Revelation #25. Manifesting Jesus in a Hostile World.

Rev #25

God’s people are in the business of bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus came physically, through the people of Israel. Today, the church still has the task of helping Jesus to be manifested to the world. We do this primarily as Jesus told us, by making disciples. In this we may be opposed. We may become distracted by pleasure, or wealth, or power. But if we trust the Father of our hearts, He will show us that He alone has everything we need, and no enemy can defeat him.

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Revelation #25  Revelation 12:1-6

We have come to the fourth section of the book of Revelation. Although it isn’t quite as clear as it is with the seals, bowls, and trumpets, this section is also made up of seven sub-parts: the seven significant signs. Last time, I pointed out that in the second major section (the seals), Revelation describes all of history, in broad strokes. Parts two (the seven seals), four (the seven signs; the section we are now studying), and six (the seven-part victory of Jesus) all do this same thing in one way or another. However, the main focus for the seven seals was on the earlier history, the era before the beginning of the “end times.” The main focus of part six (the seven-part victory of Jesus) is on the end of history and the new heavens and the new earth. Here in part four, the focus seems to be fairly balanced between beginning, middle, and end.

So, as we go forward we will see that this section backs up all the way to the great war in heaven between Satan and God’s angels, which, we assume, took place before the beginning of human history. We move quickly from there to the birth of Jesus, and then to the persecution of the church, and the spiritual war as it is played out on earth, ending once more with the final victory of Jesus, which, obviously, is still to come.

Before we plunge in, remember the first readers of Revelation. They were marginalized and shamed by their culture. Many of them were persecuted; many had lost property, and a few had lost their lives for Jesus. They were wondering if God remembered them; they were wondering if he really was coming back, if he really was going to make everything right.

Particularly significant for Revelation chapter 12, four of those original churches were dealing with significant spiritual warfare. Jesus told the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia that they were dealing with “synagogues of Satan (Rev. 2:9 & 3:9);” that is, people who had given themselves over completely to rebellion against God, people who had become deeply influenced by the devil himself. I’m sure it also implies that some people there were possessed/oppressed by demons, and that there was opposition to the Christians in the spiritual dimension of life. Pergamum was called the place “where Satan’s throne is (Rev. 3:13),” which probably involved the same sort of spiritual warfare. In Thyatira, people were dabbling in the occult – “the deep things of Satan (Rev. 2:24),” which, again would result in both physical and spiritual opposition to those Christians. For these folks, the devil was a very real and present enemy.

With all that in mind, let’s begin with the first sign:

1A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. 2She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony as she was about to give birth.

 Virtually all of the “early church fathers” (who lived from the mid-200s AD to about 800) saw this woman as representing the church. If we go with this idea, the crown of twelve stars represents the twelve apostles. The fact that she is “clothed with sun” is just a way of describing the righteousness that Jesus Christ has given to his people, the church. Some people think the moon under her feet represent heretics, which the church, in her purity, defeats. They are under her feet to show victory.

In modern times, it has become more popular to interpret the woman as representing the people of Israel. If this is the case, the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes. There are both problems and advantages to both interpretations. I think it is probably best to simply say that this represents, in general, the people of God throughout history, whether the faithful in ancient Israel, or those who truly follow Jesus throughout all of history since his death and resurrection.

The woman is pregnant, and about to give birth. In the first place, she gives birth to the Messiah (more about that later). In addition, if you think about it, the church is always in labor, always trying to see Jesus Christ “birthed” inside every human heart. Jesus talked about being born again:

3Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4“But how can anyone be born when he is old? ” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born? ” 5Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. 8The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8, HCSB)

So, although the main picture here is about the coming of Jesus into the world, there is an ongoing sense in which the church is continually in labor for Christ; that is to see him born in the lives of new disciples.

The text continues:

3Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and 10 horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. 4His tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. And the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she did give birth he might devour her child. (Rev 12:3-4)

 The Dragon is described in greater detail in the next sign (the war in heaven). There, he is clearly named: “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.” In our verses here, we see that he has seven heads, and ten horns and seven crowns (diadems) on his heads. Once again, this is not a description of the physical appearance of the devil. Instead, this description symbolizes certain spiritual truths about him. Most commentators think the red color shows that the devil is murderous. In fact, Jesus said as much:

44You are of your father the Devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of liars. (John 8:44, HCSB)

In addition, the form of Satan (the dragon) shows that he is trying to be like God. That is what the devil wanted from the very beginning. He tempted Eve with that very thing:

5“In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5, HCSB)

Isaiah describes the devil in Isaiah chapter 14:12-15. One of his characteristics is that he wants to be like God; in fact, he wants to replace God with himself:

12“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ 15​But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isa 14:12-15, ESV2011)

The Apostle Paul also mentions that the devil tries to impersonate God, or God’s servants:

14And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no great thing if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their destiny will be according to their works. (2Cor 11:14-15, HCSB)

So, do you remember that the Holy Spirit, in the book of Revelation, is represented by “seven spirits?” Here, the devil is trying to set himself up as God – with seven heads, to mimic the sevenfold Spirit of God. He has seven crowns on his heads. The crowns (sometimes called “diadems”) show that the devil claims to be a ruler – again, in opposition to, and imitation of, God, the ultimate ruler. This dragon also has seven horns.  A horn, in Bible times, represents strength. So ten horns means “a lot of strength.” Satan is trying to imitate the strength of God.

Many of the early church writers thought that the “fallen stars” represented heretics: those who were in the church, but through heresy, have fallen away. Many modern commentators, however, believe that when it says “his tail swept a third of the stars from the sky,” it means about a third of the angels in Heaven followed him. Those “fallen angels” who followed the dragon are the same beings that we call demons today. The following scriptures seem to suggest this interpretation:

4For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment… (2Pet 2:4, HCSB)

 6And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.  (Jude 1:6, ESV2011)

Our text for this time goes on:

5But she gave birth to a Son — a male who is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter — and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.

 I think we can safely say that the child is meant to represent Jesus. One reason we can know that is because he “is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter.” The concept of “an iron scepter” was associated with the Messiah for a long time. Psalm 2 was considered by the Jews to be in part, a prophecy about the coming Messiah. Needless to say, Christians agree. In that psalm it says that the Messiah (Jesus) will use “an iron scepter.”

8​​​​​​​Ask me, ​​​​​​and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, ​​​​​​the ends of the earth as your personal property. 9​​​​​​​You will break them with an iron scepter; ​​​​​​you will smash them like a potter’s jar!’” (Ps 2:8-9, NET)

And here in the book of Revelation, John writes this:

26The one who is victorious and keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations — 27and he will shepherd them with an iron scepter; he will shatter them like pottery — just as I have received this from My Father. (Rev 2:26-27, HCSB)

So, Jesus promises his followers that they will share in his ruling, mentioning that the iron scepter is part of what he has received from the Father. Later on in Revelation, we have yet one more picture of Jesus using an “iron scepter.”

11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God. 14The armies that were in heaven followed Him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. 15A sharp sword came from His mouth, so that He might strike the nations with it. He will shepherd them with an iron scepter. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. (Rev 19:11-15, HCSB)

The point of all this is not the iron scepter itself. It is that the iron scepter in our text today means that the child represents Jesus. This is also confirmed when we see that he is caught up not only to God, but also to His Throne. The first readers of Revelation would have connected this with the promise in chapter 2:26-27, which I just mentioned above. It  would have reminded them to continue to persevere.

Finally, the text concludes like this:

6The woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, to be fed there for 1,260 days. (Rev 12:1-6, HCSB)

This part is harder to interpret. As I said before, 1,260 days means, symbolically, half of God’s perfect amount of time. Many people believe that these tribulations about which Revelation speaks will last for exactly seven years. I think the number seven is symbolic, not literal. It could be however, that this is a repetition of the idea from chapter 11, that for half of the tribulations of the end times, the church will be kept safe and protected, and the other half of the time, God will allow it to be “conquered” physically (but not spiritually). The fact that she goes to the wilderness, where she is nourished by God probably indicates that the church is dependent on God, having no other resources. This certainly would have been true for those first Christians, who had no social standing or political power.

Let’s look for some applications for us today. First, I think it is worth remembering how God sees his people. The picture we have is of a woman, shining like the sun, adorned by the stars and moon. When giving instructions to husbands, Paul writes about what Jesus has done for the church:

25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25-27, ESV2011)

Because of the work of Jesus, this is how God sees us: shining like the sun, full of splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy, without blemish. Yes, we still need to repent of the works of the flesh. Yes, we still need to walk closely with Jesus. But understand that Jesus has fully and completely cleansed us, and in God’s eyes, his people are beautiful. We may be ignored by the culture around us, or even scorned and shamed. But in the eyes of our Lord, we are shining like the sun. We can lift up our heads, no matter what other people think of us.

Second, God’s people are in the business of bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus came physically, through the people of Israel. Today, the church still has the task of helping Jesus to be manifested to the world. We do this primarily as Jesus told us, by making disciples.

Third, the devil opposes such work. He waits to devour and destroy. It may seem hard to manifest Jesus to the world. It may feel like everything is falling apart, and we will fail in our task. Yet, we, the church are protected and nurtured by our God. We should not try to rely on money, status or worldly influence. Our only resource is God, and he is more than enough to defeat the devil and sustain us until it is time to be with him forever.

Listen to what the Spirit says to you today!

Revelation#24. Victory is Assured.

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Up in the heavenly throne room no one is worried; on the contrary, they are praising God. In heaven, the war is already over, already won. God has already begun to reign, the nations have been judged, God’s prophets and saints have been rewarded. The victory that is still in the future for God’s people on earth is a present reality in heaven.

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Revelation #24. Revelation 11:15-19.

The structure of the book of Revelation is fascinating. I think if we understand it better, that will help us in our overall understanding of the book. The entire book is divided into seven different sections. Each section begins with a scene in “the throne room of heaven.” Each section is comprised of seven different parts. This structure of sevens has many unique and interesting aspects. The first section and the seventh section have deliberate similarities. The second section and sixth section are also similar in some ways. The third and fifth share some common ideas. The fourth section stands in the center of the seven-fold structure. When you map it out on paper it looks a little bit like an inverted K, or an arrow pointing to the right, or a greater-than sign, like this: >. Let me show you.

1. Seven Letters, dictated from Jesus to the churches.

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

2. The 7 seals. (Which tells the story of all time from Jesus until the end, with emphasis on the early parts)

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

3. The 7 trumpets. Focus on increasing Judgments (but with an added interlude).

 Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

4. The 7 signs. (Which tells the story of all time, with balanced focus)

 Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

5. The 7 bowls. Focus on increasing Judgments (but with an added interlude).

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

6. The seven part victory of Jesus. (Which tells the story of all time from Jesus until the end, with emphasis on the later parts)

 7. Seven statements spoken by Jesus to his church.

This is obviously a very brief outline, but I think it can be helpful. In fact, I encourage you to print out this outline and hold onto it. You can see that the first and the seventh sections are made up of things said by Jesus. The second section (the seven seals), I believe, tells us the story of history from the time of Jesus up until the very end, with an emphasis on the beginning and middle. I believe the sixth section does exactly the same thing, only it uses different metaphors and word pictures, and emphasizes the end. The third section (the seven trumpets) seems to be focused on the judgments that will come upon the people of the world. There is also an interlude; we have just finished that interlude, which is about the temple and the two witnesses. The fifth section also focuses on judgment, and also has an interlude. The fourth section, like this second and the sixth, tells us the story of all history up through the very end of the world; however, it uses different metaphors and word pictures than the other two, and is balanced between beginning and end.

Now, I don’t think this outline is perfect, but I think it’s worthwhile, and I believe it can be helpful for us as we continue through the book of Revelation. We can refer back to this again and again to understand what we are studying in its place within the larger picture.

In this outline above, each new section transitions with a glimpse of the worship and praise going on in what I call “the heavenly throne room.” We have come to the end of the third section (or the beginning of the fourth), and so these next few verses depict the next “throne room scene,” just prior to section four. Please read chapter 11:15-19 right now:

15The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He will reign forever and ever!

 16The 24 elders, who were seated before God on their thrones, fell facedown and worshiped God, 17saying: We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. 18The nations were angry, but Your wrath has come. The time has come for the dead to be judged and to give the reward to Your servants the prophets, to the saints, and to those who fear Your name, both small and great, and the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth.

 19God’s sanctuary in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant appeared in His sanctuary. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings of thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail. (Rev 11:15-19, HCSB)

We constantly need to remember the situation of the people who first received the book of Revelation. If we can understand what it meant to them, then we can begin to understand what it means to us. They were persecuted, marginalized, treated badly in hundreds of different ways. Some of their friends and family members had been killed for being Christian. Many of those who remained had lost property. They experienced shame in the culture in which they lived. But this return to the perspective of heaven would have brought them great comfort. Up in the heavenly throne room no one is worried; on the contrary, they are praising God. In heaven, the war is already over, already won. God has already begun to reign, the nations have been judged, God’s prophets and saints have been rewarded. The victory that is still in the future for God’s people on earth is a present reality in heaven.

This should mean a lot to us as well. In a certain “somewhere” it is already finished, the battle is already over. Here on earth, we are still in the thick of it, but the end has already happened. Our future is secure. It is no mistake that Revelation returns to the heavenly throne room five times. We need to hear this over and over again. Don’t feel bad if you need to keep hearing it. But do hear it right now: God has already won the victory. Those who are evil and unrepentant have already met their fate. God has already begun to reign. He has already secured our reward.

I want to take a little bit of time to address something else in general about the book of Revelation, because it relates both to this text, and to the text we will study next time, Revelation 12:1-6. Last summer, a Christian blogger named Gary Ray (and he was only one of several) caused quite a stir over these verses. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post that summarizes it well:

The Book of Revelation, which is full of extraordinary imagery, describes a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” who gives birth to a boy who will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” while she is threatened by a red, seven-headed dragon. The woman then grows the wings of an eagle and is swallowed up by the earth.

Ray says that image will be created in the sky on Sept. 23 [2017]. The constellation Virgo — representing the woman — will be clothed in sunlight, in a position that is over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter, which will have been inside Virgo — in her womb, in Ray’s interpretation — will move out of Virgo, as if she is giving birth.

Astronomers don’t see this as a particularly unusual event. But to Ray and others, it could be the sign that the Rapture is ready to happen: “We think it’s God signaling to us that he’s about to make his next move.”

And Ray thinks the two eclipses that are slated to travel across the United States in 2017 and 2024, together marking an X across the nation, could be the starting and ending signs bookmarking a seven-year period of awful tribulations that Revelations says waits in store for nonbelievers who are left behind on Earth when the Rapture occurs.

“That time frame is speculative, 2017 to 2024. But it makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that really point us to that,” he said.

(Link to the Washington Post article)

In connection with this, another common idea is that, according to Jewish rabbis, “blood moons” are a sign for the Jewish people, and solar eclipses are a sign for Gentiles. That is why Gary Ray said that part about the eclipses. A lot of Christians were caught up by these ideas. They were excited to think that part of the book of Revelation was actually coming true.

There are many troubling things about all this. In the first place, obviously, nothing has happened yet. But it also concerns me that many people were caught up in it. I think many of the Christians who were excited by this would never, in any other circumstance, consider consulting a horoscope to help them interpret the Bible. I think most sensible people, upon reflection, would also not expect Jewish rabbis to be teaching Christian theology. But unfortunately, when it comes to the book of Revelation people often lose their heads. I think all of this is often fueled by a desire to feel that God is actually at work, that he is really doing something. I think many of us also yearn for the return of Jesus, for the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth and the annihilation of sin and sorrow and death. So we grasp at things that seem to show us that He is really working to make all things right.

But the thing is, that is the message of the book of Revelation. The entire book is telling us that God is still at work, that he will fulfill his promise to return and make all things right. If we get nothing else from the book of Revelation, that is the main message. When we start to look to world events, and horoscopes, and the teachings of those who are not even Christians, I’m afraid it shows a lack of faith in what God has already said. There are many warnings in the Bible about seeking God in these sorts of things:

3As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different doctrine 4or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. (1Tim 1:3-4, HCSB)

 13This testimony is true. So, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith 14and may not pay attention to Jewish myths and the commands of men who reject the truth. (Titus 1:13-14, HCSB)

 6If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed. 7But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness, (1Tim 4:6-7, HCSB)

We need to learn to trust the word of God. We don’t have to look to horoscopes, or other things. Instead, we need to trust what God already said. In our text today, that is the message: the victory of God is already a present reality in heaven. It is true. We can trust it. It has already been accomplished. He has already begun to reign. The book of Revelation says it, and that should be enough for any Christian.

I’ve used this analogy before, but I think it’s a good one. I’m a WWII history buff, and I’ve done a lot of reading about the war. A huge number of countries contributed many things to the victory of the allies. People of all nationalities suffered, and played important roles in that victory. I don’t want to minimize any of that. But the decisive moment in World War 2 was December 7, 1941, when the United States stopped being neutral, and declared war on Japan. That led to a declaration of war against Nazi Germany four days later. Once the United States declared war, the outcome was settled. With all of the other countries against them, adding the United States to the mix made it impossible for either Japan or Germany to win. From the perspective of Germany and Japan, the US was too big, it had too many natural resources, it was already industrialized, and it was too far away to attack. There was simply no way they could win once the United States entered the conflict. In spite of this, Japan and Germany continued to fight for another four years. The outcome of the war was settled, but the fighting went on. I’m sure that for prisoners of war waiting in a concentration camp it didn’t feel like World War 2 was over. But it was. All they had to do was persevere, and their eventual rescue was a foregone conclusion.

This is our situation today. We are still in the battle. We still have to struggle and fight. But the outcome was settled long ago. God has already won. He has already begun to reign. All we have to do is persevere to the end: our eventual rescue and victory is a foregone conclusion.

16The 24 elders, who were seated before God on their thrones, fell facedown and worshiped God, 17saying: We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. (Rev 11:16-17, HCSB)

He has begun to reign. Let him rule in your life, also. Let his ultimate victory give you perspective on your current troubles and challenges. What you face right now is temporary. God’s victory is eternal. We know he will do it, because, in the realm of eternity, he already has done it. That means that right now we can be patient, knowing that we will be rescued from this body of flesh and this world of sin and sorrow.

Allow the Spirit to speak to you right now!

REVELATION #22. THE SWEET & THE BITTER

Rev #22

 It is a sweet thing for us to absorb the Word of God into our minds and hearts. It is good to tell others. However, the fact that some will reject God finally and forever is a bitter truth. Even so, the Lord will exhaust all possibilities before unleashing the full and final judgment that is coming. He wants to give the people on earth every possible opportunity to repent before it is too late.

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Revelation #22.  Revelation 10:1-11

1Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” (Rev 10:1-4, ESV2011)

We are in the third major section of Revelation. We have studied six of the seven parts of that section. This is the beginning of the seventh part. As with the seventh part of the second section, it is not a continuation of what was going on (the blowing of the trumpets) but an interlude, giving us a “pause in the action” and telling us some other things before moving on.

Some people have interpreted the mighty angel to be Christ himself, but Jesus is never described as an angel elsewhere; quite the contrary. There is no reason to think this is anything but what John describes: A mighty angel. The fact that he has one foot on the sea and the other on land, and that he is wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, describes that his mission is for all of creation. Also, the rainbow might be a reminder of God’s promise to Noah, that he would never again destroy everything by flood. I tend to favor that idea, because I think this entire interlude is about how God is almost reluctant to bring about the final destruction of those who reject him. The rainbow reminds us of that.

Moving on, let us consider the seven thunders. I have mentioned before that there are many ways of interpreting the book of  Revelation. Perhaps the most popular method these days is the method of creating a timeline by picking parts of Daniel and Zechariah, taking a chapter of Matthew here, a passage in Luke there, and a few verses from both 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. All these passages are combined with Revelation, and a timeline for the end of the world is created. This timeline does not arise naturally from any of the books separately. That should be a warning to us. Picking and choosing from different pieces of the Bible and combining those pieces to make something that isn’t actually found in the Bible is not good Bible scholarship. With that method, we could make the Bible say anything at all. In fact, that method is frequently used by cults.

I wonder if the Holy Spirit inspired Revelation 10:1-4 precisely in order to rebuke that sort of activity. Think about this. We have had seven seals and six trumpets. We will shortly have the seventh trumpet, and then seven “bowls.” Each of the seals contained significant signs and events. This was also true of the trumpets, and it will be true of the bowls. It is natural then, to assume that these “thunders” contain significant things in the same way as the seals, trumpets and bowls. However, the thunders are sealed up, and not revealed to anyone. Because of this, there is no “timeline” that can accurately incorporate the seven thunders, therefore there can be no accurate timeline for the end of the world. The content of the seven thunders could render any and all of these very specific theories invalid.

Respected Bible scholar Leon Morris puts it very well:

“…it is a warning against the kind of date-fixing that has characterized some schemes of prophecy based upon this book. On John’s own showing we do not have all the information. God has kept some things back from us. Let us not proceed as though all has been revealed.”

The text for this time continues like this.

5And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay, 7but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets. (Rev 10:5-7, ESV2011)

Remember, the seven seals describe the time leading up to the end. For all intents and purposes, I believe we are now living during the time of the seven seals. So, during this time, God allows wars, economic hardships and diseases, in the hope that they will bring some to repentance. But above all, during this time, the Gospel is going out into all the world, so that people can receive the grace of God through Jesus.

When the seventh seal is opened, this time of grace will be ended. God will begin to allow a limited judgment for sin to fall on people. But before God ends that time of grace, he pauses. During that pause, (found in Revelation chapter 7) We are given assurances that God knows his own people, and will protect them from His wrath against sin. We were given a vision of the future of God’s people when all this is over.

Once the pause ends with the opening of the seventh seal, things get much worse for those who reject God. Each trumpet escalates the judgments against sin; each trumpet escalates the pain and suffering of those who refuse to repent. We can imagine how much worse it will be after the final trumpet. But before that final trumpet, we have another, much longer pause. The angel swears that once that seventh trumpet has been sounded, there will be no more delay. Therefore, God delays now, before the trumpet sounds, and it is a longer delay than previously.

One thing that  this shows us is that the Lord will exhaust all possibilities before unleashing the full and final judgment that is coming. He wants to give the people on earth every possible opportunity to repent before it is too late. At this point in Revelation we are no longer in the “age of grace,” but that does not mean there will be no grace at all to be found. One of the major themes of Revelation is God’s continued reluctance to have to destroy those who reject him. Though judgment is coming, there are many pauses before the final end.

Once more the text goes on:

8Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” 10And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” (Rev 10:8-11, ESV2011)

John is told to take and eat the little scroll. Many people have speculated about what this scroll represents. I think it represents the remaining part of the prophecy of Revelation. The scroll is described as a “bibliaridion,” which means, essentially, “booklet.” In other words, there isn’t a lot to it. I think this is meant to communicate that the end is almost upon us – there is not much left to say; God’s word is almost complete.

The eating of a scroll is actually a well-known illustration to symbolize absorbing God’s word in order to then communicate it to others. Ezekiel had a similar experience, five hundred years before John:

1And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” 2So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 3And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezek 3:1-3, ESV2011)

Jeremiah did also, a little earlier than Ezekiel:

16Your words were found, and I ate them. Your words became a delight to me and the joy of my heart, for I am called by Your name, Yahweh God of Hosts. (Jer 15:16, HCSB)

The picture is that these prophets took God’s words into their very beings, they absorbed it fully. It “tasted good” to them because it was a sweet experience to be so close to God that they were receiving His message directly. There is a glorious intimacy with God associated with hearing his word, and having a call to proclaim it. I am nothing compared to these men, but I have found that same sweetness in deeply studying God’s Word, absorbing it into my mind and heart, and telling others about it.

That made the taste sweet for John as well. But for John, it was also bitter. As he absorbed the message, and saw that what is coming is the full unleashing of God’s wrath, he also felt the bitterness of knowing that some people will continue to reject God finally and ultimately, without repentance. For some, he is proclaiming eternal damnation. Once again, this is a picture of God’s desire for all people to return to Him. It is a bitter thing that some will not.

I am seeing two major themes from the text today. The first theme is about God’s Word. In the first place, we must not be arrogant enough to believe we know everything there is to know about life in general, or even about God; nor about the end times in particular. This text tells us that he has withheld some information from us. I have said for many years that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about God, human nature, how to be saved for eternity, and how best to live while we are on earth. However, it does not tell us all there is to know about everything. Certainly there are many things that are true that are not contained in the Bible – mathematical equations, factual discoveries and so on. This text suggests that there are even spiritual things that the Bible does not reveal, because we don’t need to know them. This should help to keep us humble.

Secondly, however, this text reminds us how sweet it is to know God better through his Word – the Bible. It is sweet to study, and meditate, and to take the words of scripture deeply to heart. I strongly commend this to all Christians. It’s the best-tasting spiritual diet there is. Just open up your Bibles every day; find the best time that works for you. Put a bit of effort into it – the reward is large in proportion to the effort.

Third, the text today reveals two attitudes of God that are held in tension. On the one hand, He is determined to finally put all things right, and bring about the end of this decaying, corrupted, temporary world. He will do it. On the other hand, God continues to delay in the hopes that perhaps more people will turn to Him and avoid the final and eternal sorrow. Even when the time for judgment is at hand, he continues to extend grace.

Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart today!

Revelation #20 THE JOY THAT AWAITS

THE JOY THAT AWAITS

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

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Revelation #20.  Revelation 7:9-17

I believe Revelation is divided into seven major sections. Each section begins with a return to the perspective of heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, and about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Next, we entered the Heavenly throne room, and got a glimpse of the Glory and Power of the Lamb and the One seated on the throne. After that came section two, in which God laid the groundwork for the coming of the end of the world as we know it. Now, we begin a new section, and so we return once more to the Heavenly view of things.

The first two heavenly visions were concerned primarily with God. Remember, at the beginning of the book, John had a vision of Jesus. All focus was on Him, and what he said. The second part of the book began with a vision of the Heavenly throne room. Neither of these visions were primarily about human beings: the focus is on God. The first thing about Heaven is God himself. The entire universe is all about God. Heaven is about the magnificence, and glory, and goodness, and power of God. God doesn’t exist to serve us. Heaven wasn’t made for us, it was made by God, for God. God in his grace has made it possible for us to enter into His presence, and to find eternal joy there. But we should not make the mistake of thinking it is all about us. It is always all about God, and the goodness of God is such that he gives us a place by his side, that he makes room for us in his presence. This third vision is focused on what it looks like, or feels like, to be in the presence of God. John is reminding us where all of this is headed. With each new section, he reiterates what we have to look forward to in the presence of God.

John begins the new vision of Heaven with this:

9After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9, HCSB)

Heaven is filled with people of every ethnic group (the Greek word translated “nation” could also be “ethnicity”). There are people there from every tribe, every language, every distinct “people group” in the world. Heaven is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, joyful celebration. Some people think of Christianity as a European religion, or as the religion of Western Culture. But that has never been true. From the very beginning, Christianity crossed social, racial and cultural boundaries, both in doctrine, and in actual practice. There are churches in India, Ethiopia, and Egypt that date back 2,000 years. Although Christianity is currently struggling with secular culture in Europe and America, it is growing dynamically in Africa and China and other parts of the world. It has been embraced all over the globe.

This is all in accordance with what Jesus and his followers taught from the very beginning. Jesus always intended the gospel to go to all nations (again, the word could mean “ethnicities”). In fact, he commanded it.

18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

The apostles obeyed, and passed on the value that this gospel is for all people, both near and far. We who are in Jesus are not foreigners to each other, but fellow citizens, fellow members of God’s household.

17When the Messiah came, He proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. (Eph 2:17-20, HCSB)

Jesus is greater than race, nationality or language. By the way, this is an affirmation of the very beginning of Revelation, where John reminds us that we belong to God’s kingdom, and we are citizens of “God’s country” in a way that takes preeminence over any earthly citizenship.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…(Revelation 1:5-6)

It also says this in the book of Galatians:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV).

I want to make sure I say this clearly. The Bible does not teach a universal “brotherhood” of all humankind. It does not say that all people are God’s special children. It says that all those who trust Jesus are the children of God, and are brothers and sisters, no matter what our cultural or ethnic background. Without Jesus, we are not in God’s family, not according to the Bible. It is Jesus who makes us into the family of God.

11He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. 12But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, 13who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13, HCSB, italics added for emphasis)

But if we are in Jesus, we are one with all others who are in Him. No human conventions should divide us. It doesn’t matter what race or gender we are. The fact that we have surrendered our lives to Jesus means that we are brothers and sisters with everyone else who has done the same. Our unity in Jesus is greater than our cultural and ethnic differences. The early church most definitely lived that out:

 1Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1, ESV2011)

Barnabas was a Jew, as was Saul. Simeon was called “Niger,” which means “black,” so he was probably an African. Lucius was from Cyrene, which is in modern day Libya, so he would have been an African of different ethnicity than Simeon. Manaen was probably an Idumean, from the area now known as Jordan.

Even today, despite racial tensions in some parts of the world, Christianity is by no means dominated by any particular ethnicity. Ethnicity is not something that ever divides true Christians. In Revelation, it is a great joy to see people of every tribe, tongue and nation in heaven. Our race, color, culture ,and language are never barriers to the unity we have as followers of our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

I feel so blessed in that I have had the chance to travel to almost twenty different countries, and to meet so many Christians of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It’s amazing and encouraging to hear eight or ten different languages spoken as you gather for worship, and then to see the unity of everyone’s love for Jesus when worship begins. It is a powerfully moving experience, and I think this passage in Revelation tells us that in Heaven it will be like that, only so much greater!

I want to add something else that I find interesting. “Secularism” is a way of looking at the world apart from religion. Secularists are often atheists, or, if not, they still tend to think of God as impersonal and uninvolved in human affairs. In the US and Europe, most people in government, higher education and the news media are secularists.

Many secular people pride themselves for being in favor of diversity in race and culture. However, secularism in itself (the way of looking at the world apart from God) does not appeal to a very diverse group of people. Most secularists are products of Western culture. It has very little appeal to people from other backgrounds. Christianity is far more culturally diverse in actual fact than secularism.

Moving on, this multitude praises God together. They are clothed in white; their clothes are made white by the blood of the lamb. Now obviously, when you dip clothes in blood, they don’t come out white. This is a symbolic picture. It means that the sacrificial death of Jesus has cleansed them from all sin, and made them holy and righteous in the eyes of God. We are supposed to remember that it is Jesus who makes us holy and righteous, not anything we ourselves do. The palm branches may signify a kind of victory celebration.

In verse 13, one of the twenty-four elders asks a question that we all naturally have: “Who are these people?” I believe (as do several other respected commentators) that these are the same people who were sealed in the last passage (7:1-8). I think the sealing of the 144,000 (which we covered last time) is a picture of what it looks like on earth. All of God’s people are sealed, but sometimes it seems like there aren’t very many of us. In our daily lives, if we haven’t traveled much, we may even feel like all Christians seem to be of the same people group. That’s how it appears on earth. On earth we must be protected from God’s wrath, and from the Devil. On earth, the true extent and glory of the Church is hidden. But now, starting in verse 9, John shows us what it looks like in Heaven. When we get there, we see that there is a huge multitude that cannot be numbered. Far from looking limited, far from looking like all God’s people come from one nation, John shows us the true spiritual reality of God’s people in heaven.

Once again, some commentators make the argument that the 144,000 are Jewish people who come to faith in Jesus after all of the Gentile believers are “raptured,” and the multitude in our passage today are those Gentile believers who were raptured before the great tribulation. However, that interpretation depends upon an elaborate system of picking and choosing obscure parts of several different books of the Bible, and weaving them together in highly specific ways to create a kind of “timeline” of the end times. It does not arise naturally from the text of Revelation, not even remotely. The Holy Spirit inspired the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, and Revelation. But He did not clearly inspire the timeline that people make up by picking and choosing from those books. That timeline is not contained within any text of scripture.

I certainly could be wrong. But every instinct I have as a scholar of the Bible tells me that picking and choosing from different books to create a distinct message that is not clear within any of the books individually is bad Bible interpretation.

In addition of course, the actual text of Revelation says that these people:

“…are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14, NIV).

The Greek makes it clear that they were in the great tribulation, and now, they have come out of it. In other words, they were not raptured before it started. In fact, some commentators feel that the “great tribulation” refers to the struggles and sufferings of the church throughout all of history, not just the end times. John, however, sees them at a time when all suffering and sorrow is behind them.

15“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (Rev 7:15, ESV2011)

Let’s be honest. If we take this at face value, it sounds a little bit boring: serving in a temple all day and all night. But we need to remember that this is figurative and symbolic. Picture it this way: Think back to a time in your life when you were with a group of people that you knew well, and loved. Everyone was at peace with each other, there was laughter, fun, good food. Imagine a time like that, one of those moments that you wished would never end; you wished it could just go on and on like that forever. That is what it means to serve God day and night in his temple.

It says that God will shelter them with his presence. There have been a few times in my own life where I have sensed the presence of God in a particularly strong way. It is overwhelming, it is joyful. This is not some dreary, boring ceremony; it is the essence of joy, it is life itself, continually poured into us, continually overflowing out of us.

It says they shall neither hunger nor thirst, and they shall be protected from the sun. Again, this is figurative language. It means, more or less, that all of our needs will be met, and that we will never suffer anymore. This is because the Lamb himself will be our shepherd. He will guide us to springs of living water, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. God himself will remove all of our grief. He will satisfy our deepest needs and longings. He will lead us from goodness to goodness.

This is what God’s people are sealed for. This is our future, if we continue to trust Jesus, if we continue to surrender our lives to him. This is God making everything right; this is him making room for us in his all-joyful, all-satisfying presence. This is what we’re waiting for, and the book of Revelation is assuring us that this is indeed coming, that God is putting into motion the things that need to happen for this to come about.

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

Revelation #18 JUDGMENT: GOOD, OR EVIL?

Judgment

The judgment of God is problematic for many people in today’s culture. Read on for some thoughts about how to understand and talk about justice, and God’s judgment of the world.

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Revelation #18. The Problem of Judgment & Punishment

This next message is not directly about the text of Revelation, but rather about issues raised by the text. I think it is important that we deal openly and clearly with the messages of judgment, justice and vengeance. All over the Book of Revelation we find God judging the wicked, and, in many cases, causing them to suffer. For instance:

3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Revelation 9:3-6, HCSB).

Even the good saints who have already been martyred, seem almost bloodthirsty. When the fifth seal is opened, the Martyrs cry out:

10They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ” (Rev 6:10, HCSB)

The idea that the wicked will be punished for their sins is problematic for our culture. For one thing, the dominant view in Western culture is that no one is truly wicked (with the exception of one or two people like Hitler). On the other hand, they also believe that no one is truly good, either: they think, in general, that all people of faith are hypocrites who don’t actually practice what they preach.

Non-Christians and pseudo-Christians in Western society do have a sense of morality, a curious mix that is partially derived from the Bible, and partially from secular humanism. Very high on the moral list of secular culture is that we should not judge anyone. I think this has rubbed off on most Christians also. So, how do we handle the judgments in Revelation? How do we handle the destruction and death that is released by God’s command? What do we do with this almost black and white view of the righteous and the wicked? I think there are several points that might help us understand and accept these concepts in Revelation.

1. God is infinite, and we are not. If you’ve been following this blog in real time, you know that last time we talked extensively about how God is so much greater than we are. Trying to understand God is like trying to use a tablespoon to contain the contents of a running garden hose. The tablespoon is filled up immediately, but there is no end to the water that comes out of the hose. This is what it is like when we try to understand God. What this means is that there could be a very convincing and satisfying explanation for all of the things that trouble us, and yet we will never be able to understand it. In fact because God is infinite, and we are not, it is very likely that we won’t be able to understand much about God at all, including the way he judges the earth. In plain language, we need to accept that God has very good reasons for what he does, and that we cannot understand very many of those reasons.

2. God is God, and we are not. In other words he can do whatever he wants to do. He made this world and he can do what he likes with it. Even if we could understand the reasons for what he does, we have no right to judge him. Another very important aspect of this point is that we human beings are not the ones who do the judging. It is absolutely wrong for us to take judgment into our own hands.

If we say something different from what the Bible says, even if we think we are being more lenient, then we are putting ourselves in the place of God, and judging others.

When we tell other people what the Bible says, we are not judging others – we are simply repeating what God has already said. Even so, we must remember that final judgment belongs to God, and it is not up to us to put God’s judgment into action.

The martyrs under the altar were asking God to act, because they understood that it was not their own place. Violence is never an appropriate expression for any part of the life of a Christian. We may, in extreme situations use violence to defend ourselves from physical danger. But we may never consider ourselves the instrument of God’s judgment, and it is not our place to deliberately harm any other human being. When David had the opportunity to kill King Saul, even when Saul was pursuing him in order to kill him, David refused. He said:

12“May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD take vengeance on you for me, but my hand will never be against you. 13As the old proverb says, ‘Wickedness comes from wicked people.’ My hand will never be against you. (1Sam 24:12-13, HCSB)

This should be our attitude towards those who oppose us also. Paul wrote to the Romans:

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19, HCSB)

We Christians interpret the whole  Bible in relationship to Jesus. Therefore, even though there are texts in the Old Testament instructing the Israelites to wage “Holy War,” those texts cannot be taken literally by those who follow Jesus. Jesus himself made this very clear:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:38-45, ESV2011)

Clear enough? God will take care of these things. It isn’t our place to harm anyone.

3. These violent and overwhelming judgments tell us that sin is serious.

Imagine that a terrible sickness was discovered. It is a virus that inflames the lining of the brain. Those who get it eventually go mad, and if not restrained, many of them, in their insanity, commit cruel and horrible crimes. Driven by the disease, they rape, humiliate, torture and murder others. Eventually, everyone who gets the virus dies; the mortality rate is 100%. It is extremely contagious, and there is no cure.

Now, some of the people who get this virus manage to control it to some extent. They are able to refrain from the worst cruelties. However, that same virus that makes some people do unspeakable horrors lives inside everyone who has it. You never know when the sickness might suddenly progress and cause someone to commit a horrific crime. The potential for the most awful cruelty will always be there, in every single person who has the disease.

In addition, everyone who has it is a carrier. Everyone who has it will infect others. So even if someone has mild symptoms, that person will pass the disease on to others; and those others may end up with the very worst symptoms.

You can see that this is a terrible, horrific virus. To control it, you would have to implement a zero tolerance quarantine, and enforce it 100%. The only thing to do, is to wait for those who have it to die.

My little analogy is actually quite true. The disease exists: it is called sin. In some people, sin exhibits mild symptoms. But the same thing that makes me snap at a dear friend in selfish anger is what makes someone else commit the most horrific crimes: rape, torture, murder. The root cause is the same.

Yehiel Dinur was a Jew. During the 1930s he experienced the increasing bigotry and persecution of the Jews, fostered by Hitler. During WWII, he ended up in a concentration camp, and after unspeakable horrors, survived. Many years afterward, he was summoned to Nuremberg Germany, to testify at the War Crimes Tribunal. He was called upon to testify against Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the holocaust, who had been one of Dinur’s torturers. When he stepped into the courtroom and saw Eichmann sitting on trial, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs, and had to be escorted out of the room until he could compose himself. When he was later interviewed, the news reporter assumed that Dinur’s breakdown was due to hatred, fear, or terrible memories. Or perhaps it was just the overwhelming emotion that came as a result of knowing that this terrible man was finally brought to justice.

Dinur denied all of these. He gave this as the reason for his uncontrollable emotion: “I was afraid about myself. I am — exactly like he is.”

Dinur knew that the same horror that caused the Nazi to commit such atrocities lived also inside of him. According to the Bible, he was absolutely correct. That horror lives inside each one of us, even if some of us suppress it better than others. The sin that lives in me is just as evil as the sin that lived inside of Nazi torturers. It is that serious.

All this is to say that we cannot criticize God for taking severe measures to stop the horrible disease of sin, even when its outward symptoms are mild among some people.

4. Although judgment is coming, Jesus has provided a way out for all people. That is why the gospel must be preached before the end can come (Revelation 6:1-2): so that all those who want to can escape the final judgment. The full judgment for sin fell upon Jesus. Jesus died, and if we trust him, our sinful nature was killed along with him. As Paul writes, we were united with him in his death, which means that the terminal illness of sin has been purged from our souls and spirits.

3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. 5For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. (Rom 6:3-7, HCSB)

Anyone who trusts Jesus is counted as having already died; we were included in the punishment and death that was given to Jesus on our behalf. In addition, he creates within us a new life, a spirit that wants to do good, and not evil:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come” (Second Corinthians 5:17)

What about those who never got a chance to hear the gospel before they died? Only God knows. But we know that he is merciful and gracious. Again, it is not our place to determine what happens to such people – thank the Lord!

5. The terrible judgments are also paid out against the spiritual forces of evil. In other words, if it makes you uncomfortable to think of God judging human beings, remember that some of this judgment is also given out against evil, demonic forces. If you feel like it is hard to give your hearty agreement to the judgment of the world, even after all these things we’ve been saying, we can certainly agree with these sorts of judgments against the devil, and his evil spirits.

6. Human beings are hardwired for justice. Think about this: every day, all over the world, 12 and 13-year-old girls are being kidnapped. They are raped repeatedly until the abuse brain-washes them into submission, and then they are sold as sex slaves. How can we possibly say that this is okay? How could we possibly suggest that God gives those evil and twisted abusers a pass, because “he’s a God of love?” He wouldn’t be a loving God if he allowed that to go on without consequence. I don’t believe that anyone reading this thinks God should give these rapists/slave traders a pass. Our natural response to hearing this is to demand justice. Revelation tells us that God will put all things right, including this evil. He will finally destroy the awful disease that makes people do this. He will fully punish everyone who refuses to repent. When we open our eyes to the true evil that lives in this world, how can we wish for anything less?

When we think about judgment, there is a very useful acronym to sum all of this up. The acronym is LOVE.

Look beyond the human instrumentation to the real enemy of our souls (Eph. 6:12).

On the cross, Jesus himself bore every curse (Gal. 3:13).

Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:19).

Eventually, God will set all things right (Rev. 11:15).

(This acronym is not original with me. I found it at: (http://psalms.seedbed.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-psalms/  accessed 2/6/18)

Let the Spirit speak to you today!

Revelation #17 WAR, FAMINE, DISEASE & DEATH: IN ALL THINGS, GOD IS IN CONTROL

4 H-Men

You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.

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Revelation #17.  Revelation 6:3-17

I want to clarify a few things. My best guess about the seven seals (or, rather, the first six) is that they do not represent God’s final plan to bring history to its fulfillment, but rather, they show us what it will be like in the era before the true “end times.” Some people might even say that we are already living in the days of the first five seals, and have been since the time that Revelation was written. I think that idea might be the correct one.

To recap what we covered last time: The seals begin (I think) with the gospel being carried into all the world, to every distinct linguistic/cultural group. I think this shows us that God is merciful. The terrible judgments which are coming will arrive only after every “tribe of people” has had a chance to repent and receive Jesus. This reminds me of what Peter wrote about the coming of the end of the world:

6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

 8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.

 10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.

 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell. (2Pet 3:6-13, HCSB)

Peter is describing what John sees in Revelation. God is patient. The White Horse of the gospel must go into the entire world, because God does not want anyone to perish. He withholds judgment, in order that more people might be saved. But once all peoples have had an opportunity to repent, judgment begins. Even that judgment, however, culminates in the promise of a New Heavens and New Earth.

We must remember that all of what follows in Revelation is enacted as part of God’s plan. This can be a challenging idea, because the plan enacted by God involves disaster, war, injustice, bloodshed and death. How can these terrible things be part of God’s plan? How could a good, loving God inflict this upon the world he claims to love?

I think the best answer is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Surely, God did not actually want Jesus to feel pain. Surely, he wasn’t happy that Jesus suffered. The Jewish leaders and the Romans committed many sins when they put Jesus on the cross: lying, selfishness, lust for power, and murder. Based upon the rest of the Bible, we know for certain that God did not want them to sin this way. And yet, it was God’s will to save those who put their trust in Jesus. It was his will to use the suffering and death of Jesus as the way to save us.

So you see you have two varieties of God’s will. There is God’s perfect, or ideal will. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. But there is also God’s practical will. Practically speaking, God allows things that are conflict with his ideal will, but only in order to ultimately accomplish that ideal will. So, although the suffering of Jesus was not his ideal will, he allowed it, practically speaking, in order that his ideal will could be accomplished, and all people could be saved through Jesus. Now, this does not mean that he endorses sin, or that he is happy to see people suffering. It simply means that he is in total control of the universe, and even when it seems that He is being thwarted, He is actually working to accomplish His purposes. John Piper puts it like this:

For example, the death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father. Isaiah writes, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.… It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:4, 10). Yet surely, as God the Father saw the agony of His beloved Son and the wickedness that brought Him to the cross, He did not delight in those things in themselves (viewed through the narrow lens). Sin in itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God.

Nevertheless, according to Hebrews 2:10, God the Father thought it was fitting to perfect the Pioneer of our salvation through suffering. God willed what He abhorred. He abhorred it in the narrow-lens view, but not in the wide-angle view of eternity. When the universality of things was considered, the death of the Son of God was seen by the Father as a magnificent way to demonstrate His righteousness (Romans 3:25–26) and bring His people to glory (Hebrews 2:10) and keep the angels praising Him forever and ever (Revelation 5:9–13).

Therefore, when I say that the sovereignty of God is the foundation of His happiness, I do not ignore or minimize the anger and grief God can express against evil. But neither do I infer from this wrath and sorrow that God is a frustrated God who cannot keep His creation under control. He has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history. The contemplation of this mosaic (with both its dark and bright tiles) fills His heart with joy.

Therefore we should keep in mind that these things unleashed by the seals are under the control of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Much of this looks like chaos; the results of most of these seals look like bad things. However, God is in control. He himself initiates the breaking of the seals. The things that are unleashed upon the world have only as much power as God permits them to have.

So, in our text, next, comes the red horse of War. For most of human history, war has existed on the earth. However, I think the red horse tells us that God will make use of war to bring people to repentance and faith in Jesus. We have a present-day example of this, happening right now.

In the middle-east, the group ISIS has created terror, war, and civil war. This has led hundreds of thousands of people to flee toward Europe. Those who have entered Europe are disillusioned with Islam, and interested in a different way to have a civil society. They have begun to flock to European Christian churches, asking about Christianity. Thousands of Muslims have become Christians as a result.

Surely, it is not God’s will that ISIS kills and persecutes people, or that Syrians fight each other in civil war. Yet, God knew that they would do so, and he has made use of the situation to bring thousands of Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ.

I believe the red horse is talking about exactly these sorts of things. War is the result of human sin. But God will allow some of it in order to fulfill his ultimate plan, a plan that includes the abolishment of war. As I said earlier, it may be that we are in the time of the first five seals right now. The wars of the twentieth century were certainly unprecedented in human history in terms of destruction and death. War will mark human history until the end.

The third horse, the black one, might be a bit confusing at first:

The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius — but do not harm the olive oil and the wine.”

The horseman is calling out prices for food. A “quart of wheat” was about the amount needed to feed a person for one day. A denarius is the amount of money a common laborer would make in one day. These sorts of prices would mean that it takes everything a person could earn just to buy enough of the cheapest food to feed a family. Therefore, the black horse indicates a time of great economic hardship and/or famine. Oil and wine were also considered basic necessities, but these were not to be touched. Therefore, the hardship that is described here though severe, is not entirely catastrophic. People would survive, though not comfortably.

Once more, we have seen famines and food shortages all over the world throughout history. This could mean that we are in “the time of the seals,” already, or it could be that as the end approaches, the economic hardship becomes more severe and widespread throughout the world. I tend toward the first interpretation, again, trusting that God is using these things to get people to repent and listen to him.

The fourth horseman is “pale,” or sometimes “green.” I think what John is trying to describe is the color of a corpse. The name of the horseman is “Death,” but it is not death in general. The text specifies that this seal has authority to kill one quarter of the earth by means of violence (the sword); famine, plague and wild animals. Death, naturally, goes along with war and famine.

The fifth seal reveals the souls of the martyrs: those who have been killed because they trusted in Jesus, and would not deny him or give up their faith. By the way, some translations have it “the people who had been killed…” I think the best way to translate it would be “the souls who had been slaughtered…” This is one reason that I believe Christians have a kind of consciousness after death, even before the final resurrection. This is one of several places in the Bible that seems to indicate that Christians, after they die, are with the Lord spiritually, but are still waiting for their resurrected bodies.

The cry of these martyrs affirms what I’ve been saying about the seals. They want God to execute his plan for the final judgment. That means that these seals are a good thing. They are told to wait until the full number of Christians who will die for Jesus is completed. That implies that the gospel must first go out into all the world, particularly into places where it is not welcome.

The sixth seal is problematic if we are trying to impose a strict and specific time-line on Revelation, because it looks like nothing less than the end of the world. Many of the Old Testament prophets use the sort of language found here in Revelation 6:12-17 to describe “the day of Lord” which is typically seen as the end of the world (Joel 2:31, 3:15; Isaiah 13:9-10; Jeremiah 4:23-28).

Obviously, the language is very figurative. Clearly, if the sun “blacked out” for even a little while, all life on earth would cease. If the sky was “rolled up as a scroll” presumably the atmosphere would be gone, and consequently so would all terrestrial life. If every mountain was moved from its place, how is it that the people go hide in the mountains?

I want to point out also that the people are terrified by the wrath of “the one seated on the throne, and of the lamb.” In other words, it isn’t the world falling apart that scares them, it is that they are confronted with a holy and righteous God. They are confronted with God’s righteous judgment, and it terrifies them. This indicates that the people affected by this are not the people of God.

It appears then, that the sixth seal introduces the end of the world in general terms. The real point is, of course, that God is following through on his promise to the martyrs – he is judging the world and bringing things to an end. The time frame in relation to other events in Revelation is not explicitly spelled out.

So where does this leave us? First, I think we should recognize that even when it is difficult to understand what God is doing, he is actively working for His people. There will be justice. He will put things right. As I said a few weeks ago, he works all things to the good for his purposes and his people (Romans 8:28). As I read this part of Revelation, I am also reminded of Psalm 91:

1 The one who lives under the protection of the * Most High

dwells in the shadow of the * Almighty.

 2 I will say1  to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

 3 He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net,

from the destructive plague.

 4 He will cover you with His feathers;

you will take refuge under His wings.

His faithfulness will be a protective shield.

 5 You will not fear the terror of the night,

the arrow that flies by day,

 6 the plague that stalks in darkness,

or the pestilence that ravages at noon.

 7 Though a thousand fall at your side

and ten thousand at your right hand,

the pestilence will not reach you.

 8 You will only see it with your eyes

and witness the punishment of the wicked.

You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.

Revelation #14 THE THRONE AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

glowing Jesus

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Revelation #14. Revelation 4:1-11

We have come to the end of the first section of Revelation. Each of the seven major sections of the book begins with a view from the perspective of Heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Now that the entire first section is done, we return once more to the perspective of heaven.

To understand Revelation chapter four, it is useful to think of an analogy. In our world, a thing can move in three different ways: forward-backward; side-to-side; and downward-upward. Every direction is either one of these, or a compromise between them. We call these the three dimensions. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw a straight line, like this:Slide1

If you are using two dimensions you could draw a figure, say a square. The figure is made up of straight lines in combination, like this:

Slide2

If you have three dimensions you could build a solid body, like a cube. Now imagine a world which was only two-dimensional; populated, I suppose, by stick-people. How could we communicate to those two-dimensional people what our three-dimensional world is like? If we simply tried to show them something three dimensional, they couldn’t comprehend it. For instance if we stuck cube in the middle of their world, they would only see a square, where the cube intersected with their two-dimensional plane. A better way might be to draw a cube. It would thus represented in a two dimensional way. Unfortunately, it could easily be misunderstood as simply six squares that are connected, like this:

Slide4

I’m sure you are all thrilled by my grasp of spatial relations, but the point is this: When God tries to communicate with us about heaven and what eternity is like, it can be difficult for us to understand. He tries to use language that we are familiar with, and “word pictures” that help, but ultimately we cannot understand completely until he takes us there. It is sort of like we are living in a different dimension from him. That is why we find some of the language in Revelation so difficult – John is trying to use human words to describe something that human existence cannot fully comprehend. So he says things like: “he was like a jasper; or “the rainbow was like an emerald;” and so on. It’s OK if this is a bit confusing, because it is a bit beyond us. So what we will do as we continue to study Revelation is to seek out the main points that John is making, without getting lost in the sometimes-confusing details. I continue to believe that the major points of most Biblical passages – even in Revelation – are clear.

And so we come to Chapter 4. Remember what chapter one was all about? It was about God in control. Chapter four is a repetition of the same theme – God is in control – using different images to convey the same message. In chapter one God told us he was in control. He said things like “I am the Alpha and Omega, who is, who was and who is to come (1:8),” and “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one; and I was dead and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades (1:17-18).” Now, in chapter four through what John saw, he shows us that he is in control. He shows us this by means of “pictures” that John records.

For example, John sees a throne standing in heaven, and the throne is not empty! There is One sitting on the throne (4:2). The secular people in the 90’s AD were inclined to believe that the Roman Emperor was in charge of the world. Secular people today, though they don’t admit it, are inclined to believe that the throne should be occupied by self. They believe that we are supposed to pursue fulfilment by focusing on our own needs and desires. Others believe that the “throne of the universe” is entirely empty, and we are simply meaningless by-products of a random process.

Revelation chapter four contradicts these world-views. The control of the universe is not up for grabs. The direction of history is not controlled by a worldly ruler. Neither are we in charge of our own destiny. Nor does the universe roll on by mere chance – someone is sitting on the throne of heaven, ruling and directing – Someone is in charge.

When we get to the description of that Someone, we come to one of those places where a five, or ten, dimensional world is trying to communicate with our paltry three-dimensional senses. John says the one on the throne (in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s God) is like jasper and sardius in appearance. The truth is, we don’t know for sure which particular stones John’s language is referring to – the names of precious stones have often changed over the years. I personally resort to the idea that God simply looked amazing, but mostly indescribable to human senses. I place the emerald rainbow in the same category, though the reference to the rainbow could be a reminder that God has never forgotten his promises (Genesis 9:12-17). In any case, it is God’s position (on the throne) and not his appearance, that matters most.

John goes on to describe the rest of what he sees – what I call “heaven’s throne room.” Near the throne are twenty-four other thrones, with twenty-four elders on them (v. 4). There is quite a bit of speculation about who these elders are. They are often said to represent God’s people throughout history: twelve elders for the twelve tribes of Israel (representing the faithful before the coming of Christ) and twelve for the twelve apostles (representing the Christian church throughout history). There are a few clues, however, that suggest that instead these twenty-four elders are not human, but rather are angelic beings. I will not go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that elders “act” more like angels than like redeemed human beings. They appear expedite the prayers of the saints (5:8); they communicate God’s truth to men (7:13-14) and when they praise God they do not sing the song of the redeemed – instead they sing about the redeemed (5:9-10). They also cannot learn the song of those purchased by the lamb (14:3). So they appear to be some sort of heavenly council of elders, perhaps angelic beings who represent the interests of God’s people in the throne room of heaven.

The spirit of God is present in its fullness in heaven’s throne room (as represented by the seven lamps), and the presence of God is forcefully felt by thunder and lightning. God is not just a benign old man – sort of a white-robed Santa Claus – instead, he is an awesome and powerful being. His presence cannot be ignored. The ruler of the universe is not an ineffectual, weak king – he is firmly in control, and has the power to effect his will.

The living creatures are fascinating. They appear elsewhere (in similar form) in Ezekiel 1:4-28 (in a vision which is quite similar to John’s). Once again we are talking about a dimension we know very little about, but my best guess about the creatures is as follows: They represent the fullness of God’s creation, and possibly also they symbolize that his will is done all over the world, and that he knows and sees everything that happens in this world. The lion’s face represents God’s presence in, knowledge of, and provision for, the wild places of the earth. The ox-face likewise tells us that God does his will in, and provides for, the rural areas. The man-face indicates God’s activity in civilizations and cities, and the eagle represents the air. Probably there is no representation of the oceans and waters of the world because in Revelation John usually uses the sea as a picture of all that is evil. The fact that each creature has eyes everywhere indicates that God sees everything. The fact that the creatures are engaged in praising him indicates that all creation is under the authority of God, and gives him glory.

As we continue through Revelation we will be periodically brought back into the heavenly throne room, to be reminded that no matter what is going on here on earth, God is in control. He is awesome, powerful, and nothing escapes his attention. He knows exactly what is going on. When we look at the book of Revelation through this lens (as we should) it becomes a source of great joy and comfort.

Let’s try and make this practical. Is there some area of your life that is bothering you right now? Is there something that you are trying to control, or some outcome you are trying to achieve? Put God on the throne. Let Him be the one in charge. Picture Him dealing with the problem, and leave it with him.

Perhaps there is some area of your life where you feel like God doesn’t even know or care. Rest assured, he is paying attention. He knows exactly what is going on with you. We are called to hold on, even when it is long, and hard, even when it is boring and soul-numbing, because God is indeed at work, even when we don’t see it. As we go through Revelation, we will see that he has a grand plan that will culminate with God himself wiping the tears from your eyes. I’m not exaggerating, listen to the end:

3Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. (Rev 21:3-4, HCSB)

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!