Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Revelation 21 is a favorite chapter for many Bible readers, even the many who aren’t generally that interested in reading the apocalypse and the grand and sometimes mysterious visions in it. Why? The answer is clear. Look at what is promised in the first seven verses of this chapter.
The first heaven and the first earth have disappeared. The sea which comes between man and God has vanished (see Revelation 4:6; for more on the sea, see my blog, http://honesttalkwithgod.blogspot.com, June 3, 2010). There is nothing to come between humanity and God, and there is a new (untarnished) earth and a new heaven. Also in chapter 21 we are promised that there will be no more pain, no more tears (tears of grief, loss, and suffering), and no more death.
Of course Bible readers are drawn to this text. Anyone who struggles in life would want to know that the next life promises something better. That’s a reason this is such an often read funeral text. People take great hope for their lost loved ones and for themselves in believing that Heaven is so perfect. But it is not only funerals. This chapter provides hope any times discouragement threatens to break the will of a Christ follower. We receive the promise that we will be “made new” and that we will freely drink from the spring of the water of life (vss. 5, 6). Who wouldn’t want this?
Looking at the promises of these first seven verses, I wonder which one speaks to you most powerfully? In this season of Advent, as the church lives in the hope of ‘Immanuel,’ “God with us,” I am drawn to Revelation 21:3. "Now God's home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God.” The other promises are beautiful and wonderful and at other times in my life, I might be drawn to the new earth or to “no more tears.” But, with Christmas in view, I am taken by the idea that God’s home is where I am. God is at home with me, and I with Him.
I think the wonder of this promise is that it is relational. It is personal and intimate. I have flaws, plenty of them. There are things I can well, better than most people. I know areas where I need to improve. I know areas of weakness that will always be difficult for me no matter how hard I work at them. I am in touch with who I am as a person. Yet, God knows me better than I know myself. God “formed my inmost parts” (Psalm 139:13), and knows the number of the hairs on my head (Matthew 10:30). With all that God knows about me, God loves me and promises to make His home with me for eternity. That’s what I see in Revelation 21:3. It’s something that gives me great peace and strengthens my heart.
Chapter 21 also tells the implications of this promise. John says, “I did not see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (v.22). Also, “The city has no need of the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God shines on it, and the Lamb is its lamp” (v.23). A straight literal reading of these promises would be that in Heaven it is always a church service and it is always day time. That reading misses the depth and richness of this poetry. John uses images his readers can understand in order to describe this wondrous place where there is nothing to fear and the fellowship is perfect.
This picture is a beautiful one to ponder during Advent. In Advent, we celebrate the love of God that is so powerful and far-reaching that God is willing to come and dwell among us in human form, Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the Advent story – a story of God’s love. The end times story is the Advent story reversed. We are invited to be at home with God – with God for eternity. In celebrating the coming of Jesus during this season, it’s a true blessing to know that his time on Earth is a foreshadowing of our heavenly home with Him.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Entire theological systems have been developed on the basis of 8 verses of scripture, Revelation 20:1-8. And that astounds me.
1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven,(A) holding in his hand the key to(B) the bottomless pit[a] and a great chain. 2And he seized(C) the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and(D) bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into(E) the pit, and shut it and(F) sealed it over him, so that(G) he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
4Then I saw(H) thrones, and(I) seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw(J) the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those(K) who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.(L) They came to life and(M) reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6(N) Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such(O) the second death has no power, but they will be(P) priests of God and of Christ, and they(Q) will reign with him for a thousand years.
7And when the thousand years are ended,(R) Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out(S) to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth,(T) Gog and Magog,(U) to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.
What makes this passage so pivotal? Why do theologians filter their picture of history from creation to the end through a lens colored by their particular theological reading of this passage? What makes these verses so much more important than the other 396 verses in Revelation? Christians describe themselves as premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial. Of course a lot Christians don’t have a clue as to what these terms mean. But, these terms really matter to those disciples especially interested in eschatology (study of the end times), and they fall into one of the three camps. They want to know which camp you fall into, so they can nod vigorously in agreement with you, or wag a disapproving finger as they reject your postion.
I find that the most part of Revelation 20 is verses 1-2 and then verse 14. In the beginning of the chapter, Satan is vanquished, but not by God; not by a mighty archangel; and not by an army of angels (or a legion of angels). Satan is chained by one angel. One angel seized and bound the devil. One. And, at the end of the chapter, death is vanquished. Imagine! Death is no more.
I am not dismissing the rest of Revelation 20 as something matters. Of course it is important; it’s Holy Spirit-inspired scripture. I simply don’t think this small passage is the definitive passage in the New Testament or even in Revelation. Paul, accredited with authorship of 13 of the 27 New Testament books, spends far more time discussing the implications of the coming of Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection than he does discussing the end times. The four Gospels give their bulk of their attention to the time Jesus spent moving toward the cross. If there is any one aspect of our faith that outweighs all others it is our understanding of Jesus – his death and resurrection. That’s the interpretive lens through which we read the creation accounts, the law, the prophets, Paul’s letters, and Revelation. Moreover, one’s concept of Jesus is what should determine his reading of scripture (literal or critical or both), his views of the world, and his practice of faith.
If our interpretive determinant is the Good Friday-Easter (cross-resurrection), how does that color our reading of Revelation 20? Jesus reigns (end of Rev. 20:4), those whose faith is in him share in his resurrection and are his priests (Rev. 20:6), and God is sovereign (20:11). Stacks and stacks of books have been written based on interpreting the entirety of scripture and all of human history in light of Revelation 20:1-8, the Millennium. Yet the most important teaching of Revelation 20 is not what we learn about an end-times chronology, but what learn about God. What we learn about God is what has been stated throughout Revelation and throughout the Bible. God possesses absolute power, redeems all who put their faith in His Son Jesus, and defeats evil completely.
You’ll notice, I have not put myself in a ‘camp,’ premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial. I don’t know what would be gained by doing so. At the end of my own reading of Revelation, I don’t have a great sense of what the end will look like. I simply know that God is in control. I think that’s what John wanted his original readers to understand, and the first readers of this apocalyptic vision were a truly distressed people, persecuted for their faith in Christ. If we gain from Revelation confidence because we know that know matter what happens in life, God loves us and God is in control, we will have the blessing John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him intended.
Monday, November 8, 2010
One of Clint Eastwood’s best roles is as the Pale Rider, a shadowy figure called “the Preacher,” who single handedly fights off a group of toughs that intimidate the prospectors gold rushing in the Old West. The title of the movie is from Revelation 6:8, the Pale horse with the rider named “Death,” one given Heavenly authority to “kill with the sword.” Clint kills with the gun, with dynamite, and with a hickory axe handle. In the movies, nothing is more reliable than the grit, toughness, and destructiveness of Clint Eastwood.
In the battle for the souls of men and women, and in the quest for hope in life and for eternal life, we’d do better to rely on the White Rider than the Pale.
“11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:11-15).
“Then I saw Heaven opened.” Recall the night of Jesus’ birth. Heaven rejoiced as a multitude of angels appeared to the shepherds to sing praise to God at the birth of Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). “His eyes are like a flame of fire.” Recall the vision John had at the very beginning of this book. In his description of the resurrected Jesus, he said, “His eyes were like a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14b).
Continuing in Revelation 21, we read that the White Rider is “clothed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is called The Word of God” (v.13). We recall Revelation 7, where John sees a multitude too great to count from all peoples of the earth. He is told they, dressed in dazzling, spotless white, are those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14c). In the Gospel of John, it is Jesus who is called the Lamb of God (John 1:29). Also in John, Jesus is the Word (1:1), who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
In Revelation 19:14, the armies of heaven are following the White Rider. Clearly he is their commander and they give him complete loyalty. And we remember in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the temple police came to arrest Jesus, Peter defended him, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s assistant Malchus (John 18:10). Jesus reprimanded Peter saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53)? Even at that juncture, in the incarnation, before the cross, Jesus had authority in Heaven. Angels, beings far mightier than humans, were at His service.
Finally, Revelation 19:15, “from his mouth … a sharp sword,” recalls chapter one, again the initial description of John’s visit from the resurrected Jesus. “From his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16b). This Jesus who speaks truth is the one who will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God, and we remember among other references the assurance that there is a “Day of Wrath” (Romans 2:5).
Why take the time to locate all these depictions of the White Rider in Revelation 19 in other places in scriptures? We do this for a couple of reasons. First, as has been stated often in this column, Revelation need not be as confusing as some suggest. At the center, we see Jesus. By cross-referencing the description, we see that Jesus is the subject of the story.
Second, knowing that Jesus is at the center of Revelation, we know we have hope. This is not a story to be feared or avoided. It is to be read and celebrated. The blood Jesus shed, he shed for sinners, for me, and for you. He is fearful and awesome and almighty, and he has come for us, to save us. So, read and reread Revelation 19. As you read, know that you are reading about Jesus, our Savior and Lord. And then have hope in the future and hope for today.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Do we participate in an unjust system? Americans use considerably more natural resources than do people in other countries. This is especially true of resources that produce technology and resources that produce luxury type foods. For instance, Americans eat more beef than do most people in the world, including those who live in beef exporting countries. Some countries have abandoned much of the farming necessary to feed their people (wheat, corn, maize, etc) in favor of producing sugar, tea, coffee, and cocoa, most of which they export to Western Europe and North America. They become “tea and beverage economies” where more people are barely making it, struggling to survive. Are Americans guilty of participation in an unjust system every time we enjoy the riches of the world, knowing most people, including those who worked 14-hour days to produce what we consume cannot themselves enjoy the produce of their labors?
In Revelation 18, we read of the funeral of Babylon (Babylon is the symbolic way John referred to the Roman Empire as it is existed in 90 AD). As a judgment of God, Rome would fall. Much of the language in Revelation 18 mirrors the prophets, especially Jeremiah and Isaiah, as they described God’s judgment on the literal Babylon of the 6th and 7th centuries BC. God’s prophets predicted Babylon would fall and it did. In 90AD, John predicted Rome’s fall. There were between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people in Rome at the time, and a few centuries later, when the Roman Empire fell, there were less than 30,000 in the city (Craig Keener, The NIV Application Commentary, p.423). Again, God’s prophet spoke the truth.
Keener’s detailed description of Rome tells of a city where slaves from conquered lands produced food and numerous luxuries to keep the wealthy politicos and merchants in the finest finery. Revelation 18:11-13 lists the products that were no longer bought and sold. The most shocking is the last item listed, “slaves – human lives.” To the wealthy in Rome, conquered nations were nothing – just a people that existed to keep the mighty Romans happy. The people of conquered nations were not even human, just another resource to be exploited. Revelation 18 vividly shows God’s judgment.
Is America in danger of a similar judgment? Everything said about Babylon (Rome) throughout Revelation and especially in chapter 18 was previously said by Biblical prophets about other ancient, exploitative empires (Egypt under the Pharaohs, Assyria, Babylon). These types of criticisms from God through the mouths of God’s spokesmen were even aimed at Jerusalem when God’s people were guilty of disproportionate distribution of wealth, exploitation, and idolatry. Throughout history what we read here equally applies to evil empires including the inhuman cruelty of the Church during the era of the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany, and Apartheid South Africa.
I know America is a democracy. I know there are catalogues of rags to riches stores in our country’s history. I believe our nation gives people a fighting chance, even poor people. But what about poor people who aren’t from here? Most poor people in America have a chance to improve their lives, albeit a small chance.
The poor person from the third world country has no access to public education. He has no real opportunity for climbing out of the hole he’s in. The question is not do we help the poor right around us (of course we should help), or the poor in other countries. The question is this. Is America a 21st century exploiter as Rome (the nation condemned in the book of Revelation) was a 1st century AD exploiter of other peoples? Is ours a system that keeps people in other nations in poverty? By participating in our system, as consumers, are we average, everyday American Christians participating in the exploitation?
In Revelation 18, the people who have become wealthy off the exploiter, those who have taken the mark of the beast (Revelation 14:9) mourn the fall of Babylon (18:11, 19). The saints rejoice the death of the empire (18:20). Most who read this column and read Revelation 18 are American Christians. When the exploiters of our day are judged guilty by God, will we who worship at HillSong join in the rejoicing of Revelation 18:20 or the mourning of verse 19? Will we have sack cloth and ashes on our heads at the loss of our wealthy life styles or will we be singing in Heavenly choirs because our hearts are filled with God’s passion for people, especially poor people?
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Max Lucado writes:
These are difficult days in our world's history. 1.75 billion people are desperately poor, natural disasters are gouging entire nations, and economic uncertainty still reigns across the globe. But you and I have been given an opportunity to make a big difference. What if we did? What if we rocked the world with hope? Infiltrated all corners with God's love and life? We are created by a great God to do great works. He invites us to outlive our lives, not just in heaven, but here on earth. Let's live our lives in such a way that the world will be glad we did.
So how are we going to rock the world with hope?
Check out our new blog:
We are trying to bring hope to the orphans so they can become Ethiopia's future.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
I recently read about a court case that is of interest to me. In light of the intense scrutiny that our State Board of Investigation is under, with several instances of mishandling of evidence, most capital cases are being reviewed. People have gone to execution and later review evidence has shown that maybe some who were executed were actually innocent! Is there any great miscarriage of justice? To be sure, prosecutors are now covering their tracks and doing everything twice. They don’t want any innocent people punished. And, they don’t want any guilty criminals set free because of prosecutorial or investigative carelessness.
Lack of justice is not a problem with God. “You are just, O Holy One” an angel sings to God (Revelation 16:5). God indeed does not make mistakes. God knows who is guilty and punishes accordingly. “Because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve” (16:6)! This chorus is echoed in the next verse, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
For sinners like you and me (and everyone you know and everyone I know, Romans 3:23), the unfailing justice of a Holy and blameless God is a problem. We don’t face the crisis of injustice. We face the horrible reality that God’s justice is perfect justice and we are sinners, guilty, and deserving of punishment. Revelation 16 is the fourth cycle of punishments (seals in 6 and 8:1-2; trumpets in 8:6-9:21 and 11:15-19; thunders 10:3b-4). In Revelation 16:2-20, seven angels pour out seven bowls of God’s wrath. The seals, trumpets, thunders, and bowls each bring to mind the plagues that God sent on Egypt in Moses’ day, when the Pharaoh refused to release God’s people the descendants of Abraham (see Exodus 7-11).
In Revelation, the central issue is not the specific images of each judgment. Rather it is that God will not tolerate sin and that sin is punished severely and eternally. In life, we live with the painful consequences of our sins and of those around us. In death, we are eternally cut off from God’s love, God’s presence, and God’s protection.
In Revelation 16, the bowls of wrath are poured out on those who killed God’s saints and prophets (v.6), while those who are in Christ, the conquerors (15:2) are in Heaven worshiping. But how did they conquer? By great feats of heroism? No, they are conquerors because of what Jesus did. They are those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb – Jesus (Revelation 7:14). To be washed is to come to the cross, kneel before the crucified, resurrected Jesus, and receive forgiveness. Just as God punishes sin, God receives all who turn from their sins in honest confession and humble repentance.
Revelation 16:9 makes the point that those who were scorched with fire after the pouring out of the fourth bowl of wrath cursed the name of God. The suffering of judgment did not lead them to faith. Their sin grew bolder and more evil. “They did not repent and give him glory,” the text says. A similar indictment comes down after the sixth trumpet of judgment is blown (Revelation 9:21). At issue is not our ability to identify future events that correspond to this first century prophecy. Everything John wrote was born out of his knowledge of the Old Testament story and the current conditions – Roman persecuting Christians. All of the symbols, images, and metaphors can be located either in the Old Testament or in John’s world.
At issue then is do we learn from the mistakes of others. When we sense God’s hot, heavy hand of judgment, do we admit our sins, confess them to God, aided by the Holy Spirit; and, do we turn from sin to Him? The graphic, creative pictures in the book of Revelation are there to humanity to turn from sin and to God. And in Revelation we see that all who do that receive Heaven, not punishment. Before it is anything else, Revelation is Gospel.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Does he mention God in any form or in any way? Pay close attention to that one. And be ready because if you ask your friend for a three-minute, highs and lows, life summary, he'll probably ask you for the same. Share as much as you ask him to share. And maybe the discussion will be an opportunity to talk about God, faith, and most importantly why everyone needs Jesus.
I bring up the matter of evangelism, the sharing of our faith, because it is a Biblical mandate (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15). Straight from the mouth of the risen Jesus, we have our walking orders. In Acts, we see early Christians fulfilling this command. Peter, John, Philip, Steven, Barnabas, Paul - they evangelize and they do it effectively. How do we obey Jesus' command to "go and tell," and how do we do it effectively?
MacDonald's question about the 3-minute life story is a good conversation starter. The article in which he shares that technique and other approaches to discipleship & evangelism is free online - http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/communitylife/discipleship/whatdowithstranger.html.
And, California pastor Mike Fleishcmann encourages us to reach out to all people - even those who statistically don't often experience conversion. The old adage is 85% of the people who accept Jesus turn to Him before they turn 18. Adult unbelievers are highly unlikely to accept and then follow Christ. But, we don't give up on them. We pray. We love. We walk alongside. We double our efforts. And we keep evangelism as a high priority. Fleischmann's article is also available and worthy the 10 minutes it will take you to read it. Here's the link - http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/communitylife/evangelism/outsidersfindfaith.html.
In 2008, I challenged my church to develop a personal evangelism strategy. Each of is different from one another and we are sharing our faith with different people. Sometimes an intellectual approach is the way to go. Sometimes emphasizing the forgiveness Jesus offers. Sometimes, an inspiring worship time draws one to the father (I never understood the logic that one couldn't worship until after he was saved). Sometimes someone discovers the heart of God through service (like volunteering for construction type mission strip). It is personal, and there must be intentionality, a strategy. One of our associate pastors teased that this was Rob's "P.E.S. dispenser" (like the Pez candies). Whatever! I don't care how it's labeled. We - believers in all churches - have to be the light of the world that shines as a beacon, drawing lost people into the safe harbor of Jesus.
I hope you'll check out these articles I referenced. They are but a mouse-click away and they ignite in the reader evangelistic thoughts; thoughts we should each entertain each day.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
I tell every time I talk to her that she needs to not fantasize about returning to us. She needs to find a church right where she is in New York state. She always says OK. Well, today, she called to say she's found that church - some kind of prophecy church. They have a rigorous schedule of evening Bible studies. Ironically, the only nights off are Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday. The rest of the time they are at it for 90 minutes to an hour, studying Revelation, being "warned of the end times, warned to be ready" as she told me. The titles for the studies include, "the beast," "the tribulation," "the final battle" etc. Clearly, the leaders of her new church teach the word differently than me. But, she is with a fellowship of believers. And, they do a prayer shawl ministry on Saturdays, just as our church does.
I don't know think Revelation gets us ready for an imminent end per se. But Revelation does prepare us to live faithfully in the face of difficult times. Revelation 14:9-11 present a scary picture of judgment. Listen to the next verse, "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints." These horrifying images of Revelation are not intended to get us worked up about an apocalyptic nightmare that is right around the corner. Rather, it is a summons to holiness in the midst of a very unholy world. What is "the smoke of torment [that] goes up forever and ever" (14:11)? It is a summons to holiness, obedience, and faithful endurance.
Along those lines, Revelation 14:13 is curious. "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!'"
This reminds one of Philippians 1:21-24.
"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account."
Paul absolutely talks out what is in Revelation 14. There as with him, living for Christ is tough. When Revelation was written Christians were actively persecuted, probably by Roman emperor Domitian. It was likely that Revelation was written as a response to the persecution under him and sanctioned by him. In Paul's day, it was no easier. Persecuted by Jews who rejected Jesus (we dare not forget all the first Christians were Jews, so this is no antisemitic polemic), Paul wrote Philippians from prison. He was jailed by Romans but it was the conniving of Jewish leadership that landed him in custody.
Both Paul and John of Patmos tease out the options. What is better? To live faithfully under persecution or to die and join Jesus in the resurrection? Does anyone need more than 2 seconds to answer?
What about for 21st century Christians who don't have it so rough? My friend in New York is starting to see some hope in what has been a life marked by pain, loss, and failure. Would it be better for her to die in Christ or to persevere and endure? Persevering and enduring is coming much easier now that she is in a supportive group. Still would dieing be "gain?"
What about someone in their late 80's, in poor health, in the care of her adult children? Her children love her very much. But she's not used to being dependent and they have busy lives. How does she fit into the living or dieing in Christ narrative as she lives out her days.
I don't think in Philippians 1 or Revelation 14, the issue is whether it is better to live and endure hardships for Christ or to die and go to Heaven. The issue is we are not the master either of our destinies or of our present situation. We are subject to sin; we must put sin to death, and the only way is to fully surrender to Christ. When we fully surrender to Christ, we are free. We are free from dread of the present if the present is difficult, a real tribulation. And we are free from the fear of death. Paul can, without any accusation of suicidal tendencies, truly say he'd rather die, yet fight to live that he might be a witness for Christ. John of Patmos can truly call the saints to endure and at the same time say, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." It is all true when one have fully given himself to Jesus and Jesus is master in all areas of his life.
I began by visiting a Muslim center near where I lived. I just showed up and asked someone to tell me more about the faith. I am still unsure if I will develop any further friendship out of that visit. But, I have in mind the faces of people I can pray for. And that's a good place to be.
One element of Islam is an understanding of the five pillars. I am going to share those five pillars here and offer comments on how those five pillars are relevant to Christians. The information I offer here on the five pillars of Islam comes from the following website http://www.islam.com/pillars.htm.
1) To bear witness that there is none worthy of worship save Allah and that Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is the messenger of Allah.
My understanding is that 'Allah' is the Arabic word for God. If Christianity were expressed in the Arabic language, then we would call God 'Allah' (just as we would call God 'Dios' if were speaking Spanish). So, I see this as a Christian value - declaring that God is worthy of worship, and God alone.
I do not believe that Muhammad is the messenger of God. On this point, Christians and Muslims would have respectful disagreement. Similarly, I do believe Jesus is God in human flesh and is to be worshiped. Muslims do not believe Jesus is God. So, again, on this Christians and Muslims would have respectful disagreement.
The potential for great offense is here. Muslims do not accept the divinity of Christ. Christians do not recognize Muhammad as a prophet. I think this first pillar is important because we can agree on monotheism. And we can peacefully accept that there are profound, irreconcilable differences between the faiths. Christians must pray that our Muslim friends would see the truth about Jesus.
2) To observe prayer (Salat).
Prayer is clearly a Christian value. I think we have much to learn about diligence and commitment from our Muslim friends. The devout Muslim prays five times a day, facing Mecca. Christians would do well to adopt such rigorous spirituality. Occasionally pre-written prayers are helpful. Praying the Psalms or praying a prayer-book is good. This might be part of a Christian's prayer - life.
However, we really believe that in Christ, we have a personal relationship with God. A big part of our prayers must be personal - personal confession, praise to a God we truly know, thanks for specific blessings, and request (not just for stuff, but that God's will be done in our lives). I don't know if Muslim prayers are this personal and individualized. Sometimes American Christians will make their faith too individualistic. We are a part of the body of Christ. But we also each have to work our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
3) To pray Zakat (alms giving).
I definitely do not know the intricacies of Muslim theology of giving to the needy. Clearly it is a central part of Muslim faith, the third of the five pillars.
For Christians, giving is not a "payment" and we would never frame it that way. We give as a Spiritual discipline, as a way of acknowledging that all we have is from God. The benchmark or starting point is the 10% tithe. We structure our lives so that 10% of what we take is given to our church.
From there, we operate under the principle of generosity. This is a defining value of the church in the New Testament. Christians are not called to give 10%. Christians are called to far exceed that amount, so that the needy are fed, the orphans are cared for, the poor have a fair chance, and most importantly, the Gospel is advanced in the world.
It seems that Muslims give out of duty, although I don't to misrepresent. The wording from the website to "pay Zakat." Christians give from the heart's generosity, and as a spiritual discipline.
4) To perform the pilgrimage to the house of Allah (Hajj).
In response to a woman who was concerned about where proper worship should happen, Jesus said, "The hour is coming and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship Him." It's not where we worship, for Christians, it is how.
My understanding is that the Muslim pilgrimage is for the purpose of worship. Christians may go to worship in special places - the National Cathedral; historic places in Europe; the places of the Bible times (Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Greece); and, maybe famous international churches (Like Saddleback in California or HillSong in Australia). However, it is not necessary to go to these places.
The more important Christian journey is to go on trips of evangelism or compassion - mission trips. I firmly believe every Christian should go on missions, even if it is a short-term. Every Christian, if possible, should go on a mission trip in his or her life. Most Christians should go on some kind of mission trip every year. Where the purpose of the Muslim pilgrimage is for worship, the Christian mission trip is for service, works of compassion, and evangelism.
5) To observe fasting during Ramadan (Bukhari)
Much like the second pillar, prayer, this practice in Islam is an admirable demonstration of spiritual discipline. Americans in general have a serious obesity problem because we are addicted to excess (the 1 lb hamburger or the all-you-can-eat foot buffet). Spiritual discipline in the area of food is a serious issue for Christians and especially for Christians in an affluent society. Gluttony is a sin.
Jesus fasted. Jesus also feasted. Many Christians take up various sorts of fasts during Lent (the seven-week period leading up to Easter). I have done this and found it to be a valuable spiritual exercise helping me refocus on my walk with Christ by way of my rumbling stomach. However, nothing in Christianity suggests that this spiritual discipline needs to be reserved for Lent. Fasting can happen at different times during the year.
As a way of being evangelistic and combining the 2nd and 5th pillars of Islam, Christians might consider doing this. During Ramadan, Christians can fast and pray for Muslims to come into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. If the opportunity is there Christians can share their faith with Muslim friends during this time. This exercise would be demanding, but it would respect at strong Muslim tradition, it would show our hearts for God and for our Muslim neighbors, and at the same time the fasting would draw us closer in our own walk with God.
I hope what I have done here is help Christians see the five pillars, respect them and respect the noble tradition of spiritual discipline in Islam, and at the same time to appropriate these traditions into Christian practice.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
38As he taught, Jesus said, "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, 39and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."
41Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins,j]">[j]worth only a fraction of a penny.k]">[k]
43Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."
Jesus shows his messed-up math in this account at the temple. "This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all others," he said. Ah ... NO! If a wealthy scribe comes a long and drops in a talent (a monetary unit worth hundreds or thousands of dollars in today's currency), it is more than a widow's paltry coins (which cannot be worth more than a few buck today). The temple priests would be able to use the rich man's talent to contract stone masons to repair the damaged pillars, or to buy new gold for the decorations in the inner sanctum. The widow's coins would buy one pigeon for one person to make one sacrifice as an act of worship, and then it would be gone!
"This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all others," Jesus said.
Put it in modern terms. A poor widow walks into church right behind a wealthy business man. This week, she has paid her rent and some other bills. The balance in her checkbook is not less than $50. When the offering plate comes around, she puts in every last penny in her purse, $3.14. The business man is worth over $65 million. He drops a check into the plate - $1,500,000. He won't even notice that money missing. But, you tell me, which financial gift means more to that church?
That church needs a new roof. That church wants to fund an evangelism campaign, but they are in a large city, an expensive city. The campaign's budget is $20,000. The pastor has also challenged the church to raise money for a special home in the western part of the state. It's a place for kids from broken homes, kids who have been kicked by parents incapable of caring for them. A lot the kids are from the town where their church is located. In the home, they will be in school, be cared for, and will be taught the Gospel. But, the home has a put a call out to churches state-wide because they are in need of $80,000 to carry on their programs.
"This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all others," Jesus said.
Seriously, Jesus? Are you sure?
When we look at the simple numbers, it seems the Savior of humanity, the one we call "Lord," the one we worship is off his rocker. Stick to the resurrection stuff, Jesus. Leave the declarations about which financial gifts are valuable to the treasurer, OK?
The thing is, Jesus really is Lord, which means master, boss! He gets to declare which gifts are valuable. As we wrestle with this, it becomes clear that when we look at the entire statement, math is not the problem. We don't struggle with the facts of Jesus' statement. We haggle about the facts so that we don't have to deal with the implication.
"I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."
The woman was praised because she gave all she had. Jesus wants us to give all we have. We don't want to do that.
Take that entire story I came up with about the multimillionaire giving $1.5 million to a church that had all the needs I mentioned. If Jesus is Lord of that church, then He will show how the new roof, the evangelism campaign, and the group home for troubled kids will all get taken care of. Maybe the way God takes care of those needs is by a millionaire giving a big gift. Maybe God shows how the needs can be met with less money. However God does, the church acknowledges that God is the one doing it because in that church, Jesus is Lord.
The Lord has no need of the rich man's millions. But if the church becomes convinced that it needs the rich man's millions, then the rich man will become lord of that church, displacing Jesus. That's a problem because the church sacrifices faith for math. As logical as math is, it is subordinate to God, as is everything else, every way of thought (logic, philosophy, etc), every fact (money, number of worshipers, etc), and every tradition of a particular church. Those things all have their places. God is Lord.
As for money, we aren't all called to give every last penny to offering plate. If we did, the next week, we'd all be 100% broke and lined up at the church asking for help with our mortgage and rent payments. The church could not give the help because all the money went to the new roof, the evangelism campaign, and the home for troubled kids. No, we aren't all called to empty our bank accounts. But we are all called to lay all our money at the foot of the cross and declare Jesus to be Lord of our holdings, our accounts, and our cash.
This is much more than metaphor. Everything we do involving money, which is just about everything we do, must be submitted to God in prayer. How much we invest, how much we give, how much we save - God is Lord of all of it.
When we eat out at a nice restaurant, we remember the call of Jesus to feed the 'least of these' (Matthew 25:35). It doesn't mean skipping all meals that are elegant and expensive. But it might mean taking an inventory. A family might ask, how often do we eat out a nice place? If the answer is 16 times a year, the family then takes that to God in prayer. They come up with a plan. They'll eat out 16 times in the next year, kind of. Six of those times, they'll go to their favorite restaurants like they always have. The other ten times, that family will eat at home, a simple meal - rice and beans. They will set aside the money they would have used for the expensive meal and send it to World Vision or Bread for the World or some other agency that combats hunger. Why? Because they submitted their leisure money to God, their Lord, and this is what their Lord told them to do.
I think most Christians would want to hear Jesus say to them "Well done, good and faithful servant." I think most would want to be commended by Him the way that widow unknowingly was. How do we know when we are where Jesus wants us to be with our money? How does one know if he is like the rich man Jesus told to give everything away (Luke 18:22)? Here's a starting point - the 10% tithe.
Figure out your total income, and give 10% of that annual amount to the church. Make that a regular practice. No matter how good or bad the year is financially, make this something you will not waver on. Tithe. Faithfully, consistently, tithe.
Then, begin praying in earnest for how God wants you to use the rest of the money (and stuff) you have. Don't say, "OK, I've tithed, I am in the clear." It's not about being 'in the clear.' Don't say, "OK, I've tithed, I have done my duty." It's not about 'duty.' Tithing is not one of the ways we earn our ticket to Heaven. That ticket cannot be earned, only received as a gift of grace. Tithe because you long for the heart of God to beat in you. Tithe as ridiculously extravagant expression of gratitude for who God is and how much God loves you. Tithe as a spiritual discipline that declares who is Lord over all your life. Then, after the tithe is given, sit down with God and your bank account, and start praying.
The thing with the widow was, when she gave those last two coins, she had nothing left. All she could do then was look to God. Our faith is impoverished until we get to that point where we have nothing left, and all we can do is look to God.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Chapter 14 is an example. "I saw another angel ... with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth - to every nation and tribe and language and people." We know the word Gospel means 'good news,' and comes from the same Greek root word that gives us evangelism. Gospel is only truly good when it is shared, which is evident in this verse. So what is this good news we who are in Christ are to share with everyone everywhere in the world? What specifically is the "eternal gospel" proclaimed in Revelation 14?
Verse 7 - "Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come." Along with Alan Johnson who writes the entry on Revelation in the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (p. 1197), I ask, why is judgment good news? A second angel comes along in the passage and proclaims the fall of Babylon (the ancient Roman empire which actively persecuted the church when Revelation was written). A third angel declares that those who worship the beast (the Roman emperor) will drink the cup of God's wrath. "They will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the Lamb" (v.10).
Good news? It sounds horrifying. The prospect of a fiery eternity scares me. I am confident in Christ and I know that I have been saved from such a future. But it scares me that anyone would have to face that, even my worst enemy. I long for an afterlife in I which experience God's goodness; I do not eagerly anticipate the demise of the ungodly. So why is this good?
I think the hope of this judgment passage is contained in verse 6, quoted earlier. Recall that in Revelation 5:9 and also 7:9, there was a vision of believers gathered in Heaver - Christ followers from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages. There we are told the outcome of the effort that is put forward in 14:6. The angel had an eternal gospel that was to be shared to every language and tribe and nation and people. As Craig Blomberg points out, angelic activity in Revelation is mirrored by the church's activity on earth (NIV Application Commentary: Revelation p.372) . Verse 6's depiction of the angel evangelizing is seen in real time in our world when the body of Christ, the church, takes the good news to all peoples. And all who receive Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord are not subject to the wrath reserved for the wicked on the Day of Judgment.
Thus, judgment is gospel because it is an opportunity for the church to be at work.
I recently read about Physicist Stephen Hawking's 'discovery' that God is not needed for the creation of the universe. He proposes a scenario in which all that exists can be explained apart from God or the Bible. The article from Associated Press was posted on Yahoo News. Over 26,000 people commented on the article. Many of comments I read came from professing Christians who sanctimoniously judged the heart and declared the fiery eternity of Mr. Hawking and any who would agree with him. I was saddened. People claiming Christ almost took glee in how lost Hawking is.
That must not be. Our attitude is not that of Christ if we revel in someone's spiritual downfall. The "eternal Gospel" as spelled out in Revelation 14 tells of an awful eternity for those who worship anything other than Jesus. But also contained in that gospel is the call for the church - you and me - to share the Gospel with the world so that they will turn to the Lord on not suffer under the weight of God's wrath. What we read here is a summons to action. We are called to be Jesus' witnesses in the world.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:1-7, NRSV).
Try as we might, there is no mention of Satan, Devil, Lucifer, Evil One, Dragon, or other title for the evil Fallen Angel. The simple fact is the narrative tradition that passed Genesis on from one generation to another until it was finally written down did not recognize some evil supernatural being. We are told of a talking serpent that tempted Eve with half-truths.
So where does the idea that serpent actually being a manifestation of Satan come from? Even with the evidence of Biblical content just cited, people would still say I am nuts to question the notion that the serpent was any other than Satan. Genesis doesn’t say it was Satan, but we’ve always assumed it was. We dare not question what we’ve always known. So someone who does question must be wrong (and blasphemous and heretical and anathema).
I submit to you that it is extremely important that we read the Bible critically; that is, we question everything as read for the purpose of being sound and sure in our understanding. We don’t just throw out commonly held assumptions about familiar stories, like Adam and Eve. We think on those stories thoroughly so that our belief is informed, well formed, and we know why we believe it.
To find the source for our theological assertion that the Eden serpent from the very first book of Bible is Satan at work, we turn to the 12th chapter of the last book, Revelation. Revelation 12:7-9:
7And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The 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.
Verse 9 is pretty clear – the serpent and Satan were one. Did believers always understand this connection? I don’t think so. The idea of Satan is one that evolved through the different eras of Israel’s history and relationship with God. In the book Job, Satan is one of God’s council members. His is an official role – the adversary. By the time the prophet Zechariah is at work, Satan is clearly running against the purposes of God (Zechariah 3:1-4). In the days of Jesus, Satan is an enemy who has access – he is able to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. However, the demons of Hell cower in fear before Jesus in every encounter they have with him.
In Revelation, it’s all out warfare and it is not fought here, but in Heaven (12:7). Moreover, God is not a participant. Rather the archangel Michael leads a brigade of angels who defeat the Dragon, Satan, who also has an angel army. There is no word on how long or how violent this conflict is. The important note is that as the warfare in Heaven is also played out on earth, the battle is not won with swords or spears (or weapons of modern warfare). Rather sacrifice and martyrdom win the day.
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).
The metaphor for Jesus crushing the evil one is not a mighty lion, but rather a slaughtered lamb, and the uncompromising testimony of the church that has sworn allegiance to Jesus. There have been thousands of pages of Bible interpretation written just on Revelation chapter 12. My words here simply offer up the foundational truth of that chapter, and one of the basic essentials of Christianity. Evil is defeated by faithfulness – the faithfulness and love of Jesus to die for our sins; and, the faithfulness of His church, including us, to testify to the truth about Him and His gospel to the world no matter what that testimony will cost us.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
I say they "evoked" the Baptizer because that's what the images in Revelation do. They evoke memory in the community of faith. The pictures of Revelation also awaken our anticipation of what God is going to do both in our lives and in the eschatological future (eschatological future = what God will do at the end of the age). Ours is a faith perceived by us through memory and anticipation, even as we experience the presence of God. At the Communion Table (also called the Lord's Supper and the Mass and the Eucharist), we remember Jesus breaking the bread and saying "this is my body." The memory and the act of eating awakens us to the reality of our own sinfulness (we deny, betray, and abandon him just as Peter and Judas and the others did). And, eating alongside our brothers and sisters in the church fills us with awareness of the presence of God in our daily lives.
The images of Revelation should have the same affect. People get so caught up trying to locate the two witnesses of Revelation 11. Where they Peter and Paul? Do they represent the Church and Israel? Are there two witnesses in the future that will be a part the tribulation period or the millennium? I don't see it that way. These are called olive trees and lamp stands (Rev.11:4). And I remember, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). Jesus was saying that to his disciples, all his disciples. Thus to me, he said you are to be a witness that flavors and preserves and improves the world around you the way salt (and olives) flavor, preserve, and improve.
I remember Jesus saying to his disciples, and thus to me, "You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). You are to be a light that eliminates (as a lamp stand would) the darkness with the truth and love of God. Who are the two witnesses? I know I am called to be a witness, and you, reader, are too if you profess to follow and worship Jesus. We don't need to spend time with "tribulation charts" and mind-numbing end times scenarios where we connect the dots with all the symbolism of Revelation. Doing that robs the book of its power to speak in our lives. If we spend our time speculating, calculating and guessing over the symbols and pictures of Revelation, we never have to actually respond to the provocative Gospel in Revelation with the living of our lives.
I could go on with the connections between Revelation 11 and the four Gospels, but this isn't a commentary. This is an honest talk with God. In this conversation, which you are invited you to overhear, I am struck by an article I recently read in Christianity Today magazine. Author Scott Sabin writes, "In Genesis ... Adam is placed in the garden to serve and protect. Throughout the Old Testament we are reminded that "the Earth is the Lord's" and that our role is one of stewardship - temporary caretakers called to account for how well we have discharged our duties." This is reinforced in Revelation 11:18, which says Judgment Day will bring the destruction of those who destroy the earth."
I was fascinated by Sabin's observation and also by his citation of Revelation 11. I have read Revelation more times than I can count, but each time I have quickly glossed over 11:18. In that verse, who do the 24 elders say is rewarded? (1) God's servants, (2) God's prophets, (3) God's saints, and (4) those who fear [revere] God's name. And who gets destroyed? Those who destroy the earth.
In reading Revelation, we spin our wheels and waste our time when we make charts, graphs, and time lines. A better faith reading is to read the words, feel the power, and then ask oneself. Am I a servant of God, or a prophet, or a saint, or one who fears God? Or, am I one who does destructive things? Am I one who destroys relationships with my words, my jealousy, my racism or prejudice, my disdain for people of different socioeconomic classes or my sexism? Am I one who destroys the planet with my blatant disregard for conservation, recycling, and my indifferent wasting of resources? How we answer when we ask ourselves those questions will give us a sense of our own experience on Judgment Day, whatever that day looks like, whenever it is.
Friday, August 13, 2010
As I said, I was in college at the same time I was in the Guard. I knew that there was the possibility our country would go to war and my college education would be interrupted. I would be called to go to another nation and do what I had practiced in basic training and on weekend drill duty every month. In fact our country did go to war - the Desert Storm. Our unit was not mobilized. So, I never faced war. But I tried to prepare for it mentally. And I ran into the teachings of Jesus. I mean teachings like "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9), "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39), and "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).
Any serious Christian has to consider these teaching of Christ when considering war and violence. I never resolved the issue in my own heart. My unit was never mobilized and my 6-year stint in the Guard ended in 1995. In 2003, I could not resolve the issue as our country went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I regret that I could not see then ('03) how foolish those wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) have turned out to be. Thousands have lost their lives with very little gain for the greater good of humanity.
In America, we have not prayed for those who persecuted us. We have sought to destroy them with extreme prejudice and we call it "patriotism." We have not turned the other cheek. We have responded to violence with greater violence and more destruction. We have not done as the Apostle Paul prescribes in Romans 12:17-21
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"d]">[d]says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."e]">[e] 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We have not overcome evil with good, but rather we matched evil with more evil (Abu Grhaib). It certainly was not and is not the Jesus way.
Three things bring this to my attention.
First, all my Republican friends (I am, politically, an independent) do two things. First, they lash out at a Democratic president and paint a picture of him as evil and anti-Christian, but they never acknowledge the good things he does. And they refuse to look at the foibles of the Republicans. The Republicans are depicted as being appointed by God and the Democrats as agents of Satan. It's a ridiculous caricature in both directions.
Second, my good friend's wife from another country is applying for citizenship. She's a pacifist and has trouble swearing an oath to support our nation's use of force. It's not that she's anti-American. She wants to be a citizen of our nation. She just doesn't support military force any time or any where. She's for peace - always. Yet, the military zealots in our country would call her a "pinko liberal commie fascist coward" if did anything other than uncritically support every action of our military. The right-wing elements of our nation claim to defend freedom by fighting enemies abroad (who generally aren't attacking our freedom), but at home these same right-wingers attack anyone who expresses that freedom (freedom of speech) if that expression is critical of the military. It's not right.
Third, I have been reading the book God's Politics by Jim Wallis, a pacifist. He's also an evangelical. I don't always agree with him or his approach, but I am finding I agree more and more with his anti-war stance. He's laid a vision for how terrorism can be fought with international police cooperation rather than unilateral wars. His arguments on these issues are compelling and worth consideration.
All of this - my conservative friends, my liberal friends, my pacifist friends, the foolishness of our nation, the anti-Christian nature of our nation, and finally the reading I have done - it all has me thinking. It has me reliving arguments I had with myself while in college some 20 years ago. Those arguments were never resolved and still aren't. I received army infantry training. My father served in the infantry in Vietnam, and I believed he served honorably. My father-in-law was a navy captain, my grandfather a navy enlistee. My uncle was a career air force my and my sister-in-law was a Jag officer. One of my best friends from high school is in his 21st year in the national guard. I am not anti-military.
But, I am finding more than ever that I see the Gospel as closer to pacifism than any other philosophy out there related to the issues of war, nationalism, and international commerce. The pacifists are in step with the Lord. And I want to be in step with the Gospel of Jesus. So, in side me, deep in my soul, the argument continues.