At first thought, the idea of studying the tenderness of Jesus’ love seems almost a pointless exercise. After all, which of us doesn’t believe that his love was tender? Surely we don’t have to be convinced of this fact.
The Gospels record many stories that depict a selfless and tender love in the actions of Jesus. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (John 9:36). We picture him in tears as he agonizes over Jerusalem much the same as a grieving parent agonizes over an erring child. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Matt. 23:37). Even while hanging on the cross, Jesus asked his Father to forgive the very ones who were responsible for his torture and execution. “Father, forgive these people, because they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Could there be a more extreme, tender love than this? Yet, is it possible there is a danger in focusing largely on this one theme when discussing the life of Jesus? The typical portrayal of his tender love often leads Jesus to be viewed largely as having a single human dimension. Furthermore, it often tends to set Jesus up as the direct opposite of God.
The problem begins when we attempt to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God (Jesus) of the New Testament. Was it only Jesus who exhibited tender love? And what of the tenderness of God’s love? Most of us are quite comfortable with the idea of the tenderness of God’s love. We can quite easily picture God taking the children on his lap and saying “let the children alone, don’t prevent them coming to me” (Matt. 19:14).
But where is the tenderness of God when we read such passages as, “I am your enemy, O Israel, and I am about to unsheath my sword to destroy your people – the righteous and the wicked alike” (Ezek. 21:3). “The people of Samaria must bear the consequences of their guilt because they rebelled against their God. They will be killed by an invading army, their little ones dashed to death against the ground, their pregnant women ripped open by swords” (Hos. 13:16).
Yes, there are difficulties in reconciling God’s wrath with his tenderness. But, I suspect there is much greater difficulty, and discomfort, in reconciling Jesus’ tenderness with his wrath. What about the story of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram as outlined in Numbers 16? Can we picture Jesus as the one responsible for the death of all the rebellious families including small, innocent babies?
One of the New Testament stories often used to illustrate Jesus’ tender love is that of the woman caught in adultery. Is it permissible to ask how she would have fared in Old Testament times? Would the story have ended the same way? What exactly would have been her fate under the God of the Old Testament? Is it possible that Jesus and God disagreed about the command in Leviticus 20:10?
As early as the second century, Christians were struggling with this issue. Marcion refused to believe that the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament was the same as the loving, merciful God of Jesus. To him, the answer was to come up with two Gods - the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus. As Marcion saw it, the God of the Old Testament concerned himself with seeing that his people kept his Law and punished them when they failed. In contrast, the God of Jesus was a kinder, more gentle God sent to save people from the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
We dismiss Marcion’s two-God theory as untenable, at best. We tell ourselves that we are much too theologically astute to subscribe to such a theory. We like to quote the Scripture that says, “If you have seen me you have seen the father” (John 14:9). Yet have we, in essence, constructed a God/Jesus theology that is very much like that of Marcion’s? We are reasonably comfortable with the tenderness of God, and we can point to Scriptures describing his love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6, 7; Isa. 41:9). The real test comes with any attempt to equate the person of Jesus, and his tenderness, with the wrath of God.
There is usually a denial that Jesus ever exhibited what we would describe as negative (or perhaps forceful) emotions. Most Christians won’t stand for it; they don’t even like to discuss the subject. Great pains are usually taken to make Jesus look so non-angry that he comes off essentially devoid of any personality traits that might fall into the realm of negative emotion. The most cited exceptions, his encounter with the moneychangers (Mark 11:15-19) and the man with the deformed hand (Mark 3:1-5), are often treated as aberrations.
In our eagerness to package the Jesus of the New Testament as a “better way,” have we been guilty of creating a “bad cop/ good cop” theology? Have we, in essence, supported Marcion’s depiction of God and Jesus?
We can’t ignore the wrath of God – the Old Testament has ample evidence of this fact. We can’t deny the tenderness of Jesus - the New Testament has ample evidence of this fact. The quandary we find ourselves in, then, is this - we would prefer to focus on the tenderness of Jesus almost to the exclusion of dealing with his, and God’s, wrath. We reject the picture of a wrathful God having to be begged by a tender Jesus not to destroy us. Yet our theology often shows we have not fully discarded this belief.
The tenderness of his love was Jesus’ greatest miracle. The wrath of Jesus is perhaps his greatest mystery. Would there be benefit in exploring more truthfully and accurately the relationship between the two?
Jim Bursey writes from Yuba City, California.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/635