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end-time bedtime stories: prophesying

Could it be that people get so obsessed with ominous end-time signs that they completely ignore the many good end-time signs in Scripture? Let’s work on changing that.

Peter tells us that the best end-time sign was “spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people’” (Acts 2:16-17; cf. Joel 2:28). The mark of the “last days” is an unprecedented downpour of God’s Spirit in both magnitude and intensity (cf. Is 32:15; 44:3). The outpouring empowers all who believe in Jesus to testify of his mighty works (Acts 2:11). By openly and unashamedly exalting “another king, namely Jesus,” we “turn the world upside down” (cf. Acts 17:6-7).

Along with testifying to the nations, God’s people would also “prophesy.” Peter continues his quote from Joel: “‘Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’” (Acts 2:17-18). Everyone will prophesy regardless of their gender, age, or social status (e.g., Acts 21:9-11). What does it mean to prophesy?

Prophesying never adds to Scripture, never contradicts Scripture, never replaces Scripture, never becomes Scripture, and never includes “thus says the Lord” (it is not like OT prophecy!). Notice how Paul defined it: “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation … the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Cor 14:3-4).

No wonder Paul tells us to “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1; cf. Num 11:29). Prophesying is a very special way for you to love the church!

Prophesying occurs when the Holy Spirit impresses on our heart words of comfort or encouragement for someone. It’s “a word fitly spoken” (Prov 25:11). It’s “good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).

Think about all the “prophesying” going on before, during, and after Sunday worship services. We may not call it “prophesying,” but the Spirit will often speak through us when we express words of comfort or when we encourage each other to trust in the Lord or to step out in faith any given Sunday (cf. 1 Cor 12:11; 14:31; Acts 13:1-3). We all need people to prophesy into our life! In fact, “you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1 Cor 14:31).

We will always prophesy in part. We will always deliver, receive, and understand words of encouragement imperfectly because “we see in a mirror dimly”—until the perfect comes and we see Jesus face-to-face! Then we will understand everything as clearly as we are fully known to him (1 Cor 13:9, 12). 

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end-time bedtime stories: Matthew 24-25

Every great communicator organizes their material so that the form and content work together to communicate explicitly and by implication—and Jesus’ “Olivet Discourse” is no exception. So, it’s crucial to read Matthew 24 and 25 as one unit.

“Not one stone will be left on another,” Jesus tells his disciples (Matt 24:2). The end of the temple’s sacrificial system was coming (AD 70). So, the disciples ask, “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3).

In the disciples’ minds, the destruction of Jerusalem, the coming of Messiah, and the end of the age were one multifaceted event (e.g., Zech 14:1-11). Jesus doesn’t take the time to explain that prophecy is not about predictions; it’s about the fulfillment of God’s promises. Nor does he launch into a teaching on how the prophets saw the coming Messiah as one giant “mission-accomplished” event (i.e., they didn’t distinguish between the first and second coming).

With the destruction of the physical temple in mind, Jesus prepares his followers to become the new, living temple in which God manifests his presence to the ends of the earth. The new, living worldwide temple must not be duped by counterfeits or paralyzed by tough times or rattled by persecution or foolish enough to stay in Jerusalem when the Romans level it (Matt 24:4-25).

Notice how Jesus wraps these threats like an ugly scarf around a stunningly beautiful promise: “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then end will come” (Matt 24:14). Jesus’ outstanding promise is a guarantee that the gospel will become so “loud” because of the living testimony of his people that no one can ignore it (and yet may still reject it). The gospel will be a force to be reckoned with across the globe. We are his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; 13:47-48).

But living in a messy world can be exhausting! “Stay awake,” says Jesus (Matt 24:42-44). Stay awake? To what? Jesus illustrates the “what” in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13). “Stay awake” means don’t get drowsy to the reality of who’s in charge! Don’t let the news make your eyes heavy to kingdom realities! Keep your eyes on King Jesus and shine as lights in the world.

But living in a messy world can be scary! “The faithful and wise servant,” says Jesus, “is that servant whom the master finds doing his job when he comes” (Matt 24:45-46). Doing his job? What job? Jesus illustrates the “what” in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-46). “Doing your job” means being faithful in the little things. Don’t let the news paralyze you from using your God-given gifts for his glory! Keep giving out “cups of cold water” to everyone around you. You’re serving the King!

What a great end-time bedtime story! Don’t freak out by ominous end-time signs! Be one of those people who are too busy serving the King to worry about them. 

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end-time bedtime stories: the last days

Doomsday scenarios are as old as first red moon. Are we really living in the “end times”?

One day Henny Penny got hit on the head by something. Convinced that the sky was falling, Henny Penny ran off to tell the king. Along the way, she picked up several followers who also became convinced that the sky is falling. Was Henny Penny a conspiracy nut? Well, at least Henny was trying to read “the signs of the times” (Matt 16:3)!

According to a 2022 Pew Research Survey, 47% of Christians say we are living in the end times (76% of the historically Black and 63% of evangelical Protestant churches). The other 49% of Christians say we are not living in the end times (70% of Catholics and 65% of mainline Protestants). Who’s right? And how do we know for sure?

Scripture uses four terms to describe human history: “the ages,” “this present age (the last days/last hour),” “the (last) Day,” and “the age to come.” Let’s break down the first two.

“The ages” refer to the Old Testament era. In Christ, God brings to light “for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Eph 3:9; cf. Col 1:26; Rom 16:25-26). The things that happened in the OT “were written for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26). Amazingly, the hope of eternal life was promised “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2; 2 Tim 1:9). “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Tim 1:17)!

“The present age” began with Jesus’ birth. Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:4; cf. Eph 1:21). People can get married and acquire wealth “in this age” (Luke 20:34; 1 Tim 6:17). Thus, forgiveness is a way of life “in this age” (Matt 12:32). We need wisdom to live “in this age” because the “rulers of this age” try to thwart God’s purposes (1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18). By God’s grace, we can “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13).

“The last days” is another way to describe “the present age” between Christ’s ascension and his appearing. Peter was crystal clear about this: “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you” (1 Pet 1:20). On the day of Pentecost, Peter emphatically declared, “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel ‘in the last days … I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’” (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32). “In these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1). John was convinced, too. “We know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18-19).

So, we’ve been living in “the last days” for 2000 years! We know for certain that “the present age” is the last age—not from any doomsday falling-sky scenarios—but from the pages of Scripture.

Don’t get so shook by the negative end-time signs that you completely ignore the good end-time signs! What? There are good end-time signs? Yup! I like to call them End-time Bedtime Stories

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from despair to worship: Habakkuk 3:3-19

It’s not fun being stuck in the “Do you care, God? Where are you? Why don’t you do something!” mud.

Habakkuk decided to try to break out by remembering God’s past faithfulness. “God came … His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power … the everlasting hills sank low” (Hab 3:3-6).

In the past, we’ve seen God blow into our life like a thunderstorm to light up our world. We remember “sinking low” (bowing down) and worshiping him. It was exhilarating and yet the full extent of his power remained hidden to us.

“The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury …You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed” (Hab 3:11-13).

God does have a track record in our lives. How many times has he changed circumstances and moved mountains to rescue us? “God, you did it before! Now, do it again!”

Nevertheless, Habakkuk is frightened. His heart pounds in his chest; his lips quiver; he feels exhausted—and “yet I will quietly wait,” he says, and rest in the Lord (3:16). And that’s when Habakkuk picks up a brush and paints three scenarios, each containing a matching pair of images.

1) “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines.” Blossoms and fruit represent our future hopes. When there are no buds, no grapes, no visible signs of what you hope for will ever come to be, Habakkuk encourages us to say, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” no matter what!

2) Though “the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food.” Olives and fields refer to the things we trust in the present. All our hard work, all our effort, and the “crops” disappoint. When all that you are counting on in the present lets us down, Habakkuk exhorts us to say, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” no matter what!

3) Though “the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls.” Sheep and cattle signify trusting in our reserves. To put it in today’s terms, when there is no money in the bank and credit cards are maxed out, and you have nothing to fall back on, Habakkuk inspires us to say, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” no matter what!

Habakkuk found that he could rejoice in God and take joy in God when everything goes to pot because, as he put it, “GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places (3:18).

In Hannah Hurnard’s book, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, a girl named Much-Afraid had lived in the Valley of Fear all her life. It was all she had ever known. But in faith she embarked on a new journey. The path is marked by much sorrow and suffering along the way, but through it all she learns to trust God no matter what. And where does the Lord lead her? To higher, deeper places of fellowship with him that she had never known. 

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from doubt to worship: Habakkuk 2:20-3:2

Habakkuk didn’t doubt God’s existence. He wondered about God’s presence in his life. “God, are you there? Do you know what I am going through?” But notice what Habakkuk did in his doubt. At the end of chapter 2 he says, “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20).

When in doubt of God’s presence, quiet yourself before him. Silence enables us to listen.

What came from Habakkuk’s silence? “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth” (Hab 3:1). No that’s not a typo. No one knows for sure what “Shigionoth” means, but it’s likely a musical term because he closes his final chapter with instructions for “the choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (3:18). Habakkuk’s “quiet time” before the Lord inspired him to write a musical worship prayer!

Most of us don’t write out our prayers. If we do, it’s probably for a worship service or wedding or funeral. It takes time and prayerful reflection to do that. We may go through several drafts, crossing things out, trying to get our words just right. Those of you that have written a prayer or two know that the process is delightfully challenging and life changing.

Not many of us put our prayers to music! Music adds a unique dimension because it engages our emotions in a different way. Plus, musical worship prayers are not one-time prayers; they can be shared with others in corporate worship again and again. Think of all the psalmists and composers of hymns and spiritual songs that have enriched Christian worship throughout the centuries to this day. Habakkuk chapter three is one of those songs!

“O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear” (Hab 3:2a). Habakkuk’s worship prayer-song begins with holy fear. What is holy fear? Sounds a bit more than reverence or awe, doesn’t it?

“We do not displace fear with the absence of fear but with the presence of a different kind of fear, an altogether transformed sort of fear” (Russell Moore). Yeah, holy fear. According to Michael Horton, “The fear of God is sublime … It’s a paradoxical reality.” Holy fear simultaneously thrills and scares us. Holy fear draws and intimidates us. When the women saw Jesus’s empty tomb, they ran to tell the apostles with “fear and great joy” (Matt 28:8). In other words, it felt like they had jumped out of an airplane. Holy fear is a blown-away-scary-joyful-exhilarating paradoxical reality.

We can hear reports of God at work and try to fear him. We can read scriptures that certainly command us to fear him and try to respond. But like Habakkuk, holy fear only happens with an up-and-close experience of the Lord (see also Job 42:2-6). Moving from doubt to worship sees God as he really is.

In holy fear, Habakkuk uses a Hebraism, “in the midst of the years,” that means “between now and the end” to make an astonishing request. “In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2).

Let us move from doubt to worship and pray (and perhaps sing!) Habakkuk’s worship prayer today: “Between now and the end, Lord, have mercy, send revival.” 

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from worry to worship: Habakkuk 1:1-5

Old Testament prophetical books comprise 22% of Scripture and yet most people rarely read them. Why don’t we dig them?

First, much of their messages are written in Hebrew poetry—which means seeing lots of imagery and parallelism. Second, there is historical context behind their writings—which means navigating through some rough terrain (corruption from within God’s people and threats from brutal aggressors). Three, prophets act like prosecutors presenting evidence in God’s courtroom—which means feeling the weight of seeing God balance mercy with justice.

Take Habakkuk for example. God is about to judge his people by summoning a Babylonian invasion. This doesn’t sound fun to read. Why dig into it?

Habakkuk reveals what happens to someone who has the audacity to hash it out with the Lord of all creation. OK, spicy, huh?

“How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen! ‘Violence is everywhere!’ I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence. I am surrounded by people who love to argue and fight. The law has become paralyzed, and there is no justice in the courts” (Hab 1:1-4).

We might have similar thoughts about our day, but them’s fightin’ words. We would never talk to God like that—but we think it. “Does God care? If he’s all-powerful, then why doesn’t he do something? He knows the trouble we’re in!”

Why do we think that God doesn’t care?

1) Because we do not see our prayers answered right away. “How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen!” (Hab 1:2a). It’s like our inner alarm clock goes off. “OK, I’m done asking. Now I’m mad.”

2) Because we’re stressed out and things are not getting better right away. “‘Violence is everywhere!’ I cry, but you do not come to save” (Hab 1:2b). We repeatedly call heaven’s 911 number until our battery drains. “Just forget it, God.”

3) Because we see that life is unfair and nothing happens right away. “Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery? … there is no justice” (Hab 1:3-4). We get stuck in the prison of “why” and just have to cry out of exasperation, “So, God, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Notice what God says to Habakkuk. “Look around at the nations; look and be amazed! For I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it” (Hab 1:5). While God listens intently to our every prayer, he’s busy moving “the nations” to answer them! WOW. There must be a lot of moving parts that we don’t see! What is God up to? Who is he working on? What is he doing that we don’t know about?

If you’ve been wondering if God cares, follow Habakkuk’s lead. Hash it out with God. Don’t worry, he can take it. He can “walk and chew gum” (listen and work on the answer) at the same time. He is not hard of hearing (Ps 34:17). He’s not a slow poke (2 Pet 3:9). And his answers are “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).

For Habakkuk, it wasn’t the timing he wanted nor the answer he was looking for. In fact, God’s answer provoked a whole new set of questions for him. Tune in next week!

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reality bites: Titus 1 and the southern baptists

The ancient Cretans believed that most of the Greek gods were originally humans born on the island of Crete. Eventually, they were able to elevate themselves to god-status. Apparently, they were “from below rather than from above.” One of the gods was Zeus, the top dog “man-become-god.”  Zeus was a liar and a womanizer, and Cretans celebrated his shady, underhanded character by emulating him. For Cretans, lying was a virtue.

In writing to the lead pastor at the church in Crete, Paul goes after the idea that a true God would lie. It’s “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” Paul begins his letter to Titus (1:1-2). Notice how Paul exposes the Cretan “man-become-god” malarky with “God-become-man” veracity. The “God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (1:2-4; cf. 2:10).

“This is why I left you in Crete,” he tells Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (1:5).

People are always warily looking for leaders they can trust. In contrast to the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent vote to reject women pastors, Paul believes that “anyone,” male or female, can be an elder if they are “above reproach” (i.e., “man” is absent in the Greek; 1:6a). The chief ethical prerequisite is not an adult human male, but blamelessness in one’s interactions with others. Spiritual leaders influence all people, not just God’s people.

Yeah, but the second qualification is “the husband of one wife” (1:6b). Well, that rules out adult human females—and all singles, widows, divorced people, and Paul himselfIf you take this rigidly, you must disqualify Paul from church leadership. Paul, like many leaders in the early church, was single and celibate. Therefore, “the husband of one wife” must be understood as an idiom of marital faithfulness. We used to do this in English. Pick up a book or newspaper from 50 years ago and you won’t find inclusive language. It was a common, acceptable practice to use “man” without excluding women (e.g., “all men are created equal”). Paul’s emphasis is not on being a married adult human male, but on the moral quality of loyalty and faithfulness. Spiritual leaders are deferential, patient, reliable people that one can depend on.

Yeah, but the third qualification is “his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (1:6c). Yet again, the masculine “his” is absent in the Greek! If you take this rigidly, you must rule out anyone that doesn’t have more than one child—which disqualifies Paul and any leader whose kids do not trust in Christ. The Greek, however, simply reads “faithful (pistos) children.” Is Paul referring to belief or behavior? The “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” helps clarify. In a parallel passage, Paul highlights that it’s about caring for one’s own family in such a way that it flourishes in dignity and reverence (1 Tim 3:4-5). Spiritual leaders move people on from where they are to where God wants them to be.

Because the masculine “his” continues to be absent in the Greek, we can confidently say that spiritual leaders—whether adult human men or adult human women—must be humble, amicable, warm, levelheaded, devout, disciplined people who are “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” because they are lovers of good and lovers of Scripture (Titus 1:7-9). Spiritual leaders are accountable to the Lord in all areas of life.

We are not making the Bible “gender-neutral” when we present a clearer understanding of what Paul intended. Southern Baptists are not rejecting women pastors; they are rejecting basic exegetical principles of interpretation. 

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reality bites: 3 john

According to ChatGPT (AI bot), “the phrase ‘reality bites’ is often used to express the idea that reality can be harsh or difficult to accept.” When it bites, we pray. 

In the only prayer recorded by the apostle John, John prays for his friend Gaius (3 John 1:2). The prayer is short and bold. No dilly-dallying here. “We’re the best of friends,” says John, “and I pray for good fortune in everything you do, and for your good health—that your everyday affairs prosper, as well as your soul!” (3 John 1:2, MSG). When you pray fervently and tenaciously, less is more. Prayer is not verbose. It’s not about how long we pray or how eloquent we sound. Prayer is both a means to action and the highest form of action. 

One of the best ways to love people is to pray for them. Love wants people to flourish spiritually, physically, financially, and relationally. According to John, nothing is too trivial when it comes to prayer requests. If Gaius had a hole in his sock, John would put it on the church prayer list!

John doesn’t use the word blessing in this prayer, but he captures it. “Bless” is one of our go-to words when we don’t know what else to ask. But what exactly are we asking for? When John prays, “that in all respects you may prosper” (NASB), the Greek word, “prosper,” is passive—which means to be on the receiving end. So, when we pray, “Lord, bless Uncle Goober,” we’re asking that he receive the Holy Spirit’s power “to live well” (honor Jesus). Nothing makes John happier than to know that his friends are experiencing the reality of Christ’s reign (3 John 1:3-4).

John knows that blessed people bless people with hospitality. “Dear friend, you are being faithful to God when you care for the traveling teachers who pass through, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church here of your loving friendship” (3 John 1:5-6).

Offering hospitality in the first century entailed more than sharing a meal. Along with food, hosts provided lodging, care for the guest’s horses, after-dinner drinks, entertainment ranging from hired dancers and musicians to storytelling, bathing, departing gifts, food-to-go, and directions to the next stop—all of which underscores the time consuming, economic sacrifice of “hospitality.”

Although guests, like fish, often begin to smell after three days (Ben Franklin), hospitality treats outsiders like insiders. As soon as Abraham saw three visitors coming, Sarah started kneading the dough, roasting the meat, and chilling the wine (Gen 18:2-7). Laban welcomed Abraham’s servant while his daughter attended to their guest’s camels (Gen 24:28-32). Job claimed that he, too, “opened my doors to the traveler”—just like the Shunammite woman did for Elisha (Job 31:32; 2 Kings 4:8-11). Samson’s dad offered to make dinner for the Angel of the Lord (Jud 13:15).

Who cares if people smell like Nemo and Dory? “Anyone who welcomes you,” says Jesus, “welcomes me and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me … And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Matt 10:40-42). “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).

Jesus welcomes us, not as temporary guests, but as full-fledged members of God’s household (Eph 2:19). “There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home” (John 14:2). Rumor has it that the food and wine are out-of-this world. 

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reality bites: who’s John’s lady?

Frank Abagnale is probably the most famous identity thief because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of him in the movie Catch Me If You Can. In the 1960s, Abagnale eluded the FBI by posing as an airline pilot, doctor, assistant attorney general, and history professor while accumulating over $4 million with bad checks. Well, there is another case of stolen identity in the little letter we call 2 John.

Who did John write to? To the lady chosen by God and to her children whom I love in the truth (2 John 1:1). The lady? Was she a real lady? Or was lady a secret code word for church? Nowhere in the New Testament or in later Church writings do we find someone calling a church a lady (Greek kyria). In fact, no one has ever called congregations ladies” to the present day.

In a first century it was common to address a woman as kyria—much like our formal Dear Madam greeting. Why did John write to her? This lady was chosen by God. To do what? At the time of John’s writing, congregations met in homes. Over time, some cities eventually formed a network of house churches that were overseen by elders. So, John wrote to the lady chosen by God to lead the church gathering in her home.

John refers to the people attending this church as her children (2 John 1:1, 4)—like he calls those he discipled as children nine times (1 John 2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). Where did John get this idea? From Jesus! Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me  so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ (John 13:33). He says it again when he asked his disciples, Children, do you have any fish? (John 21:5). 

The lady was a good pastor. I rejoiced greatly, says John, to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father (2 John 1:4). The lady wasn’t a cheerleader or therapist; she was a herald on behalf of the King. Preaching and teaching God’s word not only calls us to faith in Christ; it is also the means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts. In other words, preaching is not mere instruction; it is through the proclamation of Scripture that God is present among us in Christ through the work of his Spirit.

John had one request: And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another (2 John 1:5). Was the lady’s church not loving each other well? John’s definition of love gives us a huge clue. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands (2 John 1:6a).

Who defines love that way? Jesus. If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15). John is merely restating Jesus’s definition. Notice: By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).

If this definition of love isn’t shocking enough, John pushes it further. Anyone who gets so progressive in his thinking that he  doesn’t hold to this teaching, don’t invite him in and give him the run of the place. That would just give him a platform to perpetuate his evil ways, making you his partner (2 John 1:9-11, MSG). The lady pastor must protect her children like a mama bear with cubs. The pulpit is not a theatrical stage or a platform for personalities or a throne to dispense orders. John reminds pastors that it’s their job to guard the pulpit against those who want to make it more about themselves than the teaching of Christ (2 John 1:9-10).

I love how 2 John ends. Post-talking is fine (I made that word up), but face-to-face conversations make our joy complete (2 John 1:12). Then to top it off, John adds, The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings (2 John 1:13).

What? There’s another lady pastor? Hooray!

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reality bites: obadiah

Friend or ally. Enemy or foe. What’s the difference? Obadiah shows us.

Judah (Jacob’s descendants) had been feuding for generations with their cousins, the Edomites (Esau’s descendants). Bitter unforgiveness carried over from one generation to the next—until the great, great, great grandchildren had no idea why they hated relatives they had never even met. The cousins were enemies—that is, once an enemy always an enemy. Nothing will ever change that.

PRIDE IN LOCATION. The Edomites lived on elevated mountains, 5000 feet above sea level, which essentially made them inaccessible to invading forces. And yet, “the pride of your heart has deceived you,” God says to Edom, “you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down” (3-4). The Edomites were like eagles; they literally looked down on the lower plains of Judah.

PRIDE IN THEIR ALLIES. Allies may appear as friends, but they’re not. Allies are merely the enemy of your enemy. Merriam-Webster defines “ally” as a verb: “to unite or form a connection or relation.” However, in recent years “ally” has become a noun. So, it is not enough for allies to form a relationship; allies must now actively affirm and advocate. That’s all well and good—until you find out that your connection is faulty. God warned Edom: “All your allies have driven you to your border; those at peace with you have deceived you; they … have set a trap beneath you—you have no understanding” (7). Today’s ally can easily turn into tomorrow’s foe because the connection itself is based on self-interests. So, foes are former allies—which makes allies and foes two sides of the same coin. 

SCHADENFREUDE (schaden “harm” and freude “joy”). Notice when Babylon descends on Judah, the Edomites “stood aloof, on the day that strangers … entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem” (11). They didn’t just say, “It’s none of my business. I’m not getting involved. It’s their problem.” No, they smirked. Harm-joy is the blissful feeling of satisfaction when learning of the troubles or humiliation of another. (No one admits to doing this, of course, but when I do it, I always end up feeling like the coyote in the road runner show). Experts tell us that schadenfreude has been detected in children as early as 24 months and may be an important social emotion establishing “inequity aversion.” (I’ll leave that there for you to sort out).

Does the Lord notice when we secretly delight in another’s misfortune? “Do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress” because the coyote always ends up in his own cockamamie contraption (12-16).

FRIENDS ARE DIFFERENT. They don’t gloat when things bite you in the butt. They lay down their lives for you (John 15:12-15). What a friend we have in Jesus! He’s not our ally. He has our best interest at heart. And there’s nothing we can do to change that.

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realtiy bites: Jude in a blurry world

Jude is an odd little book. Its language is strong, harsh, and uncomfortable. Why does he repeat “keep/kept” six times (v 1, twice in 6, 13, 21, 24)? “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith” (v 3). “Contend” was the Greek word commonly used to describe those who vigorously agonized in athletic contests. Yes, contending for the faith will require everything we’ve got. If we don’t agonize for the faith, who will?

Jude wastes no time. He’s worried about “certain people … who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v 4). Of course, we want to extend grace to people. But what if grace ends up blurring everything?

When things get blurry, Jude reminds us that God keeps his people safe in three ways: 1) just like when Jesus saved his people in Egypt, he keeps us safe from outside threats (v 5a); 2) just like when Jesus saved Israel from the unfaithful, he keeps us safe from inside threats (v 5b); and 3) just like when fallen angels did not keep their appointed place in God’s administration, the Lord keeps us safe from demonic threats (v 6). Jude adds that God even keeps his good angels safe noting the time when Sodom “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire” and tried to blur God’s appointed boundaries (v 7). These are all examples of how God keeps his people safe when it gets crazy, and lines are blurred (vv 5-7).

How do things get so blurry? Jude explains. Things get blurry when people’s imagination becomes their authority (v 8a). Instead of glorifying God, “they contaminate their bodies with sin, reject the Lord’s authority, and insult his glory” (v 8b). That’s when Jude brings up a popular story in Jewish literature (v 9). Why? When the archangel Michael contended with the devil about Moses’s body, he did not presume to usurp God’s role as judge. Michael had the self-discipline to “stay in his lane” while contending with one who had completely abandoned his God’s appointed place. What is Jude’s point? When there is the crossing of God’s appointed boundaries, Michael is our model. “The Lord rebuke you,” Michael told the devil. God will deal with evil. Our job is to contend for faith without condemning people.

Contending for the faith in a world of blur will be frustrating. “Whatever these people don’t understand, they insult. Like animals, which are creatures of instinct, they use whatever they know to destroy themselves” (v 10). So, good luck applying logic to instincts. We’ll need to brace for hatred (Cain’s path), hedonism (Balaam’s error), and in-your-face disdain (Korah’s rebellion). Hidden reefs cause shipwrecks. Wild, churning waves constantly knock people down. Instead of being reliable, fixed points of light for fellow travelers to find their way, wandering stars lead people off course (vv 11-13). Jude is essentially saying, “As for you, you keep contending for the faith! Stay in your lane. Justice will prevail. God will right all wrongs. Listen to Enoch!”

Jude then cites another familiar book to first century Jews: “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (vv 14-15). No matter how much “people complain, find fault, follow their own desires, say arrogant things, and flatter people in order to take advantage of them” (v 16), when Jesus appears, he will set things right, says Jude. 

“But you, my dear friends, must remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ predicted. They told you that in the last times there would be scoffers whose purpose in life is to satisfy their ungodly desires. These people are the ones who are creating divisions among you. They follow their natural instincts because they do not have God’s Spirit in them” (vv 17-19). In other words, buck up and quit being so shocked.

Build “yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (vv 20-21). Be tender and merciful “to those who doubt” (v 22). Do all you can to “snatch them out of the fire”—but be careful of getting pulled into the blur (v 23).

Next time you hear Jude’s benediction, God is calling you to contend for the faith because you are kept safe by the only one “who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (v 24). 

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reality bites: Job 18.4

Reality can bite. When it does, it’s tempting to escape to Disneyworld. But no one lives in Disneyworld (except for Mickey—who by the way, is not a real mouse). Let’s look at Bildad, one of Job’s friends. (Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Job’s friends, but they are terribly fascinating to me).

When Job’s friends got to the city dump, they were appalled. Job looked so hideous; they initially didn’t recognize him. His friends just sat with him in silence for a week, not knowing what to say. Not one time throughout this very long book did Job’s friends ever pray for him. Their insensitive commentary was totally wrong, nevertheless, despite themselves, they managed to sprinkle in some dreadfully brilliant questions.

Like when Bildad asks: Do you want the world redesigned to suit you? Should reality be suspended to accommodate you? (Job 18:4, MSG). Snarky, but brilliant, right?

What happens when we suspend reality to accommodate delusions? What if something untrue becomes so popular that everything—including the best interests of children—is sacrificed? What happens when reality bends to accommodate someone who “is so out of touch with reality, so far gone, that he can’t even look at what he’s doing … and say, ‘This is crazy’” (Is 44:20, MSG)? Matthew Poole adds his commentary: “Shall the counsels of God, which are more firm and unmovable than rocks, and the whole course of his providence, be altered to comply with thy fancies?”

I think living in fantasy land is hard work. Reality bites and it bites hard. One must labor tirelessly to control the narrative to keep reality from seeping in. It’s exhausting to live in denial of the reality that is constantly intruding to refute the delusion.

Tampering with reality is not only tiring; it’s dangerous. Perhaps it explains why Eugene Peterson paraphrased Jesus’ words this way: “This is the crisis we’re in, God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure” (John 3:19-20, MSG). Delusion hates the light of reality.

Reality, however, is quite liberating. The word the ancient Greeks used for “reality” (alētheia) is translated “truth” in John’s gospel. So, Pilate’s infamous question, “What is truth?” was actually, “What is reality?” (John 18:38). Jesus is “full of grace and reality (aletheia)” (John 1:14). He is “the way, reality (aletheia), and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus doesn’t just have the correct facts down; he is Reality itself!

Rest in Jesus. Stay in the light. It’s Reality that sets you free (John 8:31-32). 

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LENTviticus 25: a cosmic redemption

“When I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.” That about sums up Lent—or as I like to call it, Lentviticus.

When we are entrusted with something for a long time, we gradually begin to feel like we own it. We’ve used it so long that we think it belongs to us. In Leviticus 25, God reminds people that “the land is mine” (25:23). In fact, the entire “earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps 24:1).

But creation is “subjected to futility” because of humanity’s corruption (Rom 8:20-21). Who will save the world and all who live in it? As we have seen in Leviticus, animal sacrifices can’t. Only Jesus could! Being fully human in every way, he suffered death for everyone (Heb 2:9, 17).

Yet there was another representative at Calvary: the crucifixion tree! It represented creation (cf. Col 1:15-17; Gal 3:13; Acts 5:30; 10:39; 1 Pet 2:24). When Christ hung on a tree, he took on the cursed status of humanity and creation and redeemed them both. Humanity and creation are included in redemption. We see in the cross of Christ the future of the very earth on which it stands.

So, why did Jesus say, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:49-50)? Here Jesus tells us that what happened at the cross will ultimately set the whole world ablaze and cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth! Like the flood in Noah’s day, Christ’s refining fire will not destroy creation; it will simply purge it from evil (2 Pet 3:6-7).

The key text is 2 Peter 3:10. The present heavens will “pass away” (kind of like Grandma when she died)—which means that heaven will change when it merges with the new earth. “The elements” (stoicheia)—which refer to dark spiritual forces (cf. Gal 4:3, 8-9; Col 2:8, 20)— “will be burned up and dissolved,” that is, evil will be eradicated; “and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” Peter sums it up well: “On that day, [Christ] will set the heavens on fire, and the elements (the dark forces of evil) will melt away in the flames” (2 Pet 3:12). So, “we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth … a world filled with God’s righteousness” (2 Pet 3:13).

Christ’s redemption of the heavens and the earth allows creation to be returned to its divine Owner. The Age to Come will be a perpetual Jubilee that bears witness to God’s covenant faithfulness to his creation (cf. Lev 25:2; Ex 23:11; 24:19-20). No longer the playing field of a cosmic conflict, the renewed earth will be an eternal “resting place” for all that is good (cf. Isa 66:1; Ps 104).

The meek will inherit the new earth and reclaim what’s been lost (Lev 25:8ff.). The corrupt rulers will be displaced by the redeemed, glorified sons of God “and the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom” (Dan 7:27; Ps 82).

“I scarce can take it in,” can you? “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home” to the new earth, “what joy shall fill my heart! “How great Thou art, how great Thou art!” That, my friends, is what Lent is all about.

*The metaphorical refining effects of fire are alluded to throughout scripture (e.g., Isa 4:4; 26:11; 29:6; Matt 3:11; 1 Cor 3:13-15; 1 Pet 1:7).

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LENTviticus: the 7 appointments

What do the seven feasts in Leviticus have to do with Lent? EVERYTHING. That’s what makes Lent Lentviticus!

The Hebrew word “feast” means “an appointed time” or to “keep an appointment.” The seven appointed times indicate that Israel’s entire liturgical year was built on the Sabbath principle (Lev 23:1-3). Yet more importantly, the only one who fully “keeps” all seven “appointments” is Jesus Christ!

The Feast of Passover (Pesach) is a one-day appointment to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from slavery (Lev 23:4-5). Its observance is mentioned seven times: 1) Israel’s last supper in Egypt (Ex 12); 2) their last supper at Sinai (Num 9); 3) their last supper before crossing the Jordan river (Josh 5); 4) once during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chron 30); 5) once during Josiah’s reign (2 Chron 35); 6) and once after the exile (Ezra 6). The seventh and final Passover observance is Jesus’ Last Supper. In his appointment with death, Jesus, “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor 5:7), overthrows all the enslaving, dark forces of the world to liberate his people once and for all.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread is a 7-day appointment that begins the day after Passover (Lev 23:6-8). While Passover celebrates Israel’s deliverance from slavery, the feast of Unleavened Bread celebrates their journey to the Red Sea, during which they ate unleavened bread (Ex 13). In Jesus’ Last Supper appointment with his disciples, he joins Passover and Unleavened Bread as one and launches a worldwide exodus (cf. 1 Cor 5:8).

The Feast of Firstfruits occurs on the third day after Passover, in the middle of the week of Unleavened Bread (Lev 23:9-14). This appointment offers the firstfruits of barley to express gratitude for God’s gracious provision of “new life.” So, it’s not surprising that three days after Passover, the risen Jesus appears as the first of a great harvest of bodies to come (1 Cor 15:20; cf. Rom 8:23; cf. 2 Thess 2:13).

The Feast of Pentecost (Shavuot) occurs 50 days after the Firstfruits (Lev 23:15-21; Num 28:26). By counting seven weeks, the appointment of Pentecost always landed on the first day of the week to mark the beginning of the grain harvest. No “ordinary work” was permitted because it was an exuberant day to celebrate God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises (Lev 26:1-13; Deut 16:11). So, it’s not surprising that exactly fifty days after his resurrection, Jesus makes another appointment. “When the day of Pentecost arrived” the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and the Church was born (Acts 2:1-3). The harvest had begun!

The Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) is often called the ten “Days of Awe.” It calls people to gather before the Lord and rest from all harvesting in humble reflection (Lev 23:23-25). Paul tells us that God has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus whom he destined for the task (Acts 17:31). At the last trumpet, “the Lord himself will descend from heaven” and “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Thess 5:16; 1 Cor 15:51-52). What a divine appointment that will be!

The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is an appointed day to deal with evil (Lev 16; 23:26-32; Num 29). The day focuses on two goats: one is sacrificed “for the Lord” and one is “for Azazel”—not as a sacrifice, but as a live goat sent to the desert, the place of desolation and anguish. In the end, Christ will say to “goats,” “Depart from me … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and remove all defiling elements from his people (Matt 25:41; cf. 2 Pet 3:10-13).

The Feast of Tabernacles, a 7-day appointment that follows the Day of Atonement, is a special ending to the entire liturgical year (Lev 23:33-44). This feast celebrates God’s faithful presence tabernacling (dwelling) with his people, in good times and bad, during the “wilderness” of this present age and into the Age to Come. One fine day, Jesus will say from his throne, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3).

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LENTviticus 13-14: who cares about lepers?

Every society always has individuals and groups on the fringes. In ancient times, it was the lepers that were considered one of the most stigmatized groups. Who cares about lepers—especially during Lent

Leviticus 13-14 offers a painfully long discourse about how to identify leprosy and the procedures for cleansing lepers and the objects associated with them. What’s striking is that there are only two verses of instructions to the lepers themselves. They must dress in torn clothes, leave their hair disheveled, cover their faces, and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Lev 13:45-46). Lepers had to behave a lot like mourners (e.g., Gen 37:29, 37:34, Lev 10:6, 21:10, 2 Sam 1:11, Job 1:20, Esther 4:1; Ezek 24:17, 22)? The cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” could easily have been a lament as it was a warning. In contrast to mourners, lepers “must live in isolation in their place outside the camp” (Lev 13:46; cf. Num 5:2). There was no welcome mat at the door for them.

Until Jesus showed up. Isn’t it odd that it was only after his fame of cleansing lepers spread that Jesus could no longer enter a town? Ironically, “he had to stay out in the secluded places” (Mark 1:45)—like a leper! But of course, that didn’t stop people from coming to him.

Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century, wrote that lepers could not live in Jerusalem. When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, he was very much focused on his date with destiny (Luke 17:11; cf. 9:31, 44, 51; 12:49-53; 13:31-35; 18:31-33). And yet, Jesus paused to alleviate the illness and social isolation of ten lepers who had the audacity to appeal for mercy (Luke 17:11-14). Only the unnamed Samaritan discerned that something had happened to him that went far deeper than healing his skin. “Get up” meant full-blown “resurrection.” For this reason, he returned to thank Jesus, once again calling out loudly, but this time to give glory to God!

Josephus also wrote that lepers could not participate in the feast of Passover. So, two days before his final Passover, and where was Jesus? Having dinner at Simon the leper’s house (Mark 14:1-3)! Of course, he was! A couple more days and Jesus would hang on a Roman cross outside the city where the unclean hung out (Lev 14:33-45). “Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb 13:12). They even tore his clothes, covered his face in spit and blood, and placed a crown of thorns on his disheveled hair—as if he were a leper.

Although we don’t deal with physical leprosy today, perhaps our post-truth, post-trust world has created a lonely social leprosy of sorts. On our journey to the cross this season of Lent, “let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” and reach out to the isolated of our day (Heb 13:13). Who knows? Our social leper friends may invite us over for dinner.

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LENTviticus 11: giving something up

Historical documents indicate that prayerful reflection and fasting during Lent goes back to the early church. Irenaeus (ca. 130-202), in a letter to Pope Victor, the bishop of Rome, mentioned a two-to-three-day pre-Easter fast in which the “variation in observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.” By 325, the Council of Nicea recommended a 40-day fast during Lent for new believers preparing for baptism—a challenge that quickly spread to the entire Church. Over time, “giving something up” became the centerpiece of Lent.

Which brings us to Leviticus of all places! In Leviticus 11, God instructed Israel to refrain from eating certain foods. Why were some animals declared “clean” while others were labeled “unclean”? What was it that made rabbits, geckos, mice, and pigs unfit for dinner? Even lobster and shrimp were banned from the kitchen table! What’s going on here?

Animals represented human beings.

Sacrificial animals represented Israel as a kingdom of priests. Clean animals represented Gentiles who worshipped Yahweh (e.g., Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, etc.). Unclean animals represented those who worshipped other gods. Israel’s observance of the food laws was a reminder that God had set them apart to be a light to the nations, so that by her light, salvation may reach the end of the earth.

However, abstaining from certain foods did not make them holy. Jesus confirmed this: “Whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile him” nor make him holy—to which Mark concludes, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18-19). Anyone can be made clean by trusting in Christ.

When Peter received a vision of unclean animals, he heard a voice say, “Rise Peter; kill and eat … Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (Acts 10:9-15). Notice how Peter interprets the vision when the Spirit sends him to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. “God has shown me that I must not call any person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter saw animals in the vision, but he finally understood that animals represented people. “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him … there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (10:34-36).

“Food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (1 Cor 8:8). “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). God’s kingdom isn’t about food and drink (Rom 14:17). When we seek his kingdom and righteousness, our food will be to do God’s will (John 4:34).

So, what about giving up from something over Lent? Jesus offered no instructions on when or how to fast. But he did make one thing clear: fasting should be motivated by a serious felt need (Matt 9:14-15) and “obvious only to your Father” in heaven (Matt 6:16-18).

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LENTviticus 8-10

Who in their right mind would focus on Leviticus for Lent? Everyone … if you called it Lentviticus! Last week we learned that the first seven chapters of Leviticus are about five different offerings. In Leviticus 8-10, it’s all about the priests. Before you click off, please hear me out!

Every priest must be set apart to the Lord. Why? “So that the glory of the LORD may appear” (Lev 9:6). Well, this is suddenly exciting! This only makes sense if we understand that all human beings were originally called to be priests. God created humans to be mediators of his presence, people who dedicate all of creation to him. Creation is God’s cosmic temple! Unfortunately, most human beings have refused to function as priests. When it got down to a family of priests (the tribe of Levi), the priests needed to be consecrated.

How do the NT authors interpret the need for consecration now that we have become “a royal priesthood” because our “great high priest has passed through the heavens” (1 Pet 2:9; Heb 4:14; cf. Heb 7:24-25)?

Levitical priests were “washed with water” (Lev 8:6). That’s it? Plain water? Jesus is much more thorough! Now all believers are consecrated through water baptism. Plus, he continually cleanses us “by the washing with water through the word” (Eph 5:25-26).

Levitical priests were given special clothes (Lev 8:7-13). That’s it? Fancy pants? Well, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27). What a deal! Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love looks good on you (Col 3:12-14)!

Levitical priests had anointing oil poured over their head (Lev 8:12). That’t it? Scented olive oil? Jesus anoints us with the Holy Spirit who empowers and guides us into all the truth (1 John 2:20; John 16:13).

Levitical priests had to continually offer sacrifices to seal their consecration (Lev 8:14-29). Thank God that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb 10:10, 14). We are now able “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5).

Levitical priests had blood applied on their ear lobe (to hear God clearly), on their right thumb (to cover their conduct), and on their big right toe (to cover their movement) (Lev 8:23-24). That’s it? A bit superficial, don’t you think? Jesus’ shed blood is way more comprehensive. His blood so thoroughly “cleanses us from all sin” that it “cleanses our conscience” and opens the way to God’s throne (1 John 1:7; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:14; 10:19). But that’s not all! Jesus even “reconciles to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:20).

During this Lenten season, let us prepare our hearts like priests to Jesus Christ the King.

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do we really need to pray?

Do we really need to pray? Our heavenly Father knows what we need before we even ask him (Matt 6:8). OK, so, then what?

Many prayer leaders encourage us to use some version of the P.R.A.Y. method (pause/praise, repent/rejoice, ask, yield). This is good. However, methods still don’t answer the question. Do we really need to pray?

What if we began to think of prayer as a seat in God’s “situation room”? “Imagine how shocked you would be,” says Pete Greig, “if the president … called to say that your name had been selected at random from a list of the entire electorate to spend a day sharing your insights on a range of issues with his executive in the interests of greater democracy. I’m pretty sure you’d find the time to go … As a Christian, you have already received an even greater invitation. The King of kings requests your presence ‘at the very seat of government.’ He offers you a permanent place on his executive so that you can influence his actions on behalf of nations. It is an unspeakable honor, yet we are often too busy … or too insecure to accept the greatest invitation of our lives.”

Of course, Christ is certainly capable of doing things on his own; but he has a staff team. He does not rule the world as a tyrant. Plus, his ascension created a shift in power and standing. By virtue of our inseparable union with Christ, we are “seated in heavenly places with him” for a reason (Eph 2:6). He works with his people (and his heavenly staff team) to carry out his purposes. He wants everyone to contribute, everyone to participate. Prayer is a seat in God’s “situation room.” Don’t be shy. Submit your ideas and requests. God wants to hear from you. He delights in partnering with you to bring about his intentions.

What if we also started to think of prayer as the “school” that prepares us to reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 5:10)? Surely, such an incredible responsibility and privilege must be learned! “Jesus has opened a school in which he trains his redeemed ones,” wrote Andrew Murray, “He knows what prayer is. He learned it amid the trials and tears of His earthly life.” Like the disciples, we can ask, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and of course, he will. Prayer is “the intentional and insightful discovery of what is on God’s mind. It is not about getting my will accomplished in heaven, but getting God’s will implemented on earth” (Daniel Henderson).

In the school of prayer, we can raise our hand and ask questions, offer our thoughts, seek answers, find directions, and engage in group work with others. We can even knock on the Teacher’s door “and it will be opened” for us to discuss everything from “daily bread” to “kingdom come” (Matt 6:9-13; 7:7).

Do we really need to pray? Yes! We are the people who are going to inherit the world of new creation. So, get to class!

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do we need another Bible study?

Ho hum, another Bible study. Do we really need another Bible study? Many Christians have opted out of Bible studies. After all, watching Netflix and YouTube clips, or working out, or playing video games, or having coffee at Starbucks, or going to the mall, is way more fun than going to a Bible study. Why is that?

Is it because so many Bible studies have Captain Obvious write the discussion questions? Is it because we can’t take one more celebrity preacher’s DVD series? Who cares about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea? Why bother reading about Paul’s shipwreck? Surely, Leviticus has nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century.

According to Skye Jethani, rather than going to Bible studies, “we just kind of pull these little quotes or verses here and there that make us feel better. It’s kind of sentimental and it’s therapeutic, but the actual understanding of the Bible—we think that doesn’t matter. It’s no different than needing to know where my shirt was made; it’s just irrelevant, it happened a long time ago. No matter how much access you give people to that information—they’re not going to engage it because they don’t care, and they don’t see why it’s relevant.”

Is it that bad? Perhaps we need a different kind of Bible study. What am I talking about?

Look for studies that focus on God’s character and mission. The Bible is not like Instagram. We’re not the star of the show. We’ll need to ask God to lead us to the “not I, but Christ” kind of Bible study (Gal 2:20).

Look for studies that welcome the Holy Spirit’s movement. The word works with the Spirit of Christ to teach, bear witness, convict, and guide. We’ll know when the Spirit starts wielding God’s word like a sword (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12). The passages being studied will transform our thinking and penetrate the depths of our heart.

Look for studies that heighten an awareness of the indwelling Christ—not as an abstract doctrine, but as the living Torah, the incarnate Word. Healthy Bible studies are not about “spiritual formation”—they’re about “Christ forming in you” (Gal 4:19).

Look for studies that offer courageous, humble prayers. Prayer is more than a list of requests. Prayer listens to carry divine directives into the daily grind. Groups that pray big to a big God take up challenges that transform virtue into action.

Look for studies that engage everyone that attends. Interactive studies build anticipation and momentum by allowing space for brainstorming, doubt, and strategizing. People have life stories and wisdom to zing into the discussion. Fabulous Bible studies let the body of Christ plug in so that discoveries can be made. The result is a sense of “fullness” as the entire “team” equips each other to advance God’s mission (Eph 4:11-16).

Do we need another Bible study? No. We need Bible studies worth going to. Look for them—or better, start one!

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wallpaper people: Colossians 4

They’re often ignored. Unseen. Overlooked. Like wallpaper—only they’re real people. A quiet and shy demeanor could be the reason. We may assume that they’re just not interested. Yet when Paul and Luke list at least 100 names as part of Paul’s circle of friends, did you know that most of them are wallpaper people?

Paul’s life is so rich, his teachings so dense, that it’s easy to gloss over the names he put in his greetings. However, it’s the names in his greetings that put “flesh and bones” on his letters. Paul had wallpaper people around him for whom he cared and who cared for him. Let’s look at Colossians 4:7-14.

Although Tychicus and Onesimus delivered the letter and gave a ministry update (Col 4:7-9), most of the greeting is from Paul’s wallpaper friends. They are named in two groups of three: Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus; then Epaphras, Luke, and Demas (Col 4:10-14). OK, so Mark (Barnabas’s cousin) and Dr. Luke are not wallpaper material; but who are the other guys?

Aristarchus was among the crowd in the riot at Ephesus, where he is referred to as a Macedonian and travel companion of Paul (Acts 19:29)—perhaps as a fellow prisoner in Macedonia and on the ship to Italy (Acts 20:4; 27:2).

Another wallpaper guy was “Jesus who is called Justus.” It would be hard to ignore someone with “Jesus” on his name tag, but even so, Paul says that these wallpaper men had been a “comfort” to him. The Greek word here, paregoria, means comfort in its most profound sense. It meant “easing, relieving” someone’s pain (it’s the word people used in medical contexts and gravestones).

Epaphras, another wallpaper guy, was “always struggling” to pray that the Colossian church would “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col 4:12). “Always struggling” (agonizomai) is the same word used to describe Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, from which we derive the word “to agonize” (cf. Luke 22:44; Col 1:29). Epaphras was one of those hidden prayer warriors.

Then there’s Demas. We know very little about him (cf. Philemon 1:24)—only that Demas’s love for “this present world” eventually caused him to desert Paul (2 Tim 4:10). Paul does not tell us what aspect of this present world Demas loved. Perhaps Paul did not want to embarrass him. But something triggered Demas to walk away.

There’s a lot to love about wallpaper people. The “behind-the-scenes” ones are often the most compassionate. They will suddenly appear “out-of-the-woodwork” to ease someone’s pain. They’re the ones who “out-of-the-blue” send you a card that says, “I’m praying for you.” Yes, some wallpaper people disappear on us, and we don’t know why. But most wallpaper people are always there for us—and we’re grateful for you!

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wallpaper people: Dionysius & Damaris

Some people stick out in a crowd. You can’t miss them. While others just seem to melt into a blurry backdrop. Kind of like Dionysius and Damaris. Who are they?

In Paul’s day, Athens was a hub for philosophers. When Paul caught their attention, “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus,” a large rocky plateau in Athens—also known as Mars Hill (Acts 17:19). This rock was the spot where the elite, wealthy, governing council would congregate. (All men of course).

The council said to Paul, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean” (Acts 17:19-20). Apparently, the entire city was obsessed with up-to-the-minute news. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who live there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).

Well, Paul had a new idea! And it was a whopper! “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:32). Despite the mixed reviews, “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (17:34).

Out of all these people who believed in Jesus, why did Luke only mention Dionysius and Damaris? Why did he name them? Who were these two?

Perhaps the name, “Dionysius,” was popular back then because of its connection to the god of wine. But “Dionysius the Areopagite” was one of the rich guys in Athenian society. We might say that if Dionysius lived today, he’d be meeting with the elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Yet when Dionysius the Areopagite heard the gospel, everything changed for him. According to Eusebius, Dionysius eventually became the first bishop of the church in Athens! Now that’s a 180-degree turn!

So, who was Damaris? Why was she hanging out with Athens’ all-male World Economic Forum? Damaris is quite a mystery woman. Some think she was either Dionysius’ wife or his high-class escort. Others suggest that she was a foreigner or a Stoic philosopher. Her name is uncommon; her social status is not stated.

Who was Damaris? A wallpaper person—who likely spent most her time as a nosy busybody, “doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”—until she met Jesus. The good news of Christ’s resurrection changes everything.

Isn’t it obvious that the Lord deliberately chooses people most would overlook? Like you and me!

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wallpaper people: Andronicus & Junia

If you’ve ever experienced the “wallpaper” person phenomena, you know what it’s like to feel invisible. Wallpaper people are often overlooked. But not by Paul! He not only sees them—he honors them.
Take for example, Andronicus and Junia. When Paul sends his greetings to the church in Rome, he calls Andronicus and Junia “my kinsmen” (Rom 16:7). Whether this means his extended family or his tribe, Andronicus and Junia were somehow related to Paul.
Even more surprising is that these two “wallpaper” people came to faith in Christ before Paul did. “They were in Christ before me” Paul tells us (16:7). Why does Paul add this little detail? If Paul met the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, then Andronicus and Junia came to faith in Christ before AD 34.
Had Andronicus and Junia been disciples of Jesus? Origen of Alexandria thinks so (AD 185–254). He wrote that “they were perhaps of the seventy-two [sent by Jesus] who were themselves also called apostles” (Luke 10:1-24; cf. Origen’s commentary on Romans).
Unfortunately, English translations steer us in different directions. Compare “They are outstanding among the apostles” (NIV) to “They are well known to the apostles” (ESV). Notice how the ESV negates the possibility that Andronicus and Junia were apostles, but instead, concludes that they were only “well known to” the apostles.
What would it mean that Junia and Andronicus were apostles? The gospels place great emphasis on “the twelve,” yet Paul, Barnabas, and James, the Lord’s brother, are called “apostles” as well (Acts 14:4, 14; Gal 1:19). This does not mean that anyone could be an apostle. “Apostle,” by Paul’s definition, was one who had “seen the Lord” (1 Cor 9:1). When Paul says, “They were in Christ before me,” he was honoring their status as apostles.
I agree with Craig Keener: “It is unnatural to read the text as merely claiming that [Andronicus and Junia] had a high reputation with ‘the apostles’ … Those who favor the view that Junia was not an apostle do so because of their prior assumption that women could not be apostles, not because of any evidence in the text” (Paul, Women and Wives, emphasis mine).
John Chrysostom (AD 347–407), bishop of Constantinople, wrote a series of homilies that included high praise of Andronicus and Junia: “Greet Andronicus and Junia … who are outstanding among the apostles: To be an apostle is something great! But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle!” (Homily 31 on Romans).
Andronicus and Junia were among those who saw the risen Lord when “he presented himself alive … after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). What a King! When he appears to “all the apostles,” he includes wallpaper people (1 Cor 15:7)! 
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wallpaper people: who is Phoebe?

One of the many things I love about Jesus is that it’s the overlooked people who capture his attention. They’re like wallpaper. Some people just blend into the background unnoticed. Jesus not only sees wallpaper people—he treats them as if they are hidden treasures.

Wallpaper trends have been in and out of fashion since it first appeared on the insides of cupboards about 500 years ago. Today, it’s not only on our walls; it’s on our laptops and phones. But wallpaper people?

They’re usually ignored. Unseen. Almost invisible. Full disclosure: I’ve experienced plenty of my own wallpaper moments of being ignored. It literally stings your heart and messes with your head. First you wonder to yourself: “What’s wrong with me?” Then you go into attack mode: “What’s wrong with them?” You hang around like wallpaper until you can’t stand it any longer—and then bolt.

Jesus sees wallpaper people. While noisy crowds throng him on his way to die for the sins of the entire world, Jesus suddenly stops to call a blind wallpaper person to come to him. He models and commissions his followers to do the same (e.g., Luke 22:27; Mark 10:42-44; John 13:3-15).

Paul when introduces a “wallpaper” person named, Phoebe, to the church in Rome, he says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2). Notice that Paul does not recognize Phoebe according to her marital status; rather, he describes her as “our sister … a servant … and a patron of many and of myself as well.”

The Greek word “servant” (diakonos) is all over the NT (Matt 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 12:26; Rom 13:4; 15:8; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 6:4; Eph 3:7; 6:21; Phil 1:1; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; 1 Tim 4:6; 2 Cor 3:6). From these references it’s clear that “servants” help address the needs of others (Acts 6:1-5; 1 Tim 3:8-13). But note, too, that two “servants”ministered beyond “serving tables.” Stephen was a gifted teacher-preacher-apologist and Philip was quite the evangelist.

What about Phoebe? Was Paul asking the Romans to “help her” in serving tables? Or as a gifted teacher-preacher-apologist-evangelist, like Stephen and Philip? Much like his recommendation of Timothy to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 16:10-11), Paul wanted the church in Rome to receive Phoebe as a servant-leader (diakonos). He uses the same verb when he asks the church in Philippi to “receive” Epaphroditus (Phil 2:29). Phoebe’s role in the church was no less important or less official than that of Timothy or Epaphroditus, or of any of Paul’s other coworkers.

Unfortunately, women have been excluded from leadership positions in some churches. But such a practice deviates from the very early church, where men and women ministered side-by-side in similar positions and in record numbers. Out of the 29 “wallpaper” people listed in Romans 16, almost half are women—but all of them are like hidden treasures.  

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God’s staff team: Michael

Isn’t it exciting to know that God has staff meetings? The Lord created the hosts of heaven to help us rule the earth and fill the earth with his glory. In these heavenly staff meetings, a couple of angels are called on for the major assignments: Michael and Gabriel. Let’s look at Michael.

The little book of Jude mentions Michael in a doozy of a story. “When the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’” (Jude 1:9). There is nothing in the Bible that records this episode. All we have is Deuteronomy 34:5-6 which states that Moses died and the Lord “buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” This is one of those rare cases where the New Testament alludes to or quotes from a non-canonical book (in this case, the Assumption of Moses, or the Testament of Moses, both written in the first century AD). Stories about angels were very popular in ancient Jewish literature.

So, why is Jude bringing this up?

When we look at the end of Moses’ life, he was pretty worn out by Israel’s constant complaining. He made it to the border of the promised land, but the Israelites had “made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips” (Ps 106:33). Satan must have reasoned, “If Moses disqualified himself from entering the promised land, he should be disqualified from entering heaven.”

How does Michael respond? Jude says that he’s not going to “presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment.” On Satan or Moses? Or both?

Michael not only refrained from passing judgment on Moses (and avoided the risk of slandering him); he also refused to judge Satan, and instead called on the Lord, saying, “The Lord rebuke you.” Mike left all judgment—whether it was about Satan or Moses—to the Lord. That’s one self-disciplined, humble angel!

Perhaps our image of angels is too static and bland. Michael not only shows us what good angels do; he shows us who they are. Michael did not step out of his identity when contending with someone who had completely abandoned his identity. And that is Jude’s point. To step out of one’s God-appointed identity and usurp God’s role as judge will inevitably lead to slandering others.

We need to be like Mike! We don’t know everything that’s happening inside other people’s hearts. Everyone struggles with something—fear, control, doubt, insecurities, pride. Everyone has a backstory that influences them every day. We cannot presume to put a bow on all our judgments. 

Be like Mike. Be humble. 

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God’s staff team: Gabriel

In God’s staff meetings, there are a couple of angels who get the big assignments. They are the only ones mentioned by name: Michael and Gabriel. Let’s look at Gabriel.

When Daniel needed help interpreting one of his visions, God sent Gabriel. “When he came,” said Daniel, “I was frightened and fell on my face” (Dan 8:17). Gabe explains to him that in the future, God’s people will be severely persecuted. What a depressing message! Aren’t angels supposed to say, “Greetings, O favored one!”? Daniel was “overcome and lay sick for days”; he was “appalled by the vision” and he struggled to understand it (8:27).

Later, after reading Jeremiah’s prophecy of the 70-year exile, Daniel begins to plead for mercy—until Gabriel interrupts him (Dan 9:2-21). “O Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding … for you are greatly loved” (9:22-23). Now that’s a much nicer greeting! However, Gabriel notifies Daniel that the exile will last, not 70 years, but “70 sevens” (weeks of years = 490 years). Oh, no! Not another depressing message. But wait! The Seventy sevens are decreed to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness … to the coming of an anointed one, a prince (9:24-25). Finally, some good news!

The word “anointed one” means “Messiah/Christ”!

How will Jesus the Christ accomplish all this? As Gabe puts it, the “anointed one shall be cut off and have nothing”—that is, Jesus would die on the cross, forsaken by his disciples and the Father (Dan 9:26). Then “the people of the prince” (the Jewish people) will provoke the Romans to destroy their city and temple (in AD 70)—just like they triggered Babylon’s destruction of Solomon’s temple (587 BC). Even the Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that “the destruction of Jerusalem was entirely the fault of the Jewish people, just as Daniel 9:26 predicts” (cf. Matt 23:37-38; 24:1-2, 24; Luke 21:20).

And what about the “anointed one”? The Messiah “shall make a strong (new) covenant with many … and put an end to sacrifice and offering” once and for all (Dan 9:27). So, no, Gabriel is not talking about an end-time Antichrist making a peace treaty with Israel, then betraying them, and ushering in a seven-year tribulation. Gabriel is talking about the redemptive work of Christ.

So, it makes total sense that Gabriel would show up at the start of the “seventy sevens.”* Zechariah was troubled when he saw Gabe, but Gabe had good news for him (Luke 1:12). Zechariah and Elizabeth would give birth to a son who would prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 1:13-17).

Gabriel’s next stop was Nazareth. Gabriel came to Mary and said, “‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:28-29). It wasn’t Gabriel that troubled Mary; it was what Gabe said to her! In the Bible, the expression, “the Lord is with you,” always means that God wants to do something in and through you. Gabriel waits until Mary consents and then departs from her (Luke 1:38).

Although he is not mentioned again in Scripture, I’m guessing it was Gabriel that came to the shepherds watching their flock by night. Why Gabriel? I think God said, “Go Gabriel! You explained it to Daniel. Now go tell the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day … a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed one of Daniel’s 70 sevens!

*Note: Matthew 1:1-17 arranges Jesus’ genealogy into three groups of 14 generations (six sevens)—which makes Jesus the start of the seventh (seven). In other words, Matthew may have been mindful of Daniel’s seventy sevens and used generations instead of years to count from Abraham to Christ’s birth. 

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God’s staff team: angels on a staircase

We’ve been learning that God’s staff meetings include some delightful characters. There are cherubim, seraphim, and of course, God’s beloved angels! Let’s look at one of Jacob’s encounters with angels. He was camping at the time it happened.
Camping can be fun, or it can be a nightmare if it rains! When Jacob went camping, it didn’t rain—but he did have a dream of a stairway “set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it” (Gen 28:12-13). Apparently, stair climbing keeps the angels in tip top shape! Is there a staircase behind the scenes that we don’t know about?!
Well, there is a little controversy over the word “it” in this story (“the angels of God were ascending and descending on it … the Lord stood above it”). The Hebrew pronoun here can mean “him” (“the angels of God were ascending and descending on him … the Lord stood above him”). “It” makes the staircase the focus, while “him” makes Jacob the focus. If it’s “him,” then all the going back-and-forth, from heaven to earth, again and again, is to attend to Jacob.
Either way, Jacob may have thought he was all alone, but he wasn’t alone at all. The Lord was always with him—and he is always with us.
So, when Jesus alludes to Jacob’s dream, he tells Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Does Jesus mean angels will ascend and descend on him, making himself the staircase? Or does Jesus mean that the angels will ascend and descend upon him, making himself the recipient of their care (e.g., Matt 4:11 and 26:53)? Likely both!
King Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He not only “upholds the universe by the word of his power”; he’s in charge of sending the angels out to serve those who are to inherit salvation (Heb 1:3, 14). Jesus, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pet 3:22). Jesus calls them “his angels” (Matt 13:41; 24:31-32). So, it’s Jesus’ directives that are being carried out by the angels. He’s calling the shots. When angels ascend back to Jesus, they’re ready to receive another assignment.
We do not look upon that stairway as if in a dream. Jesus is the connection point between heaven and earth. It is through Jesus that we learn God’s plans. It is through Jesus, and not through dreams, that we know that God is with us to protect and care for us wherever we go. He alone is the way we ascend to our Father in heaven (John 14:6). And it is in Jesus that we will one day descend to a glorious, renewed earth accompanied by his angels.  
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God’s staff team: Jesus’ temptation

God created a celestial staff team to assist his people on earth. Who comes to his staff meetings? Cherubim, seraphim, and angels!

Angels are described as “ministering spirits” that are sent by God to earth to announce something or to rescue, protect, or minister to someone (Heb 1:14). It may surprise you to know that, contrary to popular opinion, nowhere in Scripture do we see angels with wings—and they don’t have capes either! Let’s look at Psalm 91.

It begins with “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91:1). We’ve all made it this far because nothing has overcome us. We owe our resilience entirely to God’s gracious care. So, we need not “fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Ps 91:5-6).

The history of the interpretation of Psalm 91 is interesting. Most Jewish and Christian readers assumed that the “terror” of “darkness” and “destruction” referred, at least in part, to demonic powers. The real enemies that threaten God’s people are not political opponents, natural disasters, and illness. So, it’s no coincidence that in the gospels, clear references to Psalm 91 are found in contexts that have to do with demonic powers (Matt 4:6; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:10-11; 10:19).

Ironically, the devil quotes almost verbatim this anti-demonic psalm—confirming that scripture can be used for nasty purposes. “Jump, Jesus, jump!” says Satan. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matt 4:6; cf. Ps 91:11-13). Well, of all the places to jump, you’d think the temple would be the one spot on earth to be confident of God’s protection, right?

Yet, it does raise an obvious question: would God command his angels to catch Jesus if he jumped? What if the people of Nazareth had successfully pushed Jesus off the cliff (Luke 4:29-30)? Do angels have baseball mitts? I don’t know. But whatever Satan was suggesting would have been a catastrophe.

Thankfully, Jesus refuses to take a senseless leap of faith, not because he denies the protection of angels, but because one who is secure in his identity and certain that God is with him has no need to prove it by jumping.

It was only after the devil took off that God sent some angels to minister to Jesus (Matt 4:11). The gospel writers don’t tell us what they did in ministering to him, but I imagine that just the sight of angels clapping and hugging and giggling would have been enough to encourage him.  

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God’s staff team: the court in session (Dan 7)

God’s staff team is a fascinating study. There’s cherubim and the Council of seraphim and innumerable angels. Let’s look at the Court in session in Daniel 7.

“As I looked,” said Daniel, “thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire … and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” Then notice, “the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened” (Dan 7:9-10). Thrones were set in the Court of heaven, along with the angels, around the all-powerful, sovereign, Ancient of Days. A verdict was about to be announced. Wow. This is better than binging on a season of The Lincoln Lawyer!

Suddenly, one “like the son of man” arrives riding the glory-cloud “and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” in a resurrected body that still bore the marks of nails and a spear on his body (Dan 7:13; cf. Acts 1:9). Hooray, it’s Jesus! “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14).

So, when Jesus ascended to heaven, God gave him a seat “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-21). The verdict would set things right!

Amazingly, the apostle John got to see what happened next! While the Court of heaven was still in session, the risen King Jesus rightfully holds the earth’s title deed (a scroll) and takes responsibility to cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth. For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” in the first place (Col 1:16)!

One fine day, Jesus will return and “the court shall sit in judgment” again “and the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them” (Dan 7:26-27). Ah, the way God had intended it to be all along!

What can we learn from all this? King Jesus is just like his Father; he’s not a dictator. He is a loving, relational, covenant Lord who shares his rule. “The one who conquers,” Jesus said, “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21).

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God’s staff team: the elohim

On God’s staff team, there are cherubim (multi-faced sphinx-creatures), a Court of seraphim (flying serpent-dragons), and a ton of angels! There is only ONE God and yet the Bible talks about “the gods.” What’s up with that?

In the OT the Hebrew word translated “God” and “the gods” is elohim. For example, “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (the one true God; Gen 1:1). Then notice, when king Saul engaged in a séance, the witch told him, “I see an elohim coming up out of the earth” (not the one true God; 1 Sam 28:13). Same word, but not the same thing.

The word itself, while plural in form, is singular in concept. In other words, elohim simply connotes the idea of “power.” The one and only uncreated God (Elohim), the sum of all power, has created lesser powers (elohim). There is only one Elohim that is all-powerful—and his name is Yahweh (which we translate as “LORD”). The LORD is God, there is none like him (cf. Deut 4:35; 1 Kings 8:60; Is 44:6; etc.).

So, when Scripture talks about the “gods,” it is referring to inferior, limited, created “powers” (elohim). What do they do all day? Let’s look at Psalm 82“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods (elohim) he holds judgment” (Ps 82:1). Here we learn that the lesser powers make up “the divine council” of seraphim that are unmistakably subordinate to the LORD God. In Job’s story, the council is summoned to “present themselves before God” (Job 1:6; 2:1). Why? What’s their role on God’s staff team?

In Psalm 82, God asks the council members, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps 82:2-4). Let’s get this straight: God created a heavenly council to stand up for the powerless and bring to justice all those who exploit the vulnerable, but the council is doing the exact opposite! Their decisions favor the wicked! This isn’t good. God is not happy. The council of lesser elohim are “fools” that “walk about in darkness” while the foundations of human society are shaken to the core (Ps 82:5-6). What a hot mess.

How could the lesser powers dare to challenge God? God created his heavenly staff team with the capacity to make moral choices—just like people. Why did he do that? Why not just create a bunch of celestial robots? Robots can’t love; they can get things done, but they cannot love. God is love. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

However, God won’t let the lesser powers off the hook. He tells them, “You are gods (elohim), sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince” (Ps 82:7). Apparently, God’s staff team will be held accountable for their actions.

What can we learn from the divine council?

1) We can present ourselves before the Lord to carry out his will—not ours.

2) We can speak out against all forms of exploitation and do what we can to defend the defenseless.

3) We can refuse to bless or celebrate sin no matter the cost. 

Posted in coaching

God’s staff team: the divine council

There’s a colorful cast of characters in heaven’s administration. God is not a dictator who barks out orders. He is a loving, relational, covenant God who shares his rule with a celestial staff to assist his people on earth. God has a great team! There are cherubim, seraphim, and angels! Let’s focus on the seraphim.

God is totally in charge, but in the Bible, he is seen surrounded by a nameless host of celestial beings who are portrayed as sitting on “thrones” in an assembly (e.g., Col 1:16; Rev 4:4-5, 10). “Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O LORD, with your faithfulness all around you?” (Ps 89:5-8).

No one is like God—and the council is in awe of him. When God laid the foundation of the earth, the heavenly council shouted for joy: “Let’s roll! Let’s get this party started!” (Job 38:7)!

Although God doesn’t need a council, he chooses to rule the world in partnership with loyal teammates. Members of the Court of heaven are described as “seraphim”—which means “shiny (fiery) flying serpents” (Is 6:2). Amazingly, Isaiah’s call took place amid the assembly around God’s throne. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,” cried the seraphim, until the Lord asks them a question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Is 6:3-8). For us? For God and his council! More astonishing is that Isaiah answers: “Here am I! Send me,” says the mere mortal. God is a God of teamwork! Yes, God shares his rule with his heavenly and human partners to mediate his presence on earth.

Another vivid depiction of the Court in action is found in 1 Kings 22:19-23. This time, it’s a prophet named Micaiah that gets a sneak peek of the heavenly assembly in session. “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne,” Micaiah says, “and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another.” Again, God asks a question of the council, to which different council members offer suggestions for what do to the fiendish king Ahab. “Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’” Notice that the LORD asks the angel, “‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’” God listens to his staff team. So, God said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” There are questions, discussions, and suggestions in God’s Situation Room. The notion of the divine council underlines the fact that “we do not have simplicity without complexity in the divine world and the governance of the cosmos” (Patrick D. Miller).

What can we learn from the seraphim?

1) God wants to hear what you think. So, ask questions and offer your suggestions!

2) Be “on call,” ready to contribute to God’s mission.

3) Be a team player. Teamwork requires courageous humility.

There is something beautiful about how God works. Everyone participates, everyone contributes to God’s kingdom. 

Posted in coaching

God’s staff team: cherubim

God has a staff team? Yes! Although the creatures on God’s staff team are not the leading characters in the Bible, they hold key supporting roles from Genesis to Revelation. Who’s on God’s staff? What do they do? You might be surprised!

The “Lord of hosts” is “enthroned above the cherubim” (Isa 37:16). What are cherubimCherubim are not angels or naked chubby babies! Cherubim are multi-faced sphinx-creatures with wings (Ezek 1; Rev 4:6-8). There are also “thrones” for the elders (Col 1:16; Rev 4:4-5, 10). Who are these “guys”? I don’t think they’re guys! They are seraphim. Seraphim look like shiny, flying, serpent-like dragons (Isa 6:1-8). When God is ready to render a decision, he calls “the council of the holy ones” of seraphim to assemble (e.g., Ps 89:5-7). The divine council confirms that God’s lordship is supreme but not totalitarian. Seraphim are like celestial consultants.

And then there are the angels! Angels are described as “ministering spirits” (Heb 1:14). Oddly, nowhere in Scripture do we see angels with wings. Nowhere. When they appear on earth, they appear as men. Angels are messengers sent to earth on specific assignments: to announce, rescue, and serve human beings (Heb 1:14). Archangels (or “chief princes” in Dan 10:13) may rank higher than other angels, but all angels rejoice when someone repents and believes in Jesus (Luke 15:10).

So, God does have a staff team! He is the Lord of the hosts of heaven (Gen 2:1). He created his heavenly staff to help human imagers rule the earth and fill the earth with his glory. Apparently, glory requires an all-hands-on-deck kind of teamwork. Everyone participates, everyone contributes to God’s kingdom. Yes, God shares his reign.

Let’s take a closer look at the cherubim.

Cherubim are like bouncers positioned midway between heavenly space and earthly space with “the flame of the whirling sword” to “guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24; note that it is the sword and not the flame that is whirling!). Every time they appear, they look a bit different (compare Ezek 1 and 10). To add to their weirdness, they are attached to all-seeing, whirling, gyroscope wheels that move with God’s throne in any direction (Ezek 1:16-21; 10:3, 6; cf. Ps 18:10). Cherubim are not big talkers. However, their hearty “Amen” does not compare to the ear-shattering “voice” of their wings (Rev 5:14; Ezek 1:24; 10:5).

What can we learn from the cherubim?1) It’s OK to be weird. Cherubim make weird cool.

2) We may not have a whirly sword, but we can take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” and protect what is sacred (Eph 6:17).

3) Enthrone the Lord—and try to keep in step with him. He’s always on the move!

Posted in coaching

carbonated benedictions (1 Thess 3:13)

Next Sunday, when asked to stand for the benediction, try not to reach for your coat or purse or phone. Why?

The Reformers understood the benediction as a covenant blessing pronouncement meant to enrich the lives of God’s people from one generation to the next. Benedictions declare a reality in Christ to be lived throughout the week. You don’t want to miss that!

We’ll often hear a benediction begin with the word, “may” (e.g., “May the Lord be with you”). But it is more than wishful thinking. It “is not just a matter of being hopeful that God will do something for someone else—it is much more. There is faith employed in a spoken benediction; it is a reminder that one can rightfully expect God to act favorably upon all who are his children, a way of remembering that the God who has benefited his chosen people in the past will do the same today” (Constance Cherry).

So, what should we do at the end of the service next Sunday if we hear, “May he [the Lord] so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13, NRSV). What is the meaning of this blessing pronouncement?

Three things.

1) “May he [the Lord] so strengthen your hearts in holiness.” What is God declaring? “I add resistance training to your workout routine—that is, resistance against the ‘ordinary way’ of doing things.” He’ll help us choose mercy over judging and respond to difficult people with compassion. We’ll find that holiness makes our heart stronger.

2) Next comes the “so that” of the benediction. “That you may be blameless before our God and Father.” Blamelessness does not mean sinlessness; it meansinnocent in dealing with others.” It’s exactly what God told Abraham: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). If we walk before him (in his presence), we’ll have a greater awareness of the needs of those around us.

3) Then notice the end of this benediction: “At the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” This is not some add-on. Christ intends to come back, accompanied by everyone that has stood to receive these same benedictions! The benediction sends us out into the world to bear witness to the Lord of resurrection and the Age to Come.

And all God’s people said, “Amen. Alleluia.” 

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carbonated benedictions (2 corinthians 13:14)

Do benedictions matter? In many churches today, there are usually 3 songs, 3 announcements, a 3-point sermon, and 3 ways to give. But there’s no benediction. Why? After all, there are many benedictions throughout the Bible. Poor little benediction. Why has it been tossed?

Constance Cherry suggests that “this is often the case in services that use the twofold format of extended time of singing followed by a lengthy sermon. If the sermon is viewed as the most important part of the service and the response to the Word has not been included, the dismissal tends to be more of a functional matter of business. This is an unfortunate development … It is not a matter of ‘ending’ but of ‘sending’” (The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services).

So, yes, singing, preaching, giving, and benedictions matter (announcements are, well, more like a toleration ;).

Since digging into this subject, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between doxologies and benedictions. Doxologies give glory to God within the flow of worship—often after confession of sin and the assurance of pardon. Benedictions are blessing pronouncements from God that send us into the world at the conclusion of worship. Simply put, doxologies are offered to God while benedictions come from God.

Let’s take a pop quiz. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Is Romans 11:36 a doxology or a benediction? If you said, “doxology,” you’re correct!

How about 2 Corinthians 13:14? The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Benediction, right? So, what is the meaning of this blessing pronouncement at the end of our worship services? Notice the specific reference to all three Persons of the Trinity. Each member—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are the source of one aspect of blessing.

1. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (be with you all).” The Lord is declaring: “You are covered in grace. Bathe in it, walk in it, and dish it out. For it’s from my fullness you have all received, grace upon grace.” So, get ready for a FULL week. “When grace happens, truth happens” (NT Wright).

2. “And the love of God (be with you all).” Although it may be popular to say, “love is love,” it’s not true. “God is love”—which makes love sacred. In this benediction, God wants us to experience his Father-heart throughout the week ahead. But be prepared for change. When love happens, sanctification happens.

3. “And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” What a lovely way to say, “Dance with me.” The triune God who dwells eternally as a fellowship of loving exchange invites us into his relational life! So, buckle up all week. When fellowship with the Spirit happens, people dance!

Benedictions like 2 Corinthians 13:14 send us off to dance with the Father who—without stopping—will twirl us into the gentle arms of the Son who—in keeping with a rhythm—will backspin us into a cha-cha with the Spirit!

And all God’s people said, “Amen. Alleluia.”  

Posted in coaching

carbonated benedictions (romans 15:13)

Last week we learned that benedictions are not prayers or a churchy way to say, “See ya!” Benedictions are blessing pronouncements that are designed to send us on God’s mission. Regrettably, the benediction is excluded in many churches today. Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate. Giving a benediction at the end of worship is an old tradition in the Bible and one of the high points of the worship service.

“I love this moment in worship,” says Hilary Ritchie, Minister for Worship and the Arts at Hope Church. “Almost all of my planning is working towards this moment of sending. Because we’ve communed with God and each other, we can boldly face the world and live as God’s people for another week. Gathered worship is so important because it roots us in our identities as God’s people and equips us to go out and live our everyday lives of worship day by day.”

Some of you are wired to see silver linings no matter how awful the situation. “It could be worse,” you say. Others of you require a stress-free, cloudless sky, and a certified Vikings win to be filled with hope (yes, Aaron Rodgers is a hope killer in MN).

What about the apostle Paul? His life was one continuous hardship. He was whipped five times, beaten with rods three times, shipwrecked, threatened by thugs, deprived of sleep, food, and warm clothing (2 Cor 11:24-27). And yet he pronounced this benediction: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

So, what is the meaning of this blessing pronouncement at the end of our worship services?

Three things.

1) Remember, this is not a prayerful positive spin on life. God is declaring: “I am Hope.” Whoa. He is Hope itself! God puts a capital “H” in Hope.

2) Hope (God) is not static. Hope fills. Trust in infinite, boundless Hope and He’ll see to it that we’re filled with “all joy and peace.” Hope without a capital “H” can’t do that. Little “h” hope only sets us up for a big drain.

3) This is benediction is not a piddly “Ta-ta, see you next Sunday.” Notice the “so that” Holy Spirit power-packed sendoff. “So that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” “The sending is a time,” says Constance Cherry, “when God blesses us to bless the world in Christ’s name, and commissions us to live in a particular way as a result of having heard the Word as a community” (The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services).

Benedictions are blessings with a purpose. The God of hope fills us so that hope will abound and spread to the people we encounter throughout the week.

And all God’s people said, “Amen. Alleluia.”

Posted in coaching

carbonated benedictions (numbers 6:24-26)

Carbonated water has become the beverage of choice these days. Some companies can hardly keep the beverage in stock. One manager remarked, “I’ve heard of people who’ve come back to work in the office, and for some reason, they’ve gotten addicted to LaCroix.” Carbonated beverages may be all the rage; but wait till you taste carbonated benedictions!

What is a benediction? Why not just say at the end of our worship services, “Buh-bye, we’re done, you can go now. See you next week!” I mean, why have a benediction? Do benedictions matter? What is a benediction, exactly? I want to know. How about you? Well, here’s what I’ve found out so far.

A benediction is not a prayer. Nor is it a christened “Cheerio” or nicely disguised command. “Benediction” comes from the Latin words for “good” and “to speak.” Most people define a benediction as a blessing pronouncement that originates with God himself. OK, so what’s the big deal?

Although the word “benediction” is not found in Scripture, the concept is present throughout both testaments. We find benedictions pronounced by parents to their children (like when Jacob blessed his sons in Gen 49) and by ministry leaders to congregants (like when “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them” in Lev 9:22). In all instances, the pronouncement of God’s blessing on his people is his way of commissioning them. Thus, benedictions are empowering and prophetic; they send us on God’s mission.

“Of all of the actions that are part of the ‘sending,’ the blessing, or benediction, is arguably the most important and the least understood. It is so important because it sends worshipers on their way with a parting word of God’s grace and blessing. This is much more fitting to the Christian gospel than ending either with a command, which can imply that the Christian life is only about working hard to earn God’s favor, or with merely a well-wish, which fails to convey the beauty and power of God’s promise to go with us” (Worship Sourcebook: Benedictions).

Yes, there’s beauty and power in benedictions.

So, what should we do at the end of the service next Sunday if we hear, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26)?

Three things:

1) Remember that benedictions are not prayer requests. They are bold pronouncements from God to us at the end of a worship service. Benedictions make sure God gets the final word—on everything.

2) Grasp what God is declaring to you in the benediction. “My blessing is upon you! I’m constantly watching over you—and my face beams with love and grace! My presence will give you peace.” What? This is stunningly beautiful and powerful!

3) Receive the prophetic nature of the benediction. Let this brief portion of the service shape and reform your identity in Christ and direct you through the rest of the week. After all, you’re being sent!

And all God’s people said, “Amen. Alleluia.” 

Posted in coaching

deconstructing justice (malachi 2:17-4:6)

I think we all tend to ignore evil until it hits us in the face. And then we are surprised when it does. Like the people in Malachi’s day, we ask, “Where is the God of justice?” while at the same time cringing at the thought of divine judgment (Mal 2:17).

“If only it were all so simple!” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” The line between good and evil runs through each one of us.

If you’re going to deconstruct justice, you might want to ask, “whose judgment will be true, fair, impartial, merciful, and righteous?” Congress? The FBI? The United Nations? The World Economic Forum?

“I will send my messenger,” says the Lord, “who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come” (Mal 3:1). Sounds like a GREAT idea!

Although God is not culpable for the evil in the world, he takes on the full weight of evil on his own very Self and overcomes it on the cross. Whew, right?

If you’re going to deconstruct justice, you might want to ask, “what more can the Lord do?” “He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap” (Mal 3:2; cf. 4:1). A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like an incinerator. A refiner’s fire purifies by melting down the silver or gold and separating the impurities that ruin its value, leaving the silver and gold intact. God’s refining discipline frees us without destroying us (Mal 3:1-3).

If you’re going to deconstruct justice, you might want to ask, “What does Christ’s refining fire do to someone like me?” Malachi gives us four hints.

1) We’ll become bigger-hearted (generous). “Test me in this,” says the Lord, “and see if I don’t open up heaven itself to you and pour out blessings beyond your wildest dreams” (Mal 3:10-12, MSG).

2) We’ll get God’s ear. To “those whose lives honored God … God saw what they were doing and listened in … They will be my own special treasure” (Mal 3:16-17).

3) We’ll be free to dance. “For you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves” (Mal 4:2).

4) We’ll experience relational healing. “He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Mal 4:6).

It is difficult to understand God’s ways. But we know that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and … disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:5-11).

Posted in coaching

deconstructing relationships (malachi 2:10-16)

People like to connect. We’re wired that way. Connecting to something or someone is extremely powerful, but it’s risky. We can hurt and get hurt. When stuff happens (and it always does), people will often reassess their relationships. Unfortunately, for the people in Malachi’s day, they were deconstructing their relationships—not to be safe—but to free themselves from their commitments (Mal 2:10-16).

If you’re going to deconstruct your relationships, it’s a good idea to discern the “camels” from the “gnats.” Jesus said that we tend to strain out gnats but have no problem swallowing “a camel” (Matt 23:24). Is Jesus just being silly? I think he’s trying to help us here. Apparently, we’re inclined to quibble over petty issues when there’s the proverbial elephant in the room. Jesus calls the elephant: “weightier matters.”

What’s on Jesus’s “weightier” list? Justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). If you’re going to deconstruct your relationships, work toward “doing justice,” righting the wrongs while “loving mercy” as well. It’s easy to throw the justice hammer down with no pity. And it’s even easier to shower everything with compassion and scorn responsibility. Engage with people in honest, gracious, redemptive ways that do not get jaded with the passing of time. As the Lord says through Malachi, “guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (2:16).

If you’re going to deconstruct your relationships, it’s a good idea to look inside the “cup.” No one likes doing dishes. Who has time to do that? We’d rather quickly rinse and move on. But again, Jesus is trying to help us out. People can clean the outside of their cups without touching the scum on the inside (Matt 23:25-28). We can’t see inside someone’s heart, but there are signs of scum.

Scummy relationships feel hollow and empty, as if something is missing, or is somehow being overlooked. Perhaps it even seems unclean. You sense manipulation or intimidation. Or maybe the scum surfaces in putdowns. Or maybe there’s just too many lies. It’s painful to look inside a cup because you realize that scum is about power and control. We can’t change someone’s behavior, but we can make changes in our own life to stay safe.

One of the ways we can protect ourselves from scum is to develop safe boundaries. “Boundaries define us,” says Henri Cloud and John Townsend. But they are not walls. They are like fences with gates—so that we can let the good in and let the bad out when it gets inside. We can also take comfort that “everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light” (Mark 4:22). And it’s okay to walk away. The kindest gift we can give to people who repeatedly hurt us is to remove the opportunity for them to sin against us.

So how can we help each other? Let’s create space for difficult conversations knowing that God’s grace is greater than all the gnats, camels, elephants, and cups in the world. For “where sin increases, grace abounds all the more” (Romans 5:20).

Posted in coaching

deconstructing the bible (malachi 2:1-9)

Thomas Jefferson is famous for deconstructing the Bible. He carefully arranged his cut-and-pasted verse selections into an 86-page, red leather, handbound book. There’s no Old Testament. No miracles. Nobody is resurrected or ascends to heaven. Only a Jesus that Jefferson liked. He claimed that his efforts proved that he was in fact, a “real Christian,” a true “disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

There are a lot of nice stories in the Bible. Jesus heals people. David defeats Goliath. Ruth lives happily ever after. But there are a lot of not-so-nice stories. People drown in Noah’s flood. Judas hangs himself. And Jesus talks about hell. Are only parts of the Good Book good? Penn Jillette thinks “reading the Bible is the fast track to atheism.” I don’t agree. It’s misreading the Bible that makes faith toxic.

If we show “partiality” and cherry-pick our favorite Bible passages while deliberately ignoring others, we will drown out the voice of God in Scripture and eventually “stumble” (Mal 2:8-9). “True instruction” requires us to “listen,” “lay it to heart,” and “guard knowledge” (Mal 2:1-2, 6-7).

If you’re going to deconstruct Scripture, never read one Bible verse. Consider pulling one sentence from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “Gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.” We can try to interpret this—or look at its context. We’d find that when the wounded Prince Andrei is rescued by Napoleon, he realizes that a single human being (like Napoleon) is incapable of single-handedly moving the course of history. Context is key, isn’t it?

In a similar way, every verse of Scripture is part of a paragraph which is part of flow of thought which is part of a book which is part of the overarching metanarrative of the Bible. Every verse works with the whole of Scripture. It requires thoughtful research and study. Yet even the apostle Paul admitted, “we know in part” (1 Cor 13:9). This does not mean that we can’t trust the Bible; it means that the full revelation of God is reserved for the Age to Come.

If you’re going to deconstruct Scripture, never view the Bible as one book. Consider pulling The Horse and His Boy from the other six volumes of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The Horse and His Boy is the only book in the series that is not about children from our world who go to Narnia. Instead, it focuses on the native Narnians living during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the grown-up Pevensies are reigning as kings and queens of Narnia. Reading the entire series is a must!

In a similar way, the Bible is a multi-volume set of sixty-six books. In each book we’ll find real Narnia-like adventures with intriguing characters from rich cultural backgrounds. OK, there’s no talking beaver; but whether you read history or poetry or prophecy or a gospel or an epistle or an apocalyptic-prophecy-epistle, they all work together. In other words, reading the gospel of John without Genesis, or reading Exodus without the gospel of Mark, will paint an incomplete picture of God’s Big Plan. We can only do our best to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15)—which does not require a PhD—just a boatload of tenacity and humility.

If you’re going to deconstruct Scripture, never seek to know Scripture. Seek to know the Lord of Scripture. 

Posted in coaching

deconstructing worship (malachi 1:6-14)

The book of Malachi is chock full of questions about God, about life, about faith—which makes it the go-to book for those who are in the process of deconstructing their faith. In Malachi 1:6, the Lord offers a test with one multiple-choice question to make a point. Which of the following is true? 

A) A decent son honors his father and God

B) A principled worker respects his boss and God

C) A noble citizen fears the king and God

D) All the above are true

E) None of the above

During Malachi’s day, God’s people were doing none of the above.

It’s easy to sit in judgment of Israel. But just look at us at rock concerts, football games, and red-carpet events. Our hands are raised high. Would we rather praise our favorite celebrity or sports team than worship God? “You despise my name,” says the Lord (Mal 1:6). Despise? That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think? “How have we despised your name, God?” (Mal 1:6).

We may not admit it, but we feel it sometimes during worship when we secretly mock, “What a weariness this is … I can’t stand it!” (Mal 1:7-8, 13-14). The songs are boring. The sermon is boring. The Bible is boring. Church is boring. Even God is boring. And it’s everyone else’s fault, right? When the “worship of God is no longer a priority,” we’re stuck, and we know it (Mal 1:7). How does God respond?

“Why doesn’t one of you just shut the Temple doors and lock them? Then none of you can get in and play at religion with this silly, empty-headed worship. I am not pleased” (Mal 1:10, MSG). Ouch.

If you’re going to deconstruct worship, I think the best question to ask is: “How can I break out of this funk of boredom?” Thankfully, Malachi provides the answer. “Plead with God to be gracious” to you (Mal 1:9). Pleading with the Lord is the key? Why? And how do you do it?

Early on, Christians understood that the name of Jesus had great power. Just to say his name was itself a form of prayer. One prayer, known as The Jesus Prayer, dates to the fifth century. This short “arrow” prayer is based on the blind men’s simple appeal to Jesus for mercy (Matt 9:27; 20:30; Mark 10:47; cf. Luke 18:38). They would simply say under their breath at any time of the day or night, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” It’s such modest prayer, but it’s especially useful while undertaking mundane tasks (e.g., grocery shopping, driving, housecleaning, sleeplessness, etc.).

When you first begin to pray The Jesus Prayer, it may feel stiff, mechanical, and weird. But keep going. You’ll soon realize that the “Lord Jesus Christ” is not boring. Surrendering to the “Son of God” a few moments a day will transform all the other remaining moments. A little “have mercy on me!” and you’ll feel very much alive. Buh-bye boredom.

Worship is not dead or alive. Worship is either bogus or true. Yes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”

Posted in coaching

deconstructing love (malachi 1:1-5)

Even though it was written 2500 years ago, I think the finest book ever written on deconstruction is MalachiMalachi is filled with questions from people who were in the process of deconstructing their faith before the Lord. Doubts are tricky; they either drive us toward Jesus or away from him.
“Deconstruction without reconstruction is a tragedy,” says Carey Nieuwhof. “If the path you’re on is not making you a more generous, compassionate, hopeful, and merciful person (or, in other words, more like Jesus), then the destination isn’t worth the journey. Make no mistake, there are things within Christian culture that need to be challenged and re-evaluated, but a Christ-honoring deconstruction revels in truth and beauty, not cynicism and arrogance.”
Deconstruction usually begins with questions about God’s love. “I have always loved you,” says the LORD; but some grow skeptical, “Really? How have you loved us?” they say (Mal 1:2). Does God really love us?
The weird thing about God is that he knows everything about everyone, and still loves us! What kind of “love” is that? Suffering love. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). When we see how true love works, it sets us free from modern sentiments such as “love is love” (which is meaningless, like “coffee is coffee”) or “love is tolerance” (which is just detached acceptance). 
So, if you’re going to deconstruct, the best question to ask is: “How does God love me sacrificially?” “Yes, take a good look,” says the Lord. “Then you’ll see how faithfully I’ve loved you” (Mal 1:5, MSG).
Malachi reveals another weird thing about God’s love. Notice God’s reply to the doubts about his suffering love. “‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ says the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau’” (Mal 1:2-3). What? What happened to God knows everything about everyone, and still loves us?
Although this is a difficult concept for most to grasp, in Scripture (and in ancient Near Eastern texts), the words “love” and “hate” are commonly used in covenant treaties. “Love” meant enjoying a covenant relationship; “hate” meant lacking covenant relations. God’s love/hate issues have nothing to do with liking or disliking anyone. Interpreting “hate” as “not loved” misunderstands the covenantal language of the Bible.
So, let’s put all this together. God knows everything about everyone, and still loves us! But those who are in a covenant relationship with him experience his selfless love.
You can memorize all the scriptures about God’s love and read books that try to explain it, but ultimately, his love must be experienced. That’s why Paul prayed: “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Eph 3:19, NIV). Always remember, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—and that includes the process of deconstruction (Rom 8:39).
Posted in coaching

deconstructing faith

Following Jesus has never been easy. I’m sure we all have some questions we’ll want to ask Jesus when we see him face-to-face!

For a growing number of young Christians, deconstruction has become vogue (mainly on social media). By “deconstruction” they basically mean: “the process of critically reexamining one’s beliefs to discover a more authentic faith.”

This process is nothing new. Scripture calls deconstruction “doubt.”

How does Jesus respond to doubters? Peter was repeatedly prone to doubt; but when he was literally sinking in doubt, Jesus “reached out his hand and caught him” (Matt 14:31). Then there’s doubting Thomas, of course. Did Jesus rebuke him? No, he asked Thomas to come close and touch him (John 20:24-29).

Look at the most common reasons people give for deconstructing their faith. What do you notice?

  • Experiencing personal trauma
  • Disappointment with church
  • Frustration with theological contradictions and trite answers
  • Annoyance with hypocrisy among Christians
  • Chastisement from asking questions and doubting
  • Church burnout (especially among pastors)

Some are having a crisis of faith. Some are hurt or disillusioned. Some are crying out for a safe place to wrestle and reflect. Some are simply drained.

How can we help? A good place to start is to buy them coffee and talk with them about their concept of faith.

For many Christians, “faith” is primarily a supra-rational feeling. Of course, emotions are valid cries of the soul; but when “faith” is driven by emotions, it is vulnerable to every change in circumstance. Living in a broken world requires a faith that is a “sure and steadfast anchor” for the soul (Heb 6:19-20).

For others, “faith” is primarily propositional statements. Of course, “sound doctrine” is essential (1 Tim 4:6; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 10); but when “faith” is mere information, it is vulnerable to being all “head” and no heart. Living in a broken world requires a faith that transforms from the inside out.

I find it interesting that Jesus just says, “Have faith in God (Mark 11:22). Seems so simple and yet so profound. Have faith in God himself. Jesus said that such faith is like building your house on the rock. When the rain falls and the floods come and the wind blows and beats on your house, it doesn’t fall “because it’s founded on the rock” (Matt 7:24:25). God-based faith is rock-solid because it’s centered on Christ, the rock of our salvation.

If you’re going to deconstruct your faith, “Start with the real historical earthly Jesus,” says NT Wright, “and your God will come running down the road to meet you, deeply attractive … deeply challenging in his transforming embrace.” Wright goes on to say, “My proposal is not that we understand what the word ‘god’ means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew, possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross—and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word ‘god’ to be recentered around that point.”

Always remember, Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2). He isn’t done building his church (Matt 16:18)!

Posted in coaching

InstaSnapTok theology

Insta-Snap-Tok theology. Teenagers love it! If you do the math, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok add up to a whopping 88% of teenage social media use. Apparently, old people are still on Twitter and Facebook.

So, who manages these popular platforms? Meta/Facebook owns Instagram. Snapchat is owned by its creators, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company accused of sharing its data collection with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Let’s examine them.

Out of Instagram’s one billion monthly active users, 95 million photos are uploaded every day. Instagram is all about pictures—well actually, it’s all about transforming phone snapshots into professional looking ones. Pick a filter and tweak the color balance, and poof! Remove those ugly eye bags and wrinkles and reshape yourself into a thinner, more beautiful you. No wonder depression, appearance anxiety, and body dissatisfaction are all associated with Instagram use.

TikTok also has one billion monthly active users. On average, kids between 4-15 years old watch catchy lip-sync and dance videos for an hour and a half each day. But just so you’re aware, TikTok is known for its crude content and profanity. No one can use TikTok without being exposed to scantily clad bodies shaking their booty.

Only a half a million people send disappearing messages and photos on Snapchat’s camera each month. Where do all the posts go? Is anything truly deleted? Nevertheless, Snapchat offers several fun games, like Bitmoji Party. And best of all, you can keep track of who you talk to the most.

What is Insta-Snap-Tok theology

Instagram’s theology aims “to capture and share the world’s moments” so that one billion people will “feel closer to anyone they care about.” Think about that. If Jesus posted on Instagram (go with me here), he would have a purpose: to show the world a complete picture of his Father (cf. John 1:18; 17:25-26). Perhaps a closeup of his mom at the wedding reception or a pic of the little boy who gave up his lunch box would suffice. Let us share life’s moments in a way that capture God’s heart, so people feel closer to the Lord.

Snapchat’s theology empowers “people to express themselves, live in the moment, and have fun together” for ten seconds and then it disappears. Think about that. If Jesus used Snapchat (go with me here), he would likely tell parables about the kingdom of God so that people could flourish—not for ten seconds, but all day, every day, now and forevermore (cf. Matt 13:11-12, 16). Let us encourage people to see God’s face in their stories.

TikTok’s theology is simple: “inspire creativity and bring joy.” Videos that go viral are usually funny or involve a remarkable skill. But TikTok also has a dark underbelly. Think about that. If Jesus used TikTok (go with me here), he would be the light in the darkness so that people would experience the joy of “the light of life” (John 8:12; Ps 97:11). Let us be a light that inspires creativity and joy in a world of digital darkness.

You may say, “I’m too old to keep up with all this fancy technology.” Well, you’re never too old to have conversations about digital media theology with your children and grandchildren. They’d probably love that!

Posted in coaching

facebook theology

With close to 3 billion active users every month—80% of which use it every day (mostly over-35-year-olds), Facebook is the place to celebrate and virtue signal, to shoot off political rants and express kind words, to reconnect with high school friends and secretly spy on them. I think that’s why most people have a love-hate relationship with Facebook.

Last year, Facebook rebranded to Meta. Why? Over the next 10-15 years, Meta plans to augment virtual reality technologies to create a more “embodied” kind of Facebook, where users no longer scroll, post, and “like,” but are fully immersed in a computer-generated Metaverse.

The word, Metaverse, comes from Neil Stephenson’s novel, Snow Crash (1992). The dystopian storyline involves two parallel worlds. The physical world, called, “Reality,” is controlled by corrupt mega corporations. The online, virtual world, called, “Metaverse,” is more exciting, but fraught with danger. If Paul read it, he would say, “they’ve lost touch not only with God but with reality itself” (Eph 4:18, MSG).

Today, experts predict that Metaverse will absorb the internet and take it to the next level. No more pesky texts or emails or neanderthal phone calls! Digital holographs will pop up in front of us to deliver messages (like Princess Leia in Star Wars). Users will be able to come together in a new kind of virtual space. 

“You don’t have to choose between being on your device or being fully present,” says Mark Zuckerberg. With augmented reality glasses, “imagine seeing holograms, turn-by-turn directions or being able to play chess on a table in front of you with your loved one 3000 miles away, right from your glasses.” Of course, you’ll need to create an avatar, a digital representation of yourself. For example, I could be a kitty, or a kitty warrior, or kitty warrior birthing person. The possibilities are endless!

There is nothing wrong with virtual reality. However, recent studies indicate that it’s kind of a time vampire; it distorts our sense of time.We experience “time compression” when we lose track of how much time has lapsed. So, what seemed like 20 minutes in virtual reality was actually 3 hours.

Everyone wastes time to some degree, so Paul encourages us to “redeem the time” by offering our days, our nights, our weekends, to the Lord (Eph 5:15-16; Col 4:5). “A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it” (Eccl 7:18).

Meta/Facebook theology promises to give us a more intense connection with family and friends. Will interfacing with each other’s digital holographs be more meaningful than clicking “like”? Metaverse may claim to be an “embodied virtual world,” but embodiment is precisely what it negates.

“But that’s no life for you,” Paul says, “You learned Christ!” (Eph 4:20). Being a Christian is not learning about Christ; it is learning Christ. The way you learn Christ is to hear Christ—not just hear about him (Eph 4:21). You hear him. The way you learn Christ is to be taught by God himself (John 6:45). The good news is that, if the Lord can speak through donkeys, like he did with Balaam, he can communicate to those involved in virtual reality technology. 

Posted in coaching

amazon theology

Who can forget the spring of 2020? The top 10 searches on Amazon were toilet paper, face mask, hand sanitizer, paper towels, Lysol spray, Clorox wipes, mask, Lysol, masks for germ protection, and N95 mask. For the first time in our lives, we were buying things we’d never bought online before. Amazon was our savior.

Amazon sets the terms and conditions by which we sell, buy, and much more. This virtual empire of recorded purchases owns the largest collection of consumer desire. Anyone that can anticipate and supply all our needs according to the riches of fast delivery must be a god. In his book, Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls us to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (available on Amazon). Well, I haven’t read it, but I like the idea of “another type of progress.” 

So, does Amazon have a theology?

Amazon theology is guided by four principles: customer obsession, passion for invention, commitment to excellence, and long-term thinking.

Principle 1: customer obsession. With one click, it’s like Christmas every week! Gifts wrapped in cardboard boxes make life better, brighter, easier, smarter, cooler, more productive. Nothing wrong with that. So why would Jesus say, “Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. People do not get life from the many things they own” (Luke 12:15)? What can we do to be more “careful”? Make simplicity a virtue. Simplicity as virtue does not mean straw hats, suspenders, and long beards. Virtue thinking necessitates ongoing discernment informed by an awareness of Christ and his kingdom. What we are after is an understanding of simplicity that heightens our love for God, people, and creation. Exchange customer obsession with a more virtuous preoccupation.

Principle 2: a passion for invention begins with customers–their values, needs, desires–and works backward to create things that will benefit them. Nothing wrong with that—except that it makes us the center of the universe. What if we began with Jesus—his values, needs, desires—and work backwards to deliver the outcomes he wants? “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isa 43:19). The Lord has a passion for invention and invites us to participate.

Principle 3: a commitment to excellence. The dictionary defines excellence as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” However, there is a reason that Jesus said, “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Our commitment to excellence is actually a commitment to Christ. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Col 3:23).

Principle 4: long-term thinking. It’s hard to argue against convenience, greater choice, innovation, and lower prices. But when Goliath exerts tremendous pricing and margin pressure on small businesses, little guys file bankruptcies and stores close. I want to encourage you to pause and pray before you click. Long-term thinking must have broad considerations. “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Phil 2:4). 

Posted in coaching

google theology

“Honey, were you looking to buy bath toys?” I thought, how did he know? “Yes,” I confessed, “for your grandson!” It’s funny but kind of scarry, too. All our devices are synced.

“We’ll never sell your personal information to anyone,” Google reassures us. “We make money from advertising, not by selling personal information.” OK, so what happens to all our “non-personal information”—which Google is not “selling” but from it makes tens of billions of dollars a year?

Google uses our “non-personal information” (that is, everything we search, buy, read, watch, text, email, and post) to create individual profiles on us. Then it directly shares our profile with advertisers, asking them to bid on specific ads that target each profile. This includes our geolocation, device IDs, gender, age, interests, and browsing history. These “real-time bidding” auctions are spinning every millisecond as more of our “non-personal information” becomes available. And who controls the bidding? Google Marketing Platform of course.

“Trust in this adorable doodle logo with all your heart … and its algorithms will direct your path and track your every move” (Prov 3:5-6, Google International Version). Not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without Google Maps knowing about it.

We all use Google. What is Google’s mission? “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” What are we to make of Google’s theology?

Universal accessibility to the world’s information is useful but it does not automatically make us wise. For example, a simple Google search on “how can I deal with worry and anxiety?” may provide quick answers; but what would happen if we wrestled with God through the book of Philippians instead? To use CS Lewis’s words, such a momentous experience would change our whole consciousness and we would become what we were not before. To access all the world’s information without engaging the world’s Creator is unwise, don’t you think

Searching the world’s information through algorithms may be expedient but it often creates confirmation bias. How do we know whether we are searching for the truth or searching to confirm our own ideas? What is sharp enough to pierce our soul to discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart? God’s word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). The “sword” here is the same word used to describe Peter’s fisherman knife (John 18:10). Like a sharp fisherman’s knife that separates the intertwined meat and bones of a fish, only God’s word can cut through our confirmation bias.

Although Google has the power to auction off our “non-personal information,” the fact is that we’ve already been bought, not by the highest bidder, “but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Cor 6:19-20; 1 Pet 1:18-19). Google’s Marketing Platform can’t touch that.

Posted in coaching

twitter theology

You probably don’t use Twitter (most Christians don’t). You may even think it’s the devil’s hell hole (it can be). But every journalist, politician, CEO, celebrity, and prominent Christian influencer are heavy users. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Twitter has a theology. Just look at its mission statement.

As of today, Twitter’s mission statement is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.” As of today, Twitter’s website states that they seek to provide “a free and global conversation” where people have “safe, inclusive, and authentic conversations.” Elon Musk may shake things up. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter,” he said, “because that is what free speech means.” Musk promises to “defeat the spam bots” and “authenticate all real humans.” See? Twitter does have a theology!

Twitter theology is about having free, safe, inclusive, authentic conversations with authenticated real humans—in less than 280 characters (although most tweets are only 33 characters). Gee, I’ve been on Twitter for 10 years. Have I ever experienced such “authentic conversations” with my 496 followers? Twice … maybe.

Even so, I like the concept of Twitter theology.

Free conversations help people find their voice. “Fools … only want to air their own opinions” (Prov 18:2). Unlike Mordecai who encouraged Esther to find hers. “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place … who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Sometimes all it takes is a little “tell me more” and a bit of “what do you think?” to get things going.

Safe conversations never interpret disagreement as hate. “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” sings Taylor Swift in a delightfully catchy tune that condemns anyone who doesn’t appreciate her. If it is hateful to express a different view, then every committee meeting, every marriage, friendship, and relationship would implode. Safe conversations do not mean everyone agrees in kumbaya ecstasy. No, safe conversations happen when everyone can disagree and grow in humility and wisdom. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”—in other words, it is impossible for one tool to become sharper without clashing with another (Prov 27:17). Without disagreements, both blades would be dull and useless.

Authentic conversations in real time with real humans are life-giving and life changing. I admit, I literally feel sick when I watch my students come to class, immediately pull out their phones, and ignore each other. I almost burst out crying at restaurants when I see Moms and Dads staring at their phones while their kids are eating in silence. Sometimes I want to scream “put your damn phone down” at meetings. It’s rude, death-giving, and arrogant (there I said it). The only one who can multitask and be fully present at the same time is God. “Authenticate all real humans” with your life-giving, life-changing attention.

Posted in coaching

the entire book of revelation in 5 minutes

Some people add to the words of this apocalyptic-prophecy-epistle and sell a lot of books. Others take away from the words of this book and avoid it altogether. If they only knew that the purpose of Revelation is to reveal the glorious reign of King Jesus (Rev 1). This book presents his plan in numbered sets that parallel and progressively intensifies the spiritual conflict between God’s people and the forces of evil until Christ returns to usher in the Age to Come.

We began with Jesus’s message to his Church (Rev 2-3). What was the Spirit saying to the seven churches in the first century? What he says to the Body of Christ in every generation! King Jesus always stands in the midst of his Church to expose threats from within and dangers from without, calling us to overcome adversity, heresy, and compromise.

When we entered John’s first vision, we got a glimpse of the present reality of heaven (Rev 4). God’s throne room is command central; and the Court of heaven is in session! A scroll appeared as the earth’s title deed and the only one worthy to open it and carry out God’s action plan for the world was the risen King (Rev 5). By opening the scroll, King Jesus takes responsibility to cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth. To open that scroll meant releasing righteous judgments to set things right.

We watched the risen Jesus open the seals, which permitted four “horses” to persecute Christians (Rev 6). We learned that the faithful are refined through those who try to destroy them. The Lord seals us—not from suffering—but in order that we persevere through suffering and death by the power of his Spirit (Rev 7). The trumpets use cosmic disturbance language to describe Christ’s response to those bent on persecuting us (Rev 8-9). Yes, a heightened sense of God’s glory emerges in persecution. We receive the promised inheritance through the triumph of suffering love—which lays the basis for judgment on those rejecting our testimony (Rev 10).

We came to realize that God’s temple is both heavenly and earthly; there are believers in heaven and on earth (Rev 11). Those on earth may be trampled by severe persecution (while the world parties), but Christ will return, and our resurrected bodies will complete our witness.

At this point, Revelation 12 must “start over” with a fabulous presentation of the Christmas story from a cosmic perspective. That’s when we saw a dragon in the nativity (Rev 12)! Satan is the real mastermind behind persecution. He tries to silence God’s people because he must stand in constant denial of the reality of his decisive defeat that is constantly intruding to refute his delusions. That is why Satan hates us. Our lives remind him of what Christ has done. Forgive sin and the dragon has no material to work with.

We saw Satan enlisting three helpers to persecute us: the politically oppressive antichrist, the “false prophet” of propaganda that incites people to “make an image for the beast” by reflecting its likeness (Rev 13), and the “Babylonian prostitute” that aligns corrupt politicians with private corporations to dominate the world market (Rev 17-18). While believers enjoy heaven, seven bowls will pour out to punish the persecutors of God’s people on earth (Rev 14-16). By the end of chapter 19, Jesus returns to vindicate his people and judge those who have mocked him. No more antichrist. No more propaganda. No more injustice and corruption (Rev 19).

Once again, Revelation must “start over” with the “binding” of Satan at the cross (Rev 20). We found out that Satan is “bound” in the sense that he cannot deceive the nations into wiping out the Church from the face of the earth (code word “Armageddon”). The “thousand years” is not about the length of time; it’s about the fulfillment of God’s promises at the opportune time (fullness of time). “Blessed is the one who shares in the first resurrection”—in Christ’s resurrection! Because we are inseparably united to Jesus, we will share in his resurrection the moment we die.

We must have a physically resurrected body that can sustain the full weight of God’s unveiled glory when heaven and earth merge (Rev 21-22). That’s why we celebrate Easter! But we do have a past. Will we remember the pain? God’s taken care of that, too. The tree of life will “heal the nations” so that we can “see” everything differently. Our history will not be eradicated but redeemed

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easter and revelation 21:9-27

Because he lives, we can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone. Because we know who holds the future—and we get a glimpse of it in Revelation 21!
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls says to John, “‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God” (Rev 21:9-11). Although the New Jerusalem is a real city, it’s glory far surpasses the language John uses to portray it. What he sees is “like” something familiar to him. It’s “radiance was like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal … pure gold, like clear glass” (21:18-20).
Words can’t capture the indescribable. But we get a glimpse.
“It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates” with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the names of the twelve apostles to accentuate the eternal security and unity of God’s people (Rev 21:9-14). Each gate, made of a single pearl, will never shut (21:21, 25). The city’s four-cornered shape is perfectly designed to accommodate the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (21:15-17; 7:9). There is no temple, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb permeate all facets of life in this new world (21:22). “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God” is the city’s life force—not the sun or moon (21:23; cf. Isa 60:19).
An enormous city, a perfect cube, pulsating with glory is beyond comprehension, beyond imagination. But we get a glimpse.
We “will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:24). What will we bring? What could possibly be redeemed, sanctified, and incorporated into resurrection reality?
I love Matthew Erickson’s thoughts on this: “Parts of my life are so gut-wrenchingly awful that I cannot imagine how they could be a part of my life in the New Jerusalem. But through the forge of death, resurrection makes all things new. When we point to a hope in heaven, we tell people, ‘Hold on, and you can make it.’ When we point to the promises of New Jerusalem, we proclaim, ‘Live your life to the fullest for the kingdom of God, because who you are and what you do matters today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.’”
Because he lives, we are the glimpse. Happy Easter, friends.
Posted in coaching

the merger of heaven & earth, revelation 21:1-8

The last two chapters of Revelation offer a sneak preview of a fabulous future. The whole cosmos will be resurrected!

John “saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1; cf. 20:11). What does that mean? The new creation (of which we are a part) will retain characteristics of the old creation, yet redeemed, transformed, and enhanced—like Christ’s resurrected body. Jesus’s resurrection ensures that the new creation is in continuity with the old creation. Much like the phrase “passed away” does not mean extinction, the present heaven and earth will “pass away” when they merge (cf. Rom 8:19-21; Isa 65:17-25).

The removal of the “sea” should not be taken literally. The “sea” throughout Scripture often symbolizes the chaotic realm of evil (e.g., Dan 7:2-3; Rev 13:1ff.). The new heavenly earth has no “sea” because all evil forces will be removed. Earth will be “found by fire” (purified of evil) and transformed into a new heavenly earth (cf. 2 Pet 3:10). The recurring biblical theme of God’s victory over the “sea” culminates in the eradication of the “sea” when the new earth emerges (Ex 15; Ps 66:6; 107:23-29; 114:3, 5; Isa 50:2; 51:10).

All the action in Revelation 21 is centered on the “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). The “city” has been prepared for this moment. Jesus referred to the preparation phase of this “city” when he said, “My Father’s house has many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

The Father’s heavenly city-house project doesn’t just appear; it’s being prepared to come to earth one day (Rev 21:2). Although God is the “designer and builder” of this heavenly city (Heb 11:10, 16), believers in heaven are not sitting around watching him do all the work (cf. Rev 7:9-17). We are “workers together with him” in this life and our life after life (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1). What contributions will you make to the heavenly city when you arrive? I’m sure you’ll be busy!

It is always a shock to read Revelation 21:8: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” God’s fiery glory will purge all defiling entities from the cosmos so that the earth is “laid bare” (2 Pet 3:7). Even Jesus admits of his desire to “bring fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49). When Christ returns, his refining fire will cleanse the earth of evil—not annihilate it.

Those who conquer (who are resurrected) will inherit the New Jerusalem (the resurrected cosmos) (Rev 21:7). No more mourning, no more crying, no more pain, no more death (21:3-4; cf. Isa 25:6-9). Resurrected human beings inherit not only their imperishable bodies but also an imperishable cosmos. The fullness of God’s life will saturate the new creation like springs of water (Rev 21:5-6). No wonder Paul said, “the only thing that matters is the new creation,” the resurrected creation (Gal 6:15)! God must really love this world he made. 

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satan’s release & demise, revelation 20:7-15

Satan’s demise comes in three stages. The first stage begins at the cross. Satan, the binder, experiences the very thing he does to others (Rev 20:1-3; e.g., Luke 13:10-17). This ironic reversal of his ill-famed career specifically pertains to his ability to deceive the nations into wiping out the Church from the face of the earth (Rev 20:3-4). Just like “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” at the opportune time (Gal 4:4), the thousand-year binding stage will come to an end at “the fullness of time” when God will “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10).

The second stage of Satan’s demise will be brief. At the end of the age, he will be released, but only so he can meet his final destruction. When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth … and to gather them for battle … And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city” (Rev 20:7-9). This final attack on God’s people parallels and intensifies the events of Revelation 11:7-10, 16:12-16, and 19:17-21 (cf. 2 Thess 2:6-12). The emphasis of all these passages is that the nations have been duped into participating.

John calls the coalition of deceived nations “Gog and Magog”—an obvious broadening of Ezekiel’s Gog prophecy (Ezek 38-39). Although some people today think Gog is Russia, “Gog and Magog” is truly a global alliance; it’s “number is like the sand of the sea” (Rev 20:8). The ancient dragon will deceive the “Gog” nations of the world to embrace his foolish last stand.

The third and final stage of Satan’s demise never ends. “But fire came down from heaven and consumed them” all (Rev 20:9-10). The dark alliance will be totally decimated by the power of Christ (cf. Ezek 38:19-22). It’s finally game over. Satan will be thrown “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” the same place “where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Matt 25:41; Rev 20:10).

As startling as it may seem, it’s Jesus who talked about hell the most (11 times). Those whose names are not found in the “the book of life” will face their Maker. They will be “judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done … Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:12-13, 15). God “will render to each one according to his works” (Rom 2:6). “The answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question,” wrote CS Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “what are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins, and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary.”

Does this mean eternal torment or annihilation? Perhaps Rev 20:14 holds the key: “then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” The throwing metaphor implies the death of death and Hades. “And death shall be no more” (Rev 21:4). Praise the Lord!

King Jesus will complete what he started at Calvary and eradicate evil to prepare for a world filled with God’s righteousness (2 Pet 3:13). 

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the first resurrection, revelation 20:4-6

Jesus’s binding of Satan at the cross enables Christians to sit on heavenly “thrones” during the present age (Rev 20:4). These are not literal thrones. John is describing the Christian’s death as coming “to life” and reigning “with Christ for a thousand years.” Deceased Christians are now part of God’s heavenly court (cf. Dan 7:11-14, 18, 27; Rev 2:26-27; 3:21; 4:4; 11:16; Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30).

For the deceased who don’t believe in Jesus, “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (Rev 20:5). But for “Anyone who believes in me,” Jesus says, they “will live, even after dying” (John 11:25). John calls our death-to-life moment “the first resurrection” (20:5). Why?

In Scripture, resurrection always means bodily resurrection. The Bible never speaks of death as the resurrection of the soul. To suggest that heaven is filled with disembodied souls is damaging to the Christian faith.

Scripture presents two bodily resurrections. The first bodily resurrection is Jesus’s resurrection in real time and space in history. Every time the word “first” modifies “resurrection” in the New Testament, it is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. He is the first to rise from the dead, the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor 15:20; Col 1:18; Acts 3:26; 26:23). Jesus’s resurrection is the first resurrection.

The second bodily resurrection is a future universal resurrection in real time and space in history. For believers, it will be “a resurrection of life” (Luke 14:14; Dan 12:2). Death is our enemy, but in Christ it is a defeated enemy. For unbelievers it will be “a resurrection of judgment” that leads to “the second death” (John 5:28; Acts 24:15; Rev 20:14-15). Dying once is hard enough, but the “second death” will be much worse.

Notice, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6; this is one of seven beatitudes in Revelation; cf. 1:3, 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 22:7, 14). “Though our outer self is wasting away,” we will share in “the first resurrection” (the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and be “further clothed” (2 Cor 5:1-5). Nothing shall separate us from Jesus—not even death (Rev 20:6; Rom 8:38-39).

Jesus’s resurrection was a resurrection that his followers are to participate in. When we are baptized into Christ, we become united in his death and his resurrection (Rom 6:5). The first resurrection, Christ’s resurrection, not only guarantees our future bodily resurrection, it also inseparably unites us to Jesus. At death, we share in Christ’s resurrection (Phil 3:10-11). “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22).

So, if we partake of Jesus’s resurrection when we die, will God “download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves” in our resurrected bodies on the new earth (John Polkinghorne)? I don’t know. Scripture does not tell us.

But I do know that the gospel is way more focused on our life now and our life after our life in heaven. And we should be, too. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). We are forever in Christ! Be encouraged, my friends, and wait eagerly and patiently for “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23, 25). 

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when is Satan bound? revelation 20:1-3

At this point in Revelation, it is impossible to place the events of chapter 20 after the events of chapter 19. Why? Satan cannot be prevented from deceiving the nations that have just been slain (Rev 19:19-21). This is simply illogical!

Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy that arranges its vivid images in numbered sets that parallel one another and intensify as God exonerates the righteous. Let’s briefly review the three parallel segments in Revelation.

The first segment begins with the appearing of the risen Christ and ends with his second coming in chapter 11. In this segment, Jesus opens seven seals to allow persecutors to harass his Church. The seventh seal unleashes seven trumpets that are designed to warn these persecutors to repent. The last trumpet is a bold announcement of Christ’s return: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15).

Revelation then “starts over” and intensifies its parallelism. The second segment begins with the birth of Jesus. “The dragon stood before the woman … She gave birth to a male child … but her child was caught up to God” (12:1-5). In this segment, the dragon enlists three helpers to persecute God’s people. The Lord responds by pouring out seven punishing bowls on those who are aligned with these helpers. The second segment ends with Jesus appearing on a white horse to throw Satan’s little helpers into the lake of fire—and notice that “the rest of the world was slain by the sword that came from” the mouth of Jesus (19:11-21). It is the end of history as we know it.

Revelation must “start over” and escalate its parallelism once again. The third segment begins with an angel seizing “the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan,” and binding for “a thousand years … that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended” (20:2-3). This final segment ends with Christ coming to usher in the Age to Come (Rev 21-22). The pattern of parallelism is clear. Revelation 20 begins with a “start over.”

John sees “an angel coming down from heaven holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him” (20:1-2). Did this really happen at the cross? Did Jesus “bind” Satan at Calvary?

The same Greek word for “binding” (deo) occurs repeatedly in the NT (Luke 10:17-18; John 12:31-32; 16:11; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8). What did Jesus mean when he said, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matt 12:28-29)? Evidently, the binding of Satan began during his earthly ministry!

Did the binding of Satan completely immobilize him? No, John says that the binding specifically pertains to deceiving the nations (Rev 20:3). The bigger question is: what does Satan want to deceive the nations into doing? The answer lies in the quick shift in focus to the martyrs in heaven (20:4). Satan is “bound” in the sense that he cannot deceive the nations into wiping out the Church from the face of the earth (“Armageddon”). Satan may persecute God’s people through his three helpers, but he cannot dupe the world into executing a Christian holocaust.

How is this comforting? No matter how rough it gets for Christians, there will always be a faithful remnant to testify of Christ’s gospel. And that is great news! 

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Jesus’s second coming, revelation 19

Our ultimate “blessed hope” is not heaven; it’s “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13)! When the majestic personal presence of Jesus Christ returns, he will vindicate his people and judge those who have mocked him.

Revelation 19 begins with heaven crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (19:1-5). Justice is the reason heaven celebrates.

The worship scene quickly shifts to a banquet. Once again, heaven cries out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us exult and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Rev 19:6-7). Of all the images to portray the relationship between Jesus and his people, why marriage? Why a wedding feast (cf. Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-3; Rev 21:2, 9; 22:17)?

Two things are said of the bride: she “has made herself ready” and “it was granted to her to clothe herself with … righteous deeds” (19:7-8; cf. Phil 2:12-13). We will be “clothed” with the unassuming, daily acts of kindness, gratitude, care, comfort, and support that typified our lives. Our wedding garment is not a patchwork of grandiose achievements; our humble apparel will display God’s amazing grace. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9)! The beautiful Bride of Christ will be confirmed as the sort of people who enjoy doing good because that is who we are! All because of Christ’s redeeming love!

John fell to his knees to worship the angel, but of course, the angel stopped him. “Worship God,” he told John. “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (19:10). The angel is simply clarifying the role of angels in heaven and believers on earth. Both testify of Jesus in the spirit of prophecy.

Then heaven opened “and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war … He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God” (19:11-13). Accompanied by his mighty angels in flaming fire, Jesus’s return in glory will be sudden and unexpected, like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2-3).

There is nothing secret about Jesus’s appearing (1 Thess 4:16). “Every eye will see him” (Rev 1:7). Christians all over the world will dance in the streets, and say, “See? We aren’t crazy! ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation’” (Isa 25:9).

John sees “the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army” (Rev 19:19). Yes, Armageddon, the pathetic symbol of the world’s defiant stand against King Jesus, is a big fat sham. “The beast will be captured and with it the false prophet … These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Rev 19:20). No more antichrist. No more propaganda. Thank goodness.

And what about everyone else? “All the nations of the earth” will mourn when they “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matt 24:30; 2 Thess 1:8-9). Those who defied Jesus will be slain (Rev 19:21). The dead will look like scattered bird feed (Rev 19:17-18, 21). Ugh.

Yes, there is a final judgment. We aren’t nuts. This is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. Christ will reveal his kingship, put an end to wickedness, and vindicate his people. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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babylon the great, revelation 17-18

Revelation 17 begins with “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls” which means that the next two chapters provide more information on the bowl judgments (cf. Rev 16:19). It’s important to blend all the images in chapters 15-18 together.

The angel says to John, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters” (Rev 17:1). Who is she? Or better, what does the great prostitute represent?

When political leaders form an alliance with private corporations to dominate the world market, the angel calls it: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes” (Rev 17:5). Apparently, government leaders can be so “in bed” with megacorporations that the term “sexual immorality” describes their connection (17:2; 18:3). Devious politicians and CEOs “live in luxury” because of “her” (18:3, 9). As the rich get richer, the rest of the world becomes strangely intoxicated by this arrangement.

The angel carries John “away in the spirit into a wilderness” where he sees “a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality … [She was] drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:3-6). What a beauty.

Babylon the Great’s economy appears to run the world. Around the clock, cargo ships distribute “gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple, cloth silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots” (18:12-13)—gee, anything else? Oh, yeah, her system includes human trafficking and drugs (18:13; in 18:23 pharmakeia is translated “sorcery”). She is “a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit” (18:2).

The serpentine dragon enlists three helpers to harass God’s people: the political antichrist (sea beast), the false prophet of propaganda (land beast), and the mother of all corrupt economic systems (the prostitute). “They will make war on the Lamb”—but of course “the Lamb will conquer them” because he’s the true Lord and King (17:14).

Nevertheless, she “rides” the global bigwigs because they “are of one mind, and” because “they hand over their power and authority to the beast” (17:7-13). She’s awfully smug about all this. “I sit as a queen,” she says, “mourning I shall never see” (18:7). Such an economic juggernaut wields too much power to crash and burn, right?

Well, here comes a surprise twist. The political fat cats will “will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire” (17:16). Why do they turn against her? After all, she had made them filthy rich! Seems like they are shooting themselves in the foot! The angel tells us why. God put the idea “into their hearts to carry out his purpose by … handing over their royal power to the beast until the words of God are fulfilled” (17:17). King Jesus is in control!

The purpose of the seven bowls is to pour out judgment on the prostitute’s crooked economic system (Rev 16:19). The imagery of blood-filled seas reflects the devastating effects of greed and exploitation on countless lives. She will unravel and collapse (18:2). All who profited by her will “weep and mourn” because her downfall signals the end is near (18:9-19). King Jesus will right all wrongs.

Heaven is in celebration mode. “Rejoice over her, O heaven … for God has given judgment for you against her” (18:20).

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what provokes Armageddon? revelation 15-16

King Jesus’s plan is to intensify the spiritual conflict between God’s people and the forces of evil until he returns to usher in the eternal Age to Come. We must remember that Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy; John arranges his material in numbered sets. When these sets are put together, the events they describe parallel and intensify as God exonerates the righteous and brings an end to history.

In Revelation 15:1, seven angels with seven plagues are described as “the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.” The scene is focused on “the sea of glass mingled with fire” (15:2). Throughout the Bible, the “sea” is frequently used in a poetic way to describe the unruly “space” where the dark powers dwell (e.g., Job 38:6-11; Ps 24:1-2; 74:10, 13; Hab 3:8-15). In Revelation 15, it’s finally time to judge this evil “space,” which fills the halls of heaven with celebration just like Israel did when Pharaoh’s chariots were overthrown in the sea (Ex 15).

“With harps of God in their hands … they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, ‘Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed’” (Rev 15:3-6). Yes, God’s righteous acts are revealed in the seven bowls. What is poured out is the answer to the saints’ prayers for justice (cf. Rev 5:8; 8:3-5).

As the seven angels step forward, the heavenly “sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished” (15:7-8). Why does heaven’s door temporarily close? The bowls mark the end of any opportunity to be saved.

The seven bowls model the exodus plagues—except on a global scale. When the first angel pours out his bowl, “harmful and painful sores” target the beast-worshippers (16:1-2). When the second angel pours out “his bowl into the sea, it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea” (16:3). When the third angel pours out “his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, they became blood” (16:4). The angel explains the reason why all this is happening: “For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets … It is what they deserve … Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” (16:5-7).

When the fourth angel pours out “his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with … fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God … They did not repent and give him glory” because they do not want to be saved (16:8-9). When the fifth angel pours out “his bowl on the throne of the beast, its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds” (16:10-11). It’s “lights out” for the beast’s administration. God is going to pull the plug on Satan’s evil power.

While the world is imploding, the sixth angel incites “the kings from the east” and “three unclean spirits like frogs” to rally all the world rulers to fight back against “God the Almighty … at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon”—which means “the mountain of Megiddo” (16:12-16). There is a place in Israel called, Megiddo, but it is a small plain, not a mountain! Armageddon is just a pitiful symbol of the world’s last stand against King Jesus and his Church.

The only thing left to do for the seventh angel is to throw his bowl into the air and say, “It is done!” (16:17-21). It’s game over.

“Blessed is the one who stays awake,” fully clothed in Christ, and unashamed of the gospel (16:15). 

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judgment is a good thing, revelation 14:6-20

In Revelation 14:6-20, the focus shifts to six angels on a mission.

John sees the first “angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim” to an antagonistic world (14:6). He said, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth” (14:7). The fear of God is profoundly liberating—especially for those ensnared in an oppressive antichrist system. In fact, two seemingly contradictory phrases—Fear God and Do Not Be Afraid—drive out the fear of everything else. The first angel has a good message.

A second angel follows with “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (Rev 14:8). Calling the beast’s socio-political system, “Babylon,” exposes it for what it is. The system aims to intoxicate global citizens with wickedness to numb them against any fear of a future day of judgment. But Babylon will collapse. In a world of exploitation and oppression, a final judgment at the end of time is the best news there can be. The second angel has a good message.

A third angel appears, saying, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath … the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev 14:9-11). Being a beast-worshipper may have some temporary advantages, but in the end, any benefits will dissolve into a smoldering memory. The third angel forewarns of dire consequences; therefore, his message is good, too.

“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (Rev 14:12). The three angels are calling us to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer” because God’s coming judgment is a good thing (Rom 12:12).

Then John “heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Rev 14:13). Being a Christ-worshipper has eternal advantages! To “die in the Lord” is actually a blessing! And the added perk: all our earthly labors will be carried over into the Age to Come (cf. 1 Cor 15:58; Matt 6:19-20)!

When the fourth angel emerges, the final day of reckoning is at hand, “the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe” (Rev 14:14-15). So, the King “swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped” (14:16). What does this mean? Reaping a harvest commonly signifies God gathering his people to himself (e.g., Luke 10:2; Matt 3:12; 13:30, 43). Christ’s “winnowing fork … will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn” (Matt 3:12). The fourth angel has a good assignment.

But what about everyone else? Angel #5 and Angel #6 will harvest the rest of the “grapes” and throw them into “the great winepress of the wrath of God” Rev 14:17-19; Matt 3:12). Gathering grapes for the wine press always means judgment (Rev 14:20; 19:15; Isa 63:1-6). The fifth and sixth angels are cleansing earth from evil—and that’s a good assignment.

King Jesus is carrying out his plan—not to annihilate the planet—but to cleanse creation from evil, save it from being destroyed, and prepare it to merge with heaven. And that’s a very good thing! 

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what’s going on in heaven? revelation 14:1-5

While the world worships the political antichrist and its false prophet of propaganda, John sees the Lamb King standing on Mount Zion (Rev 14:1; cf. Ps 2:6; Heb 12:22-23). Mount Zion is commonly used in the Bible to refer to the eternal city that is designed and built by God (Heb 11:10, 16). Christians on earth have a room reserved in this city during its construction (Heb 11:16; 12:22-23).

Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3). A “place” is being prepared! Some construction is going on!

Believers in heaven are not sitting around watching Jesus do all the work. They are singing a song about the new creation while they “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” and “serve him day and night in his temple” (Rev 14:2-4; 7:15). What a fabulous description of heaven! God is building the New Jerusalem to fully reflect his glory in and through the faithful works of his people. We are “God’s fellow workers” in this life and “workers together with him” in our life after life (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1).

The Lamb has marked heaven’s citizens with “his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1; cf. 3:12; 7:3). Their beliefs and actions emulate the characteristics of the one they worship. The redeemed are all serving the Lord together in heaven (represented as 12 tribes x 12 apostles x 1000).

John describes heaven-dwellers as those “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” (Rev 14:4). What? “Virgins”? The Old Testament prophets often spoke of a future “virgin Israel” whom God would cleanse of idolatrous defilement (e.g., Amos 5:2; Is 37:22; Jer 14:17; 18:13; 31:4, 13, 21). Here in Revelation 14, “virginity” is just another way to describe the pure devotion of believers “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”—another beautiful description of the Church (cf. Rev 21:2). John puts it this way in his epistle: “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). The eternal city reflects the life of “the Bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Rev 21:9-10).

“And in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless” (Rev 14:5). What is in mind here is not mere honesty among heaven’s saints, but the integrity of their witness on earth. They are “blameless,” that is, they spoke truth to the dragon’s disinformation campaigns.

And what about us? What makes today’s propaganda so insidious is that it doesn’t just convince people to believe lies; it aims to make truth irrelevant altogether. “Flooding the zone” with twisted data eventually exhausts people of believing in anything. Perhaps the dragon’s strategy is this: people who lose the ability to believe in anything will become intolerant of those who do. It’s our time to fight the good fight, keep the faith, and finish well (2 Tim 4:7).  

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the false prophet, revelation 13:11-18

As we enter more deeply into the vision of Revelation 13, John sees Satan enlist two helpers to enforce worship that is in direct opposition to the authentic worship of the true God. (He’ll summon a third helper in Revelation 17, and we’ll get to her later).

The first little helper is a beast that rises out of the sea. It’s seven heads assume various forms of political oppression. The dragon’s second little helper is a beast that rises out of the earth. This land beast had “two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon” (Rev 13:11). Although the second beast looks like a lamb, it is far from harmless.

The second beast is called “the false prophet” for a good reason (Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). It’s rhetoric spews out satanic propaganda and entices the world’s citizens to worship the first beast, the political antichrist (13:12). The false prophet is also able to perform tricks and “great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people” (13:13). Jesus warned us about these guys. “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24; cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15).

The false prophet in Revelation “deceives those who dwell on earth telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived” (13:14). It maybe common to interpret this image as a statue; but I think the command to “make an image for the beast” is way more insidious.

The word “image” can mean “likeness” or “representation.” So, instead of reflecting God’s image in Christ, I would suggest that people “make an image for the beast” by reflecting its likeness (Satan’s character). In the Hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, the term “image” was “not merely an artistic representation of the god, but an incarnation of the god. The image partakes of the reality of which it symbolizes. A similar usage can be seen in Paul when he writes that Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15)” (Robert Mulholland). Worshippers become living images. We all eventually become like what we worship.

The blasphemous parody continues with a mockery of Pentecost“And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast might even speak” (Rev 13:15). The spirit of the antichrist is “allowed to give breath” to the beastly imagers, commissioning them to “speak” on his behalf. While the spirit of the antichrist seeks to create “one fallen humanity” to reflect a beastly image, the Spirit of God creates “one new man” to conform to the image of Christ (cf. Eph 2:14-15; 2 Cor 3:18; 1 John 3:2).

I know that’s its popular to interpret the “mark” literally. But if the mark on God’s people is symbolic (Rev 3:12; 7:3), then to be consistent, the 666 “mark” must have symbolic meaning as well. Our beliefs and actions always leave a conspicuous mark.

It’s not hard to see the unholy trinity here: the satanic dragon, the antichrist, and the false prophet, each one symbolized by the number of fallen humanity. One is either in the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness—there is no kingdom of gray. Let us be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish” who “shine as lights” in a crooked and twisted world (Phil 2:15). “This calls for wisdom,” John says, especially when the dragon’s propaganda targets God’s image-bearers (Rev 13:15-16, 18).

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the antichrist sea monster, revelation 13:1-10

Revelation 12 ends with Satan standing on the sand of the sea. John then sees “a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads” to mock King Jesus (Rev 13:1). Who (or what) is this sea monster?

Most scholars call the beast “the antichrist.” In his epistles, John informs us that “the spirit of the antichrist … is in the world already” and “many antichrists have come” and gone (1 John 2:18-22; 4:2-3; 2 John 7; cf. Matt 24:24).

However, John and Paul also warn of one antichrist, a “man of lawlessness,” who “is coming” at the end of the present age (1 John 2:18; 4:4; 2 Thess 2:1-12). The beast, the antichrist, at times seems to be both a political empire and at the same time a person. This is not all that unusual (e.g., when you think of Nazi Germany you think of Hitler). “The dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” to the sea monster to try to silence the Church’s witness (Rev 13:3).

The sea beast appears as a compilation of all the evil traits of Daniel’s beastly kingdoms (Rev 13:2; Dan 7:4-8). Throughout the Bible, beasts are presented as exaggerated caricatures—like political cartoons. The main goal of political cartoons is not to make us laugh; it is to provoke people to think about current events from the artist’s point of view (i.e., God’s view of the beast).

John notices that someone with a “sword” had mortally wounded one of the antichrist’s seven “heads” (Rev 13:3, 14). John doesn’t tell us who wounded him. But when Jesus issues judgments from his mouth, his mouth acts like a “sharp sword” (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21). Plus, the Greek word translated “wound” is the same word that is repeatedly translated “plagues” in Revelation (9:18; 11:6; 15:1, 6, 8; 16:9, 21; 18:4, 8; 21:9; 22:18). Mixing metaphors are common in apocalyptic literature. What are we to make of all this?

Every antichrist figure in history has died and yet the “antichrist spirit” continues to do its dirty work. Daniel puts it this way: “As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season” in the next antichrist (Dan 7:11-12). The people of the world may look around and think, “It doesn’t look like Jesus defeated Satan.” But the ancient dragon is just using the sea monster to dupe them into believing that Jesus is not King. They are wrong. Jesus is King and he is in control.

The dragon camouflages his defeat so persuasively that “the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshipped the dragon, … and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev 13:3-4). The sea monster will appear to be slain again and again, only to rise again and again, until one last antichrist incarnates lawlessness at the end of history (2 Thess 2:1-12).

You can always spot the sea monster at work. It has a real potty mouth. It disparages God’s name, ridicules the Church, and deceives by making unrighteousness seem pleasurable (Rev 13:5-6). Its malicious power generates universal admiration and praise (13:8). Dissenters will stick out. The beast “was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over” the entire globe (13:7-8).

“The proper response is not to kick and scream, but to hold firm to patience and faith” (NT Wright). So, John concludes, “If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:9-10). The sea beast is Satan’s tool to cause us to compromise. Yet Christ left an example that we might follow in his steps. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:21-23). Jesus is King and he is in control. We must trust him. 

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the war in heaven, revelation 12:7-17

In one of Daniel’s visions, the Son of Man told him about his battle against wicked principalities that required the aid of the archangel, Michael (Dan 10:5-13). But when the Son of Man took the war to earth’s soil, a “war arose in heaven” and Michael and his angels fought against the dragon (Rev 12:7). “The dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated” (12:8a). Christ’s triumph at the cross ensured Michael’s victory in heaven.

“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:9). The reason the satanic dragon is called “the devil” here (which means “slanderer”) is to clarify the meaning of being “thrown down.” What happened? Christ death and resurrection threw down Satan’s podium and smashed it! Forgiveness wrecked the dragon’s ability to accuse God’s people of sin.

Satan’s allegations had some merit—after all, the OT believers were saved by faith before their sins were fully dealt with at Calvary. The dragon’s case, however, was compromised. He’s the one who tempts people to sin in the first place! He deceives “the whole world” and then has the audacity to accuse them “day and night” (Rev 12:9-10). What a jerk! Even so, God “in his divine forbearance had passed over former sins” of the Old Testament believers until Christ’s atonement on the cross (Rom 3:25). But now no one can bring any charge against God’s elect—not angels, principalities, or powers—because “it is God who justifies” all believers (Rom 8:33-39; cf. John 12:31-33).

“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God’” (Rev 12:10). Our salvation is secure from satanic threat. We persevere through persecution “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [our] testimony” for we love Christ more than life itself (12:11).

The kingdom has been launched on earth! “‘Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea,” for the dragon is now taking out his fury against the Church knowing that he has a little time left (Rev 12:12). “The suffering of Christians is a sign, not of Satan’s victory, but of the saints’ victory over Satan because of their belief in the triumph of the cross, with which their suffering identifies them” (Greg Beale).

Instead of “horses,” persecution of the Church is described as being spewed out of Satan’s mouth “like a river … to sweep her away like a flood” (12:15). This figurative flood of words aims to eliminate Christianity from the planet (cf. Ps 18:16; 124:4; 144:7; Isa 43:2). Wave after wave after wave of false teachings pound and corrode the Church to this day. God will protect us in this war of words, but we must not lose our voice (Rev 12:16). I rather think Satan’s best marketing ploy is “Just Be Nice” (don’t share the gospel). Yet, to “go and make disciples of all nations” requires words. In fact, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21).

Do you know what drives an enraged dragon absolutely batty? When the Church embodies the commandments of God and verbally maintains its testimony about Jesus (Rev 12:16-17). 

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the dragon goes after the church, revelation 12:6, 14

Revelation is an apocalyptic-prophecy-epistle. Its rich imagery is meant to paint a picture. Let’s do a quick review of the key symbols of the first few chapters.

The seven letters describe the conflict Christians face as coming from both inside and outside the church. The scroll that appears signifies the earth’s title deed. Horses describe the various ways persecution may arise. Trumpets intensify the conflict as vicious demonic forces torment the perpetrators of persecution. Through it all, God’s people are sealed, that is, they will persevere by God’s grace. When we get to Revelation 12, the vision rewinds to present Christmas as the start of a cosmic “war.”

“Go and search diligently for the child,” Herod told the wise men, “And when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may worship him” (Matt 2:8). Herod was lying. He had no intention of worshipping the child. He was simply carrying out the dragon’s revolting plan to target one baby for assassination while leaving little peasant boys in Bethlehem as collateral damage (Matt 2:16). But Herod failed and so did the dragon.

“The woman fled to the wilderness” after “her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (Rev 12:6). Representing the community of faith after Christ’s ascension, the woman flees to a place prepared by God for her protection and nourishment (12:6). The length of her stay harkens back to the period of history when God protects the Church’s witness against the dragon’s onslaughts (cf. 11:2-3). Throughout the Bible, “forty-two months” or “three and a half years” or “1290 days” or “times, time, and half a time” accentuate a time limit on intensified hardship (e.g., Dan 7:25; 12:7, 11; Luke 4:25; Ja 5:17; 1 Kings 17-18).

That “the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness” confirms God’s providential care (Rev 12:14; cf. Ex 19:4). In a hostile world, “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Is 40:31). “The church needs to know that its present struggles and sufferings are not a sign that God has gone to sleep on the job. They are the sign that a great, cosmic drama is being staged, in which they are being given a vital though terrible role to play” (NT Wright).

“Be not deceived, Wormwood,” says Screwtape, “our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys” (CS Lewis).

Satan is not only a deceiver; he’s delusional and perverted. Just look at his work. It is crazymaking. The old dragon must reach for total control and try to silence God’s people because he must stand in constant denial of the reality of his decisive defeat that is constantly intruding to refute his delusions.

That is why Satan hates us. Our lives remind him of what Christ has done. When God of peace “crushes” Satan, he will do so under our beautiful feet (Rom 16:20; cf. Rom 10:15; Is 52:7).

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christmas in revelation 12:5

Long lay the world in sin and error pining; till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.

“She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (Rev 12:5). John’s quick snapshot of Jesus’s entire life—his miraculous birth and his victorious ascension—confirms the child’s destiny as ruler over the earth (Ps 2:7-9; Rev 2:26-28).

What does it mean that Jesus “rules all the nations with a rod of iron”?

The imagery here comes from shepherding. Shepherds cared for their flock with two utensils: a wooden staff and a rod made of iron. The staff kept the sheep in line; but the iron rod kept sheep safe in desolate pastures where bandits, hyenas, jackals, and lions often lurked. The rod of iron was the shepherd’s weapon to defend himself and his sheep.

In Psalm 2:9, the imagery is taken further. In receiving the nations as his inheritance, God’s Son “shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Another ancient Near Eastern custom comes into play here. People used to take broken pottery and grind it down to fine dust (called “homrah”). Once it was ground to powder, the homrah was ready to be used for new purposes.

Just like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream presents the world’s kingdoms as a dazzling impressive statue, a heaven-cut stone suddenly appears and pulverizes it (Dan 2:31-35)! The dream ends with the stone becoming a great mountain on earth, filling creation with heaven’s glory. Like broken pottery ground into powder, the kingdoms of the world will become homrah, that is, they will be redeemed into a new and indestructible cement that endures forever. All the broken pottery of human history will be reduced to dust to create a new and imperishable “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (cf. Heb 11:10). “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed … it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

The iron rod of Christ guarantees that the world we’ll enter in the Age to Come “is not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both … renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people, that will be the scene of redemption. At present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow … then they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears … will be reaped and brought home” (Ed Thurneysen). History will not be eradicated but redeemedAll the glory and honor of history will be brought to the Lord and then utilized in the Age to Come!

“The world to come will not be a blank sheet” with all your accomplishments “simply crumpled up and tossed in a cosmic incinerator.” It will take the totality of your life, “purged and disinfected of all the poison and corruption of your fallenness, as the starting point of an unimaginable future—an eternity of new creation and new creativity, totally glorifying to God and satisfying to you, to be enjoyed forever” (Christopher J.H. Wright).

A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices; for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! 

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christmas in revelation 12:4

We’re all familiar with the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. Shepherds and animals gathering around the humble manger scene. We are much less familiar with the third nativity story—but it’s not in the gospels. It’s in Revelation! Christmas was not only earth-shattering; it shook up the heavenly realm as well. According to 1 John 3:8, the reason for the season is because God wanted to destroy something: “the works of the devil.”

Did God try to blow up the devil’s workshop? No. Did he send some fire and brimstone to do him in? (I think that comes later). No, the Lord demolishes the devil’s agenda by dealing with the evil in us. Forgive the sin and the dragon has no material to work with.

While shepherds kept their flock by night, the dragon’s “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth” (Rev 12:4a). What are these stars of heaven? In Revelation, stars often signify angels (cf. 1:20; 6:13; 8:12; especially 12:9). Angels and demons exhibit many parallels—after all, demons are simply fallen angels. Angels come in legions (Matt 26:53) and so do demons (Mark 5:9). Angels have rulers or princes (Dan 12:1) as do demons (Eph 2:2). Demonic “stars” deceive by exploiting these parallels.

“With one flick of its tail it knocked a third of the stars from the sky and dumped them on earth. The dragon crouched before the woman in childbirth, poised to eat up the Child when it came” (Rev 12:4, The Message). The context confirms the timing of this diabolical attack. It occurred in conjunction with the birth of Jesus. The dragon-monster gathered all the fallen angels at his disposal and hurled them toward Bethlehem. “The Child must be silenced,” he thought. “He must be destroyed.” The armies of hell were in full assault mode against the one wrapped in swaddling cloths.

The war was on. But it was not over oil or land—it was over us.

Then suddenly, while an angel of the Lord was talking with the shepherds, he “was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased’” (Luke 2:13-14, NLT). This was not some heavenly choir arranged in neat rows with sopranos, altos, and tenors. They were not sweetly singing o’er the plain with harps of gold. The “armies of heaven” were stationing themselves around their Commander-in-Chief lying in a manger.

“From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s,” says Philip Yancey, “Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.” O Holy Night! The stars (the armies of heaven) are brightly shining! It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth … Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! Oh, night divine! There is peace on earth for those on whom his favor rests.  

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christmas in revelation 12:1-3

He rules the world with truth and grace” and with the sound of the seventh trumpet, Christ will appear at the end of history to make that rule known and complete. He will “make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and the wonders of his love”—and the kingdoms of the world will “become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of the covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (11:19). Like the seven trumpet blasts that took down Jericho’s walls, the seven trumpets prepare the world to receive her King. The curtain that separates heaven’s space from earthly space is now gone. God will remove “the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isa 25:7-8).

It is impossible at this point to take a chronological approach to Revelation. So, it makes sense that chapter 12 presents the Christmas story from a cosmic perspective.

Revelation 12 reveals that Satan is the real mastermind behind persecution. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). “In fact,” says Greg Beale, “the troubles of the persecuted saints occur now not because Satan is too powerful for them but because he has been decisively overthrown … the main point of chapter 12 is the protection of God’s people against Satan because of Christ’s decisive victory over Satan through his death and resurrection.”

John first sees “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars” (Rev 12:1). Portraying the covenant people of faith through whom the promised Messiah would come, “she was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth” (12:2; cf. Isa 54:1-8). The anguish of giving birth, however, is suddenly escalated when a hideous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns appears (Rev 12:3). John tells us that he is the “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). His crowns betray his blasphemous claim to world domination. He is the real evil Grinch that wanted to devour Christmas—and he continues to try to steal it to this day.

And the more Satan thought of what Christmas would bring, the more he thought, “I must stop this whole thing. Why, for year after year I’ve put up with it now! I must stop Christmas from coming … but how?” And he puzzled and puzzled, till his puzzler was sore. Then Satan thought of something he hadn’t before. “Make it a holiday, a festival, a party with lights! A shopping spree, a perfect tree, a big guy with frostbite! Sing Santa Baby, Jingle Bells, any song will do. Just keep them singing, All I Want for Christmas is You. They’ll be glad when Christmas is finally over.”

There’s an ancient dragon in the manger. So be sure to tune in next week! 

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the last trumpet, revelation 11:3-19

Just as John the Baptist came “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” the two witnesses of Revelation 11 (the Church) arise in the spirit and power of the great prophets of the Old Testament as they bear witness to Jesus (11:3). The witnesses are “standing before the Lord of the earth,” which indicates that judgment will be issued on anyone who harms them physically, economically, or politically, or merely rejects their testimony (11:4-5). The Church is called to share the gospel of salvation and prophetically speak into the issues of the day—even if we are slandered or threatened.

Amazingly, ministry is patterned after the prophetic authority of Elijah and Moses. Elijah’s “power to shut the sky” and Moses’s power “over the plagues” were responses to idolaters who persecuted God’s people. The same is true in Revelation 11:6. The laser-sharp focus of the seals and trumpets is persecution!

Revelation 11:10 tells us that the Christian witness will “torment” some people. Why? How can the gospel, which preaches a message of hope, love, and grace, be taken as a torturous thing, and its message-bearers as deserving of persecution—even death? For some, the good news of Jesus’s reign may incite rage, but for others, it is the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor 1:21-25; Rom 1:16).

“And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Rev 11:7-8). Sodom is not Egypt, Egypt is not Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is neither Sodom nor Egypt. So, what does this “great city” signify? Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem are all places where God’s people suffered great persecution.

It almost feels like John’s been given a fish-eye lens perspective of the symbolic “world-city” filled with “peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” (Rev 11:9). In a positive sense, the Church will complete its role of bearing witness to Christ when it penetrates the city streets of the entire world (Matt 24:14). In a negative sense, the Church will appear to be defeated in the eyes of the world at the very end of history. The picture of their dead bodies lying “in the street of the great city” does not mean that the entire Church will be massacred (Rev 11:9; cf. Matt 24:9; Ps 79). The remnant may be reduced to silence—or perhaps driven underground.

But the world will cheer, “The Church is finally dead! The threat of judgment will not fall on us! Hooray!” The apparent humiliation of Christianity will give the world a reason to party (Rev 11:10). “If those days had not been cut short,” Jesus said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matt 24:21-22). If the Lord does not crash the party at this point, the Church’s witness would be trashed. Silencing the Church on a global scale seems to be a victory for the beast (this is the first mention of him in Revelation and we’ll get to him in chapter 13). Just when the world thinks it has finally stomped out Christianity, the resurrection will complete our witness (Rev 11:11-12)! This is no secret rapture. A world gripped with fear will watch the witnesses ascend to heaven (11:13-14).

That’s when the last trumpet sounds to announce: “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15; cf. 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; Matt 24:31)! Jesus is finally coming! How do we know? Notice that chorus sings, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was,” and omits who is to come! When the last trumpet sounds, King Jesus will have “taken [his] “great power and begun to reign” (Rev 11:17). He will bust heaven wide open and redeem all that “the destroyers of the earth” tried to destroy (11:18-19). 

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the temple of God, revelation 11:1-2

If lampstands signify churches, a scroll signifies the earth’s title deed, horses signify persecution, trumpets warn, and sealing means shielding and endurance, then what does this temple of God in Revelation 11 signify?

The key lies in the verse preceding chapter 11 in which John was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Rev 10:11). He is given a rod to “measure,” to evaluate the “many peoples and nations and languages and kings” who are then regarded as “the temple of God” (11:1). The church is God’s temple because it identifies with the true temple, Jesus Christ (John 2:19-22).

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17; cf. 2 Cor 6:16; 1 Pet 2:5). We are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22).

The temple of God is both heavenly and earthly; there are believers in heaven and on earth (Rev 11:19; Heb 8:1-2). We are all united in Christ, the true temple. Along with the heavenly temple, the “holy city” will one day come down out of heaven (Rev 21:2, 22). Even so, some aspect of the heavenly Jerusalem is evident on earth. For we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first born who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:22).

What’s striking about John’s vision is that the “outer court” of God’s temple is not to be measured during a time when it is “given over to the nations” to “trample on” it for “forty-two months” (Rev 11:2; cf. Dan 8:10-14). Those are who are being trampled are not being rejected by God; they are undergoing severe persecution. God’s temple can be trodden but never destroyed. Their souls are protected by the invisible sanctuary in which they dwell.

Throughout the Bible, “forty-two months” or “three and a half years” or “1290 days” or “times, time, and half a time” seem to accentuate a time limit on such amplified hardship (e.g., Dan 7:25; 12:7, 11; Luke 4:25; Ja 5:17; 1 Kings 17-18; cf. Jesus’s reference to the Roman siege of Jerusalem that lasted three and a half years confirms this in Luke 21:20-24). What we’re saying here is that John was prophesying “about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” who “being joined together … into a holy temple in the Lord … by the Spirit” would endure severe tribulation because of their witness (Rev 10:11; Eph 2:20-22). It makes sense that the vision quickly transforms the “trampled” into witnesses (Rev 11:3).

Notice that John identifies the two witnesses as “two olive trees and two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” to testify (Rev 11:4). Both images offer a clear connection to the lampstand-churches in the seven letters and Zechariah 4. In Zechariah’s vision, there is opposition to finishing the second temple (i.e., “the lampstand” of his day); but there are also two olive trees, “two anointed ones who stand before the Lord of the whole earth” to testify—just like Revelation 11:4 (Zech 4:14). The point in both passages is the same: whatever the resistance, God’s temple will be built, “not by my might, nor power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord, “amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zech 4:6-14).

Jesus sums it up well for us: “I will build my church,” he says, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). He who started this great work will bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day he appears (Phil 1:6).  

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our bittersweet calling, revelation 10

In Revelation 10 John saw “another mighty angel coming down from heaven” having “a little scroll open in his hand” (10:1-2). The fact that the little scroll had already been opened may indicate that it is the earth’s title deed, the same scroll of Revelation 5.

A human being had to open the scroll since the earth was given to humanity. The only human being that is worthy (sinless) to claim the title deed is Jesus Christ. And it was by his blood that Christ “ransomed people” to be fully human, fully functioning king-priests on God’s good earth (Rev 5:9-10).

The mighty angel sets “his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, and calls out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded” (Rev 10:2-3). John is forbidden to record the revelation of the thunders (10:4). No reason is given. Perhaps the unknown thunders are meant to humble us and steer us away from timelines and charts that claim to have the book of Revelation all figured out.

When the mighty angel raised his right hand to heaven, he makes an oath: “There would be no more delay … the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets” (Rev 10:5-7; cf. Deut 32:34-35). The mystery of God here is likely the mystery that history, as we know it, will end when, as Daniel put it, the “shattering of the power of the holy people” come “to an end” (Dan 12:7) and God’s purposes are completed.

Notice the movement of the scroll that’s developing. In Revelation 5, God holds the scroll, and the Lamb takes and opens it. In Revelation 10, John is instructed to take the scroll and eat it (10:8-10). By partaking, John is not assuming Christ’s sovereignty over the earth; he is sharing in the reign of Christ as do all believers. Christ reigns through us, through courageous proclamation and sacrificial acts of kindness.

Eating the earth’s title deed is bittersweet. We receive his forgiveness and long for righteousness to prevail, for God to right all wrongs and bring an end to evil and suffering. Yet the more we let that word soak in, more we realize how terrifying the final judgment will be for those who do not trust in Christ.

I like how Greg Beale sums up our calling: Christians are “to reign ironically as Christ did by being imitators of the great cosmic model of the cross … The persecution and defeat of the witnessing church is the means leading to the resurrection of Christians and to their enemies’ defeat.”

The Lord’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:9); which means that his plan unfolds in unexpected ways from our limited perspective. It is not important that we grasp it all but that we trust in him through it all. We receive the promised inheritance through the triumph of suffering love—which ironically lays the basis for the final judgment of those rejecting our testimony. That is certainly bittersweet. 

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the trumpets, revelation 8-9

Apocalyptic prophecy presents its material in numbered sets that parallel and intensify as God exonerates the righteous and brings an end to history. The seven trumpets parallel the seals of persecution, that is, divine judgment may fall at any time on those who oppose the cause of Christ.

The seventh seal begins with silence and then offers the response to “the prayers of all the saints” (Rev 8:3; cf. 6:10). “The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God” (8:4). What happens to all the prayers that have been offered by God’s people? They’re lit on fire and thrown back down to earth with “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (8:5; cf. Ezek 10)! God hears the prayers of his people, and the trumpet judgments are his answer to them. Cosmic disturbance language signals an epic shake down.

Rather than taking a rigid chronological approach to the trumpets, think of John’s vision as cameras recording events from different angles. Notice how the first four trumpets impact natural resources and mimic the plagues sent to the Egyptians for persecuting God’s people (Rev 8:6-12). But just as Israel was protected from whatever struck the Egyptians, believers are shielded from the trumpet judgments and sealed (i.e., enabled to persevere).

The next two trumpets are explicitly marked off as being far worse (Rev 8:13). When the risen King Jesus commands “the shaft of the bottomless pit” to open, hell’s nastiest demons are unleashed to psychologically torment those who abide in spiritual darkness (9:1-10). As bitter anxiety heightens, the persecuting world “will long to die, but death will flee from them” (9:6). But note, these locust-like demons are “like horses prepared for battle” (9:7)—which leads to the sixth trumpet.

That the precise hour has already been set to the release the four Euphrates* angels underscores who is in control (9:12-15). Heaven is Command Central. Whereas the locust-like demons are not permitted to kill anyone (9:5), the four angels of the sixth trumpet lead a terrifying number of vicious demonic “troops” to “kill a third” of humanity (9:15-19). This army is from hell. Astonishingly, those who survive “these plagues” refuse to repent of their sins—and even more shocking, they continue to worship the very same demons who torment them (9:20-21). Satan’s minions are permitted to carry out their dirty work, but they cannot touch believers. The trumpets carry out Christ’s response to those bent on persecuting his people.

If all this is hard to swallow, perhaps there’s a deficiency in our theology of persecution. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet 4:14). Yes, a heightened sense of God’s glory emerges in persecution (cf. Phil 1:29; Rom 8:17; Acts 5:41; 2 Tim 1:80).

*In the Old Testament, armies “from the east” or “from beyond the river Euphrates” were often described as an innumerable horde riding on horses, threatening to devour like locusts (e.g., Jer 46:2, 4, 6, 10, 22-23; Jud 6:3-5; Joel 1:4, 6; 2:3-4).

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Jesus opens the seals, revelation 6-7

Knowing that Jesus has the earth’s title deed, we can “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). With this in mind, let’s enter Revelation 6 and watch the Lamb open the seven seals.

It is the risen Jesus that sends four horsemen to earth (Rev 6:1-8). The horses are identified together as being the same in nature (cf. Zech 1:8-11; 6:1-8). Keep in mind that there is no clear indication that they are four single catastrophic events. Revelation is apocalyptic prophecy. Its rich imagery is meant to paint a picture—not to provide a chronological sequence of events. The horses are given permission to persecute Christians. Ironically, the faithful are refined through those who try to destroy them. “Such sufferings are not meaningless but are part of God’s providential plan that Christians should pattern their lives after the sacrificial model of Jesus” (Greg Beale). Following Christ is the way of the cross.

The first rider on a white horse imitates Christ’s appearance (cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15). Counterfeits are permitted to “conquer” (i.e., persecute) through deception. The second rider on a red horse allows tensions to escalate worldwide. Conflicts often enflame hatred toward Christians. The third rider on a black horse grants economic hardship. Like the previous two seals, targeting Christians economically is in mind. The fourth rider on a pale green horse is given the name, “Death,” to represent all kinds of death. For some Christians, persecution leads to martyrdom.

The fifth and sixth seals describe two very different reactions to this irony. When Jesus opens the fifth seal, the martyrs are resting in the Lord and saying, “How long, Lord, before you bring forth justice?” The fact that they “cry out with a loud voice” confirms three things about believers in heaven: 1) they are not asleep in a state of unconscious repose; 2) they are aware of time passing on earth; and 3) they know that the King’s plan is to one day cover the earth with justice, righteousness, and truth.

It must be remembered that Christ ultimately uses persecution as punishments for his enemies. When Jesus opens the sixth seal, cosmic disturbances signal a justified shake down. The perpetrators of persecution are not at rest. They’re seized with fear. They say, “Fall on us, rocks, for who can stand the wrath of the Lamb?” Believers look at persecution with hope, knowing that one day Christ will set things right. Bullies, on the other hand, can only hope that death means extinction without retribution (cf. Is 2:10, 18-21).

Although Revelation 7 is difficult, it explains how believers persevere through the persecution described in Revelation 6 without losing their faith. They are sealed on their foreheads (Rev 7:1-3; cf. Ezek 9). What does that mean? What we do know is that “God the Father has set his seal” on all believers, having “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (John 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim 2:19). The Lord seals us—not from suffering—but in order that we persevere through suffering and death by the power of his Spirit.

John “heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” but saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation” (Rev 7:4-14). We must remember that Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy. The broad brushstrokes paint a colorful Church made up of Jews and Gentiles from every ethnic group on earth. “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation,” explained Tertullian (second century). “That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church … you frustrate your purpose. Because those who see us die, wonder why we do … And when they find out, they join us.”

And one day we will stand before the Lamb’s throne—and then what will we do? We’ll be busy serving him “day and night” in heaven (Rev 7:15-17). What do you think your loved ones are doing? What do you think you’ll be doing?

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the scroll, revelation 5

Revelation 5 continues the vision of the Court of Heaven in session. Whenever God is ready to render a judgment, he calls “the council of the holy ones” to assemble (cf. Ps 82:1; 89:5-7). Here in John’s vision, God is holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. In many ways, the scroll is the key to understanding the rest of the book of Revelation.

Let’s begin with Daniel because he saw this incredible scene in a vision back in the sixth century BC. “As I looked,” said Daniel, “thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat … the court sat in judgment … and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man … and to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom … which shall not pass away” (Dan 7:9-14).

Considering both visions, the scroll appears to be earth’s title deed. The only one worthy to open it and carry out God’s action plan for the world is the risen King (Rev 5:1-7). By taking the scroll, King Jesus accepts responsibility to cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth. Only Jesus is worthy and capable to take on such a massive task. He alone has the wisdom, love, humility, and power to rule in a way that produces righteousness, justice, grace, and mercy across the universe. Jesus has the fierce fearlessness of a lion and the tender humility of a lamb.

To open that scroll means to release righteous judgments and set things right.

When Jesus takes the scroll, the Court of Heaven grabs their harps and golden bowls of the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8). Why? Worship and prayer influence world affairs (cf. Rev 8:3-4)! Worship and prayer are vital components of setting things right.

This causes all of creation to burst out in a “new song” of praise (Rev 5:8-14)! What is this new song? It is the new creation song! We sing the song of rescue and renewal to be put into effect in “the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). The good news song sings about—not just going to heaven—but about the rescue, restoration, and renewal of creation (Rom 8:19-21; Acts 3:20-21).

In anticipation of the new earth in the Age to Come, God’s people sing the new (creation) song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe … and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10). King Jesus redeemed us so that we may reign on earth as a kingdom of priests now and forevermore.

Daniel summed it up well. “Judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom … And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan 7:22, 27). All the infinite resources and power of heaven are committed to the big plan. It cannot fail. It will come to pass.

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the scroll of revelation 5

Revelation 5 continues the vision of the Court of Heaven in session. Whenever God is ready to render a judgment, he calls “the council of the holy ones” to assemble (cf. Ps 82:1; 89:5-7). Here in John’s vision, God is holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. In many ways, the scroll is the key to understanding the rest of the book of Revelation.
Let’s begin with Daniel because he saw this incredible scene in a vision back in the sixth century BC. “As I looked,” said Daniel, “thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat … the court sat in judgment … and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man … and to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom … which shall not pass away” (Dan 7:9-14).
Considering both visions, the scroll appears to be earth’s title deed. The only one worthy to open it and carry out God’s action plan for the world is the risen King (Rev 5:1-7). By taking the scroll, King Jesus accepts responsibility to cleanse the cosmos of evil in preparation for the new earth. Only Jesus is worthy and capable to take on such a massive task. He alone has the wisdom, love, humility, and power to rule in a way that produces righteousness, justice, grace, and mercy across the universe. Jesus has the fierce fearlessness of a lion and the tender humility of a lamb.
To open that scroll means to release righteous judgments and set things right.
When Jesus takes the scroll, the Court of Heaven grabs their harps and golden bowls of the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8). Why? Worship and prayer influence world affairs (cf. Rev 8:3-4)! Worship and prayer are vital components of setting things right. This causes all of creation to burst out in a “new song” of praise (Rev 5:8-14)! What is this new song? It is the new creation song! We sing the song of rescue and renewal to be put into effect in “the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). The good news song sings about—not just going to heaven—but about the rescue, restoration, and renewal of creation (Rom 8:19-21; Acts 3:20-21).
In anticipation of the new earth in the Age to Come, God’s people sing the new (creation) song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe … and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10). King Jesus redeemed us so that we may reign on earth as a kingdom of priests now and forevermore.
Daniel summed it up well. “Judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom … And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Dan 7:22, 27). All the infinite resources and power of heaven are committed to the big plan. It cannot fail. It will come to pass. 
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the court of heaven, revelation 4

The vision of the glorified Christ walking among the churches on earth is followed by a vision of the Court of Heaven.

When John enters his first vision, he is not catapulted into the future. He gets a glimpse of the present reality of heaven! John is invited into God’s royal “space” to see the universe from heaven’s perspective. What did he see?

God’s throne is surrounded by concentric circles. Radiant colors of the rainbow loop around it to remind us of the covenant God made with Noah to preserve the earth (Rev 4:2-3). Four living creatures, known as “cherubim,” circle the throne as well (4:6-8). They are neither angels nor chubby babies. Cherubim are guardians of God’s throne. Their gyroscope wheels provide a chariot that can move God’s throne in any direction (cf. Ezek 1:6-26; 10:20-22). Yep, God’s throne moves!

John sees another circle made up of 24 thrones for 24 elders (Rev 4:4-5, 10). Who are these “guys” clothed in white and wearing gold crowns? They are not guys! Whenever God is ready to render a judgment, he calls “the council of the holy ones” to assemble (cf. Ps 82:1; 89:5-7; Dan 7:9-10). Those on the Court of heaven are sometimes called “sons of God” (Ps 89:6; Job 1:6) or “watchers” (Dan 4:13, 17, 23) or “rulers and authorities” (Col 1:16) or “seraphim”—which means “shiny flying serpent”-like dragons (Isa 6:1-8). Amazingly, God invites heaven’s elder board to participate in decisions that affect human affairs on earth (e.g., 1 Kings 22:19-23). God is all-knowing and certainly doesn’t need advice; but he is a loving, relational God who works with creaturely beings (celestial and human) to advance his purposes. Isn’t that marvelous?

John then sees angels circling around God’s throne (Rev 5:11). Contrary to popular belief, nowhere in Scripture do we see angels with wings. Nowhere. When they reveal themselves to people, they seem to appear as men. Angels are messengers that God sends to earth to accomplish specific missions. Their job is to announce, rescue, serve, and guide “those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14). Some angels rank higher than other angels (1 Thess 4:16; Jude 9; 1 Tim 5:21; Dan 10:13; 12:1), but all angels rejoice when someone repents and believes in Jesus (Luke 15:10).

What is the point of all this?

Every creature in heaven currently works under the direction of the risen King, the only begotten Son of God. “Christ is now in heaven, where he sits at the right side of God. All angels, authorities, and powers are under his control” (1 Pet 3:22, CEV; cf. Eph 1:20-21). After all, it was Jesus who created the entire host of heaven in the first place! “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).

No matter how out-of-control things may seem on the earth, we must view history from heaven’s vantage point. God’s throne room is command central, and the Court of Heaven is in session! “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11).

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heresies in the church, revelation 2-3

In the seven letters of Revelation, the churches had been invaded by the teachings of “the Nicolaitans” and “Balaam” (Rev 2:6, 14-15); they were harassed by the “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9); and “Jezebel” was prophesying “the deep things of Satan” from the pulpit (2:24). What in the world was going on?

Let’s play Jeopardy. The category is “heresy.” In Revelation 2-3, we not only need to ask the questions; we must also try to reconstruct the answers!

First, who were the Nicolaitans? Not much known about the group. However, Jesus seems to link the practices of the Nicolaitans with the practices of those who listened to Balaam’s teachings (Rev 2:14). These groups may have professed their faith in Christ, but their idea of “freedom” meant freedom to sin. Heresy is easy to spot. It always negates Scripture.

Secondly, who was Jezebel? Sometimes heresy takes a cheekier, more in-your-face approach through sassy, self-proclaimed “prophets” (Rev 2:20). Like queen Jezebel who openly fed false prophets at her table (1 Kings 18), church “Jezebels” feed others with their “revelations.” The problem with modern day Jezebels—whether they are male or female—is that their “prophetic words” do not line up with Scripture. The New Testament gift of prophecy is NOT like Old Testament prophecy. In fact, “Thus says the Lord” is never a preface when people prophesy in the New Testament. That alone should speak volumes to us. Heresy is easy to identify. It always adds to Scripture.

True prophesying occurs when the Holy Spirit impresses a word on someone’s heart—a word that is “good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). The gift of prophecy strengthens, encourages, builds up, and exhorts the church to take action (1 Cor 14:31; e.g., Acts 13:1-3). Paul tells us not to despise prophecies, but to test and evaluate them, to embrace “what is good” and reject “every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:20-21).

Third, who formed “a synagogue of Satan” and taught “the deep things Satan” (Rev 2:9, 24; 3:9)? Wow, this is serious! Something insidious had invaded the early church! What was it? Gnosticism (Greek gnosis means “knowledge”). Gnosticism refers to a particular kind of knowledge—a secret knowledge into the divine mysteries. Apparently, Christians have gotten everything wrong. “Christ” is the revealer of gnosis, the secret knowledge of people’s divinity. “Salvation” occurs when one realizes that their higher self is part of the Cosmic Christ. “The deep things of Satan” center on Christ Consciousness—not on Jesus Christ himself. Again, heresy is not hard to detect. It always distorts Scripture.

Throughout church history, heresy always diminishes the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross by tampering with Scripture. Thankfully, Jesus continues to stand in the midst of his Church to expose whatever endangers his Bride. 

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7 churches, revelation 2-3

King Jesus reigns over heaven and earth. And he has an amazing master plan! He begins with a message to his Church. What was the Spirit saying to the seven churches in the first century? What he says to every generation! As you read Revelation 2-3, consider how the descriptions are like what’s happening in the church today.

There are always churches like the church of Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7). Some churches labor faithfully for the gospel, endure patiently, and do not tolerate false teaching—but they aren’t very loving. Without love, theological purity is meaningless (1 Cor 13:2). “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through truth and love.

There are always churches like the church of Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11). Some churches suffer great persecution and need strengthening words of encouragement from the One who knows all too well the pain of slander, ridicule, abuse, and death. Those in the fire of affliction have nothing but Jesus—so they have everything! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through faithfulness not so-called “success.”

There are always churches like the church of Pergamum (Rev 2:1217). Some churches hold on to their faith in Christ amid a satanically charged atmosphere. But unfortunately, they also embrace heresies that compromise their witness. Why root out heresy? Heresy always diminishes who Christ is and what he has done. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” by contending for the faith.

There are always churches like the church of Thyatira (Rev 2:1828). For some churches, diligence in ministry abounds in blessings over time. However, in the effort to love well, they end up openly supporting immoral lifestyles as well. God is love (1 John 4:16); we cannot separate his love from his holiness. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through his sanctified, transforming love.

There are always churches like the church of Sardis (Rev 3:1-6). Some churches are good at marketing themselves. They present the image of being alive, but it’s just a façade. When church activities become “showtime,” it’s time to wake up and repent of “going through the motions.” “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through meek and unpretentious ministry.

There are always churches like the church of Philadelphia (Rev 3:713). For some churches, their lack of size, resources, and money is no obstacle to accomplishing great things for God’s kingdom. They’re always looking for new opportunities to serve and Jesus keeps opening doors for them! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through patient endurance. 

There are always churches like the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22). Some churches seem so confident and prosperous—but they are clueless about their spiritual poverty. They are like lukewarm water, useless in God’s kingdom purposes. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”: God’s people “conquer” through brokenness and humility.

The seven churches reflect the Church in every generation. King Jesus continues to stand in the midst of his people, exposing threats from within, dangers from without, and calling his people to overcome adversity, heresy, and compromise.  

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revelation 1

With winged and wild creatures, locust plagues, and a crazed woman riding a seven-headed beast, you might think, “Hooray! Season four of Stranger Things is finally being released!” Sorry Netflix bingers. It’s just the book of Revelation. Why is this book so difficult to interpret? Usually people jump right to “what does it mean?” without considering “what is Revelation?” Revelation is an apocalyptic-prophecy-epistle. What’s that?
Revelation is an epistle. John wrote this letter to seven real churches from the island of Patmos at the end of Domitian’s reign (AD 95). Domitian was demanding that everyone worship his statue as if he were a god. He terrorized anyone that refused to bow to him. John was on Patmos due to imperial banishment.
Revelation is a prophecy (Rev 1:3; 22:18–19). Biblical prophecy “speaks” to the time of the author and into the future. This form of communication is like poetic impressionist paintings. They present God’s message through vivid images, colorful metaphors, and symbols that often parallel one another.
Revelation is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature arranges its material in numbered sets. When these sets are put together, the events they describe parallel and intensify as God exonerates the righteous and brings an end to history. Thus, when John says, “then I saw” countless times in Revelation, he’s simply indicating the sequence in which he received the visions.
The purpose of Revelation is to reveal the victorious, glorious reign of King Jesus. It is the Revelation of Jesus Christ–not the revelation of the antichrist (Rev 1:1)! Christ’s ascension proved that he has “the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). He alone is “seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-23; cf. Matt 28:18). “In putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb 2:8). But make no mistake about it, Jesus is alive, and he is Lord.
Why is it important to know that the rule of Jesus Christ is not something that is going to happen only at the end of history? Revelation reveals how Jesus, “the ruler of the kings on earth,” actively reigns through his Spirit-filled people—a people whom Jesus made “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev 1:5-6; 5:10). Jesus’ kingdom power operates through and becomes evident in our proclamation of the gospel and acts of selfless love. Even our worship and prayers for mercy and justice influence world affairs (5:8; 8:3-4). So, when Jesus says, “I am the Alpha,” the one who began it all, “and the Omega,” the one who completes on earth what he started, he is essentially saying that he has a plan that will progressively intensify the spiritual conflict between God’s kingdom of priests and the forces of evil until he returns to usher in the eternal Age to Come (1:8).
What timeframe in history does Revelation focus on? Jesus explains this, too. Revelation concerns things “that are” (John’s day), and “things that must soon take place” (after John’s day), and things “that are to take place after this” (long after John’s day; 1:1, 19). Revelation pertains to every generation since John’s generation.
Although it’s easy to get caught up in the details, it’s important to remember that Jesus begins and ends his Revelation with a blessing for those who not only read and hear the words of this book, but for those “who keep what is written in it” (1:3; 22:7, 9). How can you “keep” what is written in this book? Stay tuned!  
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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 40-48

After following Ezekiel for 20 years since chapter one, we come to the climatic vision in chapters 40-48. In this final dream-like sequence, Ezekiel is escorted on a three-dimensional visionary tour of a temple with a river that flow out to heal all the nations.

Visions are kind of like The Matrix, or the holodeck in Star Trek. Ezekiel is lifted onto a very high mountain where he looks down on a virtual city (40:1-2). Like all prophecy, the point is not in the details themselves, but in the overall image that is being created. The details are meant to heighten the grandeur of the geometric, symmetrical dimensions of the temple’s design.

There is no explicit command to build this massive temple—in contrast to the tabernacle, which God repeatedly instructed Israel to build according to the pattern shown to Moses. With Ezekiel’s temple, there is no hint of any human construction at all. It is simply presented to him in a virtual reality-like manner. The further in you go, the narrower the entrance becomes. Although many have tried to draw it, it’s perfect, three-dimensional cube structure is literally impossible to create. In fact, there are so many Leviticus-sounding details mixed into its Eden-like spiritual geography that no human being could possibly build it. Ezekiel’s virtual reality tour is a vision—not an architectural blueprint.

Nevertheless, some people are convinced that Ezekiel’s temple will one day be built in Jerusalem—only to open its doors to the Antichrist. This is not something we should encourage. To reinstitute animal sacrifices would deny the sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin (Heb 10:12-14, 18). To reinstate a priesthood would diminish Christ’s priestly intercession from heaven and disparage the priesthood of all believers. Such disregard for the complete and final work of Christ is precisely what the writer of the book of Hebrews warned against.

The guided tour moves along at a quick pace and ends at the place it began (Ezek 40-42). After the tour is over, Ezekiel is led to the best vantage point to watch the splendid arrival of the King: at “the gate facing east” (43:1). The King’s grand entrance sounded like Niagara Falls and suddenly the entire “earth shone with his glory” as “the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (43:3-5). The king has come home. “This is the place of my throne,” says the King, “where I will dwell in the midst of the people forever” (43:6-7). In this vision, priests carry out their religious duties “ministering before the Lord” and “teaching” the people (40:46; 44:15-23). The princes (there’s more than one) carry out their civic duties “executing justice and righteousness” for all (45:7-9).

God then brings Ezekiel back to the door of the temple and water begins to trickle out from below the threshold of the temple (47:1-5). At first it was only ankle deep, then knee deep, and then waist deep. It kept gushing out until it formed a river that could not be passed through without a life preserver! Only Jesus can save and immerse someone in these “rivers of living water” (John 7:38-39).

Wherever the river goes, everything flourishes (Ezek 47:6-11). All kinds of fish and all kinds of trees from all over the world are thriving “because the water for them flows from the sanctuary” (47:12). John saw the river, too, and confirmed that it was “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:1-2).

Ezekiel’s vision ends with the land of Israel divided equally among the people and arranged around the sanctuary (Ezek 48). What does this signify? All God’s people, no matter how long or how hard they serve the Lord, will receive the same reward: eternal life in the Age to Come on a new earth. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). The thief on the cross received the same reward as Paul, Ezekiel, you, and me.

Old Testament prophecies of future scenes are always presented in its local setting, using language the original audience understood. Prophecy used localized situations to foreshadow a future globalized reality. Paul was able to broaden Ezekiel’s dry bones vision and John was able broaden Ezekiel’s Gog prophecy and the 3D temple-cube vision because they enjoyed a certain vantage point: the King had already risen and is preparing a city. “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord Is There” (Ezek 48:35).

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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 38-39

Ezekiel 38-39 present one of the most challenging prophecies in the Bible. It has stirred a bewildering number of odd interpretations. Want to enter the fray with me?

Ezekiel’s prophecy focuses on a cryptic character named, “Gog of the land of Magog.” Ma-who? Ma-goo? Who is this mysterious Gog of Magog? Augustine thought Gog was the Goths. Luther thought Gog was the Turks. Today, some people think Russia is Gog.

I think Ezekiel 38:17 holds the key: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Are you [Gog] not the one I spoke of in former days by my servants the prophets of Israel? At that time, they prophesied for years that I would bring you against them.’” The problem is there is no direct prophecy about Gog mentioned in the Old Testament outside of these chapters in Ezekiel! The name Gog appears only one other time, but it is in a genealogy, not in a prophecy (1 Chron 5:4).

The prophets do, however, repeatedly warn about the enemy from “the north.” According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “The north, then, becomes a harbinger of evil. In various mythologies it is the seat of demons … the place for the meeting of the assembly of the gods.” In other words, “the north” is code for the “seat of demons,” a spiritual war room of sorts—with a devil of a ringleader. Isaiah confirms this. “I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north,” touts the ruler of darkness, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa 14:13). “The north” is Satan’s situation room where evil schemes are devised (Ezek 38:10).

The mysterious “Gog of Magog” refers, not to Satan, but to an evil alliance of demonic hordes and many peoples. “You (Gog) will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes, and many peoples with you” (Ezek 38:9). This unholy coalition will attack God’s people living securely in their land, at peace with their neighbors, without walls and gates (38:11–12).

Thankfully, the apostle John clarifies Ezekiel’s Gog prophecy. He saw Satan being released from prison and deceiving the nations (Rev 20:7-8). What does Satan want to deceive the nations into doing? He wants to deceive them into organizing a global campaign to wipe out God’s people from the face of the earth (called “Armageddon”). Satan’s final, climatic assault requires boots-on-the-ground, that is, he needs “the nations that are from the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle” (Rev 20:8). The devil simply hoodwinks the “Gog” nations to embrace his foolish war plan.

“But fire came down from heaven and consumed them” all (Rev 20:9-10). The dark alliance will be totally decimated by the power of Christ (cf. Ezek 38:19-22). It’s finally game over. “The north” is toast. “I will vindicate my holiness,” God says, “I will show my greatness and my holiness … Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 38:16, 23). Justice will prevail. The Good-Shepherd King will complete what he started and ultimately eradicate evil from the earth (2 Pet 3:10-12). 

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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 35-37

Which is worse? To be pleased with another person’s misfortune or to be displeased with another person’s good fortune? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that to feel envy is human, but to enjoy other people’s misfortune is diabolical.

In Ezekiel 35, God notices the “harm-joy” of the Edomites who were sniggering over Judah’s crash and burn. Since the Jews had been deported out of their land, the Edomites thought that it was theirs for the taking. They didn’t know that the LORD was still there—and he was about to “vindicate the holiness of [his] great name which has been profaned among the nations” (Ezek 35:10; 36:16-23). God will clear his name and provide a radical change of heart and behavior among his own people.

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezek 36:26). People will need to be completely transformed from the inside out. We’ll need to think differently and desire different things to follow the Lord. Proof of having received “a new heart and a new spirit” is that we are more concerned for God’s reputation and glory then for our own. This spiritual heart transplant is like being born again (John 3:7). It’s like becoming an entirely new creation (2 Cor 5:17). It’s like dead, dry bones coming to life (Ezek 37:1-10).

The last time God lead Ezekiel into a valley he was unable to speak for five years. What would happen now? In chapter 37, Ezekiel sees a grisly scene of disconnected skeletons—as if an entire army battalion had been wiped out. The dry, bleached bones were of people long dead. Suddenly, God blurts out to Ezekiel, “Preach to the dead: you will live!” (37:4-6). The bones began to rattle and come together, and flesh appeared on them—but they were still dead until God blurts out again to Ezekiel, “Preach to the corpses: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (37:9-10). God will not only bring forth the miracle of new existence; he will also bring forth the miracle of new unity. It would be like taking two sticks and making them one (37:15-23).

As Israel’s sin mirrored humanity’s fallenness, so too, their restoration foreshadowed God’s redemption of all of humanity. Jesus’s resurrection fulfilled the vision of Ezekiel (because it includes Israel’s restoration). The breath of life came from the “four winds” which means that God’s Spirit is at work everywhere, in all directions, throughout the earth under the reign of the Son of David, Jesus, the Good Shephard-King (37:22-25).

Paul saw this and broadened the dry bones vision by saying, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph 2:1). Like Israel, we had no hope, no life. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (2:4-5). The nations are no longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” (2:12). Jesus not only brings forth the miracle of new existence; he also brings forth the miracle of new unity. “He himself is our peace, who has made us both one”—Jew and Gentile—“that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (2:13-15).

But what about the land? Jesus’s description of Jerusalem as “the city of the Great King” emphasizes the city’s historical calling as the place that signifies God’s reign over the entire earth (Matt 5:35). The “holy” city has been “set apart” to God no matter what human agency claims authority over it (Matt 4:5; 27:53). It is the place where Christ redeemed humanity and it is the place where Christ will return to vindicate his name and resurrect the living and the dead. In the meantime, we keep preaching to the dead. 

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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 33-34

Throughout the ancient world sheep and shepherds were everywhere. They were kind of like Starbucks. Everywhere you turned, there were sheep and more sheep. Back then sheep weren’t just eaten and sacrificed; their sheepskin was used to make containers for wine and water, clothing, and parchments to write on. Their horns were made into writing utensils. Sheep were very useful, and they were everywhere.
When we open to Ezekiel 33, Jerusalem is burning to the ground (33:21). In chapter 34, Ezekiel responds with a scathing indictment on Israel’s political leaders. He calls them “shepherds.” Leaders carry a heavy load. They are responsible to protect and care for people—especially society’s most vulnerable, like the sick, the wounded, and the strays.
But what happens when leaders look only to their own interests at the expense of the needs of people, rather than serving them (34:2-3, 8)? Instead of strengthening and helping people in their time of need, Israel’s leaders “fleeced the flock” to enrich themselves. Instead of defending God’s flock, Israel’s leaders became wolves. The sheep needed rescuing from their own shepherds! One of the main reasons Israel fell was because their political leaders failed to care for the needs of the vulnerable. Political leadership is not about power; it’s about ensuring that the people under their care are flourishing.
Surely, the sheep knew what was going on. Yet, the text is silent on the sheep’s response to their selfish leaders. According to Ezekiel, sheep who ignore the sins of their leaders will eventually follow their example (34:17-22). When leaders are self-serving, sheep begin serving their own needs as well.
What is striking about this passage is that God repeatedly calls Israel, “My sheep.” The flock belongs to the Lord. Israel’s true Shepherd-King would rescue his people and shepherd them for all eternity. So, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), he was essentially saying, “I’m the Shepherd-King that Ezekiel was talking about.”
The Good Shepherd-King is on a mission to seek and save the lost. Through Ezekiel he says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” The Good Shepherd-King knows each sheep by name. He knows which sheep are prone to wander, so he sets two eyes on them. He knows which sheep are sluggish, so he prods them. He knows which sheep are weak, so he picks them up and carries them. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves, and cares for us, tending to our needs, and providing good pasture.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What kind of leader am I when I’m with my friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers?” Jesus calls us to follow his example. Know people by name. Seek them out when they wander. Feed them when their hungry. Attend to their hurts. Put their needs above our own. That’s what Jesus did for us. Let us do this for each other. 
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ezekiel unfiltered, chapters 21-32

When we hear the word, “judgment,” we often think, “oh, oh, this can’t be good.” Ezekiel 21-32 is one huge chunk of negativity. Most skip over it. Let’s not. In chapter 21, Ezekiel sets the tone: “Things shall not remain as they are. Exalt that which is low and bring low that which is exalted” (21:26).

The Hebrew words that we translate as “judgment” indicates a sifting out to right the wrongs. As Leon Morris puts it, God’s judgments are his “power directed toward right ends.” God’s judgment has a redemptive aspect to it. When God sifts out, it is not a return to the status quo.

In chapters 22-32, Ezekiel pronounces judgment on Israel and the nations surrounding them. What’s important here is that every nation—not just Israel—was judged by the same standard: God’s law. God’s law is universal, that is, it’s universally applied as the basis of judgment. What’s going on in Ezekiel’s day? “Father and mother are treated with contempt … the sojourner suffers extortion … the fatherless and the widow are wronged” (22:7-12). People act revengefully and cheer the demise of others while exploiting them (25:3, 12, 15; 26:2). They proudly “imposed their terror” on everyone; they even “exchanged human beings … for merchandise” (26:17; 27:13; 28:5).

In the middle of this chunk of negativity, Ezekiel proclaims an odd judgment on a perfect, beautiful “guardian cherub” that was “in Eden, the garden of God” of all places (28:12-14). Of the three characters who appear in Genesis 2-3, the ancient serpent is the only one who could possibly be identified as one adorned with every precious gem imaginable (after all, Adam and Eve were naked). “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you … [and] you were filled with violence” (28:15-16).

Why does Ezekiel allude to Satan in the context of judging the nations? Likely, to give him some credit for all the misery in the world. “Can this be the one who terrorized earth and its kingdoms, turned earth to a moonscape, wasted its cities, shut up his prisoners to a living death?” (Isaiah 14:16-17).

Because God created the world, he has the right to issue judgments to save it. God’s judgments are merciful interventions to impede evil until the final judgment when Christ returns to set all things right. In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf suggests that people take revenge on others, not because they believe in God’s judgment, but because they don’t. If there is no divine judgment, we have nowhere to go with the pain of injustice. We are left to suffering in silence or taking matters into our own hands. Either one can’t be good.

We must entrust ourselves to God who “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed”—and that includes the devil and his minions (Acts 17:31; Rev 20:10). We are in history’s flight path. We are midflight in a stream of ongoing events—past, present, and future—that are pushing history toward its final goal: the new heavens and new earth. Although judgment may seem negative, God is directing history toward right ends.

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 18-20

Ezekiel’s neighbors thought that God was unfair (Ezek 18:25). “It’s not our fault. We’re the victims here. Our parents and grandparents really messed up. Now we have to pay the price for what they did.” So they came up with a saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”—or as the Message puts it, “The parents ate green apples, the children got the stomachache” (18:2). Blame-shifting is as old as sin itself. In a troubled world, it’s easy to pin our troubles on someone. They’re the ones who do stupid things—not us, and we suffer as a result.

Adopting a victim mentality magnifies the bad to such an extent that we lose our perspective on reality. The truth is that God deals with everyone individually. Each of us is responsible before God for our life (Ezek 18:4; cf. Deut 24:16). Harry Truman’s famous desk sign sums it up well: “The buck stops here.”

According to the word given to Ezekiel, as long as you think it’s everyone’s fault but your own, you shall “die” in your sins (Ezek 18:4, 13, 20). Die? What does God mean by “the soul who sins shall die”? The Hebrew notion of “death” describes sin’s slow poisoning of our emotions, our will, our mind, and eventually our physical body. In other words, sin poisons our ability to enjoy human life as it was created to be.

Conversely, if you seek righteousness and mercy, “you shall surely live” (Ezek 18:9, 17, 19, 21). The Hebrew notion of “life” describes the flourishing effects of grace on our well-being—which is human life as God created it to be.

God takes no pleasure in people who drink the rat poison while blaming the rats (Ezek 18:23). He desires repentance, not punishment. “Repent and turn from all your transgressions,” God says through Ezekiel, “lest iniquity be your ruin … I have no pleasure in the death of anyone … so turn and live” (18:30-32). Blame-shifting only blinds us to our need of a Savior. And so Ezekiel laments (Ezek 19).

If anyone had the right to blame people for unjust suffering, it’s the Lord. Although Israel’s history seems like a never-ending cycle of rescue, blessing, and rebellion, one thing stands out in Ezekiel 20. God’s covenant relationship with his people is not a secret affair. He explains, “I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations” (Ezek 20:9, 14, 22).

If God’s name is hallowed “in the sight of the nations,” the nations will come to know him as King (Ezek 20:33). This is the backdrop of Israel’s story. God targets the nations when he repeatedly delivers his people.

Jesus could have blamed everyone for his suffering. After all, it was the sin of the entire world that he took on. Jesus doesn’t blame-shift. He restored the honor of God’s name and absorbed the toxins in our veins that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim 1:17). 

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 15-17

Ezekiel is pretty creative. He uses a variety of tactics to get across God’s message. In chapters 15-17, Ezekiel turns into the Riddler. Riddles use coded language to conceal as they reveal. Clues create images, that when pieced together, offer profound revelations from the Lord.

In the riddle of the vine, we find no grapes (Ezek 15). In a land littered with vineyards, it is not surprising that the vine would represent its people. However, if God’s people bear no fruit, they are useless when it comes to participating in God’s mission. Jesus continues the vineyard theme—but he adds a twist: “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). By identifying himself as the vine, Jesus claims that fruitful participation in God’s mission is possible only for those who “abide in” him.

In the riddle of the bride, we find a wife leaving her husband to become a prostitute (Ezek 16). In the ancient world, people entered prostitution either by force or by choice. Many cultures devalued female babies; so little girls were often left to die and then picked up by people who raised them to be prostitutes. In Ezekiel’s riddle, God saved Israel from a probable life of forced prostitution and blessed her with the finest gifts.

But in a repulsive twist, God’s people turned into Bridezilla and began to pay others to solicit her. With shockingly crude X-rated metaphors (which our English versions have toned down for us), Ezekiel exposes the gravity of betraying the Lord. Amazingly, instead of rejecting her, God promises to transform her into a spotless bride! How? “Abiding in” the Bridegroom through an “everlasting covenant” enables the Bride to join in God’s mission (Ezek 16:59-60; cf. Rev 19:7-9; Col 3:4).

In the riddle of the two eagles, we find the vines looking to them for deliverance (Ezek 17). The eagle is a large solitary bird of prey known for its keen eyesight, long wingspan, and great strength and speed. The Israelites were forbidden from eating such birds and yet many of the 30-some references in Scripture depict the eagle, not as detestable, but as a symbol of speed and power to deliver (e.g., Ex 19:4; Is 40:31). In Ezekiel’s riddle, the first eagle plucks a twig from a cedar tree and plants it in Babylon where it grows as an exiled “vine.” But God’s “vine” foolishly looks to another eagle to deliver it, that is, the Jews look to Egypt, who did nothing to help them. What does God do?

He takes a Branch from the same cedar tree and plants Him “on the mountain height of Israel” where He becomes a noble cedar in which “birds of every sort will nest” from every nation and participate in His mission (Ezek 17:22-23; cf. Mark 4:32).

Piecing together all three images from Ezekiel’s riddles, the main point is that God will never abort his mission, a mission that included all the nations, not just Israel. Israel’s election, like ours, is not the rejection of others; election is for the sake of others. As ones who belong to Christ, as birds that “abide in” the noble Branch, we are transformed, Cinderella-like, from wretch to Bride, to be the vehicle of God’s blessing to the world

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 12-14

People watched Ezekiel’s mime signs, but they would rather listen to false prophets. This is a problem! So God instructed Ezekiel to pack his bags and point out why being disingenuous is a problem (Ezekiel 12-13).

Of course, no one ever claims to be a hypocrite. No one wears a t-shirt that identifies them as frauds. We all fall short. But when we put on false faces, we create an environment that encourages others to do the same. Perhaps that’s why “authenticity” is now a buzzword among Millennials and Gen-Zers. “Just be true to yourself. Follow your heart. Say what you think. Do whatever you feel.” Sounds right, but does prove I’m authentic? What if by being authentic in expressing who I am, I am being inauthentic to who I am in Christ? Doh!

Sometimes people claim to speak for God without ever opening the Bible or seeking the Lord in prayer (Ezek 13:1-7). They wrongly assume that their thoughts are God’s thoughts. And oftentimes, what’s being presented is better than things actually are (13:8-16). Ezekiel calls it “whitewashing.” To say, “‘Peace,’ when there is no peace,” is actually the worst thing to say when God is calling for repentance (13:10).

Sometimes people will engage in anything but discipleship. In Ezekiel’s day, women wore magic bands and veils as substitutes for binding God’s word on their heart (hand) and mind (head) (13:17-23). Gimmickry, in whatever form it appears, may be trendy, but it’s always a distraction away from prayerful devotion to God’s word (14:1-11).

Authenticity is hard to define—and even harder to be. Ezekiel brings up Noah, Job, and Daniel (14:12-23). Why these three guys? They show us what authenticity really looks like!

Noah teaches us that authenticity is displayed in obedience. You can almost hear people say, “C’mon Noah, did God literally mean for you to build a floating zoo?” “Yeah, he did,” Noah probably responded, “and I’m going to obey his word.” Authenticity is evident when we measure our lives by the word of God as carefully as Noah measured the dimensions of his big boat.

Job teaches us that authenticity is displayed by the one thing that is impossible to fake: brokenness. Job lost everything and ended up living in a garbage dump. Brokenness does not allow for carefully curated versions of our best self. In fact, it’s the refusal to break that produces duplicity (and misery). Authenticity is evident in the kind of brokenness that produces humble, transparent selflessness.

Daniel teaches us that authenticity is displayed in consistency. There are risks and rewards for faithfulness to God’s word, but reliability proves the genuineness of one’s character. Authenticity means being reliable amid dire circumstances and uncertain outcomes.

If you are looking for “authentic,” you’ll find it in Jesus. Those who want to be like Jesus, the real deal, will seek to obey Scripture, embrace the power of brokenness, and remain faithful to God no matter what.

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 8-11

It had been 14 months since Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God. In chapter 8, the Man-God Ezekiel had seen on the chariot-throne was now a tour guide (8:2-3). Ezekiel found himself on a visionary journey across the Arabian desert to the temple in Jerusalem. On his arrival, he was greeted by the glory of the Lord (8:4)—but there was “an elephant in the room,” that is, an “image of jealousy” that was driving God away from his sanctuary (8:3-6). Although the idol is not identified, it was likely a statue of the goddess Asherah, the queen of heaven, the mother (and mistress) of Baal (cf. Jer 7:18; 44:17-19, 25).

The queen was everywhere. On every hill and every street corner of Jerusalem Asherah’s image was carved in trees near Baal’s altar on the high places (often translated “Asherah pole” or “sacred tree” or “wooden pillar”). She stood naked on her sacred lion, holding lotus blossoms in her right hand, and serpents in her left. Serpents, lotus blossoms, and a sacred tree … this can’t be good. God’s people openly worshipped her on the rooftops of their homes (cf. Jer 19:13; Zeph 1:5). They even baked raisin-cakes in her image—not for potlucks—but for unholy rituals (cf. Jer 7:16-20; 44:17-21; Hos 3:1; Isa 16:7).

It gets worse (Ezek 8:6-13). Leaving that scarlet hag behind, Ezekiel’s tour guide leads him to a hole in the wall where he’s told to dig toward a secret room being used for secret rituals by seventy men. The graffiti carved on the walls seemed to come alive with images of creepy crawlers—which Ezekiel describes as “disgusting droppings of excrement” (8:10, literal translation)—likely a disturbing reminder of that lunch mime a few chapters back. In their delusion, the creepy men burn incense hoping that God could not see them performing their rituals in the dark.

Outside the temple, women sat weeping for the god, Tammuz, to rise from the underworld, while men bowed to the sun god, Shamash, with their backs to the temple (Ezek 8:14-17). Talk about a pitiful magical mystery tour! Asherah, the queen of heaven, secret rituals, a cult of death, and nature worship, all within Jerusalem’s temple compound. God’s temple had become a pot of religious pluralism. No wonder the Lord’s glory-chariot departed (11:3, 22-23). The Lord was being driven out of his own temple by his own people.

Religious pluralism affirms all forms of spirituality as equally valid paths to God. Religion for the pluralist is not about truth-claims; it’s more like a lovefest parade in which everyone pretends that their beliefs are the same or that they don’t really matter. This is where Jesus gets us into trouble. He’s the one with all the exclusive truth-claims—not us. We believe him. We can’t pretend that all beliefs are the same. Truth exists and it really matters. Logic requires that contradictory religious truth-claims cannot be simultaneously true. God’s exclusive claims are the same today as they were in the days of Ezekiel. 

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 4-7

How many of you have ever found yourself at a loss for words? Perhaps you said enough on the matter. When words are not enough, we often use illustrations or visuals to get through to someone. Charades can be great fun as people try to get their team to guess what’s being depicted without words. Only with God’s prophets, there was no party and it certainly was not much fun.

Ezekiel was a one-man street theater with a powerful message in mime. In today’s world, we would have seen him set up his props on a street corner and then watch him create impressions with his hands and face. One thing’s for sure, Zeke was not playing a game. This was serious. It had only been a week since Ezekiel’s birthday encounter with the glory of God. Yet the hearts of God’s people were rock hard. Babylon was about to burn Jerusalem to the ground, so the Lord instructs Ezekiel to perform bold, provocative, unconventional mime “signs” to shake people out of their stupor.

Ezekiel had to stay home and be quiet while he built a wall, laid on his side, cooked lunch over excrement, and shaved his head (Ezek 3:24-4:17). His house was quite a tourist attraction! People walked past Ezekiel’s house just to see the show and laugh nervously. The more bizarre his mimes got, the more uncomfortable the entertainment became for them. However, for Ezekiel, every scene in his drama brought him deep anguish and tears.

Just think if Ezekiel were to live in our world of late-night talk shows and social media. His mimes would turn into memes on Twitter. He’d be ridiculed to no end. As the last scene played out, there was no applause. In chapters 5 through 7 Ezekiel opens his mouth to explain his actions. God set Jerusalem “in the center of the nations” to be a beacon of hope and righteousness (Ezek 5:5; Isa 42:6). Unfortunately, rather than being a light to the world, Jerusalem had turned into the world’s darkest blot (Ezek 5:6-7:27).

What can we learn from Ezekiel’s mime signs? We are constantly communicating with one another, if not verbally, then nonverbally. If we say nothing, our very silence communicates. Even if our persuasive words are muffled by our unpersuasive lives, Duane Litfin reminds us, “The gospel’s inherent power does not fluctuate with the strengths or weaknesses of its messengers. This truth is humbling, but also immensely liberating. In the end, my inability to answer objections, my lack of training or experience, even failures in my own faithfulness in living it out do not nullify the gospel’s power. Its potency is due to the working of God’s Spirit. Even when we are at our best, the gospel is powerful in spite of us, not because of us. Thanks be to God.”

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ezekiel unfiltered: chapters 2-3

When we read about the glory of God in the Bible, we might imagine a motionless cloudy mist. But God’s glory actually has an active, dynamic quality that interacts with us in deep, personal, and often unexpected ways.

Notice how active God’s glory manifests to Ezekiel. “As he spoke to me,” Ezekiel says, “the Spirit entered into me … [his] hand was stretched out to me, and behold a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me” (Ezek 2:1-2, 10). God speaks, his Spirit moves, his hand stretches out to open a book. The Lord is fully engaged in reaching out to us—and sometimes what he wants to communicate can be hard for us to swallow (2:3-7).

We can do what Martin Luther did: he threw out the letter of James, calling it an “an epistle of straw,” because he didn’t think James lined up with Paul’s theology. Or we can do what Thomas Jefferson did: he simply removed parts of the Bible that rubbed him the wrong way. But God is not inviting us to create alternative drafts. There are blessings to be found when we digest the passages we don’t like.

God tells Ezekiel to open his mouth and eat the entire scroll. “‘Feed your belly with this scroll that I give you,’ says the Lord, ‘and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey … and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit” (Ezek 3:1-3, 14). The apostle John had a similar experience: “I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I’d eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (Rev 10:10).

God’s words, particularly those that pertain to sin and judgment, are bittersweet. We receive his forgiveness and long for righteousness to prevail, for God to right all wrongs and bring an end to evil and suffering. Yet the more we let that word soak in, the more we realize how terrifying the final judgment will be for those who do not trust in Christ.

Ezekiel’s encounter with the glory of the Lord required total absorption of God’s book (Ezek 3:12). He did not take a bite to taste it to see if he liked it. No, Ezekiel filled his stomach and thoroughly digested it. God’s word became part of him. Once this happens, it’s impossible to be a detached bullhorn. The message is still God’s, but when it’s fully digested, it becomes authentically Ezekiel’s as well. God’s glory made it his own. Ezekiel found out that such a transformation will inevitably turn you into a “watchman” (3:16-21). What’s a “watchman”?

Picture your city about to be invaded by an enemy. You’d post “watchmen” day and night to alert everyone of any threat. Early warning could save lives. To remain silent for fear of upsetting people is not an option. Watchmen care enough to speak up and say something. Watchmen are courageous enough to act if necessary. Watchmen are humble enough to warn in ways that are sensitive and yet effective.

Being a watchman is not just an Old Testament phenomenon. “We all, with unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” to become “watchmen” (2 Cor 3:18). Paul confirms this: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole council of God … Therefore be alert, remembering that … I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (Acts 20:26-27, 31).

The only responsibility of being a watchman is to give people a chance to respond. God does not demand success in persuading people, he’s looking for faithfulness in the attempt. 

Posted in coaching

ezekiel unfiltered: chapter 1

On Ezekiel’s thirtieth birthday, the year he should have entered the priesthood in Jerusalem, he found himself “among the exiles by the Chebar canal” in the land of Babylon (Ezek 1:1). Everything he had worked for, his schooling, his plans, were gone. And to top it off, no birthday cake.

But it’s in this place of shattered dreams that God breaks into Ezekiel’s life. In his moment of despair, “The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel … and the hand of the Lord was upon him,” along with “the glory of the Lord” (1:3-28). God draws near to us through his word, with his helping hand, and with his radiant glory.

You get the feeling that Zeke is struggling to find the words to describe the heavens opening up to him. It’s indescribable, so he keeps using “likeness.” As a cloud overshadows a windstorm, four Spirit-propelled, four-faced, four-winged creatures emerge (1:4-6). They are not space aliens; they’re cherubim (10:15, 20). And they don’t look like chubby babies either.

In fact, these bizarre looking creatures have their own set of wheels. Well, it’s not really their wheels. Cherubim are more like Motaur (the half-motorcycle guy commercials)—only with gyroscope wheels that can move in any direction. The cherubim and the wheels within the wheels move together “for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (1:19-20; cf. 10:17).

Over their heads was “the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire” (1:26). What Ezekiel describes is not a stationary throne on its own, but a four-wheeled-gyroscope chariot-throne (1:15-26). Wait a minute! God’s throne is like a chariot? “There is none like God … who rides through the heavens to your help” (Deut 33:26). He doesn’t just sit on his throne all day, every day, for eternity. His throne moves! Cool.

“And seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance” (1:26). Ezekiel’s description of the Man-God is a lot like John’s description of the fiery radiance of Jesus (Rev 1). No wonder Ezekiel does a face plant. The Lord’s chariot-throne draws near to his people at the gloomiest times and darkest places. Thank goodness.

Hardships are hard. Like Ezekiel, in our moments of despair, God draws near to us through his word to guide us and give us hope. He draws near to us with his hand to strengthen us so that we can take the next step. Jesus draws near to us with his glory to transform us into his likeness “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

Hardships prepare us for an eternal weight of glory. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:4). We will glisten with the blazing brilliance of God’s glory. The “sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

Posted in coaching

can’t top Easter

The word “indeed” originates from a Middle English term that means, “in truth, or in fact.” So when we say, “Jesus Christ is risen indeed,” we’re saying, “It’s true! He is risen! It’s a fact! Can’t top that!”

In one scene of The Lord of the Rings the beloved character named, Sam, exclaims, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?” Well yes, but only because Jesus Christ is risen. Indeed, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Jesus Christ is risen, which means the new creation has been launched. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). What Paul reveals here is mindboggling! Apparently, the new heaven and new earth are not wholly future (Rev 21-22). Part of creation has been redeemed—that’s us! As God’s new creation, we live in anticipation of the renewal of the whole earth. Indeed, it is a fact! Can’t top that!

Jesus Christ is risen, which means righteousness will prevail. Sometimes all we can see is the viciousness, hatred, and suffering around us. Indeed. But one day, God will manifest his full presence, his heavenly space, and purge the world of evil. That is why we sing: “This is my Father’s world: O let me ne’er forget. That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.” Resurrection guarantees true justice. Indeed, it’s a fact! Nothing can stop that!

Jesus Christ is risen, which means when we die nothing significant about our life will be lost. While creation groans, we groan, too (Rom 8:22-23). But with hope! “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future” (NT Wright). Resurrection makes life worth living. Indeed.

Jesus Christ is risen, which means we, too, will be raised. Our union with Christ is so intimate that it can only be described with organic metaphors, like a vine and branches, a tree and fruit, a head and body. We are that connected. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the big harvest to come when our body will be resurrected to “hold the weight of glory” on the new earth (2 Cor 4:17). There is nothing that can stop or top that!

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo,” says Sam. “The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end … because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing … this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” Sam’s right. A great shadow has departed. Jesus is risen. Everything sad is going to come untrue. Indeed.

Posted in coaching

when God drops in to visit

God is attracted to humility.

Take this 8-year-old king named Josiah (2 Chron 34). He had a lot of obstacles to overcome. His Grandpa, Manasseh, was utterly wicked. His Dad was worse; but Josiah found the Lord in spite of them. Apparently, it’s not always “like father, like son.” Sin’s consequences are influential, not determinative or causative. 

People often misinterpret God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 20:5-6). What people fail to see is that God is the active agent behind the visit—not demons or Satan. What does “visit” mean? The Hebrew word means “to inspect, to take action to cause a considerable change in the circumstances” (the outcome could be good or not so good). Divine inspection-visits are merciful interventions because of the iniquities of the father—not punishments on children for having bad fathers! Each person can respond to God’s “visits”—that is, they can choose to turn to God or continue in the sin of their fathers.

How did Josiah respond to God’s visit? When he was 16 years old, Josiah chose to seek the Lord. When he was 20, Josiah cleansed Judah from its idolatry. Six years later, at the ripe old age of 26, Josiah wanted to “repair the house of the Lord.” It hadn’t been renovated for 250 years! 

Jerusalem’s magnificent temple was a dilapidated warehouse full of junk. There were no services in the sanctuary. The Bible was completely discarded. But while the remodeling was going on, Hilkiah, the priest finds the Book of Law. He shows it to a guy named, Shaphan, who takes it to the king. Josiah wept when he heard the words of Scripture and orders Hilkiah and Shaphan to “go inquire of the Lord.”

They seem a bit scared to go to the house of Huldah the prophetess. Judah is in big trouble! She says tell Josiah “Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD.” For the one whose heart is tender and responsive, there is great hope!

God is looking for humble, tender hearts. Let’s pray for a divine visit! 

Posted in coaching

scripture is not enough?

Many of Jesus’ parables begin with “the kingdom of God is like …” But the disciples were confused by them. They ask Jesus, “Why do you speak in parables?” (Matthew 13:10). They suggest that he might be more successful if he would speak plainly and just lay out his main point. To their surprise, the reason Jesus says he teaches with parables is so that people will “see but not see, hear but not hear” (13:11-7).

Why does Jesus say that? Aren’t teachers supposed to be clear? Jesus’ goal is not to confuse people, but to get people to come to the source of life—to God himself, of course!

Parables are not nice little bedtime stories. Nor do they provide cool spiritual truths to apply to our lives. No, every parable is an invitation to join a revolution that thrives on sacrificial love, mercy, humility, truth and justice. In the parable of the sower, God is secretly planting seeds for this subversive movement. Jesus calls the seeds: “the word of the kingdom” (13:19). Seeds of God’s kingdom are being planted and are growing—even if its growth remains hidden to the world.

Some receive the word gladly as soon as they hear it, but notice, “it does not sink deep into them, and they don’t last long. So when trouble or persecution comes because of the message, they give up at once” (13:20-21, GNT). Oh, oh. Why didn’t the word sink deeply into them? What does it mean for scripture to sink deep into you?

When you pass through suffering you realize something very special. You realize that it’s not enough to have Scripture. Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned for his faith, explains, “When you pass through suffering you realize that it was never meant by God that Psalm 23 should strengthen you. It is the Lord who can strengthen you, not the Psalm which speaks of Him so doing. It is not enough to have the Psalm. You must have the One about whom the Psalm speaks.”

Yes, my friends, “everything depends on whether we have remained in the sphere of words or if we are merged with the divine realities” of God Himself. Join the revolution.

Posted in coaching

the incarnational principle

During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the mere quoting of scriptures did not force Satan to run away with his tail between his legs. Jesus’ Bible knowledge was powerful because his character and actions were fully formed by it. If all we have to do to ward off temptation is to press the Bible app on our phone, then one tap on an appropriate verse would assure a trouble-free existence!

The incarnation was not only an event; it’s a vital principle.

EVENT: God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he “embodied” his word. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus not only came to explain Scripture; he personified it, he realized it, he incarnated it. He is the living Word.

PRINCIPLE: Christ intends to “embody” his word within the very fabric of your character so that he can reveal himself to others through you. To use C.S. Lewis’s words, the incarnational principle is “an experience so momentous that … [our] whole consciousness is changed. We become what we were not before.” 

The incarnation principle penetrates deeper than application. Let’s look at some examples.

“Do not murder.”

  • APPLICATION: don’t kill anyone
  • INCARNATION: everything in you works to sanctify and protect life

“Do not commit adultery.”

  • APPLICATION: don’t have an affair
  • INCARNATION: everything in you works to sanctify and protect marriage 

“Show no partiality.”

  • APPLICATION: treat everyone equally
  • INCARNATION: everything in you works toward justice and dignifying individuals

Notice how difficult it is to apply some verses without the incarnational principle. 

  • “Count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.” (Yeah, just do that, right.)
  • “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Wouldn’t the Holy Spirit need to rewrite everything in you for that to happen?!)

How does God’s word get so deeply into you that it becomes who you are? How does this happen? Not overnight!

Posted in coaching

prove Satan wrong

Sometimes we are given a perspective that the characters in the Bible lack. In the story of Job, we have the inside scoop: what happened to Job had nothing to do with God’s discipline or punishment. 

Conversation 1: Satan approaches God to insult him by slanderously accusing God of bribing people with blessings so they will worship him (1:9-11; 2:4-5). (It’s like saying that we only love Grandma because she’s got ice cream. Take away the ice cream and who cares about Granny?) Such a nasty allegation had to be answered by putting someone to the test.

So Satan destroys everything near and dear to Job. Job himself was infested with worms, had difficulty breathing, and was reduced to skin and bones (7:5; 9:18; 19:20). Before Mrs. Job abandons him, she tells him to curse God and die (2:9)—which is exactly what Satan hopes Job will do. Job is suddenly alone and homeless. He has to move to the city dump and use broken pieces of garbage to scratch the burning itch that covered his body (2:8).

Why would Job love God anymore? If you lost everything, would you still love the Lord?

Conversation 2: When Job’s buddies got to dump, they initially didn’t recognize him. He looked so repulsive they were speechless. After a full week, Job breaks the silence with anguish. Do his friends pray for him? No. They slanderously accuse Job of having some secret sin that brought all this down on him. They offer no comfort, encouragement, hope, or grace. No wonder Job says, “miserable comforters are you all” (16:2).

Have you ever questioned what someone did to deserve their trial? Why not evaluate your spirituality by what happens to you?

Conversation 3: God appears in a whirlwind with 77 questions. Does he explain why people suffer? No. He talks about his wisdom and power over creation—including one creature in particular: the 7-headed sea serpent-dragon (Job 41; cf. Isaiah 27:1). Why highlight him? Is it a coincidence that the sea serpent reflects the cruel nature of the ancient dragon behind Job’s suffering? “Terror dances before him … his heart is as hard as stone … he is king over all the sons of pride” (41:22-34).

PRAY: Lord, through good times and hard times, I want to make bold statements to the dark side. I want to prove that Satan is wrong about me, too. I love you Lord because of who you are. I love you Lord no matter what happens. Bring to light the unsearchable riches of Christ’s victory “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Amen. (Ephesians 3:10)

Posted in coaching

5 levels of forgiveness

There was a face, a real person, and a boatload of stories behind Peter’s question. He’d been hurt too badly, too many times by someone. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Can you relate? “Lord, you know what I’ve been through. It’s not fair to let it go. Not after what they’ve done. Forgiveness is too much to ask from me. It’s too painful to even talk about.”

What if you tried to think of the “seventy-seven times”—not as an exact number to calculate, but as steps you can take toward healing?

Steps into LEVEL 1 FORGIVENESS: acknowledge the hurt. One guy really hurt Paul. Did Paul pretend that nothing happened? He doesn’t go into detail but simply states a fact: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm” (2 Timothy 4:14). He named him. He dared to call out the damage. This is where you start. You cannot forgive what you refuse to acknowledge.

Steps into LEVEL 2 FORGIVENESSbelieve that God’s grace is greater than any sin. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Grace is greater than fear, greater than bitterness, greater than manipulation. What Jesus has done for you is greater than anything that’s been done to you. Grace >                          .

Steps into LEVEL 3 FORGIVENESS: let grace flow by releasing the offender to God. Let’s go back to Paul. After acknowledging the harm done to him (Level 1), Paul released Alexander to God: “the Lord will judge him for what he has done” (2 Timothy 4:14). Releasing someone is not letting them off the hook; you are placing them in God’s hands. As God deals with them, Paul says to “beware of [that person]” (2 Timothy 4:15). In other words, releasing frees you to protect yourself and others from further harm.

Steps into LEVEL 4 FORGIVENESS: ask God to forgive them. Think about Stephen. People are stoning him to death (Acts 7:54-60). Did Stephen look his murderers in the eye and say, “I forgive you”? No, he looked to heaven and said, “Lord, forgive them.” Ask God to do what you haven’t been able to do (which is what they really need anyway)!

Gently ease into LEVEL 5 FORGIVENESS: full forgiveness. You’ll know. Along the “seventy-seven” step journey toward forgiveness, you’ll realize that Jesus is healing your heart.