CHAPTER 1- WRATH AND LOVE: THE PARADOX OF GOD
Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. ~Exodus 34:6-7
We talk a lot about relationship with God in biblical language rich with metaphors—He is Father, Friend, Savior, Lover, Brother, Bridegroom, etc. And yet, there used to be a phrase that both biblical authors and saints of old used to use frequently when talking about a relationship with God: “fearing God.” But how are you supposed to have a relationship with someone you fear? How is fear supposed to be a component in a relationship of love?
I think that the best way to answer that question is to try to answer a seemingly-unrelated question: what is God like? What is his character? Knowing the character and personality of God is the key to understanding what it means to fear him, so rather than initially tackle the issue of fearing God head-on, I want to approach it through the backdoor of understanding the heart and mind of God himself. I’m convinced that if we can get a clear sight into God’s holy heart, the reflexive response of our own hearts will be what the Bible calls “the fear of God.”
You’ll see why that approach is important when I ask a question like this: Does “fearing God” mean that we should cower before God, like a child cowers before a bully? Should we be terrified of setting off his hair trigger temper, like some abusive father? Is that what “fearing God” means? Some atheists and secularists have pointed to this frequent phrase in the Bible as proof of the inherent ugliness of the Christian God. “What kind of god,” they ask, “would demand that people be terrified of him?”
That’s certainly a reasonable question to ask—and it’s a question you should have an answer to. The typical response that I have heard to that question goes something like this: “Fearing God doesn’t mean being afraid of him; it means having respect for him.” But while that’s a helpful clarification—because the Bible certainly doesn’t teach that God is a mean, angry bully who should terrify us, and certainly does teach that we should honor and respect him—I don’t think that fully captures the meaning of “fearing God” in the Bible.
So on one extreme, you have “fearing God means cowering before an angry deity;” and on the other hand, you have “fearing God means respecting him.” I think there’s a biblical middle ground here, but to uncover it will take a willingness to submit to God’s revelation of himself in the Bible.
Before you jump too quickly to the easy conclusion, “Of course God’s not a bully, God loves everybody!” stop and consider for a moment: when confronted with a question like this, it is of the utmost importance that we seek to know the God who is actually there, not just the God we want to be there. I want my view of God to be completely shaped by his revelation of himself in his Word, not by any presuppositions about what he does or what he’s like. When I come to the Bible, I need to come asking that my view of God be broken by his Word and rebuilt into something more accurate. Otherwise, I will inevitably start cherry-picking texts I like and trying to press God into my notions of what he should be like. But when I do that, I am no longer discovering or worshipping the true God of the Bible; I have simply created a god out of my own imagination, a god in my own image. So let’s prayerfully strive to put aside our notions of what God should or shouldn’t be like, and come humbly to his Word, asking one simple question: what is God actually, really like?
WRATH AND LOVE: GOD AT SINAI
There are many ways to answer that question accurately and biblically; I am going to just choose one. To get an accurate, full-orbed portrait of what God is like, I want to take us to God’s central revelation of himself in the Old Testament. The entire Bible, of course, is the progressive revealing of God’s purpose and character, culminating in his final word, his Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2). Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks through prophets, priests, and kings, revealing his heart and his will as he prepares a people for his own possession. But amidst this sweeping scope of divine revelation, there is one particular high point, a mountaintop from which light shines on the entire rest of the Bible. In the Old Testament, that high point of divine revelation is God at Mount Sinai, and Exodus 33-34 in particular. This is the blazing center of God’s Old Testament revelation, the cohesive core that holds every other prophecy, vision, poetry, and history together. If you want to know the God of the Bible, or to understand the Old Testament better—or to know what “fearing God” means— start here.
A bit of background will help bring us up to speed in the story. God has just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, bringing them out of captivity “with a mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 26:8). He showed his absolute superiority over the gods of Egypt with plague after plague, and then sheltered his people from the force of his judgment by giving them a means of escape: the blood of a lamb who would die instead of their firstborn when God brought the final devastating plague upon Egypt. Thus God rescued his people, and then continued showing them the wonders of his power by cutting a path through the Red Sea, feeding them with the bread of heaven, and opening up streams to quench their thirst in the desert. In Exodus 19, God summarizes what he has done for them, and the kind of relationship he wants with them:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. ~Exodus 19:4-6
Next came the ten commandments and the giving of the law, in which God lays out the proper response to his grace, how to live as his treasured possession, and what it means to be a “holy nation” devoted to him.
And what is the people’s response to God’s gracious rescue, gracious provision, and gracious invitation into relationship with himself? That brings us to Exodus 32. When Moses tarries with God on the mountain, the people take matters into their own hands. “Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this man Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” And so they fashion an idol, a golden calf, and declare, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Stop and feel the horror of this treason. They had seen God’s mighty power with their own hand. They had been rescued out of slavery and bondage. They had literally just agreed to the terms of the covenant with God, the first and most important of which was, “you shall have no other gods besides me.” And at the first moment of opportunity, they spurn their rescuer in preference for something “new and improved.”
God’s anger is swift. “Stand aside,” he says to Moses, “that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” The judgment against their idolatry and treason is the just decree of utter destruction.
Moses, however, does not stand aside, but pleads for mercy, literally standing between the wrath of God and the sinful people. “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people,” he pleads. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” Moses doesn’t argue that the people don’t deserve to be destroyed—they certainly do, because they have rebelled against the king of the universe. Rather, Moses appeals to God’s promise, to God’s own trustworthiness, and says, “God, you swore by yourself that you would fulfill this promise.”
And here’s the shocking thing: God relents. He is pleased with how Moses has interceded for the people. Though the people had broken the terms of the covenant and thus justly deserved wrath to fall on them, because of Moses’ plea, God’s wrath turns away. The God of heaven and earth listens to a man, and revokes the decree of destruction.
That should surprise us as we approach the climax of the Old Testament in Exodus 33-34. What is the meaning of this? Why would God listen to a man? Why would he threaten destruction, and then change his mind? Are the skeptics right? Is God really a capricious bully with a hair-trigger temper? Or is there something else going on here?
That’s the question that Exodus 33-34 answers for us. Moses, perhaps emboldened by his successful intercession, goes all in for his next request in 33:18:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”
God’s glory is the display of his manifold perfections, the declaration of his infinite worth, to be seen and admired and valued. So when Moses asks to see God’s glory, what he’s asking is, “Please, God, show me the heart of who you really are—your greatness, your beauty, your worth.”
This, by the way, is a prayer that God loves to answer. He loves to reveal his infinite worth and beauty to his creatures to be admired and praised and enjoyed. This is why the universe was created (Psalm 19:1). It’s why he rescued his people from Egypt (Exodus 14:17-18). It’s why he sent his Son to rescue you (Ephesians 1:6). It’s the aim I’m praying for in this book. Everything God does, he does for the display of his glory, to be seen and admired and enjoyed. That’s why it’s not an exaggeration to say that this moment on the mountain with Moses is the heart of the Old Testament. This is, literally, what the whole book is about.
So how does God respond to this request? Let’s keep reading:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, ‘Yahweh.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
Moses asks for a sight of God’s glory, and God’s response is three-fold. First, he says, “I will show you my goodness.” “Goodness” in the Bible is a commitment to value what is most valuable—namely, God’s glory (read the chapter on goodness in Cross Connections for more on that). And so when God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you,” what he’s saying is, “You want to see what I’m all about? Then look at how much I value my own glory.”
The second thing God says is, “I will proclaim before you my name, ‘Yahweh.’” Yahweh is God’s covenant name, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, and means, “I am who I am.” God’s name means that he is self-existent and independent. He is who he is, completely apart from you or anyone. He’s not dependent on anyone and needs nothing from anyone. When everything crumbles, he remains unshaken. He is unconstrained by anything outside of his own heart and will, and free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He existed before the universe was, and long after this world has turned to dust, he will still be here. He is Final, Absolute Reality with which we must all reckon.
The third thing that God says connects God’s free, unconstrained character (“I am who I am”) to how he deals with us: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” In other words, “I am unconstrained Goodness, and I am free to bestow that goodness, mercy, and grace however I want.” God is not obligated to give mercy, especially not to ungrateful rebels like us. And if he shows kindness to one person, he is not required to show kindness to another. God is not an egalitarian—he is not constrained to treat everyone with equal measures of mercy. The universe is not a democracy. If one person receives grace and you don’t, he has done you no wrong. This rubs all our notions of human fairness the wrong way, but this is practically the definition of what it means that he is God: he is free. He is who he is, and he shows mercy to whomever he wants to show mercy.
That’s a strange answer to Moses’ request, isn’t it? “Show me your glory, Lord!” Moses asks. And God’s response is: “I value my glory above all else, and I am utterly free and independent in all my actions, including all my benevolent actions towards you.” But the reason that God responds this way is that his self-existence and freedom is his glory. He is glorious, wonderful, and valuable precisely because he is the unconstrained I AM.
Now at this point, I need to reveal something: we’re not actually at the climax. Everything in the last several pages has just been building towards the climax. It’s been necessary to see it all, so that we’ll understand what we’re seeing when we arrive at highest point of the story. Even what God said to Moses in Exodus 33:19 is not the climax; it’s more like the preview of the climax, the “coming soon” advertisement of the main attraction. The climax comes next, in Exodus 34:6-7, as God fully answers Moses’ request by doing what he said he would do: passing before him and proclaiming his name and glory. What God says in these two verses is the blazing heart of the Old Testament (and, as we’ll see soon, the entire Bible).
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshipped.
These two verses are, literally, the entire Bible in miniature. They put the holy heart of God on full display, and even show the correct response to God’s self-revelation (Moses falling on his face in fearful worship). The rest of the Bible is the unpacking of these two verses. There is a lifetime of glory to behold here, but I want us to see three things in particular that will guide our study of the fear of God: God’s heart for sinners, God’s hatred of sin, and the holy paradox which that creates right at the heart of the Bible.
GOD’S HEART FOR SINNERS
What God says first about his character decisively answers our question of whether or not God is an unstable, hot-tempered bully. Coming in the aftermath of Israel’s grievous rebellion, this is the first thing God has to say about himself: “A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” God’s actions towards us are defined first and foremost by mercy and grace. This is his primary disposition towards sinful creatures, even towards rebels like Israel (and like us) who jettison the Creator in favor of his creation. He is not capricious or quick-tempered; rather, he is slow to anger. 2 Peter 3:9 says it this way: “The Lord is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” If and when God’s wrath does finally fall on sin, it’s not because he loves punishing people. God doesn’t delight in punishment; he delights in patience towards sinners, pardon towards rebels, and mercy towards the unworthy. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” God asks in Ezekiel 18. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn and live.” God’s undeserved patience and persistent offer of repentance and mercy is grounded in his delight to forgive. He is abounding in, abundant with, overflowing in steadfast, relentless love and faithfulness to his promises.
Out of that heart overflows God’s actions toward sinners: “keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sins.” His steadfast, relentless love pursues thousands and millions with kindness. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” (Psalm 23:6) because he keeps steadfast love for thousands. The holy Judge of the all the earth forgives transgression; the King of the universe lets rebels go free.
GOD’S HATRED OF SIN
But lest you think that this Judge and King is a softy and a pushover, keep reading for one of the most jarring shifts halfway through a sentence in the entire Bible. “…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” This God who, on one hand, delights in patience and mercy and forgiveness, on the other hand is ferociously intolerant of sin. This is not a judge who winks at crime. He will not clear the guilty or sweep sin under the rug of the universe or let bygones be bygones. In fact, he decrees that the devastating effects of sin be felt across generations with temporal and eternal consequences.
A mere two chapters before this, in Exodus 32:33, God gives no room for negotiation: “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” To be blotted out of the book of life, Revelation 14 says, will have horrific eternal consequences:
[The one whose name is not written in the book of life] will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.
This vivid description of the horror of everlasting judgment should make us tremble. The full strength of omnipotent wrath is not something to be joked about or taken lightly. Truly, the reality of hell and endless conscious torment as the just penalty for sin should strike our hearts with holy fear. You and I are sinners; we deserve to be blotted out of the book of life and for those words in Revelation 14 to be our destiny.
A HOLY PARADOX
Do you notice, in all this, a seeming contradiction? How can I spend two paragraphs describing God’s relentless, merciful love, and then another two paragraphs describing the horror of hell and God’s judgment, and still be talking about the same person? Look at God’s words in Exodus 34:7 again: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” How can you forgive sin but by no means clear the guilty? That seems like a contradiction! Which is it, God, forgiveness or punishment? How can you forgive sinners while not letting the guilty go free?
This is the holy paradox at the heart of this passage. In Exodus 34:7 you have unconstrained Reality shining at its brightest, and it turns out that there is a paradox at the heart of Reality itself. This paradox is the engine powering the entire storyline of the Bible. From Adam and Eve’s rebellion, with God threatening “In the day you eat of it you will surely die” and then promising a rescuer; to this interaction at Mount Sinai between a holy God and a sinful people; to an elaborate sacrificial system where lambs die instead of sinners; to the climax of all climaxes, the arrival of God’s Son—every story is the unfolding of this paradox: how can a holy God of love forgive sin and punish sin at the same time?
Through the rest of the Old Testament, we’re not given a clear answer to that question, although we are given pointers. God’s people are given a sacrificial system and a Day of Atonement by which sinful people like them can live in covenant fellowship with a holy God. Their sins are placed on an animal and the animal is slaughtered, a vivid and violent depiction of the truth that God will by no means clear the guilty. But with the animal slain for their sin, God’s forgiveness is then announced to them, a precious reminder of the truth that God is merciful and gracious. As the story continues, prophets intermingle pronouncements judgment and mercy, often juxtaposed right on top of one another. But as the story progresses, one thing gets clearer: these are only temporary solutions to the paradox. The blood of bulls and lambs can’t fully atone for the guilt of sin against an infinitely worthy God. Prophets see through a mirror dimly, pointing to a future where the paradox is finally resolved.
And as the storyline of the Bible unfolds, the paradox does get resolved, but in the most unexpected way possible: the paradox, it turns out, is a Person.
WRATH AND LOVE: GOD AT CALVARY
In the New Testament, the paradox bursts onto the scene in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Here is the Holy One himself, hanging out with sinners. The Eternal I Am, born as a baby. The Mighty King of the universe, coming in meekness and humility. The almighty Word of God, entering the world as a whisper. The Author of life, submitting to the ignominy and horror of death on a cross. If the central moment of the Old Testament was the unveiling of the paradox, “forgiving sin and by no means clearing the guilty” at Sinai, the central moment of the New Testament is the unveiling of the solution to that paradox at Calvary. At the cross, the paradox at the heart of reality is put on full display as the holy God of love rescues sinners by pouring out his wrath against sin on his perfect Son.
There are many New Testament texts that make this clear, but 1 John 4:8-10 in particular connects the merciful love of God and holy wrath of God in a profound way:
God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
God is love, John says. That’s probably one of the most famous sentences in the Bible, but most people don’t realize what he says next. What John does next is to define what he means by that statement, “God is love.” And what he says is an unpacking of the paradox in Exodus 34:7.
“In this is love,” John says. “Not that we have loved God”—because, of course, we do a terrible job at loving God. Jesus said that God’s requirement for us could be summed up in the simple command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there has been one moment of my life when I’ve ever done that; I have never one loved God with every thought in my head and emotion in my heart and fiber of my being. Never, not once. That means that every moment of my life, I’m failing to live up to even the most basic summary of what God requires of me. My best moments are enough to condemn me for my lack of love for God. Truly, I am in desperate need of a Savior.
That’s why what John says next is such good news: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “Propitiation” is a big Bible word, but it’s probably the most important word you could ever add to your vocabulary. It means “a sacrifice that turns away wrath and absorbs it.” In the Old Testament, it was the word used to describe the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (or, literally in the Hebrew, “Day of Propitiation”), when the sins of the people would be symbolically placed on the head of an animal that was then slain for those sins. The punishment for sins would fall on the animal who absorbed it and died in their place.
That’s what John says that Jesus came to do for us. “He sent his Son to be a propitiation—the sacrifice that turns away wrath for our sins and absorbs it.” Jesus is the Lamb of God who steps into our place, shoulders the weight and guilt of our sins, and then receives the full punishment and fury of God’s wrath directed at that sin. Like the animal on the day of atonement, the punishment for my sins falls on Jesus, who absorbs it and dies in my place. Isaiah 53, one of the Old Testament prophecies pointing to the paradox, says it this way:
He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. ~Isaiah 53:5-7
I want you to realize something crucial: this, John says, is the very definition of love. This is what it means that “God is love.” 1 John 4 says, in other words, “God is love; his essence and heart and character is love itself. And this is what that love looks like: he sends his Son to be slaughtered under his wrath instead of you.” The crushing weight of our iniquity is laid on Jesus, the punishment for our sins wounding him instead of us. This is the definition of love.
Do you see how the cross is the embodiment of the paradox in Exodus 34:7? “Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” At the cross, Yahweh forgives iniquity and transgression and sin, not by simply letting it go or sweeping it under the rug, but by punishing his Son and holding him accountable as the guilty one in our place. At the cross, the divine heart is fully expressed; love for sinners and hatred for sin come together as God forgives sinners by punishing their sin in the person of his Son.
This interplay between wrath and love means something very profound for our understanding of both the love of God and fear of God. God’s love for us is not sentimental or wishy-washy. He is not a tame lion. He’s not a pushover grandfather in the sky who likes to spoil his grandkids. He’s not a jolly and gentle Santa Claus, who sees when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, knows when you’ve been bad and good… but in the end, gives presents to just about everybody. Rather, his love is a holy, terrifying thing. God’s love, Scripture tells us, is expressed most clearly in the violence of crushing his Son under the weight of his wrath. This is not a love to be trifled with, taken for granted, or lightly dismissed.
HOLY TERROR IN THE GARDEN
Probably one of the best ways to understand the full force of what this kind of love means is to follow Jesus as he prepares to undergo the horror of the cross. Follow him into the garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion to see love at its greatest possible extent, and you will be surprised at what you see.
What you’ll see is Jesus—who for his entire ministry was always perfectly in control, acting and speaking with the calmness of a sovereign to whom nature itself bows—seemingly out of control. The scene is actually shocking when you think about it. The One who stopped storms and raised corpses with a word, who time and again proved his authority over all the forces of hell and whose mere presence made demons tremble, is weeping on the ground. For his entire life, he has been the calm eye at the center of a hurricane; chaos sweeps around him, violence and opposition rises, demons and authorities rage, but he remains untouched. But now it is as if the hurricane is closing in on him, and for the first time we see Jesus afraid. And not just afraid; what we witness in the garden is Jesus in the throes of uncontrolled terror and grief. Matthew records these words to the disciples:
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death.” ~Matthew 26:38
Really, Jesus? Sorrowful to the point of death? We might think Jesus is guilty of a little hyperbole here, until Luke 22:44 gives us this startling picture of the Savior:
And being in great agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
What could possibly cause the sovereign Calm One, the self-existent I Am of Exodus 34, to possibly behave like this? The one who healed the blind and lame, who fed thousands with the power of his creative word, is in “great agony,” to the point of death, sweat dripping off his trembling face like drops of blood. What has happened?
The answer lies in what he is praying. Let’s listen in:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will… My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” ~Matthew 26:39,42
When Jesus prays that this “cup” pass from him, he’s not just talking about the suffering of the impending cross. Many martyrs have bravely faced a death just as horrific as Jesus without going to pieces. Soldiers on the battlefield have heroically given their lives for their brothers-at-arms without a second thought, let alone without weeping and fear. From everything we’ve seen of Jesus, we would not expect him to show less courage than others in the face of suffering. Something else must be going on here.
And truly, something fearful is happening. You see, “the cup” that Jesus refers to is a common biblical expression for the wrath of God. Psalm 75:8 describes it this way:
“In the hand of Yahweh there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
In Isaiah 51 God’s wrath is pictured:
“Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of Yahweh the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering.”
And then there is Revelation 14, which we looked at earlier:
“[the wicked] will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur.”
Mere hours from the cross, Jesus contemplates the full-orbed horror of what awaits him: draining the cup of God’s fury at sin down to the dregs, absorbing in his own body the poisonous “cup of staggering,” the “full strength” cup of God’s anger. No wonder, as Jesus thinks on this, that he staggers to the ground and pleads, “Is there any way to avoid this?” Jesus, who has existed forever sharing the Father’s glory, who revealed himself at Sinai as the one who forgives sin but who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, knows the full extent of what this cup means. It means the horror of hell, the anguish of separation from the Father, and the torment of everlasting punishment, distilled down to a concentrated six hours of bloody, screaming agony on the cross. And he is terrified.
Stop and consider that for a moment. Jesus, the incarnate God, is terrified of the Father’s wrath. If God himself is afraid of something, how utterly horrific must that thing be? As you see Jesus sweating blood and weeping, learn the true horror of hell. Because what Jesus is doing here in the garden is preparing to drink hell… for you. He is preparing to stand in the place of the wicked and drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger. The Father, in upholding the worth of his glory and vindicating his justice, will not let one drop of his anger against the guilty go unspent, and Jesus knows that the full weight of that guilt is about to be laid on him. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
But in the same moment where you see the holy horror of God’s wrath, we also see the terrifying tenderness of his love. Listen to Jesus’ words again: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” What he means is, “If this cannot pass from them—if there is no other way for the punishment to pass over them unless the Passover Lamb’s blood is shed, if there is no other way to forgive sin and clear the guilty unless I drink it—then I will do it for them.” In that moment, we see Jesus resolving to do the unthinkable and bear the unbearable: he will drink the cup for you.
In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to do this… to stand in our place, the innocent for the guilty, and drink the cup that was meant for us. He sent his Son to be the propitiation, the wrath-bearer, the cup-drinker, the slaughtered Lamb, who forgives sin and by no means clears the guilty. What Moses longed to see—“show me your glory!”—is here on full display, as God’s goodness passes before us in the garden and on the cross. What we see here is the utmost height of love, the farthest possible extent of kindness, as the Holy One embraces the horror of hell to rescue the least-deserving: you.
Let’s return for a moment to the original premise of this chapter: to understand what fearing God means, we need to understand his character and heart. Here we have God’s heart on full display as he kneels in the garden, about to be broken for your healing, punished to bring you peace, taste death to secure your life, drink hell to purchase heaven for you. The greatest realities in the universe—the wrath of God and the love of God—collide at the cross in a holy paradox to teach us what fearing God means. The rest of this book will start to put feet on that paradox as we look more closely at the cross and how it teaches us to fear God, and at Jesus, the Paradox himself, who is both Lion and Lamb, majestic and meek, holy and humble.