Monday, February 24, 2014

What I Can Say (So Far) With Confidence About Future Things from Revelation.

As I leave the U.S. behind for a few weeks, I thought that I would pick up the theme of yesterday's sermon, and talk about what I am ready to "assert" based on what we have seen studied so far.  Preaching through Revelation cannot be done without giving thought to the future--after all, the book's opening tells us that we are hearing a message about what must "soon" come to pass--meaning at the least that it was a reflection of a future for the church not yet seen. Jesus links this "soon" of chapter 1 with his own return when he said in Rev. 3:11 and 22:7, "I am coming soon."

So, if this future is still future to us (and my reading and study of Revelation 1-8 leaves me with the firm conviction that it is), what lessons should I be confident of about that future as it relates to the people who belong to Jesus now. What can I "know" from Revelation 1 through 8?

Here are some certainties from my studies thus far.

1. The focus of Revelation is clearly centered on God, as revealed to us in the person and message of Jesus.  God is the central focus of the universe, the main "character" in his creation that is autobiographical in the story it tells.  The worship and praise of God comes to him from all the universe, even as his judgments fall on rebels. For us, the main way we understand the story and find our place is through his determination to reveal himself to us through Jesus. The Son is given the message to reveal, just as he disclosed the Father to us in the incarnation and his earthly ministry. He came as rightful Lion (of Judah) King, but is forever worshiped as the Lamb slain, whose death has purchased a people through  his redeeming work. The Father enthroned entrusts his revelation to Jesus as he gives his seven-sealed will to the Lamb.  Wrath and deliverance proceed, all the while attributed to the One who Sits on the Throne (Father) and to the Lamb (Son).

And what of the third member of the Trinity?  The Spirit is consistently portrayed in exactly the kind of symbols that match his role--fully present before the throne (the "seven" spirits--or sevenfold Spirit) in ch. 1, under the direction of Jesus in 3:1, seven torches of flame before God's throne (4:5), and seven horns and eyes of the Lamb sent into the world--fullness of power and understanding (5:6). In short, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, doing their work in power without glorifying himself. This is just as Jesus said he would do in the upper room discourse in John 13-16.

Worship is the proper response to this triune God, and creatures representing all the material creation, elders representing the highest of spiritual beings, angels, and humans all worship him--even those who refuse to repent acknowledge the truth they cannot escape. Worship of God is clearly meant to be the primary thrust of Revelation.

2. The redeemed, righteous people seen in Revelation are identified as servants of Jesus in ch. 1, the people of the churches of chs. 1-3 who are encouraged toward faithfulness, repentance, and endurance anchored in hope, those purchased by the blood of the Lamb in ch. 5, the martyrs of ch. 6's fifth seal, the 144,000 sealed from the twelve tribes of Israel in ch. 7, and the numberless multitude of every tribe and nation also in ch. 7. Their prayers are seen as offered before God's throne as incense in chs. 4 and 8, and as part of the impetus of the completion of God's judgments in chs. 6 and 8.

Other than through death in the present time, we have no indicators in Revelation up to this point as to how or when we enter God's presence--although for many death will come through martyrdom (ch. 6 confirms this). In ch.7 the multitude before the throne are specifically called "those who came out of the great tribulation," but their description as those of every tribe, language, people and nation parallels the description of those redeemed by the Lamb who are a kingdom of priests to God who will reign on earth in ch. 5.

So, thus far, I cannot say how or when all of the redeemed will arrive in God's presence in the future. There is the current way, death. In Revelation that is either life lived in faithfulness until we die (as John was doing) that will involve tribulation for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus; or it is life lived in faithful witness that provokes opposition that leads to death--martyrdom.  Either is to be preferred to abandoning one's profession in one's life and experiencing God's punishing hand--either in correction or wrath (outside observers will not be able to tell which it is--the messages to five of the seven churches in chs. 2-3 carry these warnings). I find the messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia instructive and significant if we are to consider the churches as representative of all the different churches between then and now. We will experience times of intense but measured testing (the "ten days" referenced for Smyrna in 2:10), but the hour of testing that is coming on the whole earth to test those who "dwell on the earth" (referenced to Philadelphia in 3:10) is something the church that has persevered is said to be kept from. So there is faithful witness to the point of death, even if that death is martyrdom; there is the reward of perseverance now--being "kept from" the future worldwide hour of trial; finally, there are those who "come out" of the Great Tribulation to the throne of God. We must go to passages such as John 14, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 1, 4, and 5, and 2 Thessalonians 1 (along with others and some big hints later in Revelation) to put together a better idea of these things.

If worship is the response I should have to this vision of God and the Lamb, then faithful perseverance in the truth received should be my response as I consider the message of what is in store for those who are faithful to the message of Christ.

3. The plan of God for the future includes the certainty of judgment to fall on the unrighteous, who are called "those who dwell on the earth" at various points in the sections we have studied (and the rest of Revelation). God has promised that he will avenge (remember the "vengeance is mine" line that comes up numerous times in the Bible?) his people and vindicate his name.  The martyrs don't ask, "will you..." but rather "how long?" The Lord's answer is not "I would never," but "wait a little longer." God judges sin, and he does so in answer to prayers of all the saints.  This judgment, even in the initial stages we have seen, will undermine all the "givens" that people count on and comes down with rapidly increasing intensity. Even those judged despair as they grasp the source of the judgment but fail to repent and find deliverance. The judgments pictured, though foreshadowed in history, have not yet taken place, but they will.

We'll learn more and I'll assert more, as we move through the text. But first a few weeks away for me doing some ministry in other contexts and continents!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Smart, or Just Clever?

I saw this on Facebook, and it got me thinking about whether or not we face a decline in the intelligence of our culture, and whether it is due, in part to our technological advances. In one sense, there is a lot of evidence that the ready availability of information through technology has not made us smarter. In fact, it seems to have negatively impacted memory and the learning of certain facts that were once considered essential pieces of knowledge for educated people to have. We simply assume we can "Google" whatever we want--and usually, we can [check the now classic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" here]. Does that make us smart or just clever? After all, does dependence on Google and the answers it gives ensure that we gain the truth? Then again, was everything we memorized before technology "true?" And did the Latin and Greek that was once taught affect the majority of students when high school graduation was not a given, or even necessary, one hundred years ago? Much more has changed than just the curriculum.

We have made education both mandatory and egalitarian--everyone must finish high school, and everyone is now expected to go to college. A century ago, people still had the choice to go into a trade without a high school diploma (in the 1970's that was still the case in many other western nations, where going on for the last two years of high school required passing an entrance test). Now schools must provide a high school diploma that is achievable by all--so the curriculum and set of expectations has been altered accordingly.  That isn't evil or wrong, but it means we cannot say that high school diplomas now mean the same thing as they did in the 1950's or before.

The same transition is occurring in universities and colleges.  Going to college is now is considered the "normal" path to follow, and is supposed to be accessible to all.  Many college graduates are discovering that a Master's degree is considered "entry level" in various fields, and within today's culture graduating from college is now treated the same way graduating from high school was fifty years ago.

I was amused but also disturbed the other day to see a video from Jimmy Kimmel's TV show where he sent a "reporter" out to interview people about the death of President Roosevelt, as if FDR had just died.  The reporter asked increasingly pointed questions that should have made people aware that they were being played as fools, but they continued to answer the reporter's questions with what they thought were serious answers about what they thought about his legacy, what words of comfort would they share with Eleanor (now dead over 50 years), whether his being in a wheelchair disturbed them at all, did they follow him on Twitter, etc.  Either these people were stunningly unaware of their nation's history or they were more interested in being on camera for a moment of glory than they were with questioning the truth of questions they were being asked (You can see that video here).  Sad as this may be, I almost hope these folks were just seeking fame; I'd hate to think they knew as little as they seemed to in this video.

Personally, I think human intellect is generally declining due to the continuing effects of the Fall.  It may well be God's common grace that has provided technological crutches to help offset the decline.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

America Is Beautiful in More Than One Language

RANT ALERT: You may not like what I'm about to say, but I'm going to say it anyway.

One particular Coca-Cola ad during the Super Bowl went by quickly enough that I didn't pay that much attention to it.  Nice, undertstated, better than their polar bear ads, and in my view, affirming of America and its historic embrace of immigrants.  But the reactions against it were swift and harsh.  You see, it was "America, The Beautiful" being sung by people in different languages. You can see the ad below.

"English only!" or "Speak English!" was the basic theme on Twitter, and at Coca Cola's website--down with this nod to "multi-culturalism."


Is America so fragile that our societal framework will be undone by people praising it, in a song that is in a real sense a prayer for it to maintain its values, in a different language?

Christian, would you say the same thing to brothers and sisters in America singing praise to God in a language other than English?  Are you showing a greater concern for your country's unique linguistic identity than you are people created in the image of God who don't always speak your language?

By the way, do you think those singers don't know English?  Would it surprise you that more non-English native speakers know English (and perhaps even more languages) than native English speakers knowing other languages?  Do you think that we face a threat from the non-English speaking world, even as the rest of the world is in a race to teach English so that their people can participate in the world economy?

Is was a TV ad, for Pete's sake!  And responses that show anger toward a non-English rendition of a patriotic song are inappropriate for Christians, who seem to want non-English speakers in Heaven, but not to want them in America.

OK, I'm done.  I'm going out to get a Coke--Zero, but I don't do the real thing.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why are there still "snake handling" churches?

On Sunday we learned of the death of a snake-handling church pastor, Jamie Coots, in Kentucky, after being bitten by a rattler and refusing medical attention.  The story is here.

Pastor Coots gained notoriety as the star of a National Geographic Channel reality show about such churches, and now he has made them "famous" once again.

Where does this strange idea come from?  It is a phenomenon that is part of the Pentecostal revival that began at the beginning of the 20th century.  As mainline Pentecostalism encouraged the practice of what it identified as spiritual gifts, snake handling Pentecostals saw the need to claim the statement of Mark 16:18--"they will pick up serpents with their hands..."--as a directive with the promise of protection.  Interestingly I am unaware of any church that takes up the rest of that same verse--the drinking of deadly poison.  The practice was different than speaking in tongues, but the motive was the same--to demonstrate God's power in the lives of his people.  While snake-handling is a small part most of their services, it is a defining characteristic of these churches.

Why does it continue?  Ultimately, because its practitioners believe they are called to do this in obedience to Scripture.  But are they?

Absolutely not.  The passage says that these things may happen, but they are not commanded.  The passage describes God's actions on behalf of his people in certain situations, but Jesus is not commanding his people to put themselves in these situations.

Pastor Coots knows that now.  I hope he knows so from the vantage point of a corrected child of God, not a deceived soul.

Monday, February 17, 2014

So, what was that about camels?

Sharing a laugh about Israeli archaeologist's claim that
 they were not domesticated in the 20th century B.C.
  "We've been working for you a lot longer than that!"
OK, so in yesterday's message, first service, I mentioned a mini-controversy over camels and the Bible. Here's the story:
1. A report was published and publicized of a "discovery" that camels were not domesticated in Palestine at the time of Abraham.  Therefore, the Bible was "anachronistic" in its story-telling, introducing elements that couldn't be true.
[NOTE: literature often contains anachronisms, such as Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" referencing the striking of a clock--Rome had great power, but no clocks!]

2. This report has been widely circulated and added by some to the arguments against the Bible's reliability.

3. Christians have responded, and shown that this discovery is one piece of evidence that is not conclusive.  Further, even if one were to establish that camels were not "domesticated" in Palestine at that time, Abraham was not from Palestine, but Mesopotamia (Iraq), where plenty of evidence DOES exist that camels had been domesticated BEFORE the time of Abraham.  So, controversy over, right?

No.  Just as the evolutionary "proofs" of human development (you know the chart of the progression of "man") are taken as fact although even evolutionists acknowledge it isn't accurate to their theories, this will be one of those stories that we will continue to have to swat down, because there are people who just don't want to believe the Bible and will accept any criticism offered.

If you want to do the homework, here are the links to check:

The original report from a number of sources is herehere, or here.

A Christianity Today response that puts things in perspective is here.