Some time ago I preached a short, summertime series of sermons on the book of Zephaniah. I had studied it in college for an 'Advanced Hebrew' module. I thought it would be easy, but instead I found it difficult. I had a clear idea of what the theme and message was. I could fit the details together well but somehow it didn't come out right. By the end of the third sermon the congregation seemed semi-suicidal. I quickly finished the series and both they and I heaved a sigh of relief.
One benefit that it had, however, was to make me reflect on my preaching - in particular how to apply carefully and diversely the texts that speak of judgment. As I began to read Zephaniah in Hebrew last Sabbath night in bed, I came up with the following list about preaching 'The Day of Yahweh'. The points will apply to books like Joel and Zephaniah, 2 Thessalonians and Revelation, together with lots of judgment passages in the Pentateuch and Prophets (like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), not to mention many passages Christ mentions judgment in the Gospels. I hope you will benefit a little, at least, from my abortive adventure in Zephaniah, both in personal devotions, private application and public proclamation of Scripture.
Preaching the Day of the LORD...
- Is not very easy and can often be done badly.
- Is an essential theme in Scripture in both testaments which is not-infrequently mangled or neglected but should be part of our regular diet - avoiding such texts is both cowardly and unwarranted.
- Has a lot of material to work with, given by our God, as a means of grace, to powerfully drive these truths of God's coming home to our hearts with force.
- Should be applied first to the original historical context in which the oracle or book was given.
- Is likely to have initial, multiple and final tiers or levels of fulfillment.
- Will employ stereotypical and typical language to convey eschatological or last day realities to us.
- Is not to be downplayed but portrayed as vividly as we can - images need magnified, vocabulary teased out, and concrete metaphors explained with dedication, deliberation and patience as we linger over the message and refuse to superficially flit from verse to verse: God inspired the prophets by the Spirit to paint these rich word pictures to imprint and emblazon the coming of the LORD on our minds till it dominates our thoughts, weighs upon our hearts and we feel the full force of the events and outcomes it predicts.
- Is designed to warn sinners to flee from the wrath to come.
- Will be especially aided by the Holy Spirit to convict of sin - one of the explicit reasons that Jesus states that the Spirit was sent was to impress these unfamiliar prophetic texts upon a world of unbelieving hearts: we ought to seek and pray for His help and assistance in this.
- Is also to warn us to put off sin and live holy sanctified lives.
- Should cause us to tremble in our boots and seek refuge in Christ 'Our Hiding Place', Refuge and Rock, before the Day of Wrath.
- Should shake us from sloth to be vigilant in service and zealous for Christ.
- Will cause us to rejoice with relief that we have a Gospel escape and have fled from coming wrath.
- Reminds us that all the terror and heat of the anger of the Father was heaped upon Christ the chosen sin-bearer: apart from the Cross, these are the best places to pause in Scripture to demonstrate and elaborate the depth of the pit and what His mediation involved in absorbing divine wrath.
- Will make us love Christ more to the degree that we grasp and feel the fearful, hellish, terrors of His substitutionary, representative, work for us.
- Helps us warn unbelieving friends and families of the dangers they currently face, outside of Christ, as we pass on the impressions that our left upon our hearts.
- Is a very powerful evangelistic motive to snatch souls from the flames before they call for rocks to fall on them.
- Should be a controlling factor in the manner of our preaching and hearing the Gospel.
- Is designed to teach the dual-event of judgment and salvation which comes upon the world at every visitation of God but particularly the last.
- Gives us the necessary information to anticipate the end of the world and prepare to meet our Maker.
- Should make us think of Jesus every time we see judgment: both Jesus the Judge, and Jesus the Judged!
In other words... on each occasion the Parousia is read, studied, contemplated or preached, it should lead us to the Cross of the Crucified Christ!
A Memorable, Horrific, Blunder
I will never forget my first day on hospital wards in Med School, over 30 years ago: a very wise, mild-mannered consultant, who had been charged with training us, spent two painstaking hours explaining how to break bad news. Unfortunately, one of my fellows students was rather deficient in tact. When led to the bedside of a deeply-jaundiced patient, and asked to explain with kindness the seriousness of his condition, her blunt reply came out which still haunts those who heard - this is what was said: "Prepare to meet thy Maker!"
While such indiscretion is hard to credit, on the lips of a medical student, it catches a reality that every mortal must face. As Amos stated it memorably to a recalcitrant, hardened, OT church on the brink:
"I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me," declares the LORD. "Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!" For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth - the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name! - Amos 4:11-13
Of course, for true Christians The Day holds no ultimate fear (there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ, for at the Cross Jesus bore our wrath): it will be a day of light, peace, joy when we see His glorious face. Those still left alive will be caught up to meet him in the air - so we will be with the Lord forever: encourage each other with these words. The dead will rise in bodies now glorified, to be united with their souls in the presence of the LORD. Yet Christ, on that Great Day, will judge the living and the dead - sheep will separate from goats, as He casts the wicked into Hell. The true flock of Christ, for whom He shed His blood, by electing, sovereign grace, will enter into the 'well-done' of our King.
Let us remember, however, what we all deserve by nature: were it not for mercy we too would call on the mountains, hills and rocks to fall upon us, to hide us from the face of the triumphant, wrathful Lamb. Instead the wrath of the Lamb fell upon Him - the wrath of the Lamb came upon the Lamb who was slain. Three dark hours to absorb and exhaust our Hell. He averted our wrath in sheer, redeeming grace.
So this, it seems, is where preaching on the Day of the LORD should lead - to glory, honor, praise, thanksgiving, power unto Him who sits upon the throne, and to God's most, thrice-worthy, slaughtered, now-enthroned, Lamb.