It was for one of these services that the director of the school asked me to speak on the subject of the wrath of God. Two or three of the students were preparing the rest of the program and were to plan it around the same theme. When the young woman who was in charge of finding the music approached me with her dilemma, I understood her situation.
The young lady told me that she could not find any hymns or other songs that had the “Wrath of God” as their subject. For all the other attributes of God: the grace of God, the love of God, the wisdom of God, and all the rest, we have many songs in our song books.
But we do not sing “Oh, the Wonderful Wrath of God” or “We Rejoice in the Deep Wrath of God.” What the young student told me was true. Nor, if we think about it, do we even hear many sermons on the wrath of God.
The Wrath of God as an Attribute
God’s wrath is not a comfortable subject for us. We do not understand it fully and even somehow feel that it is below the dignity of God. We may even find ourselves embarrassed by the subject. It is much easier to talk about God’s power and his love. These, we think, are themes that fit the dignity of God.
Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact of the wrath of God. We find it repeatedly throughout the Bible as part of his character. Nor, if we think about it a little, should we be surprised by it. If we accept the great depth of the love of God for all that is good and just, then we must understand his opposition to all that is contrary to what is good.
Can there be true righteousness without a corresponding wrath against that which opposes that righteousness?
The God of the Old Testament and the New
We commonly think of the wrath of God in connection with the God of the Old Testament, as if he were different than the God of the New Testament. It is true that it is in the Old Testament that we see his wrath most clearly, as in Exodus 32:9-10:
And the LORD said unto Moses, “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them.” (KJV)
However, this attribute of God is also evident in the New Testament: John the Baptist’s message was largely one of the coming wrath of God if the people did not respond to the grace offered.
John the Apostle wrote, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36 NAS).
The Apostle Paul also speaks on this theme:
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:17-18 NAS)
Wrath of God for Christians?
In the verses above we learn that it is all that is unrighteousness that incites God’s wrath. Nevertheless, as Christians, we have the assurance that we will not know the wrath of God, even though we deserve his wrath as much as anyone. Paul explained this further to the church in Thessalonica: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9 NAS).
Even though we have been saved from the wrath of God, this does not mean that our own evil deeds and rebellion have not been the object of his wrath. Rebellion is an act against God. It is an evil, and as an evil, it is contrary to all that is good. It is because of this that our own evils must also face God’s wrath.
Then why does Paul say that God has not destined the Christian for wrath?
It is because we obtained salvation through Christ. It was God the Son who took the wrath of God the Father upon himself to give us salvation. It is the amazing truth of the Gospel that God spent his wrath upon himself! He suffered his own wrath so that he could give us grace!
“This is love,” John tells us, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice (hilasmos: propitiation) for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV).
Using the Wrath of God as a Truncheon
We as Christians have been assured by God that we will not know his wrath because of what Christ did for us. But does all this mean that the wrath of God is a moot point for the believer? Is our only interest in God’s wrath as to how it applies to all who reject his salvation?
The few sermons that I have heard on the subject of the wrath of God generally dwell on the theme of God’s wrath as an attempt to help the unsaved understand their need for God’s salvation. The subject of the wrath of God is used as a club, of sorts—something to frighten people into changing their lives.
I actually agree that this is a legitimate concern. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the writer of Hebrews tells us (10:31).
However, this is not the only concern that a Christian should have with the wrath of God. I think that we must be careful in saying that we can find no teaching at all that also applies to ourselves as Christians as we consider the wrath of God.
The Wrath of God Because of the Profaning of His Temple
In our reference in Exodus, we see God about to pour his wrath out against the Hebrew people. Why was he so angry? What had happened within the nation of Israel that was so grave that God was at the point of destroying them?
Part of the grievousness of their sin was that the children of Israel were forging a golden calf to worship as an idol at the very time that God was with Moses on the mountain and was imparting to Moses his vision and plans for his people. At the very time that God was laying the groundwork for blessing his people, they were rebelling against him.
It was not only this single act of idolatry that had kindled the wrath of God, however. This proclivity to idolatry was endemic among them. It was the general attitude of the Israelites.
“I have seen this people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and behold, they are an obstinate people” (Exodus 32:9 NAS).
But it was at this point of the golden calf that God threw up his hands. He had had enough! God’s anger became sufficiently great that he told Moses that he wanted to destroy the people.
Why Get So Mad Over a Statue of a Calf?
We can only begin to understand God’s great disappointment over this incident when we realize that at the very moment when the Israelites were reveling in idolatry, God was giving Moses directions for the construction of the tabernacle, and it was the tabernacle that was to be the indicator of God’s presence with his people.
Because of God’s great love for his people, he desired that they would know that he dwelt with them. The tabernacle was to be a place of lodging where it could be said that God dwelt. This has always been God’s desire:
I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God.
They shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God. (Exodus 29:45-46 NAS)
It is important to see this connection between God’s desire to dwell among the people and his people violating this relationship. This situation of unfaithfulness is one that may bring God’s wrath.
The Wrath of God Expressed in the New Testament
In the New Testament, we read in several passages about the wrath of God. It is true that the manifestations of this wrath are not as evident as it is in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, neither is God’s wrath completely absent in the New.
One of the places where we see a measure of the wrath of God is in the reaction of Jesus when he entered the temple of Jerusalem and saw the atmosphere within. Instead of the prayer and dignity that would have been befitting of a temple area, there was shouting and haggling. Instead of the presence of God, there were profiteers who lived by taking advantage of pilgrims who were at their mercy.
Anyone who has ever been shoved around and jostled in an open market in a country of the east may have a bit of an idea what Jesus encountered that day in the temple. The noise of the customers haggling with the merchants over the price that they were demanding for a sacrificial animal, along with the other merchants yelling out their offers would drown out any thoughts of quiet meditation. All of the pushing and elbowing of the crowd completely prevented any thoughts of solitude with God.
Jesus, with a violence seldom seen in his personality, fashioned a whip and began to drive out the moneychangers. He overturned their tables and scattered their ill-gotten coins on the floor. The animals that were for sale for the purpose of temple sacrifices ran from before him.
In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables.
To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:14-17 NIV)
What had happened to the people in the temple that had so provoked the fury and the wrath of Jesus? It was because the people had taken what was holy to God, that is, his presence with his people, and they had profaned it.
It was not that the temple as a building was holy unto itself, but it was because it represented the presence of God among his people. By using it as a marketplace, it was just as their ancestors had done almost twenty-five hundred years earlier at Mount Sinai. They spurned the presence of God in favor of their own self-interests and gratification.
The Wrath of God in Profaning Ourselves
God still desires to dwell among us. Today there is no special structure called a tabernacle or temple where he dwells so he can live among us. We have our church buildings, but these are not really God’s dwelling place. Our church buildings are simply places where we as Christians gather to worship.
Where then, does God dwell? The Apostle Paul tells us in a very amazing revelation that God still dwells with his people with an intimacy the Old Testament saints never could experience.
“Do you not know,” Paul says, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NAS).
The fact that God dwells as Spirit within the very bodies of believers is so marvelous that we tend to dismiss it—just because we cannot understand it.
Yet it is true, and concerning this, Paul quotes God from the Old Testament to show that God’s purpose in maintaining the holiness of his dwelling has not changed:
Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16 NAS)
Knowing, as we do, that the wrath of God is exercised against profaning of his holy presence with us, Paul admonishes the Christians at Corinth to not take lightly the presence of the Holy God within them.
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body…. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:13-20 NAS)
Is the Subject of God’s Wrath Only Applicable for Unbelievers?
It is true that the wrath of God is only reserved for the children of disobedience. As Paul states it in Ephesians 5:6: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (NAS).
Although Paul is speaking of the sons of disobedience, it is to believers that he is writing. It is his letter to the church at Ephesus. He writes to them:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:1-5 NAS).
Paul speaks of those to whom he is writing. Although most or even all of his readers are believers, he still is speaking of the wrath of God. In writing what he does, Paul is contrasting their former manner of living with their new lives in Christ. As he warns them about the dangers of disobedience, in the same breath admonishes them to walk above that old way of life. “Walk as children of light,” he tells the people.
He writes much the same thing to another church. This one in the city of Colossae:
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry, for it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience. (Colossians 3:5-6 NAS)
Why Would We Want to Profane the Holy?
Paul would put this same question to us; why would we want to be involved in activities that bring about the wrath of God?
We should think carefully on the wrath of God. It should not be our attitude as believers that the wrath of God somehow has absolutely no bearing upon us since we are not destined for God’s eternal wrath. Knowing God’s great opposition to all that is evil will keep us from finding ourselves participating in these deeds.
If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4 NAS)