REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

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We have now come to the point when Western Culture is, in fact, incompatible with  Biblical Christianity. By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it. To remain Christian, and to pass on the Christian faith to future generations, we are going to have to live lives that are radically different in the eyes of our culture. We are going to have to be the church, no matter what it costs. John saw this inevitable clash of cultures in his time, and explains, for all time, the reasons behind it. 

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Revelation #35. Revelation #17.

We have come to another one of those places in the book of Revelation that is just plain weird. However, I believe that we can make at least some kind of sense of this. In the first place, remember that we can use the chiastic structure of Revelation to help us. At the end of the third major section of Revelation (the trumpets), there was an interlude. The interlude at the end of section 3 was about the struggle for God’s Word to go forth. You might say it was from the perspective of the good guys, who had to suffer and even die; although, ultimately, they were vindicated.

We are now at the end of section 5 of Revelation (the bowls of wrath). This section is related to section 3 (the trumpets), and so, here too, we have an interlude. This interlude (chapters 17-18), coming after section 5, is from the perspective of the bad guys. Evil, corruption, and depravity appear to be winning. And yet, ultimately, they will be thoroughly judged and defeated.

The thought in the first interlude was that the witnesses to God’s truth would complete their mission. However, we did not see the final result back there in chapter eleven. The thought here, in the second interlude, completes the first: the judging of the evil powers of this world. God is wrapping things up, leaving nothing unfinished in his task of putting everything right.

There are many specifics in chapters 17 and 18. Whenever we feel that we are getting bogged down in the details of those things, we should return to the big picture; the ideas I have just expressed here.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman and the beast, and then “explains” them (if you can really call it an explanation). Like the first interlude, it is one of the more confusing passages in the most confusing book of the Bible. Let’s take this piece by piece:

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the notorious prostitute who sits on many waters. 2 The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and those who live on the earth became drunk on the wine of her sexual immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a desert. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and 10 horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had a gold cup in her hand filled with everything vile and with the impurities of her prostitution. 5 On her forehead a cryptic name was written: BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE VILE THINGS OF THE EARTH. 6 Then I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. (Revelation 17:1-6 HCSB)

This prostitute is not a literal person. She is a representation of all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and that persecute God’s people. Throughout the Bible, the practice of idolatry is often called a kind of spiritual adultery, or prostitution. So it is here. I believe she represents both the ongoing ungodly world powers, and also a particular empire or civilization that will be present at the very end of world history. The description of her shows that the civilizations she represents are wealthy and corrupt. She is named “Babylon” but again, I believe that is a “code word” for any civilization or empire that leads people away from the worship of the one true God, and which persecutes God’s people. The reason it is in a kind of “code” is because, unquestionably, at the time of John, it meant the Roman Empire: verse 18 says:

And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth.

Also, by using a symbolic name, the Holy Spirit allows this to be applicable throughout world history, although, as I said, I think there will also be a particularly, “ultimate” version of Babylon during the last days before Jesus returns.

I want to point out something else that I believe is important. God’s people were represented by the picture of a woman, a mother, in chapter 12. Here, we have the devil’s counterpart: an adulterous, evil woman, a prostitute. The devil can only imitate and corrupt God’s creation. He has nothing new of his own. In God’s Kingdom, we have the bride of Christ, the mother of the Messiah. The devil’s imitation is a prostitute, a woman full of wickedness and evil.

The same is true of the beast. Jesus is “the one who is, who was and is to come.” In verse 8, the beast attempts to imitate Jesus, but fails. He is the one: “who was, is not, and will come again, only to be destroyed forever.”

Verses 7-17 attempt to explain the “secret meaning” of the woman and the beast. If you are like me, the explanation is worse the puzzle. Verses 9-14 speak of 18 different kings. Or maybe, it is only 12 kings, or possibly 11. Or, perhaps, it is speaking not of kings, but of kingdoms and empires. John says five kings have “fallen,” another one is, and another is yet to come. Many, many people get bogged down trying to figure out which rulers or empires John is prophesying about. Some say these are Roman emperors. Others connect them to various world powers from ancient Egypt all the way to the present. The problem is, neither one of those theories fits the actual facts of world history. I caution you not to get sucked into that sort of thinking. As I have said before, that sort of thinking creates a situation where the book of Revelation is only relevant to a few specific people at a few particular points in time. Instead of letting the text speak into our lives about how we live right now, we spend time trying to “solve the riddle,” as if the Bible is just an interesting puzzle.

So, if we aren’t meant to figure out who or what these rulers represent in history, what are we supposed to do with this text? I think we are meant to understand, in general, that throughout history there is a connection between evil, ungodly world empires (the Great Prostitute), and the underlying work of the devil (the heads and horns of the beast). That doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you think about the reigns of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and Pol-Pot, along with ancients like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

When it appears as if evil and ungodliness is running unchecked throughout the world, this text tells us that God knew these things would happen. He has a plan to deal with it. He isn’t shocked, surprised and wringing his hands. He will make everything right.

I think we are also meant to understand that the end of human history will be characterized by a particularly corrupt, wealthy, idolatrous empire.

Finally, we are to be encouraged by the fact that evil devours itself. Ultimately, the dark spiritual power of the beast will turn upon the corrupt, idolatrous world empire. Evil itself will be made to serve God’s purposes:

16 The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished.

Once more, the question is, where does this leave us? I believe that in the past 15 years, our culture has become far more anti-Christian than we realize. I am not talking about persecution. But the worldview that now dominates Western Culture is not only not Christian, but it is in true opposition to the Christian world view. I saw a TV episode the other night, in which the main plot had to do with sexual identity. I realized that it wasn’t just disagreeing with some of the particulars of  the Bible – it was an entirely different way of looking at what it means to be a human being, a way that flatly contradicts the Christian vision of humanity. I think that TV episode (which was 6 years old) is a reflection of what most of our culture already believes. According to it (and, I believe, our culture at large), your very identity is defined by whom you desire sexually. The greatest evil possible is to deny someone the opportunity to behave however they see fit, especially when it comes to sex. Self-denial, in the current world view, is not just difficult, it is tragically wrong; there is no place for it, not even as a way of loving another person self-sacrificially (that was one of the plot points of the episode). There is no greater authority than the desire of each individual to be whomever they want to be. That means, that no one, not even God, has the right to tell someone that anything they want is morally wrong, or even unhealthy. But Jesus calls us to surrender to his authority, and to deny ourselves, so that we can find true life:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

37 The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39 Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Suddenly, John’s picture of a great prostitute manipulating cultures seems uncomfortably close to home. John is saying that our culture is under the influence of evil, depraved spiritual power; he is using very lurid, picturesque imagery to do so. The cultures of the world are not neutral. They are influenced by the beast, which is to say, they are influenced by the devil and his demonic forces. The cultures of the world are captive to spiritual prostitution.

By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it.

John, in his vision, was shocked and astonished by this (v 7). I think most of us are, also. I believe the time has come for Christians to pay attention, and to see that our culture is neither good, nor morally neutral, but completely opposite to a Christian vision of humanity and God. Again, I do not meant that we are being persecuted. But I do mean that the world view of Western culture is antithetical to the Christian world view, and seeks to replace it. Practically speaking, we may have to change how we live in order to avoid getting sucked in. Author Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option urges us to consider carefully how we live:

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 would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

He points out not only cultural developments, but also legal decisions that have changed how the laws views Christian beliefs. Speaking of the Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court, he says:

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.

He continues:

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.

I agree, wholeheartedly. From now on, it is going to cost us to be Christian. I think we need to carefully examine the TV shows, movies and music that we consume. If we continue to absorb this anti-Christian worldview without thinking critically about what we watch and listen to, our beliefs will eventually conform to the culture, and be truly anti-Christian. We may have to limit the kind of things we watch, and the media we consume.

Some careers may no longer be appropriate for Christians. A year or two ago, a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for not issuing a marriage license to a gay couple. In the eyes of the law, she was wrong. I think she was wrong to continue to be a county clerk with the beliefs that she holds, though I completely understand her position. I’m very sad that our culture has come to this, but I believe it has. I think that many Christians in various positions in government may need to consider resigning in order to remain true to their faith. Christians also may not be able to have other certain careers, because to do so would cause us to violate Christian ethics. The list of careers that violate our ethics is likely to grow in the coming years.

If we are to remain Christian, we are going to look radical to a culture that has radically changed in the past twenty years. John tells us that there is a spiritual reason for this, and also that God will eventually take steps to hold accountable the powers that are responsible.

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

Revelation #34. The Dangerous, Good God.

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The first readers of Revelation would have seen this judgment as a good thing, precisely because it is a God thing. I’m reminded of a concept from the beloved books, The Chronicles of Narnia. The children discover that the King of the World is a lion. They are shocked. “But is he safe?” they ask.

“Of course he isn’t safe,” reply the citizens of Narnia. “He’s the King. But he is good.”

Our passage today shows us that God is not safe, and that God is good.

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Revelation #34. Revelation 16:1-21

There is a strong parallelism between the third section of Revelation (the trumpets) and where we are this time, the fifth section: the bowls of wrath. Let me draw it out for you:

  • Trumpet 1: Hail fire and blood fall on the earth. One third of the earth is burned.
  • Bowl 1: It is poured on the earth. Painful sores break out on those who followed the beast.
  • Trumpet 2: A third of the sea-life is killed.
  • Bowl 2: Poured on the sea. It turns to blood and everything in it is killed.
  • Trumpet 3: A great star falls on the fresh water. One third of it is spoiled.
  • Bowl 3: The bowl is poured on the fresh water, turning all of into blood.
  • Trumpet 4: A third of the sun, moon and stars is struck.
  • Bowl 4: Poured onto the sun. Its power burns those who worship the beast. They refuse to repent, however.
  • Trumpet 5: The bottomless pit is opened. The destroyer is released. The smoke of the abyss darkens the sun, and demonic creatures are given authority to inflict pain on those who reject Jesus.
  • Bowl 5: Poured onto the throne of the beast, plunging his kingdom into darkness and pain. But people continue to reject Jesus.
  • Trumpet 6: The four demons bound at the “great river Euphrates” are released. Their armies kill one third of the earth. The people refuse to repent.
  • Bowl 6: Is poured on “the great river Euphrates” It is dried up, in preparation for a coming invasion. The great battle, Armageddon, is set up by demonic deception.
  • Part 7 of the trumpets (but not a trumpet itself)*: the seven thunders, and God’s promise that there will be no delay.
  • Bowl 7: Great destruction through storms, earthquakes and 100-pound hailstones. The people still blaspheme God.

*(The seventh trumpet is actually the revelation of the seven bowls of wrath).

Now, the natural question is “What does this mean? Why is there such parallelism?” I have spoken before about a way of writing and thinking called “chiastic structure.” What I have just showed you is a clear example of it. In the overall, big-picture of Revelation, part 3 (the trumpets) is connected to part 5 (the bowls). Each individual subsection of part 3 has a matching subsection in part five.

Many, many commentators believe that Revelation is written with chiastic structure in mind, yet so many disagree with each other on the details of which parts are parallel to each other. The reason I favor my own outline of Revelation is precisely because the bowls and the trumpets are clearly related to each other as chiasms. From there, we can build out to understand the whole picture. If you don’t remember about chiastic structure, I strongly encourage you to go skim Revelation Part 2, for a refresher.

The meaning of Chiastic structure is difficult for us to grasp, because it really is a different way of presenting ideas; we aren’t used to it. You might even say, it is a different way of thinking, or of organizing thoughts. I will freely confess to you, that specifically in Revelation, my own understanding  of how John uses chiastic structure is limited. However, it is clear that he is doing so.

It is tempting to think that John is simply repeating the same information in a different way, but that is not how chiastic structure usually works. In part chiastic is used to repeat ideas, but at the same time, it is used to add new information to ideas already presented. What I mean is, we should not think that the trumpets and the bowls are the same; only, that they are related to each other.

In fact, I believe that the bowls are a completion of what was started with the trumpets. Judgment began with the seals, and only one quarter of the earth was affected. Then came the trumpets, and one third of the world was affected. In the bowls of wrath (sometimes called “the plagues”) the entire earth is affected.

With the trumpets, God allowed, for a limited time, and in limited ways, demonic powers to have authority to affect things. Now, with the bowls, he brings judgment down on those demonic powers, and on those who welcome them.

There is one important theme repeated in both sections. It is that some people, in spite of everything, refuse to repent. Their response to God’s glory and wrath is not repentance, but defiant rebellion. In our chapter today, three times, the people explicitly reject God (verses 9, 11 & 20).

So they blasphemed the name of God, who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory.
10 The fifth poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues because of their pain 11 and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, yet they did not repent of their actions. (Revelation 16:9-11, HCSB)

God is showing everyone that his judgments are right and reflect true justice. In fact, verses 5-7 explicitly tell us that this is part of what is going on:

5 I heard the angel of the waters say:
You are righteous,
who is and who was, the Holy One,
for You have decided these things.
6 Because they poured out
the blood of the saints and the prophets,
You also gave them blood to drink;
they deserve it!
7 Then I heard someone from the altar say:
Yes, Lord God, the Almighty,
true and righteous are Your judgments. (Revelation 16:5-7 HCSB)

Many years before, one who did repent of his sins, King David, said something similar:

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge. (Psalms 51:4, NIV)

Paul writes in Romans:

Now we know that whatever the law says speaks to those who are subject to the law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world may become subject to God’s judgment. (Rom 3:19, HCSB)

This is one of the big themes for the book of Revelation: that God is justified in the way he will judge the world. He will make everything right. Child-molesters will get what is coming to them. Hitler, Stalin, Mao – any such monstrous people, will receive their due. Now, at the same time, anyone who repents and throws themselves on God’s mercy will be saved. But those who reject God, and reject the free, loving gracious salvation he offers, will find themselves crushed by his unchanging holiness. God has given them every opportunity to repent and be saved. Again and again, he delays. He starts by offering kindness to all people. When that time is over, he still does not give up, but tries to bring people to Himself through hardship. Even in this section of  Revelation, where the judgment of God is being executed, he is looking for repentance, though he doesn’t find it.

So, what do we do with all of this? Because of the chiastic structure of Revelation, we often revisit the major themes. I think one thing the Lord may be saying to his people today is to remember his holiness and righteousness. We live in a culture where the ultimate sin is to “judge” someone else. It is absolutely true and right that we humans do not have the right to condemn anyone. But God does have the right, both to judge that someone is wrong, and also to either save or condemn them. We don’t have to decide whom is going to heaven, and whom to hell. However, we should recognize that God does decide that. Though God is love, he is also holiness. Though he forgives, he also judges those who reject his forgiveness. There are some things that are right, and some that are wrong. We are playing with a toxic poison when act as if sin is no big deal, as if God is just a big, warm teddy bear.

The first readers of Revelation would have seen this judgment as a good thing, precisely because it is a God thing. May we do the same. I’m reminded of a concept from the beloved books, The Chronicles of Narnia. The children discover that the King of the World is a lion. They are shocked. “But is he safe?” they ask.

“Of course he isn’t safe,” reply the citizens of Narnia. “He’s the King. But he is good.”

Our passage today shows us that God is not safe, and that God is good. We are meant to read this and realize that we have no hope except to repent of our self-centeredness and sin, and throw ourselves upon His mercy and goodness.

Some of you have already done that, in the sense of becoming followers of Jesus. However, maybe there are ways in which we need to continue doing it. We need to remember that sin is a serious, toxic substance, and the future of those who blaspheme God is judgement. We don’t need to live in fear. Also, God often acts in ways that are hard to understand. In those times we need to remember his forgiveness and mercy are truly ours through Jesus, and that he has shown us the depth of his love for us through the Cross. We can know that even when it doesn’t feel safe, God is good.

REVELATION #33: FEAST YOUR SOUL ON GOD

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At some time in the future, our eternal joy will be found in feasting our souls on God. Therefore, now in the present, it is important for us to learn how to enjoy God; to feast our souls on his presence. Ultimately, we are dependent upon Him to make it happen, but we can put ourselves in a position to make it easier. We can learn to delight in God as we delight in a delicious feast.

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Revelation #33. Revelation 15:1-8

We have come to part five of the book of Revelation. We had the seven letters to the seven churches. The second part was the seven seals. The third was made up of the seven trumpets, along with an interlude about the two witnesses. The fourth was the seven significant signs, and now we come to the seven bowls of wrath, along with an interlude about “Babylon the great.”

Each section begins with a vision of heaven. So chapter 15 is the heavenly vision for part five. Part four contained some heavy imagery: the devil and his beasts making war on God’s people, and even conquering them physically. Therefore, the heavenly vision that comes next shows the people of God on “the sea of glass.” In chapter 4:6, we saw that God’s throne was surrounded by this sea of glass. So the picture we have now is that the people who were threatened and oppressed and even killed in the spiritual war are now standing in victory in the very presence of God. On earth, it looks like the devil and his minions were winning. But we now see the end result, and that is that the worst the devil can do is to kill someone, and in so doing, he only sends God’s people directly into God’s presence. By doing his worst, the devil only reconciles God’s followers with God himself.

This is a powerful message to the first readers of the book of Revelation. In the very worst moments of history, when all appears to be lost, the martyrs are standing in the very presence of God praising him for his mighty deeds, recognizing him, in spite of circumstances, as King of all nations, Lord God Almighty. In spite of everything, they praise God’s decisions and actions as righteous.

Verses five through eight describe the final preparations for the bowls of wrath. The angels who are there to carry out God’s judgment are coming from the very presence of God: that is the meaning of them coming out of the sanctuary. The smoke from God’s glory and power are meant to remind us that he is indeed God, and nothing, and no one else, is.

It is interesting in verse three that the martyrs sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. Seven bowls of wrath are about to be poured out onto all the earth. I think in his vision, John was reminded of how 10 plagues of wrath were poured out on the Egyptians, and then God’s people were finally delivered. That, I believe, is why they sing, “the song of Moses.” It is also “the song of the Lamb,” because, once again, God’s people are about to be finally, and completely delivered. The Egyptians, in the time of the Exodus, represented the ungodly political power of the world that was oppressing God’s people. So too, we are reminded that God has a plan to deliver his people spiritually in every age, but finally and completely at the end of all ages.

I want to point out a few things by way of application. This is one of many, many places in the Bible that looks forward to a day when God will reign completely, surrounded by those who find their joy in worshiping him and basking in his love. I want us to think a little bit more deeply about what that means. If we are God’s people, our future will be delighting ourselves in the fullness of God’s love, grace, joy, holiness, goodness, majesty, creativity… the list goes on forever.

Consider the song sung by God’s people in this vision. The words are entirely focused on God himself: his Majesty, his glory, his righteousness and holiness. They are entirely occupied with God himself.

The point I am making, is that at some time in the future, our eternal joy will be found in feasting our souls on God. Therefore, now in the present, it is important for us to learn how to enjoy God; to feast our souls on his presence. If we think, “That’s fine for the future, but at the moment I’m much more interested in feasting my soul on success (or, relationships, achievements, my house, pleasure, etc.),” then, we are in serious trouble. Now is the time to develop a taste for the eternal goodness and joy of God. If we can’t learn to enjoy it even a little bit right now, what makes us think that we will want it later on?

Obviously, at this point, our own sinful flesh gets in the way of true worship, and true enjoyment of God. Even so, we can orient our lives in ways that tend to distract us from God, or in ways that give us room to learn to enjoy him. If we can learn to feast our souls on God, that can make all the difference when we experience difficult times. This is one of the repeated themes in the book of Revelation: that even when times are desperately evil, we can rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

Here are a few ways that we might begin to learn to feast our souls on God:

  1. Repentance. We need to recognize that we often are interested in so many other things more than we are interested in God. We cannot change without God’s help, but we must start by admitting where we really are with him, and turning away from other things toward him.
  2. Forgiveness. Once we have repented, we need to also accept that He will make it all right. You don’t have crawl into His presence in fear. Through Jesus, he has cleaned you up, and he will prepare you to enjoy God.
  3. Look “through” God’s wonderful gifts to God himself. Do you have a wonderful family? Recognize that all of the goodness in joy that you feel through your family are echoes of the goodness in joy in God’s presence. He is the one who gave you that family, and the point is not for you to make that family more important than him. Instead, he gave you that gift so that you could focus not on the gift, but on the nature of the Giver.

So for, example, I love the beauty of this world we live in. It would be silly for me to start worshiping nature. Instead, the joy I get from the beauty of creation is pointing me to the eternal joy available in the presence of God. So, I can fully enjoy the great outdoors, but even as I do I recognize that what I am truly enjoying is God himself; and even when I can’t be outdoors, I can still find that sort of joy with Him.

Other gifts that might lead you to enjoy God include (but are not limited to): art, music, dance, physical exercise, good food (but not gluttony), fun.

  1. Read the Bible. The Bible is the only written revelation of God. It is meant to point us to Jesus, and to teach us to feast our souls on Him. It takes self-discipline, but if we want to know God better, we cannot ignore the Bible.
  2. Worship & Fellowship with like-minded followers of Jesus. Not all who call themselves Christians are interested in feasting their souls on God. But many, many are. It is good to spend time with those who “get it,” and encourage one another, and worship together.
  3. Conversational Prayer. I think having an ongoing conversation with God helps us recognize that He is always with us.

What is the Spirit saying to you today through the Word? Do you need to remember that even in darkest times, God is in control? Do you need to repent, and learn to feast on God? Listen and respond to what the Spirit says to you today.

Revelation #32. The Harvest of Grace & the Harvest of Wrath

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The wilderness is beautiful and awe-inspiring. But if you cross it, it will kill you in a heartbeat. The wilderness doesn’t kill you because it is mean. It kills you if try to do something that is contrary to its nature, because its nature is unyielding. It is what it is. In the same way, God isn’t mean or vindictive. But he is Absolute. His nature is the foundation of everything that exists. It doesn’t change. And that means those who rebel against his Holiness & Righteousness, or even ignore it, will break themselves to pieces on God.

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Revelation #32. Revelation 14:14-20.

This is the last of part four, the seven visions. Like the Seven Seals and the Seven trumpets, the Seven visions give us a certain way of looking at human history. They show us history as part of the ongoing spiritual battle between the devil and God’s people. The seventh vision shows what the conclusion of history will involve: First, the righteous will be gathered in: that is the meaning of the first harvest (verses 13-16). Second, those who side with the devil and the two beasts will, along with them receive the full experience of God’s wrath. Once again this only occurs after extensive appeals from Heaven to the people on earth, calling them to repent and receive the grace offered in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

Both the Old and New Testaments teach clearly that God is not yet punishing sin. This is something that I think some Christians don’t understand. The punishment for sin is eternal torment, entirely separated from God. It won’t happen to anyone until the end of time. So, whatever hardship you are going through, it is not God punishing you for sin. Sometimes God uses the circumstances of your life to try and get your attention, or to try to teach you something. But He has not yet punished anyone for sin. He is withholding his wrath, trying to bring as many as possible into His kingdom through faith in the grace of Jesus Christ.

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (ESV) 2 Peter 3:8-9

Even so, the Bible teaches that one day, God will wrap up this world. That is what our verses today are about. On that day, God’s wrath against sin will be let loose against those who refused to accept the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. I’ve italicized parts of the verses below, to highlight what I mean.

4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (ESV) Romans 2:4-5

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. (ESV) Matthew 3:7-8

5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (ESV) Colossians 3:5-6

There are many, many more verses that say the same sorts of thing. However, if we acknowledge God’s righteous claims, repent, trust in Jesus, surrender our lives to Him, then wrath is not our future.

9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (ESV) 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11

The consistent appeal of the Bible, and of all true Christians since that time, is to receive that salvation now, before it is too late. We live in the period of grace. Remember, we have encountered this Revelation before. Until the end comes, there is still the possibility of repentance. But once God treads out the “grapes of wrath,” that time will end. Paul urges everyone to seek God while he may be found:

We also appeal to you: Don’t receive God’s grace in vain. 2 For He says: “I heard you in an acceptable time, and I helped you in the day of salvation.”
Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation. (HCSB Free) 2 Corinthians 6:1-2

So, these verses describe two things that were very important for John’s first readers to hear. Remember, they are suffering persecution and incredible injustice. People are hurting them, confiscating their property and even killing them, with no justification, and getting away with it. Verses 14-17 tell them this: there will be an end to the injustice and suffering. In God’s perfect time, they will be brought to him. The image harvesting grain conveys the idea that there is a perfect time, and that God wants every possible person to be saved. When that time is complete, God’s people will be taken to him, safely. They will be removed, and kept safe from the coming wrath.

The second piece is the final release of God’s wrath. The day of wrath is indeed coming, as it says all throughout the scripture. Everyone who refuses God’s grace in Jesus will have to answer for the evil in their hearts. Every wrong will be made right. God will no longer hold back.

If all this sounds familiar, then you are starting to understand: Revelation repeats the same things in several different ways. Sometimes we get new information, but mostly, we are getting a strong affirmation from God that he has a plan to save his people, give everyone a fair chance to repent, and then come, and punish evil, and make all things right.

So, what does this do for us, today? One of the reasons I think the message of Revelation is important in the 21st Century is because our culture, and even the church, has lost our understanding of God as holy and righteous. We may see Him as mean and uncaring. But that isn’t the same thing.

More frequently, the message is that God is laid back and mellow, and just wants to help you fulfill your dreams, no matter what those dreams are. We’ve lost sight of God’s awe-inspiring, unfathomable holiness.

God isn’t mean. But he is Absolute. His nature is the foundation of everything that exists. It doesn’t change. And that means those who rebel against his Holiness & Righteousness, or even ignore it, will break themselves to pieces on God.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the great outdoors, including some time in very rough and remote places. The wilderness is beautiful and awe-inspiring. And if you cross it, it will kill you in a heartbeat. The wilderness doesn’t kill you because it is mean. It kills you if try to do something that is contrary to its nature, because its nature is unyielding. It is what it is.

If you stand on the edge of a cliff, you will have beautiful views. But if you do not respect the cliff, and you are not careful, you may fall off, and break many bones, or even die. It is no use saying to the cliff “Why are you so mean? Why would you hurt me?” If you don’t live according to nature of the cliff, it hurts or kills you, simply because a cliff is what it is. The problem is with you, not the cliff. So it is with God. His nature is what it is. Those who reject it will suffer the consequences, not because He is mean, but because he is God.

God isn’t just mellow. He cannot change his Holy & Righteous nature, and so he made the awful sacrifice of the Cross so that we, who cannot be remotely holy enough, could be enfolded into his love. It’s like he threw himself down the cliff and broke all of his bones, so that no one else would have to; only it is far, far more than that. Please listen to Revelation #31 about Hell to get the full picture of the incredible sacrifice God made for us. That sacrifice is not an endorsement of our lives; it is redemption, it is salvation. If we receive it, our eternal future is joy, grace & love.

If we refuse it, His Holiness will crush us. Our culture needs to hear this once again.

But there is the other side, too. If we receive what he offers us, the incredible grace of God in Jesus, then we can be part of the first harvest. We gathered with him to be with those of every tongue, tribe and nation who are caught up into the joy, love, peace and grace of God.

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!