Once I understand intellectually that the supreme description of Jesus is that of a servant, I have to clear out any hurdles that keep me from emotionally accepting this marvelous truth. Since God’s “harshness” in the OT has been one of my greatest hurdles to clear, let’s just start here. What did God have to work with when he brought the Israelites out of four hundred years of bondage? It wasn’t spirituality. They had long forgotten the God known by their ancient ancestors like Abraham and Joseph. They were idolators as were their captors and owners. Just how difficult would it be to deal with several million people in that condition? Just imagine taking a million people out of some of the countries today which are immersed in the most extreme form of Muslimism with the intent of leading them into living by true Christian principles. Can you not picture the absolute necessity of dealing with many of them in ways that uninformed observers might call harsh?
Illustrations like that help me understand that whatever God did in OT times was necessary for the good of the majority as history unfolded. God was still a servant seeking the best for his people, but those people forced him to do things that he hated doing. Even as God meted out judgment, Ezekiel describes his heart. “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11) God is literally begging them to repent and live, but their failure to repent left him no choice.
The capacity for evil in the human heart is difficult to fully grasp. This must be kept in mind as you wrestle with what seems to be amazingly harsh discipline in that OT setting. Jeremiah 17 describes the blessings of the ones who trust in God and put their confidence in him, but also describes the plight of those who do not. What determines the difference? The heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? 10 I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
I’ve always been drawn to a comment by Spock in the old Star Trek series: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” When God punished individuals in the OT period, at least three things have to be kept in mind. One, they deserved it. God is just and the punishment he dished out fit the sin. Two, those punished set an example to hopefully prohibit others from following their sinful behavior. Many passages in both OT and NT make this point. “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). 1 Corinthians 10 provides a shockingly specific example of such disobedience and its consequences, and also assures us that Christ was right in the middle of it all. Thankfully, the section ends by assuring us that God can deliver us from temptations that lead to such consequences if we will but trust and follow him. Read it carefully, noting the symbolism involved between this OT setting and our NT setting. Being in the church as a baptized, communing member does not guarantee our salvation, that’s for sure.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Many of such examples came at times of transition when keeping people on the right path was fundamentally important for their future. One such time was when the church was very young and two people set a bad example that led to them becoming another type of example for both the church and the community. Read the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. The last verse shows the effectiveness of God taking their lives. “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” Verses 13-14 make the point even clearer. “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”
Three, God directly killing the disobedient or them being killed via the laws of capital punishment didn’t necessarily mean that they were lost spiritually. I cannot imagine that Uzzah touching the ark to steady it, through ignorance of the Law’s stipulations for carrying the ark, was thereby condemned spiritually. The accounts of this unfortunate situation are found in both 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13. Both accounts should be read to get the complete picture. Those being put to death through capital punishment were admonished to repent before being killed. It is not that much different today in America, as clergymen are made available for those on death row. Repentance doesn’t always remove consequences of our sins, but it can remove the sins in God’s mercy.
I understand that the above paragraph contains my opinion on the matter. However, that opinion doesn’t come simply from my sense of what should be true. Moses gives us an example that clearly illustrates the point I have made. He was God’s man and God’s hero, and yet he sinned grievously enough that God refused to let him go into the promised land. The description of his sin leaves us questioning the severity of the punishment, but since God is perfect, whatever was involved in this sin was sufficient to warrant the punishment. Was Moses lost spiritually for this sin? Of course not! He and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17. God is just but he is merciful. James 2:13 says that mercy triumphs over judgment. God shows mercy in every way possible under the umbrella of justice. Servanthood in action leads to life answers to life questions. Thus, let’s ask and answer this question: What are the fruits of servanthood? Coming in the next episode!