Friday, February 9

Our God Who Solves Riddles

Yesterday's riddle, to be precise.

"The LORD, the LORD. . . forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. . . . " (Exodus 34:5-7 NIV)

Kim of Hiraeth gives the answer to the riddle in the comments there, and I'm going to copy her answer into this post, along with some comments of mine. Here's how Kim explains the problem in the riddle:
It is a question of how it is that God can forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin and at the same time punish the guilty. This is an apparent contradiction, or antinomy.
Exactly! The passage in Exodus says God pardons or forgives sin, and we know, just from our own legal systems, that if a crime is pardoned, from that point on there is no punishment for it. You might say that a pardon makes it as if the crime never existed, as far as the legal system is concerned. So when it says God pardons or forgives sin, wickedness or rebellion, we must understand that he is not punishing that sinner, that evildoer, or that rebel. They are guilty, but they are not punished.

But wait! The very next bit of text in the riddle contradicts that, doesn't it? It says that "God does not leave the guilty unpunished." How can these statements both be true?

There are hints at the answer throughout the Old Testament, but not the whole answer. Right there in Exodus, where we find the text of our riddle, we have God's instructions for the Passover meal. The Passover lamb—the lamb killed in place of the first born of each family—must not have its legs broken:
It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. (Exodus 12: 46 ESV)
That's a hint. It'd be easy to miss, but if you lived in Old Testament times, and you immersed yourself in the Old Testament scripture, don't you think you'd wonder a bit about why is was that you were not to break any of the bones in your Passover lamb? It's not quite a riddle all on it's own, but it's certainly an enigma. Don't you think you'd wonder what was up with that?

We need to read into the New Testament before we get to what it is that this bit of instruction was hinting at, so those of us who have the whole Bible have a leg up on those who had only the Old Testament scripture. Read John's account of the crucifixion:
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. (John 19: 31 ESV)
This breaking of the crucified person's legs was intended to speed things up. They would die sooner and their body could be removed before the Sabbath.
But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. (John 19: 33)
The Apostle John, of course, was an eyewitness to these things. He comments on this event:
He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”
John is referring back, in part, to the Passover instructions. John knew that Christ was the one whom the Passover lamb, with unbroken bones, was foreshadowing. "Christ," the Apostle Paul tells us, "is our Passover lamb." This gives us more, but it remains a little puzzling.*

But thankfully, the Apostle Paul spells the answer out for us so it can't be missed. He spells out the riddle itself, too, in slightly different language, and then gives us the answer, straight up. From Romans 3:
. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Well, there's the problem, and its the same as in Exodus. Everyone's guilty, and God, according to our riddle, does not leave the guilty unpunished.
But they [guilty sinners] are justified . . .
Maybe you don't speak Paul's language, so the word justified is a bit of a mystery to you. For our purposes here, it's enough to say that it involves being forgiven. And there you have it, the riddle of the Old Testament restated:

God, who doesn't leave the guilty unpunished, forgives (or doesn't punish) the guilty.

Doesn't it make you want to say "Whoa there!"? The answer to the riddle, Paul says, is
. . . the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith.
The guilty are justified (forgiven) through faith because of Christ—because of something he did. The translation I'm using in these quotes (the NIV) calls what Christ did redemption, and being a mercy seat. Others use the words atoning sacrifice or propitiation. Whatever it is that those words say that he did, it solves the puzzle.

Christ, and what he did, is the solution to the riddle.

Continuing from Paul:
This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.
God had passed over previously committed sins. He had, to use the words in our riddle, "left the guilty unpunished." But somehow, Christ's work demonstrated that even though God had "passed over the sins previously committed", he is still righteous; or, using riddle words, he still always punishes the guilty. Same riddle, stated in yet another way, and the solution, as Paul says right before this, is Christ and work.

Continuing on, again:
. . . so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
Same riddle, same answer. God is just—one who always punished sin—and the justifier—one who forgives sin—because of what Jesus did. Restated in the words of the riddle, we've got this much:

God always punishes sin and yet also forgives sin, because of what Christ did.

But it's still a little foggy, isn't it? Just how does that solve anything? How does it work? If we were to do a close examination of the words Paul uses to describe Christ's work—redemption, propitiation—it would help us out a little. But we can skip right over the word study for now because Paul has given the answer to us in smaller words and explained it more clearly elsewhere. And here's where Kim's answer from the comments on yesterday's post comes in. She not only gives us the solution, she tells us how this answer solves the problem—how both sides of our paradox can be true, in Christ:
The answer to the riddle is that God, in His infinite wisdom made Him Who knew no sin to be made sin for us . . . .
Yep. From the scripture Kim quoted (2 Cointhians 5):
. . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against
them . . . .
Or, you might say, in Christ, God was not punishing the guilty. Continuing on:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Or, you might say, in Christ, the sinless One who was made to be sin for our sake, God was punishing the guilty.

There you have it: The key to the puzzle. Christ being made sin, or having our sin counted as his, and being punished for it. Our trespasses are not counted against us, but against him. God punishes the guilty in Christ, so that in Christ, God doesn't punish the guilty.

In Christ, the paradox of the riddle is reconciled in a perfect package. In Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, our riddle—the riddle of the Old Testament—is solved:

"The LORD, the LORD. . . forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. . . . "

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin. . . "

Can I tell you a secret? This is why theology makes my heart sing.

*I must give credit to Mark Dever, in The Message of the Old Testament, for this example of the Passover lamb, as well as originally pointing out the riddle itself.

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