REVELATION #46: FAITH-WORTHY & REALITY-DEFINING

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The words of Revelation are true, and worthy of our faith. The words of the whole Bible describe reality, and are worthy of our faith. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God, and he created reality. He is more than worthy for us to put our faith in him. Among other things, that means that we believe what the Bible says, and act accordingly.

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Revelation #46.  Revelation 22:6-11

The book of Revelation ends with…(get ready… do a drum roll…) that’s right, you guessed it –   Chiastic structure! What I consider to be the last section consists of chapter 22:7-21. In these verses, we have seven different declarations made by Jesus Christ himself. I will try to combine some of them, but for now, we’ll just take the first. It know it may seem like we are dragging out the end of the book, but these are the last seven things that Jesus Christ himself said to His people, the church. It’s worth focusing on them for a while.

Verses 6-9 are a little confusing because John is conversing with an angel, and then Jesus makes his first proclamation, and then John goes on talking to the angel. I will walk us through it. It is the angel who says: “These words are trustworthy and true and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”

The fact that the angel says it does not make it any less true or powerful. Now, at the time, John undoubtedly believed that this statement applied directly to the book we have just been reading: Revelation. However, the Holy Spirit, who inspired these words, obviously knew that the writings of the apostles would be collected together and called the New Testament, and combined with the Old Testament to be called the Bible. So, we must understand that these words apply specifically to the book of Revelation. That is the first meaning, in context. But it also good and right to apply this statement to the entire Bible.

There are pieces of these verses that come across more powerfully in Greek. So, in a few places,

I am going to give you my own rendering of this text from the Greek. For those of you who are Greek scholars, I am simply trying to convey how it comes across. I am not saying that this is more accurate. But hopefully, it provides an accurate feeling of how it sounds in Greek. Here we go:

“These words are worthy of complete faith, and they present reality as it truly is.”

It is not just that the words are accurate. They are the basis for faith. The Greek word for “trustworthy” is the same root word used for “faith” as in “put your faith in Jesus Christ.” In addition, the word for truth is not just “accurate.” It means something that defines reality. Also, the word for “word” is logos. That is the same word that John uses in the beginning of his gospel for Jesus himself:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV John 1:1 &: 14)

Now, here in Revelation 22:6, the word “words” is in plural form. But I think it is appropriate to let this text remind us that behind the words of the Bible is the very Word of God, Jesus himself.

The words of Revelation are true, and worthy of our faith. The words of the whole Bible describe reality, and are worthy of our faith. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God, and he created reality. He is more than worthy for us to put our faith in him.

Virtually all Bible translators believe that next, we have a statement not from the angel, but Jesus himself: “Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” One reason to think it is Jesus, not the angel, is because Jesus is the one who is coming soon, he is the one whose return really matters. Once again, let me give you my own partial rendering from the Greek. As before, I just want to give you sense of what it feels like in the original language:

“Give me your attention! I am coming quickly. You will be supremely blessed if you guard and hold on to the words of this prophecy – this Bible.”

Yes, the Greek word for “book” is bible. Now, any time you say “book” in ancient Greek, bible is the word to use. So that, in and of itself doesn’t mean it applies to the whole Bible (as we mean the Bible). But Jesus could have just said “prophecy” and left off there. In fact, he did that, earlier on, in chapter 1:3. Or, perhaps, he could have used the word for “letter,” or “document.” I can’t help thinking that Jesus knew that much of the world would come to call one particular book “The Bible,” and so used the word to mean not only the prophecy of Revelation, but the entire book that he inspired.

This statement reminds me of what Jesus said at the very beginning of Revelation:

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (ESV Revelation 1:3)

I do notice that here, Jesus does not use the word “book” (that is, bible). But the fact that this promise and this command are given twice means that it is important.

You may notice that for the word “keep” in Revelation 22:7, I used “guard, and hold on to.” That is because those are part of the meaning of that Greek word. To keep the words of this prophecy (or, of the whole Bible) doesn’t mean you just keep it in your house, on a shelf. It means you are actively engaged in preserving it, protecting it from harm, and making sure that it fulfills its purpose. Once again, I think it is appropriate to apply this to both Revelation, and also, all of scripture. It is good and right that we have studied and wrestled with this prophecy called Revelation. It is part of the word of God, and here in these verses, we see that Jesus highly values it.

Moving on to verse 8, John mentions that after the whole vision – that is, I think, the whole of Revelation – he falls down to worship the angel, who showed him the vision. The angel stops him: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

By the way, this is one of the key ways in which Jesus claimed to be God. When people tried to worship him, he never stopped them.

Then, the angel continues:

“Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

I do not think that God actually wants people who are doing evil to continue to do so. However, this is a warning. If you are determined to do evil, and if you continue down that path far enough, you will reach a point of no return. The analogy I use for this comes from swimming.

Imagine you are in a little boat, carrying a large block of gold. Imagine that the gold falls out of your boat, and you dive in, after it, and reach it ten feet below the surface of the water. Gold is one of the heaviest metals – roughly as heavy as lead. This block of gold weighs one hundred and twenty pounds. You grab on to it, and try to swim back to the surface. However, the gold is too heavy. Instead of you dragging it up, it is dragging you in deeper. You kick with all your might, and you slow your rate of descent, but you don’t actually make any progress back toward the surface. You are still sinking. Sooner or later, if you are going to live, you must let go of the gold. If you allow that gold drag you too deep, you will no longer have enough air to make it back up to the surface before you drown. You pass twenty feet, and the thirty. How long will you hold on? Maybe eventually, you decide, it is not worth living if you can’t have the gold, so you hold on, and it drags you to your death.

I think this is something like the warning to those who are doing evil. There is a point of no return. There is a point when it is too late to turn back. Now, when it comes to salvation, this point of no return is not about how terribly you have sinned. But suppose you sin, and you know it, and you know God wants you to repent, and turn back to him. Your attitude is: “Later. I’m not going to do that right now. I want to keep enjoying this sin for a while.” The next time, it is harder to hear God’s call to repent. Several times after that, it may not even occur to you that you ought to repent. The more you say “no” to God, the more you damage your conscience. The more you say “no” to God, the harder and harder it becomes to hear him anymore. If you continue to ignore God, if you continue to go your own way, and shut out the call of God, eventually, you won’t care anymore. You will harden your heart so much that you won’t even notice, won’t even be able to hear his call to repent. I think the message is this: We have heard in Revelation all about the coming judgment, and God’s vast patience. One of the major messages is that although God is inhumanly patient with evil-doers, there will be an end to that patience – there must be an end to it, if we are to have the joy of the New Creation. Now, with all these stern warnings, if we still say, “No, I’ve got plenty of time to turn back to God. I’ll do it later.” If we continue to stop our ears against God, eventually, we will no longer be able to hear him. Eventually, we will no longer care about following him. At that time, we may be passing the point of no return. God says, “OK then. Do what you want.” He doesn’t mean that it is OK to do so. It means, that God has done all that he can to save a person who has the will to reject Him, and that person has made a decision that is final.

By the way, if you are worried that you have passed the point of no return, then, by definition, you have not passed it. When you pass the point of no return, you will no longer care about, or be interested in your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Those who have passed that point don’t care anymore. Also, I want to make it clear, I am not talking about a Christian who struggles with a sin that they just can’t seem to beat. Such a Christian does indeed sin, but each time, that person is heartily sorry for their sin, and intends to continue on following God. They really would like to stop sinning, even if they can’t seem to find a way how. Such a person is not ignoring God. They are still responding to him in repentance, confession and receiving God’s forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of something that Paul wrote to Timothy:

2 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (ESV 2 Timothy 3:12-17)

This is really another way of saying exactly what our Revelation passage says. Evil people will go from bad to worse, being deceived, and deceiving others. But we, the people of God, should hold on to Word of God – both the scriptures in general, Revelation in particular, and, above all, Jesus Christ himself. These are worthy of our complete faith. God’s Word (and his words) are not just accurate – they define reality more fully than any human wisdom.

I don’t know when Jesus will return. But I can promise you, if you are reading this, the time when you will stand face to face with Jesus is no more than one-hundred years away, almost certainly a lot less. It could be any moment now. The time is soon. No one has to wait very long. Let us live our lives accordingly.

REVELATION #40: THE BOOK OF LIFE

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Real Christians are both more pessimistic, and at the same time, more hopeful than other religions. Jesus sets a standard that is not only based on performance, but also on the heart, and on that score, every human being falls short. And so, he offers the alternative: Repent of your sins, repent of your pride that says you are good enough to deserve heaven. Instead, let Him live the perfect life on your behalf. Let him take the punishment that your failures deserve. Trust him to do that for you. And if you really believe it, and you really trust Him, your name is written in the other book, the book of life, and that means that your behavior is no longer the basis for your eternal future.

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Revelation #40.  Revelation 20:11-15

“Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them.” I read this not literally, but as a statement of the majesty of God. The universe – this unimaginably huge vacuum that is sparsely populated with stars – cannot contain God. God is infinite, and in his full presence there is no room for anything else. This immediately suggests something else to me. The New Testament calls us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There should be no room in my life for anything else but God. Whatever competes for God’s place in our lives must flee away. Now, through Jesus, we have all things. So, as I have followed Jesus, he has blessed me with a  wife and children. There is room in my heart for my wife and my family, but I have them through Jesus.

Think of it like this. Imagine that your closest friend is a billionaire. If you are with your friend, you can have a box suite at the Superbowl, or World Cup, or World-Series – you get the idea. But if you don’t have your friend, you don’t have those tickets. Through your friend, you can stay in his wonderful house. It isn’t yours. But because you are friends, he lets you stay there. On your own, you have nothing, but through your friend, you have everything. So it is with Jesus. Jesus is all in all. In my heart, there should be only room for Jesus, and the things that I have through him. All else should be displaced by the great treasure that I have in and through him.

Next comes the scene with the books:

12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.
13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. (Revelation 20:12-13)

At first reading, this makes it sound as if we will all be judged based on our performance; that is, according to our good (or bad) deeds. How can that be? The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace, not by works. It is a free gift of God, a gift that is far more expensive than we can buy.

15 We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” 16 know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

So, what is this, here in Revelation? Let me start with the words of the apostle Paul:

8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9 As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Galatians 1:8-9)

When we come to a place like this, where it seems to contradict another part of scripture, the first thing to do is to read carefully, and make sure we understand what it is saying.

First, we should take note that in this passage, there are two categories of books. On the one hand, there are books that seem to contain a record of the works of every human ever alive or dead. They describe everything you have ever done, good or bad. On the other hand, there is one single book called the Book of Life. It looks to me like the picture is as follows: If your name is in the book of life, you are not thrown into the lake of fire (v. 15). If your name is not in the book of life, then you are judged only according to what you have done and not done.  And everyone who is judged according to what they have done falls short. Paul explains it like this:

21 Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? (Galatians 4:21)

Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. (Galatians 5:2-3)

Paul’s point is this. We are not judged on a curve. There is no such thing as “close enough” when it comes to the moral perfection we need to avoid being destroyed by God’s holiness. It is a simple binary test. Were you perfect, or imperfect? If you refuse the grace given to you in Jesus Christ, then, in order to earn your place, you must be entirely, 100% perfect. If you want to live by the law, you have to keep the entire law. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, certain people wanted to make just one part of the law (circumcision) determine whether you were accepted by God or not. Paul says, “If you want to play it that way, then you have to keep not only circumcision, but every last bit of the entire law.

In the time of Jesus, some of the Jews were in danger of thinking they had done that. So, Jesus explains that it isn’t just outward behavior – it is also about your innermost thoughts. A moment of honesty here. My outward behavior has been pretty good. I have outwardly had no other God. I have never knowingly lied; I have not committed adultery, or murder. I have never taken the name of the Lord in vain. I have honored my parents. You get the picture. But Jesus tells us that the standard is not only about what happens on the outside. If your heart is not perfect, than you have not fulfilled the law:

21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.

 27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Now, suddenly, I don’t look so good. I’ve never murdered, but I’ve held rage in my heart, and called people fools and morons. I’ve never committed adultery, but I have had lustful thoughts. So you see, if you want to be judged by the books of works, you cannot even have had one, single, slightly wrong thought.

All this makes it seem hopeless. But there is another way. It is completely different. Many people like to say that all religions are the same. But this is where Christianity is radically different. Hindus base their judgments on the books of works. They need to pay off all the bad karma they have incurred before they can go to Nirvana. Buddhists achieve their version of Nirvana by their own efforts. They can’t get there until they have “got it right,” somehow. Jews and Muslims alike must please God in order to be saved, though they tend to focus on outward behavior, and sort of pretend that the attitude of the heart doesn’t really matter.

There are also people who believe some sort of false Christianity. They believe that God is all mellow and loving, so it doesn’t really matter. He’s not keeping score anyway, right?

Wrong, he has kept score. And we all have fallen short.

Real Christians are both more pessimistic, and at the same time, more hopeful than other religions. Jesus sets a standard that is not only based on performance, but also on the heart, and on that score, every human being falls short. And so, he offers the alternative: Repent of your sins, repent of your pride that says you are good enough to deserve heaven. Instead, let Him live the perfect life on your behalf. Let him take the punishment that your failures deserve. Trust him to do that for you. And if you really believe it, and you really trust Him, your name is written in the other book, the book of life, and that means that your behavior is no longer the basis for your eternal future.

Now, if you really believe all that, if you really trust Jesus, your behavior will change, but now, it isn’t about earning points with God. You see, we behave according to how we truly believe. If you really love someone, and you believe that the other person loves you, you will want spend time with that person. You will enjoy being in their presence, and doing things together. You will try to avoid hurting that person, and seek the best for them. You will trust them, and behave differently because you trust them. Your behavior will change because you love, and believe you are loved. It has nothing to do with earning anything. This is exactly how it is with Jesus.

I am struck by how different the preaching of the early church was, compared to preaching today. Today, we seem desperately afraid of offending anyone, of making anyone feel bad. But the gospel has two main parts. The first is incredibly offensive. It is offensive to pride, to self-righteousness, to apathy, to our own belief that we ourselves should be the final arbiter of our own fates. No, the gospel says, “You are far worse than you imagine. Your situation is desperate, and hopeless. If you think you can be good enough to please God, forget it. If you think God will overlook your little faults, you are like a cancer patient who says she feels fine, even while her body hurtles toward a painful death. The books of your deeds will accuse you, at the end. There is no hope there. You must repent, and throw yourself on the mercy of God.”

The second part of the gospel is pure good news, pure love and joy. It is this: God’s grace and love are far greater than you ever knew. His love not only matches, but overwhelms what is not right in you. Because he knew you couldn’t perform, he performs on your behalf. Because you deserve death and hell, Jesus took death and hell on himself. And so, through Jesus, we have an entirely different way to be. There is no need to measure up. There is no need to justify yourself. All that is left for you to do is to love the One who loved you first, and let gratitude at his grace guide your life.

A couple weeks ago, almost on a whim, I asked God to send me a snowstorm. I asked for it to be on a specific day, with a specific number of inches of snow. That prayer was answered exactly. Now, as I think about this, I am overwhelmed that God would send a snowstorm just for puny little me in order to show me his love. But the truth is, he has done far more than that. The extravagance of his love given to us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is unimaginably greater than a snowstorm. When we really think about it, it becomes, literally, life changing.

What comes next in the book of Revelation is what we often call “heaven.” For Heaven to be, well, heaven, there can be no sin, no selfishness, no self-righteousness. If we want to live in a perfect world, only perfect people can be there. And so, Jesus makes perfect those who trust him.

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:12-14, ESV)

Jesus offers us his own perfection so that we can step into the perfect world that he is rebuilding for us.

There are several possible responses to this text today. Perhaps we need to repent. Perhaps we thought our sin is no big deal. Perhaps when we look at our behavior, we realize that we aren’t living as if we really believe what Jesus has done for us.

Maybe, we need to remember the extravagance of His love for us, and realize that he has indeed made us perfect. There is no barrier within ourselves that He cannot overcome, if we simply allow him to do it.

Maybe we need to focus on the joy that awaits us after the day of judgment. We will spend a good amount of time doing so in a few weeks, but we can begin now.

Perhaps, for you, what you needed to hear was at the beginning: that the love of God through Jesus Christ should displace everything else in your life. There is no room for fear, for anger, for hatred, for worry. We have only Jesus, and the things he chooses for us. Let him be all in all.

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you today.

Revelation #39: The Millenium.

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We puny, stupid creatures are standing with one foot in heaven, and that gives us authority over all the power of the devil, plus a whole lot more, besides. We are called to focus on the spiritual reality that has already begun. Though we may look marginalized and defeated, we are, in fact, gloriously victorious. The one who is responsible for so much of our pain and misery has already been defeated.

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Revelation #39  Revelation 20:1-10.  THE MILLENIUM

As we come to Revelation chapter 20, I’m reminded of a quote from a wise, well-respected, Bible commentator:

This brings us to one of the most difficult parts of the entire book. There have been endless disputes, some of them very bitter, over the way to understand this chapter. Evangelicals have divided from one another and sometimes have been quite intolerant of views other than those of their own group. It is necessary to approach the chapter with humility and charity. (Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentary on Revelation)

Many years ago, someone left the church that I was pastoring at the time because they didn’t like the way I interpreted this next section of Revelation. I hope and pray that none of you will stop reading the sermon notes because of this chapter. Truly, I do not believe that this is worth dividing over. I have my own opinions, of course, but I hold them loosely, knowing that I could very easily be wrong. And, when we take a step back, this passage is almost unique in Scripture. What I mean is, there is nowhere else in Scripture that talks about a one thousand year block of time in which the devil is bound, and some of Christ’s followers reign with him for thousand years, to be followed by a brief period of releasing the devil, after which he is finally defeated. What this means to me, is that this is not a major biblical doctrine. I can say with absolute confidence that people who interpret this differently from each other will still be together with Jesus in heaven.

Please bear with me while I share something else. This may seem like a rabbit trail, but I think it will help us as we approach this text, and also the whole of Revelation. In the scholarly discipline of theology, we have something called “systematic theology.” In systematic theology, scholars study a particular subject. They investigate all of the various Bible passages that relate to that subject, and they also usually study what other theologians have written about it. Then, they gather the information about that subject into one clear series of statements. Systematic theology can be very useful. If, for example, you wanted to know how it is that the death of Jesus results in the forgiveness of sins, a systematic theology of the atonement is very helpful. Instead of having to comb through the Bible, and find everywhere it talks about that subject, systematic theologians have organized it and presented it all in one place. It is a useful scholarly discipline, and even somewhat useful to interested non-scholars.

Now, this is very important, because the vast majority of people use the book of Revelation to build a systematic theology of the end times (“end times” theology is technically called “eschatology”). In addition, Revelation chapter 20 – our text for today – is typically used as a very important point in building up that systematic eschatology.

That is not necessarily wrong, but we should never lose sight of the main purpose of the scripture. You see, systematic theology has some very big drawbacks. The biggest one is that that way of thinking tends to lead us away from the primary purpose of the Bible, and the primary means of achieving that purpose. The purpose of the Bible is to show us Jesus, and to bring us closer to him. The way that purpose is achieved is to read the Bible the way it was originally written: book by book. We read so that the text reveals Jesus to us, and so that we are drawn closer to him. What we are doing here – the ministry of Clear Bible – is to learn the Scriptures better, so that we know Jesus better. In a way, I don’t even care where Revelation chapter 20 fits in a systematic eschatology. It was not originally written in order to tell us how to build a scheme for the end times. It was written to help us know Jesus better, and encourage us to trust him. All scripture is there to reveal Jesus, to call us to repent and trust him more, and trust him more fully in all areas of our lives. Only when we understand that are we ready to look at the text.

Remember, I don’t believe that Revelation is a strict chronological account, nor do a large number of better scholars than I. Revelation describes, in various ways, the coming of the kingdom from the time of Jesus’ incarnation until it is fully present to all people not only spiritually, but also physically. This second-to-last section of Revelation is giving us seven different pictures of the ultimate victory of Jesus.

In the past part, we learned that those who reject the graciousness of God given to us in Jesus Christ are standing in the way of the full coming of the kingdom of God. People who do not want have Jesus as king cannot be in a place where Jesus is fully and completely king. They must be removed, before the full kingdom of God can be manifested. One part of the ultimate victory of Jesus is the removal of those who absolutely refuse to have him as king. That is what we studied last time.

Another part of the victory Jesus – the part we are looking at today – is that the originator of the rebellion against God, that is, Satan himself, must also be defeated and removed.

In the first part of this book of Revelation, Jesus dictated letters to seven churches, which also stand for all Christians at all times. To each of the seven churches Jesus promises certain things to those who overcome, are faithful, who repent, who are victorious. Revelation chapter 20 is beginning to describe in more detail the rewards that were promised in Revelation chapter 2 and 3. For instance, in the letter to Smyrna Jesus says:

“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.” (Revelation 2:11).

In our text here it says:

“Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years.” (Revelation 20:6)

One of the big concerns of the book of Revelation is that good Christian people are being persecuted, imprisoned, and some, even deceived, and it seemed like God was absent; it seemed like He wasn’t doing anything. This text says “I am going to do something. I have a master plan, and the end result will be that you share in my victory, and justice will be served upon your enemies.”

Now, I suppose we must deal with this business of the thousand year reign. What, exactly does this mean? Once again, I hold my interpretation humbly and loosely, but, for what it’s worth, I’ll give it you. The picture we have is that Satan is bound for a definitive period of time – the perfect amount of time to give every human being a chance to repent. By the way, until recently, very few Christians throughout history thought this was a literal one-thousand years – not even those who were living before 1000 AD. After that, Satan will be released for a short time, and then defeated utterly. I believe that this passage is a word-picture, describing how Jesus defeated Satan through his death and resurrection, and how we who trust him are already, in a spiritual sense, united with Him in his victory. The time when Satan is released for a while is the time when some of these terrible things described in Revelation will happen. Then will come the final, ultimate victory. If I am right, then “the rest of the dead” refers to those who refuse to receive Jesus as their Lord and savior.

I have several biblical reasons for looking at it this way. First, Jesus himself, and his apostles after him, viewed what he did on the cross as a victory over the devil that resulted in the devil being severely limited in his ability to act in this world.

31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. (Jesus, in John 12:31)

14 Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil 15 and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

24 When the Pharisees heard this, they said, “The man drives out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.”
25 Knowing their thoughts, He told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, who is it your sons drive them out by? For this reason they will be your judges. 28 If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. (Matthew 12:24-29)

In this parable, most Bible teachers believe Jesus was referring to himself as the stronger man, who binds the devil.

Second, the New Testament often describes the process of salvation as moving from death to life, and also pictures us reigning with Christ, in some spiritual sense, even before we enter the New Heavens and the New Earth. I want to start with a couple passages that show two of three concepts covered in Revelation 20 – that on the cross, Jesus defeated the devil; that at the same time he also brought us from death to life:

. 13 He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. 14 We have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Him. Colossians 1:12-14

13 And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses. 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; He triumphed over them by Him. Colossians 2:13-15

When the New Testament speaks of “rulers and authorities” in this way, it usually means, “spiritual powers of evil.” So, this passage teaches that by the cross, Jesus defeated Satan and his demons, and delivered those who trust him from death to life. A few more, talking about “the first resurrection;” being transferred from death to life:

4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. Romans 7:4

14 For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. 15 And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

But, what about reigning with him? Do Christians really reign with Jesus before the end times? The apostles certainly thought so. There is a mystery here – meaning we are dealing with a  truth that is beyond our ability to fully understand. But the Holy Spirit, through the New Testament, teaches that in some sense, even before the end, we are seated in heaven with Jesus, reigning with him:

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6)

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Jesus taught that his kingdom has already begun, and we are a part of it:

20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

He also taught that He has shared his kingly authority with us:

18 I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Matthew 18:18

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19

He even specifies that he has given believers for all time authority specifically over the devil:

17 The Seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name.”
18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a lightning flash. 19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing will ever harm you. 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He doesn’t mean snakes and scorpions literally, and he makes it clear that our authority is “over all the power of the enemy.”

Finally, Revelation 20:6 says that they will be priests of God most high. The New Testament certainly teaches us that this is something that happens when we become Christians. Peter writes to Christians everywhere:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

John himself, earlier in Revelation, says that all believers in Jesus have been made priests of God:

To Him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by His blood, 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father — the glory and dominion are His forever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5-6)

Because the New Testament speaks of coming to Jesus as a change from being dead in our sins, to being alive in Christ; and also because it speaks of the cross as a victory over the devil and his demons; and because it says that somehow, spiritually, we are already with Christ in the heavenly places; and because it says that we share his authority over the devil, I think this 1000 year reign is a picture of the church between the time when God sent the Holy Spirit (shortly after the resurrection of Jesus) and the time of the end. By the way, I am not alone in this. There are many theologians who believe the same thing, including many who lived before 1,000 AD, and therefore might be forgiven for thinking that 1,000 was a literal number. The great Saint Augustine of Hippo (living in the 400’s), wrote:

During the “thousand years” when the devil is bound, the saints also reign for a “thousand years” and, doubtless, the two periods are identical and mean the span between Christ’s first and second coming.

Andrew of Caesarea, another early church bishop who also lived before the year 1,000, agrees, and he also advocates humility regarding the interpretation of these verses:

It is in no way good to understand the “thousand years” as referring to a thousand years as such…

Therefore, the “thousand years” are the time from the incarnation of the Lord until the arrival of the antichrist. Whether the matter is as we have interpreted it, or the thousand years are one hundred times ten, as some believe, or the thousand years are less than this, this is known to God alone, who knows how long his patience is beneficial to us, and he determines the continuance of the present life.

After the 1000 years, we have the great battle between good and evil. A lot of people make a big deal of Gog and Magog. God doesn’t. In fact, there is no battle at all. The powers of evil approach threateningly, and, while God’s people don’t lift a finger, the powers of evil are all destroyed by fire.                                                                                                                                                                                                           Let me offer a few brief lines for you consider as you apply this text to your life. First, I think many Christians don’t realize just how amazing our salvation is. Jesus doesn’t just give us a “barely passed.” Instead, he makes us rulers in his kingdom. We puny, stupid creatures are standing with one foot in heaven, and that gives us authority over all the power of the devil, plus a whole lot more, besides. Remember that: even in your darkest times, if you belong to Jesus, you are standing with one foot already in heaven.

Second, I think this text is telling us that to focus on the spiritual reality that has already begun. Though we may look marginalized and defeated, we are, in fact, gloriously victorious. The one who is responsible for so much of our pain and misery has already been defeated. He’s a bit like a mean dog on a chain – as long we pay attention, and don’t walk into his range, he can’t touch us. He will be released again only for a short while to accomplish God’s purpose for the end times. Then, it is lights out on him, forever.

Le the Spirit speak to you, today.

Revelation #38: The Danger of Superficial Grace

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It is our job to warn those who reject Jesus, but not to condemn them. On the other hand, when we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry. In Jesus alone is the perfect balance of grace and judgment.

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Revelation #38. Revelation 19:11 – 21. The Danger of Superficial Grace

I appreciate your patience with these sermon notes. I know I am not producing them as fast as before. The truth is, even as I write this, I am in severe pain, sick to my stomach, and I just generally feel awful. I will not allow all that to stop me, but sometimes I simply can’t help from slowing me down.

With the praise in heaven offered at the beginning of this chapter, and the announcement of the marriage of the Lamb, we have officially entered the second-to-last section of Revelation. I am not quite so sure of my own accuracy in dividing up this part of Revelation, but even if I get the chiastic structure somewhat wrong, we can still receive much simply from the text itself. In any case, I call this section: “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” Today, we will cover the first part of the victory of Jesus, which is the first defeat of Satan, covered in verses 19:11 – 20:3.

In the second section of the book of Revelation, we had the seven seals. The first seal was a rider on a white horse. Our analysis of the text showed that that rider represented the gospel going out into all the world. It was an indication that we presently live in a time of grace, a time when no one is being judged for their sins. Instead, God has been appealing for people to repent, and receive the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Now, in the sixth (and connected to the second) section of Revelation, we have a new rider on a white horse. Listen to the description of this rider. He is:

called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12 His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13 He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God.

Along with the vast majority of commentators throughout history, I believe that this rider represents Jesus. Since no human being is perfect, no human being could judge and make war in righteousness. The description of his eyes matches that of the description of Jesus in the first part of the book of Revelation. But the clincher is the last part: he is called the word of God. Remember, this book of Revelation was transmitted to us through the apostle John. Listen to what John says about Jesus and his gospel:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-18)

So, it is crystal clear that “the word of God,” means Jesus.

In our text today, Jesus has another name, which no one knows except himself (verse 12). I think we are told this in order to remind us that Jesus, being in very nature God, is far beyond our comprehension. We will never be able to fully understand him, and we certainly cannot control him, or judge him. I believe it says that his clothes are dipped in blood to remind us of the sacrifice that he made for us, and for all people.

These things are very important for us as we consider this text. The first white horse came to signify a time of grace, when God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ is given to all the world, and his judgment is withheld. But now judgment is coming and it is coming through Jesus Christ himself.

We have seen all the way through the book of Revelation that time and time again, people are given opportunities to repent. But this text tells us that there will come a day when that time really is over. God’s patience is vast, and he takes no pleasure in the death of the unrighteous.

11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

But in order to bring his people into a place of eternal joy and eternal safety, he must, at last, judge those who reject him. Revelation clearly depicts these two truths: that God is reluctant to condemn anyone, but that there will come a day when he will indeed do so, in order to usher in the new heavens and new earth for those who have not rejected him.

Again, it is Jesus himself who is sent to do the judging. I believe the reminder of his sacrifice (his clothes dipped in blood), and the fact that he has a hidden name, are there to make his right to judge all the more compelling. He is God, we are not, and we can never truly know him, or put him in a box. Also, the fact that he himself shed his own blood for us and suffered the torment of hell for us, makes his right to judge indisputable. He has already taken this terrible judgment upon himself. But if we refuse to let him do that, there is no alternative. We will have to own the judgment for ourselves, which means we become objects of God’s wrath.

This is very important, because Christians seem to be confused about judgment, and the confusion cuts two different ways. On the one hand, some people seem to think that it is their job to bring judgment and condemnation on those who are not Christians. Obviously, this text shows us that that is wrong: it is the right of Jesus, and Jesus alone. I think the following analogy might be helpful:

Imagine that you have a friend who regularly cheats on her taxes. You have another friend who happens to work for the Internal Revenue Service. You know for a fact, from your IRS friend, that sometime soon the government is going to crack down on tax fraud. Sooner or later, if your friend continues her pattern of cheating on taxes, she will get caught, and she will go to prison. Now, it is not your job to catch her, nor to throw her in prison. But what you can do – and what you should do, if you really love your friend – is to warn her about the coming judgment. You aren’t bringing legal proceedings against her, you are not trying to have her thrown in prison; those things are not your job.

However, many Christians seem to be handing out condemnation tickets to non-Christians whom they do not like. But that is not our job; we have no right to do such a thing. What we can do, and should do, is to warn our non-Christian friends about the coming judgment, and to appeal to them to receive the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ instead, while there is still time. There’s a big difference between warning, and condemning. There is a very large difference also, between those who claim to be Christians, and those who do not. If someone claims to be part of the body of Christ, and under the authority of Jesus, and yet they are continuing in a long-term pattern of blatant sin, we do have the right to talk to them. The judging of those who are not believers is not our task. The apostle Paul helps to clarify this. Below, When Paul says “bears the name of brother” we need to remember that most Jesus-followers called each other brother and sister. The word “Christian” was still not widely used. So “brother” means “Christian.” :

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

So it is not our job to judge those who are outside the body of Christ. We are only to warn. And even when it comes to judging those within the body of Christ, Jesus and the apostles gave very specific criteria. It is not a matter of anybody and everybody going around condemning people. There is a very clear process for church discipline. It is mostly a matter for the church leadership, and only in rare cases does it involve everyone in the church.

There is another error that Christians make that this text corrects. Many, many Christians these days seem to think that there is no final judgment at all. They say things like: “It’s all about love. Love conquers all. All we have to do is love. Period.” In a way, they are right. But love is much bigger than they seem to realize. For love to be real, there must be an alternative; and the alternative to loving God is evil. Therefore, as part of his love, Christ brings true, final and complete judgment upon those who reject his loving salvation. Remember the name that no one knows? We cannot put Jesus in a box. Very often, those who want to say that Jesus is only loving, and never judges, are putting him in a box of their own making. This text is crystal clear, for those who reject Jesus, there is a thorough and terrible judgment awaiting.

When we tell people – whether Christian or not – that there is no judgment for sin, no penalty for rejecting the grace offered in Jesus, we are acting as false prophets. Jeremiah spoke about people like this:

14 They have treated My people’s brokenness superficially,
claiming, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

When we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry.

Isaiah also saw that people did not like to talk about the fact that one day God will indeed judge the earth:

9 For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction.
10 They say to the seers, “See no more visions !” and to the prophets,“ Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. 11 Leave this way, get off this path,
and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:9-11)

People in the time of Isaiah didn’t want to hear about a God who holds people accountable for their sins. Neither do people in 21st century. But we are not acting truly lovingly if we hide the truth.

Paul warned Timothy about people like this, who will go looking for people to affirm their ideas, and avoid those who tell them the truth about God as revealed in the Bible.

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. 4 They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

We do no one any favors by hiding the truth. This book of Revelation is as much holy Scripture as any of the Gospels. And, honestly, you cannot read the Gospels, paying attention, without seeing that Jesus judges everyone based upon how they respond to himself. The message of shallow love; love that only affirms and never confronts, is not the message of Jesus. It is true that the Holy Spirit appeals to all people, inviting them in love into salvation through Jesus. But the reason for God’s passionate desire to be reconciled to people is that if they refuse, they will face terrible judgment, and that judgment will come from Jesus Himself. John captures both God’s love, and his judgment, perfectly. But we need to read past the first, very familiar part, and on to the end, in order to get the complete picture.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

So what we do with this? What does it mean for us, as we engage in real Christian community, go to work, spend time with our families, and so on? For me, it is always good to remember the difference between warning, and condemning. Warning someone about a coming disaster is an act of love. When we appeal to people to repent of their sins, and escape judgment, our love for those people should be evident. The less loving my warning sounds, the more likely it is that I am leaning towards condemning someone.

This passage, for me, is still a reminder of the grace of God. Jesus has not yet come as an avenging warrior. We are still in a time of grace. We have seen throughout the book of Revelation that God gives opportunity after opportunity to all people, in the hopes that some might repent, receive his grace, and escape the coming judgment. If there was no coming judgment, all of that would be sort of silly; even pointless. But the fact that there is a coming judgment makes God’s grace shine all the more clearly.

This passage also reminds me that the time of grace will one day have an end. For every single person, that end is no farther off than the end of their mortal lives here on earth. Those who preach love, and no judgment whatsoever, are false prophets; they are treating people’s brokenness superficially. This is not loving at all.

Finally, the purpose of the coming judgment is so that God can bring his people into a new heavens and a new earth; a perfect world without sorrow, hatred, or fear. The end goal of judgment is a glorious, loving future with God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this now.

Unwrapping Jesus

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Isaiah unpacks the greatest gift the world has ever had. 

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Christmas Eve 2018. Isaiah 9:6

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

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

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

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

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

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

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

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

So what exactly is this relevant message?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS

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

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2018 Advent Week 2: Preparing for the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVELATION #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.