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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.

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