Revelation #3 LORD OF PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Jesus with us

The first five verses of Revelation bring us incredible grace and comfort, by reminding who God is.

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Revelation #3. 1:1-5

 We have spent two messages on introductory material. There is much more to learn about the background and writing of Revelation, but my plan is to teach about those things as we go along. That way, you’ll get the information when you need it to understand the text.

I want to clean up just a few details from the first three verses. John says in verse 1 that what he is sharing what “will quickly take place.” This is the best way to phrase it in English because it shows the ambiguity of the phrase. It could mean “it will all take place soon,” or, “it will happen, whenever it happens, suddenly.” Also, at the end of verse 3, “the time is near,” speaks, in Greek, of physical nearness, more than chronological nearness. Make of that what you will, but I keep thinking of Peter, who wrote:

8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. (2Pet 3:8-9, HCSB)

This is very important to keep in mind as we read Revelation.

It is almost as if in verses 1-3 John is preparing his readers. He knows that the contents of his letter (the book of Revelation) are strange and weird. He is preparing us for that. Next, in verse 4, John writes a somewhat more traditional introduction:

4John: To the seven churches in Asia. Grace and peace to you from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

John identifies himself simply by his name. Though some Christians believe there was another John, “the elder of Ephesus,” there really isn’t any hard evidence for that. This is almost certainly John the Apostle. The Greek of Revelation is very different from that of John’s gospel and his three letters, but I think that is easily explained. It is likely that John wrote his other works with the aid of an amanuensis, which was, basically, a secretary, or scribe in the ancient world. So, the secretary-person probably helped John with the Greek phrases of his other work (Remember, Greek was not John’s native language). For Revelation, (also sometimes called “John’s Apocalypse”) however, John was a prisoner, on an island that was used as a prison camp. It would have been very surprising if John had the use of a secretary. In verses 1&2, he identifies himself by name, and as the one “who testified to God’s word and to the testimony  about Jesus Christ, in all he saw.” This sounds exactly like the Apostle John in his gospel:

He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth. (John 19:35, HCSB)

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24, HCSB)

It also sounds like John in his first letter:

2that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — 3what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us (1John 1:2-4, HCSB)

 14And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent His Son as the world’s Savior. (1John 4:14, HCSB)

 This is also in John’s third letter:

12Demetrius has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. And we also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true. (3John 1: 12, HCSB)

 I think we should certainly accept that this is John the Apostle. If for some reason, you still don’t want to think it was written by John the Apostle, that’s fine. Let’s understand, however, that Revelation is still the Word of God.

There is no reason to believe that the seven churches of Asia are symbolic, and every reason to believe that they were real, historical congregations of house churches in each of the named cities. When John writes, “Grace and peace to you,” that much is normal for most of the letters of the New Testament. His next phrases, however, are a bit different:

from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

This description of God as the one who is, was, and is to come provides us with a clue for the whole of Revelation. Some of what we read in this book is past, some present, some future. God himself is Lord over all three “at the same time,” so to speak. Understanding this will help us to make sense of the some of the crazy things in this book.

When we read “from the seven spirits before his throne,” it sounds a bit strange. Most commentators believe that this is how John is representing the Holy Spirit. That makes sense. The first part (who is, was and is to come) is the Father. Jesus Christ, the Son, is named in verse 5. The seven spirits, then, represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. Later on, in Revelation 3:1 and 4:5, John explicitly calls them “the seven spirits of God.” In other words, together, they represent the work of the Holy Spirit.

This interpretation is bolstered by other parts of the Bible. The prophet Zechariah once had a vision. In the vision, he saw a golden oil lampstand with seven connected lamps, and oil channels running to each of the seven. Zechariah asked an angel what it meant, and this is what the angel said:

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

In other words, the seven oil lamps symbolized the Holy Spirit. Remember, like Zechariah, John is writing in apocalyptic language. It is reasonable to assume the same meaning: the seven spirits of God are the many-branches of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Number 7 in Revelation

We might as well pause here and deal with the number seven. For Jewish people, the number seven meant completeness, finality, and perfection.

For John, I believe it especially means the completion of God’s full and perfect work in the world. John, and all Christians after him, believed in a Triune God: one being, made up of three distinct persons, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This means that three is the number of God.

John, and all Jews before him, thought of the number of four as indicating all of creation. We will see this when we get to chapter four in Revelation. Jews as far back as Ezekiel (590 BC, or so) imagined the world as divided into four parts: 1. The Wilderness 2. The Rural Areas 3. The Cities, and Cultures of Humankind 4. The Air.

So seven equals three (the number of God) plus four (the entirety of creation). It signifies God’s perfect work, plan, and will, expressed in the world.

Returning to our text, we don’t worship seven separate Holy Spirits. Instead, John describes him as “the sevenfold spirit of God” or “seven spirits of God” to express the work and will of the Holy Spirit in God’s creation. We are meant to know from this that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world.

Next, John brings Greeting from “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness.” It seems like a somewhat strange title. Aren’t the followers of Jesus witnesses for Christ? Why is He a witness? It might help to  know that in Greek, the word for “witness” is the same as the word for “martyr.” In John’s time, many Christians were being imprisoned, and some were even killed, for holding to their testimony that Jesus Christ is the God-man, savior of the world. I think John means to remind everyone that they are following in the footsteps of the original martyr: Jesus himself. Those who have died for their faith are in the best possible company: Jesus, the faithful martyr. Finally, Jesus is called, Ruler of the kings of earth.

I think, for now, we have enough to apply to our lives. Let’s begin with remembering that our Father is, was, and is to come. Nothing has ever happened to you that God cannot redeem for good (Romans 8:28). Even if you did not know him until later in life, He is the God of your past. If you let him, he can go back even to the muck of terrible things that you did, even to terrible things that were done to you, and redeem them through Jesus Christ. If you struggle with your past, I strongly urge you to pray about it. Invite the Lord of the past into your past. Give him permission to forgive, heal and redeem.

Our Father is also present. Nothing going on in your life right now is out of God’s control. He isn’t wringing his hands, saying, “Oh my! I never thought my people would ever get into this situation! What shall I do?” His plans are sometimes difficult – or even impossible – to understand (we only have to read on in Revelation to realize that). As I write this, I am fighting chronic pain in my left kidney that has been present for more than two years. I also have a new, arthritis-type pain all over my body, and I feel nauseous, two days out of three. But my greatest hope is to know my Father better in this present moment. Of course, I want pain relief and healing. It’s just that I want more to experience Him. And the wonderful thing is, that is what He promises I can have, here and now. He is my God, not just in the past or future, but now.

Our Heavenly Father is also our future. Nothing that comes to us in the future will be without God. When we worry about the future, the primary reason is that we are leaving God out of our calculations. He has already been to the future. He is there, and if we trust him, we can have peace about what is to come. Also, in the ultimate future, we will have more than just peace of mind. This book we are studying tells me that I will have pain relief and healing – if not now, then for certain, one day in the future. Paul wrote:

19If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1Cor 15:19, HCSB)

We have an unimaginably glorious, thrilling, joyful, meaningful, PERFECT future waiting for us if we persist in our faith. John will describe it in detail at the end of this book.

Perhaps we need to remember that the Holy Spirit, in all its fullness, is at work in the world, and in our hearts. If we are followers of Jesus, the Spirit of God is in us. Revelation will go on to show us that the Spirit is work all around us in the world, though we usually don’t notice it.

John describes Jesus Christ as the faithful martyr. Sometimes we feel alone in our suffering. Perhaps a divorced woman, suffering the results of the unfaithfulness of her husband, feels all alone in her emotional pain. Maybe a man who lost his wife to cancer feels the death of all his dreams about their future together. Jesus has gone ahead of you. He too died – not just in part, but in every way. And somehow, he took upon himself all of the struggles of humanity. He has experienced all of the same struggles we have:

14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens — Jesus the Son of God — let us hold fast to the confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time. (Heb 4:14-16, HCSB)

Sometimes, ridiculous as it is, I feel like a martyr. No one else I know seems to struggle like I do. I suspect, however, that my feelings are quite common among all people. Jesus Christ was the faithful martyr who suffered unjustly, yet remained faithful. I am in good company when I suffer in any way. Not only that, but he is with me in my suffering. He is here to give me grace and mercy as I struggle. His presence is right here in the middle of struggles, suffering, and loneliness.

Jesus is also the firstborn of the dead, which is another title of hope. My future is tied to his. His resurrection ensures my own. I won’t always suffer or struggle. There are wonderful things ahead. Paul, thinking of this wrote:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

Lastly, John writes that Jesus is also the ruler of the kings of the earth. That seems like a strange title, doesn’t it? When John wrote, there would have been almost no Christians in government, and very little hope (apparently) of there ever being Christians with influence in a worldly government. The most powerful man in the world insisted that others worship him as a god. He and his government were brutal, cruel, immoral and greedy. But John has just seen a vision of the world as God sees it, and he knows that no matter what it looks like, ultimate authority belongs to Jesus. Regardless of how it appears, Jesus Christ is over every king and ruler, and there is no power on earth greater than Him.

When John wrote, the Roman emperor, and everyone around him, believed he was the most powerful man on earth. No doubt, in our time, the current president of the United States believes he is the most powerful man in the world. They are all wrong. Jesus is the ultimate power. Though for a little while, Jesus gives rulers and kings a limited ability to do what they want, the buck stops not with the president, but with Jesus. He is in control. This calls for faith, because it sure doesn’t look like Jesus is in control. Yet, that is why John writes, and shares his vision: to encourage our faith. This is a call to believe these things that John has written. One way to “take hold” of these things in faith is by thanking God for them. I encourage you to take some time right now to thank God for being there in your past, here in your present, and in control of your future. Thank Jesus for his faithful death on our behalf, and that he allows us to be part of his company of witnesses. Even thank him for the “little deaths” that you might have to die here and now, knowing, like Jesus, that our reward is certain. Thank him for his many-splendoured work in the world, and in your heart, through the Holy Spirit. Thank him for being in control of the world, even in control of those who have worldly authority over us.

Let the Holy Spirit continue to apply these verses to your life right now.

REVELATION #2: THE BOOK OF SEVENS

Cross Tree

These 22 chapters help us keep believing in Jesus when the evidence makes it difficult. Even John the Baptist once wondered if he ought to look for another Messiah to follow. There are times, sometimes long seasons, when life simply doesn’t work very well, and no matter how hard we search, Jesus seems to have disappeared. Maybe he was never there.

“He is here,” John declares, “and He has not disappeared. God has let me see all that’s happening from heaven’s point of view. It’s breathtaking. The lamb is roaring His way through history to complete the Immanuel Agenda.”

–Larry Crabb.

 

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation 2: Introduction, Part 2.

Please bear with me as we spend another message almost entirely on introductory material. Revelation is unique in its complexity and obscurity, and if we truly want to hear what God is saying through this book, we need to put the time in to understand: how it was written, why it was written, and to whom it was written.

I want to make sure that everyone who reads this understands something: I approach this book with extreme humility. I am confident that God created me, at least in part, to bless others with a better understanding of the Bible, and I trust that He fulfills that purpose fairly often. I promise you that I am using my God-given gifts and resources to understand Revelation as best as I can, and to communicate what I am learning, as best as I can. However, I do not claim to be the final authority on Revelation; not even close. But, I know my Father in Heaven, and I know He is able to speak to us through this book, and for that reason alone, I think it is worth your time to follow along as we go through this series. I just don’t want you to get the impression that I think I have Revelation all figured out.

That brings me to another point: We must be prepared to not figure everything out. I guarantee that when we are done with this book, we will all still have quite a few questions, myself included. We are studying Revelation because it is part of God’s inerrant Word, and it is an oft-neglected part. Not only that, but time and time again I have experienced how God can make clear by His Holy Spirit scriptures which were previously puzzling to me. However, in the end, we need to live with some uncertainty in the details. We can do this because we are certain about the One who controls the details – our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some of what I say may be new to you, or different from what you had previously heard about particular passages. While I do not claim to have it all figured out (who could?) I trust that the Holy Spirit will be guiding my own study and teaching, as well as your studies and thinking.

My final encouragement is to throw away any “road map” you might want to make from this book, and instead concentrate on listening to what the Holy Spirit wants to say specifically to you through this wonderful book.

A Seven-Part Structure?

One of the fascinating things about this book is that it appears to be structured in sets of sevens. There are seven letters; seven seals; seven trumpets. Then it isn’t so clear for a while, until we get to a fourth set: seven bowls. Most commentators, myself included, think that John probably intended three more sets of sevens, in order to make the book into seven parts, each with seven subparts.

The seven part structure is important, because it represents a special way of writing used in ancient times. These days, Most writers try to organize their writing in certain accepted ways. Speakers do the same thing. Most writers and speakers basically use the following type of outline:

I. Introduction

II. Point A

III. Point B – builds on point A, and adds some new information.

IV. Point C – builds on point A & B, and adds some new information.

V. Summary & Conclusion

Sometimes there are more than three points in the center, but you get the general idea.

Back in ancient times, there was also a common way to write and speak, but it was different from what we do now. Scholars call it “chiastic structure” (pronounced “kai-ass-tik”). Sometimes it was used to write a whole book. Other times it was just used to tell stories or make individual points. Chiastic structure looks like this:

A. First point.

B. Second Point.

C. Third Point.

CENTRAL POINT

C1. Connects back to the third point (C) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

B1. Connects back to the second point (B) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

A1. Connects back to the first point (A) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

One of the things this does is to highlight the central point and make it stand out. It also helps readers to remember how we reached the central point, because of the parallelism or repetition leading back to the end point. Obviously, chiastic structure must be made up of an odd number of points, with a minimum number of five. Seven is a number well suited to these structures, which are also called “chiasms.” They were often used in ancient times to help people memorize oral history. There are many chiasms in Genesis, and also in Homer’s Odyssey, for example. It could be that John made use of chiasms to help him remember what he heard and saw in his vision.

So, all the sevens in Revelation appear to be chaisms. From literary structure point of view, it’s almost like one of those wooden Russian nesting dolls (sometimes called Matryoshka), with chiasms nested in other chiasms.

But the whole seven business in Revelation can be frustrating as well. The four sets of seven I mentioned are quite clear. Most commentators (though not all) agree that Chapters 12 through 14 appear to clearly be another set of “seven significant signs,” which now gives us five total sets of seven:

Part 1: 7 Seven Letters;

Part 2: Seven Seals;

Part 3: Seven Trumpets;

Part 4: Seven Signs; Part

5: Seven Bowls.

 

The remaining two sets – if, in fact, there are two more sets of seven – are rather more controversial. Out of six commentators – seven, if you include me – there is not one that agrees with another about how to organize the other two sets of seven. I think every way of doing it – including my own – seems a bit forced and artificial, compared to the five clear sets of seven.

In spite of the frustration identifying sections 6 and 7, however, almost all scholars are clear that chapters 12-14 make up the heart of this book (the fourth set of sevens), and that is very useful, as we shall see once we get into the text a bit more.

 The First Readers

As with all books of the Bible, the best approach is to try to understand what Revelation would have meant to those who first heard it.  Once we know what it meant to the first readers, and only then, we can begin to apply it to our own lives.

In order to do that, we need to know a bit about the Christians who would have been the first readers of John’s Revelation.

John wrote between 90-95 AD. Jesus had ascended into heaven some sixty years or so earlier, promising to return. And yet he had not returned. Some of the things that Jesus had predicted had apparently come true: the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. But even that event was now 25 years in the past, and still he had not returned. Christians were still a very small minority in the Roman Empire. Some cities had several house churches in them. Others had only one; and of course, there were some cities that had no Christians at  all. Even in the cities where the church was strong (like Ephesus) Christians held no power or influence, and were more or less helpless to defend themselves against discrimination or persecution.

And persecution was becoming more and more of a problem. Revelation was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Though several emperors before him claimed to be Divine, Domitian was the first Roman emperor to insist that his subjects worship him as a god. He required everyone in the Roman empire to offer a pinch of incense at shrines that were set up in his honor.

Jews, however, did not have to worship the Emperor. Fifty or sixty years before Jesus was born, A military leader from Palestine, near Israel, supported Julius Caesar in a war against his rival, Pompey. This was Antipater, father of King Herod the Great. Caesar rewarded Antipater by making him Governor of Judea. Caesar, believing (wrongly) that Antipater was a Jew, awarded special privileges to Jews in the Roman empire. One of the most important of those privileges is that they were left alone in the matter of religion and worship. So, when Emperor Domitian required his subjects to worship him, the Jews were exempt.

Christians were initially exempt as well, since the Romans believed that Christians were simply a special type of Jew. However, Jewish people all over the empire felt that Christians were polluting and destroying Judaism. Therefore, when emperor worship became required, many Jews took the opportunity to tell the Roman authorities that Christians were not part of their religion, and therefore were disobeying the law by not offering worship to the Emperor. They often “outed” specific Christians to the authorities, causing them to be whipped, thrown into prison, and sometimes even executed.

Meanwhile, the world continued on its wicked way. Evil people prospered. Idol worship, immorality, oppression, injustice and greed all continued, apparently unchecked by God’s power.

It would have been very easy for Christians at that time to start doubting Jesus. Would he really come back? Was the whole thing even real? Where is he now? Does he even care about us, about our struggles? Doesn’t he see the terrible things being done to his people? Doesn’t he know the monstrous evil in the Roman empire?

Bible commentator Leon Morris puts it like this:

We must not think of [Revelation] as a kind of intellectual puzzle (spot the meaning of this symbol!) sent to a relaxed church with time on its hands and an inclination for solving mysteries. It was sent to a little, persecuted, frustrated church, one which did not know what to make of the situation in which it found itself. (Leon Morris. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Revelation.)

Whenever we deal with a text in Revelation, we need to remind ourselves of these concerns that were very big for the Christians who first read it. We need to consider what the message of Revelation meant to them, in those circumstances, and only then can we begin to apply it to our own time and situation.

Author Larry Crabb gives us a helpful way to look at Revelation:

These 22 chapters help us keep believing in Jesus when the evidence makes it difficult. Even John the Baptist once wondered if he ought to look for another Messiah to follow. There are times, sometimes long seasons, when life simply doesn’t work very well, and no matter how hard we search, Jesus seems to have disappeared. Maybe he was never there.

“He is here,” John declares, “and He has not disappeared. God has let me see all that’s happening from heaven’s point of view. It’s breathtaking. The lamb is roaring His way through history to complete the Immanuel Agenda.”

Because of this, I think we should not get too distracted in the business of unraveling all of it. We should keep our eyes on the big picture. Certainly, at times, we may be able find the meaning of one thing or another. But remember, this isn’t some kind of 1st Century spiritual Sudoku puzzle. It isn’t about solving puzzles. The best way, then, is to focus on the big picture, and the meanings that would be obvious to Christians at the time when John wrote.

So let’s consider the first three verses once more:

1The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, 2who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw. 3The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near! (Rev 1:1-3, HCSB)

Dear brother or sister in Christ, our Lord has not forgotten you. He has not abandoned you. He has a plan, and He is in control of history, empires, cultures and even your life. He is nearer to you than you realize. Do not lose heart!

WHAT IF JESUS DIDN’T SAY IT?

words in red

We tend to place a high value on Jesus’ words – the “words in red,” and we should. But we should place the same value on the entire New Testament. After all, the source is exactly the same.

 

 

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Understanding the Bible #9.

As we’ve gone through this series, I’ve heard a few questions people have asked that I think are worth delving into. Recently, someone showed me a post on Facebook. The caption said: “What Jesus said about Homosexuality” Underneath it was…nothing. That’s accurate, in a technical sense, but not the complete story. For one thing, Jesus’ apostles did say some things about the subject, elsewhere in the New Testament. In any case, the point, presumably, is that Christians should not be saying anything about it, since Jesus didn’t. A similar issue was raised by an Albanian man that I spoke with in Corfu, Greece last fall. He argued that Jesus never claimed to be God – instead, that claim was made by the apostles, not Jesus himself.

Both of these arguments depend upon the same kind of faulty reasoning, and the same silly and inconsistent approach to the bible. The first part of it goes like this: “It’s supposed to be all about Jesus, right? So I’ll listen only to the words of Jesus. What the apostles wrote doesn’t matter.”

Let’s look at this by using another issue, one that is not controversial today. Here it is, another thing that is technically true: Jesus never said anything about slavery. Think about that for a moment. What does that mean? Did Jesus endorse slavery? Does that mean we Christians should not call slave-trading wrong and sinful?

Now, class it’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention. Does anyone remember where the New Testament came from? How is that we know what Jesus said in the first place? The apostles heard it, taught it, and wrote it down. To put it another way, it is the apostles who gave us the words of Jesus. If you don’t want to pay attention to what the apostles wrote, than you cannot pay attention to what Jesus said either, since we got that from the apostles.

Let’s look at it another way. Earlier in this series, we found a lot of evidence to suggest that the apostles wrote reliably and accurately about real historical events and situations, and also about Jesus and his teaching. There is no legitimate reason to accept the gospels, which were written by his apostles, but not the other writings of the other apostles. If you believe that the apostles correctly recorded that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” you have exactly the same reasons for believing that the apostles are passing on the teaching of Jesus when they tell us that slave-trading is evil (1 Timothy 1:10) – even though we cannot find Jesus directly saying so in the gospels.

To put it simply: the entire New Testament is the teaching of, and about Jesus. It all comes from the same source – the Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostles to remember and write. We know what Jesus said, because the apostles wrote it down. Although the letters of the New Testament are in a different form than the gospels, they are still the teachings of Jesus, passed on by the apostles. In other words, what Paul writes in Romans should be just as important to us as what Jesus says in the book of Mark.

There’s another thing. John makes it clear that his own gospel does contain every single word that Jesus ever said. The way he puts it, not even the other three gospels would suffice to write down everything Jesus did and said:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25, HCSB)

Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of what he said, and make it clear to them, and also tell them other things that they need to know:

“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, HCSB)

We believe, as Jesus said, that the Holy Spirit reminded the apostles what Jesus said, and also revealed other important truth to them, and guided them as they wrote it down. That applies, not just to the gospels, but to the entire New Testament. In this passage, Jesus himself says that after he leaves this world, the Spirit would guide them into truth that they had not yet received from him. So, if you don’t believe the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write what Jesus thinks about slave-trading, why do you believe he inspired Luke to write that Jesus has concern for the poor?

The first answer to the person who claims that Jesus said nothing about a given topic is to see whether that topic shows up anywhere else in the New Testament. If it does, than you can be sure, it is the teaching of Jesus. Technically, it’s true that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not record any direct quotes of Jesus that use the word “slave-trader.” But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit to share the teaching of and about Jesus, does say something about it.

Some people will argue that Paul did not know Jesus personally, and so his letters are not the real teaching of Jesus. We went over all that in part #3 of this series. Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to him specially, quite some time after his resurrection, and opened his mind to know and understand the Good News (Gal 12:1-16; 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-7). The other apostles, the ones who had actually known Jesus, affirmed that Paul was preaching and teaching the true message of Jesus (Gal 2:6-10; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Acts 9:22-30; 15:1-35). In fact, all throughout the book of Acts we have ample evidence that Paul was accepted early on as an apostle of Jesus, and his teaching was in accord with the rest of the apostles.

Let me say it again: the entire New Testament, including the letters of Paul, is the teaching of Jesus, passed on by the Holy Spirit, through the apostles. We have all sorts evidence to affirm this, and none to contradict it.

Saying “I only believe or follow the words in red [Jesus’ words],” is in fact, silly and illogical. The “words in red” came from the same place as the rest of the New Testament – the apostles. If you don’t believe the apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus’ teachings to write what they wrote in their letters, there is no reason to believe that they got the words of Jesus in the gospels correct either. Of course, I’ve already shared, earlier in the series, the many reasons I think the apostles got it all right.

This series has been here to answer questions you might have about the bible, or how to understand it. Because of that, I want to explore one more side of the “Jesus didn’t say anything about this…” question. Last week, in a small group meeting, I pointed out that Jesus never said anything about slavery. One of our excellent teenagers said, “Yeah, but doesn’t the golden rule kind of cover that?” In words, though he didn’t specifically talk about slavery, Jesus did say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, according to the teaching of Jesus, if you don’t think you’d like being a slave yourself, you shouldn’t make slaves of anyone else.

This is a great point. Jesus did not overtly condemn prostitution, child-pornography, or incest, either. But you don’t have to be a trained theologian to recognize that Jesus often said things that apply to a whole host of different situations. In Matthew 19:1-6. Jesus made a broad, sweeping statement about human sexual relationships. He said that God created sex for marriage between a man and a woman. Any kind of sex outside of the marriage relationship is called, in Greek, “porneia.” The most popular English bibles translate this “sexual immorality,” or “immorality.” Jesus didn’t name all the possibilities included in “sexual immorality,” but he made it clear that he meant anything sexual outside of one-woman/one man marriage. In Matthew 15:19, among other places, he makes it clear that all sexual immorality creates a problem with God’s moral law. Now, Jesus fulfilled the moral law on our behalf, and if we trust him, we are forgiven. If we really do trust him, he is now living inside us, and he doesn’t want our lives to be used in that way anymore – it goes against his Holy nature, and he has placed that Holy nature inside of us. Therefore, as Jesus-followers, we are supposed to stop it if we’ve done it, and stay away from it from now on. If we need help to do so, we can receive that help from the Holy Spirit and from other believers. The rest of the New Testament affirms all this.

The point is not to condemn anyone who has sinned in this way. The point is, Jesus did in fact teach about all human sexuality, even if he didn’t specifically name certain sins. If we claim to follow him, we should at least be heading in the direction he points, even if we follow imperfectly.

This turns out be the case concerning most of the other things that Jesus did not specifically talk about. And, as we have said, even when Jesus didn’t say something specifically in one of the gospels, we have the rest of the New Testament which also reliably passes on the teaching of and about Jesus.

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A completely different question was raised in one our discussions in our house-church. Some people wanted to know more about what we call “apocalyptic prophecy.” I mentioned this kind of scripture briefly in part six of the series. We’ll go over it again here with a little more depth because some folks had further questions about it, and truthfully, apocalyptic prophecy represents one of the most misunderstood and misused parts of the bible.

Apocalyptic prophecy is fairly rare in the bible. Most of it is found in parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and revelation (and a few other chapters, scattered throughout some of the other prophetic books). This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. The apocalyptic parts of the bible often appear to be talking about the “end times” (the period of history right before the end of the world), and they are frequently used by cults to come up with all sorts of weird doctrines.

We have to read it in context. Particularly important is to understand the historical and cultural context in which the prophet lived. We need to understand that the language of apocalyptic is definitely not literal, or teaching or even narrative. It is poetic and even mystical. We need to hold firmly to the clear and easily understandable portions of the bible, and use those to aid our understanding of apocalyptic prophecy. With apocalyptic, I am even willing say that we should be open to the possibility that we won’t completely clearly understand what is meant. We should never use apocalyptic in a way that contradicts what is already clear in different parts of the bible.

One of the worst abuses of apocalyptic prophecy is to use it as kind of a road-map, or detailed timeline of the end-times. It is most definitely not intended to be anything like that. Concerning the end of the world, and his return, Jesus said,

“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Matt 24:36, HCSB)

That is clear. Therefore, we should not interpret apocalyptic prophecy as a definitive roadmap to the end times. If it clearly gave us a timeline to the return of Jesus and the end of the old world, then Jesus would have been wrong in saying that no one can know for sure when it will be. Apocalyptic prophecy may tell us the types of things that will happening, but it certainly can’t be specific enough so that people will then be able to say “Aha! According to Revelation, the world will definitely end within the next three to five years!”

The main apocalyptic parts of the bible were prophesied to God’s people when they were severely oppressed by powerful foreign empires. Ezekiel and Daniel spoke to those who lived as captives under the Babylonians, Persians and Medes. Zechariah, not long after, prophesied to people who were trying to re-establish a colony of Jews in Israel, surrounded by powerful and lawless nations around them. John wrote Revelation at a time when the Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued the active persecution of Christians. Domitian was aided in this by some Jewish communities who saw Christianity as blasphemy, and wanted it destroyed.

Because virtually all apocalyptic prophecy was written in similar historical circumstances, there are certain features that we can learn about all of it. Because it was written to people under foreign oppression, it contains images and pictures that would have been understandable to those who heard them, but almost incomprehensible to outsiders. In other words, apocalyptic was a kind of code language to people in persecution. The code is not about some secret key to the end-times – what the code hides are words of judgment upon the oppressors, and encouragement and hope for the oppressed.

The problem is that we today, are mostly outsiders. It’s hard for us to understand the significance of the weird visions and dreams of apocalyptic literature. The first step in understanding is to realize that we do not understand, and we need to investigate a lot more before we can see these prophecies the same way the original hearers understood them.

But here is one thing that can help: The main message of the apocalyptic prophecies is consistently one of hope; God has not forgotten his people, and he will take steps to deliver them and to bring justice against those who have persecuted them. He is still active in history, he still has plans, and he intends to carry them out.

We get caught up in what, specifically, those plans are. But the point is more that God has them, than that we are supposed to know them in great detail. Take, for example, the book of Revelation. It was written to Christians who were suffering under the oppression Roman government, which was aided by angry Jewish communities. When we look at the book from a big-picture perspective, we see that again and again, it repeats these messages:

  • · The Lord knows that you are suffering, and he hasn’t forgotten you.
  • · Those who oppress you will be judged for what they have done
  • · God has a plan to redeem and save you
  • · God hasn’t stopped acting in history. He has plans to bring human history to the place where he wants it to be
  • · Death, and the end of history are things for believers to look forward to – God’s plans for you are wonderful, and go far beyond this life on our present earth.

These are the main things we are supposed to get from Revelation. Often we fail to get these wonderful messages of grace, because we are too caught up in things like trying to figure out which individual the anti-Christ is. But all we really need to know is that the anti-Christ is bad, and God has plans for defeating him and protecting you from him. While he does that, you will not be forgotten, and the Lord will be with you in your trials.

Let me try and give you an example of understanding apocalyptic prophecy. Revelation 13:1-10 describes a “beast.” I’m almost certain that the first readers of Revelation would have understood that the “beast” was a code word for the Roman Empire and its emperor, Domitian. Domitian demanded that everyone in the Roman world worship the Emperor as a divine being. He severely persecuted everyone who refused to do so (Jews were exempted from this, but not Christians). The first Christians to read Revelation would easily have identified what John’s vision described.

But in this day and age, the same message could apply to Christians who suffer under Islamic persecution. In such places, Muslims demand that everyone must confess: “Allah is God, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” Like the beast of Revelation 13, Islam has authority in many places to blaspheme (according to Christians) and to persecute those who do not agree with them or worship as Muslims.

In this way, we can see that apocalyptic prophecy can remain relevant and encouraging to Christians throughout history. My advice is to consider apocalyptic prophecy in this way, and abandon any silly attempts to use it as a timeline of the end times.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground this time. Hopefully, it all helps as we learn to understand the bible.