Is God’s Wrath on Wrong Right?
If you’re not already there, let’s turn to Revelation 15, page 1036 using a seat Bible. And if you need an outline, raise your hand.
Years ago, our family held an evangelistic Bible study for our neighborhood. We invited a bunch of families and had a big meal each week, and then we dove into the Book of Mark. But the first meeting I wanted everybody to feel (because this was brand new for many of these people), I wanted them to feel comfortable to ask any question they may have. I said, “Before we get started, let’s just each think of a question that we would want to ask if we were standing before Jesus right now. Something that you’ve wrestled with, you wonder about, anything goes. We’re not going to talk about it. We’re not going to answer the question right yet, but let’s get it out there.” We went around, and a number of them had to do with suffering. Why, Jesus, would you let this happen? But then we came to my agnostic neighbor who loves to mock Christianity. First of all, I was so blessed that he was coming, and he came every week. But I knew his question would be rich. We had a Buddhist, we had a guy coming up alcoholism, we had some Christians, we had a bunch of people coming from a variety of perspectives. And so, my neighbor is in his 70s, very edgy regarding Christianity, said this, “My sister became a born-again Christian, and she says that if I don’t believe in Jesus, I’m going to hell. How can God do that? How can God judge someone for not believing in Jesus?” I said, “That’s a really good question.” And it is. And hopefully we’re going to get to that question as we work through the next few weeks.
But it is a good question, isn’t it? And it’s a difficult question. It’s a difficult question for me personally because I want everyone to be included. When I took StrengthsFinder, if you’ve taken that, “includer” is in my top five. This made a lot of things makes sense. It still bothers me, as our church has grown, just the idea that there will be some people that will come in today who might not be greeted, might not feel welcome. I hate that. But the idea of someone not being included in God’s family forever is unthinkable.
It’s difficult not only personally but also spiritually. When we come to Christ … Not having grown up in a Christian home, when I came to Christ, as Romans 5:5 says, and the love of God is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit,” you begin to look at people differently. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they believe, you look at them and you love them. And the thought of any of them not experiencing the kind of love that Jesus has poured out on me — unthinkable.
It’s a difficult question not only personally and spiritually, but culturally for a number of reasons. One is, every culture has its own Ten Commandments. Do you know what I mean? Taboos, things you no can do, whether they’re spoken or unspoken, listed or unlisted. The first in our culture is quickly becoming: be inclusive. Do not be judgmental. Be (new version of tolerant), be tolerant in the sense of accepting everything, everybody. And the only rule that you cannot break is to say something that someone else believes might not be right. That is wrong in our culture. Add to that a new definition of sin that is pretty much being embraced by our whole culture, and that is that sin is not so much personal but corporate and structural — systemic.
In some ways this new definition of sin is a good movement away from what us as evangelicals often fall off the cliff on the other side and fail to acknowledge and recognize the significance of broken structures and how they affect people. That’s huge to understand. But it seems like we’re flying to the other extreme to where the reason I raped, the reason I shot up the school, the reason I stole, is not because my heart is sinful. It’s because I grew up in poverty. I experienced a number of disadvantages. I was bullied. It was the system.
Now the reason this is an important question or point to understand regarding judgment is this, if sin is not the result of, wrong is not the result of my sinful heart but a broken system, how can anybody be judged for their sin? You can only condemn maybe government officials, people up here who you think are the cause. But you can’t ever be held responsible for your own sin. Judgment, even before God, seems wrong with that new definition of sin.
These are just a couple of reasons why this question of the rightness of God’s judgment, the rightness of God’s wrath, is not a secondary question. It is core to who God is, who we are, and what it means to live in this world.
I’d like to do two things. One, let’s summarize Revelation 15 and then spend a little time unpacking the implications to the question that we’re going to see answered from one angle in Revelation 15, this question: Is God’s wrath on wrong right? Is God’s wrath on wrong right? It’s another version of my neighbor’s question. Revelation 15 is all about the finishing of God’s wrath. Look at verse 1.
“Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.”
Did you catch that? The wrath of God, finished. Now what is that, “another sign?” We have to actually go back to chapter 12:1 to get the first sign. The first sign was a woman who was clothed with the sun and represents the people of God we saw back in chapter 12. Chapter 12:3, another sign, a great red dragon representing Satan, the deceiver of the world, the devil. You have a first sign, this woman clothed with the sun, the people of God. Second sign, the devil, who’s out to destroy the woman, the people of God. And now we have the third sign, “another sign,” here in chapter 15 which is designed to finish this conflict, which is what we all long for. Can we wrap up this horrible enemy pursuing the people of God? And that’s what chapter 15 is describing. Look at the end of the chapter, verses 7 and 8,
“And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.”
From the beginning of this chapter to the end verse 1, verses 7 and 8, this chapter is about the wrath of God. Next week we’re going to talk about how this fits into the larger context and the whole flow. For this week, let’s focus in on looking at the wrath of God from three angles: on the sea, in the song, and outside the sanctuary.
Number 1, on the sea. Verse 2,
“And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire … also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside [the ESV translates, some of your translations say “on.” I believe that’s the better translation. It could be either one, but I think it’s better “on” here in the context.], standing [on] the sea of glass.”
Now remember the sea in the Old Testament is a picture of chaos. It is evil, a picture of evil, unsafe, unstable, turbulence, the abode of monstrous sea creatures. The fire, fire there is a picture of judgment. The reference to Moses in verse 3 would probably have taken the readers’ minds back to the crossing of the Red Sea. Get the scene here. These conquerors are safely standing on the very chaotic force that threatened them. The chaos (the sea), and the judgment (fire) which seem to at one point threaten them and cause them to feel like God had abandoned them is now a platform of praise. The place of vulnerability (this is a big theme in the Bible), the place of vulnerability becomes the place of victory. What a picture of the cross. Think about it even in the crossing of the Red Sea. The same sea that became a path to victory for the children of Israel became the grave, place of judgment, for the soldiers, the Egyptian soldiers. Number 1, on the sea.
The second angle we see this wrath is in the song, verse 3. The song of Moses and the song of the Lamb [verse 3] are [Schreiner’s words] “genetically related.” Because the promise made to Moses pictured in the crossing of the Red Sea, these promises made to Moses pictured in the crossing of the Red Sea are fulfilled in Jesus as his followers now stand on the sea and sing. Notice three aspects of this song that will answer the question we’ve asked: Is God’s wrath on wrong right?
First of all, we’re going to see what, who, why. What did they sing about God’s works and his ways? Well his works, verse 3, are great and amazing — stunning works. His ways are just and true. That is, judicially right, appropriate. The Lord God, the pantokrator, the Almighty, the Sovereign of all history, the King of the nations, makes this world right. Gets rid of all wrong in a way that is described as great and amazing, just and true. That is the “what” they sang. In other words, his wrath is right.
Who sings this about God’s ways? Verse 4, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?” Skip one line, “All nations will come and worship you.” Now the point here is not universalism — that everyone will suddenly become a Christian. The point here is irrefutable justice. No one will miss the rightness of God’s wrath.
Last week I was watching a game, Furman University Men’s Soccer. We’ve got two boys that play on that team, we were playing Mercer. And Connor, one of my sons, scored, and we’re cheering, and the ref called it back. We were confused because it looked like a clean goal, but the ref said that another player had taken the goalie out. Now one thing you need to know about us parents is we’re purely objective. We’re different from other parents. We just see it as it is. But something didn’t seem right. The game continued, and there were a lot of things that didn’t seem right in that particular game. But in the end, not that we care about things like goals or anything like that, but we got the video, and we watched it, that section, slowly. We blew it up, watched the guilty to see if they actually… and we could actually demonstrate that the ref had made the wrong call. To tell you how bad it was in this situation, there were several others in the game, other calls, that were so bad, at the end of the game the ref actually apologized to our coach. I’ve never heard of that in a Division 1 college game. But that’s how bad it was. The apology didn’t change the fact that we lost by one and that can’t change.
But here’s the thing, and this is what’s beautiful about sports. I mean they can become idolatrous. They can waste a lot of time. But they are micro-glimpses of our universe. What we saw there, when you have a micro-world where you have a person who has the authority to make the call, and they can get it wrong periodically. What this song is saying, is that there will be no one in the end when all the video footage can be viewed — the VAR (the video assistant referee) — can be contacted, everybody can see it in slo-mo up close and examine it, and no one will say God made the wrong call. No one. That’s the point of this song. Is God’s wrath on wrong right? And the answer according this song is what? Yes. Yes.
Who sings this about God’s way? What verse 4 is emphasizing is there will be no one — no matter how rich they are and all the lawyers they have, no matter all the video footage, no matter the sophistication of their arguments — no one will be able to bring a charge and say, “God, you’ve got it wrong.” No one.
Why are they singing this about God’s ways? Verse 4, “For you alone are holy.” For you alone are holy. When I try to imagine, whether it’s a question I’m wrestling through, a tragedy I’m struggling with, or even this bigger question we’re talking about today, the idea of God judging someone for eternity, I can’t get my head around that. I cannot imagine that, because I live in a finite world. Even the worst of wrongs seems to me to be a finite wrong and therefore have a finite penalty or whatever it takes to make it right. But this is why this statement is so significant. “You alone are holy,” which means you alone are, you’re unique, you’re different. You’re unlike anyone here, anyone anywhere. You are in a category by yourself.
And this is true for more than just the nature of God’s justice and wrath. This is true with everything. Try to get your brain around the fact that God has always existed and will always exist. There’s never a moment when he has not been. We can sing about that, but really try to get your head around that. Try to get your brain around the fact that he can do anything. He is omnipotent. He knows everything. This morning while Joel was praying, and we were all praying, God was hearing all of our prayers simultaneously, and not just us, but Christians all around the world who are praying for brothers and sisters all around the world. God was hearing all of their prayers at the same time, despite the time change. Just try to get your head around that. If you think, and here’s where this is really relevant to this, if I think with all of my limitations, I can assess something like eternal judgment and come to the conclusion that, “God, you don’t know what you’re doing,” I am a fool. You are holy. You are holy.
And what is happening here is what we’ve talked about several times through the study of Revelation. It’s this back from the future way of living. The author here is taking us, by the Spirit he’s taking us, all the way to the end when we’re singing this song, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!” There is no deed, there is no way of doing things, of saving and judging, that we will not one day say, “Woah! I didn’t even see that! I haven’t begun to comprehend.” And the reason, we are seeing here in verse 4, is because, “You alone are holy.”
What we’re being called to, and this is really key. If we walk away with anything else today, we’ve got to get this. God is calling us to sing this song today by faith so that we can sing it by sight in the future. With God there are always going to be things I don’t understand. But I go to this chapter so often when I want to shake my fist at God and I’m complaining and lamenting, and I need to root my thinking in this song by faith today.
Third, we view this on the sea, in the song, and now outside the sanctuary. Verses 5-8,
“After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened. [This is the tent of witness, tabernacle, symbolizing God’s presence, the place where he dwells.] And out of the sanctuary came [verse 6] the seven angels with the seven plagues.”
They’re decked out with these stunningly bright linens with sashes, all pointing us back to Jesus, they’re representing Jesus, are given “seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever.” And the wrath is so intense, notice it says, “the glory of God and his power” are so intense “no one could enter the sanctuary” (verse 8) until the judgment was finished.
Now in one sense God is saying to his people, “Step aside, cover your eyes, I am going to take care of this.” That is going to be unthinkably horrible and spectacular when God wipes out wrong, makes things right.
Now what do we take away from this? A couple of thoughts. One, God’s wrath is personal. God’s wrath is personal. Verse 3 emphasized that the deeds and the ways of God are stunning and right because “you alone are holy.” In other words, what God does flows from who God is.
Are you guys familiar with the Euthyphro Dilemma? Euthyphro Dilemma. We’ve got to go all the way back to the 4th century B.C. Plato was writing about his teacher, Socrates and described a dialogue that Socrates had with Euthyphro. Socrates asked Euthyphro, “What is holy?” And Euthyphro answers, “What is loved by the gods.” Then Socrates poses the Euthyphro Dilemma. And here it is:
“Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved?”
And this dilemma today often comes up in debates between Christians and atheists, usually around morality, like the Divine Command Theory. Did God dictate morality by his command? And the dilemma today typically is articulated this way: Does God say things because they are good? Or are they good because God says they are good? And the dilemma is this, if they are good because he says, then that makes them arbitrary. They are only good because he said they were good, and he could call evil good or good evil. It’s arbitrary. But if in contrast they are good, he says they are good, because they are good according to an external standard of goodness, that makes God contingent. Now God is dependent on that external standard of goodness and therefore ceases to be God. Those are the two horns of the dilemma that are presented today.
The thing the Euthyphro Dilemma misses that Revelation 15 is hitting on is the fact that what is true, and what is just, what is right, what is pure — the morality of God — does not merely flow from what he says or does, it doesn’t ultimately flow from what he says or from some certain sort of external standard, but it flows from his character, from who he is. That’s key because the Euthyphro Dilemma crumbles, and the goodness of God stands. And the reason this is significant here is because of this: If we view God’s judgment of wrong, right and wrong, as contingent or arbitrary, we will naturally resent his wrath. He becomes like a hothead or Javert from Les Misérables, who is constantly hunting his petty sense of justice for minimal violations. But God’s wrath flows from his character. He cannot be passive about wrong without ceasing to be God. His wrath is personal in the sense of every molecule of wrong in the universe is a violation against his holy character.
To get a sense of what it must, a tiny sense of what it must feel like to be God, imagine a time when you were betrayed, you felt betrayed, your spouse was unfaithful or left you for another person. Your best friend stabbed you in the back, said some things behind your back that were not true. What does that feel like? All of us, at some point, on some level, know what that kind of betrayal feels like. And if you feel that and then multiply that by a couple trillion, you’re getting a sense of the personal violation that sin is to God, who is holy, holy, holy in his character. God’s wrath is personal.
Secondly, his wrath is necessary. Now many of us view God’s wrath as vestigial, an unnecessary residue from an old way of thinking. It’s unsophisticated; it’s primitive. We need to grow beyond this wrath stuff. We don’t want to come to church and hear about wrath. We want to hear about something positive. As Miroslav Volf has written, a Yale professor, he basically believes (he’s right on here) that to believe that, you have to grow up in the suburbs and you have to learn your theology or philosophy in an air-conditioned classroom. Because no one who lives in the real world can be neutral about wrong. A mother who can respond to her daughter’s being molested without any anger does not know what love is. Love and anger go together.
Now I get it, we as human beings, we contaminate our love. It gets all convoluted in selfishness and self-righteousness, and it devolves into a host of other bad things. But strip that away, that with God, and imagine a perfect love and perfect anchor against wrong. His wrath is right. It’s necessary. If he is not angry at wrong, he is not loving nor right. God’s love and his anger, his wrath, are beautifully intertwined. Let me just show you a couple examples. When God’s glory passed by Moses in Exodus 34:6-7,
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, [notice tangled together, merciful and gracious] slow to anger [beware of the anger of a patient person], slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” God cannot just look the other way and pretend like wrong does not exist.
What does a God of love and a God of wrath do? John 3:16,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, [he gave his only Son] that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [Do you want to know the heart of God for you right now? This is it.] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but [notice how the judgment and love are mingled here], but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
That is the answer to my neighbor’s question: How can God do that?
Third, God’s wrath is satisfied. God’s wrath is satisfied in Jesus as we just read in John 3. When we are in Jesus we are no longer under wrath. When we studied Romans, I used this image twenty-something years ago. I think we still talk about it in Connections. A giant funnel, and picture the wrath of God, the rain of God’s wrath falling and the gutters of God’s grace funneling the rain of God’s wrath down to one point. All throughout the Old Testament, funneling it forward. All today, funneling it back down to one point. What is that point? The cross, the cross of Christ. In Jesus the rain of God’s wrath was funneled by the gutters of God’s grace onto his Son Jesus. All who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under wrath.
Listen to this summary. Look on the screen. Ephesians 2:1,
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, [there’s that great red dragon that Revelation is talking about] the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all [we all] once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of [what?] wrath.”
By nature. But I’m a nice guy. No, by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve gone to church. It doesn’t matter how many good works you’ve done. We are all born children under wrath because of sin in the presence of a holy God. And left to ourselves, we would have no hope. But God.
“But God, [verse 4] being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”
This is the only way to move from being a child of wrath to a child of God, believing in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:9,
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
Whew! Really to me the bigger question, the more you meditate on this, is not how can God judge anyone, but how can he save anyone? How can he do that? And if you have lost the wonder of that, that is a scary place to be.
Is God wrong to judge, to condemn, to hold sinners accountable? Revelation 15 answers that quite directly.
“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, [Just and true are your ways] O King of the nations!”
Probably the best way we could partake in that truth is to remember the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. I want to challenge you, for those of you who are not followers of Jesus, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved today, now. For those of you who are trying to play both sides, there is no security on the fence. There is no fence. What this passage is saying is, all our sophisticated arguments will burn away in the presence of a holy God. Come to Jesus. Bring your questions. Bring your doubts. Bring your fears. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. For those of us who are wrestling with hard things that we can’t figure out, horrible things that either have been done to us or by us, come to Jesus this morning.
Father, thank you for this privilege to be able to look forward to the day when it will all be made clear, when you will be seen as you really are. We will sing it and say it and see it. When all the little pestering arguments that bounce around in our heads and hearts and the doubts and even the fist-clenching times when we feel like we have something against you — all of that melts away. I pray that we as a people would be prepared for that day, today. We pray that this time of reflection on the cross, which is the most vivid expression of your love and your wrath coming together, that you would fill us with gratefulness, that we would never lose the wonder of your saving power, and that Lord, you would fill us with a greater burden for our neighbors and friends and co-workers who don’t know you. Thank you for your Word, in Jesus’ name, amen.