Flee the wrath to come
It is surely time to get serious, says Philip Wren, before the wrath that is surely to come soon.
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?””
And so begins one of the most inspired books outside the Bible. John Bunyan’s, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an outstanding work of literature. It is also a repository of Christian truth.
The story begins with the main character, Christian, being tormented by what he reads in the Bible. He goes home and shares his distress with his wife and children. They, with his relatives and neighbours, are hardened against his message. They mock and chide him hoping that this is a passing phase. But the torment of Christian’s soul does not subside. He fears death because after that comes judgment.
While wandering in the fields Christian meets Evangelist. The story continues; “Then said Evangelist, “If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?” He answered, “Because I know not whither to go.” Then he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, “Fly from the wrath to come.””
“The man therefore read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully, said, “Whither must I fly?” Then said Evangelist, (pointing with his finger over a very wide field,) “Do you see yonder wicket-gate?” The man said, “No.” Then said the other, “Do you see yonder shining light?” He said, “I think I do.” Then said Evangelist, “Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto, so shalt thou see the gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.”
” ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is the story of Christian’s journey out of the ‘City of Destruction’ toward the ‘Celestial City.’ On his travels he meets many who would gladly discourage or divert him from the way. Eventually he reaches his goal and enters the gates of the city. His journey to that city starts with his being warned that he must ‘fly from the wrath to come’.
First published in 1678, the book has been continuously in print ever since. It is second only to the Bible as the all-time best seller in the English language.
Prepared for Harvest
When we get to glory I expect to find this impoverished English tinker, who spent much of his life in prison for his dissenting beliefs, up among the greatest advocates of the Christian faith. If English speaking people read any other book beside the Bible it would have been ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. With its message that we need to flee the wrath to come and be resolute in our journey to the celestial city, it prepared the ground for the Methodist revival which, in the next century, would transform Britain.
The following quote is from a 19th Century book about that revival. “When people came to meet in the classes, which he [Wesley] had formed in different parts of the country, they were asked but one question, which was, “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come, and be saved from your sins?” If they said ‘Yes’ and their conduct showed that they were sincere in what they said they were allowed to meet in class and no further questions were asked them.1” How many churches today require, ‘a desire to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from sins’, as the primary qualification for membership?
When Jesus quoted the saying, “One Sows and another reaps” (John 4:37), He was commenting on the Samaritans eagerness to find out if He was the promised Messiah. In Samaria Jesus found people ripe for harvest. This contrasted with the hardness of the Jews in Jerusalem and the seeking of miracles in Galilee. [Read John 4: 1 - 54].
What Bunyan sowed Wesley reaped.
Scripture testifies that fields are not always ripe for harvest. There are times when the ground is hard and unproductive. We live in an age in which the Adversary, Satan, has been busy thickly sowing tares into what was once good ground. The ground being neglected has become hardened. The good corn struggles to grow among the thorns and thistles.
The God who warns
In the Bible when people became hardened in their rebellion, God sent messengers to warn of judgement. The messengers were usually mocked and ignored, but they remained faithful to the call of God to be watchmen for the nations.
For 100 years Noah was building the Ark. Years before, Enoch had warned of coming judgment. The Ark was a physical reminder of that warning. This vast project must have been noticed and caused people to ask what it was all about. Noah would have repeated his great grandfather’s warning. There was room in the Ark for many to have escaped the Flood, but when the judgment fell, none came to find shelter from the storm.
When the angels visited Lot, they told him to warn those close to him of the coming destruction. His sons in law thought that he was joking. Only Lot and his daughters escaped the wrath poured out on Sodom and Gomorrah.
The prophets of Israel and Judah constantly warned of the consequences of going after other gods and copying the surrounding nations. The people would not listen and so they were sent into exile.
John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah. He went to the wilderness of Judea and preached a baptism of repentance. When multitudes started coming to him he condemned them declaring, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to ﬂee from the wrath to come?”(Luke 3:7) Calling his audience ‘vipers’ would not have added to his popularity, but it forcefully conveyed the need to repent.
Later John the Baptist questioned Jesus’ ministry. His questioning reveals that he had not foreseen a separation between the ‘day of the Lord’ when, “He will …… gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable ﬁre.”4 (Luke 3:17) and the Messiah’s first coming. God, in His mercy, has delayed judgment for 2000 years. But delay does not mean that He will forever hold back on keeping His word.
We are living on the brink of another intervention by God into human history. It is an intervention comparable only to the Flood. With that in mind, what message should the church be bringing to this fallen world?
In Revelation chapter 14 three final warnings are given before the outpouring of God’s wrath.
First comes the preaching of the everlasting gospel to every nation, tribe, tongue and people (Revelation 14:6-7). When that everlasting gospel is rejected by the nations. God has to move on to the second of the final warnings, the fall of Babylon (Revelation 14:8).
Babylon is judged because it caused the nations to share in her fornications. In the Bible fornication by nations refers to the worship of false gods. I believe that Babylon describes the global, economic and religious system which we call civilisation. The fall of Babylon opens the way for the final warning.
For a brief period of time Satan will be allowed to rule the earth through his ‘man of sin’. In Revelation this ‘man of sin’ is called the beast (Revelation 14:911). After these warnings comes wrath.
We are living in the time of the first warning. The gospel is being preached in all the world. It will continue to be preached and many individuals are still to be saved. But increasingly we see the nations of the world hardening themselves to the Christian faith. Because of that hardening God will allow the second of the final warnings to come about.
Babylon will soon fall. Revelation chapter 18 describes Babylon as suffering sudden and total economic collapse. In the ensuing chaos, lawlessness will prevail. Despair over lawlessness will open the way for mankind to accept Satan’s rule. Finally, God will pour out His wrath on Satan’s kingdom and a rebellious world.
Facing such turbulent times, what message would the head of the church, Jesus Christ, have us bring to the world? Is the gospel as presented by many churches robust enough for the times which lie ahead?
Bunyan and Wesley saw themselves as rescuing people from the City of Destruction. They warned of the need to escape from the wrath of the final judgement. The true Christian walk starts with the tormented knowledge that we are sinners destined for wrath. We need a way of escape. That way is via the Cross and Jesus Christ.
The robust message which the church has to bring to a lawless and chaotic world is one which warns of wrath. We know that will open us up to ridicule. Peter wrote that in the last days scoffers would come who mock the idea of God intervening (2 Peter 3:3-6). As in the days of Noah, Lot and the prophets it may be that many will scoff and few will listen. Christians who recognise the reality of God’s wrath will reject compromise with the world and hold fast to His word.
Wesley posed the question to those who would join the movement, “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come, and be saved from your sins?” In so doing he made clear that the Methodist movement was not there for everyone. It existed for those who were serious about salvation. We would have a strong and united church if we followed his example.
1 A Few Plain Words concerning the Established Church and the Wesleyans by a Methodist Minister, 1841