REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

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

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Revelation #35. Revelation #17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

Revelation #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 #25. Manifesting Jesus in a Hostile World.

Rev #25

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

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Revelation #25  Revelation 12:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The text continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our text for this time goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the text concludes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to what the Spirit says to you today!

REVELATION #23. THE WITNESS OF CHURCH AND WORD

Two Witnesses

By ancient Jewish law, it required two witnesses to establish something in a court of law. When there are two witnesses, something is established as certainly true. God will not judge the world without first giving solemn witness to the truth of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The world may reject that idea, but God will make every effort before he brings the final judgment.

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Revelation 23 #  Revelation 11:1-14

We are still in the interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets. We have considered how the seven thunders discourage us from making timelines, and instead, encourage us to trust the Lord beyond what we can understand. We have seen John’s call to “eat” God’s Word, and considered what that means for us. The interlude continues:

1Then I was given a measuring reed like a rod, with these words: “Go and measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and count those who worship there. 2But exclude the courtyard outside the sanctuary. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for 42 months. (Rev 11:1-2, HCSB)

You know I am not a fan of the most popular ways of interpreting Revelation these days. I will say, however, that this text is one place where, on the surface, it appears to support that method. This text makes it seem like the believers on earth at this point are all Jews, because the outer courtyard is for Gentiles, and it is given over to be trampled, while the sanctuary, where John is told to count those who worship there, is open only to Jews. So, it seems to support the idea of all Gentile Christians being “raptured,” and the conversion of many Jews during the last days. Many people believe that this means that at some point, the Jews are going to rebuild an actual temple in Jerusalem.

However, this idea does not stand up under serious Bible scholarship. In the first place, when the word “sanctuary” (Greek: naos) is used of the Jewish temple it means the inside of the temple, or “The Holy Place,” where only priests can go, and even then, only one at a time. In fact, most priests only entered the sanctuary once in an entire lifetime. So, if this refers to the Jewish temple, and John is told to measure those who worship in the sanctuary, he would find only one person there at a time. This makes it highly unlikely that the text refers to a literal sanctuary in the literal Jewish temple. But the truth is, this word “sanctuary” is used many times to refer to the church (which includes both Jews and Gentiles), and also to individual believers:

16Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s sanctuary, God will destroy him; for God’s sanctuary is holy, and that is what you are. (1Cor 3:16-17, HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20, HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

And what agreement does God’s sanctuary have with idols? For we are the sanctuary of the living God, as God said. (2 Corinthians 6:16 HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. 21The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. 22You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22, HCSB)

By the time John wrote Revelation, there was no literal Jewish temple – it was destroyed in about 70 A.D.. There is no explicit prophecy in Revelation that describes the rebuilding of the temple. You have seen the verses above, and there are more like them. It is far more likely that in John’s vision, the sanctuary meant “God’s people, the church.”

In this case, what are “the outer courts?” There are several possibilities. One is just that this is  a symbolic picture showing that God’s people will be oppressed and in danger (the trampling of the outer courts), but God knows who belongs to him (John measures and counts them), and they will be kept safe until they are brought into the New Heavens and New Earth. Personally, I think that’s the best and most likely meaning here.

One nuanced version of the same idea might go as follows. Christian theology has always made a distinction between the invisible church (which is the true church; those who truly have surrendered to Jesus) and the visible church – the congregations that we can see and count with our own eyes, which contain people who are not true Christians. We can’t see the true church, because we don’t really know what is in the hearts of other people, thus the “invisible church.” The church we can see in the world contains some people who aren’t truly followers of Jesus, including some clergy, and others who claim to be leaders. So the true church is that in the sanctuary, as measured by John. The “outer courts” are those who appear to be believers, but are not. So, the external church may appear to be trampled. This might mean that many people who call themselves Christians (but are not true believers) will choose to leave the church during this time.

By the way, let’s deal with the time measurements here. The outer courts are trampled for 42 months; the two witnesses prophesy for 1,260 days; they will lie dead in the streets for 3 ½ days. 42 months is the same as 1,260 days, if you count each month as 30 days. This is also the same as 3 ½ years. Sometimes, the same period is also described as “a time, times and half a time.” Remember that seven is the number of God’s perfect work? 3 ½ is, of course, half of seven. Here in Revelation, there appears to be a kind of symmetry about this number. When it is described as “1,260 days,” it refers to a time when God’s people are kept safe (11:3, and 12:6). When it is “42 months” it describes the limited time when authority is given to the powers of evil to apparently triumph (11:2, and 13:5).

So, for half of God’s perfect timing, the outer courts are trampled. For the other half of it, the two witnesses testify, and nothing can stop them. These times are obviously not literal (not every month has 30 days), but we are meant to understand that together, these two pieces make up one “unit” of God’s perfect work and will in the world. The main point is that God has set a specific time limit on these things, and He remains in complete control of all of it.

I also want to point out that it is hard to tell exactly when these time periods will occur. We’ve already seen that Revelation seems to be not very linear, and it is not susceptible to creating timelines. I favor the idea this takes place before the final judgments begin, and it is one more chance for people to repent before it is too late.

Now, on to the two witnesses. This is one of the more puzzling places in Revelation, the Bible’s most puzzling book, and accordingly, there are many different theories about these two. Some say they are two literal people. Many think they are Elijah & Moses, since Elijah had power to call down heavenly fire, and to cause drought; while Moses had power to turn water to blood and to strike the Egyptians with many plagues. Other people think these are Elisha & Enoch (both of whom ascended to heaven supernaturally), or, Elijah & Elisha.

If taken symbolically, there are also many options: The Law & the Prophets; The New Testament & the Old; The Law & the Gospel; The Church & the Bible; The Bible & the Holy Spirit; The Gentile Church & the Jewish Church.

I’m somewhat partial to the idea of these two as representing the Church and the Bible. I think it makes a good deal of sense. Jewish law required that any testimony must be established by at least two witnesses. What are the two witnesses to the Father, Son & Holy Spirit? What proclaims to the world the truth of God and of the Lamb? I can think of two things: the Church, and the Bible. This also makes sense, since the measuring of the sanctuary seems to be about the church. However, I don’t claim to know for sure.

John also says that they are “the two olive trees and two lampstands.” Though we don’t use other books of the Bible to create a timeline, it is important to “cross reference” when we study the Bible. Cross-referencing means that we look at related verses in other books to help us understand things. John, as a student of the Old Testament, was familiar with the prophet Zechariah. These two witnesses remind me of the following passage in Zechariah:

2He asked me, “What do you see? ”

I replied, “I see a solid gold lampstand there with a bowl on its top. It has seven lamps on it and seven channels for each of the lamps on its top. 3There are also two olive trees beside it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4Then I asked the angel who was speaking with me, “What are these, my lord? ”

 5“Don’t you know what they are? ” replied the angel who was speaking with me.

I said, “No, my lord.”

 6So he answered me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of Hosts. (Zech 4:2-6, HCSB)

So the “lampstands,” and “Olive trees,” show us that these two witnesses are infused with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. We believe that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, that is, he caused human beings to write down the words of the Bible. We also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work today in individual believers, and in communities of believers. That is another reason why it makes sense to me to think of these two witnesses as the Church, and the Bible.

When we put this together it seems to flow. For a time it will seem like the church is being trampled, yet the true church will persevere, and be protected by God. And then, before that final trumpet is sounded, the church, and God’s Word (the Bible) will together provide an unfailing testimony to those who survive the great disasters of the first six trumpets. I think their special powers indicate that nothing will be able to stop them from saying what must be said, from giving the testimony that will leave all people with no excuse for rejecting God.

Once again, this is an indication of God’s mercy. In this pause before the final trumpet, God will make sure that everyone has had a chance to hear and understand. Everyone will have a chance to repent.

Notice also that the two witnesses wear sackcloth. Sackcloth symbolizes an attitude of repentance, and sorrow over sin. So the church is not rejoicing that people are being judged, and that more judgment is to come. The sackcloth shows us that God, and his people, are sad that so many will continue to reject him. In our culture today this is not a troublesome concept. I think most of us do feel great sorrow at the thought of the future that awaits those who reject God. But during the time in which the book of Revelation was written this might not have been so. Christians were violently oppressed and persecuted. It would have been easy for John’s readers to feel a kind of self-righteous satisfaction at the thought that the world would be judged and condemned. The fact that these two witnesses wear sackcloth is a warning against unrighteous anger and being happy about the fate of those who reject God.

One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that God is making all things right. Therefore, at a certain point, the testimony of the two witnesses will be complete, and it will be time for God to continue the process of making all things right. And so, John writes:

7When they finish their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, conquer them, and kill them. (Rev 11:7, HCSB)

This is the first mention of “the beast,” and it certainly doesn’t tell us much. He comes out of the abyss, that is, he comes from hell, and is a servant of Satan. It seems to me that the “beast” is either an individual, or an entity (like a government, or a military), but probably an individual. We will discuss the beast more in the coming chapters.

The fact that the peoples of the world rejoice over the death of the two witnesses is an indication that during those last days not many people will repent. The witnesses will leave them with no excuse, but very few will take the opportunity given by their testimony.

Even so, the text tells us that after they lie dead in the streets for 3 ½ days, they are raised and taken up into heaven. If I am right, and these witnesses represent the church and the Bible, then this could be a symbolic representation of what is popularly called “the rapture.” In fact, there are some who believe that it is, and thus believe that the rapture takes place after 3 1/2 years of tribulation. However, it is far from clear who these witnesses are for certain, and whether or not their resurrection represents a rapture. In addition, I still think it is unlikely that 3 ½ years is supposed to be taken literally. It may simply mean that after a certain point, the witness of the church and the Bible is removed from the world; that the church and the Bible will no longer be able to influence the people of the world. Also, we have already seen how Revelation switches forwards and backwards in time (remember the opening of the sixth seal describes what seemed to be the end of the entire world), so it is difficult at best to place these events in time. This could be happening at the very end. At any rate, there are still several places ahead of us in Revelation that portray the saints in the middle of the tribulations going on in the world.

The resurrection of the two witnesses appears to have more of an effect than their testimony alone. The miracle is accompanied by an earthquake that kills 7,000 (clearly a symbolic, rather than literal, number), and many people gave glory to  God. “Giving glory to God” isn’t necessarily the same as repentance. James writes:

You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear. (James 2:19, NET)

So, this may not mean that people truly repent and surrender their hearts to Jesus. Acknowledging that God is God is a good step, but it isn’t the same thing as trusting Him with your whole being.

This is a confusing section of the Bible. But I want us to pause and listen to how the Holy Spirit might want to use it in your heart and life today. He may want to feed your soul; he may want to confront your sin; he may want to give you hope and encouragement. Let’s look for these things.

As with several other places in Revelation, the incident about the measuring of those in the sanctuary tells us that God knows his own people, he has not forgotten them. Let’s make it personal: God knows you. He has not forgotten you. Even though you may feel like you are being trampled outwardly, he’s got you.

Perhaps another lesson for us is to think of the church in this world as both the true, “invisible” body of believers who have truly surrendered their hearts to Jesus, and also the outwardly “visible” church. The visible church contains many people who are not truly Christian. Often times, the visible church looks like a mess; it may look like it is being trampled. But the Lord knows those who are truly his, and there is more going on than we can see. Perhaps you need to remember this, if you are frustrated with your church at the moment.

Another thing we might need to hear is that there truly is enmity between the people of God and the world. We are in the world, but we are not of it. Our home is in another place, our citizenship is in the world to come. If we are wholeheartedly for Jesus, it will bring us into conflict with the world. Chapter eleven depicts this graphically. Jesus told us that this was so:

18“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. 21But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent Me. (John 15:18-21, HCSB)

This is not an excuse for us to hate the world back (remember, the witnesses wore sackcloth) but there are times when we will have to make choices that those in the world will not understand or approve of. We might be mocked, or criticized. We might even lose a job, or at least promotion opportunities. Remember, we belong to a heavenly kingdom.

It could be that your lesson is to realize that you are a part of the great witness to God’s truth in this world. Your life, the way you live, the way you treat people – this is part of the witness of God to the world. Now, that may lead you to repentance: most of us mess up in this area time and time again. But it is the power of God that witnesses through you. Surrender yourself to him to allow him to do that, and trust him to do it.

Maybe you need to hear again this message of God’s grace. In order to make all things right God must do away with sin. That necessarily involves destroying those who will not repent of their sin, but even so, God will continue to go to extreme lengths, even up until the very end, in hopes that some few more might be saved.

Take a few minutes to meditate and pray, and see if the Holy Spirit has something else to say to you right now.

RESURRECTION: DON’T LOSE HOPE, DON’T GIVE IN TO DISAPPOINTMENT

heaven

In our everyday life experience, we may feel far removed from the resurrection of Jesus. We may feel like it has nothing to do with us, like from now on we just have to get on with life as best we can. But Jesus is walking right next to us. Feeling or no feeling, whether we can perceive it somehow or not, the Resurrection of Jesus was real, and the resurrection life that he offers us is just as real. Don’t settle for anything less than Him, and his Resurrection Life.

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EASTER SUNDAY, 2018.

Luke 24:13-35; John 14:1-7; John 16:33

It’s always a challenge for me to preach about the Resurrection of Jesus. It is the central truth of our faith. Jesus physically rose from death; you either believe it or you don’t. In the past I have offered many facts and logical arguments that tell us it is reasonable to believe it. But this year I want to look at the difference it makes in our lives. It makes a huge difference in eternity, of course – the difference between heaven and hell. But it starts to make a difference right now, in the choices we make, and in how we deal with disappoint and grief here in this life.

Please read Luke 14:13-35. This is not the usual story you hear on Easter, but it is one of the Resurrection appearances that Jesus made the very same day he rose. I want you to hear the confusion of these disciples: Cleopas, and his unnamed friend. Things didn’t turn out the way they thought. They were processing, but it sounds like they were about to give up hope.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. Hanks’ character, named “Chuck,” is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend Kelly, the love of his life. But he has to take a business trip first. Over the Pacific Ocean, his plane goes down. He survives the next four years completely alone on a deserted island. Finally, he is rescued. But four years with no word is a long time. When he returns, he finds that everyone had given up on him, and considered him dead. Even his true love Kelly, had mourned him, and then moved on. She is now married, with a toddler.

Naturally, when Chuck returns – from the dead, so to speak – it is traumatic to both of them. Chuck drives to see Kelly at her house in the middle of the night, as the rain pours down. They both say goodbye in a heartbreaking scene, where much is left unsaid. Then, as Chuck pulls down the driveway, Kelly comes running out in the rain, calling his name. They stand in the rain, hugging and kissing. Then Kelly says:

“I always knew you were alive, I knew it. But everybody said I had to stop saying that, that I had to let you go.” Kelly pauses while they stare at each other. “I love you. You’re the love of my life.”

After another long pause while they look at each other, Chuck says, “I love you too Kelly, more than you’ll ever know.”

They get into Chuck’s car and sit in silence. But they both know that Kelly has to go back home, that it is too late for them to ever be together like that again. And so he drives her back up the driveway, and leaves her there.

There is a lot of tragedy in this scene that is simply the result of circumstances that neither one of them could control. But there is also the tragedy that Kelly gave up on Chuck, even when deep in her heart, she knew that she shouldn’t stop hoping. So she settled for life as best as she could get it. She quit working on her dream to be a professor. She married a decent man (not her true love) and had a child. And so when Chuck came back – the true love of her life – it was too late. She had already made another life for herself, and there was no place for Chuck in it anymore.

This is heartbreaking, but it is, after all, just a movie. Even so, I think this part of the movie taps into a spiritual truth. It reveals the struggle of faith that we have sometimes as Christians. Our Lover – Jesus – has  been gone for a long time now. All around us, voices tell us to give up, to move on, to settle for life as best as we can get it. But if we do that, we find, like Kelly, that when Jesus returns, we have no room for him in our lives anymore.

Jesus’ very first disciples struggled with this. They traveled with Jesus, watched his miracles and heard him preach. They came to believe that he was God’s chosen Messiah – true God in the flesh, their only true hope for salvation and real life. And then he was killed. Now they didn’t know what to do with all their hopes and dreams. It was all over. So, on the third day after his death, Cleopas and his friend went on a short journey. A stranger joined them as they walked and asked them why they seemed so sad. They told the stranger about Jesus and all he had done and said, and then they told him how Jesus had been handed over and killed. They end with a brief and poignant expression of their loss and confusion:

“But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel.”

You can almost hear the pain in their words. Things didn’t turn out the way they planned. They were sure they were following God. They were sure they had it right, and that their future was bright with their savior. They were hurt and lost. They had put their hope in Jesus, and now Jesus wasn’t there anymore.

Only he was.

He was right next to them. He was the very stranger that they were talking to. This is extremely important. In our everyday life experience, we may feel far removed from the resurrection of Jesus. We may feel like it has nothing to do with us, like from now on we just have to get on with life as best we can. But Jesus is walking right next to us. Feeling or no feeling, whether we can perceive it somehow or not, the Resurrection of Jesus was real, and the resurrection life that he offers us is just as real.

The disciples’ lack of faith is surprising. Jesus told them exactly what was going to happen. He said several times that he would be taken captive by the authorities and executed, and then that he would rise from death on the third day. They didn’t want to believe the part about him dying, until they had no choice. They wouldn’t accept what he was saying. Peter told him not to have such a negative outlook. The others heard too, but it bounced off their skulls like water off a duck. They simply didn’t get it. And then when he did die, they still didn’t believe the part where he told them he would rise again physically. So the death of Jesus destroyed them mentally and emotionally. They were completely lost.

Sometimes, we are like those disciples. Jesus told us exactly what is going to happen. He said we would have trouble in this world (John 16:33), but he also told us not to let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1). Living in a world of sin, we will experience sorrow and grief. But living in faith in Jesus Christ, those sorrows and griefs are not the final word. They are not as real as the great reality that is coming for those who trust Jesus. The pain and severe disappointment experienced by those disciples walking along the road was real. But the man walking beside them was real too, and he had already overcome their grief, even before they were aware of it. The reality of his resurrection was greater than the reality of their sorrow, whether they knew it or not.

I think the danger we face as believers in the risen Messiah is that, like those other disciples, we forget the promises of Jesus, or we think he is not close, not next to us. And so, in the meantime, we try to just go on and get some kind of life and hope for ourselves.

There is another poignant scene in the film Cast Away. For four years alone on the island, Chuck had no companion. So he began to talk to a volleyball that had a face-shaped bloodstain on it. He called it Wilson. In a strange way, he grew to care for the volleyball and became deeply attached to it. When he is sailing to try and find help, the volleyball comes loose from where it is tied. Chuck tries to swim after it but he is held back by a rope that attaches him to the raft. He finally needs to make a choice whether to hold on to raft, which is his only chance at living and seeing Kelly again – or swimming after the volleyball, and drowning with it in his arms.

He reluctantly chooses life, but he cries his heart out at the loss of Wilson. It may be just a stupid volleyball, but it is all he has had for four long years. It is hard to blame Chuck for being so broken up after he lets Wilson go. We can understand it and even feel some of his pain. In the context of the whole movie, it is actually a very moving scene. And yet even though it is perfectly understandable, we know (and even the character Chuck knows) that ultimately, it is just a volleyball. It isn’t a real person. It isn’t worth giving your life for.

Sometimes I think we spend half our lives like Chuck in that scene, tugging on the end of the rope, not quite sure whether we are going to give up the raft, or give up the volleyball. Chuck’s problem was that after four years alone, part of him actually believed that Wilson was a real person. He wasn’t sure of the truth. He may not have been fully convinced that the raft would really bring him back to civilization and real people. Because of his experience, Wilson seemed more real, more important than the raft.

We are like that sometimes. This life sometimes seems so much more real than the Resurrection Life that Jesus told us about. The things we can have here tempt us to believe the lie that they are more real and more important than our eternal future. This is understandable. It is understandable also to have a hard time giving them up, just like Chuck had difficulty letting go of Wilson. But even though we understand, and it is hard, the choice is perfectly and completely clear. There is nothing in this life that is worth holding on to if it keeps us from the real Life that Jesus offers us.

Will we hold onto something that is ultimately worthless, or will we give it up for real life? To give it up requires faith. It requires us to trust that there is a real resurrection, that real life is still waiting for us. We can see and touch the fake things, like Chuck could touch and see the volleyball Wilson. But those things are not as real and true as what awaits us when we trust in Jesus. Jesus said:

1 “Your heart must not be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. 3 If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also. 4 You know the way to where I am going.”

5 “Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way? ” 6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. 7 “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:1-7)

The fact of the resurrection tells us that there is real life waiting for us. There is still true love possible. Our dreams have not been shattered and lost. We just need to recognize that the time is not yet. We are in the dress rehearsal, the practice before the real game begins. We are living in a deserted island in a cave, not in our real home. We are practicing to love, practicing to be great.

One of the things that helped Chuck through, was his hope of the life that existed away from his island. So I want us to dwell for a little bit on the resurrection life that waits for us, away from this little island that we mistakenly call life.

I think a lot Christians have the feeling that the resurrection life will be a never ending worship service. Let me be honest with you. I am a pastor, and that thought does not excite me. Don’t get me wrong, I love to worship the Lord with other believers. But I also love to fish, to hike and come around the corner of ridge to a new vista I’ve never seen before. I love to just hang out and laugh with my family and close friends. I like to write, and read and experience moving stories. I believe amazing worship will be part of our experience of resurrection life. But I think there will also be so much more.

John Eldredge writes that you cannot hope for something you do not desire. The overwhelmingly good news is that resurrection life is where our deepest, strongest, purest desires are fulfilled. The desire for intimacy that sometimes we get confused with a desire for only sex – that intimacy will be fulfilled in resurrection life. The desire to be deeply connected to beauty – the thing that causes us to ache when see a beautiful person, or an awe-inspiring view, or hear uplifting music – that will be fulfilled. The desire to be significant, to be recognized for who you are and for the God-given gifts you have – that will be fulfilled in resurrection life. That thing in you that loves to rise to the occasion and meet challenges – that will find its ultimate expression in resurrection life.

We won’t be ghosts or angels, floating around somewhere. Jesus was not resurrected as a spirit – he had a physical body. On several occasions after he was raised, he sat down and ate with the disciples. He promises us resurrection bodies also (1 Corinthians 15). He promises us a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21 & 22) where will live and love and do the things we love to do, and be connected to God and to each other without the destruction and cruelty of sin and sorrow.

I will never get the love I am seeking from human beings. I may never be recognized for who I am I this life. My talents might go unappreciated. I might have to toil and spend a lot of time doing things I don’t really want to do. If this life is all there is, that would be tragic. But if all that is fulfilled in the next life, in my resurrection, which Jesus made possible – then what I face here and now is bearable. It isn’t the final word. I’m not getting too old – I’m actually getting closer to the fulfillment of all I want as I age.

I’ve heard an expression: “Some people are so heavenly-minded, they are no earthly good.” I detest that expression. It is entirely false. I have never met anyone who is too heavenly-minded. And the most resurrection-oriented people I know are the ones who have done the most for the Lord and for their fellow human beings here and now. It is only when we lost sight of resurrection that we become focused on making ourselves happy here and now, whatever the cost.

Think back to Kelly, from Cast Away. Deep in her heart, she knew Chuck was alive. But she lost faith. She gave up that hope and settled for what she could get at the moment. Because of that, she missed out forever on the life she might have had with Chuck if she had only held on.

Think about the disciples. Jesus was right at their shoulder during the moment they were ready to give up on him. He is right at your shoulder too. They didn’t sense him, but that didn’t have anything to do with the actual facts of the matter. He was there the whole time. He is here the whole time. Don’t give up. Don’t settle for less than Him, and His resurrection life.

We who are Christians know that Jesus is alive. We know it through faith. We know there is more life, better life waiting for us with him. We know it. But everyone keeps saying we have to move on. Everyone tells us we shouldn’t spend so much time thinking about it. Sometimes it feels like God hasn’t come through. But we know better. Don’t let go of that knowledge. Don’t give up that hope. Don’t fill your life with other things, don’t make yourself a life apart from the one who truly loves you and is coming back for you, no matter how long it seems.

He is Risen!

Revelation #20 THE JOY THAT AWAITS

THE JOY THAT AWAITS

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

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Revelation #20.  Revelation 7:9-17

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

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

John begins the new vision of Heaven with this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also says this in the book of Galatians:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

Revelation #19 SEALED FOR LOVE & PROTECTION

sealed document

We who are in Jesus have been marked in a such a way that shows every spiritual entity in the universe – whether angels, or demons, or even the devil – that we belong to God. The seal protects us until we arrive at our destination, the New Heavens and New Earth where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. We are also protected from the judgment and wrath of God. He does not evaluate our performance, instead he evaluates the performance of Jesus on our behalf.

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Revelation #19.  Revelation 7:1-8

The first major section of Revelation was made up of the seven letters to the churches. The second section is made up of the first six seals, and then the little paragraph that we will look at today: Revelation 7:1-8. I think John deliberately leaves the seals “unfinished.” He does the same thing with the seven trumpets. I think this is meant to indicate that even though we have come to an end of one of the major sections, he is not done describing the things the Holy Spirit wants him to describe. The leaving of these things “unfinished” tells us that there is more to come. There will be some technical detail in this message. I want to encourage you to read it all the way through. If you do that with each message, when you are done you will understand the book of Revelation better than 90% of other Christians. In addition, there is a rich message of grace and joy in this passage.

So this section ends not with the opening of the seventh seal, but instead with a different kind of “sealing.” Verses 1-3 set the stage:

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel, who had the seal of the living God rise up from the east. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” (Rev 7:1-3, HCSB)

The idea here is that something big is about to happen on the earth. God commands the angels to pause in their work of judging the earth until the “slaves of God” are sealed. In other words, God is going to protect his people in some way from the implacable, righteous judgment of the world. God knows who belongs to him. He is not just waving his hand and saying “destroy them all.” Instead, he knows his people, and he takes precautions so that they are not included in the judgments that are about to come. This is demonstrated later on, in chapter nine:

2He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft. 3Then locusts came out of the smoke on to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. (Rev 9:2-4, HCSB)

Now, there are several questions raised by this text: What does it mean to be “sealed?” Who, exactly are the people being sealed? What is the meaning of the number 144,000?

The text says that an angel arises from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. Let’s remember what a seal was for John’s first readers; we are not talking about the animal. In ancient times there were no self-sealing envelopes. Documents were folded, or rolled, and then a large dollop of hot wax (sealing wax) was placed over the line where the edge of the document rested against the rest of it, in order to hold the scroll or letter closed. While the wax was still hot, the sender of the letter (or document) pushed the end of a special metal, wooden, or clay piece into the wax. The piece had a design or logo on the end of it, and this left an impression on the wax. When the wax dried, the impression was hardened into it, and the wax, with impression kept the document sealed.

This special piece of metal, wood or clay with the design on it was called a “seal,” since it was used to seal documents in this way. Here are some examples of what all this looks like:

sealing ring

A modern seal, on the face of a ring.

A sealed letter.

sealed document

Some examples of ancient seals.

seals ancient

Usually, individuals had their own unique seals, and your seal would be one of your most important and closely guarded possessions. Seals were often kept on rings (as you can see above), or on necklaces. So, if I sent you a letter, you could look at the blob of wax that kept it closed, and see my seal upon it, and therefore you would know that the letter came from me. Also, the seal prevented unauthorized people from opening, or tampering with the document. In short, a seal shows who “owns” a document, and protects that document from harm until it arrives where it is supposed to go.

When we apply this to the text, we understand what it means to be sealed: God is putting his own special mark on his people, to identify them as his own, and to protect them. He is saying “these people are mine.” He is also saying, “No one can tamper with my people.” This is so important that he stops his angels who are about do his work in the world until his people are sealed.

Now, this is a symbolic picture: we are not meant to understand that an angel is going to put a dollop of sealing wax on 144,000 foreheads, and then push God’s seal into the wax on each person. So, how exactly is God doing the sealing?

Thankfully, we have other parts of scripture to shed light onto this. Several times in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is described as the “seal” of our salvation.

22He has also sealed us and given us the Spirit as a down payment in our hearts. (2Cor 1: 22, HCSB)

 13When 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. 14He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (Eph 1:13-14, HCSB)

 29No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. 30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:29-30, HCSB)

So God seals people with his Holy Spirit. The Spirit does many things in the life of one who trusts Jesus, and one of those things is to show everything in the universe that we belong to the Father, and to protect us until we arrive in the New Heavens and the New Earth. I do want to say, for the sake of honesty, that not all commentators on Revelation agree that this sealing is the Holy Spirit. Many people think this is some other sort of “sealing,” given only for the end times. However, they all agree that the sealing is some sort of spiritual (not physical) indication that these people belong to God, and I say that the Holy Spirit does that anyway.

Now, who exactly are the people who will be sealed? In the first place, they are “slaves of our God.” The word slaves has a very negative connotation in our culture; we tend to think of the horrible practice of enslaving Africans that is a dark spot on American and British history. In the New Testament however, slavery was not racial: There were slaves of all races and colors in the ancient Roman empire. In addition, most slaves in those days (with the exception of galley [ship] slaves and slaves condemned to hard labor) had a fair degree of personal freedom. In fact, many slaves entered into that condition voluntarily, because a master was bound to provide for and protect the slaves in his household. Most slaves also had the opportunity to purchase their freedom back from their masters. The key concept when we think about being a slave of God is this: We have made God our owner. We live for His interests, not our own. This should be true of anyone who calls him/her self a Christian. So the slaves of God are Christians.

It also says that these sealed people are “144,000 from every tribe of Israel.” The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans seems to say that at some point in the future, many Jews/Israelites will repent and trust in Jesus Christ. Because of that, some people believe that these verses in Revelation describe a great movement of God among people of Jewish descent, with many of them becoming Christians. According to this idea, it is these Jewish Christians who will be sealed for protection against God’s judgment.

The idea that these are Jewish Christians has many problems however. Why would God protect only Jewish Christians from judgment, but not all other Christians? If we accept that this sealing is related to the Holy Spirit, we can’t certainly can’t say that only Israelite Christians have the Holy Spirit. Some people answer this by saying that the other Christians will be “raptured” (that is, taken up to heaven without dying) by this point in the end times. It is the rapture of Gentile believers, (they say) that will cause all these Israelites to come to faith in Jesus. If you have been paying attention, however, you will realize that there has been no mention of a “rapture” yet in Revelation, and in fact, such a thing is never clearly described in Revelation.

There are other problems with taking this text at face value – that is, taking it to mean that only the twelve tribes of Israel will be sealed against God’s judgment. For one thing, most of the tribes appear to have been destroyed. In approximately 721 BC, the Assyrian empire conquered the area held by the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, and Ephraim and Manasseh (ten tribes). These tribes were deported from the land, and they were scattered all around the Assyrian empire. People were brought in from elsewhere to occupy the territory they left. The result was that those tribes eventually lost all of their separate identity as descendants of Israel. Only the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi continued to have an ongoing sense of being Israelites. For all intents and purposes, 9 out of twelve tribes have been “lost.”

In addition, even if the other tribes still existed, John’s list is all wrong. The tribe of Dan is not even mentioned in the Revelation text. The tribe of Manasseh is mentioned, and also the tribe of Joseph, but Manasseh is part of Joseph; in other words, It should have been either “Manasseh and Ephraim” (but not Joseph); or “Joseph” (but neither Manasseh or Ephraim). Never in any other place in the Bible are they described as “Manasseh and Joseph.”

Some people say Dan is not mentioned because the antichrist is supposed to come from Dan. They base this on one obscure verse:

16“The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan; at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes. They come and devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who dwell in it. (Jer 8:16, ESV2011)

In context, the verse is about the invasion of the Babylonians, which came from the north, through the territory historically held by Dan. But even if it was about the antichrist, it would be pretty harsh to exclude an entire tribe because of one individual.

No, a Jew like John should certainly have known better than list the twelve tribes like this. I think he did it to show us that we are not to take “from the Israelites” literally. I think he means us to understand “Israelites” as “all of God’s people,” whether descended from the twelve tribes or not. Remember, Revelation was written in a kind of code language, in case it fell into the wrong hands. Jewish people were less likely to be persecuted for their faith than Christians, so this is a neat trick to sound like it is about the Jewish faith, while, to those who know anything about the twelve tribes, it is obviously not meant to be taken at face value. Remember, also, that John seems to think of Christians as the true spiritual Jews, even if they aren’t physically Israelites:

8“Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: 9I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Rev 2:8-9, HCSB)

 9Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying — note this — I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. (Rev 3:9, HCSB)

So John sees Christians as the true children of Israel, spiritually speaking. He is not alone in this. The New Testament clearly teaches that those who trust Jesus are the ones who inherit the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, since the time of Jesus, it is the followers of Jesus, whether of Jewish descent, or not, who are the “true Israelites.”

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29, NIV)

In the time of the New Testament, “the circumcised,” or, “circumcision” was sort of a slang for “Jewish” or “Israelite.”

15For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Gal 6:15-16, ESV)

In this context the “Israel of God” appears to mean Christians – both Jewish, and non-Jewish Christians. Many Jews took pride in the fact that they were descended from Abraham. But the New Testament says that all who trust Jesus are also spiritually descendants of Abraham:

9Is this blessing only for the circumcised, then? Or is it also for the uncircumcised? For we say, Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness. 10In what way then was it credited — while he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while he was circumcised, but uncircumcised. 11And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while still uncircumcised. This was to make him the father of all who believe but are not circumcised, so that righteousness may be credited to them also. (Rom 4:9-11, HCSB)

 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:27-29, ESV2011)

6Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, 7then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. (Gal 3:6-7, HCSB)

 This is very important to understand,  and not only for this passage. It explains how we should read the Old Testament. Christians are the true spiritual nation of Israel. The promises of God given in the Old Testament are often meant as much, or more, for Christians as they are for ethnic Jews. They are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For example, consider the promised land. The physical land in Israel was not promised to Christians who are not physically descendants of Abraham. But we do have a promised land: the New Heavens and the New Earth which God is preparing for all who trust Jesus. And the promised land in Jesus is eternal: so much better than the mere physical land. So “the twelve tribes” of Israel, here in Revelation 7, means “Christians.”

Now, let’s tackle the number: 144,000. In Revelation, the number 12 represents the people of God. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and there were twelve apostles. If you multiply 12×12, you get 144. The number “one thousand” in revelation represents “all” of something. Imagine someone saying, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” They don’t mean they have actually told you 1,000 times – it just means “a great number of times.” Or “Mine is a thousand times better than yours.” Again, the number 1,000 is not meant to be taken literally. So, in Revelation, 1,000 of something means “Lots and lots,” or, “all of it.” We put this together: we have all of God’s people from Old Testament times (represented by 12,000), and all of God’s people since the time of Jesus (represented by another 12,000) and you multiply them together, and you get 144,000. It just means that God is going to seal every single person who trusts Him.

Now, this “sealing” doesn’t mean that God’s people will never experience hardship. But it does mean that they will not be judged by God based on their own performance. They will be judged based on the performance of Jesus. The people of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, will never have to worry that God will be angry at them for their sins, or cause them to suffer for their failings. Jesus took the judgment upon himself. When God enacts the final and complete judgment of the world, all of the people of God will be protected from that judgment.

These are wonderful truths for us to understand. We who are in Jesus have been marked in a such a way that shows every spiritual entity in the universe – whether angels, or demons, or even the devil – that we belong to God. The seal protects us until we arrive at our destination, the New Heavens and New Earth where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. We are also protected from the judgment and wrath of God. He does not evaluate our performance, instead he evaluates the performance of Jesus on our behalf. In addition, even the promises of the Old Testament for the Israelites are given to us.

Take a moment to allow these things to sink in.