When John the Baptist said this to the Pharisees and Sadducees, what did he mean (see Luke 3:7-8)? What is the coming wrath? And is this something we should be concerned about?
Some commentators say John was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. The venerable Victorian Adam Clarke says the coming wrath refers to “the desolation which was about to fall on the Jewish nation for their wickedness.” But this doesn’t square with what Paul said to Gentile Christians:
They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thess 1:9-10)
The Thessalonians didn’t need rescuing from the Roman armies besieging Jerusalem. So the coming wrath has nothing to do with the destruction of the Jewish capital.
Others say the coming wrath is a reference to the great tribulation. “It’s all in Daniel somewhere. Don’t ask me where. I heard someone preach on it once. I think it has to do with bar codes and guillotines.”
Tell you what. Why don’t we stick with John the Baptist, since he’s the one who brought up the subject? John described the coming wrath as:
- something that would make snakes flee (Matt 3:7)
- Christ with a winnowing fork burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:12)
- fruitless trees being cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9)
Snakes and fire – that’s the common thread. That might remind you of something Jesus said to the Pharisees:
Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:32-33)
Snakes are afraid of fire. But here’s the good news: You are not a snake! Those in Christ need not fear the coming wrath.
Why do you need to know about wrath?
Why am I telling you this? Two reasons. One, hardly anyone teaches on the wrath of God anymore. Two, in the absence of good teaching, bad teaching has emerged to fill the void. Let me give you some examples:
- God is judging American for her sins; so put on sackcloth and ashes and get busy repenting
- natural disasters are the wrath of God in action; turn or burn baby
- there is no coming wrath – it came already when God destroyed Jerusalem; so no need to do anything
- there is lots of wrath coming – at least three and a half years’ worth; be scared, be very scared!
None of these thoughts corresponds with what Jesus, John, or Paul said about the coming wrath. So what do you need to know about the wrath to come? At least three things:
- It’s coming
- It’s wrath
- For those who love life, it’s something to look forward to
Paul says in Romans 1:16-19 that everyone ultimately receives something from God – either we receive the free gift of his righteousness or we get the unwanted gift of his wrath. We receive righteousness by receiving the goodness of God revealed in Jesus. We get wrath by hardening our hearts, thrusting away his free grace, and rejecting the Life that only he offers.
Now here’s the important bit – God has no interest in pouring out wrath on people, not even the worst, most diabolical sinner. Indeed, God loves everyone more than he loves his own life (Rom 5:8).
But at some point God must react to ungodliness with wrath, or he isn’t God. At some point God must confront all the evils of this world – the violence taking place in Sudan, the sex-trafficking in Eastern Europe, the lunacy in North Korea – and say “Enough!” Light and darkness cannot coexist.
So wrath is coming – as Jesus, John, and Paul foretold. But wrath is not about God going all Rambo on the heads of bad people. Jesus died for bad people. Wrath is for those things which are opposed to God’s character. Wrath is for the chaff of demonic doctrines that deny Jesus. And wrath is for manmade traditions that deprive us of his grace.
So why should the Pharisees be scared? Not because God hates Pharisees! God loves Pharisees. But he surely hates their religious practice of prostituting his love. He hates their death-dealing religion that sees the poor oppressed and the widow kicked out of her home (Luke 20:47). He hates everything that hurts his kids.
What’s the takeaway?
I guess you could say we have two choices. We can be like Saul the Pharisee or Paul the Pharisee.
Saul the Pharisee went around clobbering people in the name of religion and Jesus took it personally. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul picked a fight with the Author of Life and this is never a smart move. Resist life and you end up dead. But Paul, the born-again Pharisee, went around telling people the good news of God’s grace, which is this…
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:9)
God is not in the condemning business. He’s in the saving business. He’s in the business of turning murderous Sauls into life-saving Pauls. Selah!
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Rom 5:9)
You thought we were saved from sin but Paul says we are saved from wrath. (Remember, this is not God’s wrath towards sinners, but his wrath towards ungodliness and unrighteousness and those things which keep us from him.) You’ve not only been delivered from cancer of sin, you’ve also been spared from chemotherapy of wrath.
What is the coming wrath?
The coming wrath is bad news for everything that stands in the way of God’s good plans for us. The coming wrath is the end of all that hurts us. It’s the end of tears and trafficking. It’s the end of ethnic violence and slavery. It’s the end of mental illness and brokenness and dead religion and thuggery and injustice in all it’s twisted forms.
Wrath is God cleansing the universe and removing all that is contrary to his good nature. Wrath is God making things right. Wrath is God saying “Yes!” to his kids and “No!” to those things that cause us to stumble.
You could say that everyone has a date with wrath. For Saul the Pharisee, that date was in the future. By clinging to the anchor of hate-fueled religion, Saul was going down. He was on the road to ruin and a highway to hell (whatever that is). But for Paul the born-again believer, that date was in the past, as it is for all who trust in Christ.
This is why you have nothing to fear from the coming wrath. “The chastisement of our peace was upon him” (Is 53:5). On the cross, God’s wrath against sin was fully satisfied. In Christ, you are unpunishable and eternally secure.