Posted by: 15shekels | January 4, 2010

And the curtain was torn in two

“I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. I knew there was an afterlife but felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldn’t possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.” -Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, pages 41-42.

“What shocks me today about [Old Testament stories of God’s wrath and punishment] is not that they really happened. They probably didn’t. What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh- and, even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.” -atheist Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, pages 281-282.

Last week during a Bible study, I asked a group of high school students what makes it hard for them to pray. “I’m afraid to pray,” one boy said. “I mean, God is…well God. He’s so powerful and intimidating. I’m afraid I’ll pray the wrong thing, and He’ll rain down fire on me.”

I was struck deeply by his answer. Especially because minutes before, a girl in the group had made a very different statement about God’s character. She had declared that God is loving and merciful—in the New Testament. However, she said that the God of the New Testament is a totally different God from the wrathful God of the Old Testament. On one side of me sat a girl who thought God had undergone a lobotomy in the Intertestamental period, and, on the other side sat a boy who couldn’t see past God’s wrath to His mercy.

Both of these teenagers were missing a crucial piece of the puzzle, and I believe it was the same piece—what happened to Jesus on the cross.

Some background is needed. There is, of course, only one God, and his character is unchanging and eternal (Mal. 3:6). He has always been loving and merciful, and He has always been powerful and angered by sin and injustice. There is great danger in ignoring either side of his character.

First, we cannot trivialize or demonize God’s judgment and wrath. Yes, God exhibits righteous anger in the Old Testament, and He has every right to do so. God created us and gave us paradise, and we rebelled against Him. We deserve punishment. For generations, people have understood that without difficulty. Dawkins’ statement (quoted above) has the entitled ring of a 21st-century western individualist who assumes we have rights before an all-powerful and perfect God. We deserve His wrath, and it is imperative that we understand that, or we will never recognize our need for a savior.

This being said, the overwhelming theme of the Old Testament is mercy. Despite the Israelites’ many stubborn rebellions, God never lets go of his people. He forgives them again and again, accepting their meager animal sacrifices until next time. This pattern of sin, sacrifice, and forgiveness continues, building in intensity and foreshadowing the mighty afternoon when it will be broken permanently, the moment all of history has been building up to—the cross.

On the cross, Jesus endures the punishment for the sins of humanity and atones for them permanently as only he—God himself—can do. The wrath deserved by generations is quenched in moments. So while we do see glimpses of God’s wrath in the New Testament (John 2:13-16, Rev.), we no longer see it directed toward Christ’s followers. He took the full force of eternal punishment, so that there is none left for those who believe in him. None.

Do you see the danger in assuming that God merely lightens up midway through history? To make such an assumption is to trivialize the cross, and to make a mockery of God’s justice. Jesus didn’t erase God’s wrath; He endured it for us.

Here we also find the answer for the boy who was afraid to pray. There is no longer anything to fear. On the cross, Jesus experienced the worst that God’s wrath has to offer: His absence. Right before his death, Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) He was experiencing the excruciating pain of his father turning his face away, unable to look upon his Son while he was covered in our sin. And because Jesus endured God turning away, no one who believes in him will ever, ever experience that pain.

Within four verses of Jesus’ mournful cry, we receive proof that his mission has been accomplished. We read that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38). The curtain had concealed the Most Holy Place, where God’s special presence dwelt. Only the high priest could go behind that curtain, only once a year, and only after making the proper sacrifices. As it ripped that day, those present would have watched in shock as the curtain dividing God from men fell to the ground for good.

When that curtain ripped, we gained intimate access to the Father. Jesus was the first person in the Bible to call God Abba, which means “Father” in Aramaic. This was radical, and would have been considered disrespectful by those who heard him. But Jesus’ point was clear—his relationship with his father was deeply intimate. And even more radical, he has invited his followers into the same kind of relationship with God the Father. This doesn’t mean He won’t discipline us at times; He may even be stern. But our position as His beloved children is secure. Paul writes, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” -Romans 8:15-16

Now, I only had about 30 seconds to answer the teenage boy who was afraid to pray. So I didn’t give him a lesson in Aramaic or explain the tearing of the curtain. Instead I told him to imagine a good, powerful and mighty king, who is feared and respected all over the world. Then I told him to imagine that the king has a 3-year-old daughter whom he adores, who can crawl up onto his lap on the throne. That is the access that Christians have to God. There is no fear. We can crawl straight into God’s lap and babble to him about anything and everything that is on our hearts. And we know that he delights in each of us so much that he was willing to send his beloved son to die, so that we could be adopted, fully, into his family.

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” -Hebrews 4:16

“I am just an earthly, sinful father, and I love my kids so much it hurts. How could I not trust a heavenly, perfect Father who loves me infinitely more than I will ever love my kids?” -Francis Chan, Crazy Love, page 55.

“I guess [being saved], it’s like discovering you’re on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, ‘I’ll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.'” -Traveling Mercies, page 43.

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Responses

  1. “Abba” in Aramaic really just means Father, rather than Daddy. It is something that a natural son would call his natural Father, since we have been adopted as sons by God.

  2. Aramaic Scholar,

    Thank you for the clarification!


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