Revelation #31. Hell, and the Love of God

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If God is infinitely good, infinitely glorious, then to sin against him is infinitely evil. And to say that a loving God would never send anyone to eternal punishment is to say that God himself is not eternally valuable. But even more than that, the Christian doctrine of hell shows us the extravagant extent of God’s love for us: Jesus suffered unimaginably in hell, for our sake.

 Hell itself cannot help but show the preciousness of God and depths of his love.

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Revelation #31.  Revelation 14:6-13

I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio version of this sermon. It is a bit long – 40 minutes, so please plan accordingly. This is an important message, and I believe it is well worth your time.

Please read Revelation 14:6-13

We are in the fourth major section of Revelation. We had the seven letters, the seven seals and the seven trumpets. This section is what I call “the seven significant signs.” These “signs” or visions, tell us that there is a spiritual reality that underlies and surrounds our physical existence. The signs explain what is happening in our lives, and what will happen in the future, from the perspective of this spiritual realm. So the sign of the Woman and the Child tell the story of the church and of the Messiah. Then, enters the Dragon, and we learn that there is a spiritual war going on between the Dragon and the Church. The two beasts show us how the Dragon attacks – through physical persecution and oppression; and also, through deception, lies and cultural pressure. The sign of the 144,000 and the Lamb shows us that not only does God have victory over the Dragon, but those who trust Jesus will also partake of that victory. And so we come to our text today, the sixth sign, which is the three angel messengers.

The three angel messengers go together – they are all part of one “sign,” one aspect of the spiritual reality that surrounds our physical existence. The previous sign showed that those who die are victorious, and are already with the Lamb in glorious light, joy and worship. But the three angel messengers are sent to those who are still on earth. There is a definite progression in the spiritual realm for those who are still alive:

  1. The Gospel is proclaimed. God comes first in peace to all the inhabitants of the earth, inviting everyone into his grace. Notice that the gospel contains both an invitation: “fear God, and give him glory;” and also a warning: “because the hour of his judgment has come.” As we have seen elsewhere in Revelation, God goes to great extremes to allow people to repent and be saved before the end. Once more, he delays judgment, giving yet one more chance.
  2. The judgment upon the empires of the beasts is announced. Babylon was the great enemy of God’s people at one time in Israel’s history. Here in Revelation, “Babylon” represents human society that is organized culturally, economically, and politically against God’s people. It is human culture manipulated by the two beasts. It will come up again soon in Revelation.
  3. The pronouncement of eternal punishment on those who finally refuse to repent and receive God’s grace offered in Jesus Christ. I want to spend the remainder of our time on this subject, since it is controversial in this day and age.

Please bear with me here, because we are going to go into deep and thoughtful territory. One of the great advantages of Christianity – in fact one of the reasons that the nations which were formerly Christian developed faster than many other areas of the world – is that Christianity is deeply thoughtful and intellectual. True Christian faith helps people think well.  Thinking well takes work, but it is important work. I want to entreat you to think on what I say carefully, and thoughtfully. Give some attention to it.

Hell, and the modern world.

The traditional, orthodox Christian view of hell is that it is a place of eternal torment, reserved for those who reject the offer of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There were a few Christians with different opinions at various times, but the main Christian view was basically settled for all of Christian history. However, that view has come into dispute during the past fifty years or so.

According to Pew Research, only 70% of those who call themselves Christians believe in hell. That means 30% don’t. Fewer women believe in hell than men. 36% of the “Baby Boomer” generation does not believe in hell. Those Baby Boomers include several people who have influence on Christianity in America.

Among those who do believe in hell, there are other areas of dispute. Some Christians, including many influential thinkers, believe that hell is not eternal. Instead, they believe in “annihilation.” That is, they think that those who reject God, after the judgment day, are simply destroyed entirely, ceasing to exist. They reject the idea of eternal suffering.

Mostly the reason Christians  these days reject what the Bible says about hell is because it seems entirely out of step with modern culture. We have come to emphasize the love of God so much that we have lost sight of the holiness and righteousness of God. In fact many people write and speak as if God’s love far outweighs his holiness, purity and righteousness. That is not true. God’s love, and his holiness are in perfect, eternal balance. If they are not, then Jesus had no reason to die for our sins, and God’s forgiveness is no big deal. In fact, without the proper Biblical doctrine of hell, God would be far less loving, not more. You see, you don’t know how much Jesus loves you until you know how much he suffered. If God’s forgiveness is equivalent to paying for a speeding a ticket, that’s nice, and we should be grateful, but in the end, it’s not really a big deal.  But if the debt that he paid for you was eternal suffering, it is a stunning, overwhelming, unbelievable kind of love.

Hell and the Bible.

The Bible’s teaching on hell is really quite straightforward. Much of Revelation is figurative, not literal, and I think we can take it for granted that some elements of verses 9-11 are describing spiritual realities in a picturesque  way (that is, not exactly literal). For instance, the idea of the smoke going up “in the sight of the  holy angels and the lamb.” I don’t know if this is to be taken literally, but the ideas behind it are justice and vindication. Here on earth, the Lamb is blasphemed, and his followers persecuted while people either approve, or do nothing. In Revelation 14:9-11, that situation is reversed. The point of it is to show us that at the end, the name of Jesus will be vindicated, and his followers will  be proven right.

However, we need to know that what these verses say in general about hell are perfectly consistent with what the rest of the Bible clearly teaches about hell. So, what does the Bible say about hell?

It is interesting to note that there is one person in the Bible who talks about hell more than all of the other Biblical writers put together. That person is Jesus Christ. Jesus spent a surprisingly large amount of time talking about hell. Here’s a summary of what he (and the rest of the Bible) says:

  1. Hell is a place of real torment. The most common metaphors for the suffering of hell are those of fire, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and darkness:

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (ESV) Mark 9:43-48

41The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. 42They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:41-42, HCSB)

10Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! 11I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:10-12, HCSB)

The fire and darkness and gnashing of teeth may or may not be literal. But the point is clear: Hell is a place of torment. There are dozens and dozens of other verses that describe hell as a place of torment, including our passage for today.

  1. Hell is forever.

41Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels! (Matt 25:41, HCSB)

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (ESV) Mark 9:43-48

These are the ones who are like dangerous reefs at your love feasts. They feast with you, nurturing only themselves without fear. They are waterless clouds carried along by winds; trees in late autumn — fruitless, twice dead, pulled out by the roots; wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds; wandering stars for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever!  (Jude 1:12-13, HCSB)

Once again, this is just a small sample of verses that describe hell as eternal. In addition to the explicit verses, we have logic. We believe that God and Heaven exist outside of time. When we leave this life, we will step outside of time, and be “in eternity” so to speak. It isn’t just a long, long time. It is a whole different plane of existence. Hell also appears to exist outside of time. It is logical that it belongs to the same kind of eternity. Hold on to that thought, because the implication is mind blowing in regard to what Jesus Christ suffered on our behalf.

Some people object to hell in this way: “How,” they say, “can even lifetime of sinning – 70-80 years – merit an eternity of punishment?”  This is a very helpful question, and it helps us to understand exactly why hell is what it is. To get a handle on it, let’s think about crimes in the physical realm. A murder using a gun takes only one second to commit. Should the person who does so only go to jail for a second? Of course not. What about kidnapping? Suppose a kidnapper takes someone for just two days. Should he only serve two days in prison? Of course not.

We recognize that the time it takes to commit a crime is not a measure of its evil. But what is the measure of a crime? On what basis do we decide how to punish criminals? Let’s answer that with a though experiment. Suppose there was a society which said, “A murderer need not stay in prison so long. One or two days is enough.” What would we think? What conclusions could we draw about that culture? The obvious conclusion is that a culture which says that murder does not deserve severe punishment is a culture that does not value human life.

Do you see now? The punishment for a crime is a measure of how precious the thing was that was violated by the crime. This is true even when the crime was only attempted. If someone attempts to commit a crime of graffiti, but fails, there is no punishment. But what if someone attempts murder, but fails? They still go to prison for many years. Even attempted murder is striking at the heart of something precious: human life.

Now what if there was something even more precious than human life, something infinitely valuable, infinitely precious and good? If someone commits a crime against this infinite good, the most precious thing in all the universe – shouldn’t the punishment show how precious this good thing is? Shouldn’t  a crime against infinite good be punished with infinite punishment? If your answer is “no,” then you do not really believe in something that is infinitely good.

Let’s consider the nature of God. God is the ultimate good, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate wonder, joy and perfection in the universe. When God makes a judgment, or decision, there is nothing higher than Himself to which he can appeal. He is the Law. He is the ultimate authority. We say God is good, that he is righteous. What that means is that he is unwaveringly committed to uphold the value of what is infinitely valuable. What is infinitely valuable? His own glory. There is nothing better than him, nothing more valuable than him. As popular author John Piper puts it:

“God has no constitution or legal code outside himself by which to measure what is right and good in his own thinking and feeling and doing. It must be measured by himself. What then is righteousness in God? God’s righteousness is his devotion to, his allegiance to, his absolute unwavering commitment to stand for, and uphold, and vindicate, that which is infinitely valuable: Himself. If he for one millisecond diverted from his passionate, infinitely zealous cause of holding up his glory, he would be unrighteous, and unworthy of our worship.”

–John Piper The Echo and The Insufficiency of Hell (July 13, 2017).

So, if something strikes against the heart of God – who is infinitely good, infinitely precious – shouldn’t the punishment reflect the crime? That is exactly what is happening with hell. The crime is against the infinite good that is God himself. God’s character is infinitely precious. By our sins, we are attacking his character, violating the heart of this precious thing, as if to destroy it (if we could).

If God is infinitely good, infinitely glorious, then to sin against him is infinitely evil. And to say that a loving God would never send anyone to eternal punishment is to say that God himself is not eternally valuable.

We do not stop there. Now we come to stunning, unimaginable love of God. At the moment of Jesus Christ’s death, the whole land was cast into darkness, and he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These things reveal what was happening to Jesus on the cross. Throughout his whole ordeal, Jesus never cried out about being whipped, or being deserted by his friends. This cry was not about physical or psychological pain. This is about hell. When Jesus took upon himself the punishment for our sins, he was “cast out into outer darkness.” He spent not 36 hours in hell, but an eternity. Hell isn’t bound by time, so when Jesus “went to hell” he experienced the eternal rejection of God the Father. He experienced an eternity of suffering. If that is what our sins deserve, and Jesus paid for our sins, then that was the price he paid. Not only that, but Jesus experienced an eternity of suffering for each person who ever lived!  There is more here than we can fully understand, but this is one reason it had to be Jesus who paid for our sins. Since he is eternal and infinite himself, he was able to suffer more than any created creature possibly can.

You see what I mean now, that hell shows us how shockingly extravagant is God’s love for us?

So, if you deny the Biblical doctrine of hell, not only do you say that God is not infinitely precious, you also say that Jesus is not infinitely loving.

Without hell, Jesus suffered 33 years of human burdens that he didn’t need to have. Then he suffered about 18 hours of intense physical pain, followed by 36 hours “just dead.” Sure, that’s pretty amazing too, but it is hardly infinitely loving.

So, our text today is not only describing what happens to those who reject the infinite preciousness of God, it also shows the magnificent extremes of his love for us. Not only that, but no one must go to hell – that was the point of Jesus’ incredible and ultimate suffering. So, when someone rejects this extravagant love, it is a spiteful evil of unbelievable proportion. The punishment of hell for someone who  rejects such precious love is one that fits the crime.

Hell itself cannot help but show the preciousness of God and depths of his love.

I want to add one final thought. In all that I have shared, what I want you to focus on is not the horror of eternal suffering, but rather, the infinite preciousness of God, and the magnificent extravagance of his love for you. Hell might scare you away from the wrong direction, but it cannot lead you to heaven. For that, you need the love of God. I hope this message has given you a deeper appreciation for it. Spend some time meditating on it right now.

REVELATION #30: The Reality of Spiritual Victory. Rev 14:1-5

Rev_30This whole section of Revelation is about the underlying spiritual reality that is affecting the events of our physical lives. It is here to remind the first readers, and us, that the things that we experience every day are also part of an underlying spiritual reality that we cannot see, but is nonetheless very real. In that Spiritual Reality, we are already holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:6); already seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); we have already been raised to life with Christ, and our lives are hidden with him (Colossian 3:1-2). We are already singing the song of the redeemed, already walking with the Lamb wherever he goes (our text for today).

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Revelation #30.  Revelation 14:1-5

It is so easy, when reading Revelation to fall into the trap of interpreting things literally. In this passage, one of the things we fixate on is this weird idea:

These are the ones not defiled with women, for they have kept their virginity.  (verse 4)

But let’s back up. We don’t think the beast is literally an animal, but rather its description is figurative. We don’t think that 144,000 is a literal number. Instead, the number symbolizes all of God’s redeemed people – whatever the actual number will be. So, before we go crazy on verse four, let’s consider what it might mean if this, too, is a symbolic idea.

There are two very important principles of Bible interpretation that we should apply here. One is the principle that we interpret the Bible in such a way that it does not contradict itself. In other words, if there is a way to harmonize apparently contradictory passages, we choose that over an interpretation that creates a contradiction. That is how we read every other book – we don’t assume the author has contradicted himself if we don’t have to. Also, we interpret obscure passages in the light of what is clear elsewhere. So, what we have today is an obscure passage. Are there clear passages that would help us understand it? Yes, indeed. Let’s look at them.

The Bible has a very well-defined standard for human sexuality. According to the Bible, sex was made by God, and part of the creation that he called “good.” Sex was made for marriage, and for marriage only. Any sexual activity outside of marriage is called “sexual immorality,” and is considered sinful. But sex within marriage is good, and intended by God. It is a wonderful, powerful tool to help married couples build and maintain intimacy. In fact, the Bible even teaches that married couples should have sex regularly, and should not stop doing so except for mutually agreed upon breaks for prayer and fasting:

1 Now in response to the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman.” 2 But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. 3 A husband should fulfill his marital responsibility to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. 4 A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say the following as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all people were just like me. But each has his own gift from God, one person in this way and another in that way. (HCSB 1 Corinthians 7:1-7)

When Paul says “I say this as a concession, not a command,” he is talking about singleness, not sex within marriage. His own gift – the thing that he wishes everyone was like him in – was the gift of being single and celibate. But the teaching is, if you can’t be single and celibate, you should get married, and once you are married, you should not deprive each other without mutual agreement. Sex is complicated, and it requires a lot of clear, honest communicating with each other about. I’m not saying that no partner should ever have the right to say “no.” But the plain sense of this passage is that sex is supposed to be a good and important part of marriage.

Therefore (and the passage above isn’t the only place where this is taught) we cannot take Revelation chapter 14 to mean that all sex defiles a person; intimacy between married people is, in a way, holy. It is certainly not defiling. Early Christian writers like Augustine (and many others) believed that when spouses remained monogamous they were, in a spiritual sense, still “virgins.”

Also, the phrasing “defiled themselves with women,” if we take it literally, means that the 144,000 includes only men. But even the earliest Christians rejected this notion, and taught that both men and women were intended in this passage, and in fact, in all passages of scripture:

And indeed not to men only does the Lord promise the grace of continence, disregarding women; but since woman is a part of man and was taken and formed from him, almost universally in the Scriptures God addresses the first formed because they are two in one flesh, and in the man is signified likewise the woman. (early church father Cyprian, circa 248 AD. ACCS).

Even though some ancient Christians believed that this passage was teaching about a special place in God’s kingdom for literal virgins, I think the language of “defiling” shows that it is unlikely that we are to understand this literally. Instead, it is a figure of speech. If so, however, what does it mean?

I think the best understanding of this is that it refers to “virginity” in spiritual matters. All throughout the Bible, when the Lord talks about idolatry, he uses the metaphor of sexual unfaithfulness to describe the spiritual unfaithfulness inherent in worshipping other things.

10They will eat but not be satisfied; they will be promiscuous but not multiply. For they have abandoned their devotion to the LORD.// 11Promiscuity, wine, and new wine take away one’s understanding.// 12My people consult their wooden idols, and their divining rods inform them.// For a spirit of promiscuity leads them astray; they act promiscuously in disobedience to their God.// 13They sacrifice on the mountaintops, and they burn offerings on the hills, and under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, because their shade is pleasant.// And so your daughters act promiscuously and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. (Hos 4:10-13, HCSB)

This is not literal promiscuity – it is describing idol worship. Here are a few more:

7All her carved images will be smashed to pieces; all her wages will be burned in the fire, and I will destroy all her idols. Since she collected the wages of a prostitute, they will be used again for a prostitute. (Mic 1:7, HCSB)

 6In the days of King Josiah the LORD asked me, “Have you seen what unfaithful Israel has done? She has ascended every high hill and gone under every green tree to prostitute herself there. 7I thought: After she has done all these things, she will return to Me. But she didn’t return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8I observed that it was because unfaithful Israel had committed adultery that I had sent her away and had given her a certificate of divorce. Nevertheless, her treacherous sister Judah was not afraid but also went and prostituted herself. 9Indifferent to her prostitution, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10Yet in spite of all this, her treacherous sister Judah didn’t return to Me with all her heart — only in pretense.” This is the LORD’s declaration. (Jer 3:6-10, HCSB)

Once again these verses are talking about the fact that Israel and Judah worshipped other gods, and did not seek the Lord. Therefore, I think in our passage on Revelation, verse 4 is all about remaining spiritually pure. The 144,000 are those who have not worshipped other gods, who have not defiled themselves by allowing anything to displace God as God in their lives. One ancient Christian commentator put it like this:

In this passage we do not understand the “virgins” to be only those who are chaste in the body. Rather, we have especially in mind the whole church that holds to the pure faith, as the apostle says, “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” For she is not corrupted by any adulterous commixture of the heretics, nor to the end of its life is it hindered by the alluring yet deadly desires of this world.

….Truly, dearest brothers, of what profit is it for a man or woman, whether cleric or monk or religious, if bodily virginity is preserved, as long as purity of the heart is violated by evil desires? (Caesarius of Arles , 470-543. ACCS )

The point then, is that the 144,000 are those who put God first in their lives and let nothing take His place. They remain steadfastly faithful to God’s revealed word, which is the Bible.

Now, let’s back up and put this all in context. This is the fifth part of the section I call “The Seven significant signs.” The whole section is about the underlying spiritual reality that is affecting the events of our physical lives. It is here to remind the first readers, and us, that the things that we experience every day are also part of an underlying spiritual reality that we cannot see, but is nonetheless very real.

Up until now, we have seen the negative side of that spiritual reality: we learned that there is spiritual war going on. The devil has already lost to God, and is now, out of spite, trying to destroy those who follow Jesus. But there is more to that spiritual reality than just the negative. Our passage today is showing us that there is also a positive spiritual reality that should impact our lives here and now. And so, we have the picture of the 144,000 worshiping God and being with the lamb wherever he goes. Revelation has given us this message before, but it must be important, since this text reiterates it: the victory is already won.

The text says that these are the “firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” I think John’s first readers would have thought immediately of those who had been put to death for their defiance of the culture in following Jesus. We’ve just come from a very dark section, where it says:

10 If anyone is destined for captivity, into captivity he goes. If anyone is to be killed with a sword, with a sword he will be killed. This demands the perseverance and faith of the saints. (HCSB. Revelation 13:10)

But now we have a picture of what comes after that: after “the sword” you join the firstfruits for God and the Lamb. Their battle is over, they have been delivered. Even as the devil thrashes around here on earth, the great victory celebration has already begun in heaven. This text is here to remind us that the eternal reward for remaining faithful to Jesus is far greater than the cost of discomfort and persecution here on earth. The writer of Hebrews had a similar idea when he wrote:

1Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3, HCSB)

In fact, I would say that this part of John’s vision is a colorful, graphic way of saying the same thing.

So what do we do with all this? First, the faithfulness metaphor. I know for myself that it is easy to lose sight of what is at stake in being faithful to God, and to his Word. The culture to which John wrote was not asking Christians to completely deny Jesus; they simply wanted Christians to agree with the rest of the culture about certain things, and to show their allegiance to the culture by just a small act of worship. It would have been easy for those first Christians to think, “Is it really such a big deal?” But the picture here shows that that is like asking, “Is it really such a big deal if I’m unfaithful to my spouse?”

Now I want to make sure and cover all the bases. Maybe, at some point you have compromised, and you haven’t been faithful to God. Maybe you have allowed other things to come in between you and him. Jesus died to make it right between you and God. But you do have to receive that in faith, and if you receive that in faith, it will change you. If trusting in Jesus doesn’t change your behavior, then you aren’t really trusting in him. But when you do truly trust in him, your sins are entirely removed and forgiven, and, in Jesus, it is as if you had never failed. You can remain spiritually pure, because of Jesus. Also, as we follow him, we learn to want to be pure. The Holy Spirit grows that desire in our hearts.

Second, the victory metaphor. I’m going to speculate a little bit here; please don’t take this next piece as if it is written in stone. But sometimes, I like to picture time as a book. Inside the book, the characters move from one page to the next. They can’t turn the pages back; they move through time in a linear fashion. Now imagine, that when the book has been completely read, the characters get to come out of the book and stand outside, where a reader of the book would be. Now, all of the book – past, present, future – is in the book, and the characters are outside of that place. Their lives are in the book, proceeding in a linear fashion from one page to the next. And yet now they also are outside of the book and what is happening to them outside of the book is going on “at the same time,” so to speak, as they go through the book from page to page. So while they are in the book facing trials and struggles, they are, also, “at the same time,” outside of the book celebrating with friends and family.

I wonder sometimes if that is a little bit like the spiritual reality. We live inside time; “inside the book.” But spiritual reality is outside the book. In that spiritual reality we are there, already entirely saved. We are already holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:6); already seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); we have already been raised to life with Christ, and our lives are hidden with him (Colossian 3:1-2). We are already singing the song of the redeemed, already walking with the Lamb wherever he goes (our text for today).

When we truly believe this, it changes everything. Yes, we still have to finish the book, page by page. And yet, the end is already written. This why the Apostle Paul could say:

16 Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (HCSB, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

I want us to learn to say the same thing. Let the Spirit speak to you today!

LOVE CHANGES THE BELOVED.

Love Changes

Imagine that my sister is a drug addict. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close. Because of God’s love for us, our best good has become fully intertwined with God’s best good.

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EPHESIANS 2:1-10

If I could use only one chapter of the Bible to summarize Christianity, it would be Ephesians chapter 2. Everything is here. It is Christianity 101. But one of the challenges of that is that it’s so “big.” I grew up in the country of Papua New Guinea. It’s an amazing place, and pretty much unlike anywhere else in the world. When I was younger, and people found this out, they would say, “What was that like?” I understand the kind spirit behind the question, but frankly, it was unanswerable. Growing up in New Guinea was my entire life, it formed who I am today. There were many things about my childhood that affected me profoundly; I had many remarkable experiences, and traveled more in my first 18 years than many people travel in a lifetime. If I hadn’t grown up there, I would be a very different person than I am now.

So, usually I answered the question by saying, “It was nice.”

But this Ephesians passage is like that. It is everything. The truth that is here has a deep, and profound effect on those who believe it. It forms who we are today. There is no way that I can do it justice. In the short time I have here. But I approach this passage, as always listening for what the Holy Spirit might want to draw out at this moment in time.

About 500 years ago, this verse, and a few others like it, shook Western civilization to its foundations. One of the men who was involved in that process was Martin Luther. Luther used to talk about the tensions in the Christian faith as if it were like riding a horse. It takes a certain physical grace to keep your balance on a horse. Some people fall off the right side, and others the left. (I myself, when I was young, managed somehow to fall off the back of a horse, but that story is irrelevant to my point here).

The left side of the horse is where we essentially take God’s love for granted. Of course God loves everyone – that’s part of what it means for him to be God, right? “Because God loves me,” (say the left-siders), “it doesn’t matter at all how I behave. I have a free ticket to heaven, so I can live however I want to, here on earth. God’s love is so great, that he doesn’t really care. He just wants to affirm me as I am.”

In our culture today, if there is one thing that most people believe, it is that every person should be the best version of themselves that they can be. To make it personal, I should try and best me that I can be. God made me, and so he wants me to be me. Since he made me, and loves me, everyone should just accept me how I am, and not try to change me, or put rules or restrictions on my behavior. But if this is how you think, I believe you haven’t yet understood what love is all about. Real love does not accept the beloved with no desire for change. Real love desires the best for everyone, and that usually means change.

Let me give you an example. Suppose a friend of my cousin is a drug addict. As a drug addict, my cousin’s friend is harming his body. He is destroying his relationships. He is ruining his financial future. He is inexorably deteriorating physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. If I find out about this concerning someone I don’t know – like my cousin’s friend – I may say, “Gee, that’s too bad.” But honestly, I’m not particularly motivated to make sure that that person changes. Do I except my cousin’s friend as he is, because I love him? No, in fact it’s almost the opposite. It is because I don’t care about him that I’m content to let him be “who he is.”

Now, imagine that the drug addict is not my cousin’s friend, but my own sister. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close.

Listen to how Paul describes our situation apart from Christ:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. 3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. (HCSB Free. Ephesians 2:1-3)

I want to make sure that we don’t skim over verse two. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient,” means demonic forces, possibly the devil himself. Apart from Christ we are pawns of the devil. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we are in deep trouble. We are most certainly not okay as we are.

Sometimes Christians get the sense that once they are saved, they have a ticket for heaven and now they can live however they want to live until it’s time for them to go to heaven. That too, is the attitude from the left side of the horse. That too, is wrong. The deeper we get into this, the more you’ll see that, but I will just say that the end of this passage is in contrast with the beginning. In the beginning, apart from Christ we were “walking” in sin and trespasses. By walk, or walking, Paul simply means our way of life. But at the end, once we are redeemed in Christ, saved entirely by his grace, there is more. Still continuing on by grace (not by works). God has prepared good works for us to “walk in” (verse 10). So we are to go from living in a way that is contrary to God’s loving desire for us to a way of life that God has prepared for us, a way of life that brings honor and glory to himself.

But we don’t get there on our own. Remember the horse? We’ve been talking about the left side. The right side of the horse is to put too much emphasis on what you do for God. In Martin Luther’s time, everyone was falling off the right side. Almost everyone believed that they would be saved by being good people and doing good things. That might sound OK, at one level, right? I mean, it means people will try to behave well, and that’s good thing. But people who are trying to justify themselves are ultimately people who will hurt others in order to help themselves. They are under tremendous pressure to perform right, and to judge how well they are doing. Very few people can avoid also judging how everyone else is doing. People start making up rules so that they can know that they are “safe,” and they quickly become harsh and unloving.

Luther’s great task in life was to show those people that they were wrong, that God’s grace, as this passage teaches, has nothing to do with our efforts. Not only do our good works accomplish nothing, but apart from Christ, our good works are energized by the devil. That’s a scary thought. Sometimes, in our pluralistic society, we can sort of think that people who don’t trust Jesus are kind of in neutral territory. I hope that we Christians often meet people who think and believe differently than we do, and I hope we can be respectful and kind and loving to them. But we need to be very clear about what the Bible says here: there is no neutral ground. Now, let me be clear: we should never imagine that other people are the enemy. But they do live under the influence of the enemy. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we walk “according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient (2:2). Apart from God, we have no hope of actually being morally good, because there is no moral good apart from God.

This is offensive to those who fall off the right side of the horse, but it is what the Bible says. The text says, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” A corpse can’t “try hard.” A dead person can’t “do the best he can.” No, if you are dead, your actions are taken completely out of the picture, because a dead person can’t do anything. There is nothing we could possibly do for ourselves, spiritually. We don’t “do our best and God does the rest.” God does it all. We can’t do our best. Our ‘best’ is sin and gratifying the desires of our corrupt nature. Our ‘best’ results in us being used as pawns of the devil. “Doing our best” is ridiculous, because a dead person can’t do anything, and we were spiritually dead. Now, bearing that in mind, look at what Paul says next:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Now, I want to make sure we understand God’s grace fully. Let me start by taking human beings down a peg or two. (I am going to say “you,” but please understand, I include myself in this.) Life is not about you. Once again, this is in contrast to our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. Self-fulfillment is a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. If God is, in fact, God, than the Supreme Good in the Universe is Himself. If He is the best and most wonderful thing in existence, than it is only right that he should seek to please Himself, to glorify Himself. There is nothing better than him, no greater good than His own pleasure. So, just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Highest Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. We are not necessary to God’s happiness, nor to his glory.

But here is the amazing part: he has chosen to bring glory to Himself by being gracious and kind to us in Jesus Christ. We are part of God’s plan to glorify Himself; we are part of God’s plan to please himself. In his love, he has made us part of the best thing in the Universe. We get to be a part of this highest, best good. That means, it becomes part of the best thing in the universe for us to be saved by Jesus. Our best good has become wrapped up in God’s best good.

Imagine a billionaire who wants the world to see him as a kind, generous man. So, he buys two square miles of slum in the worst part of the city. He tears down all the houses, and builds a resort-style complex, and then settles all the former slum dwellers into million-dollar homes there. The billionaire might be building this for selfish reasons, but there is no way that the result is actually selfish. He has chosen to make the well-being of poor people necessary to his own sense of self as a generous person. He does this not because the poor people have pleased him, but rather, because it pleases himself to do it, and to have others see it.

That is a little bit like God, except that, because he is God, it is good and right for him to please himself. But he didn’t have to include us in that plan – he just did, because he is so gracious, kind and loving.

So, we need to fully understand what we do contributes nothing to our salvation and cannot earn God’s approval and grace. Those things have already been given freely to us and we receive them simply by believing and trusting that God has given them to us in and through Jesus Christ. That’s it – no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”

With that firmly understood, let’s go back to the good works I mentioned earlier:

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Being a part of God’s plan to glorify himself means that he has prepared good works for us to walk in. These are not good because we do them, but rather because God has already set us up to do them.

Let me explain it like this. Consider a family that has adopted a baby. The child belongs to the family for one reason only – the family loves her, chose her and wants her. There is nothing that a tiny baby could possibly do to earn that love. It starts with the love of her parents, long before she can ever return that love. This is how it is with us and God. After all, we already saw in Ephesians 1:5 that,

“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will…”

Now think about an adopted child again. As she grows older, she will start to behave in certain ways simply because she has already been adopted. She may hug and kiss her mommy and daddy. She’ll come running to them with her fears and problems. This adopted child will probably grow up speaking like others in her family. She’ll fight and forgive and love her brothers and sisters. Her parents will train her concerning the rules, and will have to discipline her at times, and at times she’ll have to adjust her behavior. She will do these things, not to try and get into the family, but rather, because she is already in it.

Can you imagine a little boy who cleans his room daily, is always kind to his brothers and sisters, mows the lawn and fixes supper twice a week? I can’t either. But just suppose there was. Suppose his parents asked him why he did these things, and his response was: “Well, I want to get into this family. I want you to love me, and I know if I don’t do these things you won’t love me and I can’t be part of the family.” That would break the heart of any parent. We don’t accept our children on the basis of what they do for us. We accept them and love them because they are ours.

Consider it from another angle. Imagine there was a boy from another family who came over to your house and washed the dishes, cleaned the rooms and spoke to you respectfully. Would you, simply because he behaves well, adopt him as your own child? Of course not. Good behavior is not enough to make someone part of your family. It would be ridiculous if it were.

So, we are God’s children. There are certain things that the Lord wants us to do. There are certain behaviors he would like us to either change or start doing. But we do these things because God has already adopted us. We do them because that’s part of what it means to be in this family. There is no way that we can get into the family in the first place by trying to act like family members. We are adopted by God’s choice. “Doing” is a result of our adoption, not the cause of it.

In fact, we are God’s creation (not our own) and he has created certain things for us to do. There is a stunning truth about our good works: they aren’t ours anyway. God has already prepared in advance the good things he wants you to do. You see, when God made you, he had already planned certain things he wanted you to do.

God has worked for years to bring you to the place in your life where you are now. He created you and at the same time he created the opportunities for you to do certain things that only you can do. The Bible says that God formed your inmost being and put you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah this:

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose.” (Jeremiah 1:5, God’s Word version).

Those words are not just for Jeremiah – they are for you too. You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that he has already set up for you to do. You are unique, and the good works that you are to do are also prepared by God uniquely for you.

Now, we can take this uniqueness a bit too far sometimes. It would be ridiculous to say – “well, I was not uniquely created to do the good work of obeying the commandment, ‘do not lie.’ Honesty is just not one of the good works I was created for.” No, because we are in the family, there are certain “good works” that are common to everyone. In other words, God created all of his children for the good work of honesty, and the other things in the ten commandments. Scripture is in fact very clear about the good works that are common to all believers in Jesus.

But there are good works uniquely prepared for you to do. Those things, also, are to show off God’s glory. We used to walk – to live our lives – in sins and transgressions, under the influence of the devil. Now, through God’s incredible grace, we are included his plan to glorify himself. You have a place. You have a purpose. You, as you trust in Jesus and walk in the good works he puts in front of you, are bringing glory to God. You, by God’s grace, are a part of God’s glory. I know you don’t always feel that that is true. But we are called to believe God’s Word (the Bible) even more than our own feelings. He says it is true. Rest in it. Do not sell yourself short, or undervalue your worth in Christ Jesus.

By the way, we do those good works not through striving, but through trusting. The more we believe what these verses say the more room the Lord has to work in and through us. Trust him, he will fulfill his plan to make you part of the best purpose in the universe. Thank him for his grace. And stay on that horse!

Revelation #29: 666 – THE NUMBER OF LIES, PEER PRESSURE AND THE SELF

Second beast

Whatever we see as the Supreme Good, unless it is God, is an idol; even if it is our own well-being. Pressure to conform to the culture, enticement to idols, false teaching – all these are the work of the second beast. They aren’t neutral, they aren’t just about fitting in. They are part of the cosmic spiritual battle between the Dragon and those who hold to the testimony of Jesus. The stakes are high.

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Revelation #29.  Revelation 13:11-18

One of the reasons I like to teach the Bible is because I learn so much by doing it. As we have gone through the book of Revelation, my own understanding has been broadened and clarified. Before we tackle the text for today, let me restate clearly my own approach to Revelation for the purposes of this series.

I believe that biblical prophecy often has more than one fulfillment. I mentioned this briefly last time: many prophecies are “now, and not yet.” In other words, we can find partial fulfillments of various prophecies throughout history, but if we treat the prophecies fairly, we also must recognize that, in many of them, there are fulfillments still to come. At the same time, all prophecies also speak to all people, at all times. There are enduring principles, and ever present lessons, even in prophecies about the future.

It is sometimes useful to consider the past fulfillments of prophecies, because it strengthens our faith in the uniqueness and truthfulness of the Bible. But ultimately, the best thing to do with each prophecy is to understand what it meant to the people who first heard it, and then apply that meaning to our own lives today. That is, we should focus on the enduring principles and present lessons. Speculation about future fulfillments tend to separate us from the Scripture. Such speculations rarely encourage us in practical ways in the here and now.

For example, suppose I were to say, “The mark of the beast will be a computer chip, implanted into people either on their hands or foreheads.” How does that encourage us in our daily walk with Jesus right now? And what if my speculation is wrong, and it isn’t anything like that? Or, suppose I am right, but it doesn’t happen until long after we are all dead. What good is that to us in following Jesus today?

I say all this so that you understand why I have not been speculating about possible future fulfillments of Revelation. I think that the best way to get the most out of this book is to focus on what each passage means for us today.

Last time we considered that the first beast (the beast from the sea) represented political power that was set up in the place of God, and used to persecute Christians. It was given power to “conquer the saints.” This seems to me to mean a physical/material conquering; it cannot mean spiritual conquest. This second beast has a more religious flavor. It performs “miraculous” signs, and it is concerned with making everyone worship something that is not God. The second beast is not about overt power used to persecute Christians. It is about lies and deception; it represents false philosophies and religions that are used to lead the world astray, and, if possible, to try and deceive God’s people. It even looks like a lamb – trying to imitate Christ. However it speaks like a dragon – that is, it speaks with the lying voice of Satan.

Remember the letters to the seven churches? Some of those churches faced severe overt persecution (the first beast). But several of them also faced the pressure of lies and false teachings. In Thyatira, the town of “trade guilds,” people were faced with a terrible choice. If you wanted to be, say, a blacksmith, you needed to belong to the blacksmith trade guild (something like a union). In order to belong to that guild, you had to regularly worship the god of blacksmiths. If you didn’t, you could not participate in the economy as a blacksmith. No one would give you any business. Thus, I am quite sure that many of the first Christians to hear this passage were reminded that they were facing a choice between worshipping a false god, or, not being able to “buy, sell or trade.” They would have realized that God knows the terrible situation they are in. They would have felt warned that it wasn’t simply a matter of paying lip service to an idol – if they compromised, and worshipped for the sake of the trade guild, what they were worshiping was Satan’s own beast. They would have heard this passage and understood that what they were going through was part of the cosmic spiritual battle between Satan and the followers of Jesus. There was much more at stake for them than making a living – it was a matter of eternal life or death.

Other churches were facing false teaching and compromise within the church. The Ephesians faced the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea all had Christians who were compromising with the culture, particularly in the area of sexual immorality. This passage says to them that the false teachings and compromises are not benign. They are a really big deal. They are the work of a beast from the pit of hell; they are part of Satan’s strategy in the cosmic battle.

By the way, we might as well tackle the number 666. All kinds of weird and ridiculous theories have been forth about it. The text tells us it is “man’s number.” That is, no matter how religious or supernatural it seems, the source of this false teaching, and even of these false miracles, is not God. Remember that God’s number is seven? Seven represents God’s perfect presence and work in the world (three for the Trinity, and four for creation). Seven represents perfection. What 666 means is imperfection. It cannot reach seven, no matter how many times it tries. It always falls short. Therefore we should not be deceived into thinking that the beast or its teaching represent God’s truth. This is important, because the beast imitates God and Christ. It does false miracles. It takes a little bit of truth, and then twists it into lies that are all the more powerful because they contain some truth.

As we consider what all this says to us today, I feel sobered. Throughout history there have been many key moments in the life of Christianity. I think these next twenty years or so will bring about a massive and unsettling change in Christianity in the Western world; it may be one of those key periods. The spirit of the beast is at work. We are still in the cosmic spiritual battle.

For about three-hundred years Western Culture and the Christian faith were allies to one another. It was easy to be a Christian in Europe and North America, because the culture supported it. That has changed, but many Christians don’t realize it yet. As the change has come, many Christians have chosen to change with the culture, rather than remain with historic, orthodox Christianity. There is great pressure on other Christians to do the same.

One of the great areas of compromise is, for us today, the same as it was for the Christians who first read Revelation: sexual immorality. The culture all around them embraced and celebrated sexual immorality. So does Western culture today. Within the church at that time, some people tried to convince true Christians that sexual immorality was okay. That is happening within Christianity today. You may agree with the Bible, or not, but the fact is that it teaches there is only standard for human sexuality. According to the Bible, all sexual activity is meant for marriage between one man and one woman. Any sexual activity outside of that paradigm is called sinful. That is what it teaches. But many Christians today deny that teaching. They aren’t saying, “I don’t like this, so I won’t be a Christian.” They are saying, “I don’t like this, so let’s change Christianity.” I am not exaggerating. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ and several other large denominations are all officially denying what the Bible teaches about sexual morality. They represent tens of millions of people who call themselves Christians. There are millions more who do the same within other churches. It is easy to feel pressured when there are people all around you who claim to be Christians, but deny what the Bible says. It can be very tempted to give in, and go along with the crowd. But to do so isn’t neutral. It isn’t about being “on the right side of history.” It is about aligning yourself with the agent of Satan. It is Satan’s strategy to destroy God’s church.

Even so, going against the grain of our culture’s view of sexuality is already beginning to have economic consequences. Many companies have “diversity policies” which require Christians to agree with them and implement them if they want to have a job there. Sometimes, the policies are fine, and simply require that all people be treated equally, which is a Christian value. But there may come a time when such policies require people to explicitly endorse the lifestyles of others. Not following the Beast can have economic consequences. Simply holding a biblical view of sexuality is now considered bigotry by most of society.

The other area where the early church was threatened, and we are too, is in terms of idolatry. When you worship an idol, sometimes it represents a false god. Other times, an idol is a false representation of the one true God. The second beast encourages both kinds of worship. Some of the idols in our culture we have talked about quite often: pleasure, relationships, status, achievements, money. Anything that we see as the supreme good (other than God himself) is an idol. Whatever we put in front of God is an idol. But there is one widespread idol that not too many people are talking about. It is the idol of the self.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that the text says the number of the beast is “man’s number.” The new religion today is the religion of the authentic self. For our culture, the highest good is to “be who you really are,” and to seek total fulfillment as that person. It is entirely human-centered, literally, self-centered. Anything that gets in the way of a person fulfilling their authentic self is considered “unloving” and wrong. Therefore, there is some agreement with Christianity: that we shouldn’t hurt or abuse others, that we should treat them the way we ourselves want to be treated.

But the central message of Jesus is that the self we are born with is corrupted by sin. It must die; it must be crucified with him. Then we can live our lives not centered on self, but on God, and through God, others. There are rewards for this way of life, but it does mean self-denial. That is directly opposed to the religion of the authentic self. Jesus said:

24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. 26What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26, HCSB)

Even so, many Christian churches have tried to attract members by preaching some version of the religion of the self. At its most basic level, their message is that the best way for the self to be truly fulfilled is to come to Jesus. That is true in one sense, and yet, it leaves the self as the main focus of someone’s life. It still views self as the most important thing; self is still the idol. Jesus is only important as the way to have the best self. That is false religion; the work of the beast. It is subtle, but it leads to worship of a false god.

These messages from our culture are everywhere, and they are relentless. There are elements of truth to these things, and it is very easy to find ourselves going along with it. Our text today says this stuff is very important. It isn’t OK to go along with these things in order to keep the peace, or fit in, or to “try and reach people.” This is part of the cosmic spiritual battle, it is part of Satan’s strategy to destroy the followers of Jesus, if possible. To deny the scripture, or to worship anything other than the one true God is to align yourself with the beast, and he does not have your best interests at heart.

Rod Dreher recently wrote a book called The Benedict Option. In it he describes how radically different our culture is from true Christianity.

The time was coming, … when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

… We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

That was certainly the case for the early Christians. It is becoming increasingly the case for us today. We are not openly persecuted; some of the churches to whom Revelation was written were not either. But the world around us is filled with false teachings and false worship. We must be willing to be different, even to look like fools or bigots. If we aren’t willing to do that, we may find ourselves aligned with the enemies of God.

I realize that this sounds radical. Increasingly, to be a Christian means to be radical. It always used to mean that, we are circling back around to it again. The Apostle Paul wrote about these things in his letters:

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. (HCSB 1 Timothy 4:1-2)

1 But know this: Difficult times will come in the last days. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people! (HCSB 2 Timothy 3:1-5)

This is serious stuff. But if it concerns you, the answer is to look to Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and Life. He has already overcome the devil and the beasts. Stick to him. Get to know him better by reading the Bible. And be prepared to make the hard choices, die to yourself, and live to him. What we receive when we do that is worth far more than anything we lose.

I pray that the Holy Spirit will give us a supernatural strength to make the hard choices we need to make, and to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. I pray that the Spirit enables us to see clearly what is going on in our lives, and in our culture, and recognize the spiritual battle. I pray that he works within us so that we can truly follow Jesus faithfully in all things.

REVELATION #28: THE BEAST

Shadow Person Hat

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

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There is a lot of biblical prophecy that seems to be “now, but not yet.” What I mean is, sometimes prophecies include information about the near future, the far future, and the end of time, all jumbled up together. For instance, the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the return of God’s people from captivity in Babylon. That return actually happened. But in the same prophecies about the return from exile, Isaiah also prophesies about the coming of the Messiah. Of course, that also happened when Jesus came to earth, but it was several hundred years after the return from exile. And in those same texts which speak of the return from captivity in Babylon, and the coming of the Messiah, there are also images and ideas that seem to be about the end of the world, and the New Heavens & New Earth.

I think this sort of jumbling of different time frames also occurs in the book of Revelation. John’s visions include information about what is happening while John himself is still alive. They also include information about things to come, possibly things that will happen, and go on happening, before the end of the world. And, of course, there are some things that are unmistakably about the very end of the world.

I believe that John’s vision of “the beast” in Revelation chapter 13 contains elements of all three time frames. Some parts of this vision were already happening when John first wrote it down. Other parts likely refer to the very end of time. There are still other aspects of this vision that I think have been going on throughout history, and are still happening today.

Now, I want to say that a certain amount of focus on the future is a good thing. If the people of Israel had never considered the promises about the coming of the Messiah, no one would have followed Jesus when he came. Those promises also gave them hope in hard times. So, prophetic promises are meant to keep us alert, looking for God’s work in the world. They are in the scripture also to give us hope about the future, and comfort when we experience difficult times.

However, too much focus on the future is not good. Time and time again, I have met Christians who study Daniel and Revelation and pore over timelines and charts; they listen to endless podcasts from speakers who claim to know, in detail, what will happen at the end of the world. Very often, these Christians use their obsession with the end times as a way to avoid actually living as disciples of Jesus Christ. It can be a way of “being into” the Bible without actually obeying the Bible. Let’s apply that in a general way to our passage today: It is helpful to know that we are in a spiritual war, and that at times, it may seem like everything is against us; and yet, God is still in control. It is not nearly so helpful to “know” the specific details of who the beast is ahead of time. Theorizing that he will come from the area around the Black Sea, and that he will institute a one-world government doesn’t actually help very much in your day-to-day walk with Jesus. The first sort of attitude helps us cling to Jesus, the second sort of thing is not true Biblical prophecy at all, and it does not help us in our walk with Jesus.

Here’s another for instance. In our passage today, one of the heads of the beast looks as if it had been killed, but was not. Now for decades, the Soviet Union was considered by the West to be the biggest threat to world peace and individual liberty. President Regan called it “an evil empire.” Many Christians thought that the end of the world would probably involve the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, the new premier of the USSR appeared: Mikhail Gorbachev. He had a huge birth mark on his head, and many Christians wondered if he was part of the Beast: the Head that “seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.” This speculation did not help us grow closer to Jesus. Instead, we wasted a lot of time and emotional energy speculating about something that turned out to be nothing. This is what I’m trying to avoid as we go through the Book of Revelation.

So, let’s briefly consider the strange description of the Beast from a spiritual standpoint. Remember that the dragon, with seven heads was imitating the sevenfold spirit of God, and with ten horns, God’s mighty power, and the crowns, God’s ruler-ship and majesty? Well, the Beast is the representative of the Dragon. He has seven heads, again imitating God’s “sevenfold spirit.” Like the dragon, he imitates the majesty and power of God with ten horns, and ten crowns. The wounded/recovered head appears to be a mocking representation of Jesus, the lamb who was slain. Let us remember how John first described Jesus as the Lamb of God:

6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6, ESV2011)

So this Beast, as Satan’s representative, tries to imitate the Lamb, to take his place, and lead people astray. In the book of Daniel, Daniel has a vision of four different beasts: one Like a lion, another like a bear, a third like a leopard, and a fourth with massive teeth. Many commentators believe that what Daniel saw was a prediction of future empires; many scholars agree that Daniel’s prediction was largely fulfilled by the time of Jesus. Here in Revelation, John seems to be borrowing from the same imagery, however, it is all mashed together into one beast, not four different ones. Perhaps then, this one beast represents all of the empires throughout human history that set themselves up in opposition to God, or in place of God.

With these things in mind, let us once more ground ourselves by understanding how our text would have sounded to those who lived in the time of John. These Christians were faced with a culture that was hostile to them. There was tremendous pressure in some of the seven churches to conform to the culture’s immoral sexuality. There was pressure to compromise “just a little bit,” and worship idols, so that they could have certain careers. Above all, there was the Roman Emperor, Domitian. He was the ruler of the entire world, as far as anyone knew. He required that everyone worship him as a god, by offering a pinch of incense at altars dedicated to him. This worship was compulsory, and those who refused were severely persecuted. They lost property, homes, freedom, and sometimes, their very lives.

Now, does that sound like anything we just read…like our text, perhaps? The beast is fearsome and powerful, and everyone was saying: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The whole earth worships the beast. The Beast has authority over the whole world, and even to make war upon the saints and conquer them.

I am quite certain that John’s first readers would see the beast as the Roman Emperor. This passage, for the original readers of Revelation, explained what was going on. In real life, for those believers, the emperor Domitian had set himself up to be worshiped as a God. In real life, their friends and family had been arrested, imprisoned, sometimes even killed. In their actual lives, the whole world went along with emperor-worship, and rejected Jesus and his followers.

This passage explains what they are going through as part of the ongoing, cosmic, spiritual war between the Dragon (Satan) and the followers of Jesus. Those first readers would have read this, and thought, “Ah, so that is what is happening. We are in the middle of a great spiritual war. God knows we are being conquered physically. It isn’t random. This vision (Revelation) shows us that God is aware of what is happening, and that even this hardship is part of his plan to bring about the end of evil, and to make everything right.

The beast is given authority for “42 months.” Remember 42 months =1,260 days=3.5 years. This isn’t a literal amount of time. It represents half of seven years, that is, half of God’s perfect timing to accomplish his purposes. So, for half of God’s time, it seems that his people are protected. The witnesses prophesy without hindrance for this amount of time (chapter 11). The woman is protected in the wilderness for that amount of time (chapter 12). But there is another “half of God’s perfect time,” and during that time, it appears as if Satan and his minions are winning. We are told that time frame, however, to assure us that the evil days will not go on forever. God is still in control, and there is a limit to the time allowed to the devil.

So, John’s first readers would understand that what they were facing would not be the fate of God’s people forever. But in the meantime they might be imprisoned, or even killed. They must endure with faith and patience. Above all, they must remember that their names have been written in the Lamb’s book of Life since the foundation of the world.

I think there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit inspired John to write this vision to communicate to those first believers in the way I just explained. So, then, how does the Spirit want to apply this passage to us?

In the first place, let’s not forget that we Christians are part of a 2,000 year old global movement. In our history as a people there have always been places where this sort of terrible persecution has happened. In some cases, the persecution even came from those who claimed to be Christians. Martin Luther was more than half-convinced that Pope Leo the Tenth was the antichrist, or the beast, since he had worldwide authority, and used it to blaspheme against the truth of God. For German Christians in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, Hitler would have been the obvious choice for the Beast. And like those first Christians in the Roman empire, many believers were imprisoned and executed for defying Hitler. In the 1920s-1990s, many people lived under the terrible, Beast-like authority of Soviet communism. Millions upon millions are still in a similar situation in China, even today. Millions more live under the cruel oppression of radical Islam, where the culture around them demands that they worship a false and distorted image of the One True God; the consequences of refusing are catastrophic. It is happening to Christians also in India. In fact, apart from a few places like Korea and Brazil, the only places where Christians don’t face a clear “Beast” are in the Western world. We live in a unique bubble, but the bubble is very near to bursting. Our culture is changing rapidly, and it won’t be long, historically speaking, before we begin to face severe negative consequences for faithfully following Jesus. I expect in my lifetime to suffer hardship simply for being a Christian. I think it is best if we are forewarned:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (ESV)
1 Peter 4:12-14

But let us not make the mistake of thinking if this comes to America or Europe, that it must mean the end of the world. Millions of Christian brothers and sisters have lived under Beast-like conditions throughout history. This passage is far more about encouragement and endurance than speculation about the future.

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

One thing this passage should do for us who are not under persecution is to remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are. I strongly encourage you to visit the website of Voice of the Martyrs, and use the information there to pray for those who live under persecution.

Let the Spirit Speak to you today.

RUN THE RACE WITH PERSEVERANCE

man wearing white jersey shirt running
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

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Single Sermons. Hebrews 11.

 I want to do something a little bit different this time. I often go through scripture paragraph-by-paragraph. I think this is helpful in many ways. But we need to remember, when we read on our own, that the Bible was written book-by-book. The best way to read it is first in large chunks, as it was written. After we’ve read the large chunks, then we can go back and break it down, piece by piece. This time, I want us to read one large chunk. The selection below is approximately half as many words as one of my sermons. Taken in this large chunk, it is a kind of mini sermon. So, let’s read it, and then I will add a few thoughts at the end. But don’t read it as prelude. Read it as part of the main body of this message.

HEBREWS CHAPTER 11

​​11 1 Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. 2 For our ancestors won God’s approval by it.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.
5 By faith Enoch was taken away so he did not experience death, and he was not to be found because God took him away. For prior to his removal he was approved, since he had pleased God. 6 Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.
7 By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the One who had promised was faithful. 12 Therefore from one man — in fact, from one as good as dead — came offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and he was offering his unique son, 18 the one it had been said about, Your seed will be traced through Isaac. 19 He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and he worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, as he was nearing the end of his life, mentioned the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions concerning his bones.
23 By faith, after Moses was born, he was hidden by his parents for three months, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they didn’t fear the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter 25 and chose to suffer with the people of God rather than to enjoy the short-lived pleasure of sin. 26 For he considered the reproach because of the Messiah to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since his attention was on the reward.
27 By faith he left Egypt behind, not being afraid of the king’s anger, for Moses persevered as one who sees Him who is invisible. 28 By faith he instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch the Israelites. 29 By faith they crossed the Red Sea as though they were on dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to do this, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after being encircled by the Israelites for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.
32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead — they were raised to life again. Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, 36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

121 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. (Hebrews 11:1 – 12:2. HCSB)

 Faith considers the unseen to be better than what is seen. It considers God’s promises to be better than anything the world has to offer. It draws a line in the dirt and says, “God’s promises are better than anything I could find in this world. Having the promise of God, as yet unseen, is better than having the physical reality of what the world offers.”

I think this message is especially relevant when it comes to our way of doing church in small groups in the home. Sometimes, it seems like no one else is doing it like us. Sometimes, it feels lonely. Sometimes, we wonder if we are really accomplishing anything. But we won’t truly see what are accomplishing until we see Jesus face-to-face. Stay the course. Run the race with perseverance.

I want us to think about verses 13-16:

13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

It might help to think about what these heroes of faith were thinking about. What are the great promises of God that are worth more than anything in this world? The author of Hebrews says that to have this kind of faith we must believe God exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. Those must be amazing rewards, considering what these people gave up for it. So what are the rewards?

First and foremost, the reward is Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus, we have all the fullness of God’s grace. We can look to receive “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:20).” In Jesus we find, sometimes, temporary healing of our current physical ailments, (James 4:14-16) but always the promise of eternal healing, bodies that do not get sick, die, or decay (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). In Him we have perfect, permanent love; he loves us even more than we love our own children (1 John 3:1; Psalm 103:8-13). Through Jesus we can have true inner peace (Philippians 4:7), no matter what the circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12). Through Jesus, we can also have peace with others, even though we may be very different (Ephesians 2:14). Because of Him, we belong to a new and permanent family, where we are no longer strangers and alien to each other. In Jesus we have undeserved favor; we have the forgiveness of sins, we are made holy and righteous.

The following verses do a great job of summarizing all this:

3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. 4 For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.
7 We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him 10 for the administration of the days of fulfillment — to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.
11 We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.
13 When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (HCSB; Ephesians 1:3-14)

The heroes of faith considered all this to be worth far more than anything they might gain on earth. Think about this. Every person you have ever loved, or ever will love in the future, will eventually die. Their corpses will either be burned, or they will disintegrate with time. Everyone who ever knew you and appreciated you will die and rot. You yourself will die, and your body will become fertilizer. Unless you are extremely lucky, the work you do here and now will be forgotten by everyone in the world within a hundred years. Everything and everyone that you try to live for here and now will be destroyed by death.

But the promise of God in Jesus is a permanent home. In that home, the people you love will not die. In that home, the work you do, the things you create, will stand forever.

Like Paul, these faith-heroes considered earthly riches and  achievements as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus

7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8, ESV2011)

These faith-heroes knew what martyr Jim Eliott said nineteen centuries later:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Now, to live like this can be lonely at times. It is so different from the way others live. All around us, people are investing their time and energy in the things of this world, and they seem to be fine; sometimes, even really happy, successful and fulfilled. In our new world of social media, all this gets distorted even more. Just remember, the people you see on the internet are a very carefully cultivated and edited version of the real thing. Just because people look great online doesn’t mean that they are really doing as well as they seem.

The call of our sinful flesh, of the world and of the devil is seductive. They tell us we can find what we need apart from Jesus Christ. But we have four tools to help us live this lonely, different, life of faith. The first tool is the Word of God, the Bible. We must read it, if we are going to persevere in faith. The second tool is presence of God through the Holy Spirit. The third tool is this great cloud of witnesses. We are surrounded, not only with the people mentioned in Hebrews 11, but with two-thousand years more worth of faithful Christians who chose to turn their backs on sin, flesh and the devil. They turned their backs on security, comfort, success, and ran the race with perseverance.

The fourth tool is each other. We who are living differently than the world must band together, and encourage each other. We aren’t as alone as we might feel sometimes. Reach out to each other when it feels difficult. Inspire one another to love and good deeds. So, I say again:

1 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3, ESV2011)

REVELATION #27. THE BATTLE FOR OUR MINDS. (12:7-13)

Battle for the mind

Whether we choose to believe it or not, we Christians are in the middle of a spiritual war. Often, following Jesus is hard, and the reason we find it so is because we have enemies in the spiritual realm. They will attack whether we believe in them or not. The primary weapon used against us is lies. Often we think these lies are our own thoughts. We need to be aware of this, and learn how to fight those lies with the truth of scripture.

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 Revelation #27. Revelation 12:13-17

I want to reiterate something I’ve said before: I approach this book with a great deal of humility. I don’t think that I have the one true understanding of Revelation. But for each message, I study the scripture carefully, without regard to what others have said about it. I pray and ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say through the scripture this time. After I have heard, I do check my interpretations against those of others. So, my main goal with each message is to hear what the Spirit wants to say in this moment. There may be many points in a text that we pass by to focus on the main thing I’m hearing for this particular time. If we come back to the text another time, we might find a different aspect to focus on. This is why we call the Bible “living and active.” The Spirit can reveal many different shades of meaning from one text, though, if the meanings are legitimate, they won’t contradict each other.

Last time, John presented us with crucial information about the spiritual war: Satan has already been defeated. He is like Hitler, fighting on from late 1944 until May 1945. No one could possibly deny by November of 1944 that Germany was going to lose the war. Even the Battle of the Bulge, which cost so many lives, and set back the Allied victory by a few months, never stood a chance of actually stopping the Allies. So it is with Satan. He can still wreak havoc in the lives of individual human beings, but he has already lost the war.

With that firmly in mind, the next few chunks of Revelation describe the spiritual war as it is before it is finally over. I think one of the purposes of it is to warn Christians. We need not fear the final outcome, but we can, and should be, aware of the schemes of the devil, which can still cost us dearly before the end finally comes.

I think that verses 13-14 are talking about exactly the same thing as verse 6.

Verse 6: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”

Verses 13-14: But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

John is going back, and repeating what happened earlier in the passage. “A time, times, and half a time,” is the same as 3 ½ (years) or 1,260 days. Once more, this is a reminder that there are periods in the battle with the devil when the church is protected and nourished in complete dependence upon God.

There are some interpreters who believe that the woman is not the church, but God’s people Israel. In this interpretation, the “1,260 days” might represent the time of their exile from the Holy Land. Or, perhaps it means a time when they will be kept apart, after which, they will convert to Jesus in large numbers. This interpretation may be correct; I want to remain humble about my own understanding of Revelation. However, this interpretation does not leave us with much help for following Jesus in our ordinary lives. It seems much more helpful to consider that there are times when God seems to set people “in the wilderness” where all we can depend upon is him alone. That might happen when you move, and you don’t know anyone around you. It could occur if you lose a special relationship with someone. It might happen through financial hardship, or health issues. In that “wilderness-place” God takes care of us, if we depend completely upon Him. The time frame reminds us that it will not last forever. Of course, we should always depend completely on God, but the wilderness seems to indicate that there is some hardship or difficulty during this period.

While the woman is taken to the wilderness, the dragon spewed water out of his mouth, hoping to destroy her. I believe that this represents, in general, what we call “spiritual warfare;” that is, the schemes of the devil and his demons to destroy Christians. I want to spend the rest of our time on that subject.

Many people think the idea of spiritual warfare is kind of weird, and that maybe we can be Christians without “getting into all that.” But consider this: Prior to September 11, 2001, very few people had heard of an organization called Al Qaeda. Millions of Americans went through their daily lives, vaguely aware that America was somewhat unpopular in places like the Middle East, but not terribly concerned about it. All that changed – at least for a while – on that fateful September morning in 2001. The terrorist hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center and parts of the Pentagon, the loss of almost 3,000 lives all woke us up to the fact that whether or not we believed it, we were at war. “9/11” jarred us loose from our daily patterns. We suddenly realized that though we hadn’t taken the Islamic radical threats seriously, they certainly meant them seriously.

Before 9/11, I think most Americans felt pretty much invulnerable. In the weeks and months following it, we felt anything but that. Belatedly, we became aware that we had enemies – enemies who were dedicated, implacable and had the ability to do us great harm.

Sometimes I think that we Christians are dangerously complacent about the fact that we have enemies: deadly implacable enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy us. We go around, vaguely aware that there is something in the Bible about the devil and demons, but it doesn’t have much relevance to our daily lives. Unfortunately, striking unfairly and without warning, the spiritual terrorist network often takes out unsuspecting, complacent folks who might otherwise have faithfully served and followed Jesus. Even if we don’t take the threat seriously, the devil and his demons are serious about getting to us.

The fact is, the Bible (mostly the New Testament) refers to, teaches on, or mentions that we are in a spiritual war over 110 times. The Bible mentions demons or refers to demonic possession almost 100 times. The devil is mentioned 33 times. The name Satan is mentioned 54 times. Now, obviously there is some overlap among some of these verses, but even so the point is clear: Spiritual Warfare is in fact a major theme in scripture. It starts in Genesis 3:15, when God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between your offspring and hers…”. It doesn’t end until Revelation chapter 20 when the Devil and all his angels (demons) are thrown into the lake of fire – and that time has not yet come in history.

If we choose to be followers of Jesus, then we have entered a spiritual combat zone. Our enemies don’t care whether or not we believe it – but we are in a battle. They strike without warning, and if we are unprepared, great damage can be done. But now, pay attention – we can do great damage to them if we are aware and make use of the tools God has given us.

Consider what the Bible has to say about this: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We are urged to participate in that war: We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a Jesus-follower because…it’s just hard. But why is it hard? There is a definite reason: Because we have enemies who make it hard for us. These enemies are not flesh and blood. Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of demons. Satan and all his demons are our enemies. At times they use other people, but we ought to keep in mind that those people are usually used unwittingly. The real enemy is the devil and his cohorts.

Two questions seem important to address: (1) How does the enemy wage war against us? How do we know when we are being attacked? And (2) How do we wage war against the enemy?

I don’t have time or space to lay out all of the different possible ways you can be attacked by the devil and his ilk. But here is the most common one:

The devil most often attacks us through lies. I believe this is why John pictures it as something spewed out of the mouth of the dragon. And the place where these lies take hold is in our thoughts. Demons have a way of planting thoughts in our heads, and then trying to get us to agree with them. They might do this through the insensitive words of others. Or, You might hear: “Tom, you are so stupid! What basis do you have for thinking you can help these people?” (but only if your name is Tom…). Or you might hear, “look at that hot babe! (or, guy!) You want her (or him)!” The devil wants you to agree with these kinds of thoughts. The minute you do, he’ll condemn you for it, and use it to beat you up all day long. Often we think it is us talking to ourselves, because the devil wants to trick us into thinking we have sinned before we actually have. He is, after all, “the accuser of the believers” (Revelation 12:10).

The point is that our sinful flesh (or a demon) is saying something that is not true, something that God does not say. The moment we accept that thought and agree with it, we have given the devil a foothold from which he can abuse us. He can use it to bring about scandal, problems in your relationships, to make you feel worthless and to paralyze you from really being a disciple. We may have a weakness in certain areas because of our backgrounds and experiences. The enemy will exploit that if he can!

To refute these attacks, we must learn to recognize the difference between God’s voice and every other voice. The scripture says God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31-34). These same verses (and others) also tell us that, because of Jesus, God does not condemn us. We know also that God does not sin. So, if a thought condemns us, separates us from God, results in something clearly negative, or leads us into sin, we know it is not the voice of God. The best way for us to tell the difference between God’s voice and every other voice is to read the Bible regularly.

Now, it is true that the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin as he needs to (John 16:8). But when the Lord convicts us, it doesn’t condemn us — it motivates us to take action. When the Holy Spirit brings conviction, you find you want to repent, to make things right. It’s a good clean feeling, even if not completely pleasant – like a dip in a mountain stream that is really too cold – but also is beautiful and refreshing. On the other hand, when the enemy tries to tempt you with false condemnation, you will feel condemned, guilty and completely unmotivated. You will simply want to wallow helplessly in the guilt. That is not the voice of God. Once we recognize that the thought is not from God,

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

You might simply pray something like this:

Jesus be with me as I battle the enemy. In the name of Jesus, I come against that (the thought or idea). I reject it utterly and refuse to believe it. I take the thought captive and demolish it, in the name of Jesus.

It helps at this point if you know scripture well enough to bring to mind a verse or passage in the Bible that will directly contradict the attack in your mind.

But do we have the power to just throw Satan (or a demon) out like that? Yes! We covered it last time. Here are some other scriptures:

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20)

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

What all this means is that the devil has already been defeated. His fate is sealed. We don’t have to be afraid – we can defeat the evil one, because the Holy Spirit is in us, and he has already done it (Colossians 2:15). We talked about that extensively last week. The outcome of this spiritual battle has already been decided, and disciples of Jesus Christ are on the winning side. But the fighting isn’t over yet. We are still in the battle, and we need to keep our weapons loaded and ourselves alert.

In the 1970’s, the United States withdrew from Vietnam in disgrace. Vietnam is known as the only war which our country has ever lost. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that the war would never have been lost on military grounds. Our military at the time was far superior to anything the North Vietnamese could muster against us. And so the North Vietnamese used terrorist-style tactics, hit-and-run attacks and guerilla warfare. But our military, hampered by political considerations and public opinion, conducted very few major campaigns and did very little to make use of our tremendous advantages in equipment, resources and firepower. The reason we lost the war is because our country did not have the political will to commit to winning the war. The country didn’t really believe in the war, and so, naturally, we were defeated.

Too many Christians don’t really believe in this spiritual war. We don’t understand, we aren’t committed, and so the cost of fighting doesn’t seem worth it. We may feel sort of silly, or like it takes too much energy to do battle in our minds like that. Or, like the war on terror, we don’t recognize that many of the things we experience regularly are a war. As disciples, we must recognize that we are still fighting a war, and though the outcome isn’t in doubt, the enemy will still take out as many individuals as he can.

Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is helpful, as we consider how to conduct ourselves in this spiritual war:

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21 (ESV)

We need to be wise about spiritual warfare, “because the days are evil.” We need to understand God’s will – we need to know what the Bible says, so we can refute the competing messages we are getting every day. We should avoid dulling our senses, or coping, by abusing substances. We should, whenever possible, not give the devil any foothold through sin. We need each other in this battle: fellow Christians can encourage each other, and speak the words of scripture to one another. Finally, praise and thanksgiving are powerful weapons against the devil and his demons. Truly giving thanks to God helps us take hold of his promises, and causes Satan to flee.