Does God still send judgment on sin? We are looking at the story of the exile of the Israelites taken away from Jerusalem to Babylon. Next week we will be considering ways in which the story of the Exile serves as a warning to Christians and Churches. To even ask that question we need to be sure that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament – that God still acts the same today as he did more than two and a half thousand years ago.
When we see news from around the world sometimes Christians interpret events as signs of God’s judgment. Do you remember the stories of the devastating earthquake in Haiti back in 2010. 200,000 people dead or lost – twice the population of Chelmsford. One sixth of the population of Haiti lost their homes – one and a half million people made homeless! Devastation on a scale we cannot imagine. And over the chaos and suffering came the voice of very influential American tele-evangelist Pat Robertson. He suggested that Haiti has been cursed ever since its population swore a pact with the devil to gain their freedom from the French at the beginning of the 19th century. Other prominent preachers looked at the Haiti of today where voodoo is practiced by half the population and suggested that the earthquake is an act of God’s judgment on the islanders’ occult practices. So the question is, does God still send judgment on sinners today, either through natural disasters or through the actions of men and nations?
After the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York on the 11th of September 2001 many Christians interpreted those events not only as acts of extremists but also as evidence of God’s judgment on America’s materialistic greed, arrogance or spiritual complacency. Many including Pat Robertson saw Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans in 2005 or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean 2004 in a similar light. Some Christians have been saying that the economic collapse and the credit crunch are evidence of God’s anger at the greed and materialism of the global North. Much less devastating but an example of the same question, do you remember what happened back in 1985 at the very moment when the highly controversial and some would say heretical David Jenkins was consecrated as Bishop of Durham. York Minster was struck by lightning and caught fire. Some saw that as God’s judgment on the man described at the time as “the bishop who doesn’t believe in God”.
Was that really a sign of God’s judgment? Does God still send judgment today?
Be clear that I am NOT going to consider this evening the more general question of suffering – why doesn’t God prevent natural disasters like the events in Haiti or New Orleans or terrorist attacks such as we have seen in Nairobi recently? The question tonight is much more specific and more pointed. It is not about whether God ALLOWS catastrophes and disasters but whether God ever PURPOSES such events. Are natural disasters or wars or invasions in today’s world ever expressions of God’s judgment on sin and on sinners? I have an answer – but you aren’t going to like it!
As we begin to think about the events of the Exile, the first thing to say is that human suffering is always tragic and terrible and regrettable. Terrible things happened in Haiti after the earthquake and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and after even in New York after the twin towers attack. And the suffering of God’s people we will read about in the Old Testament as the Babylonians overran Jerusalem were on the same scale. We sum up decades of suffering in the easy phrase “the Exile”. In fact I think it is very important that we understand just how terrible the events of the exile were.
Jeremiah 52 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for eleven years. … 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done. 3 It was because of the LORD’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence.
Now Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.
4 So in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They camped outside the city and built siege works all around it. 5 The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.
6 By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat. 7 Then the city wall was broken through, and the whole army fled. ….. 10 the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah. 11 Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death. …
13 He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. ….. 15 He carried into exile some of the poorest people and those who remained in the city, along with the rest of the craftsmen and those who had gone over to the king of Babylon.
So Judah went into captivity, away from her land.
The events of the exile were indeed terrible.
The second thing to say is that the Exile was not the only example of God sending judgment which we find in the Old Testament. Time and again the Bible speaks of a God who acts in judgment punishing sin and sinners. The flood was God’s act of judgment on the corruption and wickedness and pollution and violence of mankind at that time. God sent punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins. The Ten Plagues on Egypt were not so much events to make way for the Exodus of God’s people, but acts of judgment on the sins and the false gods of the Egyptians. The victories God gave to the Israelites wiping out the original inhabitants of Canaan were God’s acts of judgment on the evil practices of the Canaanites – including child sacrifices. And long before the Exile, even as they wandered in the wilderness, God brought punishment on his own chosen people Israel for their complaining and rebellion and lack of faith and worshipping false gods. The letter of Jude makes these things clear.
Jude 5 Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. 6 And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. 7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
So we can see that the events of the Exile were not a one-off. This was not some unique exception to the usual way God dealt with human beings. The God of the Old Testament is a Holy God and a God who sends judgment. And that Judgment fell on whole cities and nations and races. In one sense God’s judgment might have seemed to us indiscriminate – it fell on women and children and babies as well as those who were obviously more guilty of particular sins. The God we meet on page after page of the Old Testament is a God of judgment.
The third thing to say is that human suffering is not always an expression of God’s judgment or a punishment for specific sins. Most suffering is not an expression of specific judgment. We have thought about this before. People do get sick. Traffic accidents happen. None of us has divine protection for the evil actions of others. Most suffering is just a consequence of living in a fallen world where bad things happen even to good people.
Jesus made this clear when he talked about some Galileans who had been murdered by the Roman authorities, and others who had died in the collapse of a tower in Siloam.
LUKE 13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 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? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus makes absolutely clear: By no means all suffering is the consequence of sin or an act of God’s judgment!
Subsequence does not imply consequence. Coincidence does not imply Causality
Jesus teaches us that most examples of suffering in the world are not specific acts of judgment by the Holy God on sinners or the consequence of specific sins.
But the question remains – does God EVER punish sin in physical ways any more? Or now Jesus has died on the cross is all punishment now reserved for the afterlife and the fires of hell? Is the God of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament? Or were the people of Israel mistaken to understand historical events as punishment for sin in the first place?
Most of us are comfortable with the God of the New Testament. The God of Love. The God revealed in the Son Jesus Christ. Most of us are very uncomfortable with the God of the Old Testament, the Holy and Righteous God, the God of judgment to whom we all will have to give an account of our lives. The God who sent the flood on the polluted world and the ten plagues on Egypt and sent his chosen people into Exile for rebelling against him. But God is God and he does not change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
And although there are no examples of God acting in judgment on whole nations in the New Testament, there are at least two undisputed examples of God bringing judgment on specific individuals in obvious physical ways.
Ananias and Sapphira – two Christians in the early Church in Jerusalem who lied to the apostles about the amount of money they had received for selling a piece of land. Just a small lie you might think – but with terrible consequences.
Acts 5 3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? … You have not lied to men but to God.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9 Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
For Ananias and Sapphira, God’s punishment for sin was not reserved for the afterlife, but enacted here and now.
Christians in Corinth who were abusing the Lord’s Table
1 Corinthians 11:27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
It is not obvious what “eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” meant. But it is obvious that it was a sin which some of the Corinthians were committing and that God was punishing those Christians with weakness and sickness and even death.
And then there is this warning in Hebrews 12.
5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12 teaches us that God’s punishment and discipline sometimes comes on Christians in the form of suffering. We have no good reason to think that the God who definitely acted in judgment in the Old Testament and still in the New Testament in at least these three examples, has stopped doing so now.
But the last thing to say is that for all these examples from the Bible, God made very clear that the events were indeed his acts of judgment on specific sins.
The Flood – Genesis 6:11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.
Sodom and Gomorrah, Judgment on the Egyptians and on the original inhabitants of Canaan. Judgments on Israelites who rebelled against God in the wilderness. Each time God always made abundantly clear that the events were his acts of Judgment. And especially in the exile. God had warned his people time and again to turn away from idol worship and turn back to the Living God. But they refused to hear the warnings.
Last week – the words of the prophet to King Josiah in 2 Chronicles.
34:23 “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, 24 ‘This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people—all the curses written in the book that has been read in the presence of the king of Judah. 25 Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all that their hands have made, my anger will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched.’
The Book of Lamentations expresses the horrors of the Fall of Jerusalem and of the Exile, but recognizes the fact that God had revealed that this was all his acts of Judgment.
LAMENTATIONS 4:4 Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth;
the children beg for bread, but no-one gives it to them.
5 Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets.
Those nurtured in purple now lie on ash heaps.
6 The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her.
10 With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children,
who became their food when my people were destroyed.
11 The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger.
He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations….
13 But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed within her the blood of the righteous.
The God of the Old Testament is a God who brings judgment on sins and sinners. And there is no reason to believe that God has stopped sending judgment. But not all suffering or acts of war or natural disasters should be interpreted as acts of God’s judgment – absolutely not! When God DOES send judgment, he makes very clear that the event is an act His of judgment. So we can’t say for sure that any particular event is an expression of God’s judgment without a very clear revelation or prophecy. We can’t speak for sure about the earthquake in Haiti, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Twin Towers or even the lightning strike on York Minster.
But – does God still send judgment on sin and sinners? I do have an answer – but you aren’t going to like it. Because what the Bible tells us is, “Yes, he probably does.”