It has been said that you cannot scare someone into heaven. People have said this because there have been people throughout time who have preached hell fire and brimstone sermons. They say that these preachers have only one motive: that is simply to spook their listeners and, after terrifying them, get them to come to Christ.
I would like you to think about that statement for a moment though: You cannot scare someone into heaven. I want you to ask yourself whether or not that is true. Can you scare someone into a state of salvation?
I have to admit, if that were a question I had to answer on a test or a presbytery exam, I think that I might struggle to answer it.
On the one hand, I think that there is a lot of truth to the statement. If you are going to go to heaven, you need to come on the right terms. You can’t simply say, “Hell sounds like a bad place. I don’t think I want to go there. I rather go to heaven.” Obviously, you can’t do that. There has to be a sincere love for God and a genuine appreciation for the saving work of Christ. Moreover, to get to heaven you need to be drawn by God’s grace. There has to be an apprehension the mercy the Lord affords through Christ and his sacrifice.
However, to say that you cannot scare someone into heaven is not altogether true. There may be some truth to it, but it isn’t all true. If you are going to go to heaven, you have to give due consideration to the alternative. Coming to a state of salvation means knowing something of what you’ve been saved from. That means you need at least some recognition of the horrors of hell. You have to recognize to some degree the danger you are in if you continue in a state of unrepentance.
So I would submit to you that yes, you can indeed be scared into heaven. I may even go so far as to say that everyone who is in heaven (or is going to heaven) has been scared into it. That’s the very essence of fleeing to Christ. Fleeing to Christ means fleeing from the wrath and curse of God. The only way you can turn to Christ and find him as your eternal refuge is by knowing that only he can appease that which is due to you for sin.
Think about it this way: no one uses the fire escape when they are not cognizant of any imminent danger. Only when you sense that your life is at risk do you fly to that means of escape.
I mention this because I believe today’s passage is designed to do that very thing. Its purpose is to agitate you. It should be somewhat alarming to you, if you are not in Christ. For the passage before us paints a frightful picture of God. I would go so far as to say that it is a nightmarish depiction of what God does (and will do) to the unbelieving.
Certainly this passage does not embellish in any way or use ornate terminology. Yet the message that it communicates is quite clear: The Lord terrorizes those who do not fear him.
Now, having said that, I know that some people are going to object. To even begin to paint the Lord in such a lurid way will offend some people. They would say that it is absurd to think that God would terrorize someone. But when you look at this passage, you can’t help but recognize the truth of that. The Lord is the one who terrorizes.
As a matter of fact, three times it is stressed that God is the origin of terror.
I. The origin of terror
Look at verses 10, 19, 21. All three verses it says that the people are running “from before the terror of the Lord and the splendor of his majesty.” The idea is that the majesty and the splendor of God is what is terrifying to them. God is too much for them. His presence is what causes these people to experience untold grief.
Think for a moment about this. I want you to understand that their terror is derived from the majestic presence of God, his glorious splendor. Because a lot of people can’t even fathom such a notion.
So that you understand this better, I want you to imagine a mischievous little child. One day this little scoundrel pulls a lot of pranks. Among those he offends is his mother. With the pain of being hurt herself, not to mention having to bear the pain of the others who have been wronged by her child, she sends the boy to his room. As she does so she says, “You just wait until your father gets home!”
Now some of you might have been in that position before. Do you remember what it was like? Did your mind just run rampant thinking about what daddy was going to do to you? Though you knew the time would come when he would get home from work, you wished it wouldn’t come. And when did come home, do you remember how your stomach tightened? It felt like it was in knots. Then, when you saw the door open and he walked into your room, there was a sense of terror wasn’t there. It was as if the judge and executioner himself was walking into your room.
Now that was just the presence of your father—someone who, more than likely, loved you because you were his child. But if that is the way it is with our own relatives, what will it be like on the day when Christ comes again? His majesty far exceeds that of our fathers. And He is going to be doing this, not to his children, but to his enemies.
I think this is part of the reason why CS Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia books, depicted Christ as Aslan the Lion. A lion has a certain splendor and majesty about it, doesn’t it? It is a stately looking beast. But yet, it is a ferocious beast too. You would shiver to be in the presence of a lion.
As a matter of fact, there is a scene in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that depicts this well. CS Lewis shows how the presence of the lion (i.e. the presence of Christ) can be terrifying. The two girls, Lucy and Susan, are getting ready to meet Aslan. Two talking animals, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, are preparing the children for the encounter.
Upon hearing that he is a lion, Susan says, “Ooh, I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie,” said Mrs. Beaver. “And make no mistake, if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” Lucy responds by saying, “Then isn’t he safe?” Mr. Beaver broke into hysterics, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. He’s a lion! But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you!”
So many today think that Christ is safe. So they don’t really give much thought about it. I don’t blame them really. Who could? I mean, we have so many portrayals of Christ floating around. When you see these depictions of Christ, what do they tell you? He’s quite a mild mannered guy. He doesn’t look like he could hurt a flee.
If you were to go back in history, it would be a different story. In the early church they depicted Christ as the Pantocrator. Pantocrator is the Greek word for Almighty, and the artists would frequently portray Christ as the Almighty judge who crushes Satan and condemns the wicked. So frequently in old Byzantine churches you can see a depiction of Christ with legions fleeing his presence. They are terrified of him and they can’t get away from him fast enough.
That is a good commentary on what this passage tells us about Christ. And it is a good illustration of what the return of Christ will be like. When his majesty is revealed, he will not be a meek and mild mannered man. He will come on the clouds, full of the wrath and fury of God. The majestic Judge will be revealed. Just the sight of his splendor and majesty will be enough to horrify the ungodly.
To be sure: It will be the Lord who will terrorize. And those who do not fear God, will end up having something to fear.
Now, perhaps we should pause here. In mentioning this, you may note something of the irony of this terror.
II. The irony of the terror
Those who do not fear God, will end up fearing God—they are going to have something to be afraid of. This passage is interesting because it has a little twist to it—a little play on what it means to fear God.
You see, when we talk about the fear of God, we talk about two different kinds. There is what we call a servile fear of God and a reverential fear of God. A servile fear of God is the negative kind. It is the fear of terror or dread. It is being so scared of God that you are overcome by the feeling of horror. And that is the kind of fear that is predominant in this passage.
But there is another kind of fear that the Bible talks about. It is healthy fear of God. It is a deep awe and reverence for God that manifests itself in humble obedience to his commands. That’s the good kind of fear. That’s the kind of fear God wants you to have.
But that is exactly what these people were missing. In verses 6-8 Isaiah mentions several of the vices that existed among the people of his day. It says that they were seeking fortune tellers, they made idols, they made financial gain one of their chief goals, they multiplied horses and chariots (which is to say that they were trusting in their own military might rather than in the power and protection of God). All these things showed that they did not fear God in the good sense of the term.
And that is why the Lord was terrorizing them. That’s why were experiencing the dread that they were!
It is kind of like what Benjamin Franklin once said. He once said, in talking about politics, “Either you will be governed by God, well, by God, you’ll be governed!” In other words, if you don’t take God’s word and let it shape the way you shape your government, then you are going to be tyrannized. If you don’t let God be your ultimate governor, then you are going to have a man do it. You will end up suffering incredible misery at the hands of some crazed dictator.
This passage says something of the same thing. It says, “If you don’t live in the fear of God, you will end up fearing God!” That is to say, “If you do not fear God in the good sense of the word (of that love and reverence for Him), then you are going to have something to be afraid of.” God is going to become a terror to you. He is going to be your judge and executioner rather than your friend and your benefactor.
Now, let’s bring that over to us. What are we to learn from this? We should learn how important it is for us to fear God (in the good sense of the term). And if we have this reverential fear, we won’t have to worry about the servile fear. When you fear God rightly, you won’t have any fears of him!
On the other hand, if you do not fear God, then you have something to fear!
I want you to understand this too. It is very important. God wants you to realize that it is not him that is the cause of this terror. It is a godless life that is the problem. Failing to fear him is what sets Him off.
In reading this passage and listening to what I’ve said so far today, you might think that God some sort of fiendish monster who delights in terrorizing people. But that’s not the case at all. He is a merciful God. He delights to show mercy. That this passage is even here is an example of his mercy. That God caused it to be written implies that he is a merciful God.
Ask yourself, “Why is it that this passage is even here?” Why does God even mention these things? It is so that we will come to him in repentance and obtain mercy. God is showing you the consequences of not fearing him so that you will begin to fear him as you ought.
There is nothing God wants more than for sinners to quit their godless ways and begin to live in the light of his love. God does not want to become a terror to you. He rather bless you and give you every reason to be at ease. But if you will not obey him—if you will not give your life over to his service—then he has to execute his justice. He has to come upon you and afflict you.
Yet the wonderful thing about God is that he is the God of second chances. If you have been effected by what you’ve heard today, you can turn to God and find favor with him. You do not have to go through this. You have nothing to fear (in the bad sense of the term).
But if you don’t, then you have everything to fear. The Lord will become a terror to you. And O what terror there will be! Let’s not try to fool ourselves. This isn’t a little spook. It is fright that expresses itself in fanatical panic.
Our passage recounts for us something of the terror the unbelieving will experience. In verses 19 and 21, we see how the people manifest their horror.
III. The manifestation of terror
Both verses say that these people are so terrified that they run to the hills. They attempt to find any rock to hide behind or any crevice into which they can so that they will not be found.
You get the feeling that they are acting like cockroaches scattering after the light has been turned on in the kitchen. Their seeking out some sort of refuge (any sort of refuge!) so that they will not have to face Christ.
Now this kind of fright is not only what these people in Jerusalem manifested when the Lord came against them. It is exactly what every unbeliever will manifest on the day when Christ returns. Christ uses much of the same terminology in Luke 23:30 and Revelation 6 as he speaks of his return. You might even say that he uses a bit more intense imagery there. For he says that the unbelieving in that day will long for the earth to swallow them up. They will long for the caves to crush them and the rocks to dash them to pieces. They will seek death in order to get away from Christ.
Those who are Christ’s enemies will find themselves quaking in their boots, and longing for something-anything- that will hide them from his face.
In our evening study we have been studying John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress. At one point Christian, the main character is introduced to a man who had a dream of the Judgment Day, but was not ready for it. Upon meeting the man, Bunyan said that as he rose from his bed he shook and trembled. You could tell that something more than just a cold draught was making him shiver.
He then explained his dream. He said that he dreamed that the heavens grew exceedingly black; also it thundered and lightened in a most fearful way—such that it put him in mental agony. After a sounding of trumpets, he heard a voice call for the dead to rise and come to judgment. Other terrors agitated him, such as how the angels went to gather the tares and toss them into the burning lake. He saw the earth open. In it were smoke and fire and out of it came hideous noises. If this were not enough, all the man’s sins came to his mind and his conscience did accuse him on every side.
Christian asked him what made him so afraid? The man replied, “I thought the day of judgment was come and I was not ready for it.” Moreover, what he said made him most afraid was that the Judge had always his eye upon him, showing indignation in his countenance.
In that scene, Bunyan recounts well the events of the last day. But he also pictures well how the thought of that day should agitate now. If you do not fear him, what is said in this passage should make you feel uncomfortable.
It is my hope, that if you do not know Christ right now, that you—like that man who had that dream—rise from this place with some of the symptoms of that fear right now. If you have not given your life to Christ, I hope that these words are somewhat chilling to your soul at this very moment. Because, if you do not turn to Christ, this will be your experience. When Christ comes again you are going to have to face the Judge whose eye is filled with igdignation. You will have to face up to the life that you have lived.
As soon as the clouds are rolled back and the Mighty King begins his descent, you are going to find that your conscience is going to be stricken. You will heave and wail because you are guilty of offending the Most High God. And you are going to know that He has come to pass sentence on you.
Yes, if you are taking this seriously, you should feel quite uncomfortable now. These words should make you restless. After this message it should feel like you have just awoken from a bad dream.
The only comfort you should have is that there is mercy in Christ. And that is why we end where we began. At the beginning of this message I said that the only reason God scares is so that you might wake and rise to action. If you are sobered by this message, you must know that there is a way to find peace with the Lord. It is by coming to Christ. The Lord doesn’t want you to go through this. He wants you to fly to the only means of escape. He has pulled the alarm so that in hearing of the danger you might get your life right with him.
And that is the wonderful thing. Christ is just as zealous in his love and forgiveness as he is in his severity and justice. Were you to this day to say, “I’m convinced. I need to fear God. I need to follow his word.” And you go to him and pledge to live a new life in Christ, then you can rest assured that Christ will not be a terror to you. He will comfort you with his love and rejoice over you with singing. If you come to fear him with a godly fear, you will not have to fear any sort of condemnation. He will save and he will give to you everlasting life.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.