Coming Like a Thief



In Revelation 16:8-15 the plagues continue against the Evil Empire. The fourth plague was the sun scorching people and causing them “to curse the name of God who had control over these plagues.” Despite correctly identifying the source of their suffering, the passage explains that they still refused to repent and glorify God.

When God brought the plagues against Egypt, we hear time after time what phrase? That the pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let the people go.

Whatever horrible thing came upon the Egyptians, the reaction, nine times out of ten, was the same: no change in behavior. Instead, there was only rage that such an awful thing that had happened.

Kind of like most of us, most of the time when we get caught doing something we ought not to have done.

When we were kids and our moms found us with our hands in the cookie jar, how often were we really remorseful? Mostly we were just mad that we got caught. If we get pulled over for speeding, are we remorseful about the speeding?

Probably not.

We’re just hosed that we got caught and have to pay a fine and do traffic school. And while we might drive slower, more carefully for a bit afterward, it certainly doesn’t have much impact on our attitude or behavior in the long term, and what little effect it does have is only because we don’t want to get stuck with that expense again.

This is our nature. It’s not so much that we feel bad for doing something, just that we feel bad when we get in trouble for it and especially we feel bad for the consequences that come from getting caught. A lot of our so-called guilty feelings are just our discomfort and shame that people have found out what awful thing we did. If we never get caught, do we ever feel bad?

One of the ways you can tell if you—or someone else for that matter—are actually, genuinely repenting: you aren’t mad that you were caught, you are instead desperate in your wish to undo what happened, to fix it, to do anything that is requested of you to make it right. You’re not just going through the motions: you actually have a “change of heart.” It is a remarkably rare gift. Mostly we see the “I’m mad because you caught me stealing the cookies,” as with these people here in Revelation in today’s passage, or back in the Old Testament with Esau who was simply mad at his brother Jacob. Esau wasn’t the least upset over his attitude, that he had despised his birthright and cared so little for it that he was willing to exchange it for a bowl of stew. Pharaoh wasn’t bothered by disobeying God’s request; he was only mad about whatever discomfort he was experiencing.

But occasionally in the Bible we get to witness genuine repentance. For instance, we see it with David in the Old Testament, and we recognize it in Paul in the New Testament; Paul was never the same after his experience on the Road to Damascus. The direction and course of his life were radically different.

When we contemplate the destruction caused by the plagues here in Revelation, we should understand their purpose. God is simply attempting to get those who have been persecuting Christians to repent, to change their minds, to alter the trajectory of their lives.

An obvious way to get people to stop persecuting you is to simply kill them, obviously. And there is an emotional satisfaction in that. And some people want to see the plagues against the Evil Empire as that and nothing else.

But the better way to solve the problem of persecution is the way God is doing it in the Bible: he wants to get the one doing harm to stop harming, not by destroying them, but by getting them to change. That’s what God is always trying to do: he wants not just to save us from our tormenters, but also to also rescue our tormenters. If he can save our tormenters, he also saves us. The one who is persecuting us needs saving just as much as we do, and if God can save him or her, he rescues not just us, but them as well.

That’s a much better, far more satisfying outcome than just making their faces melt off their skulls.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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