God is on His throne in magnificent light. He is at the center of all things. He is given the praise that is due him from the twenty-four elders, a symbol of all of God’s people signified by the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Church. The powerful beasts bow before him. If this is a concert or a show, the house is pumpin’ now. There is lots of energy. The stage lights are high and hot, and we the masses are in the dark watching this unfold. The hall is loud as those gathered on stage pour all of their spirit into praising God.
Then someone new is introduced and, though it is hard to imagine, the scene erupts with even more praise. The volume increases. The back lights of the stage light up to reveal a chorus of angels more than can be numbered that join the elders in praise. The strings of harps fill the air with melodious sound, and the air is rich with the smell of incense. The Lamb has just stepped into the circle of praise.
We were expecting a lion because of what one of the elders had said:
Don’t cry. Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals. (5:5)
But in a poignant bit of irony, the Lion has become the Lamb. Let there be no mistake, the Lamb is powerful like a lion, but his work up until now has always been more like a lamb. One must be a lamb before they can be a lion.
As the Lamb strides up to the throne to take the sealed scroll from God, song after song of praise is sung in his honor. Sometimes the best thing to do in life is just to stop and praise before the moment gets away.
We do not yet know what is on this scroll, though we can see that it has writing on both the front and back indicating this is a full message. We can tell from the seven seals that the writer of this scroll wants to keep its contents well guarded. John was told at the beginning of chapter 4 that he would be shown what would be coming in the future (4:1), so we assume this scroll contains the future destiny of someone or even the whole world.
There has not been a lot of talking during this scene. Singing has dominated. However, all of the conversation up until now has focused on one thought: who is worthy to open this scroll? The one who takes this scroll must be deserving (5:2). As the Lamb walks onto the stage, the worthiness of the Lamb is their greatest point of praise:
You are worthy to take the scroll; You are worthy to open its seals; For you were slaughtered and with your own blood you purchased a people for God. (5:9)
The slaughtered lamb has now deserved to take the riches and the power. (5:12)
As the Lamb comes into the light emanating from God we see it possesses all power (horns) and wisdom (eyes) but that it also has the wounds of death on it. As surreal as it seems, the Lamb has died and is now alive again. In fact, this is precisely what has made the Lamb worthy to take the scroll. If it were only power that made one deserving, maybe one of the four creatures could have done it. It was the Lamb who “won the victory” by being “slaughtered” (5:5, 9). A people were purchased for God “with [his] own blood” (5:9). The Lamb is “now” deserving because it has been “slaughtered” (5:12). The Lamb is worthy because it has died.
This is a big theme in the book of Revelation. Suffering comes before praise. Power is purchased with blood. The way to overcome is by laying down one’s life. Victory comes through sacrifice, not battle. We will see this idea come back often this month. The recipients of this book needed to hear this. And we do too.
How is a Christian supposed to respond to suffering and persecution? This is the main theme of 1 Peter, therefore all of my posts this week will focus on the answer Peter gave to the churches in Asia Minor. There are many other great ideas in this letter, but because this same question is a perennial one with Christians still today, even in a country like America, I will limit my thoughts to this theme.
Is this world as it is your home?
How we answer this one question may explain why we experience certain situations as suffering. If this world and the way we think life is supposed to be lived here and now is what we embrace as “home” anything that endangers that state of life will no doubt be greeted as an enemy to be opposed. An economic downturn is a travesty because we cannot have all we have become accustomed to. If life here and now is supposed to be getting progressively easier and more comfortable, old age and career setbacks are anathema. Diseases and death are the ultimate foes because they end this life and tear us from this world. Think about the prayer requests you have heard lately and ask yourself if they don’t reveal where our real home is.
But Peter describes our experiences here and now very differently. He calls his recipients “God’s chosen ones who lives as foreigners” (1:1). In tomorrow’s reading he will call them “strangers and resident aliens” (2:11). For Peter the answer to the initial question is a resounding “no.” This world is not our home and, therefore, we should not expect to be comfortable here. We are on our way back home with our father and in the mean time we should be sure not to be “squashed into” the pattern of this world (1:14). The “rescue of our lives” is coming (1:9), “a rescue that is all ready and waiting” (1:5). That is a very different mindset and it makes a whole world of difference.
This mindset can be used to rationalize a total detachment from this world and an apathy to anything and anyone not waiting for the great heavenly train to “back, back, train and get your load.” As we will see that is not what Peter would advocate either, but this mindset can help us to face hard times with faithfulness and even celebration (1:6). If this world is not our home, the twists and turns of fate (or crowd approval) need not leave us feeling uncertain about our future and the quality of life to come. Retirement plans may dwindle. Knees and hearts may give out. Our very freedom can be taken away. However, because of our second birth as the children of God, we have an “incorruptible inheritance, which nothing can stain or diminish” and nothing can endanger that fact (1:3-5).
There is a better Kingdom coming, and until that reality becomes true to us the setbacks that our present, self-centered fiefdoms suffer will seem excessively oppressive.
This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. Who is the one who conquers the world? Surely the one who believes that Jesus is God’s son! (5:4b-5)
If faith is believing in what you cannot see, then a person without faith is limited only to what they can sense in some way. A no-faith life is really a life of the here and now. How can there be hope for something else, something better, some amazing renewal? Imagine if this is all there is to life? There are many great blessings to this life right now, but there are just as many set-back and heartbreaks.
Faith is what moves us beyond the worldly limitations, disappointments and darkness. Faith is what allows us to believe that there once was a better world and there will once again be something better. Faith allows us to rise above the boundaries of our own present realities.
And, of course, it is all possible because of Jesus.
Contentment does not mean we do not have needs. Of course, we will still be in need. Later in chapter 4 Paul talks about being in need and how the Philippians provided for him at that time. Contentment can remain even when we are not comfortable with what we have and the situation we are in.
Paul gives us one more secret for how that is possible:
Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over our hearts and minds in King Jesus. (4:6-7)
Secret to Contentment #4: Pray! Pray fervently! Pray all the time, in any situation! Say what is on your mind. Ask for what you need. Thank Him for what He has already done. Surrender to God’s will. Express your willingness to trust Him. As we remember what God has done for us in the past, prayer helps contentment to become real and solidifying our hearts.
What have we learned about contentment from Philippians?
There is a way past anxiety and on to contentment and joy in all situations. It is not by eliminating need as if that were possible. It is not by attaining all we want and fulfilling all we desire; when do we ever reach that point? As we fix our focus past this present world and on to the rewards and reality of the world to come, as we face realistically our needs and give those to God in prayer, as we become oriented more towards serving others than ourselves, we can be rest assured that God is in control of all things and our futures will be okay. Paul never promises a life without struggle or a life filled only with blessings — remember where he was when he was writing this letter — but Paul is sure of this:
I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power. (4:13)
If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. — C. S. Lewis
Which is the real world, this one or the one to come? Well, both really. It is not realistic nor compassionate to expect people to ignore this world as a place of no consequence. We have families here. We fall in love here. We experience and inflict real hurt here. We work at jobs here that are intended and do have real consequences.
Maybe the better question is which world has enduring value and therefore is worth orienting our life towards?
Several times Paul tells the Philippians Christians (and us) that they will find contentment by attaching to the hereafter rather than the here and now.
Paul pulls out his resume, which by Jewish standards was quite impressive (3:4-6). Then he declared,
Does that sound as tough my account was well in credit? Well, maybe; but whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss — because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! (3:7-8a)
Paul is eager “to forget everything that’s behind, and to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead” (3:13). After all, “we are citizens of heaven” (3:20), not Philippi, Rome, Memphis, America or anywhere else. “Our present body is a shabby old thing” but the “glorious body” is coming (3:21). Paul’s eyes are firmly fixed on what is to come, not the present roller coaster ride he is presently on.
Secret to Contentment #3: Attach your heart to the New Creation where long-lasting treasure is found, and there will always be a better day coming.
Eschatology — the study of the end of this life and the advent of the world that is to come — is, by nature, a bit speculative. The Bible does give us guidance but it is often slightly cryptic, imaginative, and figurative. How, too, do you talk about something that is not exactly like this world?
I am going to use today’s post to do what many blogs do regularly: float ideas out there for review that are still in the formative stage. I would love to hear what you think of these thoughts.
Like many, I grew up thinking of the next life as a place called Heaven that is out there past the wild blue yonder, certainly a place out there far away from our present, evil world. A lot of education, steady reading of the Bible with new glasses on, and a bit of N. T. Wright and others have changed that view of the world to come radically. I am uncomfortable with escapist theologies that paint this world that is precious to God and still owned by God as evil and disposable (Psalm 24:1). I am finding more and more each day that indicates the new world (or Heaven, if you want to it that) will be right here on a renewed earth. Emotionally this question really made a lot of things click for me: what parent would say of a rebellious and sinful child, I’ll get rid of him and get a new one? God is in the business of redeeming; it only stands to reason that applies to all He created.
Let’s read this passage with that way of thinking in mind:
You see, the royal appearing of the son of man will be like the days of Noah. What does that mean? Well, in those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, they were getting married and giving children in marriage, right up to the day when Noah went into the ark. They didn’t know about it until the flood came and swept them all away. That’s what it’ll be like at the royal appearing of the son of man. On that day there will be two people working in the field. One will be taken; the other will be left. There will be two women grinding corn in the mill. One will be taken; the other will be left. (24:37-41)
Many of us are familiar with the belief that there will be a time slightly before the Second Coming of Christ when many Christians will be taken up out of this world and taken off to Heaven. This is usually called the Rapture. That is a belief I have never held, probably because I come from an amillennial tradition. But as you can imagine, this belief doesn’t fit with the way I am proposing we should understand the future. We are not going up and off to anywhere. The New Jerusalem is coming here to a cleansed and renewed earth (Revelation 21-22).
This passage quoted above is often cited in supported of the Rapture. Two people are in a field and one is taken away. There it is. But why do we think that the one taken away is taken away to Heaven?
I would like to suggest that the one taken away is taken off for punishment. He is part of the cleansing, that which has to be taken out of this world in order for renewal to take place. I would cite the very example Matthew uses in this passage as support. In the days of Noah, you did not want to be swept away. You wanted to be one of the eight left behind on the Ark. If you were taken, it was punishment. Likewise, if you are one of the two men in a field or two women grinding corn, you don’t want to be taken away. You want to be the one left.
I hope your Easter was a truly blessed one! I spent much of the weekend in solitude and with family (in part, because I was sick on Sunday), but it was a very good weekend of reminders of frailty and new life. I did spend time with Henri Nouwen, one of my favorites especially on Easter. If you would like to read my Easter mediations click here to go to my personal blog.
We have just made a huge jump in time in Matthew 3. Kids have grown up to be adults. The time for ministry has come.
This is the first mention of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, in Matthew. He is one unorthodox bloke, to put it mildly. He must have failed his seminary class on seeker-sensitive preaching:
He saw several Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him. “You brood of vipers!” he said to them. “Who warned you to escape from the coming wrath? You better prove your repentance by bearing the right sort of fruit!” (3:7-8)
His first words are what strike me in this chapter:
“Repent!” he was saying. “The kingdom of heaven is coming!” (3:2)
John’s first words introduce us to what will be a major theme in Matthew, actually the biggest idea Jesus and his followers ever talked about. What is this kingdom? It is coming here? When? One’s understanding of the Gospels is sadly deficient if one does not come to understand what the “kingdom” is.