The trajectory of Scripture takes humanity from seeing the Creator of heaven and earth as an angry, demanding deity to encountering him as a loving Father who seeks to rescue his children from the ravages of sin and shame. Knowing that will help you work through those moments in Scripture that have often been preached as if God is vindictive.
Wayne, how do you handle people who say God is still angry and to be feared in the New Testament. What about the story of Ananias and Sapphira facing swift judgment in the New Testament in the time of the New Commandment? (Acts 5:1-10)
To answer your question, I think we make too much of an angry “Old Testament” God. The overwhelming theme of the Old Testament is that God is gracious and “slow to anger,” “his lovingkindness is better than life” and “his love endures forever.” That’s the message. When God is depicted as angry and vengeful by the OT writers, I suspect they were projecting their shame on God’s activity and interpret it as anger.
How do I know that? Because Jesus was the exact representation of God’s nature, and he didn’t come among us as an angry, offended deity. He came to love, to forgive, to heal, and to set free. That’s not to say he didn’t have those moments when he is also correcting some injustice, but we still tend to put more anger to his sternness than was likely there.
Even when Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16) is crushed, many see that as an angry God who lost control, rather than the surgical removal of a rebellious influence in the camp that would lead Israel astray if left unchecked. Through Christ, I tend to see God that way now, not as an angry deity striking out against those who displease him, but a surgeon having to take extraordinary measures to keep the story of redemption alive in a fallen world.
And to the specific New Testament story you ask about, I don’t detect anger at Ananias and Sapphira in that account. For those who don’t know the story, this husband and wife claimed they sold some property and were giving all of the proceeds to help others. The truth, however, was that they kept some for themselves and when they presented their offering to Peter he told them that in doing so they had lied to the Holy Spirit, not just their brothers and sisters. They were trying to buy spiritual status with money. God’s resolution for that was to end their lives and bring them home. I don’t think that mistake meant they lost their salvation or that he was punishing them, but simply that their influence among the early church would be more detrimental than helpful. This is a unique situation, of course, that we don’t see repeated. So it wasn’t just a matter of being deceptive, or so many more people would be dying today. Something else was going on that isn’t fully explained in the text. Of course, fear spread after that, but fear may not have been the response God wanted. We cannot be perfected in fear, but only in love. (I John 4:20)
In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees thought God far angrier and punitive than they found in Christ, which is why they rejected him as the Son of God. Those who see God as vengeful work hard to keep him at bay but never discover the transforming power of his love that sets us free to walk righteously without fear. Scripture takes us on that journey, from the Creation of the world until it is all summed up at the end of this age. In that story, we discover that God is not the angry deity that needs to be appeased by our good behavior. In many ways, that’s the story I grew up with, and I now believe it was a bit off the mark. Shame-based people saw him that way in the Old Testament, but God sets that to the right in the New so that we no longer have to be afraid of him but can rest in his love. He has always been the gracious Father inviting his wayward children home to his love and care even when we couldn’t see it.
I know when I write like this people ask, “What about those who use the idea of a loving God to live wayward and indulgent lives?” To them, love is only a concept, not a reality. Those who know him will want to be like him. If there’s no desire to be like him, I doubt they have ever experienced his love. Real love will change us far more than any fear of him ever could.
Some notes of interest:
- If you want help exploring this redemption story in the Scriptures, I have lots of resources to help people engage the Scriptures through the revelation of Jesus. It helps us understand the story in the way it was intended for us.
- My new book Live Loved Free Full can help your mind bathe in these realities every day. The emails I get from people reading it warm my heart. It seems to be doing what I hoped it would do in the world.
- And, if you haven’t started listening to My Friend Luis, give it a try. It is a great story of redemption in the most desperate of circumstances.