3. The Wrath of God: Good or Bad?
To better apply the concepts of judgment, it is useful to consider a more recent example. While the incident over Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1) provides a New Testament example of visible judgment, it is perhaps more useful to consider an example where the judgment is deferred.
Eating and Drinking Judgment
Paul's record of the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11 is often quoted regarding the symbols of Jesus' body and blood, but it also contains words of judgment. While addressing the topic of the divisions among the Corinthians, Paul recounts the supper,
1 Cor 11:23.: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24. and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me. NASB
At this point, Jesus was directing his disciples to remember him through re-enacting this last meal before his death. The believers in Corinth were indeed following the example, but not all of them were doing it with the correct attitude. The passage goes on to reveal the seriousness of the act,
1 Cor 11:26.: For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. 27. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. NKJV
Paul introduced here the concept of eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner”. The result of doing this was to be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. The following verses clarify the warning,
1 Cor 11:28.: But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. NKJV
We see that self-examination is necessary in order to avoid being in danger of judgment. It is interesting here to consider the form of judgment that is being spoken about. The following verse hints at some of the consequences,
1 Cor 11:30.: For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. NKJV
The implication, however, is that the judgment was not directly visible and associated with the lack of self-examination. Compare this with the judgment on the captains of fifty who approached Elijah. In that case, they were consumed by fire from heaven. Consider the situation if there were a similar punishment for those who ate and drank in an unworthy way. Instead of being manifest in sickness and future judgment, a person would start to drink, and immediately a pillar of fire could descend and consume that person.
Would this alternate scenario change the tone of the gathering? Undoubtedly the remaining people would seriously take to heart the urge of Paul to examine themselves. This was precisely how the third captain of fifty learnt. Even if it were possible to shrug off the first incident, by the second or third the warning would be taken. The promise of future judgment simply does not carry the same emphasis as the immediate and visible.
Perhaps immediate judgment would be good thing. Surely it would prevent the wicked people from exerting an influence. If the wicked people were consumed with fire, not only would there be much fewer of them, but they would have much less influence. It's hard to gain respect and followers when you are visibly disciplined by a higher power. King David spoke words to this effect while he was being pursued by Saul. Many of the Psalms deal with the prosperity of the wicked,
Psa 59:1.: Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; Defend me from those who rise up against me. 2. Deliver me from the workers of iniquity, And save me from bloodthirsty men. ... 13. Consume them in wrath, consume them, That they may not be; And let them know that God rules in Jacob To the ends of the earth. Selah NKJV
Here David was requesting that these persecutors should be consumed. It is a common sentiment among the righteous that the workers of iniquity be punished. It is perhaps curious then, that when David was given the opportunity to execute “justice” on Saul, he did not take it. There is obviously another factor involved that determines God's policy.
By continuing the Corinthians passage, another aspect is exposed. To this point, judgment has been considered purely as a punishment, but it does have additional purpose,
1 Cor 11:31.: But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. NASB
So in this case, judgment was applied for discipline, to prevent a final condemnation. This is consistent with the third captain of fifty. His respect had been learned through judgment. In a similar manner, the believers of Jesus are judged to be disciplined. This is reinforced in Hebrews,
Heb 12:6.: For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. NASB
This shows that the believers enjoy the love of God through his discipline. The very necessity for the discipline is brought out in Romans, where we see that everyone is a sinner,
Rom 3:10.: As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; 11. There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12. They have all turned aside; ... 23. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, NKJV
This shows that if there were instant, visible judgment and if the wicked did not prosper, we would all be in a poor state. It is only through the mercy and longsuffering of God that we have the opportunity to come to repentance. We are lucky then, that we do not see the type of judgment displayed on Ahaziah's men.
The above passages raise a number of related but conflicting issues. Firstly, the decisive action against the companies of Ahaziah indicates that immediate, visible judgment is a great aid in discipline. Hebrews shows that God does indeed discipline those people that he loves. In the end, however, it is not even in the interests of the righteous that God sends fire down from heaven to destroy the wicked. This is because, as we see in Romans, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
If the hand of God is not visible in direct punishment, a valuable source of warning is missing. So because of our own sinful state, we are blessed and cursed by God's withholding of judgment. The blessing is that we are given the chance of life. The curse is that we have to live among the wicked and be exposed to their example. There is, however, a consolation. Even when punishment for wickedness is not visible in the present, there are examples in history that we can look to. In Corinthians, Paul considers the fate of the ancient nation of Israel,
1 Cor 10:1.: Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, ... 5. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." NKJV
Of those Israelites that escaped from Egypt through the miracles of God, almost all died in the wilderness. The reason that they died was that they lusted and worshipped idols. The criticism had been that they “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play”. This form of idolatry is just as evident today as it was then, so it is well spoken that we take this as an example.
The third captain of fifty had an example. The example he had was the death of the two previous captains of fifty. We too have examples. We have the Israelites, we have Ahaziah, we have Ananias and Sapphira, and many others in the scriptures. But then the first captain of fifty also had examples, but they were too remote for him to take notice of them. We can also let these examples be remote, but in doing so we risk judgment on ourselves. Ultimately, we will learn from judgment, but we have the choice, it can be the judgment that was directed on someone else, or it will be directed on us.
1 John 5:21.: Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen. NKJV