March 18, 2010
I, John, …was on the island of Patmos for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet blast saying, "I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last…" …And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as if I were dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying to me, "Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am He who lives and was dead; and behold I am alive forevermore, Amen! And I have the keys of the grave and of death. (Revelation 1:9-11, 17-1)
Off on an island, all to himself. Have you ever felt like that? That is where John was when he had this vision, this revelation from Jesus.
John was on this island alone because he had been faithful to testify for Jesus. He was a pastor and evangelist. He was ready to give his life for Christ. If he had been martyred, people might be exalting his name and praising him for his faithfulness. But, now, he was left to wonder if anyone remembered who he was or cared about what he was doing.
You may have been in such a place yourself, feeling terribly alone because you have taken a stand to be faithful to Christ. If John had any self pity we do not hear about it. He took his struggles to the Lord so faithfully that he could say, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day ...."
Even alone, John knew where to turn for help. And when he turned to God in prayer, God granted him a revelation. No, not just any revelation ... The Revelation. This revelation from Christ would send the message to all of God's people — not only in John's day, but for all of history.
Many people are afraid of the message of Revelation. There is plenty of reason to be afraid if your life is not right with God. The Revelation does not whitewash God's judgment of the world's evils. But the message is really to God's people, a message of encouragement.
You may feel alone and hated and fearful, but God is still almighty. Jesus is first and last. He has the keys to those things we fear most, death and Hell. On the island by himself, John chose to spend his energy and time seeking God. God blessed him with a vision of His continual presence and power.
When it seems that hatred and violence and selfishness will overcome us, Revelation reminds us that the God of love and justice is still in control.
March 25, 2010
You have endured, and have patience, and for My name's sake you have labored and you have not given up. Nevertheless I have something against you, because you have abandoned your first love. Remember from where you have fallen, repent and do your first works, or else ... (Revelation 2:3-5)
Right now, a lot of people are hoping and praying to hear these wonderful words: "You're hired!" So many people have lost jobs or graduated college and cannot find a job. If you are blessed enough to be working, perhaps you can remember the excitement you felt when you first heard those words.
Hopefully, you came into your new position with enthusiasm and hope for a great experience. If so, the chances are good that after working for awhile, you lost some of that momentum. You may be saying to yourself more and more, "I'd better just be thankful that I have a job."
For most of us, our life of faith works the same way. We begin with enthusiasm for that new sense of forgiveness and peace. We try to learn and grow. But soon, the work begins to strain our excitement.
Jesus does not leave these Christians without help. He gives instructions about how to get the excitement back: Remember, repent and return.
Remember — spend some time contemplating the feeling and sense of excitement you had before the dryness set in. Repent — that is, determine that you will not be satisfied with a begrudging faith. Return to your first works – in our life of faith, the dullness comes into the business of religion when we separate it from the love relationship we have with God.
All Christians should be doing good works in this world. But good works will eventually exhaust a soul that does not refill itself with God's power and love. Jesus affirmed that the greatest commandment begins with "love God with all of your soul, mind, heart and strength."
This coming Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, when we memorialize the last week of Jesus' life on earth. Jesus could not have faced and endured the cross without the presence of God the Father sustaining Him. When we keep our hearts in love with God we have strength to take up our cross and follow Him.
April 1, 2010
Fear none of the things that you will suffer, the devil will throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful even to the point of dying and I will give you a crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
The Bible talks about death a lot. The obsession for most of us is avoidance of death. Denial. We do not want to consider the possibility for ourselves. Everyone knows it cannot be avoided. But we can avoid talking about it, thinking about it.
But death will come. During this Holy Week— as you celebrate Good Friday — remember Jesus is our example. Jesus did not want to die. Remember that He prayed, "Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me." He did not want to drink the cup of death. But He also concluded this prayer with the words, "Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done."
Sometimes a life of purpose and integrity brings a premature death. This church to whom John was writing in the passage quoted above was facing this choice. Follow Jesus and die or deny Jesus and live. No doubt they also were praying that God would deliver them from death and persecution. But like Jesus, whom they followed, they accepted the promise of a greater reward.
That reward is not just a crown in heaven. Jesus' reward was not His resurrection. Jesus' reward is the salvation of people. When we value faithfulness above life, we challenge the horrible lie that the strongest and most powerful will always destroy the weak.
Jesus conquered the world through sacrifice. Our toughest demons, our biggest monsters, will be defeated when we accept death as a prelude to real life.
April 15, 2010
I know your work, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:19-20)
In the United States, it is possible to hear and see someone giving a sermon or trying to teach about Christian religion and the Bible at almost any time. In addition to the hundreds of churches that inhabit even small communities in our area, the television is a constant source of religious instruction. No matter what brand of Christianity you prefer, you can find some preacher teaching it just the way you like it.
And that is the problem. Most of us have some particular preacher or religious teacher that we like, but the reason we like them is often because they say what we want to hear.
We may think it strange that Christian people in the time of the Revelation would follow a teacher who taught them to be sexually immoral, but even today many so-called teachers will teach anything in the name of Jesus. They sometimes succeed in making the Bible appear to be a complicated work that only a person with special expertise can understand. The Bible certainly is not always easy, but the essential message is not complicated. You do not have to be educated to know the basics of sin and righteousness.
A Bible teacher who says that God wants you to sleep with him is just a lustful sinner, not a prophet. A preacher who proclaims a new revelation or some "word from the Lord" that justifies his (or her) own peculiar practices is just a con man, not a new Christ.
Jesus warned us that many will come claiming to be Him or His representative. They will appear to be miraculous. But they are just liars and cheats.
God has not rescinded the Ten Commandments. Although a preacher may have a message that sounds good, if she or he is contradicting the word you know and understand ... beware. As this passage in Revelation shows, even faithful believers can be deceived.
April 22, 2010
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dresses in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.(Revelation 3:4-5)
"He who overcomes." These words from the mouth of Jesus have the connotation of a sporting event or of a war. So what does that mean?
Scholars mostly agree that the book of Revelation was written to encourage Christians to remain true to their faith as they were being persecuted. Some of the persecutions were local and personal; some were officially enacted by government. For the Christians in the first century, these persecutions affected livelihood and sometimes resulted in martyrdom. Faith in Jesus was something that both Christians and pagans took seriously.
But I suspect that in our time and place, if Jesus were addressing these words to us, what he would be saying is that we must overcome our lack of seriousness, our lethargy. We Christians seem to have accepted the outlook of our culture.
The world around us is screaming that God is too kind and loving to punish anyone, if there is a God at all. The attitude of many who claim to be Christians is that we do not really need to take our faith seriously. Jesus has forgiven us, so let's just eat, drink and be merry. I find it a little hard to reconcile that image of Jesus with the vision here of John in Revelation.
"He who overcomes." Too often, we have allowed ourselves to cruise in our Christian faith. The world may soon be getting to the place where we know all too well what these ancient churches knew — persecution and oppression. If our faith is only a "part-time" faith, how will we endure and overcome when true persecution comes? God's grace is the only source of faith that endures.
April 29, 2010
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. … Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:15-16, 20)
Verse 20 of Revelation, chapter 3, is one of the most often quoted verses in the New Testament. Many people have been won to Christ hearing this simple message: Jesus is standing at the door of your heart, knocking, and if you will invite Him to come in, to be your Savior, He will. Answer this invitation and you will have eternal life and peace.
For those who have not received Christ, this simple, yet powerful message can be life changing. He longs to be the Lord of your life as He was meant to be. He has taken the first step toward you. He invites you to respond.
While this message is true and beautiful, and a valid way of inviting people to know Jesus, if you read this verse in its context, you may notice something quite startling. Jesus is not talking to unbelievers when He says these words. He is talking to the church at Laodicea.
The church to which he says, "I stand at the door and knock," is the same group of people to which He says, "I will spit you out of my mouth." These are believers. They belong to a church. Somehow they have lost their way. They have not abandoned their faith; they are not cold. But they have abandoned their fire; they are not hot.
Their love of and faith in Jesus are lukewarm. Maybe they profess belief in Him and attend services and give a little money, but they only live for Jesus when it is convenient. They will never sacrifice anything for Christ. As long as it does not cost them anything important — their car, their status, their free time, then they will accept Christ. But if He actually expects a commitment, then forget it!
In this context, how sad the image of Jesus standing and knocking becomes. Imagine that Jesus is standing at the front door of your church, of your home, of your life and knocking, waiting to be let in once again, but you are too busy with your own affairs to hear and open the door.
And yet, the promise remains, even to the lukewarm, "If anyone opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."
May 6, 2010
At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian… In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures…Day and night they never stop saying: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. (Revelation 4:2,6,8)
As you read the book of Revelation, you will notice a very specific point of transition in the message John conveys. He starts with seven dictated letters to separate churches, all of which were in close contact in a province of the ancient world. Then — suddenly —John is transported to see a vision that is not of this world.
John sees the heavenly throne of God. Within that place, unusual sights abound: a rainbow and four odd-looking creatures among other things. What is clear in this unusual vision is that the focus of everything in that place is worship of God.
Jesus gives John this vision and after giving words of warning and encouragement to the churches in Asia he shows John the vision of God on his throne. This is an essential step in the Revelation that Christ shares with John, and that John shares with us. We cannot accept the righteousness of God's judgment until we have glimpsed the true nature of His holiness.
When we think about sin in this world, we have a tendency to distinguish between "serious" sins and "little" sins. We think we understand this distinction and how it should work. If what we do does not seem to hurt anybody, then we do not really need to take it too seriously. We rationalize that our sins are not too bad. But when we truly see the holiness of God, when we enter into true worship of the Creator and Sustainer of the Worlds, then we recognize how truly far we are from meeting His standard.
Such an encounter with God does not make a person self-righteous. If a person is convinced that he has overcome his sin by his own discipline or effort, then such a person has not been in the presence of God and seen how holy He is.
But the miracle is that, in Christ, God has bridged the gulf between us and made it possible for us to stand in His presence forever. What John tasted for that moment, every believer is destined to experience for eternity. The worship of God is our destiny, our joy, the true source of our fulfillment. John could not fully describe its beauty, but what he saw, we revel in. And wait patiently for its fulfillment.
May 13, 2010
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders… He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb… And they sang a new song, "You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation." (Revelation 5: 6-9)
John's vision from Jesus continues in Revelation, chapter 5, but he still has not begun any account of the judgments of God that so many associate with the book. This is important. The foundation for everything in Revelation is the vision of the heavenly throne in chapters 4 and 5.
In chapter 4, John describes for us his vision of the heavenly throne. He reminds us that God is the center of all things. He reminds us that the business of the universe is to worship almighty God. Chapter 4 reminds us that God is the foundation.
Chapter 5 begins the movement toward God's judgment. That judgment is sealed in a scroll that God holds in his right hand. At first, there seems to be a delay because there is no one who can open the scroll. But, quickly, John's dismay at this prospect is altered as one of the elders reassures him. "The Lion of the tribe of Judah has triumphed... He is worthy to open the scroll ...."
The Lion of Judah was a popular term related to the expectations Jews had about the Messiah, who would come and bring God's kingdom and judgment. But when John looks, he does not see a lion, but a sheep. (The word means a male sheep of any age, not just a baby sheep.) The reference is clearly to Jesus, who was crucified as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29)
Then, everyone in heaven who has been worshipping God falls to their knees and starts worshipping the Lamb and singing His praises! The Lamb is worshipped just like God the Father.
Perhaps you wonder why God does not fix all the problems of sin in this world. Maybe you have heard others say that if God were good, then He would not allow humans to hurt each other they way that we so often do.
But God has a specific plan for dealing with the evil in humanity. The first step in that plan is for each of us to acknowledge in our hearts and lives that Jesus is Lord. Until we are worshipping Jesus for who He is, trusting Him for what He has done for us, evil will not be conquered in our hearts.
One day, Jesus will open the scroll and God's judgment will pour out on sinful humanity. But first, God's love provides a ransom in the blood of Jesus so that we might surrender our lives to Him and allow Him to triumph over the sin in our hearts and lives.
May 20, 2010
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Revelation 6:12-17)
Nobody wants to talk about it. Even those of us who teach the Bible seem to avoid the subject as often as possible. We try hard to emphasize the God whom the New Testament defines as "love" without any reference at all to wrath and punishment.
But the New Testament does not avoid the subject. God is angry and although His anger is held in check because of His kindness and love (see 2 Peter 3:9), His wrath is not forgotten.
John is given this revelation to comfort God's people who are being persecuted, even executed because of their faith. They need to know that their trust in God is not wasted. They have committed themselves to renounce sin, to live their lives in obedience and faith toward God. They are suffering, sometimes losing their lives because of that commitment. They need to know that God's judgment against human sin will happen. God is not merely tolerant of every choice. God will hold us accountable for what we do.
Such a sermon falls on deaf ears in a place like Americ,a where most of us Christians live in relative comfort and safety. We convince ourselves that we are followers of Christ and give up nothing. But even in today's world, there are believers in some countries who face severe persecution if their faith becomes known. They too want to know how long God will allow those who torture and mock them to continue without punishment.
In the revelation, Jesus uses images that the prophets of the Old Testament have already expressed to give John this message: "God has not forgotten you. Although it may look as if evil has overcome the good, God will one day unleash His anger against the sin in this world."
We will probably not know the exact significance of the images John sees until we are in the presence of God in eternity. Trying to find literal meanings in these images has caused too many Christians to miss the real meaning of the revelation.
If you are struggling to live a life of faith and goodness in Christ, take heart, God will one day purge the universe of sin. If you are ignoring God and living on your own terms, be assured that one day you will answer to the God who made you.
May 27, 2010
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb." .... Then one of the elders asked me, "These in white robes — who are they and where did they come from?" I answered, "Sir, you know." And he said, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9-10, 13-14)
In Revelation chapter 6, we saw the beginning of the wrath of God being poured out on the earth. And we heard an important question: "The great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (6:17)
In Revelation chapter 7, we see the answer. John hears about a large group of God's people who are sealed so that they will not be harmed by God's judgment. He is told that they are 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, 12,000 from each tribe. Then he sees this "great multitude that no one could count."
Many interpreters believe that these two groups — the 144,000 and the "great multitude" — are the same group of people. In this case, 144,000 is a symbolic number indicating the full number of all of those who are God's faithful people. In the same way, the assertion that they are from the tribes of Israel is symbolic that they are God's true people who come from "every nation, tribe, people and language."
These who stand before the throne of God are sealed by God. They have remained faithful. They have been given white robes and their robes have been whitened "in the blood of the Lamb."
The message is clear. For all of God's people who remain faithful, in spite of the many temptations and trials you face, you will be protected by God and one day stand in his presence clean and joyous.
You may face death for Christ, as many of those who were reading Revelation in John's time did. You may lose your job or career. You may feel the scorn of neighbors, friends and family who think you are ignorant or close-minded. You may know loneliness and isolation. But, persevere and you will not be abandoned or disappointed.
One day all of those who faithfully trust in Christ will stand together, arm-in-arm, singing the praises of the Father and the Lamb in His presence before His throne. We will be washed white as snow. In the midst of the opening of the seals of God's wrath, John's vision reminds his readers and us that we will be rewarded because we stood firm in our faith until the end.
June 3, 2010
When he opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel who had a golden censer came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. Then the angel took the censer filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5)
Revelation, chapter 6, relates the opening of the first six seals of the scroll of God's wrath. Chapter 7 then presents an interlude between the opening of the sixth and the opening of the seventh seal.
In that interlude, we are introduced to the saints who are the answer to the question posed in chapter 6: "Who is able to stand in the day of God's wrath?" Those who are sealed by God in Christ's blood stand firm to the end, even through persecution, and they are protected from God's anger by God Himself.
The opening verse of chapter 8 then resumes the opening of the scroll, as its final seal is opened. The vision that Christ gives to John is a masterpiece of mounting intensity. As we expect some final judgment to come at the opening of the seventh seal, instead we are treated to a unique scene in John's image of heaven. There is silence. Until now, the heavens have constantly been ringing with God's praises.
If you allow yourself to picture this scene, then you may feel this intensity build. Everything in heaven gets quiet in anticipation of what is coming next. But the end has not yet come. The intensity builds as John sees an angel stoking the fires of incense mixed with saintly prayers for God's justice to come. The silence followed by the spiraling incense then explodes into a ball of fire cast onto the earth that turns into "natural" disasters.
And then new judgments follow, as seven angels begin to blow trumpets. With each trumpet blast, a new disaster affects the earth. Whereas with the opening of the seals, each judgment affected "one fourth" of something, now the judgments affect "one third." The judgment of God is escalating with each stage.
The Revelation that John sees and shares is building to a dramatic crescendo that brings judgment to those who oppose God and His people, but also brings vindication to the ways of God among people.
Chapter 8 concludes with a flying eagle. (The word is obscure; it might be a vulture.) The eagle cries out that bad things are coming to the inhabitants of the earth especially as the next three trumpets sound. In other words, in terms of God's judgment, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"
June 10, 2010
The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshipping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)
If you have read this far in Revelation, you will really begin to ask some of the questions that have plagued the teachers who have tried to understand it through the years. Are these images to be taken literally? When will they happen? Can God really plan to kill all these people in this frightening and horrible way? Such concerns have prompted many different ways of understanding Revelation and trying to interpret it.
The majority of interpretations of Revelation can be listed under three general categories of interpretation.
Some teachers say that the images of Revelation are symbolic representation of things that were happening or about to happen in the first century. They think that the judgments are mostly written about the Romans destroying Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Others say that the judgments are to be understood as representing events that will take place leading up to the literal end of the world as we know it.
The third way of interpreting is to see everything as simply symbolic of the ongoing conflict between God and those who oppose God's way.
All three of these interpretations continue to be popular because none of them answers all of the questions with certainty.
Chapter 9 relates the fifth and sixth trumpets sounding and the judgments that follow. After the fifth angel blows his trumpet, the abyss is opened and locusts with stinging tails torment the earth. After the sixth, a demonic cavalry kill a third of humanity. And in spite of these horrible judgments the rest of humanity refuses to repent and worship God.
"They did not stop worshipping demons and idols of gold ...." This judgment is coming upon humanity because they preferred to make gods for themselves, or even to set up their own standards as if they think they are god.
Whether you understand these judgments literally or symbolically, the meaning of this part is clear. God will not allow humanity to always ignore Him or, even worse, to make up gods as substitutes. God is real and alive. His patience gives us an opportunity to accept His grace. But even the patience of God will one day make way for His judgment.
June 17, 2010
When I was about 17, a friend gave me a wonderful little book written by J.B. Phillips called "Your God is Too Small." Phillips discusses the many ways that people imagine God to be and why none of these human ideas is big enough to give a picture of all that God is. Often the circumstances of our lives cause us to imagine that God is not big enough or generous enough or loving enough to help us.
But God is larger than our difficulties. No doubt the people to whom John addressed the Revelation felt very small in the face of the persecution of their neighbors and local governments. When the creators of the Christian cartoon, Veggie Tales, were faced with the challenge of encouraging children to trust God in the face of their imagined monsters, they wrote a wonderful little song: "God is bigger than the boogie man. He's bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV…"
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voice of the seven thunders spoke." (Revelation 10:1-3)
Godzilla. That is the image I have in my mind every time I read chapter 10 of Revelation. If you have had the experience of seeing the cheesy movies from the 1970s you probably understand what I mean. Although John does not say that this mighty angel is gigantic, I cannot help but picture an angel who is ten stories tall, planting those feet down with the authority of a giant Japanese nuclear monster.
This image of a great angel, whether gigantic or not, appears like something from a fantasy. Various aspects of the revelation that John sees in this chapter directly mirror prophecies from the Old Testament in Daniel and Ezekiel. The image of the angel placing one foot on the sea and one on the land also prefigures the coming of the beasts that arise later in the Revelation, one from the land and one from the sea. The images of cloud and rainbow clearly indicate the power of God. And God has control over every area of the earth and heaven.
One thing that appears to be true is that the image of the mighty angel is this assertion that God is still in control of this situation. In chapters 8 and 9, we see the judgment of God intensifying on the earth, but people still continue to defy God.
The final showdown has come and God shows John clearly that He is big enough to handle all of the terrible things that will come. And if God is big enough, then if we trust Him, we know He can handle our biggest struggles and problems. "He's bigger than Godzilla…"
June 24, 2010
Today was an exciting day for U.S. fans who are following the World Cup soccer matches. The US team knew that it needed to win its game with Algeria. Regulation time ended and four minutes of "stoppage time" was added with the score at a draw of "nils." (I am still trying to learn the "football" lingo. But after one minute of the extra time, the U.S. team scored a dramatic goal that not only won the game but propelled them into the next round of the World Cup.
Often it may feel like God is barely achieving a draw against the ugliness in this world. But, unlike the World Cup matches, there is no uncertainty about the final outcome. As many preachers have said before, "I've read the end of the book, and God wins!"
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever. And the twenty-four elders who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshipped God, saying: We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. (Revelation 11:15-17)
Revelation chapter 11 tells the story of "two witnesses" who preach God's judgment in "the holy city" for 42 months. These very specific references have given rise to many interpretations. Who are the two witnesses? When are the 42 months? And what is the "holy city?"
Some interpreters suggest that at the end of time two prophets will preach in Jerusalem for three and a half years, exactly as this passage describes. Often they will suggest that the two witnesses are Moses and Elijah or some other famous Old Testament persons.
Any reader of Revelation should note that many of the images John sees are images that have been prefigured in the Old Testament — for example, the two witnesses here are clearly allusions to the two olive branches mentioned in Zechariah 4:11-14. Many interpreters, therefore, think that these images represent the ongoing conflict between the powers in the world and the believers in God's church.
The story of how the witnesses preach the message with power and then are overcome by "the beast" (the famous beast of Revelation is more fully described in chapter 13) really describes how the world will think that they have overcome the witness of the church. Just as the "two witnesses" are resurrected, the persecuted church cannot be destroyed but will rise again by God's power.
At this point, all of heaven begins to sing that the consummation of God's reign on earth is about to take place. "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ…" The believer's desire expressed in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is becoming a reality.
And even though this is not the end of the Revelation, it clearly signals the beginning of the end for those who oppose God and his plan for righteousness and peace. Just when the world thinks it has beaten God, we recognize that God has overcome the world.
July 1, 2010
If you have seen the movie "Liar, Liar," starring Jim Carrey, you know that the premise of the movie is initiated when Fletcher (played by Carrey) misses his son's birthday party for very selfish reasons and his son, Max, wished on his birthday cake that his dad will not be able to tell a lie. The father who habitually disappoints his child is a story often told and used in movies and television.
As we see all of the evil that goes on around us and around the world, we are sometimes tempted to wonder about our heavenly Father and His promises. Why does God not put a stop to the evil that people do? Will God vindicate those who have been wronged and abused? Are the promises of an age of peace and love, of an end to violence and suffering, are these promises true or merely wishful thinking to help us get through our pain.?
God is not an absentee father who has forgotten us in our suffering. The promises God has made He will fulfill. We can count on His plan, His justice and His love. Revelation chapter 12 reasserts this important message of hope.
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. And the dragon stood in front of the woman, who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, one who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert, to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1-6)
With chapters 11 and 12, the Revelation truly becomes a book of fantastic vision. The images invite some kind of interpretation that is not completely literal. John tells the reader exactly who the dragon is, "... that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world." The image of the woman and child may be more uncertain, but many commentators are convinced that John is describing all of those who are genuine followers of God including those are part of Israel and the church.
All of the Revelation that John sees includes images that are already a part of the Bible in the Old Testament, but as you read chapter 12, you should definitely have your Old Testament with you!
The later chapters of Isaiah and Daniel, as well as a reference to the serpent from Genesis, are represented heavily in this vision. John and his readers would have recognized right away that what he was seeing was foreshadowed in the words of the ancient prophets.
John sees this vision of the dragon trying to stop the birth of the child and the escape of the woman, but in every instance the dragon, Satan, is thwarted by God's providence. John sees in his vision and prophesies to his readers that God's plan will not be stopped. The words that the ancient prophets proclaimed will be fulfilled.
Even though the Christians to whom John was writing may have felt like Satan and the world were defeating them and God's plan, John was encouraging them to trust that God's plan could not be stopped.
When we find ourselves wondering if God's justice and goodness can ever overcome all of the evil that surrounds us, we can be reassured by John's vision. The dragon will not prevail. God's plan for love and peace will one day be fulfilled.
July 8, 2010
It seems a little silly, but I am afraid to pick up a black snake. I am certain that a lot of folks share this fear. If I have a black snake in my yard, I just try to head it away from the house. I do not kill them, because they are beneficial in many ways. I have often reached out with a stick to poke one so that it will change directions, but I still do not have the courage to pick it up and move it.
One day I was trying to redirect a snake away from the house. The snake was in an open area in front of the house and all was going well when — suddenly — the snake turned on me and raised its head, like it would strike! Yikes! I backed away rather quickly. If you have ever seen someone corner a wild animal of any kind, you will notice that when the animal is cornered, it becomes more vicious in an effort to protect itself.
Whenever God begins to triumph in the life a believer or in the life of a church, you can be sure that Satan will begin to rage and make a lot of trouble before God finally finishes him off. But rest assured that increased rage of the devil is a sure sign that God's power is overcoming whatever the devil throws at us.
And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and his great authority.... Then I saw another beast coming out of the earth.... He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or forehead, so no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666. (Revelation 13:1-2, 11, 16-18)
Chapter 13 contains several passages that are well-known and often debated among people who are obsessed with the meaning of Revelation. The beast with seven heads and 10 horns, some will say, is clearly a reference to the ancient Roman Empire, while others will see a clear reflection of the current European Union.
For some, 666 is an indication of the Roman emperor Nero, to whom this number can be linked in an ancient numerological cryptogram. Others will be like the woman in line in front of me at Walmart, who had to add chewing gum to her purchase because the total was $6.66. Could it be that, in some way, they are both right?
What is clear is that the beasts (there are two) represent the power of Satan on the earth in opposition to true believers. The believers will suffer at the hand of these beasts and those who are not believers will be deceived by them and ultimately suffer God's judgment because of it. The beasts indicate the power of Satan raging viciously against his inevitable defeat.
Like a trapped animal Satan pulls out his most powerful weapons to frighten the world into submitting to him and turning away from God. Maybe in your life you feel the tug of Satan's power a little stronger, a temptation to some sin you thought you had a overcome now growing a little more intense just when you thought you were getting closer to God.
Do not be surprised. John was encouraging his congregations to remain faithful. Satan's last fling may look terrifying and feel daunting. But it is really only a sure sign that he has lost. Hold onto your faith in the God who overcomes!
July 22, 2010
Recently I was watching an old episode of the TV show "Law and Order." On this show, ADA Jack McKoy was unable to use evidence against a suspect. The search warrant that the police officers used was executed improperly. Everyone who watches crime drama on TV is aware of these kinds of procedural problems with our justice system. Law enforcement officers frequently complain about how their hands are too often tied by rules that favor suspects over police officers.
As our laws grow more complicated, opportunities for defense attorneys to challenge evidence gathering and other police procedures grow as well. And many of us feel that justice is not served very well. We want to see the criminal get a just punishment.
It is peculiar that sometimes people who criticize God for not doing anything about the injustice in the world are the same people who criticize the idea of a God who would punish people for their sins.
The Bible speaks of God's love and mercy, but the Bible also emphasizes God's justice. God is angry with our choices to cheat and hurt and steal from each other. One day that anger will be the trumpet call of justice for everyone who chose to rebel against God's justice and refuse His love
A second angel followed and said, "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries" .... The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God's wrath. (Revelation 14:8,19)
The gradual unfolding of the end of time culminates in the justice of God being brought onto all of humanity. Revelation, chapter 14, continues John' vision of God's judgment against those who oppose Him. John again details the 144,000 servants of God in heaven. He speaks of the fall of Babylon which most scholars believe is a code for the Roman Empire.
In this vision, John sees a clear image of God's judgment coming upon the earth. He sees two angels with sharp sickles in their hands. They are instructed to "harvest" the earth, that is, gather the people so that they may be judged by God.
Chapter 14 concludes with a frightening vision of the blood spilled by the winepress of God's wrath. The blood becomes a pool 180 miles long and as deep as the bridle on a horse. Such an image surely describes a terrifying judgment.
People may mock God and ignore His moral imperatives for a time. But John wants us to be sure that evil will be punished by the God who is essence of justice.
July 29, 2010
In a high school production of the play, "Dracula," I remember being startled and having to overcome a strong urge to break out into laughter when another actor forgot an important prop. He simply looked at the other two of us on the stage and announced in his character accent, "Excuse me a moment." He then proceeded to march off the stage to retrieve the object, leaving me and the other actor there to stare blankly at the audience and each other. This is not the drama that the director intended for his actors to convey.
As C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "When the author steps onto the stage the play is over." The actors are given a certain amount of freedom within the confines of script and stage and set and character. While they are acting, they have freedom to speak the lines with differences of nuance or move to different areas of the stage. They may change the intention of the playwright or the director.
It rarely happens, but sometimes, when a play is badly handled by actors, the director or author may choose to interrupt the performance to set things right. This is a dramatic step that might even stop the whole performance. One day, God will step into this sinful world to render His final judgment. And all of the opportunities people have had to do things God's way will be over.
I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues – last because with them God's wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held the harps of God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb:
Great and marvelous are your deeds
Lord God Almighty
All nations will come and worship before you,
For your righteous acts have been revealed.
We have seen the progressive movement of God's judgment and salvation happening in the first 14 chapters of Revelation. John now announces, here in chapter 15, that these plagues are the last stage of the progression. The world has been given many opportunities to repent and turn to God. Time is running out.
Many scholars have noted that several parts of chapter 15 remind us of the Old Testament story of the Exodus. Notice the mention of plagues, the sea mixed fire (a heavenly "Red" Sea says commentator Martin Kiddle) and the song of Moses. Here we may have John seeing the imagery of the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery and the punishment of the Egyptians that follows. These images remind the Christians that John is writing to that they are God's people and will also be delivered by God.
Much of the world has been crying throughout history asking where God is. The song that those delivered saints are singing says that now God at last is revealing to everyone what His righteousness is. Most refused to recognize it. Now it will be unmistakable. So have courage Christian brothers and sisters and do not give up on your faith. The truth of God's righteousness will be clear to everyone at the end.
August 12, 2010
In September of 1996, we had a hurricane. Living in North Carolina, one is used to hearing about hurricanes. Several hit the coast regularly. We had been living in Kentucky and hurricanes do not usually reach that far inland. In Kentucky we have tornadoes.
But when the warnings about a hurricane came through in September 1996, I did not really feel any anxiety. I knew they were expecting the storm to come near us. But I still was not convinced that we would get significant damage.
We had a hurricane. Hurricane Fran ran right over us. And I slept right through it. I awoke the next day to a house without power. No problem. But then I looked outside. Trees were down in the yard, but still no major alarm. Then, foolishly, I took my daughter Bethany and we rode to town in search of breakfast.
Those of you who were here remember how bad it was. Fortunately, we had no injuries or house damage. But I slept right through a hurricane. In the same way, some people will not wake up from their moral sleep, no matter the extent of God's warnings to them.
"Behold I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed." Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. (Revelation 16:15-16)
Chapter 16 presents the final series of judgments poured out on the earth by God's angels. We have already seen the opening of the seven seals of the scroll that started the judgment of God, as well as the seven trumpet blasts from angels in heaven. Now, we have seven angels who pour out bowls of God's wrath upon the earth.
The judgments are getting worse as the first four bowls are poured out. But the last three bowls signal a change in where the judgments are focused. Instead of a general punishment on the earth, these bowls pour out judgment that focuses on the earthly kingdom under the influence of Satan and his beast. These judgments are against the kingdoms of this world that oppose God and God's people.
In the middle of these judgments, the voice of Christ interrupts the proceeding with a call to His people. "Stay awake. Keep your clothes handy!" In other words, do not think that because God's judgment has not happened yet, that it will not come. It will. And everyone who is not awake will be caught up in it.
Chapter 16 is also where we read about the place called Armageddon. Scholars note that this expression is not found anywhere else in the Bible. The popular idea of a battle there comes from equating the kings in this verse with a battle found later in chapter 19. But wherever this battle takes place, those who oppose God will be defeated.
August 19, 2010
I suppose almost everyone has a customer service story to tell these days. We call in when we have a question or problem. Those automated menus never seem to give me the option that will address the question that I have! And then we hope to get a representative who can speak and understand enough English to help us. And then we feel absolutely helpless as they explain how they are so sorry that we are having a problem, but it is really not the company's fault at all. "Too bad, so sorry."
In a lot of the modern world, we feel powerless. Others with influence and authority and money make decisions that we must live with. The Christians in John's time also felt powerless against a Roman Empire and local authorities that could persecute them anytime they wanted.
But John has good news for them. In the face of powerful kings, Jesus is "king of kings." And in the face of power and authority, Jesus is "Lord of lords."
"The have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings — and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers." (Revelation 17:13-14)
Revelation, chapter 17, is a continuation of the final judgment of God that began with the seven angels pouring out the seven bowls of God's wrath in chapter 16. In powerful images, John reports that God's judgment is coming against the powerful rulers on earth who have persecuted God's people.
The images will be familiar to anyone who has studied prophecy or the book of Revelation — a great harlot sitting on a beast with seven heads and 10 horns. The seven heads are seven hills, but wait, they are really seven rulers. The 10 horns are also rulers, but they do not have kingdoms yet. They are under the influence of the beast.
Some will recognize a reference that many modern interpreters thought, at one time, would be the European Union, thinking that the seven heads were an indication of the central authority and the 10 horns a 10-nation union. This scenario did not happen like the prophecy teachers thought it might. But the one thing that does seem clear is that the reference to seven hills means that these rulers represent the Roman Empire.
The Christians of John's time would certainly have thought of this reference as they read the prophecy. They probably expected the imminent end of the world. Two-thousand years later we see an allusion to a future world empire that will be the major influence in the world. Some have suggested that the United States, abandoning its heritage of respect for faith in God, might be the new Babylon.
Once again the main point of the prophecy is not in dispute: The rulers of the world oppose God and persecute God's people. "But the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings."
August 26, 2010
What would you do if you found out that your employer was doing business in a dishonest way? The world forces us to face such moral dilemmas sometimes. It is difficult not to compromise in certain ways and continue to get along in the world.
But when we are faced with certain knowledge that we are part of a system that is evil and doing harm to others, we as believers are called to oppose such evil, and if necessary, remove ourselves from this evil.
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven… With a mighty voice he shouted: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, ...." Then I heard another voice say "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins ...." (Revelation 18:1-2,4)
Revelation, chapter 18, is a description of the fall of Babylon. The name of this ancient city was commonly used to mean the ultimate evil. Most scholars believe that in Revelation the name Babylon refers to the ancient empire of Rome.
But there has been more than one Babylon. This is symbolic of the great evils done in the world, the systems of the world that oppress and murder people. This "Babylon" is a type of all those human systems that allow themselves to be part of Satan's opposition to God and God's ways.
In the face of such evil, God says to His people, "Get out of there, my judgment is coming. Don't stand in the way!" As Jesus' revelation to John is building to this climax of judgment, God promises that the evil of this world will fall. We can be assured that those who oppose goodness and righteousness will face God's punishment.
So endure all of you believers. One day evil will be judged.
September 2, 2010
One of the earliest Christian writings that is not included in the New Testament begins by saying, "There are two ways; one leads to life and one leads to death." We are reluctant to claim this anymore. We think we know better than the New Testament writers and the apostles.
As Christians, we believe that the New Testament is the true expression of God's word to us. That word speaks with a clear voice on many things. One thing that the New Testament is clear about is that God will judge those who oppose God's ways.
In this post-modern world, everyone wants to rely on the compassion of God to overlook their sins. But God does not overlook sin. There are two ways to deal with sin; God will redeem it or judge it. If we choose to ignore God and continue in sin without repentance, we can look forward to a very painful encounter with our Creator one day.
Then the angel said to me, "Write: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!" And he added, "These are the true words of God." … And I saw an angel standing in the sun who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, "Come gather together for the great supper of God so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great. (Revelation 19:9, 17-18)
Many Christians are familiar with the idea of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We find this mentioned here in Revelation, chapter 19, only briefly and without much comment. But, clearly, those who are considered worthy of this marriage supper are blessed to be joined to Christ as His bride. This is one of the places in the New Testament where we see the church referred to as the bride of Christ.
But what many do not notice is that this mention of the marriage supper is mentioned in direct connection with another supper, referred to here as the supper of God. But this is not a blessing, but rather the continued judgment of our holy God against those who are persecuting His people and ignoring His commands.
There are two suppers mentioned at this judgment. The choice of which supper to attend is given to us. We can choose Christ and be a part of His bride or we can oppose God and feel His wrath. But the choice is ours.
September 9, 2010
Imagine the excitement you were feeling if you were one of the many who had embraced a new opportunity on June 27, 1988. You had purchased the pay-per-view boxing heavyweight championship between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks.
Everyone in the boxing world was excited about this tantalizing clash of styles between two premier boxers. And promoters were thrilled at the success of the new method of delivering their product to cable TV viewers. If you were one of the many thousands who paid $21 to watch this event, you no doubt were looking forward to a long and entertaining evening.
So how disappointed were you when, 91 seconds into the first round, "Iron Mike" knocked Spinks out cold, ending the bout and suddenly making your investment the most expensive 91 seconds of your life? The contest that was supposed to be a clash of titans turned out to be a horrible mismatch.
Many imagine that Satan and evil are powerful forces that oppose God in a tremendous clash of opposites. Revelation reminds us that God is determining the movement of history, and when God is ready, Satan and evil will not have a prayer.
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years… And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God…They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1-2, 4)
I suppose among the most controversial portions of the book of Revelation is chapter 20 and its references to the 1,000-year reign of Christ. This event, the millennium, coincides with a 1,000-year period in which Satan is bound and held captive in the Abyss, or bottomless pit. The different interpretations of the millennium are often the subject of long sections of commentary on the book of Revelation.
Theologians are labeled as pre-millenialists, post-millenialists or a-millienialists. The first refers to those who believe that this 1,000-year reign will take place before the second coming of Christ. Post-millenial refers instead to the idea that the 1,000 years will take place after the second coming. The a-millenialist believes that the 1,000 years is a symbolic number that indicates the complete time. They do not think that it refers to a literal 1,000 years.
Unfortunately, many Christians have promoted uncharitable arguments over these different positions, but no one has been able to successfully silence the objections that others have. I suspect that in a time of real persecutio,n like what John and his churches were facing, such questions would have seemed less important than the more certain message that this chapter proclaims.
Many may suspect that the end will come in a violent clash between evil and good. Many may understand Satan as a figure who is the antagonist of God, the power that opposes God and seeks to overcome God. But John's revelation agrees with the entire testimony of the New Testament: God is the mover of all things
Satan is no true adversary, only another player in God's plan. When God is ready to stop Satan and his work, God does not even have to do the binding; He sends an angel to do it. (I am grateful to NT scholar Leon Morris for this insight.)
As you face the hardships of being Christ's disciple, you can be sure that everything is under God's control. The outcome of your faith is that you will reign alongside the One whose victory is absolutely certain. And that victory will come at just at the right time.
September 16, 2010
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away …
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them… He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…
One of the seven angels…showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…The twelve gates were twelve pearls… the great street of the city was of pure gold .... (Revelation 21:1, 3-4, 9-10, 21)
Of course, the climax of the vision which Jesus has shown to John comes in this, the next-to-last chapter of Revelation. In this vision, we see and hear all of the promises that God's people have preserved through the centuries since the time of Christ — a new earth, no more tears, the streets of gold and the gates of pearl.
Christian teachers have debated over these centuries about how much of this vision we should take literally. But there is no debate about the meaning of the vision to John and the churches to which he has addressed this writing. God will not only vindicate your persecution, God will also make a whole new world where goodness and peace will reign.
In the same wa,y we can be assured that even though much of John's vision may remain confusing to us, Jesus' message to us through the words of John is clear: One day, the fragile, broken and imperfect world in which we live will no longer exist. It will be replaced by a world where everything stands in its right relationship to God our creator.
Nothing will be out of place; nothing will hurt.
God gives you this knowledge, this revelation. We could not know it in any other way, except by God's own word. God's word is a word of encouragement and hope delivered to world desperate to hear good news. And that is what the gospel is ... the good news not only that God loves us and wants to help us. But the certain good news that He can and He will.
September 23, 2010
The angel said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place."
"Behold I am coming soon. Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book."
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let him who hears say, "Come." Whoever is thirst let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:6-7, 17, 20)
Two themes dominate the closing chapter of the Revelation: Jesus is coming soon to make everything right and readers should pay careful attention to the words of this prophecy. Both of these themes have created a lot of havoc within the church throughout church history.
A number of Christian leaders did not want to include Revelation in the New Testament, because it created the same kinds of problems in the early centuries of the church that it creates now — people abandon normal life to sit on a hilltop and await Christ's return or they use the curses of Revelation to condemn other Christians who have a differing view or practice.
But the abuse of Revelation does not diminish its power. The warnings of chapter 22 that we read and pay attention to this prophecy remind us that God gave us this work to teach us something about Himself and His plan. The details of that plan may be open to debate, but the certainty of its fulfillment is not.
To serve the Lord Jesus faithfully, even to the point of persecution and death, is not a weak or failed position. The world may think it has overcome the church, but one day God will set things straight. We may think that this should come soon, but whenever God is ready it will come. And the words of Revelation continue to encourage us in worship and hope and perseverance in our faith.
We have read the end of the book — God wins.