In Part One we were discussing that Christ defeats evil and takes away our sin (separation from him) on the cross – it has been removed as far as the east is from the west! The world is still broken because of sin. It does not reflect the eternal state of peace that it will one day when Jesus returns and Yahweh’s final judgement takes place. In the meantime we are to reflect Jesus’ self-sacrificial love to others, put on display the peace of our Eternal God in as much as is possible through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to remember that we battle not against flesh and blood, but against evil spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12) at work in the world and hearts of people who do evil acts.
Another thing religion has misunderstood about the wrath involved in the cross is who was pouring it out. There was wrath, but it was primarily humanity’s wrath – our wrath – being poured out toward God. There was suffering and death, but that is always from God’s adversary Satan. God was in Jesus pouring out his own life for all of us – even the very people who were crucifying, rejecting, and treating him like an enemy. This is true for those who are far from God today! Christ became our sin, our curse, overcoming our separation on the cross. He longs for each person to be reconciled to him and fully experience the perfect love he already has for us (2 Corinthians 5:15-20).
I was taught to look at the cross and see God above Christ, pouring out his wrath onto his son. That was never beautiful to me. It was off-putting and unsettling; it didn’t inspire me to love or worship God. I tried to see God as good but honestly couldn’t. Deep down, I saw a child abuser who should be able to forgive, if he were really loving, without a need for vengeance or innocent blood.
Then I heard another perspective: to look at the cross and see God in Christ, pouring out his love unto us. He was not killing his own son! They were one God, giving Christ’s life so that we may have life. Sometimes I still weep with relief that God is not the one who killed Jesus or did other terrible things. I sob – oh God, I thought you did those things religion said you did.… I see now how deeply wounding and damaging that was. When my view of God was healed, it healed me. Seeing the truth of God’s love changed everything in me forever.
This love displayed in Christ was so transforming and radically beautiful that many early believers (and later believers like Saint Valentine!) were willing to be tortured and killed for their faith in him. For God’s people at the time of Christ, this should have meant re-evaluating everything they thought they knew about God; for us today, it should mean the same.
The cross is the lens through which we interpret all of the Bible.
Sadly, not seeing God through this lens often results in thinking the Bible is saying the opposite of God’s true heart! One of many examples is animal sacrifice. Like all violence, it is quite inconsistent with a God who looks like Christ – the radical display of mercy and unrelenting love of the innocent God in Christ crucified for a people who couldn’t deserve it less.
Therefore, we must consider that something else is going on beneath the surface appearance of these texts.
When we consider cultural context, people were already sacrificing animals to their various gods across many pagan religions and in ancient near eastern cultures. When we examine other passages we see that God never desired nor required animal sacrifice, he hated it, he only ever wanted our hearts – Isaiah 1:11-14; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21; 1 Samuel 15:22; Proverbs 21:3; Matthew 9:13. These texts tell us God is not like the bloodthirsty, wrathful gods typically found in most pagan religions which were influencing the Old Testament writers’ perception of Yahweh.
I was relieved to learn that it was common for near eastern peoples to go to war and attribute their own acts of violence to their various gods. Unfortunately, the Israelites were continuously influenced by this and other aspects of their culture and religion. God yearned for them to relate to him directly. They instead demanded human kings who often led them to oppression. God wanted their hearts in real relationship; they thought they needed to appease him with sacrifices.
God does not – perhaps cannot – force his will or truth about his character on human or angelic beings with genuine free will. He stooped to meet his people where they were at, bore the burden of their broken views of him, and tried to regulate their misguided practices while gradually leading them away from them. He tried to bring good out of this by pointing to the cross, which should have ended animal sacrifice forever. Early followers of Jesus were the first to stop killing animals, and some prominent Christian leaders were vegetarian advocates for compassionate creation care (Wikipedia, “Christian Vegetarianism“).
The early church also advocated for human social justice issues (see “The Third Way“; also this post). When the self-sacrificial, enemy-serving, compassionate love displayed on the cross becomes the lens through which we see God, it will change how we see others and the entire world. Likewise, when our vision of God is distorted, our view of everyone and everything is, too. Instead of changing the world for the better by putting on display the radical enemy loving character of Christ, God’s people at times falsely represent him and thus delay the healing and reconciliation He desires to do through us.
Thank you for reading and following our blog; we hope you are blessed by it and will share it with others! Stay tuned for Part Three coming soon. ~Jessica