Justice—Don’t Forget the Vertical

Our struggles with each other blind us to the government above.

Our national conversation increasingly orbits around the subject of rights.  Consider a quick list of the major groups today—immigration rights, climate justice, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the LGBT Coalition, elderly rights, veterans rights, children’s rights, feminist movements, to name a few. Whatever else they’ve become, and whatever else they’re trying to do, at their core, all of these groups claim a concern for justice. 

Justice is also a valid Christian concern. Our God is righteous.  Therefore, we should do what is right toward other people, and seek their well-being as far as conscience and Scripture will allow (Between these two we should be able to do quite a bit).  

However, the conflict surrounding justice  issues may have little or nothing to do with God.  We’re obsessed with justice on the horizontal, that is, between groups, and special interests, and typically those interests collide.  We end up jockeying to assert our will over one another, but in the midst of it all, we have almost no awareness there is a vertical aspect to righteousness—not only humanity toward humanity, but humanity toward God.  Ironically, if God is brought up, we also quickly assign Him to a group (religious rights).  

We’re like kids, squirting one another with water pistols, trying to blast one another into submission.  But suspended overhead, like at a water park, is a giant bucket filling up with water.  Every so often it tips, turns upside down, and pours hundreds of gallons upon those underneath it.      

In essence, this is what we’re seeing in Revelation 16—a wrathful righteousness poured down.  It crashes down upon sinners who are so obsessed with battles between themselves that they have routinely ignored the government above them.    

God’s outpoured wrath says something about Him—that He is righteous, just, true, and holy; your response to it says something about you.  

First of all, those who recognize the Lordship of Christ, praise God’s justice. 

1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”

The grapes of wrath were crushed in chapter 14, the resulting vintage went into bowls in chapter 15, and now it will be poured out here in chapter 16.  

2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. 3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. 4 The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments.  6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!”  

Notice the angel’s attitude—not one of lamenting the unfairness of the judgments, but a celebratory praise.  God’s justice and holiness are on display when He pours out His wrath. Similarly, the souls underneath the altar, those who had been slain for the Word of God and their testimony (c.f. Rev. 6:9), are in awe of God’s ability to render exact justice.  It is the truest judgment they have ever seen, and thus changes them from grieving martyrs into celebrants–souls lit up by the sight of God’s manifest character.      

In contrast, think of the small claims court dramas you’ve seen on television (Like The People’s Court).  The winner emerges, gloating over how “Justice was done today!” But that guy isn’t celebrating justice. He couldn’t care less about justice in its purest form.  He’s crowing about how he won.

In Luke chapter 12 a man ran up to Jesus, and said, “Teacher tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Apparently their father had died, and the elder brother was holding on to the inheritance and not distributing it to the other kids.  It was just another of a billion disputes that occur on our planet every day. This guy was trying to get Jesus involved in his small claims court case. But Jesus said, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And then Jesus went on to teach about greed.

In other words, He saw right through what was going on.  Though the situation between the brothers looked like a justice issue, it was more a matter of two greedy guys struggling against one another to get their way. No matter the outcome, greed would be the winner. Jesus didn’t come to establish that kind of justice.     

Real Justice is not about how well we are able to game the system, or smother the competition.  According to Psalm 9, when the Lord executes judgement, He makes Himself known.  And the saints celebrate, because they recognize the Lord whom they love.

We are currently in an environment hyper-riddled with accusations of wrong.  It is possible to lose one’s reputation and career just because of a politically incorrect word used, and in some cases neither words nor behavior is needed—only the suspicion of incorrectness.  Along with this unfortunate trend is the blind assurance that our righteousness is the standard of righteousness in this universe.  

As Christians, we must remember to continually lift up our eyes and not only look at the issues, but through them, asking, where in this is the Lord who died for us, and the righteousness that now rules over all for the glory of God the Father?  That’s why we can’t afford to become too excited over political wins or court decisions, or get depressed when they don’t go our way. It’s because we know such justice is jaundiced at best. We may catch a glimmer of Christ in it, but the human condition quickly turns it murky with ambitions, hates, and lusts of various kinds. We are not naive. Justice should be pursued down here on earth, but nothing like the ideal occurs until God gets directly involved.   The saints reserve unlimited rejoicing for that time only.   

Alternately, people who do not recognize the Lordship of Christ, curse His justice.  From verse 8 through the end of the chapter, we’ll see how this plays out, as the wicked respond to God’s judgments of heat, darkness, demonic deception, and hailstones.  I’ll hit the highlights here:

V. 9 “they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.”
V. 11 They “cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.”
V. 14 “demonic spirits…assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.” (These people not only hate God’s justice, they listen to the devil call them to come overthrow Christ! ).
V.21 “they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.”

You’d think judgments of this nature would turn a person to God. But once the gospel of grace has been rejected, nothing works.  When a man or woman sees God hanging on a cross for their sins, and dismisses it as religious tomfoolery, then the most catastrophic things in life will only make their hearts harder.  God proves it in these verses.  

It is a prison of the sinner’s own making, perhaps best reflected in the famous two rules of atheism: 

1. There is no God.
2. I hate Him.

If one of those two tenets begins to capitulate to faith, the other rises to correct it.  It’s the perfect circularity for non-repentance to flourish.  

While I was in seminary I had to read and substantively respond to an anti-theist book.  I found the experience unpleasant, as it was one long, angry rant. And, most of the author’s vitriol was (of course) leveled at divine  judgments. He referred to God as “barbaric,” “childish,” “mercurial,” “capricious,” and “selfish.” Another writer with similar attitudes told his fan base that if he was ever on his deathbed and allegedly repented, to attribute it to the effects of medication, and therefore of not being in his right mind.  Such commitment to non-repentance sounds exactly like what is going on in Revelation 16.

When I thought about how long this book had been on the bestseller list, and how many people had been exposed to these sentiments, I felt profoundly grieved. The text really sounded like the demonic spirits of verse 14, calling people to overthrow Christ at Armageddon.  

Could it be that the wrathful images in the Bible are making these angry reactions worse?  Are we chasing Millennials away by presenting bowls of wrath, and other pictures of judgment?  I don’t think so. The more we truthfully present God in all His aspects, the more those who have received grace and who will receive it, come closer.  And as for those who haven’t received grace, and never will? Nothing will help them. Let’s please stop the hands-wringing, and get back to the business of preaching the truth.

There’s been a lot of talk about Christians losing the culture wars lately, but if we have, it didn’t come from faithfully presenting the God of the Scriptures. It came from tweaking Him. It came from taking the lion of Judah and defanging and declawing Him and turning Him into some kind of family-friendly theism.  Even where our children are concerned, we’re told to raise them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord—Listen, Junior, when God loves, He loves all the way to death for us.  But when God condemns, it’s terrible; He doesn’t play. And we don’t play with Him, either.  

Yet there has been a deliberate strategy in the contemporary church to soft pedal God’s judgment,  to avoid difficult passages about popular sins. It seems to have worked. In the absence of challenge, and conviction, large numbers have been lured into church.  They also remain unrepentant as a way of life.

But let some of these get serious and read the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, and they’ll begin to suspect that the bait used to get them into the sanctuary was highly edited.  As believers, we should never be ashamed of God’s righteousness. When we’re tempted to feel that way, the cost is high.  We stop announcing God to people and start “negotiating” with them.  

That’s partly why Jesus said in verse 15, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” This metaphorical language  of being alert and being clothed warns us not to let anyone strip us, or lull us to sleep.  Jesus is basically saying, “Don’t let me suddenly appear and catch you ashamed of what you’ve been saying (or, not saying), and how you’ve been living.”   

Celebrate Him now, and you’ll celebrate together with Him, then.

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