The Hard Work of Repentance

March 17, 2024

O for grace to trust Him more. We’ve just been singing those words, perhaps we had the words flow through our mouths rather lightly, so we offer them again, gracious God, that they might be our prayer. That we through the reading and hearing of Your Word would learn to trust You more, we would turn from sin, perhaps some for the very first time, others who know You but have been clinging to sin, nurturing their sin, have grown used to their sin, that You might lead us away from sin and turn to Jesus and find in Him life and health and peace. We pray in His name. Amen.

Our text this morning, continuing with our series in Revelation, comes from Revelation chapter 16. Revelation chapter 16. Next week, Lord willing, we’ll do the end of chapter 16, that great Palm Sunday text on Armageddon, and then we will do something different for Easter Sunday.

This morning we’re looking at Revelation 16:1-11.

“Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood.”

“And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for You brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!””

“The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give Him glory. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.”

As we’ve seen many times, the middle section of Revelation, these chapters 6 through 16, are structured around a series of three repeating and intensifying judgments. Seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls. Now there are several interludes. We have a great multitude, we have 144,000, we have a woman, a child, and a dragon, but the over-arching structure has been centered on these repeating cycles of sevens.

I want you to notice several patterns that are evident in all of these cycles. Most obvious, they’re all sevens. There’s lots of sevens in Revelation and these are sevenfold judgments. The punishment for covenant breakers in the Old Testament was to be punished seven times over. Leviticus 26:21, verse 24, 28. Sevenfold punishment.

Psalm 79 we read – “Help us, O God, our Savior, pay back into the lap of our neighbors seven times the reproach that they have hurled at You, O Lord.” So there’s this Old Testament idea, makes sense, seven being the number of divine fullness or completion.

Often in the Old Testament we’re told the punishment upon the wicked, upon the unbelieving, upon the nations, is sevenfold and so we have a series of sevens.

You may have also noticed, if you’ve been here over these months, that each of the seven have a pattern that is four plus three. So the first, the seals, we have four horsemen. With the trumpets, there are four trumpet plagues and then three woes. Here with the bowls there are four judgments on the elements of the earth. So each of them have four and then plus three.

Actually, the pattern is even more deliberate than that, because each of them has a series of four that holds together and then five is a kind of intensification, and then six is a transition and then seven is finally the end. There’s a final and complete judgment.

So we’ve seen several times that though this is showing the same basic judgment that comes upon the wicked nations and some of these sufferings fall upon the people of God as a part of the world, but these in particular in chapter 16 are upon the unbeliever, these are the sort of judgments that come upon the people all throughout history but as we move to the end of each cycle, we’re moving toward the end of human history. Each one then ends with a climactic, cataclysmic end of the world.

Notice in these passages. Just flip quickly. I hope you have your Bibles open. Look at chapter 8, verse 5. So this is the end of the series of seals. The seventh seal, we read in chapter 8, verse 5 – “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it out on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” So this is the symbolic representation of the end.

Remember, these are visions. It’s not that everything is happening literally just like this but this is capturing the spiritual reality.

Peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. That’s the end of the seals.

Now go to chapter 11, verse 19. Here is the end of the trumpets, 11:19 – “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” Same exact sequence except it’s intensified. Now we have the addition of heavy hail. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t read these in strict chronological order or we’d have the world being destroyed again and again and again. But each one is showing us the same basic scene but intensified.

Now go back to chapter 16. Look at verse 18. We didn’t get there this morning; we will next week. “And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake.”

So here we have a further intensification. So the same sequence; there’s lightning, there’s thunder, there’s an earthquake, and now it’s the greatest earthquake that has ever been seen. Each of these sevens is with greater intensification leading us to this final picture of the end of the earth.

Notice another similarity in the seven cycles. Each of them, and you may not have noticed this before, they each begin and end in the temple. If you look at chapter 4 and 5 you can see the throne in heaven is the heading, the scroll and the Lamb in chapter 5. The series of the seals issues forth from the scene of the throne room where the Lamb comes forward as the One who is worthy to break the seals on the scroll. The breaking of the seven seals begins in the temple, then you turn to chapter 8, verses 1 through 3, verse 3, “another angel came and stood at the altar.” Where are we? We’re in the temple, or sometimes the tabernacle, same idea, “with a golden censer and he was given incense to offer the prayers of the saints on the golden altar before the throne.”

Seals start and end in the temple.

Same thing with the trumpets. Again, look at chapter 8, verse 5. This is the beginning issuing forth the seven angels who come from the end of the seals and that one starts with “the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar.”

Go back to 11:19. We just looked at that passage. Notice what it says in the first half of the verse – God’s temple in heaven was opened and the ark of the covenant was seen within the temple.

So again the trumpets begin and end in the temple.

Then go to the bowls. Look at chapter 15, verse 5 – “After this I looked and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues.” So again this series of judgments initiates from the throne room.

Then look at chapter 16, verse 17 – “The seventh angel poured out his bowl in to the air and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying ‘It is done!’”

There is throughout Revelation this absolutely unequivocal God-centeredness. These judgments are not just happenstance. Each one issues forth from the glory and the presence of God. It all starts with chapter 4 and 5 because there you have a vision of God in His unsurpassed glory. See, none of these judgments make sense if you don’t have a great and glorious, holy, holy, holy God. If you have a puny God, if you just have a kind of superhero God, then why these judgments? So disproportionate, so over the top.

But if you have a God who is unparalleled and unrivaled in His transcendence and His glory, then of course God who is just and holy must punish all that is unjust and unholy. So they start and they end in the temple.

Go back to chapter 16, our text for this morning. Did you notice this language at the end of verse 6 – “It is what they deserve.” Isn’t that at the very existential root of it the difficulty that almost every one of us have with God’s judgment? With wrath being poured out. We don’t really believe it is what they deserve. We think too little of God, we think much too much of us and our supposed obedience, which is why we need, we need God’s Word to tell us what to think, and then our minds being renewed, hopefully our feelings follow. Because if we just go with our feelings, our feelings tell us, well, surely, who deserves this?

We need the Bible to tell us what God is like and we need the Bible to tell us what sin is like. These angels cry out, “Just are You, O Holy One.” If we’re honest, many people, even some people in some churches today, would cry out at the sight of these judgments, “How dare You, O God. How could a good God do this upon the unbeliever? How bad can it be that they must gnaw their tongues?”

But that is not the voice from the throne, that is not the voice of the angel. The same verse 7, “I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just.” You are only giving to people what they deserve, what they deserve.

There’s a verse tucked away in Genesis chapter 15, with God’s covenant to Abraham, and it says that God’s people will come back here 400 years hence once the sins of the Amorites had been fulfilled. If you’ve ever wondered how do we make sense of God driving out the Canaanite people and giving the Promised Land to the Israelites, wasn’t that unfair? Wasn’t it their land? Shouldn’t He have given it… How could a good God do that?

But that verse there in Genesis 15 says, “He waited 400 years.” One of the reasons God’s people went to slavery in Egypt is because God was waiting 400 years for the sins of the Amorites, that’s just another word for the Canaanite people in the land, until it was so filled up that God was just to punish them through the instrumentality of the Israelites and give their land to another.

Now that doesn’t mean any time an army comes in, there are unjust wars and there are unjust conquests, but the Lord tells us by inspiration He waited 400 years, that long, until it would be just for Him to drive out the people of the Amorites.

It’s a sobering thought to think the Lord might be keeping track of the sins of our nation, just waiting, waiting, waiting. If He should issue forth judgments upon this land or any land, it is always and only according to His justice.

So there are a number of similarities in the cycle of these sevens. There are also some specific connections between the trumpets and the bowls.

Go back to chapter 8. Look at verse 6. Here’s the seven angels with the seven trumpets. If you look at the verses, the first, second, third and fourth angel, you’ll notice that the judgments fall first on the land, then the sea, then the rivers, then the sky. It’s the exact same order in chapter 16 with the bowls; first the land, then the sea, then the rivers, then the sky.

In the bowls, or rather in the trumpets, then an abyss is opened. You see a star fallen from heaven, chapter 9 verse 1, a bottomless pit, the sun and air are darkened, locusts released, people in torment. Satan is mentioned as Abaddon or Apollyon.

When we come to the bowls, bowl five, the beast is mentioned, his kingdom is darkened, people in torment.

So do you see the pattern? The first four trumpets affect the same four things on the earth in sequence, and then there is an abyss and the judgment of Satan and his kingdom. Same thing, that was with the trumpets, same thing with the bowls.

Then in both of them the sixth trumpet and the sixth bowl. If you remember the sixth trumpet, there is a decisive battle at the river Euphrates. I argued there that it’s not meant to be taken literally that we should put on a globe and mark it down that some final battle will be at the river Euphrates. That’s not how the symbolism of Revelation works. Well, we’ll come to next week with the sixth bowl that there’s a final climactic battle again at the river Euphrates and this one is called Armageddon.

If you’ve been tracking all the way through Revelation, you can probably guess that I’m going to argue that that, too, should be taken spiritually rather than literally a spot, X marks the spot, in the Middle East where there will be a final battle of Armageddon.

There are also some differences between these two cycles. With the trumpets, everything was in a third. You see that in chapter 8 – a third of the trees, a third of the rivers. Whenever there’s a fraction like that, I know you love fractions, it means a partial. This is not yet the end.

But when we come to the bowls, the effect is now universal. There’s an intensifying effect, a thematic building in intensity of these judgments. The sevens get more severe, more agonizing. The effect as we read through Revelation, just as John saw these visions, the effect is supposed to be we feel the ever building, slowly mounting judgment of God on the earth.

When you’re going up that roller coaster. Now some of you like that, it’s a great thrill, so this analogy doesn’t work for you, but those of you for whom that feels like judgment, the slowly building and you see it, click, click, click, click. I loved those rides until I turned 30 and something didn’t work in my stomach the same way that it used to. That’s the effect. Each cycle of seven more intense. It’s coming, it’s coming. The judgment of God is coming. It’s all building up.

You see in Revelation chapter 16 the point of these first five angels and their bowls if round in verse 9 and verse 11. Look at verse 9 – they were scorched by the fierce heat and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. Then we’ve seen this refrain before, and we have it again, and yet “they did not repent.”

Again verse 11 – People gnawed their tongues in anguish, they cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. But still they did not repent of their deeds.

Have you ever been downtown in some big city. I’ve seen it even in Charlotte before, maybe in a big public park somewhere, and someone has one of those sandwich boards, “Repent or Perish.” Or they’re wearing T-shirts and they’re yelling from a street corner, or they’re holding a big sign and it has flames on the sign and it says, “Repent or Perish.” If we’re honest, I bet many of us feel embarrassed when we see those street preachers. To be sure, we can argue whether that’s the most effective strategy for reaching people, whether that’s the best way to win a hearing or if there might be other ways to get to that same message, so I’m not saying that’s the only or necessarily the best approach, yet I wonder if some of us when we see that we’re not just thinking, “hmm, I wonder if maybe there’s a better strategy,” we’re actually embarrassed by the message itself.

Really? Repent or perish? Why do you have to say that? Well, we have to say that because it’s in the Bible. Jesus said that. Luke 13:3. It’s a quote and it’s the message of this chapter.

There is desolation upon the earth in verses 1 through 4, and yet the angels cry out in verses 5 and 6, “That’s right.” Then again a voice from the altar in verse 7 says, “That’s right.” You think, how can they respond like that? Most of us would respond, oh.

And there’s something good. It’s not a craven desire to see people punished. You notice that the voices from the throne are crying out because they understand the character of God and the heinousness of sin. It’s not some bloodthirsty desire for vengeance. Just and true because You are upholding Your righteousness to judge sin.

The Lord is slow to anger. He waits and waits and waits. He may be waiting for some of you and we don’t know how long He will wait. He may be waiting for some churches, some nations. He’s certainly waiting on the human race. He’s waiting. But He will not wait forever.

The tragic, graphic, gruesome point of this passage is found there in verses 9 and 11. Despite all their pain, gnawing their very tongues, they would not repent. You say, sometimes people say, well, he hit rock bottom and he started digging. We’d like to think that, well, they’ll get to the very end of themselves. They’ll reach rock bottom and they’ll get to the consequences of their actions and the pain will be so bad that they finally have to look up. Well, sadly, they don’t always. They don’t always repent.

Today as you know is St. Patrick’s Day. Of all of the holidays that have been twisted all out of proportion, this has got to be right at the top of the list. So it’s become about green, though I’m told if you’re a Protestant you should still wear orange, but it’s about wearing green, eating Lucky Charms, and drinking. Hardly could probably find a worse way to celebrate the missionary endeavors of St. Patrick. If you don’t know anything about St. Patrick, go look him up, get a little kid’s book, go online. Read about St. Patrick. He wasn’t actually Irish; he was British. He grew up in a place of some privilege and he was abducted as a young man, a teenager, and he was brought into harsh slavery across the sea over into probably northern Ireland. Through a daring escape he made his way to a ship after several years and he made his way back to Britain. Must have been amazing, his whole family that was left must have absolutely imagined that he was given up for dead and it must have been like a resurrection when this grown up young man appeared some years later and he was there, back home.

But the Lord wouldn’t let him rest in Britain. He called him back in a powerful way that he would return to Ireland because when he was there he saw how destitute they were of the Gospel. So he returned, this time not as a slave to man but as a servant to God. He preached and he planted and he ordained priests. He was a missionary, became a bishop. By his own account he baptized thousands of converts. When he arrived he said Ireland was filled with idols and all manner of unclean things. It was a land of gods and goddesses, of druids and pagan priests, of sacrifices and sorcery. But by the end of his life, the Irish had become Christian. Maybe not quite as comprehensively as some later legends would have us, and he didn’t drive the snakes out. It was long ago remarked that there were already no snakes in Ireland.

But the island was discernibly changed and it had, in a meaningful way, become Christian. The most reliable informant we have about Patrick, because there’s lots of legends, come from two pieces of writing he left behind, his confession, which is a kind of spiritual autobiography, and lesser known is a short published letter he wrote to a man named Coroticus. Coroticus was a leader of a battalion of soldiers. On the day after a group of Christians in Ireland had been baptized and confirmed in the church, some of the soldiers under Coroticus attacked the new Christians.

Patrick says, quote, “While they were still dressed in white and their foreheads were still fragrant with __. ” Some of them were enslaved, some were slaughtered. Patrick wrote, “Because of their evil deeds, I am unable to call them my countrymen or fellow citizens of the holy Romans for they are fellow citizens of the demons. Indeed, their evil causes them to live in death together with the pagan Irish and the apostate Picts.”

He wrote this letter, it wasn’t just a private letter, Dear Coroticus, to whom it may concern, it was a public letter. It was a way of issuing a sort of public excommunication for Coroticus and his men had been considered part of the church. Copies were sent to Coroticus, they were sent to church leaders in Britain, they were distributed to Christians throughout Ireland that everyone would know of this great act of infamy.

The letter was partly to comfort those who had lost loved ones or had children enslaved. It was partly a plea to release those who had been captured. It was partly a prayer for divine justice and it was partly a summons to repent. He wanted Coroticus and his men to know that they had shed innocent blood and they had offended a holy God.

He wrote, “I do not know for whom I should lament the more, for those who were killed or for those who were physically enslaved or for those instead that the devil himself has ensnared so terribly.”

I don’t know who to feel more sorry for, Patrick said, the dead, the enslaved, or you Coroticus and your men who have an even worse kind of bondage in slavery to Satan. That letter was a letter to repent.

So, yes, St. Patricks’ Day is a reminder though our sins may not look in our eyes so egregious as that, to repent before it is too late. You’ve heard me quote the line before from the Puritan Thomas Brooks, “Repentance is the vomit of the soul.” I won’t say too much about the vomit, but it feels unnatural, it’s the way it’s supposed to go, it’s painful. There’s almost nothing in all the physical world you would rather avoid than that.

Well, repentance can feel the same way. Everything about your natural person says this does not feel good. It’s painful. That’s why the people in this passage, though they’re in terrible agony, they are miserable. You just get in their heads, the calculation they’re making, I have sores, I’m gnawing my tongue, and yet with all that pain, you know what would hurt worse? To repent. To acknowledge my sins.

No doubt there are some people in this room stubbornly refusing to repent of sin. You won’t come clean with God. You won’t acknowledge your sins before your spouse. You won’t admit to your kids or to your parents that you were wrong. Or you have a friendship that has gone ice cold because you won’t repent. I once heard a pastor say if you want to know the secret to a lifelong marriage, I’ll give it to you in one word, he said, repent. I might add a second word, and forgive.

Why is it so hard to repent? Well, we like sin. Sin is fun. At least at first. Eve saw that the fruit was good and pleasing to the eye and so she took it. You think this’ll taste good. We like gossip. We like to be harsh and cruel. We like to be angry. We like to make fun of other people. We like to tear down people online. We like it. It tastes good, at least at first.

We don’t repent because we look at sin in a vague general way. I’m sure you’ve all said, I’ve said it before, maybe somebody confronts you on something, well, “Nobody’s perfect.” That’s easy to acknowledge. “We all make mistakes. I’m not saying I’m flawless;” that’s a kind of quick brush of the hand. A general vague sort of repentance.

One of the great lines from the Westminster Confession of Faith 15:5 says this – Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins particularly.

Now you won’t get them all, so don’t feel like you’ve got to get every last one. Particular sins particularly. It doesn’t cost much to go before God and say, “O God, I’ve sinned against You this day. Forgive me.” Move on. It does cost you something to go before Him and say, “That thing I looked at, that thing I said, that thing I was feeling, the way I responded to my child, the way I responded to my parents.” Particular sins particularly.

We don’t repent when we neglect the means of grace.

Joel Beeke who is one of the speakers here this week for the conference said something like this. He was talking about the pastor’s piety. He said, “I’ve never known a pastor who committed disqualifying sin who had been faithful and personal and private devotions.”

You don’t just go from zero to 60. It doesn’t just happen to you one day. If you want to open the door to ruining your life, stop reading your Bible. Stop praying. Stop going to church. The means of grace will lead you to repentance, and if you never want to repent, then you back away. In fact, that’s what some people do. Stop going to church, this church confronts me. Stop reading your Bible, you stop praying, you stop meeting.

Our consciences often become seared. You know when you burn your tongue on hot chocolate in the winter and then for the next two days it’s like everything tastes like nothing. Because you burned it, you seared it.

Some of you may have scar tissue over your heart. I’m not talking about the wounds of suffering, I’m talking about sin. The first time you give in to a sin, you feel terrible. It gnaws at you. But after committing the same sin another two or three times, or five or ten or a hundred times, it doesn’t feel so bad.

Satan is very smart. He does not tempt you with the far off sin, he tempts you with the next sin. He’s not going to wake up one morning and tempt you to prostitutes. He’s going to tempt you to look where your eyes shouldn’t look. He’s not going to tempt you this morning to go kill someone with an actual weapon; he’s going to tempt you to the next sin that you can commit in anger in your heart.

Now I know some of us don’t repent with one another because we’re afraid of getting taken advantage of. We don’t want the other side to have a win. You don’t want to admit that the person, to the person that’s hurt you that you’ve in any way hurt them. I get it. We don’t want to empower people to sin against us.

But listen, you cannot control how other people respond when you do the right thing. Some of us we’re holding back from repenting particularly of a sin, to a spouse, a parent, or child, because in our head we’ve got to calculate, I may be 20% responsible, they’re 80%, and if I even repent of my 20%, they’re going to go on with all their 80%. Well, that’s between them and the Lord. Who’s to say that your particular act of repentance might be just that flame to thaw some of the ice around their heart.

For some of us, we don’t repent because life is more comfortable in the shadows, especially when we’ve been there a long time. Men love darkness rather than light because they’re deeds are evil, John 3 tells us. It is painful to walk in the light after you’ve lived in the darkness. When you live in the darkness for year after year, you can’t imagine finally walking in the light, facing everything that it would mean to walk in that light, so you would keep a secret sin or a double life and dwell in the shadows rather than squint and face the light.

Notice what these voices say in Revelation 16. This gets to the heart of the matter. They don’t repent because they believe everything to be God’s fault. This is what we see so clearly in these passages. It’s not just that they repent, they blaspheme and curse God. This is your fault, God. There’s not anything that they can see that perhaps they’ve made a poor decision, or it has something to do with their stubbornness or the bridges they’ve burned.

A failure to repent is a failure to believe in the kindness and goodness of God.

That’s really fundamentally the good news in this whole sermon. You say there’s not a lot of good news. No, here’s the good news – God wants to bless you. There is tremendous blessing in repentance. That’s why faith and repentance can never be separated. These people with all of their pain, yet they will not repent because they do not believe that the God who is executing these judgments just might be doing so for their good. One last chance to repent.

Fundamentally, we don’t repent because we don’t believe God and take Him at His Word. That painful vomit of the soul. He doesn’t call you to repentance, “bad dog, look at what you’ve done.” He calls you to this repentance that you might be free.

Psalm 32 – when I kept silent, my bones wasted away.

Some of you may be experiencing that. You haven’t repented and your bones waste away. Through my groaning, for day and night your hand was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledge my sin to You. I did not cover my iniquity. I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Psalm 51:17. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. O God, You will not despise.

Jesus said in John 6, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever. The Son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free,” you know the end, “you will be free indeed.”

God is not calling you to repent to punish you but to bless you, to spare you from the punishment that will befall the earth upon the final day. There is such great blessing.

Romans 12 says, “In so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.”

We’re given no promise that if you repent and you do your part, all your relationships will be reconciled. It may not happen. Romans is very realistic. But in so far as it depends on you, you, you repent, you seek for peace, you do what you know is right, and with one another then surely with God come before Him. He will not cast you out. He will not turn you away. He will give you freedom and blessing on the other side of repentance.

The ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus started with the very same word – repent. So don’t hide in the darkness. Don’t delay any longer. Don’t make excuses. And don’t think you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. These bowls do not yet have to be poured out over your head. There is still time to repent and give Him glory.

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank You for Your Word and we pray simply by Your Spirit You would do this work in my heart, in each heart here, to repent, O mighty God, and give You glory. In Jesus we pray. Amen.