REVELATION #40: THE BOOK OF LIFE

close up of paper against black background
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

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.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 40

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 #38: The Danger of Superficial Grace

business care clean clinic
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 38

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.

REVELATION #23. THE WITNESS OF CHURCH AND WORD

Two Witnesses

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 23

Revelation 23 #  Revelation 11:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2He asked me, “What do you see? ”

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

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

I said, “No, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVELATION #22. THE SWEET & THE BITTER

Rev #22

 It is a sweet thing for us to absorb the Word of God into our minds and hearts. It is good to tell others. However, the fact that some will reject God finally and forever is a bitter truth. Even so, the Lord will exhaust all possibilities before unleashing the full and final judgment that is coming. He wants to give the people on earth every possible opportunity to repent before it is too late.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 22

Revelation #22.  Revelation 10:1-11

1Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” (Rev 10:1-4, ESV2011)

We are in the third major section of Revelation. We have studied six of the seven parts of that section. This is the beginning of the seventh part. As with the seventh part of the second section, it is not a continuation of what was going on (the blowing of the trumpets) but an interlude, giving us a “pause in the action” and telling us some other things before moving on.

Some people have interpreted the mighty angel to be Christ himself, but Jesus is never described as an angel elsewhere; quite the contrary. There is no reason to think this is anything but what John describes: A mighty angel. The fact that he has one foot on the sea and the other on land, and that he is wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, describes that his mission is for all of creation. Also, the rainbow might be a reminder of God’s promise to Noah, that he would never again destroy everything by flood. I tend to favor that idea, because I think this entire interlude is about how God is almost reluctant to bring about the final destruction of those who reject him. The rainbow reminds us of that.

Moving on, let us consider the seven thunders. I have mentioned before that there are many ways of interpreting the book of  Revelation. Perhaps the most popular method these days is the method of creating a timeline by picking parts of Daniel and Zechariah, taking a chapter of Matthew here, a passage in Luke there, and a few verses from both 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. All these passages are combined with Revelation, and a timeline for the end of the world is created. This timeline does not arise naturally from any of the books separately. That should be a warning to us. Picking and choosing from different pieces of the Bible and combining those pieces to make something that isn’t actually found in the Bible is not good Bible scholarship. With that method, we could make the Bible say anything at all. In fact, that method is frequently used by cults.

I wonder if the Holy Spirit inspired Revelation 10:1-4 precisely in order to rebuke that sort of activity. Think about this. We have had seven seals and six trumpets. We will shortly have the seventh trumpet, and then seven “bowls.” Each of the seals contained significant signs and events. This was also true of the trumpets, and it will be true of the bowls. It is natural then, to assume that these “thunders” contain significant things in the same way as the seals, trumpets and bowls. However, the thunders are sealed up, and not revealed to anyone. Because of this, there is no “timeline” that can accurately incorporate the seven thunders, therefore there can be no accurate timeline for the end of the world. The content of the seven thunders could render any and all of these very specific theories invalid.

Respected Bible scholar Leon Morris puts it very well:

“…it is a warning against the kind of date-fixing that has characterized some schemes of prophecy based upon this book. On John’s own showing we do not have all the information. God has kept some things back from us. Let us not proceed as though all has been revealed.”

The text for this time continues like this.

5And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay, 7but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets. (Rev 10:5-7, ESV2011)

Remember, the seven seals describe the time leading up to the end. For all intents and purposes, I believe we are now living during the time of the seven seals. So, during this time, God allows wars, economic hardships and diseases, in the hope that they will bring some to repentance. But above all, during this time, the Gospel is going out into all the world, so that people can receive the grace of God through Jesus.

When the seventh seal is opened, this time of grace will be ended. God will begin to allow a limited judgment for sin to fall on people. But before God ends that time of grace, he pauses. During that pause, (found in Revelation chapter 7) We are given assurances that God knows his own people, and will protect them from His wrath against sin. We were given a vision of the future of God’s people when all this is over.

Once the pause ends with the opening of the seventh seal, things get much worse for those who reject God. Each trumpet escalates the judgments against sin; each trumpet escalates the pain and suffering of those who refuse to repent. We can imagine how much worse it will be after the final trumpet. But before that final trumpet, we have another, much longer pause. The angel swears that once that seventh trumpet has been sounded, there will be no more delay. Therefore, God delays now, before the trumpet sounds, and it is a longer delay than previously.

One thing that  this shows us is that the Lord will exhaust all possibilities before unleashing the full and final judgment that is coming. He wants to give the people on earth every possible opportunity to repent before it is too late. At this point in Revelation we are no longer in the “age of grace,” but that does not mean there will be no grace at all to be found. One of the major themes of Revelation is God’s continued reluctance to have to destroy those who reject him. Though judgment is coming, there are many pauses before the final end.

Once more the text goes on:

8Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” 10And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” (Rev 10:8-11, ESV2011)

John is told to take and eat the little scroll. Many people have speculated about what this scroll represents. I think it represents the remaining part of the prophecy of Revelation. The scroll is described as a “bibliaridion,” which means, essentially, “booklet.” In other words, there isn’t a lot to it. I think this is meant to communicate that the end is almost upon us – there is not much left to say; God’s word is almost complete.

The eating of a scroll is actually a well-known illustration to symbolize absorbing God’s word in order to then communicate it to others. Ezekiel had a similar experience, five hundred years before John:

1And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” 2So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 3And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezek 3:1-3, ESV2011)

Jeremiah did also, a little earlier than Ezekiel:

16Your words were found, and I ate them. Your words became a delight to me and the joy of my heart, for I am called by Your name, Yahweh God of Hosts. (Jer 15:16, HCSB)

The picture is that these prophets took God’s words into their very beings, they absorbed it fully. It “tasted good” to them because it was a sweet experience to be so close to God that they were receiving His message directly. There is a glorious intimacy with God associated with hearing his word, and having a call to proclaim it. I am nothing compared to these men, but I have found that same sweetness in deeply studying God’s Word, absorbing it into my mind and heart, and telling others about it.

That made the taste sweet for John as well. But for John, it was also bitter. As he absorbed the message, and saw that what is coming is the full unleashing of God’s wrath, he also felt the bitterness of knowing that some people will continue to reject God finally and ultimately, without repentance. For some, he is proclaiming eternal damnation. Once again, this is a picture of God’s desire for all people to return to Him. It is a bitter thing that some will not.

I am seeing two major themes from the text today. The first theme is about God’s Word. In the first place, we must not be arrogant enough to believe we know everything there is to know about life in general, or even about God; nor about the end times in particular. This text tells us that he has withheld some information from us. I have said for many years that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about God, human nature, how to be saved for eternity, and how best to live while we are on earth. However, it does not tell us all there is to know about everything. Certainly there are many things that are true that are not contained in the Bible – mathematical equations, factual discoveries and so on. This text suggests that there are even spiritual things that the Bible does not reveal, because we don’t need to know them. This should help to keep us humble.

Secondly, however, this text reminds us how sweet it is to know God better through his Word – the Bible. It is sweet to study, and meditate, and to take the words of scripture deeply to heart. I strongly commend this to all Christians. It’s the best-tasting spiritual diet there is. Just open up your Bibles every day; find the best time that works for you. Put a bit of effort into it – the reward is large in proportion to the effort.

Third, the text today reveals two attitudes of God that are held in tension. On the one hand, He is determined to finally put all things right, and bring about the end of this decaying, corrupted, temporary world. He will do it. On the other hand, God continues to delay in the hopes that perhaps more people will turn to Him and avoid the final and eternal sorrow. Even when the time for judgment is at hand, he continues to extend grace.

Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart today!

Revelation #18 JUDGMENT: GOOD, OR EVIL?

Judgment

The judgment of God is problematic for many people in today’s culture. Read on for some thoughts about how to understand and talk about justice, and God’s judgment of the world.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 18

Revelation #18. The Problem of Judgment & Punishment

This next message is not directly about the text of Revelation, but rather about issues raised by the text. I think it is important that we deal openly and clearly with the messages of judgment, justice and vengeance. All over the Book of Revelation we find God judging the wicked, and, in many cases, causing them to suffer. For instance:

3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Revelation 9:3-6, HCSB).

Even the good saints who have already been martyred, seem almost bloodthirsty. When the fifth seal is opened, the Martyrs cry out:

10They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ” (Rev 6:10, HCSB)

The idea that the wicked will be punished for their sins is problematic for our culture. For one thing, the dominant view in Western culture is that no one is truly wicked (with the exception of one or two people like Hitler). On the other hand, they also believe that no one is truly good, either: they think, in general, that all people of faith are hypocrites who don’t actually practice what they preach.

Non-Christians and pseudo-Christians in Western society do have a sense of morality, a curious mix that is partially derived from the Bible, and partially from secular humanism. Very high on the moral list of secular culture is that we should not judge anyone. I think this has rubbed off on most Christians also. So, how do we handle the judgments in Revelation? How do we handle the destruction and death that is released by God’s command? What do we do with this almost black and white view of the righteous and the wicked? I think there are several points that might help us understand and accept these concepts in Revelation.

1. God is infinite, and we are not. If you’ve been following this blog in real time, you know that last time we talked extensively about how God is so much greater than we are. Trying to understand God is like trying to use a tablespoon to contain the contents of a running garden hose. The tablespoon is filled up immediately, but there is no end to the water that comes out of the hose. This is what it is like when we try to understand God. What this means is that there could be a very convincing and satisfying explanation for all of the things that trouble us, and yet we will never be able to understand it. In fact because God is infinite, and we are not, it is very likely that we won’t be able to understand much about God at all, including the way he judges the earth. In plain language, we need to accept that God has very good reasons for what he does, and that we cannot understand very many of those reasons.

2. God is God, and we are not. In other words he can do whatever he wants to do. He made this world and he can do what he likes with it. Even if we could understand the reasons for what he does, we have no right to judge him. Another very important aspect of this point is that we human beings are not the ones who do the judging. It is absolutely wrong for us to take judgment into our own hands.

If we say something different from what the Bible says, even if we think we are being more lenient, then we are putting ourselves in the place of God, and judging others.

When we tell other people what the Bible says, we are not judging others – we are simply repeating what God has already said. Even so, we must remember that final judgment belongs to God, and it is not up to us to put God’s judgment into action.

The martyrs under the altar were asking God to act, because they understood that it was not their own place. Violence is never an appropriate expression for any part of the life of a Christian. We may, in extreme situations use violence to defend ourselves from physical danger. But we may never consider ourselves the instrument of God’s judgment, and it is not our place to deliberately harm any other human being. When David had the opportunity to kill King Saul, even when Saul was pursuing him in order to kill him, David refused. He said:

12“May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD take vengeance on you for me, but my hand will never be against you. 13As the old proverb says, ‘Wickedness comes from wicked people.’ My hand will never be against you. (1Sam 24:12-13, HCSB)

This should be our attitude towards those who oppose us also. Paul wrote to the Romans:

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19, HCSB)

We Christians interpret the whole  Bible in relationship to Jesus. Therefore, even though there are texts in the Old Testament instructing the Israelites to wage “Holy War,” those texts cannot be taken literally by those who follow Jesus. Jesus himself made this very clear:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:38-45, ESV2011)

Clear enough? God will take care of these things. It isn’t our place to harm anyone.

3. These violent and overwhelming judgments tell us that sin is serious.

Imagine that a terrible sickness was discovered. It is a virus that inflames the lining of the brain. Those who get it eventually go mad, and if not restrained, many of them, in their insanity, commit cruel and horrible crimes. Driven by the disease, they rape, humiliate, torture and murder others. Eventually, everyone who gets the virus dies; the mortality rate is 100%. It is extremely contagious, and there is no cure.

Now, some of the people who get this virus manage to control it to some extent. They are able to refrain from the worst cruelties. However, that same virus that makes some people do unspeakable horrors lives inside everyone who has it. You never know when the sickness might suddenly progress and cause someone to commit a horrific crime. The potential for the most awful cruelty will always be there, in every single person who has the disease.

In addition, everyone who has it is a carrier. Everyone who has it will infect others. So even if someone has mild symptoms, that person will pass the disease on to others; and those others may end up with the very worst symptoms.

You can see that this is a terrible, horrific virus. To control it, you would have to implement a zero tolerance quarantine, and enforce it 100%. The only thing to do, is to wait for those who have it to die.

My little analogy is actually quite true. The disease exists: it is called sin. In some people, sin exhibits mild symptoms. But the same thing that makes me snap at a dear friend in selfish anger is what makes someone else commit the most horrific crimes: rape, torture, murder. The root cause is the same.

Yehiel Dinur was a Jew. During the 1930s he experienced the increasing bigotry and persecution of the Jews, fostered by Hitler. During WWII, he ended up in a concentration camp, and after unspeakable horrors, survived. Many years afterward, he was summoned to Nuremberg Germany, to testify at the War Crimes Tribunal. He was called upon to testify against Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the holocaust, who had been one of Dinur’s torturers. When he stepped into the courtroom and saw Eichmann sitting on trial, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs, and had to be escorted out of the room until he could compose himself. When he was later interviewed, the news reporter assumed that Dinur’s breakdown was due to hatred, fear, or terrible memories. Or perhaps it was just the overwhelming emotion that came as a result of knowing that this terrible man was finally brought to justice.

Dinur denied all of these. He gave this as the reason for his uncontrollable emotion: “I was afraid about myself. I am — exactly like he is.”

Dinur knew that the same horror that caused the Nazi to commit such atrocities lived also inside of him. According to the Bible, he was absolutely correct. That horror lives inside each one of us, even if some of us suppress it better than others. The sin that lives in me is just as evil as the sin that lived inside of Nazi torturers. It is that serious.

All this is to say that we cannot criticize God for taking severe measures to stop the horrible disease of sin, even when its outward symptoms are mild among some people.

4. Although judgment is coming, Jesus has provided a way out for all people. That is why the gospel must be preached before the end can come (Revelation 6:1-2): so that all those who want to can escape the final judgment. The full judgment for sin fell upon Jesus. Jesus died, and if we trust him, our sinful nature was killed along with him. As Paul writes, we were united with him in his death, which means that the terminal illness of sin has been purged from our souls and spirits.

3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. 5For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. (Rom 6:3-7, HCSB)

Anyone who trusts Jesus is counted as having already died; we were included in the punishment and death that was given to Jesus on our behalf. In addition, he creates within us a new life, a spirit that wants to do good, and not evil:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come” (Second Corinthians 5:17)

What about those who never got a chance to hear the gospel before they died? Only God knows. But we know that he is merciful and gracious. Again, it is not our place to determine what happens to such people – thank the Lord!

5. The terrible judgments are also paid out against the spiritual forces of evil. In other words, if it makes you uncomfortable to think of God judging human beings, remember that some of this judgment is also given out against evil, demonic forces. If you feel like it is hard to give your hearty agreement to the judgment of the world, even after all these things we’ve been saying, we can certainly agree with these sorts of judgments against the devil, and his evil spirits.

6. Human beings are hardwired for justice. Think about this: every day, all over the world, 12 and 13-year-old girls are being kidnapped. They are raped repeatedly until the abuse brain-washes them into submission, and then they are sold as sex slaves. How can we possibly say that this is okay? How could we possibly suggest that God gives those evil and twisted abusers a pass, because “he’s a God of love?” He wouldn’t be a loving God if he allowed that to go on without consequence. I don’t believe that anyone reading this thinks God should give these rapists/slave traders a pass. Our natural response to hearing this is to demand justice. Revelation tells us that God will put all things right, including this evil. He will finally destroy the awful disease that makes people do this. He will fully punish everyone who refuses to repent. When we open our eyes to the true evil that lives in this world, how can we wish for anything less?

When we think about judgment, there is a very useful acronym to sum all of this up. The acronym is LOVE.

Look beyond the human instrumentation to the real enemy of our souls (Eph. 6:12).

On the cross, Jesus himself bore every curse (Gal. 3:13).

Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:19).

Eventually, God will set all things right (Rev. 11:15).

(This acronym is not original with me. I found it at: (http://psalms.seedbed.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-psalms/  accessed 2/6/18)

Let the Spirit speak to you today!

THE ONCE AND FUTURE PROPHECY

destruction of Jerusalem

Our passage today contains a remarkable feature: a specific prophecy which we know was fulfilled as Jesus predicted. Read on to learn how we know, and what it means for us today.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 84
Matthew #84  Matthew 24:1-14

Our passage today contains a remarkable feature: a specific prophecy which we know was fulfilled as Jesus predicted. Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed, even while some of those alive at the time (“this generation”) are still living. In fact, between 35 and 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the Jewish nation rebelled, and the Romans responded brutally, utterly destroying the temple in 70 A.D., slaughtering thousands, and sending a large number of the remaining Jewish people into exile in other countries. Some of you have heard about the Jewish Battle of Masada: that took place shortly after 70 A.D., and was part of the same brutal Roman response to the Jewish rebellion.

So Jesus predicts a specific event within a specific timeframe, and we know that that event did indeed occur within that timeframe. This is just one of hundreds of reasons we can trust that the Bible is reliable, and that the words of Jesus are true.

Perhaps you know someone who is skeptical about this. I would like to spend a little time responding to such skepticism, because it speaks to the reliability of the Bible and therefore, the assurance of our faith. A skeptic might say: “Someone just went back and put in this prophecy after the temple had already been destroyed. Or perhaps, Matthew didn’t even write this until after the temple was destroyed.”

First, let me say that the skeptic starts with absolutely no evidence in support of either idea. The only reason to hold the opinion that the book of Matthew was either changed, or written after the destruction of the Temple, is because the skeptic has already decided she doesn’t believe in miracles like predictive prophecy. In other words, with regards to this subject, skepticism is a matter of belief, not evidence.

Let me explain further, starting with the first objection: the idea that the book of Matthew was edited later on. We have many hundreds of ancient copies, and partial copies, of the book of Matthew. They are all virtually exactly the same. In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that someone went back and “edited” Matthew’s gospel, or indeed, any part of the New Testament. No “early copy” of Matthew exists; all of the copies are the same. Thus, there is absolutely no evidence that what Matthew wrote was changed in any way, at any point in history.

Now, let’s consider the second idea: Was the book of Matthew written after the destruction of the temple? New Testament authors did not provide dates on their manuscripts; I often wish they had. In the absence of exact dates, we have to take what we know of history, and compare it to what is written, and then speculate about whether it was written before or after a particular historical event. In the case of Matthew, we find that in many, many places, he writes about issues that would have been either unimportant, or would require more explanation, after the destruction of the Temple. Here are just a few:

23So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24, HCSB)

The “altar” in this case, is the altar in the temple. If the temple was already destroyed, it would have been strange for Matthew to include these words of Jesus; certainly he should have offered some explanation. After 70 A.D. it would not be safe for him to assume that his readers knew what he was talking about.

Here is another, one which we considered quite recently:

16“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the sanctuary, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by his oath.’ 17Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that sanctified the gold? 18Also, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gift that is on it is bound by his oath.’ 19Blind people! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20Therefore, the one who takes an oath by the altar takes an oath by it and by everything on it. 21The one who takes an oath by the sanctuary takes an oath by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and by Him who sits on it. (Matt 23:16-22, HCSB)

Again, if the temple had already been destroyed, it is surprising that Matthew would have included these words without explaining them. There are, of course, principles here that apply to all generations. Even so, if the temple had been destroyed before he wrote this, it is strange that Matthew neither mentioned it, nor explained the practice in order to make the principle more clear. Now consider this one:

4For God said: Honor your father and your mother; and, The one who speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death. 5But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple” — 6he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have revoked God’s word because of your tradition. (Matt 15:3-6, HCSB)

Again, no comment about the status of the temple, and no explanation of the practice in question. If Matthew wrote after 70 A.D., he would have been writing primarily for Gentiles who would not have understood these sorts of things. As it is, the entire book of Matthew reads as if it was written for Jews, or at the very least, people very familiar with Jewish culture and practices, including those that involved the temple in Jerusalem.

There are several others, however, I will include just this one more:

24When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the double-drachma tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your Teacher pay the double-drachma tax? ” 25“Yes,” he said. When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? Who do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes from? From their sons or from strangers? ” 26“From strangers,” he said. “Then the sons are free,” Jesus told him. 27“But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for Me and you.” (Matt 17:24-27, HCSB)

After 70 A.D. (when the temple was destroyed), the Romans taxed their subjects to maintain the temple of Jupiter, in Rome. If that was happening at the time Matthew wrote, he surely would have made some sort of comment, or explained the situation further.

We know that the book of John was written about 20 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. John explains many things to his readers about Jewish customs; Matthew offers no such explanations. All of this is powerful evidence that Matthew wrote before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.. The evidence against that conclusion is merely the baseless belief of someone who does not want to accept the supernatural. In other words, nothing credible suggests that Matthew wrote his book after this prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled.

There’s another important thought. Jesus seems to be talking both about the destruction of the temple, and of the nation of Israel, in 70 A.D., and also the end of time. If Matthew wrote all this after the destruction of the Temple, he would have known that the other things mentioned by Jesus were not fulfilled at the same time, and, if he was writing after the fact, trying to make it look like Jesus prophesied accurately, he surely would have left out these other words of Jesus which did not necessarily happen until later on, or have not even happened yet.

Let’s look more carefully at the text. I have spoken before about the “telescoping” nature of prophecy. In other words, a prophet may jumble together predictions of the near future, predictions of the far-off future, and predictions of the end of the world. From a distance (that is, from the prophet’s perspective) it may look like all these things will happen at the same time; it is like looking at a distant range of mountains, where all the peaks and ridges look almost like cardboard cutouts standing next to each other. Now, some people may object that in this passage we are not dealing with an ordinary prophet: this is Jesus. How could Jesus be confused about which things will happen sooner, and which things will happen at the end of the world? The answer comes in Matthew 24:36.

“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)

Part of the deal with Jesus coming to earth, is that he laid aside his own power, and chose to live like any other human being: completely dependent upon the Father. In this case, the Father chose not to reveal the date of the end of time to Jesus while he was still on earth. So, through the Father, Jesus understands that some of these things will come upon the generation of those who are alive while he is speaking. He understands that some of them will come at the end of time. But, because he limited himself to only what the Father showed him, and because the Father did not show him the exact date of the end of time, even Jesus cannot tell for sure when each of these things will be.

So Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple, and also events that presumably have not even occurred yet by 2016. I think he shares these things together because they have a common theme. The things that will come on the generation to whom he speaks, and the things that will come at the end of the world, are connected theologically. We are not meant to assume that they are connected chronologically.

This is the theological connection: the judgment of God upon those who reject him. First, judgment on the people who were alive when Jesus still walked the earth (whom he calls “this generation”), and second, the judgement at the end of the world upon all those who reject God. Jesus lumps them together because they are both about God’s judgment upon those who reject him.

Let me say a quick word about that judgment: It – is – optional. The whole Bible is very clear that if we repent, and turn to Jesus in trust and humility, he will forgive us and reconcile us to God, and give us eternal life. You don’t have to experience his judgement, or the punishment of hell. If we repent and trust, he graciously forgives us, comforts us and brings us into His kingdom.

I think there are several very important things that we need to hear from this passage. First, Jesus says this:

“Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. 6You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. (Matt 24:4-6, HCSB)

There is always a certain element of Christianity that seems ready to declare that the end of the world has come. Jesus tells us here not to jump to such conclusions. In fact, as I have already pointed out, in verse 36 Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour. So one thing we should get from this passage is to not be alarmed, and to understand that we cannot build a timeline for the end of the world.

A second thing that we should pay attention to is that Jesus describes the kinds of things that will happen before the end of the world. The types of events he describes indicate that we are getting near to the very beginning of the end, not that we are at the end. He says there will be:

  • wars
  • famines
  • earthquakes
  • persecution
  • hatred towards his followers
  • betrayal, hatred and strife
  • false prophets
  • lawlessness
  • many people who fall away from him

When we experience these things we should not be surprised, and we should not feel that God has abandoned us – he told us these things were going to happen. It should be a comfort to know that even when these terrible things happen, God is in control, he is not forgotten us, and he will work all of this to the good of his own plans, and to our own good (Romans 8:28). He tells us that there will be deliverance and salvation for those who endure to the end (v. 13).

Finally, he says that the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come. Have you ever thought of it like this? If you want the bad things in the world to come to an end, if you want Jesus to come back soon and take us all to be with him in the new heavens and new earth, the only way we can help that happen more quickly is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in all the world.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but just to summarize: 1. This shows us that Jesus and the Bible are reliable. 2. Don’t be deceived into thinking the end of the world is here just because others say so. 3. Don’t be alarmed by the events which Jesus mentions. They are part of the plan. Our part is to endure to the end, to hold on to Jesus through it all. 4. If we would like these difficult events to be shorter, we should assist those who are proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.

As you take time to pray about these things, please also take time to pray for this ministry. Pray for wisdom and encouragement. Pray for financial provision. Pray that the Lord uses these messages to their full potential in the lives of those who need them. If, as you pray, you feel led to help us financially, you can click on the word “donate” at the top of the page, and it will explain how you can do that. But before giving financially, please pray for our needs, and whether or not He wants you to give. God loves a cheerful giver, and so do we!

Thank You!

WOE, IS ME!

woe

The Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how the Holy Spirit might want to speak to us through these ‘woes.’
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 82

Matthew #82.  Matthew 23:13-36

We are in the middle of a long rant that Jesus makes against the religious leaders of his time. Frankly, when I just read through quickly, I don’t get a lot out of this portion of Matthew. The Pharisees are bad, Jesus is mad, end of story, right?

Whenever I encounter a piece of scripture that leaves me cold, like this, I often find it useful to pause and ask some questions. Why exactly does Jesus rant and rave like this? Is he just angry? Is he just venting? What is the purpose of this section of scripture – why did the Holy Spirit preserve these words of Jesus for Christians throughout the ages?

As I do that with this particular passage, I think the Spirit can show us several things.

First, there is the straightforward issue of the behavior of the Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how these woes might affect us as well.

Jesus points out seven or eight areas where the religious leaders are in deep trouble. He begins each one with the phrase: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

First, let’s talk about the word “woe.” It can mean: “trouble, sorrow and distress.” There is often an element of sorrow associated with this word, both in Greek and in English; it can be a lament, like “Alas!” So, in Matthew 24:19, Jesus says:

“Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”

But I think here, in this passage, Jesus is adding a sense of warning and judgment with it. The “woe” upon the pregnant women and nursing mothers was not because of anything they did. But here, Jesus clearly connects each woe to the behavior of the religious leaders. I still think he speaks with sorrow; I don’t think he is happy about it. Even so, clearly, he is enumerating their sins, and pronouncing that they will experience trouble and sorrow as judgement for them.

The first woe and sorrow (in verse 13) is because they refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven, and stop others from entering in. This is Jesus’ core issue with the Pharisees. They warned people against the only way of salvation, which is Jesus himself. Instead, they believed that they did not need him. Specifically, they taught (and obviously believed) that they could earn their salvation by behaving well. In a more general sense, this woe applies to anyone who leads others to believe that they can be saved by any other path than repentance from sin, and trust in Jesus. So Paul reiterates this woe in the first chapter of Galatians:

6I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. 8But 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! 9As 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! (Gal 1:6-9, HCSB)

Make no mistake. Christianity has always insisted that Jesus Christ is the only way to forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and eternal life:

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

 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I 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. (1John 5:11-13, HCSB)

11This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” (Acts 4:11-12, HCSB)

The Pharisees and Scribes rejected Jesus, and therefore rejected salvation, and led others to do so as well. Today, Christians must remember that our core belief is grace, forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ alone. We don’t have forgiveness or life because “God is love, and just wouldn’t send anyone to hell.” That lie is just as bad as anything the Pharisees taught: Woe to anyone who tells it! We are not saved because we “have lived a good life, and tried to do the right thing.” We are not forgiven because we “aren’t worse than anyone else.” Sin is much more serious than that. We aren’t forgiven because we make sacrifices, or take mission trips, or because we “speak the words of truth.” We are saved through Jesus Christ alone, and we receive that salvation by grace when we repent and trust him. Woe to anyone else who teaches otherwise!

The second woe is found in verse 15. Some of you may not have verse 14 in your Bibles: it will skip from 13 to 15. Verse 14 is actually one of those places where there is a dispute about the original manuscript of the New Testament. The oldest and best manuscripts do not contain it. The textus receptus (which is the source for the King James version of the Bible), does contain it, as do some other later manuscripts. I think the best evidence suggests that this was not originally part of the book of Matthew. This is one example of why I am not a fan of the King James version. Even so, I’d like to point out that whether you leave verse 15 in, or take it out, it does not change very much at all; certainly it changes no Christian doctrine. This is considered a major variant, and once again we see that even major variants are actually extremely minor. We can have great confidence that the New Testament we read today is, in fact, what was written by the apostles.

In any case, I will move on to verse 15, where Jesus pronounces judgment upon the religious leaders for converting even non-Jews to the belief that they can earn their way into God’s favor, and eternal life. This is very much like the first woe, the main difference being who gets led astray: Jews, or non-Jews. For our purposes, it is a warning that if we get people to join our church, but do not teach them that forgiveness, life and salvation are found only in Jesus, given to us by grace through faith, we would be better off not bringing the new people in the first place.

The third woe is described in verses 16 through 22. Basically, Jesus is giving an example of how the teachers of the law, and Pharisees twist and undermine God’s word. Many times I have given you the example of the Sabbath, and how they added their own laws on top of the commands of God. Here, Jesus is referring to the way that they do mental gymnastics in order to benefit themselves in the matter of taking oaths. They argued that certain kinds of vows were not binding, and made fine distinctions that sounded intellectual, but were completely against all common sense.

These days, we don’t often make vows, particularly not religious vows. I made vows when I was married, and when I was ordained as a pastor. However, even in those cases, I did not swear by or on anything; I simply said: “I will, and I ask God to help me.” So the practice of swearing by (or on) something is no longer a big issue, at least not in Western culture. True, some folks might say something like: “I swear by my mother’s grave.” I don’t think anyone takes them seriously. Even so, I think we can learn something from this particular woe. The underlying issue is that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were playing games with the truth. As Jesus points out, clearly, if you swear by the altar in the temple, really, you are swearing by God. But the religious leaders came up with all sorts of obscure reasoning to avoid that obvious, common-sense conclusion.

I think that today this woe could refer to the way some people treat the Bible. Unfortunately, I have many times read Bible commentaries that tried to say that certain verses mean the exact opposite of what they clearly say. Now, you know that I’m all for thoughtful, scholarly Bible interpretation. Not all Bible verses are obvious in meaning. Even so, there are many people today, whom I can only call false teachers, who twist the words of the Bible, play games with the truth, and do mental gymnastics in order to eliminate the plain, common sense meaning of God’s Word. What they are doing is not careful interpretation, but rather, twisting the obvious truth. I think Jesus would say to them: “Woe to you!”

The fourth woe is essentially captured by Jesus’ words in verse 24:

24Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! (Matt 23:24, HCSB)

The religious leaders spent a great deal of energy on relatively trivial matters, while ignoring the more important things. Notice that Jesus says that the trivial things are, in fact, good to do; but the important things should have first priority. I want to try and finish the woes in this sermon, so I won’t go into this one in great depth, but there are many, obvious applications for it. Woe to the church that is more concerned about the color of their carpet than about the homeless population all around it. Woe to the leaders who police the kinds of clothes people wear, and ignore the lust in their own hearts. I could spend all day on this one, but I believe you will be able to think of your own examples without too much effort. I do want to point out that this particular woe contains much of what really turns people off about churches and Christians. I think it’s good to know that Jesus hates it when people focus on minor things, while neglecting the things that are most important to true faith.

The fifth woe, found in verses 25-26, is much like the one before it. The religious leaders are concerned about looking good. They are focused on outward appearances, while they ignore the filth inside of their own hearts. Probably, Jesus is referring to the Jewish tradition of ceremonially washing cups. Mark records a different instance, where Jesus spoke about this at greater length. After discussion about ceremonial washing with the religious leaders, Jesus said this to his disciples:

18And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) 20Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. 21For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

The sixth woe, is also similar. This time, Jesus describes them as whitewashed tombs, which look good on the outside, but inside are filled with rotten flesh and bone. I’m going to get personal for a moment. I don’t want to be offensive, but I do want us to get the full impact of the words of Jesus here. Here in the Southeastern USA, we have a somewhat religious culture. Even in areas where the culture at large is not particularly Christian, some churches can have a religious culture within their community. I personally know many people who are like these whitewashed tombs. They go to church and they talk a good talk. As far as the people that they go to church with know, these are wonderful Christian folks. But during the week they have affairs, they do drugs, they get drunk, they run businesses that are dishonest, they cheat people, and they are stingy and miserly. Of course, everyone struggles with sin. I’m not talking about Christians who have surrendered their lives to Jesus, but who sometimes fail and fall. I’m talking about people who pretend; people who talk the talk, but do not let Jesus have any real influence in their lives. Jesus says to such people: “Woe to you!”

Finally, Jesus says: “Woe to you who reject God’s messengers!” (verses 29-34). That is what this seventh woe is all about: rejecting those whom God has sent, and rejecting his message through them. In the Western world, thankfully, people do not kill, crucify, or whip Christian teachers and preachers. However, I think it is important for us to remember that this still happens regularly in other places in the world. And even in the Western world, often times those who seek to be vocal about their faith in Jesus are treated with contempt and derision. As one small, and relatively insignificant example, I offer Tim Tebow, former NFL quarterback. Tebow had a year or two as a starting quarterback in the NFL. It was his habit to kneel down as a sign of humility, and praise to the Lord, whenever his team scored. That may or may not be a silly thing; but it was relatively harmless. However, Tebow received a huge amount of criticism for this, and for his outspoken faith. In fact, he received more negative media coverage than many NFL stars at the time who were accused of things like drunk driving, drug possession, assault and rape. Woe to a culture that is more concerned about a public expression of Christian faith than about crimes that deeply hurt others!

Let me say another thing about mistreating God’s messengers. I will admit that this one feels a little personal with me, but that does not make it untrue. I also want to say that I am not complaining, and for the most part I have been very blessed to not experience too much of what I’m about to share with you. Even so, it is shameful – I can think of no better word – the way that many Christians and churches treat their pastors and teachers. Of course there are some bad pastors, and bad leaders, just as there are bad bartenders, truck drivers and school teachers. Even so, many of the pastors who are mistreated by their congregations have good hearts, pure motives, and have done no wrong. Sometimes people direct hateful and hurtful words towards them for doing and saying what they believe God wants them to do and say. Sometimes people slander them. Sometimes people try to run them out of a job, for no reason other than that the pastor has threatened their sense of personal power within the congregation. Sometimes pastors are threatened after teaching something unpopular that the word of God says. Quite often, pastors are underpaid, and it is unusual to find anyone who cares, in most churches, whether or not a pastor is being appropriately compensated. Almost all the time at least some people are critical of their pastor, without doing the least thing to help him.

When I look at these seven woes spoken by Jesus, I think of it as an extreme measure he is taking in order to bring the religious leaders to repentance.

Let me try and illustrate what I mean. About a year ago, I began to have constant pain in one of my kidneys, like I was having a kidney stone. After a long and difficult time, doctors finally determined that some of my nerves have been damaged by frequent kidney stones. I sat down with a pain specialist, and he outlined a number of steps to help me deal with the pain that I still have.

First, we will try a very safe, well-tested, inexpensive medication that has very few side effects. If that works, great! If not the next step is to try a second medication. The second drug is more expensive, and has not been tested for as long as the first. It has more side effects and risk factors. If the second drug works, great! However, if not, there is another step, involving directly stimulating the nerve. This is a more invasive procedure, with greater risks. There is another step after that, and another. Each new step is more drastic, increasingly invasive, and carries greater and greater risk. The final step involves “killing” the nerve that serves my kidney.

When Jesus confronts the religious leaders during these last few days of his life, he is taking the final and most drastic step in trying to bring them to repentance, faith, and salvation. He lived among them, letting his life be a testimony, but that was not enough. He gave them his preaching and his teaching, but they did not respond. He showed them miracles, and the power of God, but they turned away. And so now, he is directly confronting them with their sin. It is their last chance, and he says that if they do not take it, judgment will come upon them. He will “kill” the problem, if it can’t be fixed any other way.

In fact, he says: “I assure you, all these things will come on this generation.” I want to point out two things about this. First, it was literally fulfilled among those who heard Jesus say these words. Jesus was crucified sometime around 30-35 AD. In 70 AD, while that generation still lived, the Romans utterly crushed the Jewish people, slaughtering huge numbers, destroying the temple, and sending the Jews that survived into an exile that lasted almost 2000 years. That generation of unbelieving Jews was indeed judged.

Second, because of how Jesus said it, these words are also for us. Whether or not we are judged as a group, when it comes to the end of our life, when our “generation” passes, we will stand before the judgment seat of God. This is true of every generation that reads Jesus’ words. Let his words sink in. They are drastic, yes. But they are spoken in order to ultimately lead is into the grace of God by driving us to Jesus as our hope, life and salvation.