Posts Tagged With: jesus

Revelation 22: Come, Lord Jesus!

Here we are at the end.  The last chapter of the New Testament.  My last post on a reading.  I will post once more tomorrow in an effort to wrap things up.

Today’s chapter couldn’t be a better end.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that the greatest Author of all ended His book in such a fitting way.  This is a great ending to Revelation and a great ending to the New Testament.

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John takes us back to where he started.  Back at the beginning of the book Jesus called on the seven churches of Asia Minor to decide which way they would go.  Would they become so enculturated that they compromised all that was distinctive about Jesus?  Or would they stand out as different people who serve a different Lord, even if it did mean persecution as a result?  Today, Jesus calls on his audience one more time to make that same decision:

God’s blessings on those who wash their clothes, so that they may have the right to eat from the tree of life and may enter the city by its gates.  But the dogs, the sorcerers, the fornicators, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves to invent lies — they will all be outside. (22:14-15)

Lest, we think Jesus speaks with indifference, we are also reminded of the immense love of God that wants all to come into His city:

The spirit and the bride say, “Come!”  and let anyone who hears say, “Come!” Let the thirsty come; let anyone who wants the water of life take it freely. (22:17)

Revelation has taken us from where we are, facing the many manifestations of evil that surround us, to a place of hope that life will soon be different.  Life is held in God’s hands as the true King all all things, still Revelation has never taken away our freedom.  We, the saints, must decide who we will be in this world.

And it is true.  Whether it was Jesus preaching from the Mount or defending himself before Pilate.  Whether we stood with the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost as Peter preached the first sermon of the church.  Whether it was the teachings of Paul, James, or John.  The point was always the same: We must decide.  Who will we be?

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. (22:21)

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Revelation 20: The Inevitable End of Evil

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What an incredible chapter!  But do we see the amazing, hope-filled news of this chapter or do we , like too many Christians, miss the forest for the trees?

Too often people’s views on Revelation are grouped according to the position one takes on the thousand years (or millennium) mentioned in this passage.  That is a shame, because this is the only passage in the entire Bible where a thousand-year period of spiritual significance is mentioned.  We are doing great injustice to this great book to make a passage that is singular and unclear at best the keystone by which we interpret the entire book. I refuse to do that here.  I will not deny that this passage is enigmatic (I suspect this is a symbolic period of time as numbers in Revelation are rarely literal, and a special “resurrection” of some sort for the martyrs killed under Roman persecution, not an historical period coming to all who are alive at the time), but we need to keep the main point in view.

This is the big scene in the whole drama.  Everything has been building to this point.  Last chapter, we saw the beast and the false prophet (the physical manifestations of evil in the life of the first recipients of this book) cast almost effortlessly into the lake of never-ending fire.  Now all that stands in the way of God’s great kingdom is Satan and his henchmen Death and Hades.  Satan is bound then loosed, then a military build-up takes place against God’s people almost as if to heighten the tension.  But then, as quick as it started, judgment is over.  God simply decrees the destruction of Evil and it is so.

Then fire came down and burned them up. (20:9)

Maybe that is the point.  God is in control.  There is sound and fury, but it signifies nothing.  When God decides to bring all things to an end, it is over.  This is God’s world.

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I have to admit that much of the time that is not how I see it.  And I would imagine the original readers of Revelation struggled to see it that way too.  But that is the incredible good news of Revelation: Even when it is hard to believe it, God is truly in control of all things.  We are on the winning side.

What caught your attention?

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Revelation 19: A Chorus of Hallelujahs

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Merry Christmas!

I was fortunate that both of my sets of grandparents lived in the same small town, a few hours away from my childhood home.  Every Christmas included a visit with both sides of the family in a grand two- or three-day holiday.  The celebrations with each family couldn’t be more different.  Christmas with my mother’s family was loud with laughter and stories.  There was always an endless game of road hockey, and some of the best cooking you ever would have.  I enjoyed our Christmas visits with my dad’s family just as much but the traditions were very different.  My grandfather would hold court in his living room around a warm fire, where all were invited to solve the world’s problems with appropriately conservative answers.  We children would escape to the basement to shoot pool until we grew old enough to have opinions we could support.  To this day, though, what I remember most was that my grandfather always had classical music playing.  Royal Canadian Brass.  The Boston Pops.  Handel’s “Messiah.”  When my grandfather passed away last year I was given a nut-bowl I had turned him in the seventh grade in woodshop, and a collection of CDs he used to play at Christmas.

George Friedric Handel

George Friedric Handel

Arguably the most popular part of George Friedric Handel’s “Messiah” is the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Handel set the music in 1741 and his friend Charles Jennens provided the lines of verse.  Interestingly, the three most famous lines of the “Hallelujah Chorus” come from Revelation, and two are found in today’s passage:

Alleluia!  The Lord our God, the Almighty, has become king [reigneth]! (19:6)

On his robe, and on his thigh, is written a name: King of kings, and Lord of lords. (19:16)

Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever. (11:15)

Amidst the oracles of doom and judgement, the grotesque beast and powerful celestial beings, it is immensely fitting that the fall of Rome ends with the flourish of praise to Christ the Victor we find running throughout this passage.

I enjoyed solving the problems of the world in my grandfather’s living room sipping apple cider and listening to Handel.  I am infinitely more thankful that there is a white rider with a blood-drenched robe who truly can right the world again.  No beast or false prophet can stand against him.  And that is worth a lifetime’s chorus of “Hallelujahs.”

What a great gift for Christmas!

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Revelation 14: Living with End-Time Vision

The conflict in John’s visions lets up for a moment, and now things are about to get loud!

John has a new vision, this time of the Lamb and the 144,00 marked on their foreheads for rescue and reward.  Standing on Mount Zion in the ideal city of God safely away from the pressing of the grapes of God’s wrath outside of the city (14:20).  So the praise erupts.  A thunderous, cascade of harps and a new song just for the moment.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this scene?  How does one ensure he will be there (14:4-5)?

  • Avoid sexual immorality
  • Follow the example of Jesus aggressively
  • Be ready to suffer and sacrifice
  • Speak with utter truth and purity

These qualities would have been especially poignant for the original recipients of this book.  Life in the Roman Empire where they were being progressively pushed towards life-and-death decisions made them daily have to determine whether they were willing to remain unspotted like the 144,000 of this vision (maybe recent Christian martyrs like Antipas who had been faithful unto death, 2:14?).  A little lie about their beliefs could save them some harassment.  Avoiding oppression through participation in the religious cults of the Empire and the trade guilds (unions) of their towns would also place them into sexually immoral situations, for sure.  Were they ready to follow Jesus’ example of holiness even to the point of sacrifice?

Many of us are not in the same immediate threat of physical harm and economic marginalization because of our faith.  But the pull to engage in a culture that is far too sexual and dishonest is still very real.  One can stand out too much in business and culture.  One can be too religious, right?  The call to faithfulness is one we need to hear too.

Begin with the end in mind

Begin with the end in mind

Maybe it helps to think like the second angel mentioned in this chapter:

Babylon the Great has fallen!  She has fallen! (14:8)

Remembering that apocalyptic literature is stated in code, Babylon is certainly a reference to Rome.  As Babylon was the immoral and barbarous nemesis of the people of God in the last part of the Old Testament, likewise Rome is to the nascent Church.  The trouble is that Rome had not fallen.  In fact, when John is writing this Rome is a great height of power.  She still has the ability to make her mark on these Christians (14:9) and to kill.

Maybe the point is that to live faithfully in the midst of hard times requires end-time vision.  We must remain focused on how things end, not how they are right now.  We must bear in mind where each of the forks in the road leads in the end, not what they look like right now.  The Rome of our lives have fallen.  They are fading away.  The Lamb will win in the end.  A new city is coming where the harvest is gathered in for abundant living (14:14-16).  That was certainly one of the reasons for this whole book: the give end-time vision to a persecuted people so as to strengthen their resistance.  Often, we need that encouragement too.

What stood out to you?

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Revelation 7: The Blessed Life of the New Creation

Six seals down and we are all expecting the seventh seal next.  We know only more woe will come.  Before that seal is broken an angel rushes in to plead that God’s people be marked on their foreheads (a visible place that one sees immediately when meeting a person) lest they be caught up in the judgment to come.  We think of the blood on the door frames of the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt during the Exodus.  One hundred and forty-four thousand people from the twelve Jewish tribes are marked.  As 12 and 1000 are both numbers in ancient numerology that connote completeness, the point is not a literal number but that God’s plan has reached completion.

Lest we think this vision only favors the Jews, next we see a countless number of people from “every nation and tribe and people and language” (7:9) gather before the throne of God dressed in white robes, praising God and waving palm branches.  The New Creation will be a place for all people, not just the chosen people.  Not just people like us.

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Presently, there is once again an anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping through Europe, not unlike what was present in the 1930s and at various points before, though not to that degree and wide acceptance (remember that mass shooting at a summer camp in Norway a year ago?).  Sadly, these same feelings are becoming more and more prevalent in America as well, even in our churches.  Socially, this concerns me for what’s coming.  Spiritually, this cultural enculturation saddens and sickens me.  God’s Kingdom is the place where color, language, citizenship, and customs neither matter nor separate because there is a more important commonality in the blood of the Christ that trumps all of these.  There is no place for racism, suspicion, and cultural superiority in the Body of Christ.

That being said, today’s chapter ends with an incredible encouragement.  Imagine how welcome these words would have been to the original recipients of this letter, those who knew they would have to suffer before this passage came true.  When asked who the countless masses are, one of the elders says:

These are the ones who have come out of the great suffering.  They have washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.  That is why they are there in front of God’s throne, serving him day and night in his temple.  The one who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  They will never be hungry again, or thirsty again.  The sun will not scorch them, nor will any fierce heat.  The lamb, who is in the midst of the throne, will be their shepherd.  He will lead them to springs of running water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. (7:14-17)

There is suffering to come, but then there are blessed days ahead in the New Creation.

What caught your eye today?

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Revelation 6: The Great Reversal Begins

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Yesterday we were introduced to the scroll of destiny.  Today the lamb begins to open the seals one by one.  As each seal is broken some monumental event takes place.  The first four seals launch a horseman — yes, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  Off they go on white, red, black and pale horses bringing death in various ways as they go.  Whether battle, disease, famine, or even wild animals, when the time comes for the seals to be broken Death personified will ride into the lives of those who have oppressed God’s people.  If we look at the history of the Roman Empire in the three hundred years after John’s vision, that is exactly what we see happen.  And so often since then, we have seen Death have his way with the godless regimes of human history.

But why is this happening?  We might wonder.  Some may bristle at passages like this one.  There is no escaping that in this passage God is orchestrating the death of at least the fourth of the world’s population (6:8), if we are to take that number literally.  Some might object that this sort of action is beneath God.

how-long-o-lordBut this is not just violence for violence sake.  God doesn’t go on a tear for no reason at all.  Here we get a stark look at the justice of God.  We must remember that justice is on the other side of the coin from the forgiveness and mercy we like to focus on.  When people are seeking forgiveness, the good news is that it is available.  But when there are powers afoot that desire only their own will and have no regard for God or moral living, good news for those oppressed can only be the punishment of the tyrants of this world.

The fifth seal reveals the cause of the first four.  The “witnesses” who have died because of their faith are now revealed shouting at the top of their voices:

How much longer are you going to put off giving judgment, and avenging our blood on the earth-dwellers? (6:10)

As the sixth seal is broken and the world as we know begins to melt (highly poetic language borrowing all the standard apocalyptic symbols for cataclysmic change), the oppressors of the righteous know they will be made to pay for their transgressions and hope that hiding will save them:

Hide us from the face of the One who sits on the throne, and from the anger of the lamb!  The great day of their anger has come, and who can stand upright? (6:16-17)

Some who read Revelation are turned off because of its violence.  This is a picture of God they deem unbecoming.  However, as anyone who has ever been persecuted for their faith can tell us, there are some situations in life where justice is the only way to rectify a situation.  To not bring evil to an end would, in fact, be unjust and erode the very fabric of life.  Revelation is dark in many places, but always in vindication of the faithful who have suffered even unto death.

The times, they are a-changin’.  The balance is shifting.

What did you notice in this chapter?  

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Revelation 5: Worthy is the Lamb!

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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 lamb-that-was_slainalive 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.

What element of this chapter really captured your imagination?

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Revelation 4: Who Is Really Seated on the Throne?

Like all the great prophets of the Bible, one of the first visions John receives is one of God.  Jesus, who can open all doors (3:7), opens the door of heaven and ushers John into the throne-room of the Lord Almighty.  This is the point where I think words are insufficient to express the reality, but John keeps on writing.  I can only imagine that the reality will be even better than this amazing chapter!

There are always those inevitable days when other forces loom on the horizon as god-like.  For the Christians of Asia Minor that force was Roma — the personified power of Rome, a military, cultural, and economic superpower.  At times like this we may know in our head that God is unparalleled even by this force before us, but our hearts and souls sometimes need reminders.  This is when we most need a full-senses reminder of who is really the god of this world.  Maybe that comes in study or worship or service.  For John it came in this vision.  How could he face all that is to come in this book without first seeing this majestic vision of God?

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I am drawn to the four grotesque creatures that surround the brilliant throne of God.  Each in a different way signifies great power.  An ox was the John Deere tractor of the ancient world.  How can agriculture be successful without a good team of oxen?  The skies are dominated by the eagle.  With its sharp talons, keen eyesight, and fast speed prey can only hope to run for cover.  The lion was and to some degree still is the universal symbol for strength.  The ancient Assyrians marched out to battle with lions on their shields.  Today we call the lion the king of the jungle.  But what can out-power all three of these?  A human, well armed and skilled for the hunt.  Standing at the top of the food chain is a well-muscled, intelligent human.  And yet all of these great symbols of power praise the “Lord God Almighty” (4:8).  With their many eyes these creatures see all things.  They know who is most worthy of honor.  Still they praise God.  Nothing escapes their attention; they are always alert, never sleeping.  Still they praise God.  Who else is worthy of such praise?

O Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honor and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created. (4:11)

What caused your heart to sail in today’s reading?

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Revelations 3: The Jesus of the Churches

2171172330103330085S500x500Q85Promises.  We all get a lot of them.  Promises are only as good as the one making the promise.  Making promises isn’t the same as wishful thinking.  To give a good promise you must have the ability to deliver on that promise.  In each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3, Jesus makes a promise to bring something — good or bad — to someone because of what they have done or not done.  In every case, Jesus makes it clear he possesses what is necessary to fulfill his promise.

Each of the seven letters starts with a description of the ascended, victorious Christ.  Then at some point in each letter Jesus promises something to either those who have persisted in wickedness or faithfulness.  John has done a masterful job of connecting promises with aspects of Jesus’ description in each letter so that the point is driven home that Jesus possesses the ability to deliver on what he has said. (Click here for a PDF of this chart.)

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We don’t just serve a God of wishful thinking.  Jesus doesn’t just hope he can help us.  We aren’t just crossing our fingers and wishing on a star.  Our God makes promises, and He possesses all that is necessary to fulfill those promises.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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Revelation 1: The King is in Your Midst

Jesus figures significantly in this first chapter of Revelation.  There should be no wonder; this is the “revelation of Jesus Christ” as verse one tells us.

John greets the seven churches of Asia Minor with a grand praise of Jesus, their common Savior:

Jesus the Messiah, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (1:5)

Now, stop for a moment.  Think how provocative that flourish of praise is.  John is ascribing a power to Jesus that is equal or even surpasses the Caesar.  Is this god of the Christians more powerful than the Caesar who rules all other regional kings of the Mediterranean?  What a dangerous way to start a book to people persecuted for their seditious beliefs!

Lest there be a misunderstanding, this is a different kind of king.  Yes, he has conquered kingdoms.  He holds in his hands trophies of powers that have been vanquished.

He touched me with his right hand. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I am the first and the last and the living one.  I was dead and look!  I am alive forever and ever.  I have the keys of death and Hades. (1:17-18)

Jesus is not a king like Caesar.  He certainly desires the hearts of those who address him as king, but he is not seeking more soil and greater riches.  He has conquered a power greater than Caesar himself.  His greatest victories are spiritual.

John not only says great things about Jesus in this chapter, he even has a vision of Jesus as well:

So I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me.  As I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the middle of the lampstands “one like a son of man,” wearing a full-length robe and with a golden belt across his chest. (1:12-13)

As we start this book, it is important for us to note where Jesus is in this vision.  He stands in the midst of seven lampstands, which verse 20 tells us signify the seven churches to whom this book is written.  Thus, as we start this book we see Jesus standing in the midst of his suffering people.

Jesus is a mighty king but also a compassionate comforter.

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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1 Thessalonians 5: Children of the Light

You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a midnight robber. . . . But as for you, my dear family — you are not in darkness.  That day won’t surprise you like a robber.  (5:2, 4)

In the first part of chapter five, Paul lays out a series of contrasts:

There is a great day coming.  The new creation will soon be upon us.  When, you ask?  We do not know exactly.  Later today.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe long after we are gone, in the days of our children’s  children.  But we don’t need to worry about it.  Nobody in Christ needs to worry about it.

We are the wide-awake people.  We live in the light where robbers are less inclined to come.  We are not numbed to what goes on around us.  We are protected by faith, hope and love (5:8).  Though we do not know the hour, it is okay because we will have peace in that day.  We are destined for salvation, not fury.  So we can echo confidently the second last sentence of the Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

Does this describe the mindset you have?  Why or why not?

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1 Thessalonians 3: The Inevitably of Suffering

There are absolutely many wonderful blessings that come from being in Christ.  No doubt about it!  And these are easy to talk about to new Christians.  But in the age of the “soft sell,” do we acknowledge that the way of Christ is one of sacrifice and suffering as well?

Suffering was inevitable in a mid-first century AD Greco-Roman community steeped in paganism, where there was great loyalty to the Caesar, and where Judaism was a state-protected religion that just happened to want to stamp out this new sect that had risen up around this Jesus the Jews back in Jerusalem had crucified.  But do we mention this to new converts?  Paul didn’t shy away from it at all:

We sent Timothy so that he could strengthen you and bring comfort to your faith, so that you wouldn’t be pulled off course by these sufferings.  You yourselves know, don’t you, that this is what we are bound to face.  For when we were with you, we told you ahead of time that we would undergo suffering; that’s how it has turned out, and you know about it. (3:2-4)

The reality of suffering couldn’t be avoided in Thessalonica.  Shortly after Christianity came to town, the persecution started (Acts 17:1-10).  The leaders of this church could remember the mob, the roughness with which they were dealt, and the days they spent in court sorting through false accusations.  It would make no sense to deny reality.  This was a very real Christianity, right from the beginning.

Do we offer the world a Christianity without suffering and sacrifice?  If so, we are promising something that we cannot deliver.  We are, in fact, denying the truth of an integral part of the way of Christ.  For Jesus, the path to the New Creation came through crucifixion.  Do we think it will be different for us?  Don’t we owe it to people to tell it straight?

What do you think?

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1 Thessalonians 1: Keep on Going!

What do you say to brand new Christians?  I see Paul saying three things to the young, young Thessalonian Christians in this passage.

1.  You are off to a great start!  

When you received the word, you had a lot to suffer, but you also had the holy spirit’s joy.  As a result, you became a model for all the believers in both Macedonia and Achaea.  For the word of the Lord has resonated out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaea; your faith has gone out to people everywhere. (1:6b-8a)

They have started strong and have so much to build on.  They just need to keep on going as they have already.

2.  Follow our example!  

You know what sort of people we became for your sake, when we were among you.  And you learned how to copy us — and the Lord! (1:5b-6a)

When you are starting something, it always helps to have an example to follow.  Paul did not shy away from claiming to be such an example, and he didn’t come off as prideful either.  Paul is following Jesus, so if they follow Paul they are also following Jesus.  Could we say that to a new Christian?  The truth is new Christians are following our examples, whether we want them to or not, whether we encourage it or not.

3.  Don’t even think twice about turning back now!

They themselves tell the story of the kind of welcome we had from you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who delivers us from the coming fury. (1:9-10)

There is a day of wrath and fury coming for those who have rejected Jesus.  The Thessalonians don’t want to fall back into that group.  We see that eschatology theme coming through.  Keep on going!

What stood out to you in this chapter?  

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John 21: Never the Same Again

When you really meet Jesus for the first time, your life will never be the same again.  

I trained for the ministry in undergrad.  I earned my degree in Bible and at twenty-two I launched out into the world with too many fears and too little faith.  I then proceeded for several years to run away from the call to ministry. I worked in restaurant management and then in the insurance industry.  Mainly I worked at getting a paycheck and distracting myself from the fear and inadequacy I felt about he prospect of working for a church.  Then, I could fight it no more.  At the insistence of my good wife, we moved off to Memphis for graduate school and I have been in educational ministry ever since.

I enjoyed the insurance job a great deal (the restaurant job, not so much) and could have stayed in that job for many years and many promotions, but I had a nagging sense that all I was doing was making a rich company richer.  My life was missing purpose.  I was made for something different.  I am not being dramatic when I say that there is rarely a day in my ministry career now when I would say there is no purpose to what I do; I see the point of my work by the hour practically (though not the results, often).  Still, there are days when I am tired from the pace and never-ending nature of teaching (not the kids, they are great!) that I joke with my wife that I ought to quit and go back to insurance.  Of course I never would, by choice.  Never.  I don’t think I could ever do that job again with any degree of satisfaction.

Peter had left fishing behind three years before.  Had it been a lucrative job?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it had been a job and it put supper on the table, or breakfast as this story would have it.  Then he matched off after this rabbi and his life had never been the same since.  But he blew it.  He didn’t just deny Jesus once, but three times.  How could he keep following Jesus?  How could Jesus accept him?  So he went back to fishing:

Simon Peter spoke up.  “I’m going fishing,” he said. (21:3a)

Maybe we read this and think Peter was going off to wet a line like some retired man passing some time.  But fishing was not a pass-time with Peter, it was a job.  Peter was saying, I am going back to what I did before.  I am a failure as a disciple, so back to the boat and nets.  What happens next is so interesting:

So they went off and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing. (21:3b)

Peter can’t do what he did before.  It doesn’t work.  There is no going back.  He has met Jesus and his life will never be the same.  His ability to catch fish is frustrated, because he has a new purpose in life: to be a fisher of men.

Only when Jesus comes along and guides Peter’s hands again does he find success.  A night without a single fish turns into the catch of the year, only because Jesus blessed their work.  Do you really think that there was a miraculous number of fish just on the other side of the boat and they never tried that?  The point, though, is not about fish.  Peter will only find success when he is working for Jesus again.

Then three times Jesus reinstates Peter to his new ministry:

“Well, then,” he said, “feed my lambs.” (21:15)

“Well, then,” he said, “look after my sheep.” (21:16)

“Well, then,” said Jesus, feed my sheep.” (21:17)

Peter can’t go back to catching fish; he has a job to do feeding the sheep of Christ’s church.  And the rest is history. Peter’s life was never the same.

John has taken us from the beginning of Jesus’ life — actually before his birth, to the point when he created the world — to the death and resurrection of our Savior and now to Jesus as he prepares to leave the world in the hands of people like Peter.  What will they do now? History tells us that all of them went on to live radically altered lives of service and sacrifice.  Eleven of the twelve apostles will die a martyr’s death and our author John will die in exile.  John leaves the reader with the same question Peter had to answer: what do I do now?  Now that you see who Jesus really is, what will you do now?  There is no turning back.  You will never be the same again.

What did you learn from this month’s reading of John?

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John 20: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Back in college, I studied the Gospel of John with Jim Woodroof, an fantastic speaker and an even better man.  In that course, we read a book he had written about the Fourth Gospel called Between the Rock and A Hard Place.  The basic premise of the book, as I recall, was that Jesus is consistently portrayed in John as one who places people “between a rock and a hard place” so as produce a decision of faith in their life.  Jesus desired to bring people to rock solid faith in him but first they had to have reason to believe.

As was discussed in the introduction to John, one of John’s greatest goals with his book was to help people come to believe in Jesus.  This is the “gospel of belief,” as our other textbook called John.  We see a statement of this goal at the end of our chapter today, in what for many is the purpose statement of this gospel:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which aren’t written in this book.  But these are written so that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God is none other than Jesus; and that, with this faith, you may have life in his name. (20:30-31)

Belief, though, is easily squashed by doubt and alternate explanation.  As long as one can explain the deeds of Jesus in some other way, faith can be deferred.

My professor’s point was that over and over again we see Jesus doing things that could only be explained by him being divine.  He can tell the Samaritan woman details about her love-life.  He can heal a man born blind.  Jesus walks up and paralysis is gone.  Thousands of people eat a full meal from five loaves and two fish.  This was the “hard place.”  There people stood between the hard place of trying to explain away the inexplicable or the rock solid faith that can come through a belief in Jesus.  Either Jesus is divine as he says or there is some naturalistic explanation for what has just happened, but what that could be?  Could it be that Jesus is God is the easiest explanation?

I see this dynamic happening three times in John 20.

  1. It all comes to a head for the “other disciple” — who most people think is John — when he runs into the empty tomb and sees the grave cloths all neatly folded up.  This can’t be explained away, and it made everything else make sense for him (20:8-9)
  2. Mary sees a man she thinks is the gardener, a stranger to her. But when he can call her by name, she realizes Jesus was more than just a man. (20:16)
  3. Thomas can’t believe that Jesus could be back from the dead.  That is until he puts his fingers in Jesus’ wounds and can’t deny the facts. (20:25-28)

The best ending to this post would be these words of Jesus from today’s reading:

Is it because you’ve seen me that you believe?  God’s blessing on people who don’t see, and yet believe. (20:29)

What did you see today?

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John 19: The King Takes His Throne

I like how as we have read through the four accounts of Jesus’ death from the various gospels each of the authors has emphasized something different.  Today I have seen John emphasize kingship.

The word “king” is used eight times in this chapter.  Jesus receives a crown and a thorn.  A crowd shouts for him.  He is even enthroned in a significant way.

But this is a king of a very different sort.  He wears a crown of thorns.  He wears the purple robe only long enough to be mocked.  He is slapped not saluted.  People shout for him, but for his death not his glory.  Let there be no mistake, Jesus is a king.  Pilate says it several times, even when the people object.  As he dies, Jesus hangs beneath a sign declaring it too:

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (19:19)

With this in mind, John paints the picture of this chapter as a paradoxical enthronement.  This is Jesus the King, and the King has taken his throne.

Jesus is the king of sacrifice.  His is a kingdom of selfless service where love is the power that changes the world.  In this kingdom, victory comes through death.  His subjects will follow his example.  On this day the King is crowned and seated on his throne.

Do you see this too?

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John 18: Jesus’ Special Place

My favorite place in Memphis, TN, where I live, is a large park in the middle of the metroplex called Shelby Farms.  Once a penal farm where the detainees would produce their own food (hence the name), now this 4000-acre park is home to fields, trails, lakes, a river to canoe, a state-of-the-art playground, equestrian area, dog park, disc golf course, community gardens, agricultural land, and natural woodlands.  There is more than enough room for one to get lost from the cares and concerns of life and be distracted by the beauty and order of nature.  This is why I love Shelby Farms most.  A hike in the woods is the best therapy I know.  What a great way to get away from the stress of a week of work or to blow off the steam that comes from parenting adolescents.  This is my special place, because it is a getaway.

Sunset in Shelby Farms by my 13-year-old son

John tells us today that Jesus also had a special place:

With these words, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden.  He and his disciples went in.  Judas, his betrayer, knew the place, because Jesus often used it as a meeting place with his disciples. (18:1-2)

Maybe it was just a meeting place.  Or maybe it was Jesus’ meeting place because this was a that place Jesus liked to be.  We know Jesus would often withdraw from the masses for times of prayer and meditation.  We know Jesus would often go to mountainsides and wilderness places at these times.  I think it is possible that this was that sort of place for Jesus.  What a logical place to go on this night.

“The Betrayal of Jesus” by Duccio Di Buoninsegna

Here is the kicker.  Jesus’ special place is the very place where he will be betrayed, where he will pray with desperation to not drink the cup of God’s wrath, where he will sweat drops of blood.  This is the place where Jesus’ will last experience freedom.  Even more startling is that Jesus knew all of this about his garden, long before it ever happened:

Jesus knew everything that was going to happen to him. (18:4a)

Jesus’ special place was the very place he would be betrayed.  Jesus has made regular pilgrimages to the very spot where everything will begin to be unraveled for him.  This is anything but a getaway.  Jesus wasn’t escaping the reality of life; he was immersing himself in it.  He was reminding himself of how this is supposed to end.  How amazing!

What did you see in today’s passage?

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John 15: Fitting In

“If the world hates you,” Jesus went on, “know that it hated me before it hated you.  If you were from the world, the world would be fond of its own.  But the world hates you for a reason: that you’re not from the world.  No: I chose you out of the world.  Remember the word that I said to you: servants are not greater than their masters.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.” (15:19-20)

Should we try to fit in?

If we totally fit into our world, is there a problem?  If we think and act like our non-Christian neighbors, should we be concerned?  If we are as liked by anybody we meet as anyone else, is that less than ideal?  Jesus seems to think so.

Now let me ask a few more specific and potentially uncomfortable questions and invite you to respond and ask your own questions of this sort in your comments.  Should we dress like the world?  Should our budgets, pocketbooks, and retirement plans look different?  Should our definitions of success be different?  Should we be bothered by mainstream entertainment?  Should we find it hard to embrace any particular political candidate and party completely?

But how much difference is too much and just makes us unnecessarily odd, not “persecuted”?

What do you think?

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John 14: If You Have Seen Me, You Have Seen God

If you had known me, you would have known my father.  From now on you do know him!  You have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the father! (14:7, 9)

What a provocative claim!  When you look at Jesus, you are looking at God.  Jesus only makes it clearer the further we read through this chapter:

Don’t you believe that I am in the father, and the father is in me? (14:10a)

It’s the father, who lives within me . . . . (14:10b)

I am in the father and the father is in me. (14:11)

If we have only known Christianity all of our life, maybe we don’t really appreciate how outstanding this claim was.  What other significant religious leader in history has claimed such a thing?  Would Muhammad have claimed such a thing?  Not at all!  That would have been blasphemous and worthy of death.  Would the Buddha have claimed to have been a god?  Though people have turned him into such, the Buddha was clear before his death that he was not a god, did not wish to be worshiped as deity, and did not even want to theorize about divinity anyway as he was simply interested in solving the problem of human suffering.  Would Abraham or Moses or Rabbi Hillel?  This too would have been highly offensive.  The Jews of Jesus’ time were ready to stone Jesus for claiming such.  Maybe one of the 330 million Hindu gods would have claimed to be a god taken human form in order to reveal the nature of the great universal power of Brahman to the unenlightened world.  But what Hindu in recorded history has ever had a run in with these gods of legend?  Besides, the fleshly body is but an illusion that the gods help us escape, why would they want to become flesh?  Marx thought religion and its gods were just an “opiate” for the hungry, disillusioned masses.  Freud would have said a god was just a projection of your superego.  Any good secular humanist would either laugh at the idea that a god even exists, or if one does that god is not at all involved in this closed system we call our universe.  And into that world, those of us who are Christians claim Jesus is God in the flesh.  Truly provocative!  And what a privilege to serve such a god!

And if the claim that God came to this world to reveal himself as a human named Jesus is not scandalous enough, the shock continues.

But you know him, because he [the helper; the Holy Spirit] lives with you, and will be in you. (14:17)

Not only did God condescend to live in the flesh as a human named Jesus, God lives in those of us who are Christians by way of the Holy Spirit.  What other religion in the world claims that the god would come to live in us?  Judaism and Islam are religions of the book; God has done all that is necessary when he gave us a book.  God does not need to come down to our level and it would be unfitting of God to do so.  The eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism would agree that there is divinity in the follower, but there is a spark of the divine in all living things.  This is no special honor.  And this piece of the divine Brahman power has no real consciousness and does not guide us into better living.  A secular humanist is no more convinced that God, if he exists, would indwell us than he did Jesus.  How audacious to believe that our God actually lives within us!  Again, a great privilege!

What do you think?

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John 12: Life through Death

Today, we return to one of the most foundational teachings of Jesus.  As countercultural as this message is, we need a regular booster of this message:

I’m telling you the solemn truth: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself.  If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit.  If you love your life, you’ll lose it.  It you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.  If anyone serves me, they must follow me.  Where I am, my servant will be too.  If anyone serves me, the father will honor them. (12:24-26)

Before a fire

Two summers ago, my family took an incredible trip to the western United States.  We hit six national parks, the Rockies, and terrain unlike anything we had ever seen before.  Beautiful!  While in Yellowstone National Park, we learned much about the fires of 1988 that ravaged 36% percentage of that 2-million-plus-acre wilderness park.  I was especially intrigued by the fact that the pine seeds in the cones of the lodgepole pines that are especially numerous in Yellowstone can only be released from the cones when subjected to intense heat, like the kind found in a forest fire.  This is the very warp and woof of nature: as one tree is destroyed it is releasing the seeds of many others in its stead.  Jesus — the creator of those trees — knew, taught and exemplified this truth as well.

After a fire

Far too often we want the honor in verse 26 without the service and loss mentioned in the rest of this verse above.  We want fruit, but don’t want the wheat to die.  We want life in the coming age, but we also want to keep it right here and now too, instead of laying it down.

New life after a fiery death (Yellowstone National Park)

But here is Jesus reminding us that nothing of spiritual worth, nothing that brings life, nothing that lasts in the coming age will come without sacrifice and self-denial.  In our relationships.  In our careers.  In our families and churches.  In our souls.  In our communities.  Everywhere.  This truth is tied into the very flow of nature.

When did you last see “life” come from “death”?    

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John 10: Three Themes

The frontispiece to the Gospel of John from the Saint Johns Bible, a beautiful modern hand-calligraphied Bible produced in medieval style

There are three themes (among others) I am seeing a lot in John.  They show up in this chapter too.

First, I am struck by how many times the word “life” is used in John.  In particular, John really drives the point home in a strong way that Jesus offers his followers life, both here and now and in the hereafter.

I came so that they could have life — yes, and have it to overflowing. (10:10)

Second, repeatedly we are reminded in this overtly evangelistic book that one can judge the spiritual veracity of a person by their deeds.  You can tell something about the tree from its fruit.  Reader (original and still today), do you want to know if Jesus is for real?  Look at what he did.

If I’m not doing the works of my father, don’t believe me.  But if I am doing them, well — even if you don’t believe me, believe the works! (10:37-38a)

Third, scholars have opined that one of the possible purposes for the Fourth Gospel is to counter an over-glorification of John the Baptist.  I have never thought of it before nor noticed how many times John shows up in this gospel.  Yes, the point is being driven home in a strong way: Jesus is far superior to John.

“John never did any signs,” they said, “but everything that John said about this man was true.” (10:41)

Are you noticing these too? 

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John 9: Who Has Sinned?

“Healing the Blind Man” by Edy Legrand

Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who had been blind since birth.  He appears to be a well known man in his community (9:8).  A conversation ensues concerning sin and who is at fault for this man’s condition.  However, throughout the chapter who the sinner is becomes a hotly contested question.

Conventional wisdom at the time said people like this were being punished for sin.  Maybe it was the sin of the person afflicted; maybe it was due to the sin of the parents.  The disciples are thinking like this (9:2).  Who is the sinner?  Either the blind man himself or his parents.

Then we hear the Pharisees tell us who they thought had sinned.  Simply put, they thought everyone had sinned, well, except for them.  Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, so surely he was the sinner (9:16, 24).  When the formerly blind man refuses to agree with them that Jesus was the sinner, they declare him to be a sinner too (9:34).

Ask the formerly blind man and he would tell you that it isn’t likely that Jesus is a sinner (9:25):

God doesn’t listen to sinners. (9:31a)

Could it be that this man who had been blind since birth could actually see the truth more clearly than the religious leaders of his time?

Then Jesus got the last word.  Earlier he made it clear that neither the sin of the blind man nor his parents was the cause of this man’s blindness.  Jesus said he came to bring sight to the blind, while those with sight would be blind.  The Pharisees correctly interpret this as a slight against them.  Jesus, then, says this:

If you were blind you wouldn’t be found guilty of sin.  But now, because you say, “We can see,” your sin remains. (9:41)

Who has sinned?  The Pharisees.  They know better, yet deny him nonetheless.

What did you see in this chapter? 

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John 8: Dehumanizing Religion

One of the ugliest sides of religion is when it uses people.  Religion does this.  It pits people against each other in some cosmic game of “who is closer to God.”  We toot our own horns and then shoot pot-shots into other people.

In today’s reading, the religious people in the story drag a woman likely straight from the bedroom where she had been caught in adultery.  John even says, “they stood her out in the middle” of the crowd, before Jesus and asked him what should be done with her (8:3).  Are they really concerned with her sin?  Only mildly at best.  Are they really seeking justice?  Then where is the man she was with?  No, John makes it clear what they were doing:

They said this to test him, so that they could frame a charge against him. (8:6)

This woman is nothing more than a disgraced pawn caught in a desperate powerplay of the Pharisees.  She is just a platform on which to make their point that Law is to be followed.  She represents no more than an opportunity.  She is the faceless, story-less example of a moral issue.  This woman who had allowed herself to be used by a man for his passion is now being used by a whole cadre of men for their agenda of power.  The Pharisees are using this woman, in the name of religion.  Her sin was not excusable — and Jesus didn’t ignore it either (8:11b) — but she was still a human being.

When have we allowed our religious agendas to use people?  When has a person’s life become little more than a point in an argument or a story in a sermon?  When do we only see the immoral actions of people and fail to see the person doing the action?  Are there people who if they ceased to exist it would be fine with us?  Are there whole groups of people we easily write off with racial, religious, socio-economic, or political labels, caring less about their personal narratives?

Is there a way to follow our Master by seeing a person in need, not approving of their sin but also not condemning and dehumanizing them?

What caught your eye in this chapter?  

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John 7: Law or Life?

“Look here,” replied Jesus.  “I did one single thing, and you all were amazed.  Moses commanded you to practice circumcision . . . and you circumcise a man on the sabbath.  Well, then, if a man receives circumcision on the sabbath, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, how can you be angry with me if I make an entire man healthy on the sabbath?” (7:21-23)

Let’s remember something: the Pharisees were the religious ones in Jesus’ world.  And, yet, they are the ones who had the hardest time accepting Jesus.  For them, everything came down to the Law.  There are ways to go about the work of God.  There are forms and patterns.  There are boundaries and limits.  All of these laws ensure that life happens in the most controlled manner, and order brings blessing.

Yet, one can become so controlled by Law that the point of the Law is missed.  Order becomes more important than blessing.  The point of Law is to bring Life, but this can easily be forgotten when we make Law the point itself.

This is where the Pharisees had allowed themselves to get to.  Their glorification of the Law was now the point.  All that matters in a legal conundrum like whether sabbath or circumcision trumps the other is which law is more important.

Jesus tells them they have missed the point entirely.  The point is Life.  It is always Life.  Law exists to bring Life, preserve Life, promote Life, and reward Life.  So when our applications of Law stand in the way of Life, we have missed the point.

What do you think?

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