“To the Uttermost”
6 March 2005
Texts: 1 Thess. 2:1-16
In preparing for this sermon, I read a sermon by Jonathan Edwards and it opened my eyes--I mean, wide open. It was reasonable, well-conceived and, frankly, alarming. I thought about the casualness with which we talk about loving the Lord, knowing God, being saved and I shuddered. We mustn‘t be so casual about things for important and irretrievable. So I preach this sermon with the purpose of stirring up those who are listening and might not be saved-to be saved. And I preach this sermon that those of who truly are saved will be motivated to lead others to salvation. This sermon addresses that perilous state of damnation from which we are saved. It answers any question we might have about the desirability, and urgent necessity of being truly, saved.
I begin with this thought: if we had even a slight glimpse of God with Whom we deal, even those of us who have the security of knowing our salvation, we would have a justifiable sense of alarm. Yes, I would hope that profound gratitude was also present, but our God is and ever will remain terrible in majesty, overwhelming in splendor. And those who continue to rest at ease in Zion, in the church, those who are not fully awake are indistinguishable from the thousands of practical atheists that surround us. This is a compelling reason for the sad statistics on evangelical Christians with regard to their actual morality--that is, what they actually do as contrasted with the ideals they profess. There is, therefore, in the second chapter of Thessalonians a particular biblical doctrine to which we must now turn our attention: when those who continue in sin have filled up their measure, then wrath will come upon them to the uttermost. By this I mean to declare that God deals with all humanity, whether they believe in Him or not. He doesn’t need the permission of His creatures to either guide them in righteousness, or to consign them to hell to experience His wrath to the uttermost. And, given this truth, we stand amazed at the love and grace which, knowing our true condition, has provided for a way out through the work of His Son. So, in v. 14 Paul commends the believers in Thessalonica for following the churches of Judea both in faith and in sufferings. They have come out from under divine wrath! He writes “in faith” because they have received the gospel as the true, divine word of God. And he writes “in their suffering” because of their persecution--for just as the Jews had persecuted the church and the apostles in Judea, the Thessalonian believers are persecuted by Jews living there and even, we may surmise, by some of their pagan compatriots. The twin beliefs that God is dealing with all humanity righteously and that persecution is normative for authentic Christians living, both then and now--as I hope to show--proves their salvation is genuine.. We may affirm that this norm was the clear expectation of our Lord recorded in Mark 10 and the actual experience of Paul, in diverse places, as passed on to Timothy:
Mark 10:29 Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake,
Mark 10:30 but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.
2 Tim 3:12 And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
2 Tim 3:13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
I want to be clear that having a God who saves the righteous and damns the wicked regardless of personal belief in His existence is a good thing. Secondly, persecution is a heinous wickedness, wherever it is perpetrated by the spiritually obstinate opponents of Christ and His ministers. That God allows the wicked to persist for purposes of His own counsel is a given of our life and history. Indeed, persecutors persist in order to fill up their sin to a certain measure at which point God cuts them off and subjects them to His wrath to the uttermost. That is alarming. However, there is comfort in the fact that their sin is bounded and that God’s response is just, measured, proportionate, or fitting.
For the persecution and rejection of Jesus, the Christ, a day of wrath was appointed for Jerusalem and for the Jewish nation--those who rejected and murdered Him. It was a day of terrible destruction, wrath and tribulation, a visitation from God, executed by the Romans in 70 AD--an event anticipated by Paul at the time of this letter’s composition. This is the same event that was prophesied by our Lord in Matthew 24:2-14.
Mat 24:2 And He answered and said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down."
This is deemed a suitable punishment for that apostate and wicked nation and it wasn‘t executed in a single day, but took months and months as a once proud, but rebellious nation--God‘s own chosen people--was reduced to blood and rubble. On the personal level, Paul would have us know, wrath to the uttermost is experienced as the consignment of the damned to everlasting torment in hell. This, too, is alarming. The events of 70 AD are not to be confused with the events of the Last Judgment which will greatly exceed in every way the documented horrors of the siege and final destruction of Jerusalem. I should be remiss not to mention the rescue of the church from that visitation. Forewarned by a prophet, the church evacuated Jerusalem before the siege was set and that dispersion led to the salvation of many more souls in Judea. This is recorded in church history, not in Scripture and such a significant development clearly supports the early composition of the gospels as opposed to theories which point to the mid and late 2nd century.
However, a man may not sin beyond that certain measure determined by God. That measure certainly varies from person to person with slight reprobation, or wickedness, leading to slight punishment for the vessels of wrath are proportionate to the sin. Every offense must be answered for! We may wonder why God allows this to continue. God does so to demonstrate to all the offense to His majesty that sin represents--sin is an infinite offense against a loving and holy God. Let us reckon sin accurately for what it is. Furthermore, God permits the sinner ample opportunity to either turn, or to fill up his measure--it is a work that the wicked spend their whole lives doing. The apparent prosperity of the wicked, which puzzles us, is for a season only, and it doubles as a snare for them. They, the wicked, blindly think--or vainly imagine-- that God keeps no account of wickedness because they don’t. They are terribly mistaken. Sometimes God does actually punish during this lifetime--but only to a limited degree for the unrepentant eternal wrath awaits them. Oh, how we who understand these things should agonize over their condition, even to panting with fear for them, those who are unaware of their danger and final judgment! What a spur to intercession this doctrine must be. Those who presume upon the day of grace and patience will experience wrath without restraint. In terrible fierceness God will act and then nothing will remain to abate their awakened suffering. The same God who is our comfort will be a terror to them. Their torment will be without respite, or any form of alleviation . . . ever. The wicked are sealed for the day of consummation, the Day of Wrath, and that day is appointed for their complete undoing. And that undoing lasts forever, in keeping with the infiniteness of the offense, the ingratitude of the ignorant. We may experience distress in this life, even calamity; but the complete ruin of that Day--when the soul of the wicked shall be continually ground to powder, utterly crushed--is to be avoided at all costs. What we know of the wrath of God is clear: it is wholly intolerable. That should alarm us if not for ourselves, then for others, for our loved ones, friends, neighbors, and yes, even our enemies, those who are persecuting us for our faith in Christ.
What shall we do? Repent of our causal attitude, grow alarmed at the peril of coming into God’s wrath to the uttermost, turn and believe on Jesus for our salvation. Then choose day by day, hour by hour to conform yourself to your Savior--think His thoughts after Him and will to do His will. C S Lewis has some wonderful guidance in his Mere Christianity on Christian living. He writes that Christianity is best viewed as a gradual transformation of character--rather than a moral code, a list of do’s and don’ts which we perform as it were for a reward. We are day by day either becoming, by our choices, either a creature fit for heaven, or a creature fit for hell. There is no middle ground. It’s either up, or down. Either we will be more at harmony with God, or we will be in an increasing state of hatred and war with God, one’s fellow creatures, and oneself. To pursue the first, harmony with God, will bring bliss, joy, peace, knowledge and power, extending in everlasting communion and fellowship with God and all the saints; BUT the second produces madness, horror, idiocy, rage and impotence leading to eternal loneliness. Lewis’ point is that each of us, at every moment, is moving in one direction or the other. We are either children of God, or creatures of wrath.
According to Jonathan Edwards, the threatenings of the Law -- consequences, the curses set forth in the O. T. for disobedience--are never answered by anything any man ever suffers here in this life. Temporal judgments belong to the threatenings, but cannot answer them. They, as awful as they may appear, are only a foretaste of the wrath to come. Our God is entirely just and recompenses “the full deserved sum.” I urge these teachings upon you in the full hope that no one within hearing will rest any longer with sin. Flee from it. It is, if you would but consider it, awful to meditate upon whose wrath it is that that you are in danger of. More so, consider the great advantages you have, --emphasize these--knowledge of the gospel, the proclamation of Jesus’ saving power, yet under some still continue in sin! Mighty works of deliverance are all around you in the lives of the redeemed--deliverances far more remarkable even than those of the Exodus. Today then may indeed be a day of salvation. Many seated here have turned, some have not. It is sad to relate that some who have not, have experienced along the journey of life stirrings, beckonings, invitations of our merciful Savior, and have put their decision off. You have witnessed personal revivals in others and thought how nice for them; and said to yourself, yes, later, but not yet . . . maybe tomorrow. But that is one thing you may not have! What you do have is today, what you do have is now.
In scripture the wrath of the king is likened to the roar of a lion. What do you imagine the wrath of Jehovah must be like? What if all the power and divinity which created the heavens and the earth, all there is, were harnessed to the project of expressing His wrath? To the work of His indignation? I can’t express how vast and stupendous and terrifying a thing that would be. And what are we compared to such a demonstration of wronged majesty, of offended divinity? That our sin offends Him is beyond dispute.
Surely, God does, from time to time, quicken us to some sense of His wrath. It causes the stout-hearted to cry out in dismay. It then appears as if the whole of nature might sink under it and leave the earth striped bare as in the days after the flood--the silence and expanse of the purified earth must have been a solemn and terrifying horror. The workers of iniquity all corpses, all debris. But even the most dreadful parallel I might supply is not wrath to the uttermost. And it is that degree that I must bring you to by the poor suggestions.
God has done some extraordinary things for His church in the past--they are not infrequently coupled with terrible judgments against the enemies of His people. The Hebrews safe on shore and the army of Pharaoh lost in the Red Sea, swamped and drowned--all of them. And, of the ten plagues, which one did not create a terrible sense of dread and doom amongst those spared? Isaiah 3 is an example of what God has done for His church--Israel being the Old Church in Scripture:
Isa 3:8 For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, Because their speech and their actions are against the LORD, To rebel against His glorious presence. Isa 3:9 The expression of their faces bears witness against them. And they display their sin like Sodom; They do not even conceal it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.
Isa 3:10 Say to the righteous that it will go well with them, For they will eat the fruit of their actions. Isa 3:11 Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him, For what he deserves will be done to him.
Isa 3:12 O My people! Their oppressors are children, And women rule over them. O My people! Those who guide you lead you astray, And confuse the direction of your paths.
Isa 3:13 The LORD arises to contend, And stands to judge the people.
Isa 65:13 Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry. Behold, My servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty. Behold, My servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame. Isa 65:14 "Behold, My servants shall shout joyfully with a glad heart, But you shall cry out with a heavy heart, And you shall wail with a broken spirit.
There is no safety except for those who are on board the ark of the Lord. So when I say flee to safety, I mean that you should flee into Christ. Despite society’s affirmations of tolerance, of many safe paths to heaven, all other vessels are doomed to sink. Their passengers will go down to everlasting torment having put their confidence in gods that are no gods. They have been deceived and lulled into false security. But, praise God, there is one way of escape from the wrath to come which shall be to the uttermost. Those who are in Christ need not fear though mountains be removed, or be carried into the seas--as undoubtedly they shall be. Those who are in Christ need not fear though the waters of the sea roar and are troubled. They need not fear because the One they own is their rock and salvation. Those whose hearts are fixed, anchored, secure by trusting in the finished work of Christ, and the gospel of His redeeming power, shall not know the wrath ever. Come to Jesus
John 3:14 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; John 3:15 that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:17 "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. John 3:18 "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
And where are you? Are you on board, or are you lingering on the dock? Or, worse are you tending to business as usual, headed out for another afternoon’s entertainment? A movie? A meal out? Are you like the victims of December’s tsunami playing yet on the beach while destruction, everlasting and awful, hurtles towards you? You cannot say anymore that you are unaware of the stakes. I have told you. No, I have warned you as I must for your souls’ sake. Hear the boarding call. Get on the ark before it is too late. Are you saved? Good. You shall inherit the kingdom. You shall experience eternal bliss--for the opposite of wrath to the uttermost in everlasting love, joy and peace. Are you not? Choose now. Choose eternal peace in the only place God wants you to be--flee wrath, punishment and endless suffering. Do you know someone who is unsaved? Please, do what you must, can, should do. Some day the time will truly be up, the day of salvation will close and, thereafter, all will be too little, too late. Friends, you may not be able to see into the future--but that does not mean there isn’t one. Did Christ not say He had gone to prepare a place for us?! He did. But, while you cannot look ahead, you can look back. See where Jerusalem was truly destroyed. See where the Jews wandered 1,700 years without a homeland and only recently have some six million of them been restored. The judgments of God are sure, real, inescapable in history and even more so beyond history--to the uttermost.