“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:12–13)
The rain abates. Dark clouds part. The sun emerges from behind its cover. Colors of the spectrum stretch across the sky in artistic display.
That rainbow represents more than a meteorological phenomenon. It speaks to the promise of the Creator God Himself.
Chapters six through nine of the Book of Genesis record the account of Noah. God had created all that is, including human beings (Gen. 1-2). But people sinned by disobeying God. The whole of the created order fell under the dominion of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, were exiled from the Garden of Eden, now in broken relationship with God (Gen. 3). The curse of the fall spread far and wide.
When we get to Genesis 6 we read these sobering words: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). God decided to bring judgment upon the earth.
He told Noah to build an ark. The floods came. Water covered the earth. All those outside of the ark perished. Only the eight souls who had taken refuge in it survived.
To those eight God repeated the command He had given to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). God’s image-bearers were to take up the charge given them at the beginning (compare Gen. 1:27-28 with Gen. 9:6-7).
God had brought judgment against wickedness. Yet He gave a promise. He said He would never again bring destruction in that manner. The sign of that promise for Noah and the generations to come would be the rainbow. God would not again judge by flood (Gen. 9:11).
Many years later the Apostle Peter helps us to understand all that God was saying through His rainbow. In his second letter, Peter reminds us that the Bible is God Himself speaking (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Then, in chapter two he makes reference to examples of God’s judgment, including at the time of Noah (2 Pet. 2:4-6). In chapter three Peter brings attention to God’s judgment through the flood.
“This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.” (2 Pet. 3:1–6)
The judgment in the days of Noah was a picture, a preview of the judgment to come—a final judgment. As horrific as that judgment was, it pales to that which is in store. Here is what God says about it through His apostle in the next verse:
“But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” (2 Pet. 3:7)
The rainbow of Genesis 9 represented God’s promise that He would not again bring the destruction of judgment by the waters of a flood. Peter alerts us, however, of a judgment yet to come, not by water but by fire, with the same outcome—destruction of the ungodly. The fact that we continue to witness the rainbow means that the sun of God’s mercy and grace still shines. The wrath of His holy judgment has yet to be unleashed. Today is still the day of salvation. Peter explains:
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Pet. 3:8–10)
In the days of Noah God provided an ark. That ark was God’s provision for salvation, escape from the judgment to come. Had there been no ark, there would have been no hope. The waters of judgment that brought destruction to those outside the ark are the same waters that lifted those ensconced in it to safety.
Just as the judgment then was a preview, so was the ark. In his first letter Peter points us to what that ark ultimately represented (1 Pet. 3:18-22). He points us to Jesus. The fires of God’s wrath that will destroy all those outside Christ will not touch those who trust in Him, because He suffered the wrath of God already for them (John 3:36, Rom. 5:8-11; John 5:25; Rom. 3:19-26) at the cross.
The rainbow points us to Jesus. Jesus is God’s provision for salvation, God’s only provision, the provision of His mercy, grace and love. In view of the judgment yet to come, God has provided a way of escape, the way of escape. Just as those who rejected God’s salvation in the days of Noah perished, so will those who reject His Son. John lays it out in straightforward and sobering terms:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16–18)
Every time we see a rainbow, we should think of God’s judgment in the days of Noah and his mercy through His provision of the ark. The rainbow is a sign of judgment deferred. It speaks to the promise of God, a word as certain as God Himself. A promise of life to all who will hear and a promise of wrath to all who refuse His mercy.
Every time we see a rainbow, we should recognize the judgment to come and God’s provision through His Son, Jesus Christ. As Peter reminds us, He is a merciful and patient God, not wishing that any should perish but that all would come in faith to His Son—and be saved from the wrath to come.