Looking Over the Edge of a Cliff (or the time I preached on God’s wrath on the disobedient)

sitting at the edge of a cliffFollowing my last post on two different ways to communicate for change, I thought I’d provide a real life example of speaking on a Biblical text that tries to change us by increasing the tension from the negative perspective.

I hate heights. My hands get cold and wet. My heart beat races away. I never go to the edge of a cliff.

I’ve known for over two months that I was scheduled to preach at our church on Ephesians 5:1-20. By and large, Ephesians is an encouraging letter to the church at Ephesus from Paul. That is, except for Ephesians 5:1-20. I was not looking forward to speaking on this passage, not in the least. It felt like approaching the edge of a cliff—seeing the destruction awaiting those who go against God’s teaching, and feeling the trepidation of being the one bringing that message.

The most difficult section of the passage is verses 5 and 6:

“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (ESV).

In my preparation to speak on this passage I found myself more anxious about taking the pulpit than I had been since my first Sunday at the church, over a year and a half ago.

Here’s a few guiding principles that were the foundation for me as I approached this text on God’s wrath toward the disobedient.

(I should add, I do not read this Ephesians passage as pertaining to salvation. The only sin disconnecting an individual from God is that of an unrepentant heart. Romans 2:5. This is about partnering with darkness, instead of light.)

Let the Text Bear Its Weight

It’s not that I didn’t want to speak on this—I’m a firm believer that we need the whole counsel of God to instruct our lives, not just the passages that feel like a pat on the back—but speaking on this passage is fraught with potential hang-ups.

  • If you focus too much on purity, many who lack sexual purity will feel worthless.
  • If you only focus on verses 5 and 6, without presenting the surrounding context, many will feel hopeless.
  • If you only hone in on one specific sin (such as only speaking toward homosexuality when the passage refers to sexual immorality), many will feel isolated and the only ones struggling with sin.

Many pastors, in feeling the struggle of balancing all this, neuter the text so it lands softly. Paul said to Timothy, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season.” A heavy text must be preached with heaviness. Approaching it differently is inauthentic.

This doesn’t mean having an ax to grind, or bringing a punishing word to the congregation, this is humbly presenting the Biblical text and allowing it shape the hearer.

Move Beyond “The Bible Says”

An elder at the church emailed me after he learned about my great anxiousness regarding the Ephesians 5 text. He proposed a simple idea: God is not so much controlling behavior, He is rational and knows that a sinful life leads to destruction in every way possible.

If the only way we can convince others of our ideas is by presenting Bible verses, we’ll never find inroads with those who do not view the Bible as authoritative.

The fear many have is that this idea is cheapening the Bible. In fact, I see it quite opposite. If the Bible is true, it would make sense that we see its truth in life all around. The truth of God’s Word is illuminated all around us because anything that is illuminated by God becomes a light.

The Final Judgment

To have people walk away from a message based on the Biblical text with a feeling of failure is antithetical to the Gospel. Within every wrath-filled message from God is a beating heart for people to repent and turn to Him. Thankfully, Ephesians 5 makes that simple, other passages take more explanation and connection to bigger themes.

God’s wrath against sin is not simply an Old Testament theme, but it is also not the final theme in God’s story. People need to understand not only that He cares about sin, and He desires their obedience, but that His love can prevail in them. If someone is able to hear the message of judgment, it’s not too late for them to avoid it.

How do you go about presenting texts on God’s wrath?

(PS. You can listen to this message I titled “Don’t Pet the Wolf” right HERE.)