“Behold, therefore the goodness and severity of God.” (Romans 11:22, KJV)
In these weeks that lead up to Christmas it is my privilege to try and show you, in a way that is clear and compelling, why Jesus Christ came into the world, and how this is good news for us today.
How America Sees God
I want to do that from the book of Deuteronomy, but we begin with a front page article from the USA Today. The lead story from October 7th, 2010 is under the title, “How America sees God.”
It’s a good title, because the writers are not claiming to tell us who God is, but rather how we as Americans see God. We may be biblical or we may be confused, we may be right or we may be wrong.
The article is based on a study conducted over the last four years by two sociologists from Baylor University in Texas. Their work is published in a book called: “America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What This Says about Us.” The article reads:
“If you pray to God, to whom or what are you praying? When you sing ‘God bless America,’ whose blessing are you seeking…? Is God by our side, or beyond the stars? Is He wrathful or forgiving? Is He judging us every moment, someday or never?”
These sociologists have identified four views of God, and each of them turns out to be supported, according to the survey, by close to a quarter of Americans. They say that 5% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, but the other 95% of us have some kind of belief in God.
The study says 24% of Americans believe in a distant God who “booted up the universe, and then left humanity alone.” In this view, what happens in life basically comes down to you. Your life is what you make it.
The article quotes a rabbi who identified with this view. He says, “There is no one who can fix things if I mess them up.” You will immediately see this is not a Christian view because the whole point of the Gospel is that Christ has come because we have messed up and need a Redeemer.
A second view identified by the sociologists is that God is disengaged from this world, but that he will make things right in the world to come. This is the view of God that Karl Marx dismissed as “the opium of the people.” He called it, “pie in the sky when you die.”
Again, this is not a Christian view of God. Why would God take on human flesh if he was only concerned about the spiritual? Why would God come to earth if he was only concerned with things in heaven? But according to the survey, this is how 21% of Americans see God.
The third and fourth views of God in this article were the ones that caught my attention. A third view of God in the survey says 28% of Americans think God is “engaged in history and meting out punishment to those who do not follow him.” 28% of Americans believe in a God who judges.
Lastly, according to the survey, 22% of Americans believe in a benevolent God who is “a force for good who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts, and will comfort all.” So, the picture, according to the USA Today, is 28% of Americans believe in a God who punishes, and 22% of Americans believe in a God who loves.
I don’t know how the researchers formulated their questions, but their conclusions are striking—if we believe God punishes we cannot, at the same time, believe He is a God who loves. If we believe God is love, we cannot at the same time believe He punishes. If you said this to Moses, I think he would furrow his brow and stroke his beard, “Really!?!”
Where Moses lands on the survey
I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if the sociologists took this survey back in time and gave it to Moses: “Moses, do you believe that God metes out judgment to those who do not follow him?”
You bet I do! Let me tell you about the plagues in Egypt, and how God sent venomous snakes into the camp of His own people when we rebelled against Him. They bit the people and many of them died. Then there was the time when I struck the rock, a wretched faithless act, and God said to me, ‘You will not enter the promised land’” (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).
Then the researchers would put their pens back in their clipboards, thankful for the opportunity to interview such a prestigious man. “So, Moses, you believe in a God who judges. No surprise there. You’re an Old Testament guy. You’re not one of these people who believe in a benevolent God, pouring out love and compassion.”
Moses would say, “Wait a minute… let me tell you how God delivered us on the night of the exodus, how the serpent was lifted up on a pole and how those who looked up in an act of faith were saved by God. Let me tell you about the sacrifices, so that a fool like me, who struck the rock, would not be blotted out forever but reconciled with God in the end.”
We have severed what God has joined together. Think about what the apostle Paul says, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22—KJV). J. I. Packer says,
“Christians… are not to dwell on God’s goodness alone, nor on His severity alone, but to contemplate both together.” [i]
You will never understand God if you think only on his goodness. You will never understand God if you dwell on his severity alone. If you want to know who God is, not simply project your own imagination or intuition on him, you need to consider his goodness and his severity, his mercy and his judgment, his love and his wrath. You cannot understand the meaning of Christmas unless you grasp the goodness and severity of God.
God pressed these truths into the minds and hearts of His people through music and through drama.
The Drama of God’s Goodness and Severity
“These tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people… And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses…” Deuteronomy 27:12-13
When God’s people went into the Promised Land, they would go past two mountains called “Ebal” and “Gerizim.” Moses gave them instructions for when they arrived there—the people were to send representatives from each of the tribes up the slopes of these mountains.
When the people marched past Mount Gerizim, they heard their brothers shouting words of blessing, “If you fully obey the LORD your God… all these blessings will come upon you…” (28:1).
Imagine walking by and you hear a guy shouting, “You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country” (28:3)! You walk a few more steps and another guy shouts out, “The fruit of your womb will be blessed” (28:4)! Then another, “You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out” (28:6)! The goodness of God could not be clearer.
Now you are walking by the second mountain, “If you do not obey the LORD your God… all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (28:15). When the people marched past Mount Ebal, they heard their brothers shouting out curses, “You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country… The fruit of your womb will be cursed… You will be cursed when you come in and when you go out” (28:15,18,19).
Every time one of these curses was called out, the people were to say “Amen,” which means “So shall it be.” God’s people knew beyond a shadow of a doubt God blesses and he curses, God loves and he judges. You couldn’t miss it. It would be in your memory forever—there are blessings that follow righteousness, and curses that follow rebellion.
God set up this drama so that people would not drift through life saying, “God loves everyone all the time,” and no one would go through life so discouraged that they would be saying, “I am under the curse of God and there is no hope for me.”
The Song of God’s Goodness and Severity
“Write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it.” (Deuteronomy 31:19)
To impress this further in the minds and hearts of the people, God gave to Moses and Joshua a song about his goodness and severity. God gives us this song because he knows the rebellion that is in our hearts, “I know what they are disposed to do” (31:21). Think about that. God knows what you are disposed to do even before you do it. He knows what is in your heart, even for this coming week. The message of the song is the same as the message of the drama—the goodness and severity of God.
The severity of God
i. The blessings you have received
The song begins with a catalogue of God’s blessings from the past, and future blessings that would come in the Promised Land. God found you in the desert (32:10), shielded you and cared for you (32:10), guarded you like an eagle guarding its nest (32:11) and nourished you with honey from the rock and with oil from the flinty crag (32:13). God’s blessings are more than you can number. This is true for all of us.
ii. The choices you have made
“Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked…” Deuteronomy 32:15
If you have a pew bible and very sharp eyes, you will see that the footnote says, “Jeshurun means the upright one, that is Israel.” Why not simply say, “Israel?” By using the name “Jeshurun,” God speaks about his people at their best. God says “Here is the truth about you at your most upright: Jeshurun grew fat and kicked.”
Imagine an old mule who has been serving his master for a long time. But now the mule has grown fat, and when the master comes out to work, what does the mule do? He kicks him. God says, “I know what is in your heart. I know what you are disposed to do.” When you receive God’s blessing, you will be filled with a sense of your own importance, and you will kick against God.
You will resist God, resent him, doubt him and speak against him, “This is what you are like by nature. You receive my blessings, and credit yourself, ‘Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked…’” Some of you know, by the Spirit of God, that is what you are doing—you are kicking against God.
iii. The judgment you deserve
“The Lord saw this and rejected them because he was angered by his sons and daughters.” (Deuteronomy 32:19)
God’s people are indulging themselves and kicking against Him, so notice what He says, “I will hide my face from them” (32:20). Here are God’s enemies—they don’t even acknowledge him, but God will bless them, and God says, “[this] will make them jealous” (32:21), “I will provoke them to anger” (32:21) and “I will heap disasters upon them” (32:23).
Why would God do all this? “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol” (32:22). How can you read that and not believe in a God who judges? What a picture of judgment—surrounded by disaster, angry and jealous as God blesses others and not you, while he turns away from you and hides his face. This is the judgment I deserve.
Have you considered the severity of God? Is this truth rooted in your mind and your heart? We need this truth to restrain our wayward hearts. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
This song is a catalogue of judgments. Can you imagine Moses singing this? The judgment reaches its fearful climax when God says, “I said I would scatter them and blot out their memory from mankind, but…” (32:27). When everything has been said about the judgment of God, there is something else.
The Goodness of God
i. God will take vengeance on His enemies
If you are thinking, “That sounds like more judgment. How is this the goodness of God?” A God who is sympathetic and weeps over conflict, but who cannot destroy evil, is no help to us. If he cannot eradicate evil then heaven will be like earth—more of the same—and that is not good.
A venomous serpent came into the Garden of Eden. The poison of his evil afflicts the whole human race. We need a Savior who can crush the head of the serpent, and that is what we have in Jesus Christ. When Christ came into the world he said, “the prince of this world now stands condemned” (John 16:11). Christ came to destroy the works of the evil one, to fulfill the promise of God that the ancient serpent would be destroyed forever.
Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire forever, together with all who do evil. That is why God says about his enemies, “If they were wise… they would discern their latter end. Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip… is at hand” (32:29,35). God will avenge the blood of his servants; He will take vengeance on His enemies.
Sin will be no more because God in his infinite holiness will destroy it forever. Nothing that defiles will enter into his holy city. This is the goodness of God. But there’s more to his goodness.
ii. God will have compassion on His people
“The Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on his servants.” Deuteronomy 32:36
One of the books I read in high school contained a phrase that is forever stuck in my mind, “Imagine a boot stamping on the face of a human—forever.” [ii] Look around the world and you will see just that… but not forever! There is a God in heaven, and he will destroy evil.
How is this good news for us? God will “atone for his land and his people” (32:43). This is why Christ came into the world. God, whose judgment we deserve, took our flesh in Jesus Christ, and he bore our judgment by carrying our sins in his body on the tree.
The goodness and severity of God meet at the cross. Christ came under the curse that belongs to us, so that we might enter the blessing that belongs to him.
Come and see, come and see come and see the King of love
See the purple robe and crown of thorns He wears
Soldiers mock, rulers sneer as He lifts the cruel cross
Lone and friendless now He climbs towards the hill
We worship at Your feet where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed by love’s pure stream
For us He was made sin: Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out ‘Father, forgive.’
I worship, I worship, the Lamb who was slain [iii]
iii. God will reach out to all nations
“Rejoice, O nations, with his people… for he avenges the blood of his servants and takes vengeance on his adversaries. He repays those who hate him and atones for his land and people.” Deuteronomy 32:43
Why are the nations to rejoice along with Israel? Because this atonement that Christ makes for his people is offered to them. When the Redeemer is born into the world, it is not only Jewish shepherds that come, wise men come from the east. They need a star to guide them. Why? They do not have the Old Testament.
The angels say to the shepherd, “A Savior is born to you… and this is good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10-11). Whatever your background—whether you are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim—the Savior has come into the world to make atonement, and in Christ, God is reaching out to you!
Use the goodness and severity of God to help you grasp the meaning of Christmas
You can’t make sense of Christmas without considering the goodness and severity of God. If you get sentimental about babies in a manger, ask yourself this question: Why did He have to come? There is a curse.
Christ came into the world because of the severity of God. We have grown fat and kicked against God. Our sin alienates us from a holy God. It keeps us out of heaven. There is a judgment due to us for our sin. There is a curse to be removed and only Christ can remove it.
Then ask yourself: Why would He come? Why would He take on the flesh of those who are kicking against Him? Why would He let them nail this flesh to the cross? Christ came into the world because of the goodness of God. God looks upon us miserable sinners with compassion. He has pity on us and He gives His Son, “God demonstrates His love for us in this:
“While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Let the goodness and severity of God lead you to Jesus Christ
All over this city, there a thousands of people who do not feel that they need Jesus. Maybe that is true of you. Consider the severity of God. You will see that you need a Savior.
Maybe you’ve come to a place where you’d like to find peace with God. You would like to come to him, but you feel unworthy and ashamed. You say to yourself, “Why would God be interested in me?”
Consider the goodness of God. This God has compassion for you. Christ has come. He has made atonement! Right now, God is reaching out to you in Jesus Christ. Let the goodness of God draw you to the Savior.
[i] J.I. Packer, “Knowing God,” 20th Anniversary ed., p.158, InterVarsity Press, 1993
[ii] George Orwell, “1984,” p. 334, 1stWorld, 2004
[iii] Graham Kendrick, from the song, “Come and See,” 1989, Make Way music