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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Revelation 16: Judgements that are Just and True

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

Sharing the Faith

Gordon MacDonald discusses an approach he takes to nudging people into a spiritual conversation. In a relaxed conversation, he asks, "Would you tell me the main events of your life story, the highs and the lows, in three minutes?" How the person answers is crucial and if our intent is to share Jesus with that friend, we have to pay close attention. Does he talk about past pain? Does he mention more highs or more lows? Does he speak of accomplishments?

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 -

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 -

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

To Die in Christ

I was thinking about Revelation today. A woman in New York frequently calls me to ask for prayer and we always pray together on the phone. She has a lot of pain in her life. She's determined to get back to the south where I live. She wants to come back to our church. It hasn't been possible to this point.

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.

Christianity and the Five Pillars of Islam

I am a pastor, and recently, I challenged my church to respect Islam, know about Isalm, and become friends with a Muslim person. I don't know nearly enough about this religion that has over 1 billion adherents. So, I need to meet my own challenge.

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

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

When there's nothing left

Mark 12:38-44
As 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

Judgment - Eternal Gospel?

I do not read the book of Revelation as future-forecast, not as prophecy, not as road map for the end times, but rather as Gospel. No doubt, Revelation is prophecy and it is apocalyptic literature. But that is problem if we get caught up in how it sounds strange to our modern ears. As 21st century listeners in the Western World not accustomed to the subversive nature of 1st apocalyptic literature, we risk missing what God is saying in Revelation as we try to force the message into our context. I propose reading it first and foremost as Gospel, God's good news.

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.