Title: Looking at Preaching Afresh
Part 3: Preaching on Judgment
In this page we start dealing with subjects that cause contention in preaching, things to which the wise preacher will give some serious thought, subjects that can become a minefield for the unwary. We start by considering whether it is wise to speak about things that happen in life that some might declare to be 'the judgment of God'.
Here is an area of preaching where it seems preachers, even those who would pride themselves on being Biblical preachers, seem to slide into a morass of speculation that is based on any thing but the words before them. For instance I have heard, preachers going off on such tangents from the text into speculative pronouncements that the word of God was actually lost in it all, which is tragic.
What can so often happen is that, instead of expounding Scriptures the preacher spends the next half hour giving a variety of what are often questionable examples of historical and modern disasters that he attributes to God. This usually comes about because the preacher has not read and understood sufficient Scripture so that he fails to understand the different ways God works, that God gives warnings, and it is foolish to step out with pronouncements in the absence of divine revelation, i.e. that given to prophets. Indeed such a preacher reveals that he has an uncaring and unfeeling heart, for the Bible clearly reveals a completely different response that comes from godly hearts. For these reasons we need to give careful consideration to this particular facet of preaching.
2. Understand God's Methods of Judgment
It is important to understand, before we go on to some of the other key issues, just how God is seen as working in Scripture, when it comes to bringing correction. May I make some suggestions about judgment as seen in Scripture:
Distinguish between Judgment and Discipline:
Discipline, I suggest, is that act of God that is brought to bring about change of heart and attitude and subsequently behaviour, in those who will receive it. It brings about a change in people.
Judgment, I suggest, is that act of God that brings an end to a person or people, where God sees they will not heed and repent. (see, for example, Ex 6:6, Acts 12:23, and generally the Law in Deut 28:20-)
Both are clearly visible in both Old and New Testaments. The key distinction between the two things, is the intended outcome by God, and only He knows what He can achieve by different actions.
2b Judgments AND Discipline
We also need to see (as is shown in Paul's words in 1 Cor 11:30-32) that judgment, rather than a quick single act, can be a process (e.g. illness) which if not heeded will result in death, but can also be seen as discipline where the person responds and repents and is healed. Hezekiah's illness is a classic example of this – Isa 38:1-5
In respect of the people of Israel, God's acts of judgment came on the people from time to time and men and women were killed, but that was also, in respect of the nation as a whole, an act of discipline to turn the nation back to Him. In such cases, if they repented, then there was always a way back, even though judgment had started (see Jehoshaphat's words in 2 Chron 20:9 reflecting Solomon's words at the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8)
2c. God's Methods
Again I would suggest that there are two ways that God brings discipline or judgment and it applies in both cases.
i) Divine Acts
The first way, which is the more dramatic, is that God brings an act of destruction or discipline upon a person or people. Acts of destruction may be by illness or disease, by famine or pestilence, by war or destruction, or through ‘natural' catastrophes. Attributing destructive acts to God is unwise in the absence of clear Scriptural statement and prophetic application. (We will expand on this below)
In the cases of discipline rather than judgment, the destruction is only partial and enables the receiver to repent before it is too late.
ii) Divine Releasing
The second way, and this is very important to understand, is the way Paul spoke about in Romans 1 and seen so clearly in the book of Judges, is that the Lord lifts off His hand of restraint or protection and thereby allows the folly and sin of mankind to rise up in ever increasing acts of unrestrained folly or of wickedness against itself or against the person or people being chastised, i.e. He releases people to do what their sinful hearts desire, removing His hand of restraint from them. Observe:
Rom 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts
Rom 1:26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.
Rom 1:28 he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
It is clear from the context that God ‘stepped back' and released or let sinful man free to do worse and worse, and the consequences become worse and worse. The divine intention is to bring man to realise his folly and repent. If he refuses to repent, then destruction eventually follows.
This same way of working is indicated in Paul's instructions to the Corinthian church in respect of disciplining the man in a wrong relationship:
1 Cor 5:5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
I would suggest that this same lifting off of the hand of divine protection is what happened to bring about judgment on Joash (see 2 Chron 24:24,25). It is clearly the pattern or cycle that occurs again and again in the book of judges. For example:
Judges 3:12-15 Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and because they did this evil the LORD gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms.The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years. Again the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he gave them a deliverer--Ehud
Judges 6:1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites
Observing the direction of the nations of the West today and the consequences that are following, it doesn't require much understanding to suggest that undoubtedly the West is under this form of God's judgment today.
We should, before we leave this section, remind ourselves that as Christians we have the confidence that:
Rom 8:28 in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose
Jeremiah is a picture of the man of God being carried away in the midst of general judgment on Israel, yet a careful reading of his story shows very clearly that the Lord was with him right to the end, i.e. even in the midst of it! That also is our confidence. The darker the world becomes with the increasing folly of sinful mankind, the brighter the Church should be able to be.
3. Failing to Understand God's Warnings
A case can be made from Scripture to suggest that wherever judgment is brought (i.e. destruction) it either comes to a people who are warned (e.g. Pharaoh in Exodus) or people who clearly should have known (e.g. Herod in Acts 12).
Examples of this abound in the Old Testament. In the case of the folly with the Golden Calf at Sinai, and the judgments that followed, there was no way that Israel could say that they had not been warned (see Ex 19 and 20:18-20)
When judgments fell on Israel in the wilderness, again there was no question of them not knowing beforehand who was with them and His requirements of them and the consequences that would follow their sins.
In the famous case that followed, of Israel ousting the inhabitants of Canaan, with the destruction that fell on them when they resisted, it is very clear, in respect of those inhabitants, that:
With subsequent occasions when the Lord intervened on behalf of Israel against enemies with judgments that followed, because of all that had happened to Israel, it was virtually certain that those nations knew all about the fact that Israel had a powerful God – see for example the Philistines' reaction seen in 1 Sam 4:6-9. In that instance, because the Lord had stepped back from Israel, it left the Philistines (without them realising it) feeling more bold and they triumphed over Israel – God's judgment and discipline.
Outside of the book of Revelation, in the New Testament we have cited one of the rare instances of a judgment – that of Herod in Acts 12. He should have realised by all that was going on in the Church that God was clearly with them and therefore he could not claim ignorance.
Intriguingly Jesus never brought judgment down on unbelievers and berated James and John when they wanted to (Lk 9:54,55). All he ever did curse was a fig tree – Lk 11:13,14,20 (We will consider more in Section 5)
4. Failing by Wrong Selective Assessments
The biggest danger, when preachers choose particular disasters and particular people to flavour their sermons, is exposed when we ask the questions, why only these things and why only these people? We are quicker to lay guilt, blame etc. on people than Jesus is.
We have noted already Jesus' rebuking James and John for their desire to call down blame and fire on those who didn't seem to respond as they thought right. Another instance of the disciples' poor spirit it that revealed at the sight of the man blind from birth:
Jn 9:1-3 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
Our theology, like theirs, is so often nearer that of Job's comforters who sought to attribute blame to him because of what had happened. When we see something that has gone wrong we so often try to attach an ethical dimension to it, not realizing that just living in a fallen world where things now naturally go wrong, means we don't have to be guilty of a major sin when some such wrong occurs in our life.
However the biggest nail in the coffin of the preacher's sermon comes from Jesus' specific teaching:
Luke 13:1-5 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem ? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
This teaching specifically denounces this way of thinking that so many have that wishes to attach guilt and blame to misfortunes. In so doing we ignore the sins of many others. When we focus on one misfortune and one group of people, we then miss all the other sinful people of the world.
A much more plausible reason for natural catastrophes is that ever since the creation of a perfect world, the effects of Sin, and the presence of Satan and powers and principalities, have meant upheaval in the creation. If the last times ARE more godless days as scripture clearly suggests, then it is not surprising that the activities of the enemy are empowered by that sin and such things become more regular. In totally secular terms, if we are witnessing global warming and the consequent effects causing almost ‘regular' extremes of weather, then that too can be attributed to man's wrong use of the world, and from our perspective this operates as the second of God's two forms of judgment.
5. Failing by Wrong Era & Wrong Ministry
When we move from the Old Testament to the New, there is a significant differences;
With the exception of the Book of Revelation, there are no prophecies in the New about nations.
The nearest we have to prophecy wider than personal, are Jesus words in respect of the destruction of the Temple (Mt 24:2) and the towns that refused to believe him (Mt 11:20-24). These references were more about not trusting in wrong things and refusing to believe, that specific prophecies declaring judgment.
God's word to the church and the world is essentially different:
The only instance of a prophet (and note it is a prophet and not a teacher) bringing a word of warning of what might be considered judgment, was that of Agabus prophesying a famine coming (Acts 11:27-30). However when we read the limited details there is no indication of it being brought as a word of warning to the world, but more a warning so that the church could take remedial action and provide for those who had little.
In New Testament, preaching using ‘judgment warning' type of preaching is always in respect of the sinner having to eventually face and be accountable to God in eternity. That school of thinking that seeks to identify individual catastrophes as acts of God's judgment, go way beyond anything found in the new Testament.
Even in the notorious case of Ananias and Sapphira, although some might view their deaths as judgments, there is no hint of that sort of language in the account surrounding them.
The call in the New Testament is not to preach judgment but to preach that the “ kingdom of God is at hand” and that is “Good News” (Mt 4:23, Mk 1:14,15. Lk 4:17-21). As much as we may be tempted to try to see God's sovereign activities in the disasters of the world, unless we have the accredited ministry of a prophet of a fairly unique standing, we would do well to keep away from providing what is only further contentious fuel for the world to reject.
The call in the New Testament is to believe in Jesus and follow him. Often in the process of that coming about, personal failure or weakness are contributing factors in bringing that about, but rarely are people moved to commitment by observing the disasters of the world as God's judgment on them. Such disasters are, as we noted previously, acts of a fallen world, and are opportunities, again as we saw previously, for the church to shine and bring the love and help of Jesus to suffering people.
6. Failing by Wrong Hearts
Whatever our stance on man's sin and God's judgment, one thing is clear: the man with a heart after Jesus does not relish the thoughts of such destruction coming. Perhaps we need to take some lessons from the world of God through the prophets:
Ezek 18:23 Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
And if we didn't catch it the first time,
Ezek 18:31,32 Why will you die, O house of Israel ? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone , declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!
David was described as a man after God's own heart. See his reaction when Saul and Jonathan are both killed in battle in what must have been a judgment on Saul:
Sam 1:19 " Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights. How the mighty have fallen!
It was not a great thing for Israel that Saul has failed to live up to the potential of his role as king and has now fallen before an enemy of Israel . David mourned.
If our society is sinful and godless, part of its blame lies with us who have failed to be a light to the nations. We the church have failed God's world and are far from what He desires us to be. It leaves us no room to rejoice over the fall of sinful men. How much better if they had repented and turned as they saw the light and love of God in us, His love and goodness and revelation and power displayed through us.
The prophet Micah is a demonstration of one who knew the heart of God, knew that God was having to come with judgment upon the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, and his reaction was not to rejoice over the downfall of those who should have known better, but to mourn for what was happening:
Mic 1:8,9 Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl. For her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah . It has reached the very gate of my people, even to Jerusalem itself.
The writer of Lamentations had the same sort of lament:
Lam 3:33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.
When Moses was tested by the Lord over the matter of the Golden Calf, the Lord offered to destroy Israel and start again with him:
Yet Moses was more concerned for the name of the Lord:
Ex 32:11,12 “But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. "O LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.”
May we have such a similar concern that will wipe away thought of vengeance on the ungodly! God may decree it, but it is not for us to rejoice in it, or even talk of it casually. If judgment comes, it is because we have failed. Yes, it is because of the hard hearted sin of mankind but until we have warned ‘Pharaoh' as many times as Moses did, may we not be so quick to rejoice over their downfall as some are.
7. And So….
Let's summarise what we have noted: