Back to series
Good morning, church, and welcome. Go with me to the book of Revelation, chapter 19. Yes, Louis, it’s finally happening, your favorite book, the book of Revelation, chapter 19; we’re going to start reading in v.11.
I know, since we started back with the in-person meetings, a lot of you are just joining in with us. We’ve been going through a summer series on the Holy Spirit since the day of Pentecost five weeks ago when we celebrated God with us, the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell among his people. Thus far we’ve talked about several of the gifts of the Spirit—discernment, which is being able truly to know God, it’s only possible because of the Holy Spirit. We talked about many other gifts, the gift of unity in the church, and other gifts like teaching, preaching, speaking in tongues, healing, and how spiritual gifts aren’t about you. You aren’t given spiritual gifts to show off how holy you are, or to help you be a better christian, you’re given spiritual gifts to help show the grace and power of God to his church. And the Holy Spirit orders our worship like a composer orders a song, giving a role and a task to each and every person in the church. We need each other, and we need everyone—not just the people we’re impressed with, who agree with us—but everyone, each member of the body of Christ for the church to be healthy and whole.
Today, we’re going to shift a little bit and begin to talk about the character of the Holy Spirit, who is God, the third person of the Trinity. And I’m going to start in maybe kind of a weird place for a lot of you, by talking about the wrath of the Holy Spirit. So whenever you have doubts that we’re actually Baptists in this church, with all of our liturgy, and communion every week—just remember that time I preached about the wrath of the Spirit of God out of the book of Revelation.
Read with me. Revelation, chapter 19, starting in v.11: [Revelation 19:11-16] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father God, I pray that you would introduce us to your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
So, the thing about Revelation is that it’s weird. This is a weird passage. It’s ok. You can think the Bible is weird, or offensive, or that it doesn’t make sense at first. Honestly, if you were to read the rest of chapter 19 and not be at least a little offended, I would be kind of freaked out by you. So you can think the Bible is weird, but also trust that it’s true and beautiful, and know that sometimes you may not always immediately understand the Scriptures. We’re used to being able to Google all knowledge to the point that we distrust anything that can’t be understood immediately, but in my experience, depending on the internet for information is like depending upon McDonalds for all of your food. It may taste good, but it’s really not healthy, and they’re not actually trying to help you grow. It’s more about money than truth. They just feed you whatever you like so you’ll keep coming back. Good food, like a good understanding of Christianity and the Bible, takes time and someone who can cook.
Anyway, that’s my disclaimer, don’t google the book of Revelation—I’m always available if you have questions as you read the Bible, if you get confused or offended—and stick with me, we’re going to make some sense of this passage and talk about the wrath of the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot here, so I’m going to ask five questions very quickly.
First question: what’s with the horse? Good question, glad you asked. Horses in the ancient world were symbols of power and war, like tanks today. No one rode a horse for fun or for transportation. The horse here is in contrast to Revelation 6, the famous passage of the horsemen of the apocalypse, where John pictures the true enemies of humanity—oppression, violence, poverty, and death—as four horsemen, riding like conquerors out into the world. And they succeed, their grip on the world seems absolute, until this chapter we just read, chapter 19, where Christ is able, he is powerful enough, to bring an end to all oppression, to heal all violence, to raise up the poor and lowly, and even to turn back death itself.
Second question: does Jesus have a tattoo? V.16, he has “king of kings and lord of lords” written on his thigh. Sounds like a tattoo to me. Kallee has a tattoo now, did y’all see that? Maybe it makes her more Christlike.
Third question: is the whole treading the winepress of wrath thing where the book title “Grapes of Wrath” comes from? Yes, well-spotted.
Fourth question: What’s with the sword coming from his mouth? Seems uncomfortable, and it would make eating more dangerous. I would argue that this is John’s picture of the Holy Spirit in this passage, imagining the Spirit as the breath of God, breath and spirit are the same word in Hebrew, and as Ephesians 6 says, the spirit is the word of God and a double-edged sword; it’s coming from his mouth because words and breath come from the mouth. A two-edged sword is actually a picture of the Holy Spirit in many passages. If that’s confusing to you, just say to yourself, “Man, Revelation is crazy,” and move on.
Fifth question, and this is the one we’re going to spend the most time on: why in John’s imagining is the Holy Spirit a sword? Let’s talk about the Holy Spirit as a sword. That’s my first point from our text today: the Holy Spirit is a sword.
I know some of you right now are thinking: see, this is what’s wrong with Christians. The Holy Spirit isn’t a sword, the Holy Spirit is the love that binds the Father and Son, that binds us together as a church in unity. Our God is not a God of division and violence—that’s the Old Testament God—our God is a God of peace and love. And to that, I say, it’s ok if you disagree, but also listen—there’s something important here. God is perfect in his love, and he is perfect in his wrath. It’s always both, and always at the same time, because the wrath of God grows out of his love. If you’ve ever experienced someone you love be hurt by someone else, you understand the connection between love and wrath, and you know that the deeper you love someone, the deeper the wrath when that person is mistreated. The spirit of God loves each and every one of you profoundly, so his wrath is profound whenever you are hurt. The same Holy Spirit who binds us together in love as a church body, is a sword against the sin and death that would destroy us and tear us apart.
One of my favorite things to do as a pastor is to talk to faithful Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, who are from different parts of the world—because sometimes they will react to a passage in totally different ways than we would react to it. I’m from New Orleans, right, so when I first heard about the wrath of God, my immediate reaction was to be offended. I could hear about the grace and forgiveness of Christ all day and be very happy, but the moment anyone starts talking about the wrath of God, I get a little uncomfortable.
But in seminary, I had a professor from the balkans who had seen genocide first-hand and pastored people through their grief after having lost loved ones to cruel, senseless violence, and what he told me began to change my mind about the wrath of God. He told me that in his country, people praise God for his wrath. What they despise is any mention of grace and forgiveness, because it is an unconscionable and offensive thought to them that God would be able to forgive the cruel and casual violence which had brought death to their entire race. When they pray, they pray praising God for his wrath against sin, and his promise of justice in the end.
When Annie and I were living north of Boston, we got just the smallest taste of that feeling, but it was enough for me to see that wrath and love aren’t opposites, but are actually deeply interrelated. We moved there from New Orleans, and we knew no one there, so we had to rent a little one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up apartment, sight-unseen, from this guy; I’ll call him Burt. He was the richest guy in town. Now, after we got there, it took us a little longer than we thought it would to find jobs, and then I started working part-time at a coffee shop—we were struggling financially. And then winter started in Boston. Burt emailed me one day and asked me if I would be willing to pay a third of the heating bill for the building. They had an oil furnace that heated the whole building. I committed to pay our part, whatever we needed to pay, and then he started sending me bills. We had no idea. The first bill was about a four hundred dollars, and we turned our heat down to forty degrees. The next bill came just about a week later and was a thousand dollars. A month into winter, we had run out of money.
So I started looking for another place to live and, in that apartment search, found out that what Burt had asked was actually illegal. That he was supposed to be paying the heating bill for the building—there were special laws in place in Massachusetts about it. I emailed him about it, and he emailed me back saying, he knew it was illegal, that he could see I was a fool and would agree to it, and what was I going to do about it? He threatened to use his connections to get me kicked out of my graduate program if I complained to anyone about it. I tried to find a lawyer, an advocate, but no one would take our case, because we were out of money and we couldn’t afford to pay. So the richest guy in town stole thousands of dollars from the part-time coffee barista and his wife and got away with it.
That made me mad. And all he took from me was money, we experienced poverty and housing insecurity for just a moment. He didn’t take my wife from me, or murder my friends because they were the wrong race. But the fact that he didn’t need the money, and we were so poor, and that we had no way of getting back at him—I felt powerless. And that powerlessness turned into a deep resentment toward this man. I didn’t “hate the sin and love the sinner,” I hated them both. I found myself talking about what I would do if I weren’t a Christian, if morality weren’t restraining me from seeking revenge. It was a dark place. And in that place, God found me, and began to teach me about his wrath, his anger. Through my professor from Croatia, through my friend from Nigeria, and another friend fleeing persecution in China, I began to learn how to depend upon the anger of God to restore my life back to rights, to resolve the situation, rather than on my own anger, and how the wrath of God enables forgiveness for us.
You see, because my anger did nothing. I was furious, but we still lost the money and the apartment, and he lived in a mansion by the sea. I was so mad for so long, and nothing got any better. My anger did nothing; it wasn’t able to accomplish any kind of change in the world. But God’s anger, at that sin and at every sin in the history of humanity, is powerful enough to turn back oppression, violence, poverty, and even death itself—all four horsemen. The Holy Spirit is a sword, and his anger is enough to restore—not just my life back to rights—but the whole world back to rights.
One day, Burt will stand before God and explain to my Father what he has done to me. And that’s enough for me. I pray that when he does stand before God it is as a child of God who will mourn his actions, repent, and be forgiven. No earthly judge would even hear our case, because we couldn’t afford to pay an advocate, but Christ is an advocate who will take my case. Our Father is a judge who will not judge with partiality towards the wealthy. We talk about corrections in our justice system, but the Spirit is actually able to change people, to reform them, and cause them to stop sinning, and when they will not, he is an avenger who cannot be turned back and will always see justice done.
The spirit is a sword aimed in wrath at the complete destruction of sin in our lives and in the world, the word and breath of God, and his love for me means that he is more angry at that man’s sin than I am, and he will not allow that kind of sin to stand in the world. One day, he will remove it from the world, end it, erase all effect of it from my life and my family. Because of his love for me he will take my case and win justice for me.
Which brings me to my second, and related point from our text today. God’s wrath starts with love and brings justice. God’s wrath starts with love and brings justice. Christians my age love to talk about the justice of God. We really love to talk about the love of God. Christians my age hate to talk about the wrath of God. But it’s the love of God that is the source of his wrath, and without the wrath of God, there would be no hope of justice in the world. Is it so strange for you to hear that God’s wrath against sin is caused by his great love for us? What would you do if someone were mistreating your child? Abusing him? If someone killed one of your children. What would you do? Would you be angry? What’s right in that scenario? What if another of your children was the murderer, or the abuser? Do you begin to understand the wrath and forgiveness of God, his love and wrath together, his desire to turn back death itself and bring justice to the world?
Over and over again in the Bible, every time we see the wrath of God displayed, like we see in our passage this morning, it starts with love. In Revelation, before we see Christ in our passage on his horse bearing a sword, we see him come down from his throne to speak to his children who had been killed by sin and violence in the world. The martyrs cry out to him, how long until we see justice? It’s his love for them, and his anger at the injustice of the world, that brings him in this chapter to ride out with the sword of the Spirit and accomplish justice in the world. His love for his children makes him angry at the injustices they’ve endured. The great love of God causes the great wrath of God.
So what does this mean for us? Are we supposed to imitate the wrath of God, take up the sword of the Spirit? As Christians, talking about imitating the wrath of God is complicated. I’m sure you’re feeling the tension right now. Because we all know the angry Christians, especially here in the quarter, the yellers, the ones who bring bullhorns and signs, that “must have taken all night” saying, God hates gays and Catholics and drunks, and people who believe the earth is round, and on and on until basically everyone except for them is going to hell. Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. And when we think of anger, we think of James 1: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
All of that is true. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. But in Revelation 19, and honestly all over the Bible, we see another truth displayed—that the wrath, the anger of God is not like the anger of man, and his anger does bring about justice and righteousness. So there is the anger of man that brings about suffering, and the wrath of God that brings about justice. How do we tell the difference, and in our imitation of God, are we meant to imitate his anger as well?
In short, yes. Yes, of course we should imitate God and take up the sword of the Spirit. As one theologian writes, “It is in fact a virtue to hate evil and sin, and we rightly imitate this attribute of God when we feel hatred against great evil, injustice, and sin.” We should imitate God’s anger, his wrath, but listen: God’s wrath doesn’t look at all like ours; it begins with love and brings justice.
What does it look like to imitate God in his anger, to take up this sword of the Spirit? It starts with love, and it brings justice. First, love. This is what the bullhorn Christians lack, and so they lack everything. They didn’t start with love, and so their anger looks nothing like the anger of God. If they had started with love, they would have moved into our city and gotten to know the people here, enjoyed them, learned to love them first, and out of that love for the people of our city, anger would grow for any sin that would bring oppression, poverty, violence, or death into their lives.
Let’s take just one of the things they are yelling about—drunkenness. Yes, drunkenness is a sin, we see that clearly in scripture, and sin provokes God to wrath. So as we imitate God, drunkenness should also provoke us to wrath. This part the bullhorn Christians know. But the reason God hates drunkenness is because of his great love. He loves the drunks, and their families, their friends. He hates what this sin is doing in their lives. So if you want to hate drunkenness the way God hates it, you first have to learn to love the person sinning in that way, to befriend them, to walk beside them in life, to seek to heal the relationships their sin has broken. And then seek justice for them, sobriety, freedom from this sin. Maybe counseling for the family member, maybe housing and healthcare for the person mired in sin. Guide them to confess and ask forgiveness of God.
That’s what you would do if you were really angry, if you were as angry as God is about the sin of drunkenness—you wouldn’t yell at it—you would seek to remove it from the world, to end it, to erase all effect of it from a person’s life and family. As odd as it sounds, the bullhorn people aren’t nearly angry enough. They just want to come and throw a fit about it. They don’t want to do anything to actually rid the world of sin. They’re not angry like God is angry.
Looking back to our passage, and Jesus’ white horse, in contrast with the four horsemen from chapter six of oppression, violence, poverty, and death. What does it look like to imitate God’s wrath against oppression? This is an important question for us right now, because in our nation’s collective sin of racism, we see all four horsemen rear their heads—oppression, violence, poverty, death. Are we angry like God is angry about these things? What does divine anger look like here? It starts with love. If you want to be angry and not sin, you have to start by loving everyone involved as you love your own children, because they are all God’s children, and that’s how he loves them. So when one, or two, or thousands of his children cry out and say “I can’t breath” he hears that, and he’s angry. And then he turns, and imagine this, the people who are the oppressors are also his children, and he loves them equally, so what can he do in his anger? He takes up his sword of the Spirit, and he strikes out against oppression itself, cuts it from the human heart, yes, he does that, but he is not satisfied with that. He’s too angry. So he seeks to remove it from the world, from systems designed to further inequality, to end it, to erase all effect of it from our nation’s lives and our families—in short, to strike it from the book of life that he wrote.
And what about your own sin, those ways in which death has crept into your life, and broken your relationships, brought grieving to your life, and suffering to the people around you? What about your own sin? Are you angry the way God is angry about the sin in your own life? Is the Spirit of God a sword in your life, able to cut away at those parts of you that are killing you, or do you just kind of let it slide, tell other people they don’t understand, ask them not to try to change you. Or maybe you’ve brought a bullhorn and signs into your own mind and yell at yourself, tell yourself that you’re not worth anything better in life, that you’re not worth the life that Christ would bring, you’re not good enough? What would it look like to be angry the way God is angry at your own sin? It would start with love, because God loves you, and it would bring about justice in your life. Freedom from sin, stability, shelter, community. Having friends and family around you who do understand you, who know that you are worth the commitment it would take truly to love you in this life.
In the end, I think most of us are either angry at the wrong things, or we’re not nearly angry enough. We spend so much of our lives as Americans trying to avoid conflict, to stay calm, and avoid anger. We talk about the love of God and apologize for his wrath, not realizing that he’s only wrathful because he deeply loves all of the people whose lives are torn apart or wasted in sin. We don’t love people enough to be angry the way God is angry, to seek justice for them, to stand beside them, to mourn with them, rejoice with them, and commit to live our lives alongside them.
The anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God, just like my anger at Burt did absolutely nothing to bring about restoration in my life or in the world. But the anger of God at sin and death would transform our lives, our churches, and our communities, revitalize them, make them whole.
This chapter in the book of Revelation, chapter 19, is the moment that everything changes. Christ rides out with the sword of the Spirit and the entire earth is renewed, pain and suffering cease, and justice rolls down like a river from the cross where he defeated sin and death. We can have a taste of that world in our lives as we pray and work for his kingdom to come. And we live and work in the sure hope that he is coming soon to remove sin and death from the world, to end it, to erase all effect of it from our lives and families. To quote John, as he ends the book of Revelation: “amen, come Lord Jesus.”