When you read the OT passage today, and then turn to the NT scripture, it might make the reader ask, "What kind of God do we have, anyway?" The Ezekiel passage speaks of a God of destruction, wreaking vengeance upon His own people. In chapter 9, we see a vision in which God sends executioners throughout Jerusalem, putting idolaters to death:
1Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” 2And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.
3Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side4and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”
5As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. 6Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the old men who were in front of the temple.
7Then he said to them, “Defile the temple and fill the courts with the slain. Go!” So they went out and began killing throughout the city. 8While they were killing and I was left alone, I fell facedown, crying out, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?”
9He answered me, “The sin of the people of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice. They say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land; the Lord does not see.’10So I will not look on them with pity or spare them, but I will bring down on their own heads what they have done.”
Then, in John 3, it might seem to some that there's an entirely different kind of God, one who gives love and mercy. Verses 16-17 say:
16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
So, the reader may ask, "What kind of God do we have? A God of wrath and destruction or one that loves the world so much that He will give His only Son to die so that we might be saved?" We are likely to say, "God is both a God of vengeance, and a God of grace. We see God's grace when He sends Jesus to save us from His vengeance."
In his book Love Wins,** author Rob Bell writes:
Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.
But, if that's true, then how do we deal with scriptures that talk about God bringing punishment on the wicked? We need to understand that destruction isn't something that God does to people that He hates, any more than salvation is something that He gives to people that he loves more than others. Instead, individuals choose destruction or salvation based on their inclination toward God's light or the darkness of the world. John 3:18-21 says:
18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
In His constant love and mercy, God is always reaching out to redeem people. The problem is that (contrary to Rob Bell's book) some people will never accept God's gift of grace. Rejecting God's love, they become destructive forces in the world. God is then left with a choice--either to allow those destructive people to obliterate everything around them, or to stop them. At times, it may even take the annihilation of some people in order to stem the tide of their evil, and keep their disease from causing wholesale destruction. God does not enjoy this kind of thing, but in His goodness He sometimes cuts the cancer out of the organism of humanity, in order to keep the disease from spreading everywhere.
Our problem is that we are like a patient who says to the surgeon, "You must be a bipolar kind of doctor, because with one hand you dispense medication that will heal me, and with the other hand you cut me!" It's our lack of understanding that makes it seem like God is sometimes vengeful and sometimes gracious. In reality, God is always loving and gracious--loving enough to save anyone who will believe and receive His Son, and gracious enough to give every sinner countless chances to turn to Him.
*Scriptures are taken from the NIV.
**Bell, Rob. Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Harper Collins: New York. 2011.