The most sobering reality in a fallen world is the judgment of God. Far from the simpering, therapeutic, effeminate God of contemporary American culture (and much of diseased modern evangelicalism), the God of Scripture is gloriously holy and just and insists upon punishing sin. He is also love and loveliness’s essence, and so offers a way out of the appointed judgment for all who will repent and trust the Savior. But for all who will not come to Him that they may have life (John 5:40), the Lord has only conscious hellfire forever.
It is helpful to distinguish between different aspects or applications of the wrath of God. Most obvious is His eternal wrath. This is His settled judgment and condemnation of the finally impenitent to eternal hell. It is very important to realize that it is God Himself who is Lord over hell—He sends sinners there, and Satan and his demons will be just as tormented and in anguish forever as their human subjects. Distinct but not ultimately separable from this is eschatological wrath—here, our Lord’s holiness expresses itself in a specific, earthly judgment against mankind’s sin in the final seven years of this age, the various acts of retribution (such as they will be) during the millennial empire, and culminating in the verdict given against the unrepentant in the final judgment of all humanity depicted in Revelation 20:11-15 (the verdict of acquittal for believers is spelled out in detail in Romans 2:1-16, among other places).
But a sometimes overlooked aspect of His wrath is His judgment of abandonment. Of course, all of the different aspects of wrath are simply different pieces of one whole, and as such they can bleed into one another. But His wrath of abandonment is essential to understanding the whole picture of His holiness.
The wrath of abandonment is when the Lord turns His back on a person or a people, handing them over to the consequences and power of their sin. When a people has repeatedly rejected His holiness and His gospel, the Lord removes His hand of protection and blessing and allows them to experience the consequences and enslaving power of their sinful choices. I believe this is clearly delineated in Romans 1:18-32. It’s noteworthy that the text describes this wrath as present (lit. “is continually revealed,” v. 18) and most interestingly is the wrath that in the context necessitates the total salvific deliverance of the gospel (note the “for” at the beginning of verse 18). I believe the paradigm of Romans 1 is God’s judgment en masse on a culture, not on specific individuals, and that this wrath is included from the wrath from which all Christians can be delivered in Romans 5:9.
Can Christians experience this wrath? I believe the correct answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that as chastisement God may allow a true Christian to experience the effects of their foolishness and sin for a time (after all, God did weaken and even kill Christians in Corinth and Thyatira—note that this is different from the “sin leading to death” in 1 John 5). He may also not spare from the unique challenges and trials that stem from living in an apostate culture under His judgment (though I do think He offers blessing and flourishing to those who walk faithfully with Him). But the answer is a firm no if we understand this abandonment to be in a full, complete, or eternally damning sense.
That background helps us segue into today’s text. The Jewish leadership is about to experience this unique wrath of our Lord. Having seen clear demonstrations of Christ’s deity and Messianic office, they have continually rejected Him. Christ’s response to them is a sobering warning for a culture and for individuals who refuse to embrace the light they have been given.
The text outlines two characteristics of those in danger of being abandoned by God.
A. Constant Rejection of the Exposed Truth of God (v. 10-11a)
This incident is a bit more fully paralleled in Matthew 15, and interestingly is conceptually and linguistically similar to our Lord’s words against the Pharisees about blaspheming the Spirit earlier in His ministry. (That is when He more fully explains what the “sign of Jonah” is, which is why He does not elaborate upon it here. See Luke 11:29-32.)
Having performed yet another stupendous miracle of grace and provision, but this time to needy, saved Gentiles, our Lord comes full circle back into the region of Galilee. Recall that He left some time before to minister to the Gentiles in and around the Decapolis, and found in them ready, responsive hearts that joyfully embraced Him and His message without manipulation, selfishness, or jaundice. (This is a picture of the millions of Gentiles who have been swept into the kingdom upon being offered covenant with God through Israel’s Messiah!) But He is back home now, and with that return comes the antagonism, anger, and judgmentalism of the religious leadership who embody the apostasy of many (though not all) in Israel.
The Pharisees typify the unbelief of many. It is a sobering reminder that only God can renew and soften the heart towards the Lord Jesus. Otherwise, nothing will be good enough. Remember, the Pharisees have seen many of Jesus’ miracles firsthand. We must not paint their rejection as some thoughtful quest for discernment and clarification, as through they wished to be sure Jesus really was the Messiah before embracing Him. I am sure Jesus would have commended such a commitment to the precise understanding of the OT. No, they read Jesus with jaundiced eyes. They put the worst possible interpretation on His every word and action. (Incidentally, how much this ought to convict us for how we often read and interpret people with whom we disagree!) They had already rejected Him because He did not fit their predetermined narrative, and so everything He did that actually demonstrated He was God and Messiah instead became reasons to reject Him!
“Came out” is the term used for a military battalion meeting an opposing army. They are warring against the King and His kingdom, and they come under great pretense.
We must recall the previous encounters our Lord has had with the Pharisees. He has typified them as men who are very religious but refuse to submit to the binding authority of the Word of God. They add to it. They devalue its authority, even in the theological and moral matters in which they claim to follow it closely. They are ultimately opposing the gospel of grace. Here is a somber warning for everyone who likes religion and knowledge—particularly very thorough orthodox knowledge—but does not submit to the Word of God: Such knowledge will only harden your heart towards God and His rule. You will have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5) because you do not believe the truth about God, His promises, His holiness, and His gospel. The more exposed you are to the truth without truly believing and obeying it, the more inoculated you will be against it.
But their rejection moved into an even more heinous expression, which we turn to below.
B. Continual Disguising of Rejection of Christ as Seeking Him (vv. 11b-13)
The Pharisees come to the Lord seeking a sign. Not all seekers are seekers! The Lord knew what was in man (John 2:24-25) because of His omniscience, but He also had prior human experience with the Pharisees, and He knew they were no sincere seekers after truth. They were manipulative, hypocritical, pretentious. The “sign” they ask for is some kind of apocalyptic, astronomical manifestation of power. Perhaps they want Him to make the sun stand still, or turn the moon to blood, or make the very stars hurtle to earth in fire and heat. But note: Their motive is “to test Him.” That word means they wish to try Him to reveal imperfections or impurities. They don’t really think He can do it…and, even if He does, they’ll likely just say He is in league with Satan.
The word “test” can also be translated “temptation,” and it’s not wrong to see an element of that here. Will Jesus succumb? Will He use His power to ingratiate Himself to the never-satisfied demands of unbelief?
Of course not.
Jesus is not an entertainer. His power is not to satisfy the curious nor to submit to the arbitrary, borderless, autonomous human standards of people already biased against the Word of God. They have seen Him raise the dead, cast out demons, multiply food, heal the incurable, and most importantly proclaim the Word of God. Moreover, they have the clear prophecies in the OT which Jesus fits perfectly. If they have all of that and reject Him, what more can He do?
Note how the rejection works: They come to Him pretending to be interested and seeking Him sincerely, but really have made up their minds and rejected Him outright. This is not merely unbelieving; it is heinous. It is the zenith of hypocrisy. Most rabid unbelievers don’t even do this. But when one is so hardened in unbelief that they think nothing of stooping to this level of coldhearted manipulation, there is little hope for them.
Our Lord sighs as He perceives their rejection. This is a deep, anguished, pained groan from the depths of His soul. These are men He created for His glory, men to whose father Abraham He gave stupendous promises to which they are heirs. They have thrown it all away by going ever deeper into the unbelief and satanic blindness that has strangled their souls.
In Matthew, Jesus adds that it is an adulterous and evil generation that seeks for signs in this way (16:4a). It is not believing or submissive to the Word written and incarnate. More, the only sign given to people like this is that of Jonah (v. 4b; cf. 12:38-42). The cross and empty grave stands as a warning to all the world of who Jesus is and the judgment He came to rescue us from—and that He is risen with power to reign and return to bring full redemption and execute judgment on all the impenitent.
What, then, will we do with that sign? For this is not theory, nor a dry historical examination of people long dead. The ugly hearts of the Pharisees have their seeds in every one of us, and not only do we look to the cross as our victory over them, but as the divine declaration of what is true about ourselves and the whole world. Wrath is coming. Redemption has been offered. The price has been paid. Will we repent of our own unbelief and ungodliness, or will we tell the One with nail-scarred hands that nothing He does is good enough for us?
One opens the door to redemption, restoration, and glorious life forever on a paradise earth. The other only ensures every step we take is one closer to Hell and the permanent rejection of the holy-loving God. May God give us grace to keep trusting in Him alone until the day we see Jesus Christ!