Fishermen’s Delight (Luke 5:1-11)

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Jesus blessed the fishermen, not to endorse their fishing business, but rather, to lead them to repentance through His goodness. His blessing was not sign that they were doing something right, but rather, a sign that they should pay attention to Jesus, and where He wanted to lead them.

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Single Sermons. Epiphany 5 Series C. Luke 5:1-11

​I could preach four or five different sermons on this text, so we will have to trust the Holy Spirit to say the things he wants to say this time, and leave some for another occasion.

Imagine you own a small business. Maybe it’s a real estate business, or a construction company. You aren’t rich – certainly not in your own eyes – but you have worked hard, and you’ve had a bit of luck (even if you don’t recognize it), and things are going OK. You employ three or four other people. You go to church, like most of your friends and family, and you know a little bit about the Bible. All in all, though you wouldn’t consider yourself wealthy, you are an important member of the community.

Now, imagine that you have one of those periods that small business owners have sometimes. Things just aren’t going right. Nothing disastrous, but certainly, stressful. You go to church, and listen to the preacher. Afterwards, the preacher suggests a certain strategy. His idea sounds pretty stupid; clearly he knows nothing about the way your business works. However, you pray about it, and decide to trust the Lord, and do it. The result is outstanding! You win a contract that will keep you prosperous and well for several months to come.

You probably know someone who had something like this happen to them. Maybe you’ve been in a position like this yourself. What do you think your reaction would be? How would you respond if you prayed, trusted God, and then received a big payoff? I think many people might say some things like this:

“It just goes to show that if you trust God, things will work out.”

“I worked hard on that contract, but it was God who made it happen.”

“I am so blessed that God gave me that sale.”

“God has really blessed me in my business.”

“I was starting to wonder if I should be in this line of work, but God showed me through this blessing that I’m supposed to keep on.”

Many people take this sort of blessing as an indication that they are doing something right, even, something that God wants them to do. They  take their success as God’s endorsement on what they are doing. I am sad to say that I have even seen people become arrogant when God blessed their business. They often begin to look at the world simplistically:

“God rewards you when you trust him, pray and work hard.”

“If you just pray and work like I did, God will bless you.”

Many people may not say it out loud, but sometimes, they may think something like this: “I don’t know what that other person’s problem is. They probably aren’t trusting God like I am.”

It strikes me very hard that the responses of Peter, Andrew, James and John were nothing like this at all. These two sets of brothers were small business owners. They owned their own boats and equipment. They hired other workers. They were church goers and hard workers. After a hard and fruitless night, Jesus gave them a stupid strategy. In the sea of Galilee, the fish they were after only come near the surface at night. It is a pointless waste of effort to throw a net during the day. But they trusted him, and as a result, they were blessed financially. But listen to how Peter responds:

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man, Lord!”

When Peter says “go away from me,” he doesn’t mean that he actually wants Jesus to go away. He is admitting that he doesn’t deserve to be blessed like this. He is saying he doesn’t even have the right to be in the presence of Jesus, because he isn’t worthy. When Jesus blessed Peter with success, he didn’t take it a sign that he was doing something right. Instead, the grace of material blessings given through Jesus led Peter to repent. Peter and the others knew, immediately, that they did not deserve any blessing from God. This blessing did not make them self-satisfied in the least. Instead, they fell to their knees in sorrow for their sin. I find that in my hard-hearted way, I secretly believe that I deserve blessings. I work hard. I trust the Lord. Of course he should bless me. But Peter’s heart was much more sensitive to God than mine is sometimes. He recognized that while he deserved nothing but hellfire, God was blessing him anyway. God’s goodness led him into a holy brokenness. This reminds me of what the Holy Spirit says through the apostle Paul to the Roman Jews:

4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4, ESV)

The ESV Study Bible says this about that verse:

They thought such blessings showed that they were right with God and had no need to trust in Christ, but Paul says the opposite is true: God’s blessings should have led them to repent of their sins.

In the lectionary, one of the other readings for this week is from Isaiah 6. Isaiah was praying, and suddenly he had a tremendous vision of the glory of God. He could have said, “I am such a devout and prayerful person that God chose to give me a vision of Himself.” He might very easily have seen this vision as a reward for his diligent devotion to God. Instead, he said:

“Woe is me for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”

God’s goodness in giving Isaiah that vision led Isaiah not to be self-satisfied, but to be broken over his sin. I often assume that if I am blessed, it is because I put myself in a position to be blessed. Peter and Isaiah felt the opposite. When they were blessed, they saw the huge gap between their brokenness and God’s goodness. It led them to repentance.

To repent is to fully own the fact that we have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever. Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. But it does mean that we are going a different direction now. It’s as if we were walking on one road, and the we took a turn, and started down a different road, going a different direction. We may fall down sometimes as we walk in the new direction. But we get up, and continue on in the new direction; we don’t go back the other way. Our overall direction is new, oriented toward God, not away from him.

By the way, the New Testament talks about repentance in two different contexts. In several places, particularly in the book of Acts, it speaks of a big act of repentance accompanying salvation. In other words, the process of being saved involves a definitive turning away from sin, and a life oriented away from God, and turning toward God. But many Christians don’t appear to realize that the whole Christian life on earth involves repentance. It is not a one-time deal. In many different specific areas, we need to continue to repent, and allow Jesus to come more fully into our lives. We still give in to the flesh sometimes, and sin, and we must repent of that sin. There are many verses in the New Testament that call those who are already believers to repent, but I’ll give just a few, to save space. In the verse below, Paul is writing to Christians:

9Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. 10For godly grief produces a repentance not to be regretted and leading to salvation, but worldly grief produces death. (2Cor 7:9-10, HCSB)

Repentance is something different than feeling guilty. When you feel guilty, you feel bad about what happened, but you also feel stuck, like there is nothing you can do. Guilt does not motivate you, and Jesus died to take away our guilt. But repentance is motivating. You know you are wrong, and you really want to be different now. You are eager to walk the new way.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus dictated seven letters to Christian churches. In all but two of those letters he calls believers to repent. Here are two examples:

3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you. (Rev 3:3, HCSB)

 19As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. (Rev 3:19, HCSB)

5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:5, HCSB)

Clearly, he is calling those who are already saved to practice ongoing repentance. For me, I need to remember to look at blessings as a call to repentance.

There’s another thing that strikes me about this passage. Peter did not assume that this tremendous blessing meant that God wanted him to be a successful fisherman. In fact, he quit the business that God had blessed; they all quit, and apparently, even before they cashed in on that amazing catch. I think most of us assume that when God blesses us in some particular area of our lives – particularly with something like a promotion, contract or new job or business opportunity – it means that God wants us to keep doing the thing that he blessed. But this is not the case in this text at all. Jesus blessed their fishing business, and the result was that they were fishermen no longer. God’s blessing is not the same thing as God’s endorsement of what he blesses. If we Christians really understood that, we would avoid a host of sin and error. Blessing from God cannot be taken as a sign that he approves of what we are doing, because He blesses even those who have rejected him:

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:45-46, ESV)

We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. 16 In past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way, 17 although He did not leave Himself without a witness, since He did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.” (Acts 14:15-17, HCSB)

God often blesses us to try and turn our hearts toward him. One of my favorite Hymns is “Come Thou Fount of every Blessing.” In it there is one line that strikes me particularly:

“Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be // Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering hear to Thee.”

Jesus showed the apostles his goodness as way to turn them away from the fishing business, and toward Himself.

In the case of our text today, the blessing of God led to repentance, and to Jesus calling Peter and the others to leave their business and work in full time ministry. For a deeper look at the call to ministry, please go to: https://clearbible.blog/2014/04/01/jesus-and-fishing/

At the moment, I want to point out two things. First, this text shows us that some people are called uniquely to vocational ministry, it also shows us that everyone who trusts Jesus is called to participate in His mission. Not everyone is called to leave his or her career. However, all Christians are called to follow Jesus. For most, that means, among other things, expressing your faith and living for his purpose as you fulfill your everyday responsibilities at home and at work. It means being a disciple of Jesus when you are with your family, your friends, when you are at work, when you are driving, playing golf, fishing – in fact, all the time. It is obvious that all New Testament Christians believed this and practiced it (Matthew 28:16-19; Acts 11:19-26; 1 Peter 2:12-15, 3:15-16).

But there is also a call to unique vocational ministry. In our post-modern, anti-authoritarian culture, we are becoming so anti-institutional that many people have become suspicious of those who are called into vocational ministry. I’m not a fan of institutions or hierarchies myself.  But the bible does clearly teach that God calls certain individuals to specially dedicate their lives to teaching and training other Christians. Not many are:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  (Jas 3:1, ESV2011)

It is unique calling for a small number of people. But some do have it. Right now, I want everyone who is reading this to stop and ask the Lord: “what is your call on my life?” Maybe he wants to affirm that you are called to be exactly where you are. Perhaps, for one or two of you, he has a special call on your life, a call to vocational ministry. If so, this will not be the first time you have heard this. It will strike a deep, exciting and terrifying chord in you. All of us, let us listen, repent, and follow Jesus into all of life.

Unwrapping Jesus

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Isaiah unpacks the greatest gift the world has ever had. 

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Christmas Eve 2018. Isaiah 9:6

I’ve had trouble getting in the Christmas spirit this year. A big surgery two weeks ago kinda put the damper on things. I wish I could sit back and enjoy Christmas, but I don’t feel well physically. As I’ve aged, presents hold less appeal for me, too. I’ve started to think, maybe now that I’m an adult, Christmas isn’t really for me. It’s for the kids. It’s for the homeless. It’s for people who don’t have so much to do, or have enough money to get really cool gifts. But it isn’t for me, a middle-aged responsible adult.

As I’ve prepared this message this week, I realize I’m wrong. I don’t know about presents or “the spirit of Christmas,” but the meaning of Christmas is for me. It is for you too. For all of us. The central thing we Christians celebrate at this time of year is the gift of God’s presence in our lives. And that is for me, not just kids or others. And it really is for us, at all times.

Many years ago, centuries before Jesus was even born, Isaiah, prophesying by the Holy Spirit, described several key components of God’s present to us – Jesus Christ. He wrote this:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The first thing we ought to note from this passage is that the child is born “to us” and given “to us.”  God did not come to earth for any other reason than our benefit.  Jesus did not come for himself, nor for “someone else” but to us.  Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish existentialist, always encouraged people to read the Bible as if it were a personal message for them.

“When you read God’s Word, in everything you read, continually say to yourself: It is I to whom it is speaking, it is I about whom it is speaking…”

So when we read this passage from Isaiah, the words “to us” are not a mistake.  The son was born to us he was given, to us – the message is for us.  Jesus is not an abstraction that exist for those “other people” – he was not just given to Jews or to those really “spiritual” people.  He was given for you and for me.  This is an important signal, a reminder for those who read Isaiah 9:6 that it is relevant.  The prophecy is not just a fascinating historical event, that was fulfilled two thousand years ago – it is relevant to us in our time, our situations, our individual lives. Christmas is for you. It continues even in these days.

So what exactly is this relevant message?

The government will be on his shoulders.  I grew up in a third world country, where the government was frequently entertaining, but never very efficient.  I remember as a youth of twelve, getting off of a plane in L.A., touching US soil for the first time in several years.  We were to be here for three months.  As the car drove smoothly down the empty, early morning freeway, I thought to myself, “Wow, we’re in America.  The government really works here.”  I suppose it was primarily the absence of potholes on the freeway that inspired that thought.  Since that time, of course, I have become as cynical as the next person about the American government. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but it has been a very long time since I’ve had any confidence that the United States government really operates to the benefit of most of the citizens. Of course, the New Guinean government was worse. For those of you who think you might emigrate if it gets really bad, where would you go? You think anywhere is else is better?

Truthfully, no earthly government is perfect.  However, Isaiah tells us that this child, the one given to us, is the one who is ultimately responsible for everything. The fate of the world rests on his shoulders, not on any government or official.

Our hope is not in our government, or any earthly government – our hope in Jesus.  When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus about government (as a governor, it was topic that interested him) Jesus responded that his  (Jesus’) kingdom is not of this world.  In other words, Jesus is not interested in establishing physical ruler-ship of the world at this time – in spite of the fact that the Jehovah’s witness cult says he is.  He is concerned with the government of our souls, lives and our eternal future.  Whom we pay taxes to is not generally his concern, other than that he wants us to obey the laws of the lands where we live.  The Bible does say that there will come a day when Jesus will return and then he will rule the world as  King might.  However, the time and circumstances of that are not our concern.  We can simply put our trust in him, as one finally responsible for what happens. I know earthly government frustrates us sometimes, but we need to take longer view, an eternal perspective on government.

Now this child, this one given to us, the one who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, has been given several significant names. First, he is called wonderful.  In many translations it says “wonderful counselor” but the Hebrew is probably more like “wonderful – comma – counselor.” In other words, they are two separate descriptions of Jesus.  Another way to say “wonderful” might be  “miracle-full.”  Jesus, when he lived on earth, was certainly wonderful in this sense.  Many signs and wonders accompanied his birth – the star, the angels, the wise men and so on.  He did many signs and wonders during his ministry – turning water into wine, healing people, driving out demons, walking on water.  And because he is given to us as well, he wants to continue to work wonders in our lives – reconciling and restoring relationships, healing us and even doing more supernatural miracles as well.

Next, he is the counselor.  Counselor has two major implications of course.  It can refer to someone who helps another with inner healing, and also to someone who gives counsel, or advice.  Jesus does both.  Sometimes we might have struggles in relationships, or a question about how to handle a situation.  Sometimes in our small groups, our temptation is to try and counsel each other – but Jesus is the real counselor. Our real job is simply to connect people with Jesus and His counsel.  He has the wisdom of God.  He stands close by, supporting, listening, encouraging, as good counselor would. If we are honest with ourselves and with him, he can lead us into inner healing, both directly, and through other believers. Another connotation of “counselor” is “comforter.”  Jesus offers us comfort as a counselor – he is there to love us and support us in time of need.

Mighty God.  I think that this name of Jesus is put as the third of the five names for a reason.  It stands, alone, in the center of the other four.  The other four all point to it.  It is, in fact – wait for it – chiastic structure. Jesus is not just some benign, divine uncle, simply there to our beck and call.  He is God.  There is an allegiance that his existence demands on our lives.  Yes, he wants to work miracles for us, yes he wants to be our comforting counselor, but also, he is our God.  He wants to be our ruler.  He is not under our control – but he seeks for us to joyfully submit to His control.  At the heart of the truth about this child is the fact that the God of the universe did come himself to be with us.  Christmas, and this child, is about God’s presence in our lives, and His desire to bring us into a relationship with Him, and to become King of our lives.

Everlasting Father. This is interesting. Isaiah is anticipating the birth of a child that hasn’t even been conceived yet, and he calls this baby a “father.” I think there are several things going on here. First, this is a clear prophecy that the messiah will be God himself in human flesh. Only God was known as “everlasting father.” Isaiah is saying, this child, born to us, will be more than human. He will be eternal God come into the world. Second, fatherhood in those days was significant because it had to do with inheritance. All that your father owned was yours also, even before his death. Isaiah tells us that this “eternal father” is born to us. Through Jesus we gain an eternal inheritance that will never fade or spoil. Third, through Jesus, we get the perfection of fatherhood. Fatherhood is essential to the development of children. An absent or negative father can derail a child for life. A positive and present father goes a long way toward giving the child what he/she needs to succeed in life. In this country we are in a crisis of fatherhood.  Many fathers are negative or even absent altogether.  Yet here, the promise is that this Christ-child will make up for what our earthly fathers lacked.  He can and will fill that most essential void in our lives and even in the lives of our children.  He will treat us like a good father should – He wants to be present in our lives, giving us affection and support, protection and guidance.

Prince of Peace.  “Shalom” is the Hebrew word for peace.  It does not just mean absence of war or “inner calmness” – it means, wholeness, wellness, harmony.  At the heart of Jesus’ peace is reconciliation with God.  Without this reconciliation with God, all the inner calmness in the world is pointless.  Through Jesus, through the child, we can have this peace with God, and the wellness, wholeness and harmony that come with it.

I want to return to the part that I skimmed over before: unto us a son is given.

In ancient Israel, it was tremendously important to people that they have a son to carry on the family name. They saw themselves as belonging to God in groups of families, clans, tribes and then as a nation. If you didn’t have a son, your name would die out, and be remembered no more among the people of God. Therefore, this promise of a son would have meant to those first listeners that they would always have a place in the kingdom of God. This promise of a son meant that they would always belong to God. It means the same thing today. “The Son,” is Jesus, and through him we will belong to God eternally. As the apostle John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13

There is a story told about a man who came home from work one evening, tired and worn out, simply wanting to relax.  As he collapsed into the easy chair with the newspaper, his young son came up to him, wanting to his attention.  The father, unable to muster up much energy, found a picture of the world in his newspaper, and tore it up into small pieces.  He gave the pieces to his son and said, “Here’s a puzzle for you do.  See if you can put the world back together.”  He knew this would occupy his boy for quite some time, since the child did not know his world geography very well.  However in just a few minutes, the boy came back with the puzzle completed, all the countries in the right places

“How did you do that so quickly?” asked the father, amazed.

“It was easy!” replied the boy.  “On the back side of the paper was  a picture of a child.  As soon as I got the child right, the whole world was right.”

That’s sort of how it is with Jesus.  When we get THE CHILD right, our world becomes whole again.

Will you receive the promise of a son this year? Will you receive this child, who rules the universe, the wonderful counselor, everlasting father, mighty God, Prince of peace?

Merry Christmas!

PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS

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Advent is a time to prepare for the Lord, who has promised to come to you. He is coming, whether you prepare or not, so wouldn’t it be better to ready to let him in?

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2018 Advent Week 2: Preparing for the Lord

A voice of one crying out:
Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness;
make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled;
the uneven ground will become smooth
and the rough places, a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will appear,
and all humanity together will see it,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:3-5, HCSB)

One of my favorite places to go is the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. There’s nothing like that first glimpse of the Smokies when you’re driving East toward Knoxville or Maryville and you see those high ridges silhouetted against the sky. From a distance it looks like one long continuous line of mountains all across the horizon. But when you get closer, and actually start to drive into the Smokies, you realize that they are not actually just one unbroken ridge. We go to Townsend a lot, and there’s a road that weaves its way through and in between high ridges and mountains. When you get right to it, some of the ridges are actually closer and some far away. It is only the distance that makes the mountains look like they all start together and are all part of the same ridgeline.
I think this picture describes quite well how Biblical prophecy often works. Most of the prophets were given a vision by God, and that vision was much like a view of the mountains from the distance. They describe what is actually coming, but their perspective is affected by the distance of time. The prophets view the future like we view the Smokies from a distance – all the events were “out there” and they all seemed to be about the same distance away. When we get into the actual events however, we realize that actually quite a bit of distance separates each one from the other.
Very often, in addition to holding predictive prophecies, the writings of those whom we call the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel etc. – also contain messages that are relevant to the people who first heard them. These immediately relevant meanings are meant for us as well.
Let’s look at Isaiah 40:3-5. Isaiah prophesied to the nation primarily during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah, from about 750 to 690 or so, BC. One of the many things he prophesied, was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians, and that many of the people would be taken away to Babylon as exiles (this happened, by the way, in 587 BC, almost 200 years after Isaiah’s time). Looking even further ahead, after his prophecies about the future exile, Isaiah goes on to prophesy about the return of the Jews from Babylon (this also happened, staring in the 520s BC). Isaiah 40 is basically the beginning of the section about the future return from future exile. And yet, at the same time, parts of this passage (and others in this section) are about the future coming of Jesus Christ to earth, which he did, as we know, roughly 2000 years ago, or, about 700 years after Isaiah prophesied. And finally, elements of these prophecies also refer to the time when Jesus Christ will come back again, at the end of time.
Whew! If you wonder how one passage can contain all those elements, just don’t forget how those distant mountains look.
The essential message for those in the days of Isaiah, and later for those exiles who returned from Babylon, was this: God is bringing his glory back to his people. Even in the days of Isaiah, the nation of Israel had clearly become a second rate power. The magnificent days of David and Solomon were history. The one nation ruled by King David had long since been split into a Northern Kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern Kingdom (called “Judah”). These two nations often fought each other. They were dominated by the powers around them – Syria, Assyria and Egypt (and later, Babylon). In fact, while Isaiah was still alive, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was utterly destroyed by Assyria, and ceased to exist. The glory days were over. But Isaiah 40:5 says

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Something that was lost is going to be restored. Now, “Glory” in the Bible, isn’t just about victory and success and triumph. In fact, the key element to Biblical “glory” is the presence of God. Maybe another way to say Isaiah 40:5 would be this:

“God’s presence will once more be manifest among you. He will be with you in such a way that it is obvious to all people. God has promised it.”

Along with this idea of the return of God’s presence, is the theme of deliverance. When we look at the context of the passage, clearly God is returning, and when he returns, he will bring deliverance. Salvation, would be another word for it.
It is significant that the voice calls in the desert, and the rest of the passage refers to making a way in the wilderness. When we consider the context of exile in Babylon, it may help to know that caravans and armies from Babylon to Israel always traveled North, around the desert, west toward the Mediterranean Sea, and then South into Palestine. When Babylon invaded, it did so from the North. And yet God is coming straight across the desert. The idea here is that there is no delay in his coming and that obstacles will be removed. God will come by the direct route. His isn’t bound by the caravans routes and traditional paths of men.
This passage from Isaiah is used in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers identifies John the Baptist as the one who is calling in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord…” It is probably no coincidence that John did most of his preaching out in the desert, directly east of most of Israel. John’s ministry took things one step beyond a return from exile. Once again, as a fulfillment of this passage, John was declaring that the presence of God would be manifest among his people. Certainly that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God was present now in a way that went far beyond what the exiles could imagine.
Each time, along with this promise of God’s manifest presence and his deliverance (in short, his glory), comes an admonition that we should “prepare the way.” I think this bears some looking at, and perhaps has some application for our own lives. One of the primary places where this passage can really be played out is in the human heart. God will come, someday, in the flesh once more and end this world. But he wants to come to you right now in your heart. And the best way for you to prepare for that “someday” is to let him in your heart today.
First, we need to be clear – we don’t “prepare” in order to get God to come be with us. He has already promised to come. His coming is not dependent on our preparation. He’s said, essentially, “I’m coming, whether you get ready or not – so get ready!” We can prepare by learning his word, by telling others about him, by discovering our gifts and using them for his Kingdom. But even more profound than that, this passage gives us a clue as to how to prepare. Isaiah says:

“Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

What he is getting at is this: we need to give God access. The image here is to let God come straight at your heart. Take out the twists and curves we put in to deceive others, ourselves, and even God. Let him get straight to the heart of the matter. I think the way to do this is to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. Sometimes we might not be completely ready to be honest with other people as well. I’m convinced, however that once we make the way straight for God, once we give him unlimited access, we will experience His grace and love to such a degree that eventually we’ll be able to “be straight” with certain other people as well. Giving God clear access to your heart and life is simply a matter of saying “yes” to him. Doing that is the best way I know to receive him now into your life, and also to be prepared for when he comes back to put an end to this world.
Look at what else this passage has to say. God is coming. Give him access. And, “every valley shall be raised up.” Do you have any “valleys” in your life? Are there “low spots” – places where you are lacking or empty? I guess that’s a stupid question – of course there are. God says this. “I’m coming, give me access. And those low and empty spots, those places of weakness and hurt will be filled in. My presence is coming, and it will fill in all of your failings and inadequacies.”
Now for the final thought, which is perhaps not quite as comfortable:

“every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…”

Are there any places in your life that “need to be leveled?” Any sins that stick out? Bad habits, pride, ambitions that have nothing to do with God? Get ready, because God’s got a big bulldozer. This isn’t entirely a negative thought. No doctor that I have ever heard of can remove a tumor from his or her own body. Sometimes we badly need and even want someone to bulldoze all the junk out of our lives that we can’t quite seem to handle ourselves.
This idea of the valleys being filled and the hills being leveled is really a sort of promise. The passage tells us to “prepare” by making the way straight. But then, when it talks about the valleys and hills, it says “they shall be…” in other words, it is something God will do for us.
Let me give you a concrete example. Most of you know that I struggle with chronic pain. In this struggle, I have often been aware of an opportunity. Actually, let me back up. I have been through hard times in the past, and afterwards, realized that I blew an opportunity to let the character of Jesus Christ be more fully formed in my life, because I spent the time whining and complaining. This time, not perfectly, but more often than in the past, I am aware of the choice I have, and instead of fussing, I am saying “yes,” to God. As I do that, God has been giving me something so precious – a deep knowledge of his love, and a sense of being so very close to Him. I don’t know how else I could have received it, other than saying, “In the middle of this pain, I say “yes,” to you, God. Instead of griping at you, I say, “do your work in me.” I know I’m not doing this perfectly, but even so, I can sense mountains and hills being torn down, and valleys being filled up inside me. I sense the presence of Jesus with me, more and more.
All of this, is essentially the promise of Christmas. Christmas is an old word meaning: Christ-Mass. It was the communion celebration of Jesus Christ. We are in the Christmas season right now. Use this Christmas season. These next two weeks, as we get excited, use the fun of Christmas to welcome Jesus, to give him access, and to watch in wonder as he works in your life to bring you closer to him. All you have to do is believe it, and don’t shut down the work that he is doing in your life.
Let’s celebrate the fact that Jesus is coming straight at our hearts. If we allow him, he will raise up the valleys, and fill in the rough places, and – this is the big one – he will live within us. The glory of God will actually dwell inside of us by the Holy Spirit – just as it did with Mary, 2000 years ago.

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.

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Revelation #34. Revelation 16:1-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul writes in Romans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVELATION #33: FEAST YOUR SOUL ON GOD

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

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Revelation #33. Revelation 15:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revelation #32. Revelation 14:14-20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second beast

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

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Revelation #29.  Revelation 13:11-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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