We Wouldn't Make This Up
At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, â€œUp, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!â€
The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, â€œWe shall all be dead.â€ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. [Exodus 12:29-36]
There are a lot of people in this world who want very badly to believe that God is a God of love. Indeed, the Scripture says quite literally that God is love. But that's interesting, because Exodus 12 makes it clear that God kills babies out of anger. This is not the kind of thing you make up if you're trying to sell the "God is love" idea to people! It's tremendously hard for us to understand God's wrath and love together, but the Scriptures demand that we try.
The picture of God striking down the firstborn of every family in Egypt is probably horrific to most of us. We might be okay with Pharaoh's household being struck, since Pharaoh is an evil and oppressive dictator. But what about the captive in the dungeon, who might even be there for unjust cause, who never gets to see his firstborn alive again? Every household suffered loss because of God's wrath. And on top of it all, God told Israel to plunder the Egyptians, leaving with all their wealth. How does that God qualify as a God of love? How can it be true that God is love, if he's a God who kills babies? And why on earth would we want to believe in such a God, or submit to him?
You Cannot Understand God's Wrath Apart From His Love
If a fellow is cheating on his loving, faithful wife, who do you suppose will be most angry with him for his adultery? The coworker he barely knows? A long-time friend? Or his wife, the one who loves him most, who has given the most of herself to him? We would expect her to be the one most angered by his betrayal.
So it is with us before God. From the beginning, love has been the theme of God's dealings with his creation. The Eternal Trinity created all of us out of overflowing love. God daily is gracious to us, sustaining our life and giving us all good things to enjoy. His love toward us all is perfect. Yet we have summarily rejected his love and sought substitutes everywhere else. Just like the betrayed spouse, God's love is utterly repudiated.
If sin is a betrayal of God's perfect love, who do you suppose will be most angry with you because of your sin? Your spouse? Your minister? Or God who loves you patiently and gives you everything you have? We would expect God to be the one most angered by our spiritual adultery.
This is how we should understand God's wrathâ€”in light of his scorned loveâ€”when we come to a text like Exodus 12. God graciously created the Egyptiansâ€”just like everyone else who ever livedâ€”and gave them unprecedented greatness as a nation. He very clearly preserved them, and many peoples through them, as he led them through seven years of severe famine by the dream interpretation of Joseph. And even though Israel dwelt among them as a constant reminder of God's goodness to them, they rejected God's grace, suppressed even the memory of it by enslaving Israel, and refused to obey God's command to release them (even after nine terrible plagues). So, in Exodus 12, God devastatingly withdraws his love and his gifts from the Egyptians as he strikes their firstborn and has Israel plunder them on their way to the wilderness.
You Cannot Understand God's Love Apart From His Wrath
Those who want a God of love without a God who is angry with sin in effect make the love of God less meaningful. The wrath of God must be present for the love of God to be most glorious. Why? Simply, because we appreciate love according to the cost.
A fellow doesn't think twice about his wife loving him if he's good and deserving. But if he's been emotionally absent, abusive, or unfaithfulâ€”things that would earn rightful angerâ€”and she continues to love him, that's something that makes him marvel.
So it is with us before God. If we go on thinking we deserve kindness and love from God, or that he could never be angry with us because of sin, then his love has little meaning to usâ€”it costs him nothing. But if we realize that with every thought and breath we reject his love, earning his just displeasure, then, when we are told that God continues to love us, we'll be amazed. We'll be truly astonished that, instead of instant death (like we deserve), we receive eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Here is where it takes a knowledge of God's wrath to understand his love. What is the ultimate demonstration of God's love? The death of Jesus Christ for sinners. If you try to understand the cross of Christ apart from God's anger at sin, you won't even begin to understand the magnitude of God's love. The one who never deserved God's wrath bore the full brunt of it for those who only deserve it God's wrath. The eternal, loving, perfect communion between the Father and the Son was severed out of anger that we earn for spurning God's love. And Jesus Christ endured the hell of it all because of joyful, indomitable love for us.
In Exodus 12, the Israelites were no different from the Egyptians. They were sinners, too, deserving their firstborn to be struck down just like their enemies. But they received salvation and wealth, because of the sovereign love of God for his people. Any Christian will tell you that this is hard to comprehendâ€”we deserve nothing good from God, yet he gives us nothing but good, even giving the life of his Son for us. It cost God everything to love us when we didn't deserve it. That's a glorious love, when seen in light of God's righteous anger.
What The Wrath And Love Of God Mean For Us Personally
People know about these things instinctively to some degree. You hear this frequently: "I just want someone to love me for who I am." What they're saying is (if they're honest), there are reasons why people don't love them, and they wish those reasons could be overlooked, that they would be loved anyway. This is exactly what God does through Jesus Christâ€”he loves us anyway. The reasons why he shouldn't love us are plenty and rightâ€”and he loves us anyway.
We wouldn't make this up, all this about a God who destroys people out of anger over sin. And we couldn't make this up, a God who loves sinners through Jesus Christ in spite of the fact that he should destroy them. This requires us all to know that we deserve what the Egyptians gotâ€”the full withdrawal of God's love and the replacement of it with his wrath. And even though God can do absolutely whatever he wants regarding his creation, he is patient with us, he gives us good things every day, he loves his enemies perfectly, and he gives us what the Israelites gotâ€”deliverance and wealthâ€”through the cross of his precious Son.
So we should not continue to reject God's love, but embrace the forgiveness offered to us in Jesus Christ. We should be humbly thankful that, though we deserve hell, God assures us that we will receive heaven by faith. We should honor the love of Christ by obeying God, because there is no greater love that can claim our loyalty. We should not gloat over those less fortunate, thinking "they're just getting what they deserve, while we get what we deserve"â€”when we enjoy so great an undeserved grace. We should not be condemning, thinking that our enemies are really any different from us, but we should remember that Jesus died to love his enemiesâ€”us. We should pray for everyone we encounter, because we know that apart from God's love we'd all be lost. And we should believe Jesus when he says he'll come back, and that when he does we'll receive the full loveâ€”or the full wrathâ€”of God, forever.