Dr. Richard L. Strauss
February 3, 1980
Jesus told an interesting story about a fig tree growing in a vineyard. Usually fig trees grow in orchards, but this one was growing in a vineyard. The owner of the property kept coming to look for figs on his tree, but never found any. Finally he said to the keeper of his vineyard, "For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?"
The keeper of the vineyard didn't want to give up on the fig tree so he requested a little more time: "Leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down" (Luke 13:7-9, NIV).
Jesus told that story to illustrate the doctrine we learned last week, that one of God's attributes is His long-suffering with sinners. He delays His judgment and gives them one privilege after another, one revelation of Himself after another, one opportunity to repent after another. That's what is symbolized with the digging and the fertilizing. He patiently looks for the fruit of a changed life. But He does not wait forever. If men go on disregarding His patient and gracious offer of salvation, eventually the axe falls. "Cut it down," He says. "Let the full force of My anger be directed against these unrepentant sinners."
That sounds rather severe, doesn't it? Well it is! God can be severe.
"Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off” (Romans 11:22 NKJV).
He's talking about Gentiles and their opportunity in general to receive Christ. The Jewish nation had been cut off, and now the Gentiles would be too, if they didn't take advantage of God's goodness.
We love to talk about God's goodness, but for some reason, we choose not to say much about His severity, but it's right there. "Consider the goodness and severity of God." Severity is a word that means literally, "a cutting off." It has to do with retribution: strictly exacting the full penalty of the law, righteously judging sin with perfect justice.
Severity introduces us to another side of God's character, what the Bible calls His wrath.
The first thing that usually comes to our minds when we hear the term wrath is violent anger, a vile temper, and somehow that doesn't sound very becoming for God. We get a little embarrassed for Him when He says things like, "And My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword" (Exodus 22:24), or "I shall execute judgment on you in anger and in fury and in furious rebukes" (Ezekiel 5:15).
We don't want to hear that. We have a secret desire to get rid of those passages and somehow hide the fact that God gets angry. But God doesn't try to hide it. He is willing to show His wrath (Romans 9:22). In fact, He says more about His wrath than He does about His love. If you look at a concordance, you'll see that.
Maybe we should be honest about God's wrath, too. Let's begin by finding out just what His wrath is.
1. The Explanation of God's Wrath
Attempts have been made to dilute the Biblical doctrine of wrath but a study of the Scriptural words that are used will hardly allow that. The most common word is the one that makes up part of the word long-suffering, the word that means "nose,” face,” or anger." God's anger is pictured symbolically as smoke pouring from His nostrils.
Then the earth shook and quaked;
And the foundations of the mountains were trembling
And were shaken, because He was angry.
Smoke went up out of His nostrils,
And fire from His mouth devoured;
Coals were kindled by it.
(Psalm 18:7-8 NASB)
That sounds rather foreboding, doesn't it? God is pictured as having smoke coming out of His nose and fire that can light coals coming out of His mouth, because He was angry. Other words for wrath in the Old Testament have the same idea of kindling a fire, heat, burning, fury and rage.
"Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath; and a fire was kindled against Jacob and anger also mounted against Israel" (Psalm 78:21, NASB).
That doesn't sound like something we can explain away as a mild slap on the wrist, accompanied timid rebuke like: "I would rather you didn't do that."
God's wrath is not something limited to the Old Testament either, as some would have us believe. There are two primary New Testament words for wrath. Paul applied the first one, orge, to God when he warned the Ephesians of the sins for which "the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience" (Ephesians 5:6, NASB).
The word originally referred to any passion or impulse, but came to be limited to "anger," the most powerful of all the emotions, an intense and settled feeling of displeasure.
The second word, thumos, is used of God only in the book of the Revelation, and it's there seven times (Revelation 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; and 19:15, where it is translated "fierceness"). It refers more to a sudden passionate outburst in contrast to the settled and lingering frame of mind.
But both words are clearly used of God in the New Testament: the settled feelings as well as the passionate eruption. The New Testament is not afraid to show this side of God's character.
Are you disturbed by that? Isn't it wrong for God to get angry like that?
On the contrary, it is as much a part of His perfection as His holiness, His justice, or His love. In fact, it is required by all three. Sin is an outrage against God's holy nature, His justice requires that He punish it, and even His love for His own people demands that He destroy sin because it threatens their well-being. When He acts to destroy sin, the Bible views Him as being angry, and calls His response wrath. But act He must! He cannot love what is good without hating what is evil and moving decisively against it.
His wrath is the perfect response of His perfect Being to sin.
Now, God's wrath is far different from our wrath. If we could understand that, we wouldn't have any problem with God's wrath. For one thing, it is not selfish like our wrath. We usually get angry when we are hurt, or when someone or something frustrates in our attempts to reach some personal goal. We get angry when we are afraid of something, threatened with some personal loss, inconvenienced, or treated unjustly and we're bitter about what's happened to us. That's when we get mad.
But God doesn't get mad for selfish reasons. God is sovereign and omnipotent. He does what He pleases and has all things in His control. Nobody can frustrate His goals nor threaten Him so He has no need to get angry for selfish reasons. There is no bitterness in His wrath.
Furthermore, our anger is usually expressed for our own benefit—to let off steam, to let everybody know how much was have been hurt, to assert our rights or get our own way. But God is perfect love, and consequently acts for the good of others. While their good brings Him the greatest glory, He still does what is best for them. His wrath is unselfish.
Another major difference between God's wrath and ours is that His is always in perfect control. While it causes Him to act decisively, it is never with unbridled or unrestrained emotion. He doesn't lose His temper, rant and rave, say foolish things, throw pots and pans, put His fist through walls, or do the other senseless things we sometimes do when we get mad.
While from man's point of view it may look like His actions are sudden and unpredictable, but it isn't. God is unchangeable, immutable. Every expression of His wrath was known from eternity past and is part of His perfect plan. And while it may seem to be violent from man's perspective, it is actually the settled opposition of His holiness to sin and the judicial administration of His justice toward sinners. It may be described as hot, fiery, fierce, and furious. But it is never out of control.
Why do we try to cover up God's wrath? Why do we think we need to help Him get out of the corner He seems to have painted Himself into? It is because we have little understanding of the absolute, awesome holiness of His nature, and consequently, little consciousness of the contemptible, despicable character of our own sin.
We see no need for God to get angry. The prevailing opinion seems to be, "So what's a little sin? Why should God get so heated up about that?" A knowledge of His holiness would help us understand the significance and the necessity of His wrath.
2. The Revelation of God's Wrath
The Apostle Paul sets the stage for the next element of God's wrath, which we want to discuss.
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18, NASB).
See that word revealed? God doesn't hide His wrath. He reveals it, discloses it, brings it to light, makes it known. He expresses it, not in violent uncontrolled explosions, but nevertheless, by definite, observable acts. And whenever it is expressed, it is always against ungodliness and unrighteousness.
The first word, ungodliness, indicates irreverence, impiety, blatant disregard for God's will which is designed for man's good. God's will is for man's good. If we deny it, that's ungodliness.
The second word, unrighteousness, refers to any kind of wickedness, wrongdoing or injustice. In other words, God's wrath—unlike ours—is always expressed against sin, and particularly the sin of those who suppress His truth by their willful wickedness. And it is expressed by punishing that sin.
When we read through the Old Testament, we see some of the ways God revealed His wrath, by things such as pestilence, death, exile, the destruction of cities and even nations, and the denial of privileges. For example, the Psalmist described the hard-hearted Israelites who provoked God in the wilderness and were denied entrance into the promised land. God said, "Unto whom I swore in my wrath that they should not enter into My rest" (Psalm 95:11, quoted in Hebrews 3:11). It was God's wrath revealed against their stubborn, willful disbelief that kept those Israelites from enjoying what they could have had. Incidentally, to allow them to enter the land with their rebellious attitudes would probably have brought them more unhappiness than wandering in the wilderness, so even in wrath, His mercy was evident.
Another way we see God's wrath revealed is by observing the earthly life of Jesus Christ, God in flesh. There were occasions when He was clearly angry. The first one was at the very outset of His public ministry. He had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and found that the temple of God had been invaded by profiteers who were taking advantage of the people and exploiting the things of God for personal gain.
"So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves He said, 'Get these out of here! Stop turning My Father's house into a market!'" (John 2:15-16).
It would be difficult to deny that this was an expression of anger. His disciples thought so. They reflected on a passage in the Psalms about the zeal of God's house consuming Him (John 2:17; see Psalm 69:9). That word zeal is a word of passion and indignation. God gets angry when people use spiritual things for personal profit—whether it be the businessman who uses the church to fatten his bank account, or the preacher who uses his position to enhance his own reputation and image. Eventually God does something about it.
Jesus got angry on another occasion, this time in the synagogue at Capernaum. There was a man there with a paralyzed hand. The man was probably planted by the Pharisees who were watching to see whether Jesus would heal on the Sabbath day so they could find some excuse to condemn Him.
"He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored" (Mark 3:5).
Jesus was filled with wrath because of their spiritual insensitivity and utter lack of concern for the man in need. This kind of Pharisaism probably angers God as much as anything else—observing the outward traditions and trappings of religion, clinging tenaciously to religious rules and regulations, without a life-changing faith that shows itself in compassion to people in need. God hates religion when it's not accompanied by life-changing faith. And eventually He does something about it. For the unbelief which these religious leaders promoted among the people, the entire nation was eventually removed from its privileged position and scattered to the ends of the earth. "Cut it down," God said. And His wrath was revealed.
The revelation of God's wrath has been observed throughout human history in myriad ways, not just in Scripture. It is being demonstrated today as God gives men up to their own wicked lusts and passions (Romans 1:18-32). People have given themselves over to wickedness. They even seek civil rights for their sins. Their consciousness is so seared that they don't even begin to understand that this is contrary to God's economy. It's an expression of God's wrath when He gives people up to their own lusts and passions.
But the Bible indicates that we have not yet seen the worst. God is still restraining His wrath to a large degree, giving men an opportunity to turn to Him. But the day is coming when He will restrain it no longer.
3. The Culmination of God's Wrath
Several passages in the Bible speak of the "wrath to come." John the Baptist used the phrase when he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism.
"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?'" (Matthew 3:7, NASB).
Evidently a day is coming when God's wrath is going to be revealed in an unparalleled and unprecedented way. Even the flood that wiped out the earth in Noah's day will not be comparable.
Paul spoke a future "day of wrath."
"But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed" (Romans 2:5).
People with hard and impenitent hearts are storing up wrath against themselves for that day. It sounds as though there is a storehouse where all the wrath that sin deserves is piling up. God's long-suffering is presently restraining it, but someday the storehouse will be full, the doors will burst open, and all that accumulated wrath will be poured out.
When will that be? It seems to be significant that when the seals of judgment are opened in the book of the Revelation, the inhabitants of the earth cry out to the mountains, "Fall on us."
"And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence 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 is able to stand?'" (Revelation 6:16-17, NASB).
That time known in the Old Testament as the time of Jacob's trouble (Jeremiah 30:7). Jesus calls it a time of great tribulation (Matthew 24:21). And here in Revelation, John calls it the great day of God's wrath.
And look who the instrument of God's wrath will be: the meek and mild Lamb of God. He willingly submitted Himself to the abuse and humiliation of men at His first coming, but in His second coming He is going to be the instrument of God's wrath. The wrath of the Lamb will be so fierce, that men will flee from His presence and seek death rather than face Him.
The chapters that follow describe unprecedented wrath. The great majority of the earth's population is killed in calamites such as the world has never seen. And the word wrath keeps turning up over and over again (e.g., Revelation 11:18; 14:10; 14:19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19). I'd like you to look at one of these.
"The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God's wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses' bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia" (Revelation 14:19-20).
That, folks, is not a pretty picture. It's the expression of God's wrath in that future day.
And then the Son of God Himself appears.
"Coming out of His mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.' He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty" (Revelation 19:15).
The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment. Those who have rejected His grace feel the terror of His wrath.
But the end is not yet. The scene changes to a great white throne and the unbelieving dead of all the ages are standing before God to be judged.
"Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:15).
The lake of fire, where there shall be torment day and night forever and ever (Revelation 20:10), is the ultimate expression of God's wrath (see Matthew 10:28; 25:41, 46).
Punishment in an eternal hell seems to be so much more severe than the crimes of men deserve. We cringe at the thought of it. But the violation of God's infinitely holy nature demands an infinite penalty. Only eternal condemnation can begin to qualify as an infinite penalty. Even eternity cannot fully satisfy the offenses they have committed against a holy God.
But beyond that, the Bible assures us that eternal wrath is something men choose for themselves. Don't forget that. They have expressed their preference for living apart from God by rejecting the light He has given them. That's what they want.
The holiness of His presence would itself be hell for them in their sinful condition, so God spares them that torment and allows them to have what they prefer. There is kindness even in that.
4. The Salvation from God's Wrath
There is no reason why anyone should have to suffer God's wrath, however. In love, He laid the curse of His offended holiness on His own Son (Galatians 3:13). He Himself provided the sacrifice by which His holiness may be satisfied and His wrath may be avoided.
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through Him" (Romans 5:8-9).
This is salvation from God's wrath. Because the infinitely holy Son of God died in our place and paid for our sins, we may be forgiven, declared righteous, and made acceptable to God. We can be delivered from the awful wrath that is being stored up to be released in time and throughout eternity. That is the gospel. That is good news!
When the Thessalonians heard Paul preach that message, they received it (1 Thessalonians 1:6), and were delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10). God is willing to do the same for you. Those who acknowledge their sin and put their trust in Christ's death are not appointed to wrath, but to obtain deliverance (salvation) through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9). There is no wrath for believers.
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them" (John 3:36).
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
The choice is ours to make. Do you accept the gift of salvation that comes from turning from your sin and trusting Jesus as your Savior, or do you willfully choose to go your own way?
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.
Romans 1:18 NASB
Continue to AT-17: A Jealous God