Tomorrow is Good Friday. How should we approach it and what should be our attitude toward it?
The Wrath of the Lamb is a meditation on Revelation 6:16-17. It was written by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. on the occasion of Good Friday.
They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Imagine that you and some friends are chatting one afternoon in your home neighborhood when suddenly you hear the screech of rubber on pavement and then the shouts of children. You hustle outdoors and find a golden cocker spaniel in the street, terribly run over. Its back has been crushed, and now it’s screaming in a way you will never forget. Somebody mentions that the dog is the gentle house pet of some children in a neighborhood family. And, sure enough, as you watch, a little girl of about six runs to the scene. She kneels in the street and tries to comfort her pet by placing her hand on its head. You are not ready for what happens next. What happens is that the cocker twists around and, for the first time in its life, it tries to bite right through that little girl’s hand.
It’s a chilling thing for you to see. You get the impression that a creature in death throes, hurt beyond all endurance, has changed into a different thing. It’s become a wild-eyed creature who snaps at any attempt to comfort it. This creature wants to suffer its death alone.
The power of evil to cause frightening personality change is something we rarely see. Most of us live too far from the borders of human life. We live too far from the places where the changes might happen. We need a seer like John to tell us about them.
And so he does, but with an art and an urgency we might not notice at once. A chapter earlier John presents almost opposite animal images of Jesus Christ. In chapter 5:5 John sees “the lion of the Tribe of Judah.” This lion looks like Aslan. He looks like a royal conqueror. But (v. 6) “then I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slaughtered” (literally, “looking as if its throat had been slit”). Jesus is a lion; then suddenly he’s a lamb.
Now in chapter 6 John blends these images into a jarring picture. In chapter 6 evildoers call to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb!”
Jesus Christ becomes a roaring lamb from whom people shrink. Who could stand before the wrath of a lamb?
In this horrifying image, John shows what we have done to God the Son. Because of the suffering we have inflicted, he’s different now. He’s like somebody who stumbles out of a concentration camp. It’s as if some wire has gotten crossed in him. Some terrifying personality change has come over him. Powerful human evildoers have turned God the Son from a mute victim into an almost mutant victor.
Think it over. Suppose you were confronted by a furious lamb. You wouldn’t be puzzled. You’d be terrified. How has creation gotten bent so far out of shape that something like this is possible?
In creation and even in God, as G. K. Chesterton once said, wrath can be frightening and unpredictable. It’s as if bursts of wrath, “like storms above the atmosphere, don’t break out exactly where we expect them, but follow some higher weather-chart of their own.”
Good Friday is a day for reading the chart. Yes, it’s a day for reading the love of God, and I hope you feel this love clear down to your arteries and innards. But Good Friday is also a day to sense the wrath of God. On Good Friday we see how human evil pushes creation out of joint and how it pushes even God to his limit.
Think of the cry of dereliction. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There’s astonishment here, suggesting that the dying Jesus never saw this coming. There’s despair here and maybe a note of accusation.
What’s chilling is that our Lord is grotesquely out of character. Goodness has been overruled. Evil is across the border. All the walls are down. Human sin and the terrible suffering that comes from it—these things cause Jesus to roar from the cross. It’s as chilling as if our parents were tortured before our eyes and we heard sounds coming from them that we had never heard before.
And now, says John in our text, all those who have hurt Jesus Christ will have to face Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, at the end of human history, sinners shall have to face the wrath of the lamb. King Herod’s intended victim way back at the beginning—the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay—is coming back as a deadly apocalyptic foe, hair white as snow, eyes like blazing fire. He’s coming back to judge the living and the dead.
Revelation 6 is a passage that is meant to scare us. Of course we are Easter people, and we look at Good Friday from an Easter position. It’s like watching a tape of your team’s championship game when you already know they have won.
Still, one of our proper moods on Good Friday is fear. And the reason is that fearful things happen that day. The earth quakes and the temple curtain rips and the sky darkens. All this quaking and ripping and darkening tell us that evil is having its way with goodness. But the signs also tell us that God is doing some shaking of the heavens and earth, shaking out the debris in a fallen creation and ripping the disguises from the powers and principalities. God is ripping the disguises even from people like us.
You see, the poured out wrath of God and the pent-up wrath of the Lamb—such wrath isn’t just some Bible picture for naive people. God’s wrath is very real and very frightening. Wrath is love offended. It’s the awesome, straining fury of God who hates sin like sin and who terrifyingly changes personality in the battle to overcome it. Good Friday is in fact the trial run of judgment day, and I wonder how much it matters to us.
After all, we are mostly comfortable, friendly, middle-class people, and we’d like a religion to fit. A comfortable, friendly, middle-class religion—that’s all we want. And if we happen to wreck somebody else’s life because of the way we vote, or how we run our friendships, or because we choose to drive drunk; if we happen to wreck somebody else’s life because of our lust or our pride or our sheer lazy indifference, why, we never intended it. We never intended any of it. We had only wanted to be comfortable. All we wanted was to set our agenda, and then in our hymns and prayers bring in Jesus Christ to bless our agenda.
But all this is doomed. Judgment day is coming. “[Evildoers] call to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
Nobody. Nobody can stand. Certainly none of us. We can’t stand. All we can do is to get on our knees, confess our sin, humbly seek the forgiveness of God, and focus our faith like a laser on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
You see, the Lamb of God has two faces. One is the face of wrath, a sight that “ought to make our blood run cold,” as C. S. Lewis once put it. The other is the face of suffering love, the face of one who has had his throat slit for the sins of his sorry people. One face or the other is turned toward you and me this very day, this very hour. As the darkness falls from noon till three, which face shall we see?
Note: An earlier version of this meditation was published in the Reformed Journal. It can also be found at ReformedWorship.org