Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Judgment and Clarity

I know a man whose whole view of God was shaped by his religious family’s reaction to the death of his mother from cancer early in his childhood. When she became ill, various devout family members offered speculation and conjecture about what the poor woman had done to incur God’s ire.

Appalled at their rush to judgment, the boy rejected Christians and everything we believe. Today, he still gets worked up if God’s name is mentioned even in passing.

A right view of how and why God judges sin is necessary to a balanced view of God’s character. Scripture gives us plenty to wrap our heads around on the subject of divine judgment without us arbitrarily ascribing the various sorrows of life to his wrath, especially in the absence of hard evidence of any sort. I do not believe for a second that the Lord ever intended his people to be so superstitious, or so confused about when he is acting in judgment and when he is not.

A Vision of Mass Execution

If we want to think rightly about God’s wrath, we are best off to look closely at the situations in scripture where he is unequivocally acting in judgment, and where we know it to be so because God himself says it is so. For example, the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of mass execution so terrifying that he fell on his face and cried out in distress. That is how God’s judgment looks when glimpsed from the spirit world. God was going to mete out his wrath on an idolatrous and unrepentant nation through the agency of six angelic destroyers sent to the temple in Jerusalem to kill old men, young men and girls, little children and women. Indiscriminate judgment, we might think.

Well, no. Not exactly. Before unleashing his executioners, the Lord says this to a seventh supernatural messenger carrying a writing case: “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the mortals who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” Then, to the executioners, he adds this command: “Touch no one on whom is the mark.”

So then, not so indiscriminate after all. Notice that the standard to receive that invisible mark on the forehead was not beyond anyone’s reach, be they man, woman, senior or child. You didn’t have to risk your life to acquire it. You didn’t have to buy it with tithes. You didn’t have to shout your allegiance to YHWH from the rooftops. All you had to do to be set apart and preserved in the day of God’s judgment of Jerusalem was to define sin the way God defines it, and feel about it the way he does, deep in your heart where only God could see it.

God is acting here in accordance with a pattern he has firmly established in his word of never judging the righteous with the wicked, either in the book of Ezekiel or anywhere else. Not Noah and his family, not Lot and his.

What the Mark Was and Wasn’t

Now, having a mark on their foreheads didn’t mean righteous men and women got a lifetime pass on difficult circumstances, or that they were miraculously exempted from the privations normally experienced in a city under siege. Consider the case of righteous Jeremiah, who lived on a single loaf of bread a day until all the bread in Jerusalem had been consumed. Then, presumably, he was in the same position as everyone else. The mark on his forehead also didn’t preserve him from the consequences of the hatred and wrong judgments of his peers when he told them truths they didn’t want to hear. He was cast into a cistern full of mud and imprisoned there.

But what that invisible mark on Jeremiah’s forehead did mean was that Jeremiah would not fall under the judgment of God. Many died during and after the siege of Jerusalem, but Jeremiah was not among the dead. The angelic executioners would not and could not touch him.

At the end of this portion of Ezekiel’s vision, the man with the writing case returns and announces, “I have done as you commanded me.” Ezekiel is assured that the Lord’s instructions have been carried out to the letter. Every last person in Jerusalem who shares the Lord’s view of sin and grieves over the state of their nation has been marked out for divine preservation from God’s act of wrath. Truly, as Peter puts it, the Lord “knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment”.

Where Judgment Begins

Now, there are indeed occasions on which God acts in judgment on his own. They are rare, but they do occur. The thing about these events is that they are not easily confused with the everyday consequences of living in a fallen world. Why? Because it is not the Lord’s desire to destroy his people, but rather to mature and purify his church. The goal of judgment is repentance, first of the sinner, and if the sinner is too far gone, then the repentance of his enablers and would-be imitators. Through his acts of judgment the Head of the Church is sending a message, and what good is a message if it is not understood?

Consider the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira. No onlooker that day was in any doubt about what had happened. “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” Or contemplate the judgment of many in the church at Corinth, which involved sickness and death in the congregation. To ensure the message was unambiguous, and in order to give his people opportunity to repent, God sent them a letter from an apostle explaining exactly what was happening to them. The Christians in Corinth could refuse to believe it, of course, but they could not claim they hadn’t been told. Or consider “Jezebel”, in the church at Thyatira. When she and her followers experienced sickness and tribulation, they would have no doubt where it was coming from. John had formally announced it. And in the book of James, just in case any believer were to take sick and wonder if he was experiencing an act of judgment, the elders of the local church could be called to pray over him in order that there would be no doubt about whether the Head of the Church was sending him a message.

In short, in the church age, acts of divine judgment against believers are few and far between. But they are not intended to be mysterious and uninterpretable. If the Lord is still striking down some of his people from time to time in order to purify his church, rest assured he will not leave us wondering what’s happening.

A Mark on the Forehead

You and I cannot see a mark on the foreheads of our fellow believers, nor can they see one on ours. And perhaps this particular way of distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked was a one-time thing. But whenever God is going to act in judgment on an unbelieving world, he will make an equally clear distinction between those who are his and those who are not. He always does. He cannot do otherwise and remain himself.

And if God is going to act in judgment on specific believers, he will not leave his people in any doubt about it.

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