The Kindness and the Severity of God

Why Jesus is My Hero #47 of 52

Have you ever heard people make a distinction between the seemingly vengeful, angry God of the Old Testament and the kind, loving God of the New Testament? What is God actually like? Which picture of God are we to believe?

In reality it’s an entirely false distinction – time and time again, both the Old and the New Testaments emphasise both of these aspects of God’s character side by side: both the kindness and the severity of God, the mercy of God side by side with the holiness of God.

Numbers 16 is a good representative passage. The constant grumbling of the people of Israel as they wander through the wilderness has finally broken out into outright rebellion against Moses & Aaron, and ultimately against God himself.

“They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?'”

The passage stresses that this grumbling and rebellion is a very serious matter. Grumbling is highly addictive and can spread rapidly throughout a community – instead of responding to God in humble submission and thankfulness for what he had done, all they could see was the negatives and how they wanted things to be different.

As events unfold, it quickly becomes apparent just how offensive this kind of grumbling is to God:

“Moses said, ‘Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.

And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.'”

It’s a deeply sobering passage as we see God acting in judgement against the sin of the people. God clearly displays his severity.

And yet God also displays his kindness:

“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer, and put fire on it from the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.’ So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.”

God provides Moses and Aaron to intercede on behalf of the people, and provides a way for the people’s sin to be atoned for – that is, something to turn aside God’s anger and allow restored relationship to take place.

The God of the New Testament is exactly the same God we see in this passage. Nowhere are these two aspects of God’s character, his holiness and his mercy, more clearly demonstrated side by side than at the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross God shows us more starkly than ever just how serious our sin is, that he can’t simply sweep it under the carpet, that it must be judged according to the holy purity of God’s character – in giving up his one and only Son to die, God shows that there is simply no other way. Yet God also proves his mercy beyond doubt, in punishing his Son in our place so that we can be forgiven, so that we can go free. He died the death that we deserved – his death atoned for us, if we’ll trust in him. Like Aaron and his censer, Jesus’ cross stands between the dead and the living and makes all the difference in the world.

The kindness of God, and the severity of God, side by side, shown at the cross. It’s a thought that should deeply humble us, as we recognise the seriousness of our sin, and how deeply it grieves God. But it’s also a thought that should make us profoundly grateful, as we rejoice in the free and full forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ – that we don’t need to pay the penalty for our sin ourselves, because it’s already been dealth with.