The Old Testament writers record a brutal history of divine wrath that came to an abrupt end at the cross. Before the cross, wrath was poured out on…
– a world hell-bent on violence and self-destruction (Gen 6:13)
– Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their “grievous sin” (Gen 18:20)
– the slave-owning nation of Egypt (Exodus 7-11)
– a generation of sinful Israelites (Heb 3:17)
– the Amorites because of the “full measure” of their sin (Gen 15:16)
– Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:2)
– ten fearful spies (Num 14:37)
– the rebel Korah and his men (Num 16:31)
– the pagan enemies of Israel (Jos 10:25)
– the murderous Abimelech (Judg 9:56)
– 70 men of Beth Shemesh who looked into the ark (1 Sam 6:19)
– Uzzah who touched the ark (2 Sam 6:7)
– 185,000 Assyrian invaders (2 Sam 19:35)
But after the cross, God’s wrath was poured out on no murderers, no gay cities, no slave-owners, no murmurers, no fearful spies, no rebels and no foreign invaders. Do you see? The cross changed everything!
God used Christ’s body to condemn sin. (Romans 8:3, CEV)
Because of Jesus, the wrath of God towards sin has been fully satisfied. I’m not saying there are no consequences for sin. Nor am I saying all are saved, for some may reject the life that Christ offers. I am saying that sin is no longer part of the equation. Your sin and my sin have been done away with at the cross (Heb 9:26). “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Is 53:5). Because of Jesus there remains no more punishment for sin.
“But Paul, you are forgetting two things. God destroyed Jerusalem and killed Herod. Both events happened after the cross.”
I find it stunning that those looking for instances of divine punishment can find, after 2000 years of sin, violence, and war, no more than two examples. Surely, if God was in the punishment business, he’s let a few tyrants and terrorists get away.
But God is not in the punishment business! As I explain elsewhere the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 had little to do with divine wrath. Jesus, not Titus, is the hinge-point of history. But what can we say about Herod Agrippa?
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Act 12:21-23)
Given how the cross of Christ splits history in two, don’t you find it strange that Herod received some old covenant wrath in the new covenant? There are only two ways to explain this:
1. Since Herod was not a believer, the benefits of the new covenant don’t apply to him. Those who reject God’s mercy “remain under wrath” (John 3:36).
2. God didn’t kill Herod.
Are unbelievers under wrath?
When John says the unbeliever remains under wrath, he means the unbeliever is swimming against the tide of God’s love and grace. He’s on the wrong side of history, sowing the whirlwind, suppressing the truth, and earning the wages of sin. John is not saying that God is angry with that person.
The testimony of Jesus is that God does not relate to sinners with wrath but grace. Since love keeps no record of wrongs, God does not hold our sins against us (2 Cor 5:19). This is the good news of the cross!
(There is a coming day of wrath but it’s a single day, a one-time event. Wrath does not describe how God relates to us now. God is not in the habit of flooding the world, raining fire from heaven, or causing the ground to swallow bad men and their families.)
God is not angry with sinners; God loves sinners (Rom 5:8). To say “God killed Herod” is to say he loved the whole world, except one guy. It’s to say Jesus carried the sins of the whole world, except for Herod. It makes no sense.
God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). If Herod has to die at God’s hand, then all the Herods must die, or God is unjust. Yet we live in a world of unpunished Herods. Something doesn’t add up.
The flimsy case against God
I sometimes hear from those who are keen to charge God with the murder of Herod. In a court of law this charge wouldn’t stand up, for four reasons:
(1) God had no motive. A just God cannot judge the same sin twice and since all sin was condemned on the cross, God had no reason to condemn Herod for his sin.
(2) The charge is inconsistent with the character of God revealed by Jesus. Jesus never killed or smote anyone, not even Herod. For thousands of years God has extended mercy towards the Herods of this world. Countless crooks and bozos have gone unjudged testifying to the mercy of a good God who is not willing that any should perish.
(3) The charge is vague. As I explain elsewhere, the phrase “an angel of the Lord” doesn’t necessarily mean God did it. This idiom implies other possibilities.
(4) Agrippa’s son, Herod Agrippa II, had a long chat with Paul and not once mentioned anything about God killing his father. Indeed Agrippa II had no fear of the Lord (Acts 26:28).
If God killed Herod he is unjust (for not killing other Herods), the Bible is wrong (because God apparently does show favoritism), and Jesus’ work remains unfinished (because Herod’s sin has not been done away with).
But the stunning testimony of history is that God is not in the punishment business. On the cross God poured out his wrath on sin once and for all time. Because of Jesus, you are unpunishable.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. (Ps. 103:10)
Do you see? The Maker of heaven and earth is not trying to control you through the fear of punishment – there is no punishment! He’s trying to draw you to himself with arms of love.
I know there are some who’ll threaten you with the big stick of God’s punishment, but that’s only because they haven’t seen the Bigger Stick of the cross. Take care who you listen to. Take care what you think about God’s character. If you believe that God smote Herod, you may worry that he’ll smite you. If you’ve heard that God is in the punishment business, you’ll never walk secure in his love (1 Jn 4:18).
Perhaps you have said, “I lost my job/home/child. God is punishing me for…” No he is not! Look to the cross and renew your unbelieving mind.
“But what about all the bad stuff I’ve done. I’ve got baggage. I need to get cleaned up before I come home.” No you don’t! Leave your bags at the cross and come running, just as you are. Your Father looks at you with nothing but love in his eyes.