This past Sunday, a few friends and I visited Chimney Rock in Catoctin Mountain Park, a 3-mile round-trip hike to a wonderful view of the valley. It being Sunday evening, we saw no one else on the trail. The feeling of solitude and peace in the fairly young forest was refreshing.
Along the way up the trail, we conversed about all sorts of topics, before taking a detour at Wolf Rock, a spine running along the ridge that almost breaks above the treeline. From there, it was clear that the sun had nearly set, and we walked quickly on, so as to reach Chimney Rock in time.
We watched the sunset for about half an hour and then hiked back to the car, walking to the beat of the cicadas - "All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres."
On the drive home, our conversation turned to spiritual things. One of my friends voiced the question, "Why does God seem so different in the New and Old Testaments? In the Old, He just seems mean." It's a good question. A fair question. I, too, often struggle to comprehend how the God who became a man and died on a cross to ransom me from death could also condemn entire cities and nations to destruction. Why would He, in giving the Israelites their promised land, command them to destroy everything and everyone in their path - including children? How does that fit with the notion of a loving God?
In talking about this, I was reminded of a story in the book of Genesis (please read it here), in which God had just made a covenant with Abraham and promised him a son, Issac. Now, God has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, for "the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave." But Abraham bargains with God, asking if He would save the cities should He find 50 righteous people living there. God says He would do so, and Abraham keeps asking, until God says, yes, He would save those two cities if just 10 righteous people lived there.
Much could be written at this point. I wish to remain brief, and for that reason, I will only focus on one aspect of this story, at the expense of several others. What must be made clear, in this instance, is that God does have the right to judge sin; that is, rebellion and deliberate pursuit of evil. However, God is also a God of mercy. Were there just 10 righteous people in those cities, 10 people to intercede on behalf of all those who had deliberately chosen to defy God, God would relent in His anger and spare the city.
This, here, is the key. God hates sin. Not only is it a rebellion against Him, but it is also enslavement. In this story, we see that Sodom and Gomorrah are enslaved by sin. God's justice commands that it be eradicated and, if there is no one righteous to intercede on behalf of the sinner, that justice commands the death of the sinner. But, if there is someone who can say "let my righteousness cover these who have sinned, that they may not be destroyed," God shows mercy. This is His heart. This is the Gospel.
In this conversation with Abraham, we see a foreshadowing of Christ. Christ, the sinless Son of God, who interceded for the entire world, whose righteousness covers all who will trust and take for themselves this gift.
"For the sake of ten I will not destroy it," says the Lord, of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ten righteous people will save a city doomed by its own depravity.
One perfectly righteous man will save the entire world doomed by its own depravity. That is God's mercy to all mankind - in Christ, we can be free from enslavement to sin. His righteousness covers us. His death absorbed God's wrath towards sin. His resurrection is proof of the defeat of sin and death. We can be free, if we turn to Him.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as you may well know, ends with their destruction. Only Lot, Abraham's nephew, and his two daughters escaped. The rest of the inhabitants were destroyed, their utter sinfulness a loud testimony against them. There was no one to intercede on their behalf (See also Ezekiel 22:23-31 for another example).
Enter the mystery of Christ: God Himself comes to intercede that both His justice and love should be satisfied through the cross. Sin is defeated and destroyed, the sinner can once again come before God, covered by Christ's righteousness. The echo in God's conversation with Abraham is now a loud, loud shout.