Genesis 6:17 “I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.”
There are two great questions which face anyone reading the account of Noah and his flood. The first is theological and the second is historical. The theological question focuses on the nature of God, does he punish sin? The historical question focuses on the flood and the ark, did it happen? Today we are going to examine the first question, and it is by far the more important and, incidentally, more fascinating question, because it raises the question of the nature of God. We are told in our text that God was so grieved at all the wickedness taking place on earth that he decided that the just and fitting response was to destroy all life under the heavens. What does that tell us about God? What is God like? What is his character? What are his attributes? With whom are we creatures dealing? Don’t you want some light on such questions? Surely you do. That is why we walk to a gathering of Christians on a Sunday, to hear about God. Who is God? Who is this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? That is a prime question. Get that right and much that follows will also be right; get it wrong and everything else in time and eternity will go wrong.
People can make fundamental mistakes. They get aboard a plane which is going to Sydney Australia when they want to go to Sydney Nova Scotia. Both are fine planes capable of flying anywhere, flown by qualified pilots; both places are called Sydney; it seems a minor difference, but you take the wrong plane and you end up at the opposite end of the earth. Initial mistakes can be fundamental mistakes. I was standing in the kitchen of some of our members this week. It had been wired by an electrician who had made a basic mistake. He had muddled up two cables. He had wired the ceramic hob with its four hot plates to a normal plug with a 13 amp fuse, while the mere washing machine he had wired right into the mains on a specially strengthened cable and fuse. What happened as a result of that basic mistake? The cooker plug, through which all that power flowed to heat two or three saucepans, but equipped with its 13 amp fuse, finally melted at lunch time last Sunday. That one initial mistake of the electrician was a fundamental mistake. It could have resulted in a fire in the kitchen and the house burning down. I am saying that you dare not make a fundamental mistake about the nature of God. If you are saying, “Well, I think of God like this . . .” then have you checked it out by the Bible? Could you be worshipping simply a projection of your own self? Could you be wrong? Is he the God of these chapters in Genesis, the God of Noah’s flood, the God whose praises we have sung today, the God to whom we have prayed?
All men know what God is like from his creation. The hills, rivers and lakes, the birds in the sky, the sun and the stars, the sea and the sunsets declare to us one message of their Creator’s glory and power. How mighty and majestic is the God who made all this. All the men and women we meet, in their kindness, creativity, rationality and with the voices of their conscience, reveal that they are made in the image of God. They tell us that he is a personal God. So we learn of God from what we see and hear all around us in the creation and in mankind, but there is a special way we know God, one which is not flawed by sin. His prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible were carried along by revelations from God and they speak to us about the grace and the mercy of God. The Lord Jesus Christ above all others is the one who speaks on behalf of God, and he shows us what God is like because Jesus and God are one. The question of the proof of the existence of God is answered by the fact of the existence in our world in space and time of the Son of God, who, incidentally, speaks very positively of Noah and the flood.
So, once again, here is the question I am setting before us; does this God who spoke to Noah, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the only God there is, does actually he punish sin? It is an awesome thought, a God of illimitable power, the Creator and the Sustainer of the whole Universe, the Lord before whom the cosmos floats like a speck of dust in a beam of sunlight, and he . . . punishes . . . sin? If he does then what a punishment it would have to be! What a concept – the punishment inflicted by the infinite, eternal, immeasurable one! Is it so? Are we right in speaking or even thinking like that? Is there a more important question for us to resolve today? I can’t think of anything more crucial than this issue, and yet I face two personal obstacles;
i] I am conscious of the absurdity of my own position, a man standing before others and telling them about the nature of our Creator, the God who is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. A smaller than average shrimp is speaking to all the fish of the oceans of the world on behalf of . . . a whale. An ant is talking to the beasts of the jungle on behalf of an elephant. Who is going to heed a tadpole? A fellow sinner is speaking to you on behalf of the God who is uncreated light in whom is no darkness at all. What responsibility and what folly! I must plead with you to face up to this fact that the one and only Almighty God does indeed punish sin, that he will punish you for your sin, and I deeply feel my lack of weight, of Christlikeness and sobriety to charge you with this reality. I should be full of God for such a message. No wonder ministers run away from such themes. They preach to their congregations, “How to . . .” messages each week – how to have a happier marriage, how to be a peace with yourself, and so on. Yet this preaching about God by a man like me is God’s way of building his church. God puts his treasure in pots of clay. He chooses not to use angels but mortal men, young and old, whom he has called and gifted, as his mouthpieces as long as they preach his Bible. God uses lisping, stammering tongues and then he does not allow a word of his truth fall to the ground. I may not defy my heavenly calling. You must heed whatever I say that is true. God spoke through Balaam’s donkey and he may speak through me.
ii] More than that I am conscious that while I am speaking of a God who punishes sin that this is a time of Islamic revival, when the one message that comes to us from Islamic terrorists is that God is angry with the western world, and that the suicide bombers are his servants punishing our sin. We are weary of their violence and threats and arrogance, aren’t we? What a wretched God these terrorists are serving! I could be tempted to cry out, “Tell me of a God who is a loving Father, whose Son Jesus Christ offers himself as our personal Saviour. No more of this punishing God; no more of this language please!”
Those are my reservations, but they dare not make me mute. Most other preachers are mute. They don’t bring the living God to bear on their congregations. I’m not hearing sermons about God. Those preachers have been the single greatest cause of the steady decline of Christianity in Wales. So I must speak up.
1. SIN MERITS PUNISHMENT BECAUSE IT IS REBELLION AND DECEIT.
Men say that sin is like a debt that can be written off. “What’s this talk about punishing people? It’s God’s right surely, not to punish sin. Why can’t he just let people off?” They remind us how students go off to college and exceed their budget, but their loving parents shrug and write it off. “There is no need to punish them,” men say. “Waive the debt!” and so they claim that God does the same. I think that parents may do that for the early college debts, as a child is learning to cope looking after himself away from home for the first time, but what if persistently, by wild spending on drink and clothes and entertainment, he runs up a huge debt? Won’t there come a time when his parents will say, “Son, you’re on your own. No more help from us.” In other words your parents will finally let the punishment come to you for your spendthrift ways. You have to pay the consequences of your folly.
Let me ask you whether you think of God as simply a creditor dealing with debtors? No he is not. Sin is far more than a debt. Sin is rebellion and sin is deceit; rebellion against a just and patient King, and deceit against a loving Father, and whenever there is a rebellion and deceit many people get hurt and some die.
i] Sin is the fierce rebellion of insignificant creatures against their Creator. Adam and Eve were shown such love, made in God’s image, given the whole world, forbidden just one little thing, to take the fruit from one tree as the focus of their submission, and that was just for a probationary period. Just one prohibition; just one boundary marker, and they defied it! The serpent appears with a familiar line of patter; “Break free from this nice but heavily-controlled mundanity. Come and taste the real life.” That is what he said. How would you feel if a real snake of a man began to influence your children to take a course of action that resulted in their death? You’d been a great parent to your kids, but this snake secretly comes into their lives and soon he’s calling the shots; he’s selling them drugs and introducing them to pornography and crime and fast cars. “Come alive! Explore life!” he’s saying. They do just what he says, and they die as a result. Would you be angry with that snake of a man for destroying your children and your relationship with them? Wouldn’t you want to punish him to prevent him from ever hurting other families as he’d destroyed yours? You surely would. Punishment would be just.
One message stood out for me in a popular film called The Truman Show. The film is an imaginary story of a man called Truman Burbank who has spent his life unaware that he’d been living on a vast film set for twenty years, ignorant that all the details of every single day of his life were being filmed by 5000 cameras and projected all over the world as a unique soap opera, watched by billions on every continent. Everyone else in this little town called ‘Seahaven’ was an actor; Truman is the only one who for years is naively unaware that his life is being lived in the midst of one immense cosmeticized soap. But slowly and surely he realises what is happening and carefully plots his escape. He battles through storms to the distant door of the film set and steps out into the real world, and at that moment, I have been told, at the end of the film, in cinemas all over the world, audiences applauded. Truman was escaping from bondage; he was exchanging the constraints of a managed world for freedom. He was becoming a true man.
We all agree that what Truman wanted was good because he was a man being manipulated by other men. The whole of the soap called “The Truman Show” was a display of voyeurism, but the message I got from the film was an anti-Christian message. It said all authority and control are evil. The man in charge of the Truman Show was named Christof and he is the villain of the film because he was restricting and limiting Truman, keeping him from reality. He was a despicable man, but, hang on a moment, where are we ourselves living? This world of ours is not a soap. This is the real world and you are living the one life you will ever be given in God’s world. Poor Truman was being forced to live in some wretched controlled environment with all his actions monitored by other sinners. Our world isn’t like that; it’s been made by God, full of beauty and freedom and every good and pleasing gift. Our Creator doesn’t take our joy away by curbing our liberty, when, for example, he warns us not to steal, or lie, or murder, or abuse women or children and so on. Those laws make our liberty sweet. Are you seeking to escape from this world and its laws given by our Maker? I want to tell you that on the other side of whatever exit door men tell you exists there is . . . nothing! There is death.
Freedom to do whatever you want and so become like God can be a terrible freedom. In a thousand different ways this past week I have exercised my freedom wrongly and destructively. I’ve got the freedom to be patient and supportive of my wife. Yesterday I might have exercised my freedom to be impatient and critical, and then for hours I might bear the burden of a heart of guilt. My freedom is my worst enemy when I use it to defy God. Sin is rebellion against God. And God replies, “If you live without me you are going to die.” The serpent gets its head crushed for pulling down God’s children. The Lord will destroy the devil.
ii] Sin is also deceit; it is spreading a lie about the nonexistence of God. Sin is a defamation of God’s great name. Sin says that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist. Let me us this illustration of Ben Cooper (Just Love: Why God Must Punish Sin, The Good Book Company, 2005, p. 78ff). You go home but your key doesn’t open the front door. You discover that your locks have all been changed. You get in through your back window but you don’t recognize anything. Every single personal piece of property or any reference to you has been removed from the house. Your name is no longer on your books; your albums of photographs are missing replaced by another family’s history; your documents are all gone; all your clothes are absent; the house has been painted from top to bottom and you have been expunged from everywhere. Nothing of yours remains. Magnets hold photographs of different people on the refrigerator. Are you angry? Of course, you are outraged. “How dare they do this?” you ask. You discover thousands of lies have been told about you to your neighbours and reporters. Your existence has been well nigh wiped out.
That is what sin has done to the living God. Sin tells lies to our whole world – a world that actually lives and moves and has its being in God. Sin says that God doesn’t exist; every trace of him is removed from people’s homes and lives, from their schools, from Sundays, from entertainment and politics and the media. The living God who made all things has been banished from his own creation. How does the Creator and Sustainer of the world respond to man in rebellion against him and lying about him saying he doesn’t exist? Isn’t God indignant? Outraged? This lie keeps people from truth and reality, from abundant life; the knowledge of the blessed God, forgiveness of sins, entry into heaven. What wickedness – to take all that away from needy people. Surely you can understand why God punishes rebellion and slander. God is refuting each lie when he punishes sin. God is saying, “I am alive and I am all powerful, and these lies all come to nought.”
2. GOD IS WILLING TO SHOW HIS WRATH.
The apostle Paul tells us that God is willing to display his wrath; “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known,” (Roms. 9:22). Aren’t there certain actions that are so heinous that we believe that they are outrageously wrong. That people who behave like that deserve to stay in prison for the rest of their lives or even forfeit their lives. A General Practitioner kills over 200 elderly people. A school caretaker with a history of child abuse kills two little girls. Aren’t you outraged? Aren’t there occasions when outrage is the morally correct response? Or are you a cold indifferent personality? Let me give you some biblical instances of outrage to sin.
i] Think of what King David did in taking a loyal soldier’s wife, getting her pregnant and then arranging for her husband to be killed. This King was the author of the 23rd Psalm, a man filled with the Holy Spirit and the anointed ruler of Israel and Judah. How could he behave so despicably? What did God do? He sent his prophet Nathan to confront David; we read of it in Chapter 12 of 2 Samuel. “The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, ‘There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.’” (2 Sam. 12:1-4). The poor man had one lamb while the rich man had everything, but the millionaire sent his bully boys down to the cottage and snatched the one thing the poor man possessed and they killed it. David’s reaction was immediate, “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity’” (2 Sam.12:5&6). David burned with anger; he judged that such a pitiless monster deserved to be punished.
ii] The Lord Jehovah looks at Jerusalem during the life of Jeremiah and the whole city is evil. This is what God says about their conduct in Jeremiah 32, “They set up their abominable idols in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin” (vv. 34&35). Do you see the idol to Baal erected in the Temple and its priests and priestesses plying their trade there? Do you see a line of men carrying their own children, babies and toddlers and cutting the throats of little girls before the idol Molech so that they will get victory in the next war? How do you feel? How does God feel? Not indifferent, not shrugging his shoulders, but outraged. Filled with wrath at such evil and ready to show it. So God sends in the Babylonian army and they level Jerusalem to the ground and take all its population into slavery. That is the punishment he brings to bear on Jerusalem and all its inhabitants. He is a God who says, “I want to show just how much I hate actions like that – murdering children. I will show you that I am God.” So King David outraged at what men do to men and God is outraged at what men do to men.
iii] Now the Son of God, Jesus Christ; he sees a beggar lying at the gate of a rich man year after year, disdained and ignored by the rich man in his life of luxury. Lazarus the beggar was seriously ill, covered in sores which the dogs licked, but the rich man did nothing at all to help him. What happened? The beggar was a believer and when he died he went to heaven. The rich man died and went to hell and was in agony in the fire. The Son of God, gentle Jesus, meek and mild, told us of this. God waited for years for the rich man to change. Even if he did not go out himself to the gate and tend to the beggar’s disease that did he send a servant out with warm water and towels and ointment and food? No. Nothing at all and God was outraged at the sins of omission and the lovelessness. The rich man went to hell. The Lord Jesus told us. God is willing to show his wrath to sinners.
Noah’s Flood is the great expression of the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the men and women who filled the world with sin.
3. GOD WILL PUNISH SIN BECAUSE THOUGH HE IS LOVE, HE IS NOT ONLY LOVE, HE IS LIGHT; HE IS A CONSUMING FIRE.
Many people know that the Bible teaches that God is love, but they don’t know that it also teaches that God is light, and that in him is no darkness at all. God is Jehovah the Lord of the hosts of heaven. God is mercy and grace. God is our salvation, our refuge and strength, a sun and shield. God is greater than all the gods, greater than man, mighty, exalted in power, clothed with terrible majesty, the king of the earth. God is Spirit. He is one. He is a holy and a righteous judge. God is a consuming fire. All these things are true of the one living God. Considering God is what I imagine it must be like to look at Ayers Rock in the heart of Australia. The sun rises in the east and shines on it at dawn setting up a pattern of shadows and reflections, and then at the end of the day the sun’s rays are from the west and the rock changes colour again and shows new patterns. There are cloudy formations during the day, the light is different so that from dawn to dusk the appearance of the unchangeable rock changes; it is always changing, so I am told. God is one immutable Lord, and yet seen from different perspectives he is light . . . love . . . a consuming fire . . . mercy . . . grace . . . justice, and so on. The Son of God holds a child in his arms. The Son of God makes a whip and drives the moneychangers out of the temple. The same God seen in different circumstances.
God is love. God is a consuming fire. Can his anger, and his determination to punish sin be reconciled with his love? Let’s look at one of the two places in the Bible where the expression ‘God is love’ is to be found, in I John 4:7-11, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
John’s great concern is to stir up believers to keep loving one another because this is the best evidence that they are real Christians. They love one another like Christ loves them. John is saying, “Don’t tell me that you’re a Christian when you loathe another believer for whom your Saviour bled and died.” Think of how God has loved you. He knew all about you, has seen the worst things you’ve done, and yet God loved you so much that he sent his Son into the world that we might live through him; there’s no life without Jesus Christ. What wonderful love that God sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice, or a propitiation, for our sins. How do we know that God loves us? In this staggering way, in his giving his own Son to hang on a cross and die for us. Jesus propitiated God’s anger towards our sin by taking full responsibility for it, and answering to God for it, entering into the anathema of God – our just condemnation on Golgotha as he is the Lamb of God. God sent his only begotten Son, the one whom he loved so dearly, to die the accursed death of the cross.
There is an old illustration of God’s love in sending his own Son to Golgotha. A bridge-keeper had to operate a lifting bridge for the passing river traffic. One day his little boy tripped and fell into the bridge lifting mechanism; he was stuck in the gears. In a minute or two an express train was due. It had to cross the river and then the bridge would be brought down. Nearer and nearer this express train hurtled and the bridge-keeper had to make a horrifying decision. He could leave his post to rescue his son and ignore the bridge, but then the train would crash into the river, killing hundreds of people, or he could lower the bridge to save the train but in so doing would crush his own son to death. He had to come to a decision. The approaching train and it passengers demanded he save them and he lowered the bridge. You understand that he was not going to crush his son to death if there were no need, if that train were not due for another hour then he could delay pushing the buttons and pulling the levers and crushing the child to death. Such an action, if it were not absolutely necessary, wouldn’t be mere child abuse; that would be dreadful murder.
The bridge-keeper gritted his teeth and lowered the bridge. He sacrificed his own son so that many others might live. You say that that is a gruesome story, but Golgotha is gruesome – darkness, three men slowly dying in agony nailed to crosses, a spear thrust into a man’s side, a sledgehammer breaking legs, gambling, chants of mockery and hatred. Now no illustration is perfect; the failures in that illustration are manifold, that the people on the train are all anonymous to the bridge keeper, while all the people of God were chosen and loved by God from before the foundation of the world. He knew the names and the sins of each one of us. The story is also a failure in that that boy died by accident, by stumbling into the bridge mechanism, whereas Jesus chose to die that death. When it was evident that there was no other cup he could possibly drink Jesus picked up this cup and drank it; he chose to die this death. He too loves all the people personally for whom he sheds his blood. The illustration is imperfect; it simply illustrates the willingness of a man to give up something very precious so that many others might be spared. We would spare our children wouldn’t we? We would do anything rather than let our children suffer, and yet God’s love was such that he did not spare his Son from Golgotha.
The point is this, that unless it weren’t absolutely essential for Jesus Christ to die, God wouldn’t have allowed his Son to endure such pain and shame. God could have rescued him or prevented it, but he didn’t. Why did God punish God the Son like that? He was without sin, and his Father loved him so much. It was not God’s caprice; it was not that God is a sadomasochist. Then why did he die? It was because God loved us sinners, and by Jesus’ death the anger of God towards us sinners is propitiated. By the shedding of the blood of God the Son there is remission of sin. Christ died bearing the punishment we all deserve. On Calvary he himself entered the hell towards which we’re heading so that we may enter heaven, saved by his precious blood. So on the day of judgment, John says, there will be no fear in our hearts because God has perfectly loved us and taken all our sin. It has all been dealt with in the dying love of Jesus. God’s perfect love casts out our fear. “Have no worries,” says God, “your punishment has all been dealt with.”
This past week I came across the story of a man who during the last years has become a Christian. The man’s name is Ben Cooper and his wife is Catherine and it was through the life and words of one of her colleagues in work that she became interested in Christianity. He patiently answered her questions until he had to move to Paris, but before he said good-bye he asked them if they would visit a friend of his and talk to him about the faith. So they did that a little reluctantly, and arranged a meeting, feeling rather embarrassed and wishing they hadn’t gone there but the old man was excited to see them, sitting them down and giving them each a Bible. This is how Ben recently described that conversation:
‘What do you think happened on the cross?’ asked the gray-haired man in the armchair opposite. We were at a loss to know what to say. What sort of answer was he hunting for? That the man called Jesus was executed? It seemed too obvious. Our mumbled replies made him realise that he needed to start a little further back. He tried a different tack. ‘Do you think it’s right,’ he asked, ‘that people should be punished for the things they do wrong?’
Now that was a question! I can’t tell you the complex series of thoughts that went through my head when he asked that. You see, at the time, I was studying economics; indeed, a rather rarefied branch of economics called ‘Game Theory’, which has plenty to say about why and how people are punished. I was just about to give a classic economist’s answer and say, ‘Well, it depends…’ But I stopped myself and thought for a second. Putting aside all the academic complications, what did I really think? Did I really think that it’s right for people to be punished for the things they do wrong? Well, maybe – certainly sometimes. Hesitantly, I said so.
He nodded, and then got us to open the Bibles he had given us. And he explained what had happened on the cross. God must punish wrongdoing. God must punish sin, he explained. Many people have a view that God is ‘just love’ in a way that means he won’t punish sin, he said. But to truly understand the love of God, we need to understand that God is also just.
I didn’t really get it then, at least not in any depth. It felt at the time that I could so easily have argued against it. Indeed, I could have argued in a rather sophisticated way against it. I could have argued in such a way as to have left this man, with his slightly manic look and his Bible in his hands, high and dry, baffled by the technicalities of modern approaches to the theory of punishment.
But (thank God) I didn’t. I understood enough to know that, whatever the textbooks and theorists say, I, Ben Cooper, desperately needed God’s forgiveness. I understood enough to see that God couldn’t just forget about the wrong stuff in my life, that he had to deal with it. So, for the first time in my life, and against every instinct, I prayed. On that day in October 1993, I prayed that God would forgive me. And Catherine followed a few minutes after. We had been married for three years. Nothing now would ever quite be the same again (Ben Cooper, Just Love: Why God Must Punish Sin, The Good Book Company, 2005, pp, 7&8).
So in the flood we are meeting a foretaste of God’s hatred of sin, what we see most clearly of all in the Bible not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament, on Golgotha in the death of God’s holy child Jesus. What is it saying to us? To those of you who are not yet Christians that you must respond as Ben Cooper responded and ask God to deliver you from the punishment your sins deserve by forgiving you through the cross-work of his Son, Jesus Christ. You must pray that prayer and pray it on and on until you know that God has heard and answered your prayer.
To those of you who are Christians, then the next time you realize you are on the brink of committing a sin, stop and think about what I’ve said. Consider the intensity with which God hates what you are about to do. Go back to the Bible and just feel God’s outrage; feel the heat of his language in expressing the revulsion of what you are about to do. Look at the cross, the greatest judgment of God in Scripture, where these sins of ours had to be atoned for by Jesus’ dying love. God hates the thing you are planning to do so much that he sent his Son to die for it! Then pour contempt on all your pride, and punish the sin that wants to master you by starving it to death. Take the medicine of the word of God day by day. Take hold of the solution God provides. I am throwing you a lifeline and urging you to grab it and keep hold of it very, very tightly and keep looking to the Saviour Jesus Christ.
24th September 2006 GEOFF THOMAS