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.

REVELATION #28: THE BEAST

Shadow Person Hat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Spirit Speak to you today.

RUN THE RACE WITH PERSEVERANCE

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

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

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Single Sermons. Hebrews 11.

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

HEBREWS CHAPTER 11

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

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

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

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

I want us to think about verses 13-16:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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