November 13, 2005

ARMED AND DANGEROUS

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. Nahum 1:2

A national survey found that 38% of adults worry “a lot” about not having enough money and health insurance, while only 8% worry that they will go to hell. Losing a job, getting sick, crime—these things concern big percentage of the population. But the possibility of eternal punishment and separation from God? Barely one in twelve worry about it.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Why are we scared stiff about money and health but unconcerned about our souls? Perhaps it’s because we don’t really know or fear the God who controls our destiny. The Bible book of Nahum says,

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished… The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him. The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust him, but …he will pursue his foes into darkness.” (1:2-8)

Those are shocking words, aren’t they? The wrath of God isn’t a popular subject. Most people don’t like to think about it, and most preachers don’t like to talk about it. We like a sweet message of love, love, and more love, not a rough, terrifying message of judgment.

The fierce God of the Bible is a God we’d rather not hear from. We want a god who is soft and safe and soothing, a god whose only characteristics are love and unending tolerance. We want a polite therapist, not a powerful warrior. We want a helpful higher power for people with problems, a mysterious force you can discover by going deep inside yourself, a spirit of universal love and good will and warm feelings—anything but the avenging God of the Bible! We’re not comfortable with a fierce lion. We’d rather have a warm, fuzzy pussycat, preferably with the claws removed.

But like it or not, the Lord isn’t tame. He isn’t safe. God is love, true enough, but his love doesn’t mean his wrath isn’t real or that he lets us all get away with whatever we feel like doing. The Lord is slow to anger, says the biblical prophet, but he’s also great in power, and he won’t let the guilty go unpunished. He’s good, he cares for those who trust him, but his enemies he will pursue into utter darkness.

The Wrath of God

When the prophet Nahum spoke these words, he was declaring God’s wrath against the mighty city of Nineveh. That seemed like a silly thing to do. Nineveh was the richest, most powerful city in the world. It was the capital of the vast Assyrian empire. Nineveh seemed indestructible. The heart of the city was surrounded by a wall eight miles around and 100 feet high. These walls were so thick that chariots could ride three abreast along the top. The outer city, surrounded by yet another wall. The armies of Nineveh were strong and utterly ruthless. They conquered one nation after another, slaughtering thousands.

It seemed crazy, then, for anyone to predict Nineveh’s downfall, yet Nahum declared God’s wrath against it and said the city was doomed. And what happened? Within a few years, the armies of Assyria had been defeated, the walls of Nineveh had been destroyed, and the people of Nineveh had been massacred. Nothing remained of that great city but rubble, and it was never rebuilt. God’s wrath had swallowed up an entire civilization.

When people don’t take God seriously, there’s a price to pay. The Bible shows this over and over. Scripture tells how the prophet Elisha was walking down the road one day when a gang of youths came out of town and jeered at him. These youngsters had no respect for Elisha and no respect for the God he represented. Elisha glared at them “and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths” (2 Kings 2:24). That’s a shocking story, especially for people who think God is tame and tolerant. But it really happened, and it’s just one of many cases where God unleashed his wrath on sinners.

In the days of Noah, God sent a great flood that wiped everybody except Noah and his family from the face of the earth. The Lord destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with an inferno of blazing sulphur. He sent plagues on the land of Egypt, he destroyed the firstborn child of every Egyptian home, and he drowned the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Even God’s chosen people Israel weren’t exempt from his wrath. When they fell into sin, he punished them severely.

The examples we’ve looked at so far are from the Old Testament part of the Bible. But isn’t the New Testament different? Maybe you’ve heard it said, “The God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath, but the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” But that’s a false contrast. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same God. God hasn’t somehow mellowed over the years. God doesn’t change. His love is just as real in the Old Testament as in the New, and his wrath is just as real in the New as in the Old. Anyone who thinks God’s wrath isn’t in the New Testament obviously hasn’t read it.

In Acts 5, there’s the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife who tried to trick the church into thinking they were more generous than they really were. God struck them dead.

In the New Testament church of Corinth, some people began misusing the Holy Supper of the Lord. They wolfed down the bread and got drunk on the wine. They gave no thought to the fact that they were sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. And what happened? Many of them became sick, and some even died. The Lord was judging them (1 Corinthians 11:17-32).

Then there’s the New Testament story of what happened to King Herod (Acts 12:20-23). Herod had already angered God by the way he persecuted the Christians, not to mention all his other sins. And then one day God’s patience ran out. Herod was giving a speech to a crowd of people, and the people shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”

Eternal Hell

There are many examples of God’s wrath striking people here on earth, and the Bible also speaks of judgment after this life is over. Every sinner without Christ will suffer God’s wrath and punishment forever in hell. Scripture says, “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).

But, you say, what about God’s love? Well, the Bible certainly declares the good news of God’s love, but that doesn’t mean for a moment that God’s wrath isn’t real. In fact, the more we know of God’s love and goodness, the greater his wrath if we reject him. The book of Hebrews says,

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sin is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. … For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)

But maybe you’re saying, “Okay, so maybe the Bible says some harsh things. But I like to focus on Jesus himself. His basic message was about tolerance and love.” Oh, really? What Jesus is that? It must be a fantasy version of Jesus, because the real Jesus speaks more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. In fact, Jesus says that he himself will be presiding at the final judgment and will tell sinners, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s love, but he will also deliver the final verdict of God’s wrath. Jesus gave stern warnings about judgment and hell. He said, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42).

According to the Bible, the wrath of God is so overwhelming and the horror of hell so awful that when the Lord comes to judge the world, unsaved sinners “will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:19). They will call “to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'” (Revelation 6:16-17).

I’ve heard it said that we need love-based religion, not fear-based religion. But what we need is reality-based religion. And the reality is that God’s love and God’s wrath are both real. Heaven and hell are both real.

Who Should Change?

If you deny God’s wrath, you deny the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. If you deny that sinners without Christ spend eternity in hell, you’re calling Jesus a liar. You might wish that God simply tolerated sin or overlooked it, but he doesn’t. His wrath against sin is real and ferocious. Wishful thinking won’t change God. The Lord doesn’t say, “I am whoever you think I am” or “I am whatever you want me to be.” He says, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).

You and I aren’t going to change God. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make him tame or safe. His wrath is real. No matter what pleasant little ideas we dream up, God remains the same. We’re not going to change God, and so our only hope is for God to change us.

The living God will either purify you and me from our sin, or else he will punish us with the everlasting torment of hell. God’s wrath against sin is fierce, and the only way to escape it is to deal with the sin in our lives.

Maybe you think there’s something wrong with a God who would judge sin so harshly. God shouldn’t get so upset! He should take it easy! But do you know what you’re doing? You’re saying your sin is no big deal; God should just approve of you the way you are. You’re saying you don’t need to change—God does!

Well, you and I had better realize that God’s wrath doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him. He’s not unstable or hot-tempered. He doesn’t fly off the handle for no reason. The Bible says he is slow to anger. So if he’s angry, he’s got a good reason. The reason is our sin. God’s wrath means not that something is wrong with him but that something is wrong with us.

Pleasant Preaching

Some preachers are embarrassed to talk about God’s wrath or call for repentance. They’re more offended by divine wrath than by the human evil that provokes it. They’d rather change God than change sinners. They ignore the Bible, they ignore the plain words of Jesus, and they make sweet sounds about a God who is too nice ever to become angry.

But shouldn’t we expect preachers to tell us the whole truth about God, including his wrath against sin? Shouldn’t we expect churches to proclaim Jesus as the only way to be saved from hell? Week after week some preachers talk about how nice and loving God is and how he can help you deal with challenges and make your life better if only you will let him—but they never call for repentance or warn of hell. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said of such religion: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

God says of such preachers, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their wicked conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 6:14-15).

We can’t measure the seriousness of our sin by how we happen to feel about it. We may feel peaceful after hearing pleasant preaching and feel no shame or guilt about our sinfulness. What matters, though, isn’t how we feel about sin but how God feels about it. God knows our condition better than we do, and his wrath shows how terrible our sin really is. The fierceness of God’s wrath is the only true measure of the seriousness of sin.

I know it’s tempting to dismiss all this talk about God’s wrath. You don’t like being told you’re a rotten sinner in danger of hell. You don’t like hearing God is angry with you. Neither do I. Nobody does. It’s nicer to hear someone flatter and soothe you and say you’re okay just the way you are. If you don’t want to believe what the Bible says about God’s wrath, if you don’t want to believe what Jesus says about hell, you won’t have any problem finding someone to tell you what you want to hear. The only problem is, you’re not hearing the truth.

That kind of religion sells, but it doesn’t save. Where there’s no shame, there’s no hope. Where there’s no admission of guilt, there’s no possibility of a pardon. Where there’s no fear of God’s wrath, there’s no salvation from it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s only when you take God’s wrath seriously that you can take your sin seriously and be saved from it.

Amazing Love

And, strange as it may seem, we need to know the fierceness of God’s wrath in order to grasp the wonder of his love. If God weren’t angry at our sin, then God’s love wouldn’t be all that amazing. If we were all decent, lovable people, then loving us would be the natural thing to do. But for God to be so enraged by our sin and still love us—that’s the supernatural thing to do. When we realize how furious God is at our sin, and that instead of destroying us immediately, he instead provided a way out—that’s when we stand in amazement at his love. This great God loves me not because I’m so nice and agreeable; he loves me even though my sin makes him furious.

It’s impossible to appreciate the love of God and to understand the death of Jesus Christ until you know God’s wrath against sin. God didn’t come to earth in the person of his Son just to make a courtesy visit. Jesus wasn’t born in a stable because it was so much fun. He didn’t die on a cross in order to save us from a bad hair day. If you and I were good enough on our own, if God already approved of us the way we are, “then Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21). We can’t deny the reality of God’s wrath without making a mockery of the cross. It’s because we’re sinners under God’s wrath, unable to rescue ourselves, that Christ died for us. He absorbed the hell of God’s fury against our sin. That’s why he went to the cross.

Through his beloved Son, God has provided a way for you and me to be saved from his wrath, and it’s the only way. Scripture says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). Apart from Christ, the only future you have is hell. God doesn’t tell you this just to scare you but to save you. He wants you to know the danger you’re in before it’s too late. His wrath is fierce, he won’t leave the guilty unpunished, but he’s also full of love, and he’s provided a way to be saved.

Trembling and Trusting

You may think it’s great to be self‑reliant and to feel good about yourself. But what does God think? What sort of attitude does he like? The Lord says in Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” God likes people who listen when he talks, who are contrite when God shows them that their lives don’t measure up to his standards, who take him so seriously that they tremble when he speaks.

Have you ever trembled at what God says? That’s a good test of your relationship to God. If you’ve never trembled at his Word, then you don’t know the true and living God at all. You take yourself more seriously than you take God, and you’re headed for disaster. The only fitting response when God speaks is to tremble. When he speaks a word of warning and judgment, we should tremble with fear. And when he speaks a word of promise and forgiveness and hope, we should tremble with joy. Trembling at the Word—that’s the kind of response God wants. There are really just two alternatives: you can feel good about yourself all the way to hell, or you can tremble at God’s Word all the way to heaven.

In order to be saved, you must first admit that you’ve sinned against God and deserve his wrath. You haven’t just made a few minor mistakes he ought to overlook; your sin is so awful that God has every right to send you to hell this very minute. So humble yourself before God. Confess that you’re a sinner by nature and by choice. Admit that you deserve his wrath.

Then look to the Lord Jesus. See him hanging on the cross, bearing the terrible guilt and shame of your sin. Believe that his blood cleanses you, that he shelters you from God’s wrath and embraces you with God’s love. God’s wrath is great, but his love in Christ is greater still. So look to Christ! Trust him! Cry out for his mercy! And thank him for his love and forgiveness.

And once you’ve put your faith in Christ, be sure to welcome the Holy Spirit into your heart and life. Thank the Spirit for showing you your sin and for uniting you to the risen Christ by faith. Thank him for making you a member of God’s family. Yield yourself to the Spirit’s leading. Ask him to transform the way you think, the way you feel, the way you talk, the way you live. Renounce every sin, and keep in step with the Spirit.

Do it now. Don’t put it off. Don’t ignore God’s warnings. Don’t refuse the gift of his Son sacrificed for you. Don’t reject the Holy Spirit. It’s bad enough to sin and arouse God’s wrath at all, but it’s even worse to refuse God after he warns you, calls you, and offers up his only Son to save you.

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.

PRAYER

Almighty God, shake us and shatter our pride before your majesty. When we hear of your wrath, we’re amazed at how horrible our sins must be in your sight, and we’re amazed at the love that moved you to save us in spite of it all. Grant each of us the joy of salvation. Wash us by the blood of Christ, grant us the assurance of your forgiveness and love, and fill us with the life of your Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.