Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GODíS COVENANT WRATH INVARIABLY COMES ON COVENANT BREAKERS."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The second to last Time Magazine devoted an issue to the topic "The Bible and the Apocalypse". The magazine marvels at the fact that amongst the worldís most popular fiction books is the Left Behind series, written by Tim laHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The first volume in the series appeared in 1995, and told of how flight attendants on a 747 enroute from Heathrow to Chicago suddenly found half the seats empty, except for clothes and wedding rings and dental fillings; the believers had been raptured, swept up to heaven. Down on the ground cars crashed into each other as believers were taken from behind the wheel, classrooms were suddenly empty as all children under 12 were taken up to be with Christ. Nine subsequent volumes tell of the tribulations suffered by those left behind and their struggle to be saved. The tenth book in the series has just been released to the bookshops, with no less than 2.75 million copies in its first print.
One would wonder why the series is so popular. That, congregation, is because the people of the western world have a renewed interest in whatís called End Time Theology. This theology has roots in the Bible, and expects Jesus Christ to come back soon. The Scriptures have spoken of wars and rumors of wars, have spoken of tribulations and earthquakes, and dispensationalists add to the list the references they find in Scripture to the reconstruction of the state of Israel. So events as the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945, the recreation of the Jewish state in 1948, Israelí six-day war in 1967, the Gulf War of 1991, the September 11 attacks and their resulting increased tensions in the Middle East are all seen as pointers indicating that Yes, the Lord is about to return to earth.
Does this End Time Theology have the truth on its side? Should we join the millions of readers of laHayeís and Jenkins Left Behind series? Today and next Sunday I want to ask your attention for the Lordís words in Mt 24. I ask your attention for this chapter because of its references to wars and rumors of wars, it reference to famine, pestilence, and earthquakes that Ėpeople claim- must happen before the Lord comes again, indeed, "there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." The chapter needs attention because words like these lead us to think that No, Christ cannot come back before lunch; first there needs to be more of wars and rumors of wars, more of pestilence and earthquakes and a great tribulation. And as we look around the world we see evidence that Yes, thereís more of pestilence, more of earthquakes and disasters and war and tribulation than beforeÖ, and before we know it, brothers and sisters, our misunderstanding of Jesusí words in Mt 24 gets us swept along with the End Time Theology so common in the evangelical world around us.
Mt 24. No, the Lord does not tell us here that certain terrible things need to happen before He comes back. Rather, the Lord speaks here of covenant wrath falling on Jerusalem - a wrath that in fact did fall on the city only a few decades after the Lord spoke these words, in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. But the chapter has a powerful relevance for us today because the wrath of Covenant God remains real upon those who break His covenant in the twenty-first century.
So we listen this morning to the word of the Lord about His wrath as it comes to us in the proverb about the carcass and the vultures. I summarize the sermon as follows:
GODíS COVENANT WRATH INVARIABLY COMES ON COVENANT BREAKERS.
1. What the carcass signifies.
The text I have chosen for this morningís sermon speaks of a Ďbodyí and Ďeaglesí; "wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together." As it turns out, this translation is not adequately precise. For the English word Ďbodyí is ambiguous; the term can refer to either a living body or a dead body. In this text, though, the word the Lord uses denotes specifically a dead body, ie, a corpse, a carcass.
As to the eagle: the term Matthew used can equally mean Ďvulturesí, and given that the body spoken of by the Lord is a dead body, it follows that the birds referred to are not eagles but vultures. For eagles are not specifically carrion birds; eagles rather prefer to kill their prey. Vultures, on the other hand, do not kill their food; they look for carcasses to feed on. So we should translate vs 28 like this: "wherever the carcass is, there the vultures will be gathered together." Thatís indeed how the NASB and the NIV translate the passage. Hereís a rule of nature: vultures will invariably gather around a carcass.
What does the Lord mean with this statement? The answer, of course, lies in the context of Jesusí words. As it turns out, this dark saying is Jesusí summary of all Heís taught in the earlier part of this chapter. So we need to read this chapter carefully to understand our text.
Mt 24, brothers and sisters, contains Jesusí answer to a question from the disciples. Their question is recorded in vs 3: "Tell us," they said to Jesus, "when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" The disciples asked this question because of what Jesus had just said. Vs 1: the disciples had pointed out to Jesus the buildings of the temple, and then Jesus had said: "You see these stones, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down" (vs 2). That statement on Jesusí part prompted the disciplesí query: "when, Lord? When will the temple be destroyed?" And then follows the answer of the Lord of which our text is a part.
But Jesusí talk about the destruction of the temple also did not come out of the blue. In ch 23:13-30 the Lord had uttered a series of Woes on the Scribes and the Pharisees. And a woe, we need to know, is a judgment from God. In vs 37 Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees why Godís judgment would come; Jerusalem (and the scribes and Pharisees were the leaders in Jerusalem) killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. That was Jerusalemís history; continuously refusing Godís messengers, rejecting His prophets, even Jesus Himself, the only Son of the Lord. "How often," says Jesus, "I wanted to gather your children together..., and you were not willing!"
Yet the relation between Jerusalem and God had been one of covenantal bond. It was part and parcel of the covenant structure that Israel should listen to whatever God would say, should receive any prophet He sent. By killing the prophets, and stoning those sent to them, and rejecting Jesus of Nazareth, Israel did not live up to the demands of that covenant. Israel sinned, they didnít want to hear what their covenant God said, and so Israel despised God, broke their covenant with God.
But, brothers and sisters, if Israel rejects the God of the covenant, only one thing can happen, and that is judgment. Years ago already, when God first made His covenant with His people, Heíd told them that there was such a thing as covenant wrath on covenant disobedience. Lev 26:
"If you will not listen to Me..., I will do this to you: I will appoint over you sudden terror, consumption, and fever.... I will set My face against you, and you shall be smitten before your enemies.... And if by this discipline you are not turned to Me..., I Myself will smite you sevenfold for your sins. And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant; and...I will send pestilence among you.... And if in spite of this you will not hearken to Me..., I will...chastise you Myself.... You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and...your daughters. And I will...cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols; and My soul will abhor you. And I will lay your cities waste, and will make your sanctuaries desolate..." (vs 14ff).
Such had been Godís promise, and over the years and centuries such had also been Israelís experience. But now it happened again, and this time their rejection of Godís prophets was so very much more serious because God had sent to Israel the Chief Prophet and Teacher, Jesus Christ. But they refused to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of God, even though in His miracles and preaching Christ had presented them with so much evidence that He was the Christ. The Lord of the vineyard sent His beloved Son, but the tenants said to themselves: This is the heir, let us kill Him. Because that was their reaction to Christ did the Lord pronounce these woes, did He lament over Jerusalem. For rejecting God provokes Godís covenant wrath. Thatís what Jesus alludes to in 23:38: "See! Your house is left to you desolate." The reference is to the temple, to the temple being left to the people desolate. What Jesus means with that He spells out dramatically in action of 24:1: "Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple." Jesus is true God; in Him God Himself has come to His people. By Jesusí physical departure from the temple He foreshadowed Godís departure from His house Ė fulfillment of what weíve read in weeks past from the prophecies of Ezekiel. Jesus left, and that departure was itself the beginning of Godís judgment on Israelís leaders.
The disciples, vs 1 continues, tagged along with him. Theyíd heard His words about the desolation of the temple, and they witnessed His departure. Hence their showing Jesus "the buildings of the temple." In their hearing Jesusí instruction continued: given the sins of the people, "not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down." But that was too much for the disciples: "When," they asked, "will this destruction take place?" But as they read their question, congregation, we need to realize that thereís confusion in the minds of the disciples. For, in agreement with popular Jewish thinking of the day, they tack onto this question about when another question about what the sign of Jesusí coming and the close of the age would be. Thatís because they assumed that the coming of the Messiah and the close of the age would occur at the same time as the destruction of the temple; surely, God would not desert His temple until the Messiah came in glory. Thatís why their question in vs 3 combines matters of the destruction of the temple with matters of the close of the age.
Well now, in His answer Jesus separates these two questions. In vss 4 to 28 Jesus supplies an answer to the first part of the question: "when will these things be?" In the vss 29-51 Jesus answers the second part of their question Ė and thatís material I hope to come to next week.
When the destruction of the temple would take place? Jesus had already alluded to Godís Old Testament promise that covenant wrath invariably had to come when there is hardening in sin. And in the day Jesus spoke the words of Mt 24, Jerusalem was hardening in sin. So: the wrath of covenant God could not stay away. Accordingly, Jesus spoke to the disciples of Godís promises unfolding before their eyes.
He says (vs 6): "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars." Notice the word Ďyouí. We read this material and automatically put it into our future, as if Jesus means that we are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. But Jesus addresses the disciples, and His point is that they would hear of wars and rumors of wars but they were not to be alarmed. You see, the outpouring of Godís covenantal wrath on His disobedient people would take place in the life time of the disciples. God had spoken of His punishments on sin, here was a hardening in sin ĖGodís own Son was rejected- and so these punishments must happen, must, because it has been prophesied in the Old Testament already (Lev 26), and Godís Word cannot be broken. So, within the borders of Israel, nation would rise against nation (vs 7), Jews against Romans, one group of Israelites against another, Scribes against Pharisees. And ĖJesus continues- together with the civil dissension and unrest would come famines and pestilence; even creation itself would quake as God poured out His wrath upon His disobedient covenant children.
And itís not that the disciples would be spared the effects of Godís covenant wrath either, for they live in this apostate society. Says the Lord to the disciples (vs 9): you, as messengers of the Christ Godís covenant people rejected, you will be hated and persecuted; covenant Israel in their anguish would take out their bitterness on the disciples, the faithful. Indeed, there will be false prophets in Israel in that day, people who say that deliverance from this wrath of God is possible by this means or that, by following this person or that (vs 11). But ĖJesus warns His disciples- donít believe it; judgment must come on covenant disobedience. And even as they persecute you, do not fear: through you the gospel will be preached far and wide (vs 14), to all nations.
Yes, that gospel would be preached. But a gospel preached is not necessarily a gospel accepted; in fact, Israel would be so hardened in sin that they would refuse to repent at the eleventh hour. As ungodly heathens in the days of Daniel made worship in the temple impossible, so ungodly heathens ĖJesus says- will come to Jerusalem and prevent all worship in the temple (vs 15). And when that happens, Jesus continues, know that the full load of Godís wrath is about to be poured out over the unrepentant Jerusalem and its temple. Let those who are in Judea flee, and flee in haste (vs 16), lest they also be hit by this wrath of God. For that wrath will be terrible; so terrible, in fact, that there will be a tribulation so great as has not been since the beginning of the world and never will be again (vs 21) Ė for there never will be a nation on earth again that has had the Son of God walk in their midst, and they yet reject Him!
I trust, beloved, that now the meaning of our text has become clear to us. Although God sent His only Son to become flesh and dwell amongst His people, although this Son healed the sick, raised the dead, gave food to the hungry, forgave sins, yet this covenant people received Him not. He went to the cross, defeated the evil one, satisfied there for the sins of Godís own, reconciled Godís own to God, but Godís own esteemed Him not. There was in Israel no faith; there was only unbelief, evidence that Israel was dead in sin. But if Israel is dead, if Israel is a spiritual carcass, vultures must appear. The carcass must be cleaned out, done away with. Punishment must come; it cannot be otherwise.
Did it happen as the Lord had prophesied? Yes, beloved, it did. The Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, and the gospel of Christ proclaimed with power in Jerusalem. Numerous among the Jews came to faith, as we read in the book of Acts. But large numbers more of Godís people by covenant refused to believe, rejected the Christ God sent. So, within 40 years of Jesusí ascension and the Spiritís outpouring, God poured the covenantal wrath prophesied in our chapter upon those covenant breakers in Jerusalem. The city where once the peace of God had dwelt was torn by internal strife. There was war in the city, civil war, with faction rising against faction, and famine, pestilence and death the result. The heathen Romans surrounded the city, and in desperation the people in the city changed the temple from being a place of worship to a fortress, in agreement with Jesusí prophecy in vs 15. Thousands fled, especially Christians, fled from the city as Jesus instructed in vss 16-20. Suffering within the city became acutely intense, like it had never been from the beginning of the world and never would be Ė as Jesus had foretold to His disciples in vs 21. Israel was dead in sin, and so the vultures of Godís wrath had to come with a vengeance, a vengeance that would never be repeated again in all the history of the world. After a long siege the city fell to the Romans in the year 70 and was utterly destroyed. The unrepentant people of the covenant experienced that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And the end of it was that Israel lost its identity as Godís special people.
Whatís meant by the carcass? We understand it now: the reference is to that covenant people who had committed spiritual suicide.
That brings us to our second question:
2. What the vultures signify.
Itís easy enough. As vultures are invariably attracted to a carcass, so Godís wrath is invariably attracted to covenant breaking. The carcass is Godís covenant people, hardened in sin. The vultures signify Godís covenant wrath, specifically as it unfolded in the terrible affliction surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
But now a question follows, beloved. If the carcass refers to the apostate people of Godís covenant who reject the Christ, does the Lordís answer to His disciplesí question have any significance for us today? What are we to learn from this portion of Mt 24?
There is a sense, brothers and sisters, in which we could answer that indeed, the Lordís answer to His disciples does not have much significance for us today. For it is not so that we must yet expect nation to rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and persecution to appear and love grow cold and a great tribulation to come over the world and false prophets showing great signs and wonders before Christ can come back. Let it be fixed in our minds: Jesusí words in the first section of Mt 24 pertain specifically to Jerusalem, the temple, and the destruction that had to come upon that city because of the spiritual deadness of the covenant people. That means concretely, beloved: do not think that Christ cannot come back on the clouds of heaven today, do not think that cataclysmic disasters are necessary before the end can come. The display of covenant wrath predicted in Mt 24 has already occurred, on Israel. That means also: do not be misled by todayís End Time Theology; it leads astray.
Does this mean that the Lordís answer to His disciples has no significance for today? No, beloved, it does not mean that. God has put this portion of Jesusí words in the Bible for our edification and instruction. Itís true that the judgment referred to in these verses has happened; the carcass attracted vultures in 70 AD. But brothers and sisters, if vultures were attracted to that carcass, they will be attracted to every carcass! Why? Because the Lord cannot stand any disobedience to His covenant Ė not today either!
Certainly, the judgment of God over Jerusalem was most severe; Jesus described it as "such as has not been from the beginning of the world..., and never will be." Yet that does not mean that we ought not to tremble at the notion of receiving Godís covenant wrath; it always remains a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Here I remind you of what we read from the Book of Revelation. John saw an angel coming down from heaven calling out with a loud voice that Babylon the great was fallen, fallen, with as result that Babylon has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every foul spirit and hateful bird. In other words, destruction has come upon Babylon. But what is meant by Babylon? No, the reference is not simply to that ancient city on the Euphrates River called Babylon. The reference is not to the city of Rome either. Nor is the reference to any group of godless people or powers. Specifically, the name ĎBabyloní in Rev 18 refers to the apostate church, refers to the people of God who turn from God. The reference here is to those who have tasted the goodness of God, have seen His grace in Jesus Christ, have been claimed by God to be His covenant people, but have rejected the gospel. Of these disobedient it is said in vs 5 that their sins are heaped high as heaven; theyíve hardened themselves in unbelief. Because of that unbelief the wrath of God is incensed against them; God remembers their iniquities, repays them double for their deeds. In a single day, the plagues of the Lord come, pestilence and mourning and famine and fire. And note here the parallels with the judgments listed in Lev 26 as well as that which the Lord prophesied against Jerusalem in Mt 24! The Lord judges Babylon, judges the disobedient covenant people, because He cannot stand that His covenant is broken. Where there is death, the vulture must come; where there is death amongst His covenant people, the wrath of God must come. And the wrath of the covenant God on covenant disobedience is never a small thing.
That means for us today, beloved, that we dare not die toward the Lord, commit spiritual suicide. We dare not break the covenant God in mercy made with us. He claimed us as His, delivered us from Satanís power. We dare not turn our backs on this God, refuse to believe His Word, that gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. To do that would be to bring upon ourselves the wrath of the Almighty. For wherever the carcass is, the vultures will invariably congregate.
Since the time Godís wrath was poured out on Jerusalem more than 19 centuries ago, the world has continually known wars and rumors of wars, famines, dissensions, troubles. The events of September 11 have ensured that our century has begun with unprecedented unrest, fear, terror. Add to that the AIDS epidemic ravaging other parts of the world, the economic meltdown in still other parts (eg, Japan), and itís obvious that the prosperity we prefer is not here. And what shall we say of the broken families in our land, the countless abortions, the increasing acceptance of euthanasiaÖ. According to Scripture, beloved, all of these things and so much more is Godís covenant wrath on a generation that persistently turns from God, rejects the covenant He made. Make no mistake: the impulse for history is not generated in Canberra or in Washington or in the caves of Afghanistan. History is determined by what happens in the church. If Godís people are faithful, there follows the blessing of the Lord, a blessing felt also by those who know God not. But if the people with whom the Lord made His covenant break that covenant, there must of necessity follow woe and destruction. It must follow, for God remains God. And our age is an age of apostasy, of turning away from God. So we cannot but expect displays of Godís covenant wrath in our land and in our world. And we cannot but expect, any day now, that last day when the Lord will appear as Judge to cast all His enemies into everlasting fire Ė and take all His faithful ones to Himself in glory.
What is signified by the vultures in our text? This: the Lord God pours out His fearsome covenant wrath on those who have chosen death over life. Where the carcass is, the vultures will gather. Where spiritual death has developed, the wrath of God will consume.
So the question that remains is this: Are you attracting vultures? Or has the judgment you deserve been washed away in Jesusí blood? Are you keeping Godís covenant with you, or breaking that covenant? Amen.