This is What the Wrath of God Looks Like

Today is that day set aside in the church’s calendar to mark the conversion of Saul — his being struck down by Jesus on the way to Damascus to persecute the church, and instead becoming the risen Christ’s “chosen instrument” for brining the reconciling promise of God to the Gentiles. As Paul later described his own conversion in Galatians, chapter 1:

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

I like the version of the story Luke tells in Acts 9 (and has Paul retell again in Acts 22 and 26) because it has drama. Jesus, reaching out, knocking Saul blind and senseless, and speaking to him — “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” — and putting Saul in a position of utter dependence on the people he had come to persecute.

And putting them in a position of complete power. All they had in common between them was Jesus.

The conversion of Saul is a new thing. Once, the wrath of God came upon a sinful world, flooding it completely and killing nearly everyone in it. Then it came upon a sinful city in the form of fire from heaven, destroying the entire city and nearly all who lived in it. Then the vengeance of God came as the armies of Assyria and Babylon, to fight, to defeat, to conquer, and to exile God’s wayward, faithless, and disobedient people.

But now, God’s vengeance is something different. Something new. It isn’t defeat, destruction, and exile. It’s resurrection. It’s conversion. Saul, the enemy of the church, fierce opponent of Christ, is met in the midst of his “ordinary” life (just as Peter and his brothers, or Matthew/Levi, met Jesus as they were simply going about their ordinary business) and yanked from it. He is now Christ’s servant, to do Christ’s business, at Christ’s bidding.

Jesus even seems to reassure Ananias that Saul “will suffer much,” though it will no longer be a punishment for wrongdoing, but a real consequence of preaching the Good News of Jesus in a world hungry to hear it. Because the powers that be don’t want this Good News preached.

So Paul will suffer. And die.

But not as an enemy of God. Not as a consequence of his sin. Rather, he will die a beloved disciple. With the rising of Christ, suffering and death goes from a sign of the wrath of God to a mark of God’s favor. It is no longer a consequence of our faithlessness, but of our faithfulness.

Resurrection and conversion, not death and destruction, are God’s final words on our sin. On our rage. On our anger. Our murderous desires. Jesus went there first, and invited us to follow.

Some he called softly and tenderly. Maybe even many. But some, he struck blind, and drug them (okay, us) kicking and screaming all the way to the foot of the cross, to the empty tomb. Where we could see what a love that claims us utterly and completely really looks like.

And how it is little different than wrath. And because of that, God’s wrath does’t matter anymore.

All that matters is God’s all-consuming, all-claiming, and all-encompassing love.

Unforgiven

I love the story of Paul’s conversion, his encounter with Jesus while he is riding to Damascus with warrants in his hands to persecute the church. I love that Saul is struck blind and is left to be cared for by the very same people he came to persecute. (I love this so much it’s the subject of a short story I wrote that was included in this anthology.)

This story is, I think, the gold standard of conversion stories, of meeting Jesus and having one’s life changed utterly and completely. Luke tells it once, in Acts 9:1–19, and then has Paul tell the story twice — in his testimony to soldiers (and others) who have detained him (and have apparently mistaken Paul for an Egyptian rebel) Acts 22 and then later, with a few additional details not in Luke’s telling, to King Agrippa in Acts 26.

And there’s an interesting detail I never noticed was missing from the story before:

Jesus never forgives Saul.

Never.

In all versions, Jesus simply calls Saul, and then instructs him where he will go and what he will do. He tells Ananias more, that Saul has been chosen to preach to the gentiles, and that he will suffer much for “the sake of my name.” When Paul relates his story to King Agrippa, when he preaches the Gospel, he speaks of forgiveness, not for himself, but for the “gentiles” (εθνος):

14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. ’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord? ’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness [ἄφεσιν] of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:14–18 ESV)

Forgiveness — ἄφεσιν — literally remission, setting free, discharge of debts, a letting go, or a dismissal. The gentiles, the people who are not Israel, are to receive this. Because Israel has received it too.

But Christ did not say to Saul, “I forgive you.” Christ simply calls him, on the assumption that once called, Saul would have no choice — no choice — but to follow.

Just as Peter and Levi and the other disciples followed when Jesus called. Peter falls at Jesus’ feet (Luke 5:8) and confesses both his sinfulness and his unworthiness. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Jesus does not reply with “you are forgiven,” but instead says

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

There is much talk of forgiveness in Luke and Acts, but as with Paul’s writings, it seems to focus mostly on how to live as Christians together. Only twice does Jesus actually forgiven anyone in Luke-Acts.  The first is the paralytic in Luke 5 who is lowered down through a hole in the roof by his friends, and then in an oddly passive voice. “Man, your sins are forgiven you,” which then prompts an argument from Pharisees hanging out with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus proclaims he has authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:24) as well as command the paralyzed to walk — to set them free.

Second, from the cross, Jesus prays for those killing him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In Luke, Jesus speaks mostly of the mutuality of forgiveness — forgive each other, forgive others as God forgives you, and forgive your brother and your neighbor as often as needed.

Still, I find it odd that Jesus doesn’t forgive Saul. After all, Saul is off to Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He understands the need to be forgiven, and he knows that Christ does forgive sin.

The call itself is, I think, forgiveness. It is a freeing, a dismissal, a letting go — of old lives that had little meaning and less purpose. Of lives that were devoted to pointless and brutal toil, of lives devoted to a stale and violent law. Saul didn’t have to be told he was forgiven — he understood from the moment he was struck blind, from the moment Jesus spoke to him, took control of his life and commanded him, that he was forgiven. No words were necessary. No words were capable.

He was no longer his own. He belonged to Christ, to be used as Christ saw fit for ends only Jesus could make sense of. There is no understanding, no experience, of forgiveness greater than that.

When God Repents

The first words that John the Baptist speaks in the Gospel According to Matthew are an invitation to repentance:

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight. ’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1-6 ESV)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. Jesus speaks these very words after he hears John has been arrested, returning to Galilee where he begins to preach and proclaim.

Μετανοεω — metanoeo. It means “to change one’s mind and purpose,” and always for the better. It implies a thoughtful and considered change of heart. It’s something Jesus commands six of the seven churches John’s revelation is addressed to. It’s something the disciples in Acts frequently admonish listeners to do, as Peter does to the crowds who gather at Solomon’s Portico in Acts 3 after Peter heals the lame beggar:

19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:19-21 ESV)

Repent is something we’re supposed to do. Thanks to the heritage of pietism, it’s something we’re supposed to do very publicly. A confession of sin, a denunciation of past life or past acts, followed by tears and then a heartfelt statement that we have changed and will never do whatever it was we did again.

That’s not biblical, this ideal we have — it appears nowhere in scripture. We have John and Jesus commanding repentance, and we have people coming to them, to be healed and baptized and to hear the the words of proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, but aside from the unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50, Zacchaeus in Luke promising pay back all he’d stolen and give half his wealth to the poor, we really have no idea what the actual moment of repentance looks like.

(Mostly, it looks like gratefulness, based on what we have.)

I mean, we have Paul — a life completely turned around — but he never grovels for us, and never denounces who and what he was before Jesus struck him blind and claimed his life for the Gospel.

However, we have God. Who does repent a few times.

The example that comes first to mind is the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8. God gazes upon the earth and sees it filled with little but corruption and wickedness:

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8 ESV)

“The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth.” God changes God’s mind about everything that God has made. It is clearly “not good” in God’s eyes, not anymore, and so this angry, sorrowful God will obliterate everything.

God makes good on God’s threat, which is what the drama of Noah and his family — and the ark and its menagerie — is all about.

But no sooner have the flood waters subsided, and Noah makes a burnt offering to God, than God regrets having destroyed everything:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22 ESV)

This attempt — God’s attempt — to rid the world of evil has failed. Utterly and completely. And God knows it. God promises never to do it again.

In fact, God makes another promise: the earth will abide. God renews the creation by blessing Noah and his sons — who are evil in their hearts from birth simply because they are human beings — and promises, with the rainbow, to allow the earth, and the host of things that crawl upon it, to live. Regardless of what comes.

Now, God tries to impose some order on all this human sinfulness by telling Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” But it doesn’t work very well. As the story shows, very little sin is restrained and very little order is maintained.

But in this chapter, God repents of the creation — of this amazing and beautiful act pronounced “good” just a few chapters earlier. God obliterates nearly all life. And once that was done, God regrets it almost immediately. And promises never to do it again.

God regrets — נחם nkhl — and the implication here is of someone taking a long, deep breath, of someone sighing, of someone even taking vengeance. Clearly, God repents. Of the creation and then the subsequent destruction. There is no other word to describe what God does here.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen often in scripture. But that it happens at all is a huge deal, and says something about the God who created and called us to be his people. Moses is able to shame God from annihilating Israel after they take up worshiping a calf of gold in Exodus 32 (“If you destroy this people after rescuing them, consider what the Egyptians will think of you; no one will be able to take you seriously after that.”), and God frequently promises that once Israel has been beaten to a pulp, overrun and sent into exile, God will relent, and gather his people. But that’s not quite the same as God repenting. God doesn’t really regret sending Israel into exile — God is far too determined to do that task.

I think God’s refusal to continue fighting Israel’s war of extermination and displacement against the Canaanites because the Israelites themselves lost the stomach to do all God commanded them is a repentance of sorts:

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. ’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5 ESV)

But this is like Abraham talking God out of destroying Sodom, or Moses talking God out of destroying Israel — this is a consequence of Israel’s disobedience. Nothing of the interior life of God is revealed here. God does not regret this. So, I’m not sure this is real repentance.

In a very clearcut way, God repents at least one more time, in 1 Samuel 15, when King Saul keeps some of the choicest things plundered from the recent war against Amalek. “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears and the lowing of oxen that I hear?” Samuel angrily demands of Saul (in one of scripture’s best questions).

10 The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. (1 Samuel 15:10-11 ESV)

And we continue…

24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 26 And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:24-26 ESV)

Saul repents. He repents vociferously. But it doesn’t matter. God regrets. God repents of having made Saul King over all Israel. Scripture is emphatic on this matter:

35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted [נחם] that he had made Saul king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15:35 ESV)

While Samuel is immediately dispatched to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Saul does not quickly or gently fall from his throne. There is a lengthy struggle between David and Saul — a struggle in which God preserves David in the face of everything.

God does not regret easily or often. Which suggests to me that God has, in fact, learned.

God tried to destroy a sinful world, and remake it without sin. Or with less sin. Or something. It’s not clear what God actually is trying to accomplish with Noah except to save him. But in doing that, God saved a bit of the sinful world he was consigning to oblivion in order to make the new world. (Intriguing. God did not simply speak a new world into being. Make of that what you will.) After doing so, God realized the pointlessness of it all. Nothing had really changed. So, God would live with sinful humanity, would abide sin. From now on, God’s saving acts would work in and with with the very sinful creation that so plagued God’s sense of righteousness.

God’s abandoning of Saul is also something I suspect God did in great haste, without giving the matter much thought. A fit of pique, or a temper tantrum (which God has lots of in Exodus and Numbers). As sins go, it’s minor league. True, David does nothing like what Saul did — deny the Lord his portion of the spoils of war. But David does an awful lot worse (at least in our eyes) — wife stealing, murder, terrorism, and bringing calamity upon Israel by trying to hold a census (the one thing which finally makes God angry with David). There aren’t many commandments David doesn’t break. God may have chosen Saul, but God didn’t really love him, and wasn’t terribly committed or all that faithful to Saul once Saul gives God a reason to be done with him.

But David, God sticks with David. Makes promises to the whole world because of his love for David. God repents of Saul, dumps him hard, falls in love with David at first sight (or, as one junior high schooler I was teaching noted, “God loves him some David”), and sticks with David. This is repentance in action, because it is a “life” (if we can speak of God that way) changed. God learned, and changed. For the better.

Grace Incarnate

Yes, I know, in most of the civilized church world, today was Ascension Sunday, in which the church marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus returned to His Father in Heaven (Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, and Acts 1:6-11) after spending a little quality time with the disciples, eating breakfast with them and walking through walls. Continue reading