See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. His voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven." This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
I was eating supper with a group of pastors at the Navigators' headquarters in Colorado Springs Tuesday evening, and the word came to us that there had been a major earthquake in San Francisco and that part of the Bay Bridge was down, and that's all we knew. We didn't have any television or radio. One of the men at my table said, "If the Bay Bridge is down, this is serious—let's pray." And in the middle of the meal we bowed and asked that the Lord's mercy be shown to the people in the Bay area.
What Is God Saying in the Earthquake?
I went back to my room later that night and the Lord just seemed to come upon me with an unusual great burden to pray about something I just had no information on at all, except that this could be awesome. So I found myself praying earnestly that God would use whatever had happened there to turn hearts to him and to cause his purposes of mercy in the world to prosper. The next morning when all the thirty pastors gathered for one of our meetings, we heard a little more and we spent time in prayer again as different ones read Scripture and prayed. As I was praying, the text that came to my mind was Hebrews 12:25–29, "Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken." And I read it while we were praying, and the men were moved, and we prayed even more earnestly on the basis of this text that God would turn the tragedy into a triumph by shaking the affections of people loose from the world and putting them on the kingdom of God.
When we were done praying and the seminar was about to get under way, I felt so constrained about this that I left the room momentarily and called Shelley long distance and told her that I believed the Lord wanted me to change my text and sermon for this Sunday and bring a message from the Lord concerning the earthquake. That's what I want to do this morning.
I'd like to pray before we begin . . .
O Father in heaven, it's times like this in the life of a nation when the voice of the Lord needs to be heard, and you have much to say, and we have little time in which to say it. So come, Father, boil everything down to the bare essentials, sharpen the arrow of your Word, may it sink home to do its appointed work of mercy in the lives of every person here. I ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
What is God trying to say to us in this earthquake? To find out, we turn to the Bible. God's written Word is given to help us interpret his voice in nature—whether it is the voice in the wind of Hurricane Hugo, or in plane crashes, or in car crashes, or in the voice of the earth in San Francisco. The Bible is not silent about earthquakes. And when they awaken the attention of our nation, we need to go back and remember what they mean.
Four Points to Consider
There are four points that I think would be helpful to make.
- God has appointed a great earthquake to bring this world to a close—a final shaking of the earth and the heavens some day that will end this fallen creation as we know it and bring the kingdom of God to consummation.
- Before that great shaking comes, God has also appointed
there be an increasing frequency and intensity of other earthquakes
and calamities leading up to that great end, the way labor pains
lead up to the birth of a child.
- Before the end of this age, God in his great mercy is offering to everyone who believes in his Son a kingdom that cannot be shaken and will never end.
- Therefore, let us worship God with reverence and awe, knowing that our God is a consuming fire.
Let's take these one at a time and I will try to unfold them from this text and elsewhere from Scripture and hopefully plant your feet upon a Rock for your own encouragement and for your free and abandoned service for Jesus Christ. I invite all believers in this church to pray that there be an irresistible attraction to the gospel of Jesus Christ in these days so that every week at least somebody passes over from death to life, because there is a shaking that's coming, and I can't help but think that everybody wants a place to stand and that everybody would see the reasonableness that God Almighty, redeeming people through his Son, is the safest place in all the world to stand.
1. A Great Final Shaking
God has appointed a great final shaking of the earth that will mean the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of something infinitely better—the consummation of his kingdom.
Look first at verses 26–27 of our text:
"God's voice then shook the earth (referring to the shaking at Mount Sinai when he came to give the law, Exodus 19:18); but now he has promised (an allusion to Haggai 2:6), 'Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.' (And then comes the interpretation of this prophecy.) This phrase, 'Yet once more,' indicates the removal of what is shaken as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain."
Now what you have here is a biblical prophecy that there is coming a day in which there will be such a violent shaking in creation that the world as we know it will be removed. It will not be anymore. There will come a new heaven and a new earth on which righteousness dwells, but this world is going to come to a cataclysmic end some day, and there will be a removal of the world as we know it, and what cannot be shaken will remain—the kingdom of God and everyone who dwells in it.
There are several other places in the Bible where this is made clear. For example,
I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:13)
So there's coming a day, the Day of the Lord, of fierce anger and retribution and justice upon the earth for its sin, and the earth will be shaken out of its place.
The foundations of the earth tremble. The earth is utterly broken, the earth is rent asunder, the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunken man, it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. (Isaiah 24:18–20)
There again, a decisive prophecy that this world is going to totter on its foundations someday and collapse as we know it; and it will be over. And only God and his people will stand.
I looked and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood . . . The sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?" (Revelation 6:12–17)
So there's a great earthquake coming when all the unbelievers who have spurned the gospel, who have lived for worldly pleasures, who have ignored God will want to be crushed under Nimitz rather than face God.
A loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, "It is done!" And there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as had never been since men were on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered great Babylon, to make her drain the cup of the fury of his wrath. (Revelation 16:17–19)
People who live in California joke about "the big one" that's coming some day. There is a big one coming some day. It is bigger than anyone can imagine. And my heart's desire as I have been praying about this is that they would know how big "the big one" that's coming really is. It is so vastly bigger than they realize—or anybody realizes. Our imaginations cannot conceive of what it will be like when the stars are falling, the skies are rolled up like a scroll, and the earth comes out of its foundations and collapses, and all the islands and the mountains vanish, and there is only God with whom to deal. I just hope and pray that any of you who feel secure and safe outside Christ would tremble at this thought, because you're going to face God someday with nothing to stand on but what was in your heart when the quake came!
2. Labor Pains
Before this end comes, God has appointed that this great final shaking be preceded by smaller earthquakes and other calamities to give notice of something awesome, the way contractions and labor pains precede the birth of a child and tell us that it's coming.
This particular point is not found in our text from Hebrews. It's found in Jesus' words to the disciples in Matthew 24:7–8. The disciples ask Jesus what will be the sign of his coming and the close of the age (v. 3). He answers in verses 6ff.:
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.
Notice three things: 1) there is an end coming ("the end is not yet"); 2) before it comes there will be wars, earthquakes, and famines; 3) these calamities before the end are called "birth-pangs."
Calling the earthquakes and wars and famines birth-pangs is important for two reasons. First, it means that there will be an increasing frequency of these things as the end comes near and that the intensity of them will increase, because that's the way it happens with labor pains before a birth. Second, it means that what these earthquakes are leading up to is something wonderful, like the birth of a child. The labor may be painful, but it is full of hope. They are the birth-pangs of the kingdom. That's what the meaning of increasing frequency of calamities will be as the age draws to a close.
We should, then, hear in every rumor of war and every famine and every earthquake, first, the voice of the Lord saying "I reign! And I am a God of holiness and justice and wrath and will not condone sin." We should also hear in this great quaking, "I am a God of mercy, a God of hope. I am bringing in the kingdom. I do not want it to happen suddenly without warning. I have warned again and again and again with shakings that should have broken you loose from your love of the world." That's what the meaning of this earthquake is. Believe in God. Put your hand in him.
Paul taught the same kind of thing in Romans 8:19–22,
For the creation (now by creation is meant all manner of inanimate objects, e.g., geological plates under northern California) waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.
Now who is subjected the creation to futility "in hope"? Satan? No! Satan subjects nothing to anything in hope; only God is a God of hope. God subjected creation to futility in hope, so that when the curse came upon the world with all of its manifold decaying and futility, it was God bringing a curse on the world for sin—but in hope.
If you ask, "Why should God ordain that there be an increasing frequency and intensity of earthquakes toward the end of the age, as the Lord draws near?" the biblical answer seems to be that God means to give hope-filled and shocking warnings before the Day of the Lord, the same way labor pains are hope-filled warnings that a mother and father should get ready and go to a safe place to have the baby. God means to give birth-pangs to the world so that the world wakes up and knows something is about to happen. This is mercy that with all the tragedy that there is in all the calamities of the world, it's the loud, stark voice of a holy God saying, "Get ready there is a shaking coming that will leave no house standing, no building standing, no place to stand but the throne."
That's the meaning—they are warnings. And there will be an increasing number of calamities, so that there is growing a sense of unsettledness in the world and people grasp and some hang onto money and some cling to power and some go after the bottle and some go after sex and some go after vacations and only a few have their love not grow cold because lawlessness is multiplied. Those will be the ones who hear the voice of the Lord in the shaking of our world in these last days. Open your eyes to read the signs of the times so that you not be taken off-guard when the calamity comes. Whether it's your own little private calamity of a stopped heart, or whether everybody together rolls with the earthquake. It is coming, and the Lord is warning us that it is coming. Again and again and again he is shaking people awake to the reality of the instability of this world and the desirability of the unshakable kingdom that he offers.
3. The Gift of an Unshakable Kingdom
Before the end of this age, God is giving to everyone who believes in his Son a kingdom that cannot be shaken and will never end.
This is the message of the whole Bible. But to see it we should look at verse 28 of our text:
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
Notice: we have already received it. Verse 27 says that what can be shaken will be swept away in one last great shaking, and that what is unshakable will remain. Then verse 28 says that we have already received that unshakable kingdom.
This is the great joy of being a Christian. It doesn't matter whether you live Santa Cruz, California, or Charleston, South Carolina, or on the banks of the Ganges in Bangladesh—you have a kingdom which has already been given to you, and your life in Christ is unshakable. It does not mean there weren't any Christians crushed under the Nimitz Freeway. There probably were. Romans 8:23 says that "not only does the creation (the geological plates beneath northern California) groan with birth-pangs, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Holy Spirit groan inwardly, awaiting the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." We share in the futility and decay and calamities of creation as long as we are in the body. When the flood comes, we may drown. When the hurricane comes, we may lose our homes and churches. When the earthquake strikes, we may be under the freeway.
No. Receiving an unshakable kingdom does not mean safety for the body in this world. It does not mean that we'll escape the earthquake. It means that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
It means the deep and abiding certainty that "whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living" (Romans 14:9). It means that "here we have no lasting city, but we seek a city which is to come" (Hebrews 13:14): a city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10), a city that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28)—forever. It does not mean that the judgment will not begin at the household of God. It will.
This brings us to our fourth and final point.
4. God Is a Consuming Fire
In view of all these things—the free gift of an unshakable kingdom—we should worship God with reverence and awe, remembering that our God is a consuming fire.
Verse 28: "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire."
The question for believer and unbeliever alike this morning is this: Are you worshiping the unshakable God, or are you worshiping shakable possessions? Is your heart fixed on God? Is God your treasure, or is the world your treasure? Is God your security, or is your retirement plan your security? Is God your fellowship, or is your family the sum total of your fellowship? Are you an idolater? Is God your portion in this life, or is the world your portion? Do you stand with reverence and awe before the power and holiness of God, who is a consuming fire toward all sin, and do you clothe yourself with the asbestos righteousness of Jesus Christ, so that the fire of God can be seen from within as glory and not as punishment?
I have a letter here that just came this week from Christians in St. Croix after Hugo. The last paragraph says,
Hugo has further reinforced in our minds the importance of holding loosely to material things. In one night accumulated wealth for which people had labored for many years was turned over to wind and rain, which were soon followed by . . . the thieves.
One of the headlines in yesterday's paper said, "Marina lifestyles crumble with the buildings."
Receive the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Jesus said, "Truly, truly I say to you, unless you receive the kingdom like a little child, you will never enter it." See how simple it is? What does "a little child" mean? It means you humble yourself and recognize that you can't make a place for yourself to stand. You can't cut it in life and make the future what it needs to be. You just humble yourself like a little child. You recognize that there's a Father in heaven. You see the gift offered through his Son Jesus Christ—forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life and a firm kingdom that can't be shaken—you extend your hands and say, "Sinner though I am, I receive it. This is now my portion forever and ever."