“You shall not make for yourself an idol… You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex 20:4-6)
In my last post I presented seven pieces of evidence proving that God’s love for us is unconditional. How, then, are we to account for those scriptures that say things like “God loves those who fear him” and “God loves those who keep his commands”? What about the scripture at the top of this post where God Himself declares that He is a jealous God who loves those who love Him but punishes those who don’t?
Before we proceed, I hope you will agree that it is impossible to be jealous and love unconditionally at the same time. I’ve heard some interpret the verse above in terms of “righteous jealousy,” meaning jealousy is an ugly sin when you do it but when God does it, it’s okay. That makes as much sense as trying to justify “righteous adultery.” (See my note in the comments for more.) It’s difficult to put a positive spin on jealousy when God makes plain the frightening consequences of spurning His love:
“Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and His anger will burn against you, and He will destroy you from the face of the land.” (Deu 6:14-15)
Let’s not play with words – jealousy is a terrible thing. It is pouty, bitter, resentment that stems from an insecure and anxious heart and is revealed in threats that seek to shackle the object of its so-called love. Jealousy will make you possessive and controlling. Is this how God is? If you look at the characteristics of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13, you will see that jealousy is the exact opposite of Godly love. Jealousy is impatient, unkind and envious. It is self-seeking, easily angered and keeps a long record of wrongs. Is this how you picture God?
Jealousy or agape – which is it?
Does God love us unconditionally or does He love us with a jealous love? Does He love us regardless of what we do or does He love us because of what we do? You cannot have it both ways. It’s one or the other. I hope it’s clear from my previous post and 1 Corinthians 13 that God is not a jealous God at all! He is not insecure, He is not anxious, and He does not use threats to make us love Him. In truth, He is patient and kind, He is not easily angered, He does not delight in evil and He keeps no record of wrongs. Indeed, He is the very definition and Personification of love (1 Jn 4:16). We would not know what love is except that He’s shown us His love.
So what’s with these threats in Exodus and Deuteronomy? Was God playing with words when He told the Israelites that He was a jealous God? How are we to account for these contradictory images of His nature? As always, the answer is to interpret scripture through the finished work of the cross. If you fail to read your Bible through the lens of the cross, you’ll end up confused and believing all sorts of nonsense about the character of God.
One nature, two covenants
The cross basically divides the Bible into two covenants, the old and new. Under the old covenant (the 10 commandments), if you did good you got good, but if you did bad, you got bad. Everything – even the love of God – was conditional on your performance. But under the new covenant we are blessed with “every spiritual blessing” because of Jesus (Eph 1:3). Everything – forgiveness, righteousness, holiness, and health – is given to us by grace and is received by faith.
The cross really did change everything, but – and this is the important bit – it did not change the nature of God. He is eternal and unchanging and He did not have a change of heart after the cross. He did not think, “Well that first covenant I came up with was a disaster, so I’d better try something new.” No, the new covenant was God’s plan from the very beginning. This is why the Bible refers to the new covenant as the “eternal covenant” (He 13:20) while describing the old covenant as temporary and now obsolete (2 Cor 3:11, He 8:13).
The old covenant was not a practice run while God was still figuring things out. It was a temporary arrangement whereby He deliberately restrained His heart of loving-kindness toward the Israelites so that they might become aware of the magnitude of their sin and their dire need for a Savior (Rm 3:20, Gal 3:24). When Jesus came He fulfilled the requirements of the old covenant law on our behalf and offered Himself as the one-time sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. For the Israelites who lived under the old covenant, the cross was something to look forward to. But for us who live under the new, the cross is 2000 years in our past.
Read your Bible through the lens of the cross
When you read scriptures that seem to say, on the one hand, that God is jealous and controlling, but on the other, that He loves us with an everlasting love and died for us while we were yet sinners, you have to ask yourself, which covenant is this describing? The jealousy statement at the top of this post comes right smack in the middle of the 10 commandments so there should be no doubt that it belongs to the old covenant.
This statement does not describe the true nature of God at all. Rather than frame our understanding of God’s character through an old covenant scripture that says God is jealous, we need to interpret scripture through our understanding of God’s heart as revealed first in Jesus and then in the new and eternal covenant under which we live. Do that and you will get a consistent picture of your heavenly Father who loves you unconditionally. Do you know how many times God is described as jealous in the new covenant? Not once. Like the prodigal’s father, your heavenly Father loves you regardless of your behavior. Indeed, He loves you more than He loves His own life. How do we know? Look to the cross!
If you’ve been told that God is a jealous God, you will always wonder whether you’ve done enough to merit His affection. You will hesitate to love your spouse and kids for fear of making Him envious. If you think God is anxious and insecure, it’ll make you anxious and insecure and before you know it you will be a jealous lover too. But God is not jealous and He is not schizophrenic. He set His love on you before you were born and He draws you even now with His loving-kindness.