Justice is black and white, but Mercy is the color of love. Part 3: The day the universe changed.

Did God change His mind (about the definition of right and wrong) in going from the Old to the New Covenant? We have known the answer since the days of Job and Abraham: Elihu, speaking in Job 34:10, says: “Therefore, listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do evil, And from the Almighty to do wrong. (NASB)” Similarly, Abraham speaking to God, in Genesis 18:25, argues: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (NASB)”

Both their arguments are the same: The author of Good and Justice cannot and will not do otherwise. If God cannot change, and Justice was created by Him, then Justice and Mercy cannot change.

But we, humanity, have changed.

Using the example of the time of Joshua and the fall of Jericho, I pointed out last time that the people of the Old Testament had a perspective on the universe that we no longer have. They had irrefutable evidence of the supernatural reality of the Living God.

And this knowledge was not limited to the Israelites. Throughout that period of time, Jehovah often intervened supernaturally in the affairs of His people and, as a consequence, in the affairs of the world through their connection to it:

In the time of Abraham, the Canaanites witnessed Sodom and Gomorrah wiped out by fire from heaven. In the time of Moses, the Egyptians saw the Red Sea parted and then come crashing back, swallowing their army. In the time of Joshua, the Sun stood still in the sky, at his request, lengthening the day so they could finish a crucial battle; and then giant hailstones decimated the enemy army. When Sennacherib king of Assyria sent his army to besiege Jerusalem, one angel of God killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night. In the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, three Israelites were thrown into a large furnace for refusing to worship the king’s idol, and the fire did not even touch them.

The record of the Bible makes clear that the people who lived in Old Testament times were eyewitnesses of irrefutably supernatural events. Furthermore, God revealed Himself personally to many of those non-Israelites: Just think of king Abimelech of Gerar and Melchizedek king of Salem in the time of Abram, and Balaam in the time of Moses, all the way to Nebuchadnezzar in the time of Daniel. And those are the ones for whom we have a record.

The fact that God revealed Himself supernaturally to humanity in the Old Testament, means that those people really had no excuse (see Romans 1). In those days, anyone who knew God’s laws and violated them, knew full well the price they would pay.

But seeing is not believing

picture of impossible 3D shape.

Did witnessing supernatural demonstrations of the reality of the Living God keep those people from sinning? No. It didn’t keep Adam and Eve from sinning either. We all still have free will. But in the face of God’s direct punishment of that sin, not one person could call God unjust. In fact, in the Old Testament, the only people that you hear complaining that God appears to be unjust are the suffering righteous, like Job and the Psalmist, who complain to God because He doesn’t bring judgment immediately on the wicked.

But what about us? Today we don’t get to see blatant supernatural intervention by God. Miracles do happen… but they are rare. I have met people that think this is unfair, who claim that if God showed up in their living room and proved to them that He was real, then they would be willing to believe in Him.

Adam and Eve are the counter example. So was Achan in the time of Joshua… and so, for that matter, was David the King when he sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba. All these knew God was real. Yet they disobeyed Him.

And lest we think it is because we puny humans have been made weak and disadvantaged in our capacity to believe, let me point out that Lucifer, an angel that walked in the presence of God, on Earth and in Heaven, also chose to sin.

Seeing is not believing. It has never been. (Which begins to explain why Jesus so vehemently refused to give supernatural proof of His credentials when the Pharisees demanded that He give them a sign from Heaven.)

Today, the vast majority of us will never see a supernatural event. Things are different now. When did it change?

Something changed around the time of the Exile

The exile was precipitated when the Kingdom of Judah finally became so corrupt that they too were condemned to lose their place in the Promised Land. Now, the Exile was not meant to be a final punishment. Jeremiah, who lived at the beginning of the Exile, made it clear that the Exile was a time of correction. He told the people to bow their heads to God’s will, accept the Exile, and grow close again to God in that foreign land.

Jeremiah 29:5-14 Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all the captivity, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon: Build houses, and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them. Take wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and be not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto Jehovah for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

For thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel: Let not your prophets that are in your midst, nor your diviners deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams, which ye like to dream. For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith Jehovah. For thus saith Jehovah: When seventy years shall be accomplished for Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in bringing you back to this place.

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith Jehovah, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you in your latter end a hope. And ye shall call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you; and ye shall seek me and find me, for ye shall search for me with all your heart, and I will be found of you, saith Jehovah. And I will turn your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith Jehovah; and I will bring you again into the place whence I have caused you to be carried away captive.

By the rivers of Babylon, painting by Gebhard Fuge
By the rivers of Babylon, painting by Gebhard Fuge

But, did it work?

Ezekiel was the prophet that lived during the exile. And in chapters 10 and 11 of his book, the prophet sees the glory of the Lord leave the Temple. Why? What did that presage?

As Jeremiah prophesied, the captives started to return at the end of the 70 years. The story is in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. When you read that story, you realize that many returned but not all. Lots of people stayed behind in Babylon. To the returnees, God sent the last generation of prophets: Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi.

Many of the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah were aimed directly at the returnees and their leaders, exhorting them to return fully, not just physically but wholeheartedly, to devotion to the Lord. And their words came with supernatural backing. God was still intervening directly in their lives, as this passage suggests:

Haggai 1:6-11 Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but are not satisfied; ye drink, but are not filled with drink; ye clothe yourselves, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages for a bag with holes. Thus saith Jehovah of hosts: Consider your ways.

Go up to the mountain and bring wood, and build the house, and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith Jehovah.

Ye looked for much, and behold it was little; and when ye brought it home, I blew upon it. Wherefore? saith Jehovah of hosts. Because of my house that lieth waste, whilst ye run every man to his own house.  Therefore over you the heavens withhold their dew, and the earth withholdeth its fruit. And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the new wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the ground bringeth forth, and upon man, and upon cattle, and upon all the labour of the hands.

But the scene painted here suggests that, even though their return to the Promised Land proved that God’s promises were trustworthy, the people were not strong in faith. Hardship, persecution, and the cares of the world easily distracted them. Because of that, God gave them two leaders: Joshua (the priest) and Zerubabbel (a descendant of David), and His Word, to help them on the way back to Him. Nehemiah the governor was also such a leader. Yet, it didn’t work for too long.

drawing by Gustav Dore of the rebuilding of the temple
The Rebuilding of the Temple, by Gustav Dore

Which is sad… because I believe that many of the prophecies of the earlier prophets, about the glorious rebuilding of Israel from its remnant, could have taken place right then and there after the Exile. We get a glimpse of this possibility when the returnees finally laid down the foundation for rebuilding the Temple. That day there was widespread joy; but as the elder generation saw how much smaller it was going to be than the one that Solomon had built, there was also weeping at all they had lost. And Haggai tells them:

Haggai 2:9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, saith Jehovah of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, saith Jehovah of hosts.

So, once again, the people of God had within their reach the power to fulfill the plan for which they had been chosen, to change the world.

It didn’t happen.

By the time Malachi begins to prophesy, we see how cynical and hardened that next generation had become.

Malachi 1:6-7,13 A son honoureth [his] father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith Jehovah of hosts unto you, priests, that despise my name. But ye say, Wherein have we despised thy name? Ye offer polluted bread upon mine altar; and ye say, Wherein have we polluted thee? In that ye say, The table of Jehovah is contemptible… And ye say, Behold, what a weariness! And ye have puffed at it, saith Jehovah of hosts, and ye bring [that which was] torn, and the lame, and the sick; thus ye bring the oblation: should I accept this of your hand? saith Jehovah.

Malachi 2:7-8 For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and at his mouth they seek the law; for he is the messenger of Jehovah of hosts. But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith Jehovah of hosts.

Malachi 2:13-14 And further ye do this: ye cover the altar of Jehovah with tears, with weeping, and with sighing, insomuch that he regardeth not the oblation any more, nor receiveth [it] with satisfaction at your hand. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because Jehovah hath been a witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt unfaithfully: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.

Malachi 3:8-10 Will a man rob God? But ye rob me. And ye say, Wherein do we rob thee? [In] tithes and heave-offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse; and me ye rob, [even] this whole nation. Bring the whole tithe into the treasure-house, that there may be food in my house, and prove me now herewith, saith Jehovah of hosts, if I open not to you the windows of the heavens, and pour you out a blessing, till there be no place for it.

Malachi 3:13-15 Your words have been stout against me, saith Jehovah; but ye say, What have we been speaking against thee? Ye say, It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we keep his charge, and that we walk mournfully before Jehovah of hosts? And now we hold the proud for happy; yea, they that work wickedness are built up; yea, they tempt God, and they escape.

Do you see where the people are? The man on the street says, it’s a burden to obey God! The priests who had the responsibility to keep His Truth and Law alive, became themselves stumbling blocks. And then, they have the gall to complain that God doesn’t hear them. But they don’t see that it is their actions that have separated them from God. All trust of God is gone, and so they refused to give the tithe to support the Levites and Priests. Abuse of wives and divorce were rampant. And since they had decided that the goodness of God was not good enough for them it culminates in them calling the evil good. (Isaiah warned them about this very thing, 400 years before, in his chapter 5:18-23)

It makes sense then that the prophecies in Malachi about the future are not full of the hopeful regathering of the people by the Messiah, like the other prophets before him. Instead, we have a blunt ending to the age of the prophets:

Malachi 3:1-2 Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom ye seek will suddenly come to his temple, and the Angel of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he cometh, saith Jehovah of hosts. But who shall endure the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ lye.

Malachi 4:5-6 Behold, I send unto you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of Jehovah. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Those words are followed by 400 years of silence. The Lord raised no other prophet until the time came for that Elijah: John the Baptizer.

The day the universe changed

The universe changed when the Kingdom of God intersected our timeline. The arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, was the hope of every faithful soul in Israel. They knew that on that day, the kingdoms of man would all be shown to be pitiful and powerless in comparison. On that day, God would rewrite the history of humanity. That was the meaning of the vision of Daniel the prophet when he saw the statue that represented the coming kingdoms of the world shattered. As the angel explains to Daniel:

Daniel 2:34-35, 44 Thou sawest till a stone was cut out without hands; and it smote the image upon its feet of iron and clay, and broke them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold broken in pieces together, and they became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors; and the wind carried them away, and no place was found for them. And the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.

… And in the days of these kings shall the God of the heavens set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the sovereignty thereof shall not be left to another people: it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, but itself shall stand for ever.

In light of that prophecy, the proclamation by John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth to “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” was momentous.

Coming from the lips of John, there was no doubt what that proclamation meant because, not only did he assign to himself the prophecy of Isaiah as the ‘voice calling in the wilderness’, his father, Zacharias the priest, was told by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:17) that John would be that Elijah mentioned by Malachi. And we know that story had spread all around those parts, since Luke verified it and wrote it down. Furthermore, Zacharias himself prophesied (Luke 1:76) that John would be the herald that would go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways.

So, four centuries after Malachi, the time came for the fulfilment of God’s promises, the establishment of the Kingdom that will never end; and Jesus appears on the scene proclaiming the Good News: God will forgive the sins of humanity and give, to anyone who will have it, eternal life.

But there is one catch…

The requirement is to believe in the One and only Son of God:

John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal. For God has not sent his Son into the world that he may judge the world, but that the world may be saved through him. He that believes on him is not judged: but he that believes not has been already judged, because he has not believed on the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

The way into the long-awaited Kingdom has nothing to do with the animal sacrifices in the Temple; it has nothing to do with holding the festivals of the holy days of their calendar; it has nothing to do with being Jewish. It even appears to have nothing to do with the letter of the Law. Because this Jesus, supernaturally healed people time and again on the Sabbath day, when no man is allowed to do work.

Jesus heals the sick, painting by Gebhard Fugel
Jesus heals the sick, painting by Gebhard Fugel

This riled the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And they became his antagonists. But Jesus did not waver: When arguing with them, Jesus even said of Himself and His work:

Matthew 12:6 But I say unto you, that there is here what is greater than the temple.

Whereas Haggai said that the New House that God was building would bring peace (in this place will I give peace) Jesus assigned that claim to Himself:

Matthew 11:27-28 All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, nor does any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the Son may be pleased to reveal [him]. Come to me, all ye who labour and are burdened, and *I* will give you rest.

And by claiming to be able to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6) without any sacrifice or the intervention of any priest, He was declaring the Temple to be obsolete.

But if the Temple is obsolete, what about the Law? If it has no power, don’t we have anarchy then? Apart from jealousy and injured pride, that very real fear was at the core of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ objection to Jesus.

And Jesus refused to make it easy for them. One time they are arguing that He was making claims about himself without proof. Jesus responds by reminding them that in the Law, in court, all you need are two witnesses to corroborate your claim. He tells them, the first one was John; everybody heard him. And then he says:

John 5:36-40 But I have the witness [that is] greater than [that] of John; for the works which the Father has given me that I should complete them, the works themselves which I do, bear witness concerning me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who has sent me himself has borne witness concerning me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor have seen his shape, and ye have not his word abiding in you; for whom *he* hath sent, him ye do not believe. Ye search the scriptures, for ye think that in them ye have life eternal, and they it is which bear witness concerning me; and ye will not come to me that ye might have life.

This is all a shock to them. What matters is not Temple or ritual or sacrifice or even the Law. Nothing that you humanly “do” matters. Jesus is telling them: ‘You all know what matters… The Father has told you already with His spiritual voice and through the written Word (of the Law). If you were willing to believe, if you were willing to obey Him, you would hear His voice and accept it. But you choose to reject.’

Finally, we understand Malachi’s words: “But who shall endure the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ lye.”

It is a paradigm shift for which the analogy of new wine in old wineskins falls way short. But it is not an unexpected paradigm shift. Jeremiah had already warned that the New Covenant was coming. And it was not going to be like the Old: between a nation and God. Rather it is a covenant between every individual man and God.

And they had no “leg to stand on” to reject it. They couldn’t claim they did not understand all the Scriptures that announced it because as we see in this passage from Mark, one of their Scribes understood that Truth just from studying the Scriptures.

Mark 12:28-34 And one of the scribes who had come up, and had heard them reasoning together, perceiving that he had answered them well, demanded of him (Jesus), Which is [the] first commandment of all?

And Jesus answered him, [The] first commandment of all [is], Hear, Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thine understanding, and with all thy strength. This is [the] first commandment. And a second like it [is] this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is not another commandment greater than these.

And the scribe said to him, Right, teacher; thou hast spoken according to [the] truth. For he is one, and there is none other besides him; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the intelligence, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, is more than all the burnt-offerings and sacrifices.

And Jesus, seeing that he had answered intelligently, said to him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no one dared question him any more.

Saving the world, one by one

The change from the Old Covenant to the New, was, above all, a change from corporate salvation to individual salvation. Why? Because God’s plan to restore humanity has always been about restoring the relationship between every individual human being and the infinite God. The corporate salvation of Israel would have accomplished that if they had carried out their mission to change the world. They would have taught everybody the truth that that scribe deduced on his own. But as Jeremiah says, they did not keep their side of the bargain

Jeremiah 31:31-32 Behold, days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke…

Therefore what the Law and the Old Covenant could not accomplish on their own, God Himself would do. And according to Jeremiah, He will do this by changing us:

Jeremiah 31:34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will pardon their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.

Individual salvation means individual responsibility. And this completely changed the way Justice and Mercy are carried out in the Kingdom.

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