REVELATION #40: THE BOOK OF LIFE

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Real Christians are both more pessimistic, and at the same time, more hopeful than other religions. Jesus sets a standard that is not only based on performance, but also on the heart, and on that score, every human being falls short. And so, he offers the alternative: Repent of your sins, repent of your pride that says you are good enough to deserve heaven. Instead, let Him live the perfect life on your behalf. Let him take the punishment that your failures deserve. Trust him to do that for you. And if you really believe it, and you really trust Him, your name is written in the other book, the book of life, and that means that your behavior is no longer the basis for your eternal future.

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Revelation #40.  Revelation 20:11-15

“Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them.” I read this not literally, but as a statement of the majesty of God. The universe – this unimaginably huge vacuum that is sparsely populated with stars – cannot contain God. God is infinite, and in his full presence there is no room for anything else. This immediately suggests something else to me. The New Testament calls us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There should be no room in my life for anything else but God. Whatever competes for God’s place in our lives must flee away. Now, through Jesus, we have all things. So, as I have followed Jesus, he has blessed me with a  wife and children. There is room in my heart for my wife and my family, but I have them through Jesus.

Think of it like this. Imagine that your closest friend is a billionaire. If you are with your friend, you can have a box suite at the Superbowl, or World Cup, or World-Series – you get the idea. But if you don’t have your friend, you don’t have those tickets. Through your friend, you can stay in his wonderful house. It isn’t yours. But because you are friends, he lets you stay there. On your own, you have nothing, but through your friend, you have everything. So it is with Jesus. Jesus is all in all. In my heart, there should be only room for Jesus, and the things that I have through him. All else should be displaced by the great treasure that I have in and through him.

Next comes the scene with the books:

12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.
13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. (Revelation 20:12-13)

At first reading, this makes it sound as if we will all be judged based on our performance; that is, according to our good (or bad) deeds. How can that be? The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace, not by works. It is a free gift of God, a gift that is far more expensive than we can buy.

15 We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” 16 know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

So, what is this, here in Revelation? Let me start with the words of the apostle Paul:

8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9 As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Galatians 1:8-9)

When we come to a place like this, where it seems to contradict another part of scripture, the first thing to do is to read carefully, and make sure we understand what it is saying.

First, we should take note that in this passage, there are two categories of books. On the one hand, there are books that seem to contain a record of the works of every human ever alive or dead. They describe everything you have ever done, good or bad. On the other hand, there is one single book called the Book of Life. It looks to me like the picture is as follows: If your name is in the book of life, you are not thrown into the lake of fire (v. 15). If your name is not in the book of life, then you are judged only according to what you have done and not done.  And everyone who is judged according to what they have done falls short. Paul explains it like this:

21 Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? (Galatians 4:21)

Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. (Galatians 5:2-3)

Paul’s point is this. We are not judged on a curve. There is no such thing as “close enough” when it comes to the moral perfection we need to avoid being destroyed by God’s holiness. It is a simple binary test. Were you perfect, or imperfect? If you refuse the grace given to you in Jesus Christ, then, in order to earn your place, you must be entirely, 100% perfect. If you want to live by the law, you have to keep the entire law. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, certain people wanted to make just one part of the law (circumcision) determine whether you were accepted by God or not. Paul says, “If you want to play it that way, then you have to keep not only circumcision, but every last bit of the entire law.

In the time of Jesus, some of the Jews were in danger of thinking they had done that. So, Jesus explains that it isn’t just outward behavior – it is also about your innermost thoughts. A moment of honesty here. My outward behavior has been pretty good. I have outwardly had no other God. I have never knowingly lied; I have not committed adultery, or murder. I have never taken the name of the Lord in vain. I have honored my parents. You get the picture. But Jesus tells us that the standard is not only about what happens on the outside. If your heart is not perfect, than you have not fulfilled the law:

21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.

 27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Now, suddenly, I don’t look so good. I’ve never murdered, but I’ve held rage in my heart, and called people fools and morons. I’ve never committed adultery, but I have had lustful thoughts. So you see, if you want to be judged by the books of works, you cannot even have had one, single, slightly wrong thought.

All this makes it seem hopeless. But there is another way. It is completely different. Many people like to say that all religions are the same. But this is where Christianity is radically different. Hindus base their judgments on the books of works. They need to pay off all the bad karma they have incurred before they can go to Nirvana. Buddhists achieve their version of Nirvana by their own efforts. They can’t get there until they have “got it right,” somehow. Jews and Muslims alike must please God in order to be saved, though they tend to focus on outward behavior, and sort of pretend that the attitude of the heart doesn’t really matter.

There are also people who believe some sort of false Christianity. They believe that God is all mellow and loving, so it doesn’t really matter. He’s not keeping score anyway, right?

Wrong, he has kept score. And we all have fallen short.

Real Christians are both more pessimistic, and at the same time, more hopeful than other religions. Jesus sets a standard that is not only based on performance, but also on the heart, and on that score, every human being falls short. And so, he offers the alternative: Repent of your sins, repent of your pride that says you are good enough to deserve heaven. Instead, let Him live the perfect life on your behalf. Let him take the punishment that your failures deserve. Trust him to do that for you. And if you really believe it, and you really trust Him, your name is written in the other book, the book of life, and that means that your behavior is no longer the basis for your eternal future.

Now, if you really believe all that, if you really trust Jesus, your behavior will change, but now, it isn’t about earning points with God. You see, we behave according to how we truly believe. If you really love someone, and you believe that the other person loves you, you will want spend time with that person. You will enjoy being in their presence, and doing things together. You will try to avoid hurting that person, and seek the best for them. You will trust them, and behave differently because you trust them. Your behavior will change because you love, and believe you are loved. It has nothing to do with earning anything. This is exactly how it is with Jesus.

I am struck by how different the preaching of the early church was, compared to preaching today. Today, we seem desperately afraid of offending anyone, of making anyone feel bad. But the gospel has two main parts. The first is incredibly offensive. It is offensive to pride, to self-righteousness, to apathy, to our own belief that we ourselves should be the final arbiter of our own fates. No, the gospel says, “You are far worse than you imagine. Your situation is desperate, and hopeless. If you think you can be good enough to please God, forget it. If you think God will overlook your little faults, you are like a cancer patient who says she feels fine, even while her body hurtles toward a painful death. The books of your deeds will accuse you, at the end. There is no hope there. You must repent, and throw yourself on the mercy of God.”

The second part of the gospel is pure good news, pure love and joy. It is this: God’s grace and love are far greater than you ever knew. His love not only matches, but overwhelms what is not right in you. Because he knew you couldn’t perform, he performs on your behalf. Because you deserve death and hell, Jesus took death and hell on himself. And so, through Jesus, we have an entirely different way to be. There is no need to measure up. There is no need to justify yourself. All that is left for you to do is to love the One who loved you first, and let gratitude at his grace guide your life.

A couple weeks ago, almost on a whim, I asked God to send me a snowstorm. I asked for it to be on a specific day, with a specific number of inches of snow. That prayer was answered exactly. Now, as I think about this, I am overwhelmed that God would send a snowstorm just for puny little me in order to show me his love. But the truth is, he has done far more than that. The extravagance of his love given to us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is unimaginably greater than a snowstorm. When we really think about it, it becomes, literally, life changing.

What comes next in the book of Revelation is what we often call “heaven.” For Heaven to be, well, heaven, there can be no sin, no selfishness, no self-righteousness. If we want to live in a perfect world, only perfect people can be there. And so, Jesus makes perfect those who trust him.

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:12-14, ESV)

Jesus offers us his own perfection so that we can step into the perfect world that he is rebuilding for us.

There are several possible responses to this text today. Perhaps we need to repent. Perhaps we thought our sin is no big deal. Perhaps when we look at our behavior, we realize that we aren’t living as if we really believe what Jesus has done for us.

Maybe, we need to remember the extravagance of His love for us, and realize that he has indeed made us perfect. There is no barrier within ourselves that He cannot overcome, if we simply allow him to do it.

Maybe we need to focus on the joy that awaits us after the day of judgment. We will spend a good amount of time doing so in a few weeks, but we can begin now.

Perhaps, for you, what you needed to hear was at the beginning: that the love of God through Jesus Christ should displace everything else in your life. There is no room for fear, for anger, for hatred, for worry. We have only Jesus, and the things he chooses for us. Let him be all in all.

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you today.

Revelation #39: The Millenium.

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We puny, stupid creatures are standing with one foot in heaven, and that gives us authority over all the power of the devil, plus a whole lot more, besides. We are called to focus on the spiritual reality that has already begun. Though we may look marginalized and defeated, we are, in fact, gloriously victorious. The one who is responsible for so much of our pain and misery has already been defeated.

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Revelation #39  Revelation 20:1-10.  THE MILLENIUM

As we come to Revelation chapter 20, I’m reminded of a quote from a wise, well-respected, Bible commentator:

This brings us to one of the most difficult parts of the entire book. There have been endless disputes, some of them very bitter, over the way to understand this chapter. Evangelicals have divided from one another and sometimes have been quite intolerant of views other than those of their own group. It is necessary to approach the chapter with humility and charity. (Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentary on Revelation)

Many years ago, someone left the church that I was pastoring at the time because they didn’t like the way I interpreted this next section of Revelation. I hope and pray that none of you will stop reading the sermon notes because of this chapter. Truly, I do not believe that this is worth dividing over. I have my own opinions, of course, but I hold them loosely, knowing that I could very easily be wrong. And, when we take a step back, this passage is almost unique in Scripture. What I mean is, there is nowhere else in Scripture that talks about a one thousand year block of time in which the devil is bound, and some of Christ’s followers reign with him for thousand years, to be followed by a brief period of releasing the devil, after which he is finally defeated. What this means to me, is that this is not a major biblical doctrine. I can say with absolute confidence that people who interpret this differently from each other will still be together with Jesus in heaven.

Please bear with me while I share something else. This may seem like a rabbit trail, but I think it will help us as we approach this text, and also the whole of Revelation. In the scholarly discipline of theology, we have something called “systematic theology.” In systematic theology, scholars study a particular subject. They investigate all of the various Bible passages that relate to that subject, and they also usually study what other theologians have written about it. Then, they gather the information about that subject into one clear series of statements. Systematic theology can be very useful. If, for example, you wanted to know how it is that the death of Jesus results in the forgiveness of sins, a systematic theology of the atonement is very helpful. Instead of having to comb through the Bible, and find everywhere it talks about that subject, systematic theologians have organized it and presented it all in one place. It is a useful scholarly discipline, and even somewhat useful to interested non-scholars.

Now, this is very important, because the vast majority of people use the book of Revelation to build a systematic theology of the end times (“end times” theology is technically called “eschatology”). In addition, Revelation chapter 20 – our text for today – is typically used as a very important point in building up that systematic eschatology.

That is not necessarily wrong, but we should never lose sight of the main purpose of the scripture. You see, systematic theology has some very big drawbacks. The biggest one is that that way of thinking tends to lead us away from the primary purpose of the Bible, and the primary means of achieving that purpose. The purpose of the Bible is to show us Jesus, and to bring us closer to him. The way that purpose is achieved is to read the Bible the way it was originally written: book by book. We read so that the text reveals Jesus to us, and so that we are drawn closer to him. What we are doing here – the ministry of Clear Bible – is to learn the Scriptures better, so that we know Jesus better. In a way, I don’t even care where Revelation chapter 20 fits in a systematic eschatology. It was not originally written in order to tell us how to build a scheme for the end times. It was written to help us know Jesus better, and encourage us to trust him. All scripture is there to reveal Jesus, to call us to repent and trust him more, and trust him more fully in all areas of our lives. Only when we understand that are we ready to look at the text.

Remember, I don’t believe that Revelation is a strict chronological account, nor do a large number of better scholars than I. Revelation describes, in various ways, the coming of the kingdom from the time of Jesus’ incarnation until it is fully present to all people not only spiritually, but also physically. This second-to-last section of Revelation is giving us seven different pictures of the ultimate victory of Jesus.

In the past part, we learned that those who reject the graciousness of God given to us in Jesus Christ are standing in the way of the full coming of the kingdom of God. People who do not want have Jesus as king cannot be in a place where Jesus is fully and completely king. They must be removed, before the full kingdom of God can be manifested. One part of the ultimate victory of Jesus is the removal of those who absolutely refuse to have him as king. That is what we studied last time.

Another part of the victory Jesus – the part we are looking at today – is that the originator of the rebellion against God, that is, Satan himself, must also be defeated and removed.

In the first part of this book of Revelation, Jesus dictated letters to seven churches, which also stand for all Christians at all times. To each of the seven churches Jesus promises certain things to those who overcome, are faithful, who repent, who are victorious. Revelation chapter 20 is beginning to describe in more detail the rewards that were promised in Revelation chapter 2 and 3. For instance, in the letter to Smyrna Jesus says:

“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.” (Revelation 2:11).

In our text here it says:

“Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years.” (Revelation 20:6)

One of the big concerns of the book of Revelation is that good Christian people are being persecuted, imprisoned, and some, even deceived, and it seemed like God was absent; it seemed like He wasn’t doing anything. This text says “I am going to do something. I have a master plan, and the end result will be that you share in my victory, and justice will be served upon your enemies.”

Now, I suppose we must deal with this business of the thousand year reign. What, exactly does this mean? Once again, I hold my interpretation humbly and loosely, but, for what it’s worth, I’ll give it you. The picture we have is that Satan is bound for a definitive period of time – the perfect amount of time to give every human being a chance to repent. By the way, until recently, very few Christians throughout history thought this was a literal one-thousand years – not even those who were living before 1000 AD. After that, Satan will be released for a short time, and then defeated utterly. I believe that this passage is a word-picture, describing how Jesus defeated Satan through his death and resurrection, and how we who trust him are already, in a spiritual sense, united with Him in his victory. The time when Satan is released for a while is the time when some of these terrible things described in Revelation will happen. Then will come the final, ultimate victory. If I am right, then “the rest of the dead” refers to those who refuse to receive Jesus as their Lord and savior.

I have several biblical reasons for looking at it this way. First, Jesus himself, and his apostles after him, viewed what he did on the cross as a victory over the devil that resulted in the devil being severely limited in his ability to act in this world.

31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. (Jesus, in John 12:31)

14 Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil 15 and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

24 When the Pharisees heard this, they said, “The man drives out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.”
25 Knowing their thoughts, He told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, who is it your sons drive them out by? For this reason they will be your judges. 28 If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. (Matthew 12:24-29)

In this parable, most Bible teachers believe Jesus was referring to himself as the stronger man, who binds the devil.

Second, the New Testament often describes the process of salvation as moving from death to life, and also pictures us reigning with Christ, in some spiritual sense, even before we enter the New Heavens and the New Earth. I want to start with a couple passages that show two of three concepts covered in Revelation 20 – that on the cross, Jesus defeated the devil; that at the same time he also brought us from death to life:

. 13 He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. 14 We have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Him. Colossians 1:12-14

13 And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses. 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; He triumphed over them by Him. Colossians 2:13-15

When the New Testament speaks of “rulers and authorities” in this way, it usually means, “spiritual powers of evil.” So, this passage teaches that by the cross, Jesus defeated Satan and his demons, and delivered those who trust him from death to life. A few more, talking about “the first resurrection;” being transferred from death to life:

4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. Romans 7:4

14 For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. 15 And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

But, what about reigning with him? Do Christians really reign with Jesus before the end times? The apostles certainly thought so. There is a mystery here – meaning we are dealing with a  truth that is beyond our ability to fully understand. But the Holy Spirit, through the New Testament, teaches that in some sense, even before the end, we are seated in heaven with Jesus, reigning with him:

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6)

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Jesus taught that his kingdom has already begun, and we are a part of it:

20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

He also taught that He has shared his kingly authority with us:

18 I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Matthew 18:18

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19

He even specifies that he has given believers for all time authority specifically over the devil:

17 The Seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name.”
18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a lightning flash. 19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing will ever harm you. 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He doesn’t mean snakes and scorpions literally, and he makes it clear that our authority is “over all the power of the enemy.”

Finally, Revelation 20:6 says that they will be priests of God most high. The New Testament certainly teaches us that this is something that happens when we become Christians. Peter writes to Christians everywhere:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

John himself, earlier in Revelation, says that all believers in Jesus have been made priests of God:

To Him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by His blood, 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father — the glory and dominion are His forever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5-6)

Because the New Testament speaks of coming to Jesus as a change from being dead in our sins, to being alive in Christ; and also because it speaks of the cross as a victory over the devil and his demons; and because it says that somehow, spiritually, we are already with Christ in the heavenly places; and because it says that we share his authority over the devil, I think this 1000 year reign is a picture of the church between the time when God sent the Holy Spirit (shortly after the resurrection of Jesus) and the time of the end. By the way, I am not alone in this. There are many theologians who believe the same thing, including many who lived before 1,000 AD, and therefore might be forgiven for thinking that 1,000 was a literal number. The great Saint Augustine of Hippo (living in the 400’s), wrote:

During the “thousand years” when the devil is bound, the saints also reign for a “thousand years” and, doubtless, the two periods are identical and mean the span between Christ’s first and second coming.

Andrew of Caesarea, another early church bishop who also lived before the year 1,000, agrees, and he also advocates humility regarding the interpretation of these verses:

It is in no way good to understand the “thousand years” as referring to a thousand years as such…

Therefore, the “thousand years” are the time from the incarnation of the Lord until the arrival of the antichrist. Whether the matter is as we have interpreted it, or the thousand years are one hundred times ten, as some believe, or the thousand years are less than this, this is known to God alone, who knows how long his patience is beneficial to us, and he determines the continuance of the present life.

After the 1000 years, we have the great battle between good and evil. A lot of people make a big deal of Gog and Magog. God doesn’t. In fact, there is no battle at all. The powers of evil approach threateningly, and, while God’s people don’t lift a finger, the powers of evil are all destroyed by fire.                                                                                                                                                                                                           Let me offer a few brief lines for you consider as you apply this text to your life. First, I think many Christians don’t realize just how amazing our salvation is. Jesus doesn’t just give us a “barely passed.” Instead, he makes us rulers in his kingdom. We puny, stupid creatures are standing with one foot in heaven, and that gives us authority over all the power of the devil, plus a whole lot more, besides. Remember that: even in your darkest times, if you belong to Jesus, you are standing with one foot already in heaven.

Second, I think this text is telling us that to focus on the spiritual reality that has already begun. Though we may look marginalized and defeated, we are, in fact, gloriously victorious. The one who is responsible for so much of our pain and misery has already been defeated. He’s a bit like a mean dog on a chain – as long we pay attention, and don’t walk into his range, he can’t touch us. He will be released again only for a short while to accomplish God’s purpose for the end times. Then, it is lights out on him, forever.

Le the Spirit speak to you, today.

Revelation #38: The Danger of Superficial Grace

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It is our job to warn those who reject Jesus, but not to condemn them. On the other hand, when we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry. In Jesus alone is the perfect balance of grace and judgment.

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Revelation #38. Revelation 19:11 – 21. The Danger of Superficial Grace

I appreciate your patience with these sermon notes. I know I am not producing them as fast as before. The truth is, even as I write this, I am in severe pain, sick to my stomach, and I just generally feel awful. I will not allow all that to stop me, but sometimes I simply can’t help from slowing me down.

With the praise in heaven offered at the beginning of this chapter, and the announcement of the marriage of the Lamb, we have officially entered the second-to-last section of Revelation. I am not quite so sure of my own accuracy in dividing up this part of Revelation, but even if I get the chiastic structure somewhat wrong, we can still receive much simply from the text itself. In any case, I call this section: “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” Today, we will cover the first part of the victory of Jesus, which is the first defeat of Satan, covered in verses 19:11 – 20:3.

In the second section of the book of Revelation, we had the seven seals. The first seal was a rider on a white horse. Our analysis of the text showed that that rider represented the gospel going out into all the world. It was an indication that we presently live in a time of grace, a time when no one is being judged for their sins. Instead, God has been appealing for people to repent, and receive the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Now, in the sixth (and connected to the second) section of Revelation, we have a new rider on a white horse. Listen to the description of this rider. He is:

called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12 His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13 He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God.

Along with the vast majority of commentators throughout history, I believe that this rider represents Jesus. Since no human being is perfect, no human being could judge and make war in righteousness. The description of his eyes matches that of the description of Jesus in the first part of the book of Revelation. But the clincher is the last part: he is called the word of God. Remember, this book of Revelation was transmitted to us through the apostle John. Listen to what John says about Jesus and his gospel:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-18)

So, it is crystal clear that “the word of God,” means Jesus.

In our text today, Jesus has another name, which no one knows except himself (verse 12). I think we are told this in order to remind us that Jesus, being in very nature God, is far beyond our comprehension. We will never be able to fully understand him, and we certainly cannot control him, or judge him. I believe it says that his clothes are dipped in blood to remind us of the sacrifice that he made for us, and for all people.

These things are very important for us as we consider this text. The first white horse came to signify a time of grace, when God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ is given to all the world, and his judgment is withheld. But now judgment is coming and it is coming through Jesus Christ himself.

We have seen all the way through the book of Revelation that time and time again, people are given opportunities to repent. But this text tells us that there will come a day when that time really is over. God’s patience is vast, and he takes no pleasure in the death of the unrighteous.

11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

But in order to bring his people into a place of eternal joy and eternal safety, he must, at last, judge those who reject him. Revelation clearly depicts these two truths: that God is reluctant to condemn anyone, but that there will come a day when he will indeed do so, in order to usher in the new heavens and new earth for those who have not rejected him.

Again, it is Jesus himself who is sent to do the judging. I believe the reminder of his sacrifice (his clothes dipped in blood), and the fact that he has a hidden name, are there to make his right to judge all the more compelling. He is God, we are not, and we can never truly know him, or put him in a box. Also, the fact that he himself shed his own blood for us and suffered the torment of hell for us, makes his right to judge indisputable. He has already taken this terrible judgment upon himself. But if we refuse to let him do that, there is no alternative. We will have to own the judgment for ourselves, which means we become objects of God’s wrath.

This is very important, because Christians seem to be confused about judgment, and the confusion cuts two different ways. On the one hand, some people seem to think that it is their job to bring judgment and condemnation on those who are not Christians. Obviously, this text shows us that that is wrong: it is the right of Jesus, and Jesus alone. I think the following analogy might be helpful:

Imagine that you have a friend who regularly cheats on her taxes. You have another friend who happens to work for the Internal Revenue Service. You know for a fact, from your IRS friend, that sometime soon the government is going to crack down on tax fraud. Sooner or later, if your friend continues her pattern of cheating on taxes, she will get caught, and she will go to prison. Now, it is not your job to catch her, nor to throw her in prison. But what you can do – and what you should do, if you really love your friend – is to warn her about the coming judgment. You aren’t bringing legal proceedings against her, you are not trying to have her thrown in prison; those things are not your job.

However, many Christians seem to be handing out condemnation tickets to non-Christians whom they do not like. But that is not our job; we have no right to do such a thing. What we can do, and should do, is to warn our non-Christian friends about the coming judgment, and to appeal to them to receive the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ instead, while there is still time. There’s a big difference between warning, and condemning. There is a very large difference also, between those who claim to be Christians, and those who do not. If someone claims to be part of the body of Christ, and under the authority of Jesus, and yet they are continuing in a long-term pattern of blatant sin, we do have the right to talk to them. The judging of those who are not believers is not our task. The apostle Paul helps to clarify this. Below, When Paul says “bears the name of brother” we need to remember that most Jesus-followers called each other brother and sister. The word “Christian” was still not widely used. So “brother” means “Christian.” :

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

So it is not our job to judge those who are outside the body of Christ. We are only to warn. And even when it comes to judging those within the body of Christ, Jesus and the apostles gave very specific criteria. It is not a matter of anybody and everybody going around condemning people. There is a very clear process for church discipline. It is mostly a matter for the church leadership, and only in rare cases does it involve everyone in the church.

There is another error that Christians make that this text corrects. Many, many Christians these days seem to think that there is no final judgment at all. They say things like: “It’s all about love. Love conquers all. All we have to do is love. Period.” In a way, they are right. But love is much bigger than they seem to realize. For love to be real, there must be an alternative; and the alternative to loving God is evil. Therefore, as part of his love, Christ brings true, final and complete judgment upon those who reject his loving salvation. Remember the name that no one knows? We cannot put Jesus in a box. Very often, those who want to say that Jesus is only loving, and never judges, are putting him in a box of their own making. This text is crystal clear, for those who reject Jesus, there is a thorough and terrible judgment awaiting.

When we tell people – whether Christian or not – that there is no judgment for sin, no penalty for rejecting the grace offered in Jesus, we are acting as false prophets. Jeremiah spoke about people like this:

14 They have treated My people’s brokenness superficially,
claiming, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

When we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry.

Isaiah also saw that people did not like to talk about the fact that one day God will indeed judge the earth:

9 For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction.
10 They say to the seers, “See no more visions !” and to the prophets,“ Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. 11 Leave this way, get off this path,
and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:9-11)

People in the time of Isaiah didn’t want to hear about a God who holds people accountable for their sins. Neither do people in 21st century. But we are not acting truly lovingly if we hide the truth.

Paul warned Timothy about people like this, who will go looking for people to affirm their ideas, and avoid those who tell them the truth about God as revealed in the Bible.

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. 4 They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

We do no one any favors by hiding the truth. This book of Revelation is as much holy Scripture as any of the Gospels. And, honestly, you cannot read the Gospels, paying attention, without seeing that Jesus judges everyone based upon how they respond to himself. The message of shallow love; love that only affirms and never confronts, is not the message of Jesus. It is true that the Holy Spirit appeals to all people, inviting them in love into salvation through Jesus. But the reason for God’s passionate desire to be reconciled to people is that if they refuse, they will face terrible judgment, and that judgment will come from Jesus Himself. John captures both God’s love, and his judgment, perfectly. But we need to read past the first, very familiar part, and on to the end, in order to get the complete picture.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

So what we do with this? What does it mean for us, as we engage in real Christian community, go to work, spend time with our families, and so on? For me, it is always good to remember the difference between warning, and condemning. Warning someone about a coming disaster is an act of love. When we appeal to people to repent of their sins, and escape judgment, our love for those people should be evident. The less loving my warning sounds, the more likely it is that I am leaning towards condemning someone.

This passage, for me, is still a reminder of the grace of God. Jesus has not yet come as an avenging warrior. We are still in a time of grace. We have seen throughout the book of Revelation that God gives opportunity after opportunity to all people, in the hopes that some might repent, receive his grace, and escape the coming judgment. If there was no coming judgment, all of that would be sort of silly; even pointless. But the fact that there is a coming judgment makes God’s grace shine all the more clearly.

This passage also reminds me that the time of grace will one day have an end. For every single person, that end is no farther off than the end of their mortal lives here on earth. Those who preach love, and no judgment whatsoever, are false prophets; they are treating people’s brokenness superficially. This is not loving at all.

Finally, the purpose of the coming judgment is so that God can bring his people into a new heavens and a new earth; a perfect world without sorrow, hatred, or fear. The end goal of judgment is a glorious, loving future with God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this now.

REVELATION #37. THE DIVINE MARRIAGE.

rings wedding
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Every human being longs for true, deep, honest intimacy. We want to be able to be fully ourselves, and totally known by Another Person. We long to be able to be completely “naked” – not pretending or hiding; body, soul and spirit, and in that state, be fully loved and accepted with no blemish or shadow to mar that experience. This is exactly what is being promised to us.

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We’ve come to Revelation chapter 19. It seems clear that the praise recorded in verses one through four is all about the fall of Babylon. So, in a sense, these verses wrap up the end of the section on Babylon. We have learned that “Babylon” represents ungodly cultures and world governmental powers that stand against the worship of the one true God, and that tend to either seduce Christians away from God, or persecute them if they won’t join the ungodly culture. Therefore, before Jesus can return, before God can culminate his plan in history, he must remove “Babylon.” This, he has done. Therefore verses one through four are praising God for accomplishing this milestone. Babylon’s fall means that God’s plan can move forward.

Before we move on from Babylon I want to note that one of the big issues associated with it is sexual immorality. Now, I think that sexual immorality includes the idea of worshiping false gods. The Bible uses that imagery over and over again, as I have mentioned in previous messages. At the same time, however, “sexual immorality” is also intended to be literal – it isn’t just about idolatry, it is about sex outside of marriage. One reason that Revelation focuses on this particular category of sin is that it is an incredibly powerful way of tempting people away from God. The human drive to reproduce is extremely strong, and one of the devil’s favorite tricks is to misdirect that drive toward inappropriate places. This is one reason why John records over and over again that not only is sexual immorality sinful, but it will be severely judged at the end of all things. I bring this up because the church in the 21st century in the Western world has almost completely stopped talking about it.

But it is a big concern throughout the New Testament. It is a sin that the Bible tells us to have nothing to do with it. The following verses are just a few of many like them:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)

Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, and you once walked in these things when you were living in them.  (Col 3:5-7, HCSB)

For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, so that each of you knows how to control his own body in sanctification and honor, not with lustful desires, like the Gentiles who don’t know God. This means one must not transgress against and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger of all these offenses, as we also previously told and warned you. For God has not called us to impurity but to sanctification. Therefore, the person who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who also gives you His Holy Spirit.  (1Thess 4:3-8, HCSB)

Now in response to the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman.” But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.  (1Cor 7:1-2, HCSB)

By the way, I included the last verse to show that sexual intimacy in marriage is not sinful, but it is good, and righteous. So it isn’t that sex is bad in and of itself, but it is sinful outside of marriage.

Many people believe that historically Christian sexual ethics were used to control women. This does not fit with the facts of history, nor with the teaching of the Bible. The Bible’s teaching applies to both men and women. It is just as sinful for a man to have sex outside of marriage as it is for a woman. Men must submit to this teaching, and in so doing, are made equal to women. That is crystal clear in the Bible.

Secondly, Christian sexual ethics had the actual effect of protecting women from abuse and exploitation. In ancient cultures that did not have the Bible, women were used as objects and then cast aside. Jews and Christians were not permitted to do that. Christian and Jewish women were far better off, historically, than women of other religions. This is still true today, worldwide. The women’s equality movement would have been impossible without a Christian understanding of sexual ethics and the fundamental equality of genders.

Also, historically, Christian sexual ethics were at odds with the culture around them (which is part of the main point I’ve been making).

Now, if you’re reading this and you have sinned in the matter of sexual immorality, you do not need to despair. The reason Jesus came to earth is to forgive our sins. This is not the unforgivable sin. As a teacher of the Bible, however, I don’t want to gloss over what the scripture actually says about the subject. I also want to make sure that you hear very clearly: if you put your trust in Jesus, he forgives you, and cleanses you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7-9). Let the past be past, and let Jesus live his life in you from now on.

The other reason I bring this up, is because of the next part of our text today. Babylon engages in sexual immorality both spiritually and literally. But verses 5-10 now show us the alternative: the Marriage of the Lamb, and His bride. Verse six begins the sixth heavenly throne room scene in the book of Revelation. This means that we have come to the beginning of the sixth (and second to last) section of the book. As we enter the heavenly throne room, as always, the air is filled with praise to God. If you have shared the Passover Seder with us, you know that the word “hallel” means “praise in ancient Hebrew. “Jah” is short for “Yahweh.” Therefore “hallelujah” simply means “praise Yahweh,” or, “praise the Lord.”

Verses seven through nine are focused on praising God, particularly, because the marriage of the Lamb has come. Unlike Babylon, the bride of the Lamb is pure. She has remained faithful to Jesus.

When the New Testament talks about “sons,” and “brothers,” that includes not only men, but women also. When the New Testament talks about “the bride of Christ,” it includes not only women, but men also. For those who belong to Jesus, all women are sons and brothers (as are the men), and all men are brides (as are the women). These metaphors in the New Testament are pictures for us.

God’s people – that is, the people who belong to Jesus – are the bride of Christ. Why do we have this picture of the people of God as a bride?

In the first place, in first century culture, particularly among poor people, the biggest, most wonderful celebrations that they ever managed to take part in were wedding feasts. If you were a Christian, it was not an option for you to participate in the various feasts and celebrations dedicated to false gods. So the only place where you might truly get a wonderful meal and be part of a joyous, happy celebration, would be at a wedding. A wedding brought to mind imagery of joy. At weddings you were free from work and toil, you were surrounded by friends, family and loved ones. For poor people especially, weddings might be the only time they ever experienced having an abundance of good food.

There are two people who stand together at the center of any wedding: the Bride and the Groom. This is their day. More particularly, it is a celebration of their love, and their union. God has promised that a day will come that will be our day: ours, and his, together. That day will celebrate the love God has for us, and the love we have for him. It will also be the day when we enter perfect union by God, unspoiled by our sin or lack of faith. Ephesians chapter 5 talks about this a little bit:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, 23 for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. 27 He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 since we are members of His body.
31 For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh.
32 This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband. Ephesians 5:22-33

Earthly marriage is a just a shadow of a tremendous heavenly reality. As husbands and wives love each other sacrificially, it is a reflection of how Jesus loves us, and we love him. Our job, as the Bride of Christ, is to submit to Jesus. That means we obey what Jesus commands through the Bible. It means we make him the center of our lives. John also writes about this:

1 My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ the Righteous One. 2 He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.
3 This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. 4 The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: 6 The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked. 1 John 2:1-6

At the same time, Jesus is the one who makes sure that we pure, spotless and blameless. He clothes us with his own righteousness so that we can take our place in union with him, and nothing stand between us. Verse 8 says

8 it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. Revelation 19:8

These words capture the perfect balance of our salvation. “It was granted to her.” This means that we did not get the fine linen for ourselves. It was given to us, bright and pure. The linen is “the righteous deed of the saints.” Actually, the Greek of that last phrase is not quite so cut and dried. It says literally that the fine linen is “the “righteous-nesses” of the saints. In other words, it not necessarily that we got the righteous-nesses for ourselves. So, all that makes us worthy to be perfect union was given to us by God. And yet, at the same time we also, put on what is given us. We prepare ourselves (verse 7).

All of this, again, stand in contrast to Babylon, who wore the clothes of a prostitute, and acted like one.

So, where do we go with this? Let’s put it in terms that make sense for us. Every human being longs for true, deep, honest intimacy. We want to be able to be fully ourselves, and totally known by Another Person. We long to be able to be completely “naked” – not pretending or hiding; body, soul and spirit, and in that state, be fully loved and accepted with no blemish or shadow to mar that experience. This is exactly what is being promised to us.

Ultimately, that longing for intimacy is a longing for the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Our real, actual longing to be fully known and, at the same time, fully loved will be totally fulfilled in our union with Jesus at the end of this present world.

If this sounds vaguely sensual or sexual to you, try not to get uncomfortable. The Bible offers sex and marriage as a way to help us understand how truly amazing it is going to be when stand before Jesus on the last (or, more accurately, the first) day. The highest human experience of intimacy in marriage is supposed to give us a glimpse – just a tiny glimpse – of how we will feel on that day with Jesus.

It is time to start getting excited about this now. So many things get in the way. This, however, is the core desire of our hearts. We need to remember that, and focus on the reality of what is to come, instead of goofing around with temporary, silly pleasures here and now. C.S. Lewis writes:

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

In other words, we do have the right desire, but we don’t always recognize it. If we would only open our eyes, so many things would remind of us our true desire for heaven. For instance, our reaction when we hear a beautiful piece of music, see a beautiful landscape, or picture, or even a beautiful person. Once again C.S. Lewis offers wisdom:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe and it, to become part of it.

This passage today tells that that is exactly what is coming. We will be united to beauty, to pass into it, to receive into ourselves, to bathe in it and become part of it. Now, we can sing, with the angels:

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready; Revelation 19:6-7

REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

bright color eyes face
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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.

MARTIN_John_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath

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.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 34

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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Photo by Flo Dahm on Pexels.com

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.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 33

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.