To Avert God's Wrath
It's strange isn't it? Jimmy Savile got away with it and we don't like it. We're saddened to find out the truth about people like Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris but we're glad that justice has found them out. Do you remember how gleefully the country turned on MPs who were caught fiddling their expenses – how the media howled for justice to be done! If we had done what they did, it was argued, we'd have lost our employment. It simply boils down to this: we don't like others getting away with something that is wrong. Weren't you pleased to see Suarez banned from football for biting yet another opponent? I know I was.
But when it is a matter of a different justice, a higher justice, a divine justice with its accompanying wrath, men and women have a very different sort of reaction.
At the limit, we like to think, divine justice and divine wrath might be alright for really extraordinarily evil people. So, wrath is suitable for mass murderers, for terrorists perhaps and for a further, though limited, number of other folk guilty of crimes that we find contemptible. These are usually crimes for which we don't consider ourselves to be guilty.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the comic opera The Mikado and placed these words in the Mikado's mouth – "Let the punishment fit the crime". It's a sentiment with which we readily concur. But when God declares that the soul that sins shall die meaning, by this death, the eternal exposure to his holy wrath – men and women are up in arms!
But the Bible does have serious things to say about the wrath of God – and we cannot dismiss the idea as though it were merely a product of the theology of the Middle Ages. We must therefore not be too hasty to pass onto some other subject just because we find thoughts of wrath unappealing.
I suppose we might legitimately find the matter of God's wrath objectionable if God somehow sprung it upon us with no warning but that simply is not the case.
The LORD carefully warned his people when he gave them his law that part of the consequences of disobedience was to be exposed to his wrath:
Ex.22:24 "and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless."
Divine wrath when excited or provoked was a serious and dangerous matter. Not long after the LORD had delivered his OT people from Egypt troubles began to brew up. A man named Korah didn't like the restrictions placed upon the priesthood – he wanted to serve in his own way and not respect the regulations that had been handed down to Moses. This act of rebellion led to Korah forfeiting his own life and that of his closest family members in highly unusual circumstances – the ground opened and swallowed them up.
But the problem didn't end there. The rest of the congregation started to grumble against Moses as though he was the one responsible for the loss of life. The LORD was angry.
Num.16:46 "And Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun.""
To be exposed to divine wrath was both serious and dangerous for the people of God!
To be exposed to divine wrath was nevertheless something of an ongoing reality for the people of God and it drove them to prayer. They knew wrath was painful to bear and they knew its devastating effects:
Ps 89:46 "How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?"
Ps 90:7 "For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed."
Zep.1:15 "A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,"
When God pours out his wrath it is not a sign of weakness as if he had lost emotional control of himself.
Let it be noted too that every time we react with abhorrence to the news of some awful or gruesome crime we are demonstrating, within the limitations of our own falleness, what God demonstrates perfectly as he reacts in wrath to any and every contradiction of his character found in the lives of men and women.
Wrath is a NT Concept too
We must not imagine that wrath is an exclusively OT concept, one that is absent from the NT where the love of God is revealed in all its fullness.
John the Baptist refers to the wrath of God:
Mt.3:7 "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
and Paul spells out what it is that exposes men and women to this wrath:
Rom.1:18 "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth."
Rom.2:5 "But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed."
Jesus too spoke about a wrath to come as he spoke about the destruction of Jerusalem:
Lk.21:23 "Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people."
And of course it is from the lips of Jesus that we hear most about the pangs of everlasting destruction and the pains of hell itself, which is surely the outworking of divine wrath:
Wrath is more than a Concept it is a Real problem
If wrath were only an idea – akin to a bogeyman, that mythical creature used by adults or older children to frighten bad children into good behaviour – then wrath would not be a problem. But wrath is more than that and it is a problem for two reasons:
Because God is just.
Because we are not.
If God were not just then he could wink at sin and fail to deal with it. But he is just and so he treats all sin as an affront to his honour and glory.
When we think of judgment, if we think of it at all, we prefer to compare ourselves, not to an absolute standard, but with each other. When we do that it is easy enough to imagine that our sin is insignificant. Either we excuse ourselves by saying "everyone does it" or we argue that we're not as bad as the next man. Have you noticed how well we normally emerge in own estimation? But God does not use this method of assessing our sin. He doesn't ask if we are better or worse than the next person because he considers all our sin (and we have all sinned) to be deeply offensive to him. The greater the honour of the person sinned against the greater the significance of the crime and we have all sinned against the greatest most exalted person imaginable!
And so the very character of God means that he must and will pour out of his wrath on sinners, on all sinners. He will do so in a measured way, in a determined way. He will not fly off the handle in some emotional loss of control but the action he takes will be considered judicial action. It is such a serious matter because men simply cannot buy it off:
Zep 1:18 "Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth."
Divine Wrath Born by Another
The Bible clearly teaches us that God is holy and just and it teaches us just as clearly that we are not. If that were all that the Bible had to say to us we would be in a very sorry state with no hope. We would all be living as it were on borrowed time merely awaiting the opening of the books for the accounts to be settled – a settlement that would be absolutely devastating to every son or daughter of Adam.
But that is not all that the Bible has to teach us!
God is just but that is not all that he is – he is also love.
His love does not somehow override his justice but it does lead him to find some other way of dealing with the matter of his wrath!
And that is precisely why Jesus died.
It is clear that Jesus came into the world with a view to laying down his life as a willing sacrifice in order to secure the salvation of his own. A very real and essential part of that salvation would be to deliver his people from the wrath that was rightly headed their way. He came to die and he died in order to:
"deliver us from the wrath to come." (1Thess.1:10)
You see our sin didn't only cause a problem for us, reverently speaking it also caused a problem for God himself.
The problem sin causes us is too great for us to handle but God is able to deal with the entire problem of our sin. More amazingly still, he is not only able but willing!!
The problem from God's angle was how might he be just and yet not condemn us for eternity to suffer his wrath. The way in which he resolved the matter was by setting forth his Son, Jesus Christ, as a propitiation by his blood (Rom.3:25).
Now it is the word "propitiation" that is so vitally important here. It is the means whereby God is rendered propitious towards us, made favourable towards. We are not to imagine that by his death Jesus forced the Father to do something he didn't really want to do – nothing could be further from the truth. Rather Jesus' death enabled the Father to do what he always wanted to do but had been hindered from doing because of our sin. It is important for us to recognise that it was God the Father who set his Son forth as that necessary propitiation.
The soul that sins shall die is the Bible's message and by our sin we have placed ourselves under the just and righteous condemnation of the law – every human being however nice or civilised they might to be is in this same sorry state, we all stand under the curse that the law pronounces against lawbreakers.
But that is not the end of the matter even though it could have been and it would have been an entirely just end too by which God would have been justified in upholding his perfect justice. The amazing truth of the NT, the unfolding of God's wonderful plan of salvation is found in Paul's letter to the Galatians:
Gal.3:13 "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -
When Jesus was crucified he died as that sacrificial victim which took the place of those he represented. In many of the blood sacrifices of the OT the one for whom the sacrifice was offered had to place his hands on the head of the animal to be offered in sacrifice. This was an act of identification and symbolised the transfer of sin and guilt away from the guilty to the substitute which was to die in his place.
When Jesus died on the cross the guilt and shame of his people were laid to his account and he died just as if he had committed those unworthy acts himself – he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us! As he hung upon the cross the full weight and heat of the divine wrath was justly poured out upon him – small wonder that as he approached Calvary he sweated great drops of blood at the prospect of those sufferings that lay ahead for him.
It was the love of the Father that sent him for us and it was the love of the Son firstly for the Father to carry out his will and secondly his love for us to save us.
And do you see the wonder of this? God had not cheated his justice – punishment had been exacted, his wrath had been poured out – God had demonstrated his love – there is no more any wrath for left for those who trust in Jesus and his atoning sacrifice.
I once heard an illustration that I found helpful concerning what Jesus did for us in taking God's wrath on himself so that we would never need to:
Fire – fire cannot pass twice over the same ground – once burnt it will burn no more!
This is why Jesus died! Believe on him, trust him and rejoice in the amazing love and wonderful grace of God.
To God be the Glory