REVELATION #37. THE DIVINE MARRIAGE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVELATION #36. COMING OUT OF BABYLON.

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We Christians are called to live in this world, and love our fellow Christians, and also those outside the family of faith. But we are also called to be spiritually, morally and ethically different from the world around us. We are not supposed to be absorbed into the culture, but rather, we are to be “salt” and “light” for culture around us. That means we must be radically different from it. It means we cannot be full participants in any worldly culture.

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The whole of Revelation chapter 18 is about the fall of “Babylon.” Remember from last time that “Babylon” is a kind of code word for all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and persecute God’s people.

Verses 1-8 give us an overview of what is going on, and why. Verses 9-10 look at the judgment of Babylon from the perspective of world rulers: the wealthy and elite of ungodly culture. Verses 11-17 give us the perspective of the “business sector,” and verses 18-19 tell us about the working class (those who are not Christians). Verse 20 tells us what God’s people think. Verses 21-24 pronounce the final doom of Babylon.

I want to focus on verses 1-8, because that gives us the entire overview, plus, we get to see some more chiastic structure!

When I was in seminary, my friends and I took several classes from one professor whom we loved dearly, and deeply respected. As a sign of our love and respect, we occasionally gently mocked him by imitation. He was the one who introduced us to the concept of chiastic structure, and it seemed like he was always saying, “Consider this text, you see. The chiastic structure is evident in verses…”

I realize I have become that guy. Once again, I want to point out to you some chiastic structure in the book of Revelation. I fear I deserve any mocking I might get. But in all seriousness, I think that when we look at the structure of chapter 18, verses 1-8, we will be able to understand it much better. Hang with me, because I believe that the Holy Spirit really will speak to you through this text, if you only give Him the chance.

Remember chiastic structure always uses an odd number of points: sometimes three, or five; but in the book of Revelation, it is always found in sevens. Remember, in the introduction to this series, I explained that Revelation is a book of sevens; indeed, it has sevens within sevens. This isn’t some secret code: it is just a way of thinking that was common to the ancient Middle East, particularly, ancient Jews.

Chiastic structure looks like a “V” laid on its side, like this >. The first point is connected to the last. The second is connected to the second-to-last, and so on. The middle point is usually the most important point.

Before we examine these points, let’s remember our context. The first readers of Revelation were either persecuted by their culture, or they were in danger of being seduced by it. Either way, that culture was pagan, they worshiped many gods, and they were offended by the idea of only one true God. Christians were perceived as people who wouldn’t go along with culture, troublemakers. Those first Christians would have rejoiced to hear about the downfall of Babylon. This was very, good news. It meant that God was finally vindicating them, and holding accountable the people who had done evil to them. It was also a warning to those who were in danger of becoming just like the culture around them. The future of that pagan, pluralistic culture is destruction.

Now, let’s see what the text has to say.

  • The first and seventh points (verses 1, and 8, respectively) are about the fall of Babylon. The first part declares that she will indeed be destroyed; the seventh point shows us that she will be destroyed quickly, and that God’s judgment cannot be escaped.
  • As you can see, the second point (verse2) talks about what happens after the judgment: Babylon has become a ghost town, haunted by shades of evil. The fifth point contrasts that with how Babylon was before: she glorified herself and lived in luxury.
  • The third and fifth point (verses 3, and 5-6) talk about the sins of Babylon. The third point describes them, and fifth point shows that she will be held accountable for them.
  • The fourth point is placed in the middle because we are supposed to pay attention to it. That is the point where I want to spend the majority of our time today.

This “main point” is verse four:

4Then I heard another voice from heaven: Come out of her, My people, so that you will not share in her sins or receive any of her plagues. (Rev 18:4, HCSB)

It is only logical to assume that every culture that ever exists will be ungodly, at least in some respects, because it is formed by fallen human beings. But some are worse than others. In the culture of Western Civilization (Europe, America, New Zealand & Australia) we are moving farther and farther away from Biblical principles. (This is not true, by the way in Africa, and certain parts of Asia). At one time, it was possible to be a meaningful participant in mainstream Western culture, and also to be a true Christian, holding on to Biblical principles and values.

I believe that is no longer true.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the case, or sound alarmist. Mainstream America, for instance, still honors some values of the Bible, like racial equality, and care for the poor. By the way, those are principles that come originally from the Bible. Some secular people may be surprised to hear that. Christians need to remember that, also.

However, more and more of mainstream culture is contradicting other Biblical truths. Sexual immorality is not only commonplace and accepted, it is truly celebrated. The very idea of absolute moral truth is now mocked. If you believe that some things are always right and some always wrong, many people will think you are narrow-minded and mean-spirited. The same goes if you believe that there is one true God. If you simply state what the Bible says about certain behaviors, mainstream culture calls you a bigot and a hate-monger. In fact, many, many Christian beliefs are now labeled as hate.

The pressure to go along with culture is enormous. Christians are not hate-filled people, any more than the general population, so it hurts to have others think of us that way. Sometimes, it would be easier to pretend that the Bible doesn’t say what it actually says, or to pretend we don’t believe it. From there, it is a very small step to actually not believing the Bible.

The currency of our culture has become media, especially entertainment: Television, Music, Movies, Social media, News outlets, and (though, unfortunately, last and least) books. The vast majority of these kinds of media are pumping out messages that are odds with the truth of the Bible. They celebrate sexual immorality. But our text today tells us that will bring on God’s wrath:

For all the nations have drunk the wine of her sexual immorality, which brings wrath. (Revelation 18:3)

Media, more and more, celebrate violence, especially violence against women. They celebrate heroes who get things done, but whom are people of bad character. The celebrate the pursuit of the self-centered life. We are encouraged to satisfy ourselves, even that hurts others.

The business world has also changed. Greed is considered good in our culture, but that too, is judged as one of Babylon’s sins. The profit motive, which motivates capitalism, is a positive thing. But greed is something else. Greed is never satisfied, nothing is enough. Greed makes a person pursue more, and more, as the all-consuming goal and passion of life. Greed often leads people to cut corners, and to deceive others. I spent three years in the business world. I saw it time and time again: Bosses asking me to deceive clients so we could charge them more; the temptation for myself to allow someone to misunderstand a situation, so that I could personally make more money. The Bible, however, warns many times about greed, and the pursuit of wealth.

9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

17 Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, 19 storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

There used to be a myth about putting a frog in a kettle. If you dropped a frog into boiling water, it would jump out immediately. But if you put it in a pot of cool water, and then very, very, slowly increased the temperature it would sit in the pot until it was boiled to death. It turns out that with regard to actual frogs, that isn’t true. But it is a great analogy for Christians. Imagine you were watching television in 1990. Suddenly, due to a weird flux in the space-time continuum, your TV set is now receiving programs from 2018. I am convinced that if that happened, there would outrage, across American culture. People would decry the violence, the immorality, the main characters who are so flawed that they would the bad guys, not the heroes, in 1990.

But the same people who would have been outraged in 1990 are alive today, and they are not outraged. That is because as they culture has changed, so have they. This includes many, many Christians. If we continue to consume media without thinking critically about it, it will change our views. If we let our non-Christian friends and family influence the way we think and live, we will become more like them, and less like Jesus. If we continue to participate in the kinds of things that are culture thinks are normal, we will simply be absorbed into the culture.

That is why our text today says “Come out! So that you will not share in her sins, or receive the judgment that is coming again her.”

So, how do we come out of the culture?

I don’t think there is one easy answer. But there are two basic principles that I believe we desperately need to follow.

The first principle is to make the Bible – God’s Word – a greater influence on our life than any other media. Rather than imitating the “hero” of Breaking Bad, we need to imitate Jesus. Many Christians typically spend hours and hours consuming secular media, and rarely, if ever, read a book by Christian, or listen to Christian music, or watch a show that is compatible with Biblical values. Above all, we need to devote ourselves to taking the truth of the Bible into our hearts. This means making some hard, self-disciplined decisions about what else we read or watch. If, after watching a show, you find yourself in sympathy with a drug dealer, there is a real issue. Can we agree on that? Or have we come too far already to see that this is a problem?

I don’t want to be a legalist, and start making lists about what you can, and cannot watch or read. But can we use some common sense? And can we at least acknowledge that the biggest influence in our lives should be God’s truth, not a television show? If you are going to watch certain shows, can you pause, and make observations about what is in conflict with God’s Word, so that you are aware of it, and can limit how it influences you?

The second principle is to find true Christian community with a small group of people. Your primary place of community should be with people who also value the Word of God, people with whom you can share your life, and with whom you can be strengthened and encouraged in faith.

Neither of these principles is easy. But they are a matter of spiritual life and death. We simply cannot drift along with mainstream culture. It will destroy our faith. Therefore, we need to pursue both these two things – God’s Word, and Christian community – as if our lives depended on it, because they do. Jesus warned about this:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty again? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. (Matthew 5:13)

If we drift along with culture, we will lose our saltiness, and not only will we be in danger of losing salvation, but we also will fail to help anyone else to find God’s love and grace.

Let me be clear, I’m not talking about moving to monasteries and withdrawing entirely from the world. We Christians are called to live in this world, and love our fellow Christians, and also those outside the family of faith. But we are also called to be spiritually, morally and ethically different from the world around us. We are not supposed to be absorbed into the culture, but rather, we are to be “salt” and “light” for culture around us. That means we must be radically different from it. It means we cannot be full participants in any worldly culture.

Our primary influences need to be God’s Word, and God’s people. If we can live that way, then we will remain in the love of God, and have a chance of influencing others toward Jesus Christ.

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!