Living under the curse & outside the garden
The 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the north-east coast of Japan, left more than 28,000 people dead or missing and knocked out the Fukushima nuclear plant’s cooling system. The reactor’s sea-wall, designed to withstand a 5.5 metre (18 feet) wave, was breached by a surge estimated to be 14 metre (46 feet) high.
Such devastating natural disasters change people’s lives forever. They are dreadful catastrophes which wreak destruction, and tragedies which overwhelm people with great distress and can cause a high death toll. People ask where is God when innocent people suffer and die? How can He allow such calamities to happen? Doesn’t He love people?
Disasters in the Old Testament
Many natural disasters are mentioned in the Old Testament. Most were God’s instrument of punishment. The Bible says that they were God’s judgment against sin. For example, the global flood was God’s judgement of the great wickedness on the earth and the people who rejected Noah’s preaching and continued in their sinful ways (Gen. 6:3-5). God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness; there were fewer than ten righteous people in Sodom (Gen. 18:32).
God brought disastrous plagues on the Egyptians because they persecuted the Jews (Ex. 7:14 – 11:29). Once they escaped, if the Jews didn’t obey the law, God promised disasters (Deut. 28:61). This would be God’s punishment for their idolatry (Deut. 29:16-29; Jos. 24:20); the prophet Jeremiah confirmed this (Jer. 44:1-23). It was a disaster when the Jews were defeated, scattered and captured by the Babylonians. God also promised disasters on many ungodly nations (Jer. 46:21; 49:8, 32; 51:2, 64). And famines occurred, including the 7-year famine when Joseph was in Egypt (Gen. 41:53-57; 47:13-25).
Disasters in the New Testament
Disasters also occurred in the New Testament. There were earthquakes when Christ died, when He came back to life and when Paul and Silas were in prison.
In ancient times it was believed that disasters fell only on those who were extremely sinful. But Jesus taught otherwise when He mentioned “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Lk. 13:4-5). The answer was not that they deserved punishment more that the others, as suffering is not directly proportional to sin. Disasters happen to us all. All are sinners who must turn to God or perish in hell. The massacre of the Galileans who had come to Jerusalem to worship and the collapse of the tower weren’t God’s judgement on their sinfulness; they were warnings to all that unless they repented of their sin, they were doomed to eternal punishment in hell. Disasters are not necessarily God’s judgement, but they are warnings of His coming judgement unless we get right with God.
Jesus also said that the weather doesn’t discriminate between good and bad people. When He taught the disciples to love their enemies He said that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45). The lesson was that God shows His love to people without distinction.
Revelation talks about the horrible disasters that will make life on earth miserable during the coming Great Tribulation (Rev. Chapters 6; 8-18). The Bible says that they will be God’s judgement on the sin of humanity.
Disasters follow sin
After God created the universe, the Bible says “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). There were no disasters and no suffering or pain in the original creation. But after Adam and Eve sinned, God told Adam: “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-19). A radical change took place: God’s good creation was placed under a curse. Weeds grew, and nature was out of balance. Adam had to work for food. Death was introduced. Animals and people aged and died. Because of this curse we have disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, bushfires, and droughts today. The world is full of natural disasters because sin has polluted our once-perfect world. That’s not what God planned, but it is a consequence of our rebellion and sinfulness.
Paul described it like this: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18-23). Here there are more signs of the curse: all creation is under “bondage to decay” and it is groaning and suffering like a woman in childbirth. The scope is “the whole creation” so it affects Christians and the rest of God’s creation.
When people say, “how could a loving God create such a world?” they show their ignorance of history. God didn’t create it that way! We are reaping what Adam and Eve sowed. Life is a struggle for all creation and there is much suffering because we live in a fallen world. It is not what God intended. Disasters are part of the trouble that is inevitable in the sinful world (Jn. 16:33).
God’s response to disasters
What has God done about disasters? He has done something about the sin, suffering and death in our world. He sent Jesus, so that we can have eternal life without these things (Rom. 6:23).
The big picture is visualized in the diagram. God created a perfect world where there were no disasters because there was no sin. This world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. We now live under the curse and outside the Garden where there are all kinds of disasters. We live between the fall and the restoration. But God sent His Son to take the punishment for sin by dying for us. Those who accept His rescue plan become part of His new creation where there will be no disasters because there will be no sin. As long as there is sin, there is the curse and there are disasters.
Why does God allow disasters and suffering, when He has promised a new creation without disasters or suffering? Peter wrote, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:8-9). Why the delay? What seems a long time to us is not a long time to God. Because He desires everyone to repent and enjoy the new creation, God has delayed judgment. He is being patient. During this time, we can avoid God’s judgment by confessing our sins and turning to Him, realizing that Jesus has already taken our punishment.
Meanwhile we Christians wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies and look forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth (Rom. 8:19, 23). When He returns to set up His kingdom, creation will be released from the curse and will be “very good” once again. The Garden will be restored, the curse will be abolished and there will be no more suffering and disasters (Acts 3:21; Rev. 22:3).
What about Romans 8:28?
Romans 8:28 is set in the context of things to help us through difficult times, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”. This verse is addressed to believers. God’s purpose, given in the next verse, is to conform us “to the image of His Son”. God wants to make us like Jesus Christ, so we share His character. He wants our lives transformed (2 Cor. 3:18). Everything has this purpose, including disasters, suffering and tragedy. Disasters provide opportunities to grow in our divine nature and become more Christ-like (Eph.4:22-24).
But it can be difficult to balance the physical and spiritual aspects of life. Paul said that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Here we see that the blessings that are promised to believers are spiritual, not physical. Although disasters, suffering and tragedy might destroy our physical possessions, they don’t take away our spiritual blessings. God gives us what we need, not what we want. After all, Jesus died to save our spirit and soul, not our body. Of course, at the resurrection He gives us new bodies. We know God loves us, not because of how our lives go, but because of Christ’s death at Calvary.
Are disasters a sign of the end times?
When Jesus was asked about the supernatural events (or signs) that would precede His second coming to the earth, He described events that will occur in the time of Tribulation after the Rapture. Some of these events “will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Mt. 24:7b-8; Mk. 13:8; Lk. 21:11). They are not precursors to the Tribulation, but evidence of its presence. These earthquakes are also predicted in Revelation, culminating in devastating earthquakes in Jerusalem (Rev. 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18). As the supernatural events associated with these earthquakes have not yet occurred, these earthquakes are future events.
So, although future earthquakes will be a sign of the end times, I am not aware of a Biblical passage that says that current disasters are a sign of the end times. Of course some people believe that we live in the end times and the Bible says that we need to be expecting the rapture at any moment. Also, we need to realise that no matter when we live, God can call us at a moment’s notice. How do we know that we’ll even be alive tomorrow morning (Lk. 12:16-20)? Our life could end suddenly like the rich fool.
Dealing with disasters
We all will face disasters of some kind, and death sooner or later. The Bible says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Jesus said, unless we repent and turn to God, we will perish in hell. Like in First Aid, we need to look after ourselves before we can help others. Are we ready to face disasters and death? It is presumptuous for us to refer to any disaster as God’s judgment upon this earth. We can’t say this with certainty because God hasn’t told us. When Peter wrote about the end times, which are characterized by disasters, he advised us to keep praying, help the needy, and use our gifts to serve others (1 Pt. 4:7-11). Disasters provide opportunities to help, bring comfort and relief, and pray.
God is with us in disasters
When the Jews faced disasters in the Old Testament times, God said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Is. 43:2). David said, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). David was writing about the valley of the shadow of death–a time of great fear like a disaster, a tragedy, or a crisis. But when he realized that God was with him, he is comforted. Disasters don’t separate believers from God (Rom. 8:35-39). Nothing can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).
The worst is the best
Paul said that “the sting of death is sin” that is unconfessed and unforgiven (1 Cor. 15:56). Because the Lord has forgiven the sins of believers, the sting of death has been removed. That’s how to be ready to face disasters and death. Instead, for the believer, death is the beginning of eternal life. If we know that our sins are forgiven, we can face death with confidence. Like David, we know that God is with us through disasters and “the valley of death”. Death actually ushers us into God’s presence, which is the best thing that can happen! Paul said “to die is gain” because it means we’ll with Jesus (Phil. 1:21). But for unbelievers death is the beginning of eternal punishment and this is terrible. But God is giving plenty of time for people to turn to Him (2 Pt. 3:9).
Lessons for us
We have seen that disasters are a consequence of our sinful world and God is delaying the coming judgement and the perfect world without sin and suffering because He doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell, but everyone to repent so they can go to heaven.
Today disasters are God’s warnings of His coming judgment. They remind us of our need to be right with Him. They remind us that life can be taken away in an instant and there may never be a tomorrow. James warns: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). We live in an uncertain world. Disaster and tragedy could strike us at any time. Everything that happens, including disasters, is to bring us to Christ, and make us more like Him. Do we have a right relationship with Him? Live every day as if it will be your last. Those going to sacrifice in Jerusalem didn’t know that would be their last day; those working on the tower of Siloam didn’t know that would be their last day. Likewise, we don’t know if today will be our last. One day that will be true for each of us.
So where is God when disaster strikes? As usual, He is on the throne of the universe, ruling all creation, loving us and caring for us and preparing us for eternity.
Written, April 2011
In the previous article in this series we saw that some of the prophecies concerning the “day of the Lord” involved the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Outline of Future Events
In the New Testament times, prophecies about the “day the Lord” were given by Christ (Mt 24; Mk 13; Lk 21), Paul (1 Th. 5:1-11; 2 Th. 1:6-10; 2:1-12), Peter (2 Pt. 3:2-12 and John (Rev 6-20). The timing of these future events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation. These are shown in a schematic diagram (a timeline where time increases from left to right; includes events on earth and in heaven): at present the church is on earth (Rev. 2-3), the next event is the rapture when all believers (dead and alive) will be resurrected to heaven (not mentioned specifically here; there is just a jump from earth to heaven between ch 3 and 4), while the church is in heaven (Rev. 4-5) there will be a period of tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18), which will end with the return of the Lord in great power and glory (Rev. 19:11-21), followed by the 1,000 year reign of the Lord on the earth (the millennium) (Rev. 20:1-10), and then the eternal state of the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21-22). The arrows in the diagram show when all Christians will be taken to heaven and when they will return from heaven. The future “day of the Lord” relates to the events between the rapture and the new heaven and the new earth.
The Greek word translated “tribulation” (Strongs #2347) means suffering and trouble. The references to the future time of “tribulation” are also translated as “anguish”, “distress”, “trouble” and “suffering” (Mt. 24:21,29; Rev. 7:14 NIV, NLT, The Message). According to the dictionary, “tribulation” means “grievous trouble” or “severe trial”. Christians may be persecuted by the world, but this tribulation is God’s judgement on the world, which lasts for about seven years.
John wrote, “Then I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” (Rev. 5:1). The scroll contained a record of the judgements that must fall on the earth before the Lord Jesus can set up His kingdom (Rev.5:9). The judgements included a series of plagues like there were in Egypt before the exodus, which are called: six seals (Rev. 6); seven trumpets (Rev. 8 & 9); and seven bowls of God’s wrath (Rev. 16). This period of tribulation is characterised by “God’s wrath” and “God’s fury” (Rev. 6:16; 14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1,19): “For the great day of their (God’s) wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Rev. 6:17). It will be a time of intense persecution of the Jews: “Then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Mt. 24:21-22). At the end of this period, Israel is attacked from the south and the north and the armies of the world gather for the final battle at Armageddon (Rev. 16:16). Also, “Babylon the Great”, an influential religious and commercial system based in Rome, will be destroyed by the Antichrist (Rev. 17 & 18).
It is clear that these judgements are not for the church. The church is not mentioned in Rev. 6-19. Christians will not experience the tribulation as God promised the church in Philadelphia, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Rev. 3:10). Also, “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief” (1 Th. 5:4) and “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). This is about the Tribulation, not hell; as hell is a place, not a period of time. Instead, Christians will be raptured to be with the Lord – they will be taken away, like Noah was taken away from destruction of the global flood and Lot was taken away from the destruction of Sodom.
The key personalities in the Tribulation include:
- Satan and his demons, who are cast out of heaven to the earth and will persecute the Jews (Rev. 12).
- “The beast” (or Antichrist)—a political leader based in Rome who will appear as a peacemaker to solve many of the world’s problems (Rev. 16:2), and be worshipped like a god and will persecute God’s people (Rev.13:1-9). His number is 666. The Antichrist will work like Satan works (2 Th. 2:9-12). He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that that these miracles prove that he is divine. But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the Antichrist is the Messiah; God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
- “The false prophet”—a religious leader, based in Jerusalem, who uses supernatural powers to support the beast (Rev. 13:11-18). At the mid-point of the tribulation, he will set up an idol of the beast in the Jewish temple and make people worship it or be killed (Mt. 24:15).
Who will be saved during the Tribulation and enter into the Millennium?
- 144,000 Jewish believers will preach the gospel of the kingdom in the first half of the tribulation (Mt. 24:14; Rev. 7:1-8; 14:1-5). This gospel was preached at Christ’s first coming, but it was rejected by most of the Jews. Now, amidst suffering, some will turn to God and they will suffer intense persecution (Rom. 1:25-26).
- Two prophets who will witness for 3.5 years (Rev. 11:1-13). The Jewish temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem (Mt. 24:15; Rev. 11:1-2).
- There will also be Gentile believers (Rev. 7:9,10,14).
The Tribulation ends when the Lord appears in great power:
- Jesus quoted from Isaiah, saying that He would return immediately after the Great Tribulation: “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:29-30).
- The final catastrophic events that precede the appearing are world wide. Lk 21:35 “For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”
- The Lord appears as “King of kings and Lord of lords” as the supreme ruler, with believers (“the armies of heaven”) (Rev. 19:1-21). “With justice He judges and makes war” (v.11).
- The beast and the armies of the world make war against the Lord (v.19). The beast and the false prophet will be thrown into the “lake of burning sulphur” and the others will be killed (v.20).
- Today Christ is hidden and many people even deny His existence. But when He appears visibly, He will be seen by all, so that no one will be able to deny or avoid Him. Christ’s victory will be visible to all. At that time, God will reveal to the world what He has been doing with His people through all these years. So, not only is Jesus Christ revealed, but His followers will be revealed as well (Rom. 8:19; 2 Th. 2:10). God’s plan is that Christians will be with Him and like Him forever (2 Th. 2:14).
- The unsaved will be cast into hell, while the faithful will be gathered to enter the Millennium (Mt. 25:34,41): “And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Mt. 24:31).
Next Satan will be bound for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-6). As this hasn’t happened yet, we are not in the millennium today. During this period, Jesus will rule on earth as the king and those who have part of the first resurrection will reign with Him (Rev. 5:10). These are believers from the church and the tribulation periods.
Peter addressed Jews in Jerusalem, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that He may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive Him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21). Following repentance of the Jews in the tribulation, The Lord will return in power to establish His Millennial kingdom. According to Joel’s prophecy, the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people and they will prophesy. The day of Pentecost was a foretaste of this time.
“The Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to His blessings in the last days” (Hos. 3:4-5). The Jews will be blessed under the rule of Christ in the Millennium. It will be a time of restoration, peace and prosperity. All of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants will be fulfilled at this time.
Finally the Lord’s prayer will be answered, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). For example, there will be no war: “And He (God) will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more” (Is. 2:4).
After the millennium Satan will be released and deceive many people who were born during the Millennium so that they form an army to attack Jerusalem, but God will intervene with fire from heaven and Satan will be thrown into the “lake of burning sulphur”. After this, unbelievers will take part in the second resurrection, be judged before God at the great white throne according to what they have done and thrown into the lake of fire, which is called the second death (Rev. 20:71-15).
The Great Fire
The poem “The hollow men” by T S Elliott ends with:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
But he got it wrong.
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ He promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly”. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:3-9).
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be burned up. … That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Pt. 3:10, 12b). This is the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire. “The heavens” means the atmosphere, and maybe the rest of the universe, but not God’s dwelling place. It will be unexpected. All matter will be destroyed in what resembles a nuclear explosion. We know that matter is stored-up energy. At present it is held together by the Lord (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). At that time is seems as though the energy stored up in matter will be released, not with a whimper but a bang.
The “day of the Lord” is a theme that is particularly applied to the Jews and their enemies in the prophetic Scriptures from Isaiah to Revelation. It is a period of time when God intervenes in the world, primarily for judgement. It also describes God’s triumph over all His enemies and His granting security and blessing to His people. It will be a time of justice and retribution; of punishment and reward. A time when it will be clear to all that God is in control of our world. Some of the prophecies concerning the “day of the Lord” concerned the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. As these prophecies came true, so will those concerning the future.
Like food, prophecy is “sweet” and “sour/bitter” (Rev. 10:10). There is good news and there is bad news.
- The bad news is: much suffering and judgement is coming to all who reject the Saviour (during the Tribulation and eternally); the prophets warn people of their sinful ways and the need to repent and turn to God.
- The good news is: God will triumph over Satan and his demons and all who do evil; Jesus will be acknowledged as Lord and Saviour; there will be justice and He will rule during the Millennium.
Lessons for us
The choice for us is rapture or God’s wrath. What will it be for you? Only believers escape the judgment coming on the earth in the Tribulation. We need to repent and turn to God.
Since there is a coming time of Tribulation, a Millennium and a great fire, how should we live as believers?
- “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober” (1 Th. 5:6). Believers should be awake, not asleep. This means expecting Christ’s return at any moment and living for Him; not being lazy, careless, distracted from living for God, wasting time in self-indulgence, seeking wealth or fame, or falling into patterns of sinful behaviour. Secondly, believers should also be sober, not drunk. This means taking life seriously and using the opportunities we have to further the kingdom of God, instead of always seeking amusement and entertainment. It also means being self-controlled and not losing control over our behaviour including our speech, eating and drinking.
- God will rapture all believers to heaven before the Tribulation, so they are removed from the suffering of that part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:9). The rapture will be a great reunion of believers dead and alive. Like the early believers, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we eagerly waiting for it and encouraging one another withthis promise (1 Th. 5:11)?
- “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives …” (2 Pt. 3:11-12a). As the material world will be burnt up, we should not be devoted to it. Instead, live for the spiritual things that last by being holy (separated from sin) and godly (be devoted to worship and serve God).
- Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about these future prophetic events (2 Th. 2:5). This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should know and teach these things to help keep our eternal perspective.
Written, May 2007
See the other article in this series:
- The Day of the Lord. Part 1: The past
The Bible teaches that God rules over everything—He’s the Boss. He is also holy, good, loving and just. Yet we live in a world where there is much suffering and evil and God’s justice and His other attributes are not evident to all. People ask, if there is a God, “Why doesn’t He do something about it?”. Well, He will.
In this article we will look at a major topic of Scripture that few Christians understand—“the day of the Lord”. This phrase occurs at least 20 times in the Bible between Isaiah and Revelation; it’s always in a prophetic passage that addresses the future.
Old Testament Prophecies
God made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants. These were physical and spiritual blessings which God will always keep. They included things such as prominence, prosperity and the promised land. However, whether the Jews experienced these promises at a particular time depended on their obedience to God’s laws. When they obeyed, they would prosper “in the land He has given you” (Deut. 28:1-14). When they disobeyed they would be punished and driven out of the promised land (Deut. 28:15-68; 29:1-29). If they turned back to the Lord, then the blessings would resume and they would return to the promised land (Deut. 30:1-20).
According to Scripture, after Abraham’s time there were two categories of people: Jews (God’s chosen people) and Gentiles (those who were not Jews). The 17 books on prophecy in the Old Testament are addressed to the Jews. The phrase the “day of the Lord” occurs in the prophetic books between Isaiah and Malachi (see timeline). In this period the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in about 586 BC and the Jews were captured and scattered to other nations.
The themes addressed by the Jewish prophets (Isaiah to Malachi) that are relevant to our topic include:
- The sin and failure of God’s chosen people
- A call to repentance
- God’s judgement on them if they didn’t repent, which included captivity and being dispersed among other nations
- God’s judgement on the surrounding nations
- The coming Messiah and His rejection and power and glory. They didn’t realise that there would be two comings of Christ with the church period between these comings.
- The restoration of God’s chosen people, which included returning to the promised land
- The Messiah’s universal reign
Let’s look at what some of the passages that mention the “day of the Lord” say:
“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa. 13:6).
“See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:9).
“For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near—a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations (Ezek. 30:3).
“The LORD thunders at the head of His army; His forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys His command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11).
“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Joel 2:30-31).
“The great day of the LORD is near—near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the LORD is bitter, the Mighty Warrior shouts His battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on all people and they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of His jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (Zeph. 1:14-18).
The “day of the Lord” refers to any time when God puts down evil and rebellion. In these cases it was referring to immediate judgements (such as their captivity in Babylon) and those that had not yet been fulfilled (which we will look at in Part 2 of this series). In particular it refers to a time of persecution and trials for the Jews—Jeremiah called it a time of trouble for Jacob (or Jacob’s trouble; Jer. 30:7).
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. It happened like they said. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. But Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi prophesied about the “day of the Lord” after the captivity (see the Old Testament timeline).
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation.
The Fall of Jerusalem
Now we move ahead by over 400 years in time (see timeline). In the week before His death, the Lord prophesied about great tribulation (“pressure” or suffering or distress) (Mt 24:21-22) and the return of the Lord to the earth in great power (v.29-31) that is associated with the day of the Lord.
“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mk. 13:1). Apparently, Herod’s Temple was ten stories high and adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. But Jesus predicted that is would be reduced to rubble, with not one stone left on another: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:2).
Furthermore, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:20-24).
In AD 70, it happened like He said—the ungodly Jews were scattered. The sign of this was armies of the Roman Empire around Jerusalem.According to the Bible, Jerusalem will remain under Gentile control until the Lord returns to the earth.
Some of the Jewish and Christ’s prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in AD 70. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. However, it is clear from the Lord’s Olivet discourse (Mt 24, 25; Mk 13; Lk 21), that at this time there were still unfulfilled prophecies about the “day of the Lord”. Similar prophecies are also given in 1&2 Thessalonians and Revelation, which was written after AD70 (see timeline).
The day of Pentecost
The day of Pentecost is an example of the law of double reference.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Act 2:17-21).
Here Paul applies a prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28-32) to the day of Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy was given to Jews and “Your sons and daughters”, which meant that the prophecy applied to descendants of the Jews. We will see in Part 2 of this series that the complete fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy is when the Lord returns to the earth in great power and glory (v.30-31; 19-20) and the faithful of that time will be rescued to go into the Millennium (v.32; v.21). The gift of the Holy Spirit will be given to all the faithful, not just the chosen few as was the case in Joel’s time—they will receive prophetic messages; which will be revealed by dreams and visions (v.28-29; v.17-18).
How does this apply to the day of Pentecost? Well, those who were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), were all Jews (Acts 2:22). The Holy Spirit indwelt all believers on that day, not just the chosen few as had been the case beforehand. Also, they were given prophetic messages (God had used dreams and visions to bring messages to the Old Testament prophets). So, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was active, as He will be in the Millennium.
After the day of Pentecost, there were three categories of people: Jews, Gentiles and the Church: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The promises given to the Jews are primarily earthly, and those given to the church are primarily heavenly. When interpreting Scripture, we need to be careful to note who is being addressed: the Jews or the Church.
The “day of the Lord” is a theme that is particularly applied to the Jews and their enemies in the prophetic Scriptures from Isaiah to Revelation. It is a period of time when God intervenes in the world, primarily for judgement. Some of the prophecies concerning the “day of the Lord” concerned the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. As these prophecies all came true, there is no reason to doubt that the remaining prophecies about the “day of the Lord” will also come true. This gives us confidence in the prophetic Scriptures yet to be fulfilled.
Written, May 2007
See the other article in this series:
- The Day of the Lord. Part 2: The future
God is all good, holy, wise and powerful, but He permits evil and suffering as they are a result of sinful choices by human beings. We are not programmed like robots or computers. God gives us free will to choose good or evil. Free will cannot exist without the possibility of evil. Creatures free to love God must also be free to ignore Him. Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:6). Since then, everyone is a sinner deserving God’s judgment (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). When people act outside God’s will, evil and suffering result, and are common in the world (Gen. 3:16-19).
Satan and his followers will suffer eternal torment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10,15). This will happen when Christ returns to judge evil. In the parable of the weeds, those judged are thrown “into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:24-30; 36-42).
God is not limited by time as we are. He can spread out or concentrate His activities. When scoffers doubted God’s judgment, Peter wrote of a coming “day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:3-9).
God promises to judge evil, but not immediately (Rom. 2:5-11; 3:25; 2 Th. 1:5-10; 2 Pet. 3:7). He is patient, giving people time to repent and be rescued from coming judgment: “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise … He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He waited 120 years before He sent the flood (Gen. 6:3). God could judge wickedness immediately, but instead He waits patiently so that people can repent (Rom. 9: 22-23).
God loves people more than anything (Jn. 3:16). That’s why He is patient in not judging them immediately. He is capable of destroying evil – but not without destroying human freedom. To destroy evil, He’d have to destroy us.
Published, February 2006