that if we’re not careful, we can begin to think that stealing and other things that our criminal justice system classifies as “crimes” are a big deal—and most of us, after all, aren’t criminals, the occasional traffic ticket notwithstanding—whereas “merely” spiritual offenses like adultery, which a far larger portion of the population commits, isn’t that big of a deal.
As I say, this is often backwards. Spiritual offenses can be much worse than mere “crimes.” So even if we’re not criminals, we are sinners. So why should we expect not to be punished?
I hope that illustration helps. But whether it does or not, what we we can see in Numbers 21 is that God has wrath toward sin and that sin deserves the death penalty. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and the “wages of sin is death,” Paul says in Romans 3:23 and 6:23.
But what we must also see in Numbers 21 is that God provides a means of salvation. This deadly plague of snakes causes the Israelites to repent. They go to Moses and plead with him to intercede on their behalf with God. And he does. Verse 8: “The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
So, in John 3:14 and 15, Jesus is comparing his being lifted up on a cross to this bronze snake being lifted up on this pole. What does this tell us?
Many things: We are “snake-bitten” with sin, and we are dying because our sin. And are helpless to save ourselves apart from God’s miraculous intervention. Biblically speaking, remember that all death is God’s judgment against sin. While we won’t often die as quickly from the deadly poison of sin as we will from a snake’s venom, but will die nonetheless. And after that, unless God provides a miraculous cure, face God’s judgment, God’s wrath, and hell.
But… God has given us a miraculous cure: the cross of his Son Jesus. Look to the cross and be saved! Jesus tells us. Now, “looking to the cross” is an act of faith, which Jesus describes in John 3:15.
But even the snake-bitten Israelites needed a little bit of faith to be saved. They needed first to believe that God had imbued the snake with the power to heal them. So God took the initiative to save these Israelites, but they still needed to respond to God’s initiative. God wasn’t going to force the cure on them; he wasn’t going to heal them apart from their response to his initiative—in the analogy to the cross, we might call our response to God’s initiative “repentance.”
Well, there’s much more to say, but I’ll stop there for now… What I need you to take away from this is that, yes, sin is deadly serious—it’s as deadly as a venomous snake bite but infinitely worse; God has wrath toward sin; and God will punish it—including our sin. But… we can’t look at God’s wrath in a vacuum—because right alongside God’s wrath—in front of it, around it, behind it—is God’s mercy. It was never God’s intention to leave us stranded in our sin—without hope of rescue. He loved us from the beginning! Before he even created us. And he knew, before he created the world, and us human beings within it, he knew that one consequence of creating our world would be that he would have to personally intervene, in the person of his Son Jesus, by means of the cross, and the shedding of his precious blood.
This was God’s plan from the beginning. Because he loved us. So don’t think of God’s wrath for a moment without also thinking of God’s love—and his plan to rescue us.
And how exactly does the cross achieve this rescue? Well, I’ll talk about that next time, as we look some more at John 3:16. Love you!
1. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.