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Monday, June 28, 2010

A Grateful American

I haven’t cheered that loudly while watching a game in a long time, and I don’t even like soccer that much. But, as the United States inched closer and closer to advancement (or disqualification) in the World Cup, I got more and more into it. A loss or a draw would mean going home. A win, would mean advancing to the knock-out round. It was stoppage time (soccer’s version of Overtime), and the score was 0-0. Then Landond Donovan, the face of American soccer, put in the rebound. I jumped out of my chair.

I say all of this to say, I love the fact that I live in America and am an American. Often in my preaching I am critical of the lifestyle of most people in our country. I am equally critical of the philosophy that dominates American Christianity in all its forms. My critique intensifies as I perceive that the values that govern the lives of American Christians are often more American than they are Christian. In every case, with every Criticism, I point to the Bible as my source. That said, I love America and the experience of Christianity I have been afforded living in America.

My 3rd year of seminary, it was a time of serious discernment. I was serving as a church youth pastor and finishing up my studies. There as the possibility that my part time position would become a full time position. Yet, I knew God was calling me away from that church, but where? To what? In 1990, God used my study of the book of Revelation to prep my heart. God used that book to get me ready to receive God’s call. Six years later, during that final full year of seminary study, God used a specific verse from Revelation to narrow my call.

“I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). That fall, 1996, I saw that verse with new eyes. I really believe the Holy Spirit settled on my heart. I wanted to meet people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. I didn’t care where I was from. My concern was where I was going. Where could I go to meet all those people?

God called me to pastor a little church just outside Washington DC. There, I had some of the most amazing experiences. I met people who had lived in Arlington, VA all their lives. I met people who had come from rural Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee. Drawn to DC by service in the military or employment with the government, they came and they stayed. I was meeting and walking alongside people from all over the U.S. and from all over the world. China, Sudan, El Salvador, Laos, Bolivia, Albania – I have been privileged to baptize people from all these places, and many more.

Why? Why was I able to live out my calling in Arlington, VA and Washington, DC? It happened because people want to come to America and experience the freedom and opportunity of our great nation. We have numerous immigration problems. There’s no question about that. I have lived up close and personal with some of the complicated issues surrounding immigration. In spite of the issues, immigrants continue to come in search of education, work, freedom, and hope. Churches like the one I served for 9 years in Arlington, and like HillSong Church are here and have opened the doors to the world as the world has flocked to America.

On this Independence Day, July 4, 2010, I want to thank God for America. Thank you God for once again drawing me to your amazing word – Revelation 7:9. It is the picture of the Heaven you have prepared for all who put their trust in Jesus. I can’t wait to see it – one day, in your time. Until then, thank you Lord for making America a place where it is possible to get a glimpse of Heaven. Help our church be a sanctuary, a safe place for people to come when they need a safe spot. Help our church receive, with loving Christian hospitality, people from every language, tribe and nation. For the sake of liberty, it is the American thing to do. For the sake of the Gospel and for loving the world in the name of Jesus, it is the Christian thing to do. AMEN.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weeping for God's Word

My basic devotional practice is to read a portion of scripture and then write my response to the Word in a journal. What I right may be a summation of the chapter or section I have just read. Or, I may right some theological conclusions I draw based upon the reading. Or, I may write something very confessional, very personal, as God's word awakens in me a consciousness and awareness of my own spiritual walk. No matter what I write, is stems forth from my reading of scripture. I am at my best when I do this every day. I am letting life get too hectic when this simple practice is neglected and I only get to it once or twice in a 2-3 week span.

What would I do without the word? Would I miss the Bible if I was never able to read it? Obviously as a pastor, I have to read, interpret, teach, and preach the Bible every week. But, on the personal level, would I miss it if I didn't have it?

The first century Christ-follower John was taken into a vision to Heaven where he went into the throne room of God. He saw in the right hand "of the one seated on the throne" (as God is referred to) "a scroll written on the inside and on the back" (Revelation 5:1). What's written on the scroll? John desperately wanted to know, but "no one in heaven or on the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it" (5:3). And John began to weep bitterly.

At this point in the drama of Revelation, he has already met the resurrected Christ in his fully glorified form (1:13-16). He was given specific messages for seven churches (chapter 2-3). He was drawn into the throne room of Heaven (chapter 4). John has been privileged to see things most believers never see in their lifetimes on earth. We believe we are invited to resurrection by our resurrected Lord Jesus, and one day we will see clearly though now we see only in part (1st Corinthians 13:12). But John got to see a bit more clearly than most do on this side of Heaven. He wept for what he didn't get to see. He was sure that scroll had information he wanted, and no one was found worthy to open and read it.

Do we long for God's word that strongly, that we would weep and be utterly broken without it? John was encouraged by one of the elders (first mentioned in 4:4). He said, "Do not weep. See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals" (5:5). Note the depictions of Jesus in the elders' words. Jesus then appears to John as a Lamb that was slain. I capitalize "Lamb" as do the interpreters of the New Revised Standard Version because in Revelation the Lamb is Jesus.

Jesus is the Lamb, the Root, the Lion, and the Conqueror. Jesus is also the one who opens the scroll and opens the message of God so John can hear it, understand it, live by it, and share it. That's the way the Word needs to be at work in us. First, we have to hear it (Romans 10:14-17), and we need to understand it (Acts 8:30-35). Then, once we know the Word, we need to live by it (Matthew 4:4; 2nd Timothy 3:16-17). Finally, we must, as men and women of Jesus, share the Word (Matthew 28:19-20).

Jesus makes it possible. A trained scholar can study an ancient text whether it is from the Bible from some other ancient source. The scholar can study all the parchments and papyri available and determine how the text was transmitted over the centuries from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to German to English. That scholar can study the grammar, the genre, the literary technique, and several other features of the text and how it influenced the community of faith. A casual reader of scripture can also, with no training whatsoever, read a passage and get a lot out of it.

However, there is a different way of reading, a way that comes only when one is enlightened by the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit of God, sent by Jesus, opens our hearts and minds as we read, the Word becomes a Living Word that shapes our lives. And it is for that that we weep.

In Revelation 5, the action of the Lamb, Jesus, taking the scroll from God sitting on the throne evokes worship. The living creatures (described in 4:6) and the elders fall before the Lamb (v.9) and sing of Jesus' worthiness. Thousands upon thousands of angels join in the worship of Jesus. Then, "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" join in the worship and singing (Revelation 5:13; this recalls Philippians 2:10). This is universal worship of Jesus and it comes when he takes the scroll from God with the purpose of making the contents of the scroll available to women and men.

Sometimes, I get spiritually lazy. I fall out of my habit of reading scripture and commenting on it. Sometimes, I am committed and I do my reading and keep my journal, but it is a chore. I have days where I don't feel any great movement of the Spirit in my soul. The Word of God feels dry. It feels like I am just slogging through a task I assigned myself. I think, though, that slogging through is worth the effort. There's a worship song that goes "this is the air I breathe." Reading scripture and (more importantly) meeting the Lord in the scripture is the air I breathe.

The days I slog through, God is quietly, almost imperceptible, at work deep inside me. The work God does in me on those days when I force myself to read is highly valuable and the breakthrough (God breaking through the walls of sin I have erected around my heart) eventually comes. When it does, my spirit takes flight and I join those thousands of thousands of angels. I sing that worship song to Jesus because he has called me to himself.

If you are reading this, I urge, you, make it a habit to read God's word every day. Pray as you read. Ask God to open His deep truth to you and ask Him to open your heart to His love. Ask God to give you such passion for Him that you will weep for His word. Do this, and eventually, in God's perfect time, you'll discover what all that singing in Heaven is about. In you'll know Jesus in ways that change you forever.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Revelation: What am I reading?

The final book of the Bible, Revelation, has held a grip on me since I joined a small group of high school and college students studying it in the summer of 1990. Shortly after that study and reading the book This Present Darkness (Peretti) and spending time in prayer for a young woman who was my peer (I was 20 at the time), I returned for my junior of college. And I heard God call me into vocational ministry. Revelation is exceedingly interesting to me and is also closely tied to the days I heard God tell me distinctly that I would be a pastor.

Since 1990, I have learned much about Revelation. There are many ways of reading this book of the Bible. There is the fantasizing speculation (books like The Left Behind Series), there is complete misreading (Hal Lindsey's Late, Great Planet Earth), devotional reading, and historical-critical reading. The best commentary on Revelation I have found is by Craig Keener in the NIV Application Series. The most thorough work I have read is David Aune's commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary Series.

Aune's work is not very accessible for non-scholars. I have trouble with it because my Greek is very elementary. I have a limited understanding of Hellenistic Greek vocabulary, and my knowledge of the grammar is even weaker. Aune writes in a scholarly style that requires a lot of effort for me to read. That said, I appreciate the great detail he goes to in pursuing lines of argument. His books is over 300 pages (not counting a 200-page introduction) and he only covers Revelation 1-5.

One of the topics he deals with is genre. When a Christian reads Revelation, what exactly is she reading? If someone reads Romans, the genre is obvious. It's an epistle, a letter. Isaiah is a prophecy. The Psalms are worship songs and are classified as writings or wisdom literature. Leviticus is law.

The genre is Revelation is harder to pinpoint. Aune discusses J.J. Collins' definition of an apocalyptic; and Collins' definition is based on Revelation. So, Revelation is the proto-type of Apocalyptic literature. Not so, according to other scholars. Some look at particular non-Biblical Jewish works from the 200BC-100AD, and they compile a list of features. Some of those features do not apply to Revelation, so it cannot be an apocalypse.

Aune rejects that conclusion saying that just because Revelation doesn't meet every qualification on the apocalyptic-check list does not disqualify it. Structurally, the majority of verses in Revelation are more like an apocalypse than any other form.

However, Aune also observes that Revelation itself claims to be prophecy (22:18). Furthermore, in apocalyptic literature, the righteous who are persecuted in this life by the wicked are rewarded in the next. And, the wicked who have disregard God in this life and have injured the weak are punished in the next. It seems to be a precursor of 20th century Liberation theology. Prophecy, on the other hand, is a warning to the wicked that they must repent, change. Implicit in this warning is that they will have the opportunity to do so. Revelation is full of such warnings (2:5, 16, 21; 3:3, 19). The opportunity for repentance is a part of the message in Revelation (9:20-21). There is also, and perhaps more often mentioned, reward and punishment. But repentance is not completely missing.

So, Revelation is structured like an apocalypse. In some ways the message suggests prophecy and in Chapter 22 it self-identifies as prophecy. Chapters 1-3 and chapter 22, the beginning and ending, function as a letter. This was a specific 1st century form and Revelation takes that form. So what is the final book of the New Testament, letter, prophecy, apocalypse, or combination of all three?

In my own experience, Revelation is Gospel because in Revelation, I see Jesus and I see who I am supposed to be in Jesus. I see in the four Gospels too, but in Revelation, I meet the Lord in a unique and transforming way. This happened in 1990 when I was called into ministry. It took place again in 2006 when I began the year intending on preaching Revelation every single week of that year (I did not end up doing that, but I hope to someday). And again this year, in April & May, the Lord spoke to me through Revelation after the Lord had thoroughly disrupted my spiritual equilibrium in my journaling through the Gospel of John. As my vision of Jesus keeps expanding in Revelation, I have to call it Gospel. I couldn't make that case in scholarly circles. But from a reflective standpoint I have to. If I ever write a book about Revelation, it will be a reflective piece and I'll call it Revelation as Gospel.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Crystal Sea - Revelation 4:6

This is a second entry on Revelation 4. In his commentary on Revelation chapters 1-5, David Aune takes 53 pages to cover Revelation 4. I don't have that much material, but I am interested in one of the images Aune responds to, the"sea." John had been taken into a vision which took him from the Island of Patmos where he had been exiled for the faith to the throne room of Heaven. Among what he sees is this body of water at the foot of God. "And in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal" (v.6, New Revised Standard Version).

Aune attributes much of John's description of his vision in Revelation to the writings of Ezekiel. Some may hear this type of connection and accuse Aune of disregarding divine authority. O, I know Aune! He's like all those liberal scholars who don't believe in God. John didn't copy Ezekiel. John received his vision directly from God! Aune doesn't believe the Bible. To that type of critique, I'd say, you don't understand. For Aune to say that Revelation is based on the writings in Ezekiel, he is not saying John didn't have a vision. Aune isn't making a statement about whether or not he accepts the spiritual veracity of Revelation. Aune is trying to describe and understand Revelation.

Look at Ezekiel 1:22. Ezekiel was in a vision and he saw mind-blowing images, including living creatures like those we see in Revelation (Ezekiel 1:5 ff.). In verse 22, he writes, "Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal." Take Ezekiel's vision in conjunction with Genesis 1:7 - "So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters above the dome." To say John writing in Revelation used Ezekiel as a source is not to say that John didn't have the vision or see the throne room. Perhaps, he and Ezekiel were looking at the same thing. Ezekiel used language from Genesis 1:7. John in Revelation used Ezekiel's language because it would have been familiar to him and to his readers. 'Oh,' thinks John. I now see what I read. This is what Ezekiel was talking about.

Another point of connection is the "sea" Solomon fashioned out of bronze when he was constructing the temple. "Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim and five cubits high" (1 Kings 7:23). The mythology of a sea of fresh water (both subterranean and celestial) existed in Jewish literature (see Psalm 29:10, "the Lord sits as king over the flood) as well as in Babylonian and in other Ancient Near Eastern texts. The idea of a heavenly ocean is prevalent in Ancient Near Eastern thought.

So, when Solomon put that sea as a prominent design in the temple, did he have in mind God calming (and prevailing over) the raging chaos sea (Genesis 1:2); or did he have in mind God's dome (Gen. 1:7); or did he have in mind the sea God opened to allow his people to pass through and then closed to swallow the Egyptian pursuers (Exodus 14:21-27)? When Ezekiel described his vision, did his turn to Genesis and Exodus and Solomon for his descriptive words? When John wrote what he saw in the Revelation, did he rely on Ezekiel as a model, or was he thinking of the Psalms (like Psalm 29), or of Solomon, or Moses, or the writing of Genesis 1? It's most likely all of the above.

This is but a sampling of the ways we can follow the imagery of sea in relation to waters in the atmosphere and also in terms of the geography of Heaven. The metaphor runs throughout the Old Testament. All of this is what is behind Revelation 4:6 - only the first part of verse 6. Revelation is a tour de force of allusions to the Old Testament. In a sermon Fred Craddock said there are over 500 allusions or references to the Old in Revelation. People go crazy trying to look to the future and to the present in an attempt to interpret the mysteries of Revelation. It's not a secret code! John intended it to be understood. It Reveals the truth; it does not hide it.

However, the truth is revealed by one who assumes that his readers understand his references. Do we want to understand Revelation? We need to understand the Old Testament. John used Old Testament pictures to illustrate what God was doing in the late first century in churches in Asia Minor. He wrote from a very specific context to Christians in very specific contexts. It is challenging to read what he wrote because we come from outside those contexts. He words though do speak to us because his writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Under God's direction, what he wrote took on an eternal quality that presents inerrant truth.

When then do we do with the sea image? A couple of thoughts come to mind for me. In Genesis 1:2, the sea is an untamed, dark chaos. The ominous nature of the unknowns of the depths of the sea played on the worst fears men could imagine in the days of Moses, in the days of Job, in the days of the 12 disciples, and going forward in history up to the days of Columbus. The sea was death. More specifically for Israel, the sea was what kept them in slavery in Egypt because the sea stood between them and the Promised Land.

However, the sea also stood as a testimony to the power of God. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the sea. In Exodus 14, the mighty raging sea obeyed God immediately without protest. In the days of Jesus, men feared the sea with outright panic, but he walked on it. Storms at sea struck fear into the hearts of the heartiest seafarers, but those same storms quieted immediately at a rebuke from Jesus. Man is utterly powerless before the sea, but throughout the Bible God puts the sea in its place.

In Revelation, the sea is glass. Recreational sailors don't like calm waters because there is no wind - nothing to push their sailboats along. Ruefully they say, "the lake is like glass today." A crystal sea or a glass sea is one that is calm. In God's throne room, that which commands dread in the hearts of women and men, the sea, is submissive, lying still at the feet of God on his throne. And in Revelation 21, when God makes his home among human beings, we read, "the sea was no more" (v.1).

The sea is as awesome as God made it to be. John reminds us that as tremendously powerful as that is, God is more so. God Lords over the sea. Does God Lord over us? He allows us to choose whether we will bow submissively before him and live according to His Word and to His Will. Is that the path we take? Or do we rage and rebel and kick against God? In this light, it's kind of silly: one little human being is his own, small, contained ocean of protest. How much calmer is the heart when the man or the woman submits authority for life to God? When it comes to a person's life, or the ragings of the sea, or the bottom-line message in Revelation, the final answer is the same. God is Sovereign and Jesus is Lord.