When Abel was murdered, his blood cried out to God for vengeance. Yet God did not kill Cain the murderer but protected him against those who would seek his life.
Clearly, God’s idea of vengeance was different from Abel’s.
The scriptures contrast human and divine vengeance. One seeks payback and retribution, the other pursues peace and restoration. One is vindictive, the other is vindicating. One punishes wrong, the other makes right. One is about revenge, the other is about righteousness.
Human vengeance is codified in the old law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Divine vengeance, in contrast, is revealed in the grace that forgives, restores, and makes new. The former is based on your badness; the latter is based on God’s goodness.
In Isaiah 29, the prophet paints a bleak picture of human vengeance, but in Isaiah 61, he describes divine vengeance. See if you can spot the difference:
|Human vengeance involves…||Divine vengeance involves…|
|Distress, being brought low, lamenting and mourning, destruction and death (Isaiah 29:2-4)||Good news to the afflicted, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, freedom to the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1-2)|
The first prophecy points to human vengeance, such as the Romans killing Jews; the second points to Jesus dying for the Jews. Roman vengeance involved brutal and violent retribution, but divine vengeance is nothing like that.
What does divine vengeance look like?
We get an idea from studying Isaiah’s prophecy:
…the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. (Isaiah 61:2-4)
Words associated with human vengeance include revenge, retribution, and punishment, but words associated with divine vengeance include rebuild, restore, and renew.
It’s true that some Old Testament writers portrayed God as smiting his enemies, but in the New Testament we see the Son of God loving his enemies.
The Pharisees thought God hated sinners, but Jesus revealed a God who cares for sinners. Josephus imagined God destroying Jerusalem, but Jesus revealed a God who wept over the city. It’s a radically different picture.
You have come… to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22,24)
Abel’s blood cried out “Vengeance! Vengeance!” and the result was a curse, but Jesus’ blood cries out “Forgiveness! Forgiveness!” and those who hear it are blessed.
Jesus was a walking-talking testimony of divine vengeance. His heart was to restore rather than punish and to rebuild rather than demolish. This divine desire to make things right rather than punish wrong things can be seen in the way Jesus related to the temple that condemned him and the city that killed him.
Jesus for Jerusalem
On the night he rose from the dead, Jesus instructed his disciples to preach a new message of unconditional forgiveness.
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47, NKJV)
The message of grace and forgiveness was for all nations, but it was particularly for the Jews. “Beginning at Jerusalem,” said Jesus, as though he knew there would be some who would deny grace to his killers. “God’s grace is for all, but those in Jerusalem get to hear about it first.” Then, before he ascended to heaven, he said it again. “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem…” (Act 1:8b).
There is a reason why Jerusalem is considered the birthplace of Christianity and it is not just because Christ died there. By the Lord’s command, Jerusalem was the first place evangelized with the gospel. By the Holy Spirit’s direction, Jerusalem was the location of Pentecost. And by the apostles’ obedience, Jerusalem was the birthplace of the church.
Jerusalem rejected Jesus but Jesus did not reject Jerusalem. Nor did he tell his apostles to give the city a wide berth. Instead, he designated the city Mission Field Number One. The apostles did what he asked and soon their teaching spread all over Jerusalem. As a result, the number of Christians in the city increased greatly (Acts 5:28, 6:7).
As for the city, so for the temple
The cross and the temple stood in opposition to one another, yet Christ’s cross came down while the temple stayed up. That building, so hostile to Christ, did not tumble during the earthquake that accompanied his death. Nor was it consumed by heavenly fire when he rose from the grave.
When the Lord needed an apostle of grace, he recruited a hate-filled Pharisee. And when he needed a venue for the early church, he chose the courts of the most anti-Christ building in the world (Acts 2:46, 3:11, 5:12, 42).
Where did the apostles perform their first miracle? It was at the gates of the temple (Acts 3:2).
When an angel released the apostles from prison, where did he tell them to preach the gospel? At the temple (Acts 5:20).
And after the apostles were flogged and ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus, where did they daily continue to preach the good news of Jesus Christ? (Acts 5:42). You guessed it.
This is grace, and this is what God does. He redeems and repurposes. He takes those things that are opposed to him and turns them around for good.
That the Lord would choose this building and this city to demonstrate his goodness and power speaks volumes to the graciousness of a good God who does not treat us as our sins deserve.
Extracted from chapter 26 of Paul’s new book AD70 and the End of the World.