How Mercy Triumphed Over Judgment
[EDITOR'S NOTE: As a follow-up to my last post, here is a slightly adapted excerpt from Chapter 8 of "Secondhand Jesus". If you like, you might enjoy the rest of the book! :)]
If God’s justice requires Him to judge evil and punish sinners, aren’t we all in trouble? Can’t God simply forgive? After all, isn’t He a God of love?
There is no such thing as simply forgiving, even at the human level. There is always a cost. When someone wrongs you, something is taken from you, a piece of you is gone. Sometimes it’s something physical; more often it’s something intangible, like your innocence, your childhood, your respect, your marriage. Fill in the blank. If you’ve been wronged, you are missing something you once had or should have had. That is why we instinctively feel like saying to the one who has wronged us, “You owe me!” Even our own justice system is based on the old Hebrew law of paying “an eye for an eye”—i.e., making the punishment fit the crime, requiring restitution and replacement where possible.
We have wronged God and He—because He is just—cannot just forgive us. Someone must bear the cost.
1 Sam. 6 tells the story of the ark of the covenant finally being returned to Israel on an oxcart from the Philistines. The people were overjoyed at the sight. There were sacrifices and songs of joy. But then the tragic happened unexpectedly.
The men of Beth-Shemesh opened the cover of the ark and looked in at the Law without the cover of blood, and they were struck dead. It's a picture of a rumor about God: that God is pleased with our own goodness; that we can handle the law without the blood. The people of Beth-Shemesh, seeing seventy of their men suddenly slain because of the wrath of God, cried out, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam 6:20a).
This same question can lead us on the road to salvation. In this question is a truth we have missed: God is holy.
You see, God’s sense of justice is rooted in His holiness. To properly understand His justice, we have to recognize His holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that God is far removed from us not just by degree but in also in kind. He is not the top of the spectrum on which we lie near the bottom; He is on a spectrum wholly different than ours. He is, literally, in a league of His own. That is enough to require a mediator. But to make matters worse, we are fallen, sinful creatures. Adam was the first to attempt a life apart from God, to try to live as God instead of with Him. That sin has been passed on to the rest of us, embedded in our very nature. But we are not passive in this. By our own actions we confirm our sinfulness and our desire to rebel and live apart from God. By our own choice, we have become enemies of God.
This presents a problem on a cosmic scale. Throughout the Old Testament, there are hints and references to a “cup of wrath” waiting to be poured out in judgment on the nations.
Psalms 75:8 says, “In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.”
In a prophecy against Judah, Ezekiel warns, "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘You will drink your sister's cup, a cup large and deep; it will bring scorn and derision, for it holds so much. You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, the cup of ruin and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria. You will drink it and drain it dry; you will dash it to pieces and tear your breasts. I have spoken,’ declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ez. 23:32–34).
The book of Revelation gives a glimpse into the final judgment that awaits: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name’” (Rev. 14:9–11).
A cup in Scripture is symbolic of a person’s lot or portion in life. To be an enemy of God is to deserve the cup of wrath, the cup of ruin, sorrow, and destruction. It is our lot, and our coming portion forever.
But God did the unthinkable. He sent His own Son—who is God forever—to come to earth and drink the cup that was meant for us. It is interesting that when James and John asked—or more accurately, when their mother asked!—if they could sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, He said to them, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matt. 20:22).
Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). And a second time in the Garden, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42).
Let this cup pass. What was Jesus’ portion? The cup of wrath. The cup of ruin, sorrow, and destruction. It was a heavy lot to have, yet it was one only Jesus could bear. Only God could satisfy the honor of God. Only God could be holy enough to take on the sin of all the world and with it all the destruction due to us. Jesus took for us the full blow, the full force of God’s wrath so that we no longer have to taste God’s judgment.
Instead, our cup, our lot, is now the cup of blessing, symbolized in the cup of communion. The apostle Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16 ESV).
We switched cups! Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath instead of us so that we can drink the cup of blessing. The cup of blessing is ours because of the new covenant. John Stott words the miraculous reversal of roles this way:
"The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be."
Again, I say, "Thanks be to God!"