My newest book: Unveiling Revelation

Imagine seeing a woman and a dragon stretched across the sky. Imagine seeing four supernatural horsemen riding across the landscape, bringing death and destruction in their wake. Imagine watching as the mighty city Babylon is destroyed by enemies that used to be its friends. Best of all, imagine standing in the presence of God, surrounded by angels and saints, all singing praise to Jesus Christ the Lord and the Redeemer.

All these things happened to John the Apostle on the island of Patmos. He described his experiences in the book of Revelation, the full name of which is A Revelation of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is written in poetry with many odd and frightening vision. But the main theme of the book is good news: Jesus has won against all evil, and he shares his victory with his people.

In “Unveiling Revelation,” John’s book is studied by comparing it to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. After an introduction that outlines Biblical eschatology (the study of Last Things), the book breaks Revelation into sections and analyzes them one by one. More a devotional work than a commentary, it reveals the true meaning of what is described in the book of Revelation.

This is now the tenth book I have self-published through Amazon and Kindle. To celebrate, I reduced the Kindle cost of all ten books to four dollars each. In some ways, Unveiling Revelation was a difficult book to write—it was meant to be last summer’s writing project, and I didn’t finish it until this summer. But I think I learned a lot studying Revelation to write about Revelation. I’ve taught the book in Bible class at least five times, and before that I took a seminary course on the book of Revelation, so I hope other people will find my observations helpful.

On the other hand, not all readers are going to like my book. It does not follow the path of The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books. Instead, I treat passages such as I Thessalonians 4:13-18 as God’s clear messages about eschatology and use them to decipher the meaning of the poetic language of Revelation. Since everything in the Bible is true, and Revelation is in the Bible, it follows that everything in Revelation is true. But, as there are figures of speech elsewhere in the Bible—figures that must be interpreted in context and through comparing them to clearer sections of Scripture—so the same is true of the book of Revelation.

In one of the Bible classes I taught about Revelation, a young man spoke up to say, “I don’t understand everything in this book, but I’ve figured out one thing: Jesus wins!” That is certainly the most important thing to remember when reading and studying Revelation. If you don’t comprehend anything else, be sure to remember that Jesus wins. J.

UR2

For the paperback, click here.    For the Kindle, click here.

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Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.

 

Down dooby-do down down (semicolon)

Breaking up is hard to do. That’s not just a song from the Bubble Gum Era of rock music (the early 1960s); it’s also a fact, one that is hard to deny.

This summer would be a bad time to end a relationship. I say that because of the ubiquitous song “Be Alright,” written and sung by Dean Lewis. (“I know you love her, but it’s over, mate….”) If I were dealing with the aftermath of an ended relationship, I would probably want to destroy my radio the next time that song began.

That’s unfortunate, because most of that song contains good advice. Alright: the “bottoms up to forget” is bad advice, because drinking only increases the pain; it doesn’t make it go away. But the rest of the song is fitting: breaking up does hurt a bit for a while, and after a while things do get better.

I have experienced ended relationships, and I have not forgotten the pain. But I survived—life goes on, and new joys replace the old. I have encouraged others when they were grieving ended relationships. Being the supportive friend can be difficult—you see the light, but they only see the darkness. You know there is hope, but they don’t want to hear about hope. For a while, it seems that they want to cling to the pain, to coddle it, to make it the center of their lives, the meaning of their existence. For most people, that stage also ends, and life goes on.

What would I add to Dean Lewis’ words of wisdom? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still worth saying: love makes us vulnerable. When we love someone, our love makes it possible for us to be hurt. That is true of more than romantic love: family relationships can be painful, and even friendships can be painful. But the possibility of pain—even the reality of pain—is worth bearing because of the immense, immeasurable value of love itself.

Even the Almighty God has made himself vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He loves his fallen creatures. He grieves when any of us turn away from him and reject his gifts. The lover whose loved one chooses someone else has a taste of the holy, divine grief of God. The lover whose loved one wants to end the relationship knows how Christ felt when Judas betrayed him for money, when all the disciples ran away, and when Peter said three times that he did not know who Jesus is.

Love is central to God’s nature. Love flows among the Persons of the Holy Trinity outside of time and space. Creation happened as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. We are created in God’s image, meaning that we are created so we can love God and so we can love one another. When God speaks of our relationship with him in terms of family—even in terms of marriage and romantic love—he is not taking an experience we know and using it as a metaphor. He is speaking a truth that is not metaphor: he is saying that he loves us with all the passion of human romantic love.

The cross proves that God would do anything for us. Perhaps God allows us the pain of broken relationships in this lifetime so we can look at the cross in a new light. Our minds might not grasp the connection, but our hearts can feel the love of God that would bear a cross and accept its pain and suffering, all for the sake of love.

Breaking up is hard to do. God does not want to break up with his people. Through the message of the Bible and in the life of the Church, God nourishes our loving relationship with him—our faith—so we remain in a proper relationship with him and are not in danger of breaking up with him. For all the messy complicated problems of the Church on earth, it is valuable as a link to God, who pours his blessings into our lives through his Church. J.

The finish-line–Revelation 22

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17—read Revelation 22:1-21).

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he made a garden as the home of the first man and the first woman. In that garden grew the tree of life. But when the man and the woman ate the fruit of another tree, fruit that had been forbidden to them, God removed them from the garden. He did not want them to eat the fruit of the tree of life and live forever in their sin and rebellion and separation from him. Instead, he wanted them to pass through death to everlasting life, to be restored to fellowship with him.

God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, promising them a garden-like home in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. To reach that land, they had to travel through the wilderness. God made a covenant with his people in the wilderness, saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But the Israelites doubted God’s promise; they feared the Canaanites living in the Promised Land and failed to trust God. Therefore, they remained in the wilderness forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

Like a shepherd searching for lost sheep, Jesus came into this wilderness of sin to rescue us. He battled the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus won. When the time came to fulfill his promise of redemption, Jesus went into a garden to pray. He was seized in that garden and taken to trials and to the cross. But, after his death on the cross, he was buried in a garden, and in that garden his victory was proclaimed as Jesus rose from the dead.

Now the new creation is described as a garden. As rivers flowed from Eden to water the earth, so a river flows from the throne of God through the main street of the New Jerusalem. That river carries the water of life, the redeeming water that gives life to all God’s people. The tree of life grows on either side of that river, with twelve kinds of fruit to nourish all the people of God. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Because our sins have been removed, we are no longer barred from eating the fruit of the tree of life. We can live forever, because our rebellion against God has ended and all sin and evil has been removed from our lives.

One of the historic prayers of the Church mentions the devil, saying, “that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome.” The cross is that tree where the serpent’s head was crushed. It is a tree of life, even though nothing could be deader than a bare, wooden, fruitless cross, an instrument of death rather than life. We are all trees in the Lord’s orchard, meant to bear fruit for him. Yet apart from him we can do nothing. We might have green leaves, suggesting life, but we offer him no fruit. We are dead trees, fit only for the fire. Only Jesus of Nazareth bears fruit fit for the kingdom of heaven. But by going to the dead tree of the cross, Jesus gives us life. He makes us fruitful trees, worthy of his kingdom. His cross truly is the tree of life that makes us alive, watered by the river of the water of life, yielding fruit in due season (Psalm 1:3).

The last chapter of Revelation seems almost a scatter-shot of promises, echoing the previous chapters of the book as well as those of the other books of the Bible. Jesus speaks, and his messengers speak on his behalf. Even John becomes confused, worshiping an angel who speaks Christ’s promises, and being scolded by the angel for his confusion. The angel calls himself a fellow-servant of the apostle and of his brothers, the prophets; he tells John, “Worship God!” We also, as fruit-bearing trees in God’s orchard, can be fellow-servants with the apostles and prophets and angels; we also have the joyful privilege and obligation to share God’s life-giving Word, to bring forgiveness to sinners and hope to the victims of sin through the tree of life, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is coming soon. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is also everything in between. He is both the root and the descendant of David—David’s son and David’s Lord. He is the bright morning star, first-risen from the dead to promise all of us a resurrection like his on the Day he appears in the clouds.

Revelation 22 includes a warning not to add anything to the book of Revelation, nor to take away anything from the book. This warning applies to the entire Bible. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus has fulfilled the promises of Moses and the prophets: he has done everything required to rescue God’s people, to defeat evil in all its forms, and to make everything new. Soon he will be seen in the clouds in glory, giving the command to raise all the dead, to announce his verdict on every life, and to welcome his people home into the new creation. Meanwhile, we live in his grace, redeemed from all our sins, reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice, and ready for eternal life in a new and perfect creation. As John writes, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

The cost of discipleship (sermon on Luke 9:57-62)

(shared with permission of the author)

 

Being a Christian is the easiest thing in the world. Being a Christian is also the hardest thing in the world. Like the other paradoxes involved in our faith, if we look at only one side, we are likely to misunderstand the truth. Only when we see both sides of the paradox do we begin to understand what it means to be a Christian.

Being a Christian is easy because it requires no work. It requires no work to be a Christian because Jesus has already done all the work to claim us for his kingdom. Anything we do to try to earn God’s love and his forgiveness and a place in his kingdom is counterproductive. Saying that we must be good first before God will accept our lives and forgive our sins is wrong. Saying that we must finish the work that Jesus began by being good is also wrong. Even saying that we must give our lives to Jesus or invite him into our hearts is wrong. Anyone who tries to take credit for even the smallest part of salvation insults God and risks losing God’s gift. We are saved by grace, not by works. Jesus does everything necessary to make us his disciples; we contribute nothing to the process.

Yet being a disciple of Jesus is hard work. Now that Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom and has taken away all our sins, we are called to imitate Jesus. We are to strive toward perfection. We are to have perfect love for God and perfect obedience of all his commands. We are to have perfect love for our neighbors, helping them in every way they need. We are to make the world a better place. As Christians, we are pictures of Jesus to the rest of the world. When our imitation of Christ falls short, we bring shame to his name. Instead of being his missionaries, we might give our neighbors reasons not to want to be Christians like us.

The best way to live with this paradox is to look at Jesus and not at ourselves. We remember that Jesus is eternally the Son of God. He is completely divine, as the Father is divine and the Holy Spirit is divine. But Jesus became human. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He knows what it is to be human, because he is completely human. As God he is timeless and unchanging. As a man he moved through time—being born as a baby, growing from a boy into a man, suffering and dying on a cross, and rising to life again. Being one Christ, the Son of God experienced all those aspects of being human, and the Son of Mary has all the attributes of God.

Jesus came into this world on a mission. He came to save sinners. As a shepherd, he went out into the wilderness looking for sheep that had strayed. In the wilderness, Jesus battled the devil, who tried to discourage his rescue mission. But Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil. He remained faithful to his Father. In all his years between the manger and the cross, Jesus never sinned. He never did anything opposed to the will of his Father. He did all that his Father asked of him. That complete obedience is part of our rescue. Jesus has exchanged lives with us. When he took our sins upon himself, he gave us his perfect record of total obedience. When his Father looks at each of us, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son. Therefore, God accepts us as his children. He regards each of us as pure and spotless.

But when Jesus took our sins upon himself, he also accepted the consequences of those sins. Jesus became a victim of evil, abandoned by his followers, rejected by his own people, treated unfairly by the government, and mocked by those who should have been worshiping him. Even his Father looked away from Jesus while he was on the cross, for God is holy and cannot bear to look at sin. We were in debt to God because of the times we sinned, but Jesus paid our debt in full. Now, even if we sin, Jesus reminds his Father that our debt is paid, and his Father continues to forgive our sins.

Because Jesus was battling evil and death, he rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory. Death could not hold him, and the devil has no power over him. Jesus promises us a resurrection like his. When he is seen in glory among the clouds, he will give a command, and all the dead will rise. Our bodies will be healed, and all of us who belong to him will celebrate his victory forever with him in a new and perfect creation.

Meanwhile, Jesus has not forgotten us in this world. He is with us always, even as he promises. Through the Bible he reminds us of what he has done for us and of what that means to us. In the Church he continues to proclaim forgiveness for each of us. In Holy Baptism he washes away our sins, bringing the power of the cross personally and individually into our lives. And he often feeds us at his Table, giving us his body and his blood to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory, just as he has promised.

His forgiveness changes us. We once conformed to the pattern of the world, but now we are being transformed into his image. With our sins removed, we begin to act more like Jesus. The transformation has not been completed. We still sin every day and need forgiveness every day. But the change is happening. We have already been made saints by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, being saints, we act like saints. We generally see the transformation more clearly in the lives of other saints rather than our own lives. We know where we have fallen short. But when we look at our fellow saints, we see the goodness of God shining through their lives.

One of the qualities of saints is that they are poor in spirit. Some have money and possessions and others do not, but the ones who have them are not owned by them, and the ones that do not have them are not obsessed with what they do not have. Saints are not attached to the treasures of this world. They are more interested in heavenly treasures than in earthly treasures.

One man told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus knew the heart of this potential disciple. He could see that this man would not be content with the life of a disciple. When Jesus sent his disciples out as missionaries, he told them to take no extra supplies—not a change of clothes, nor money, nor a bag to carry extra food. As missionaries, they were to rely on the gifts given them for their work, and not to occupy themselves with questions about how to meet their worldly needs.

On another occasion, a young man came to Jesus boasting that he had obeyed all the commandments. Jesus responded, “Go, sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, come, follow me.” The young man went away sad because he had great wealth. It is not a sin to be wealthy. In fact, it is a blessing to be wealthy. We can do many things for the sake of the kingdom of God with money and possessions. But when they tempt us to forget our heavenly treasures and enjoy them instead, our earthly possessions can be dangerous to our lives as saints.

A second quality of saints is that they are faithful to God. They make no excuses; when God gives a command, they obey. The perfection of Jesus was like this: he did everything his Father asked of him, even going to the cross to rescue sinners. As we are transformed into the image of Jesus, we also learn to obey his commands and not to make excuses to escape what he commands.

When Jesus said to one man, “Follow me,” the man replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” That seems like a reasonable request, but Jesus knows an excuse when he hears one. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” Jesus told him, “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” So we also should avoid excuses when Jesus tells us what to do. When he tells us to forgive those who sin against us, we should forgive them. No excuse releases us from the obligation to forgive. When Jesus gives us an opportunity to share his good news with others, we should share it. No excuse releases us from the obligation to proclaim the gospel.

Peter and Andrew and James and John left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus. Matthew left his tax collector’s booth to follow Jesus. So we also leave behind anything that would keep us from following Jesus. Any distraction from him, any competition for his place in our lives, needs to be left behind. We love him more than anything else; we trust him more than anything else; we even fear him more than anything else. Therefore, we do not allow our love for other things or our trust in other things or our fear of other things to keep us from following Jesus.

A third quality of saints is that they keep going forward; they do not look back. They do not think of their former sinful lives as the Good Old Days; they regret the sins for which they have already repented and been forgiven. The earthly treasures and worldly excuses that would have kept them from following Jesus do not have the power to pull them away from Jesus. Instead of looking back at what was past, saints continue moving forward on the Lord’s path.

Someone said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Again, Jesus knows our minds and our hearts. He knew that this potential disciple would never come back to Jesus if he first went home to say goodbye. So Jesus answered him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” When a farmer plows a field, the farmer does not lock back behind the tractor to see if the furrow is straight. Anyone who tried driving a tractor while looking backwards would wander all over the field. A farmer plowing a field chooses an object across the field, focuses attention on that object, and plows straight toward that object. With that technique, the furrow behind the tractor will always be straight.

Once Jesus sent his disciples across the lake in a boat, then followed some hours later, walking on the water. At first the disciples were frightened, thinking he was a ghost. But, when he assured them of who he is, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s really you, let me walk on the water toward you.” Jesus agreed to this request, and Peter got out of the boat. As long as Peter was looking at Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. When he was distracted by the wind and the waves, he fell into the water. Jesus had to pull him out again. So we also, when we focus on Jesus, can do whatever he wants us to do. When we are distracted by other things, we are more likely to sink than to walk.

These seem like challenging things to accomplish: to be poor in spirit, to be faithful to God without excuses, and to move forward without looking back. In fact, we fall short every day. Every day we repent of our sins and ask God for his forgiveness. Every day God forgives us, because on the cross Jesus paid for all of our sins. Every day our Baptism is renewed, as God looks at us and sees the righteousness of his Son and treats us accordingly. Every day we are being transformed into the image of Christ.

When the rich young man went away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything he owned, Jesus commented that getting a rich person into the kingdom of God is difficult, harder than threading a camel through the eye of a needle. The disciples were appalled and asked, “Who then can be saved?” “With man this is impossible,” Jesus told them, “but not with God: all things are possible for God.”

Being a Christian is the hardest thing in the world. We have to imitate Christ and do it perfectly to be worthy of the name “Christian.” But being a Christian is also the easiest thing in the world. It is easy because Jesus has done all the work. He has accomplished the impossible, changing us from sinners into saints. We remain sinners in this lifetime, but because of Christ’s work we will be saints forever. To Jesus, who has forgiven our sins, changed us into saints, and is still transforming us each day, to Jesus be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                      Amen.

A new heaven and a new earth–Revelation 21

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1—read Revelation 21:1-27).

The first heaven and the first earth pass away, because they are polluted by sin. Peter describes the passing away of the first creation this way: “”The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies (or elements) will be burned up and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3:10-11). As the fire of judgment destroys all that was stained by sin, the saints of God are lifted out of the fire to land with Christ in a new creation.

Greek philosophy imagined that all that is physical is tainted and that the ideal state is to be spirit without body or physical form. But God created the physical world and called it good. He added Adam and Eve in their physical bodies and called creation very good. After they sinned and brought evil and death into his creation, the Son of God took on a human form and lived among us as one of us. When he rose from the dead after his victory was won, he still inhabited a human body. He ate with his disciples. He spoke of the new creation as eating and drinking at a celebration, like a wedding reception. Isaiah also mentioned eating and drinking in God’s new creation (Isaiah 25:6).

The new creation will be like that which Adam and Eve saw before they sinned. It will have mountains and streams of water, forests and fields, plants and animals, all living together in peace and harmony. Probably it will have oceans and beaches as well—throughout Revelation the sea has been an image of evil covering the face of the earth, which is why John now writes that there will be no sea.

The prophets often referred to Israel as God’s Bride; the New Testament frequently calls the Christian Church the Bride of Christ. The Church has been represented in Revelation as twenty-four elders (twelve from each Testament), 144,000 saints, a multitude that could not be counted, and a single woman who gave birth to the Savior and was then protected in the wilderness. Now the people of God again appear, this time as a city wearing a wedding dress. She is the New Jerusalem, coming from God out of heaven to dwell in the new creation, as the saints in Paradise will return when Christ appears to join their risen bodies and live forever in the new heavens and new earth.

John hears a voice promising that God will dwell with man: he will be their God, and they will be his people. The old covenant was introduced with similar words in Exodus—God promised Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people. Now, through the work of Christ in the new covenant, this promise is fulfilled. In the new creation, nothing will come between us and God; nothing will keep us from knowing his love and also his plan for our lives. Because sin will be burned away on the Day of the Lord, the new creation will have no tears, no mourning, no crying, and no pain; the old order of things has passed away.

Jesus promises to make everything new. He calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In the beginning, everything was made through him. At the time of his appearing in the clouds, he will re-create everything. He promises to give freely from the spring of living water, as he promised a Samaritan woman in John 4. He lists those who will remain outside his new creation in the second death—those found guilty of sin because they refused God’s gift of grace, loving their sins more than they loved their Savior.

John is promised a closer view of the New Jerusalem, the wife of the Lamb. As Moses saw the Promised Land from a high mountain, so John watches from a high mountain as Jerusalem comes from heaven, from God’s presence in Paradise to God’s presence in the new creation. As the high priest wore a breastplate with twelve gems to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, so the new Jerusalem is decorated with twelve gems. It also has twelve gates, each gate carved from a single pearl. Its dimensions are measured and are found to be derived from units of twelve. The wall even had twelve foundations, with the names of the twelve apostles inscribed on them.

John mentions that the city was pure gold, clear as glass; he then says the same of the streets of Jerusalem, transparent as glass. Of course, gold is neither clear nor transparent; it is a yellow metal. But it is valuable, and transparent glass would be even more valuable. The gems and the gold and the pearly gates all are meant to show how valuable the Church—the gathering of believers—is to God.

When a Christian dies, that Christian’s family and friends sometimes speak of the Christian as entering the pearly gates and walking the golden streets of heaven. But the new Jerusalem with its pearly gates and golden streets does not appear until the Day of the Lord, the Day when Christ appears in the clouds, raises, all the dead, and makes everything new. It is better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). At that time, the body is buried on earth, but the soul is with Christ in Paradise, in the hands of the Father (Luke 23:43, 46). The joy of the resurrection and the new creation, though, is represented by the pearly gates and the golden streets—not by Paradise alone. Our Christian hope includes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting—there we will find the pearly gates and the streets of gold.

Of course, the pearly gates and streets of gold are figures of speech to describe the beauty of God’s people in his eyes. We are the Bride of Christ, so he adorns us with all that is precious: with gold and with pearls and with valuable gems. If a city in the new creation literally had twelve gates, each carved from a single pearl, then one would hope that the massive oysters that produced such pearls were located on another planet in the new heavens and not on the face of the new earth! But as no city ever wore a wedding dress, so I am sure that we will have no reason to fear monster oysters in the new creation.

John sees no Temple in the city: the Temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. Jesus once said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up”—but he was speaking about the Temple of his body (John 2:19,21). A Temple is the dwelling place of a god. The Son of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). In the new creation, where God promises to dwell among his people, no other Temple will be needed.

Likewise, we will not need pastors and preachers, because we will all know God. We will not need police officers, attorneys, judges, or jail wardens. We will need no soldiers. Nor will we need doctors, nurses, therapists, and pharmacists. Many of us will take on new careers. Yet the things we love doing today—the things we can do all afternoon without noticing time passing—are likely to be the things we will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow saints. Some will be occupied with music, others with literature, and still others with crafts. Some will tend gardens, as Adam and Eve did in the beginning before there was sin; others will care for the beasts of creation. Those things we love doing now (whether we are paid for doing them) we will do in the new creation, without struggle or strain or weariness or boredom. And we will all be at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation.

Without death, there will be no deadlines. Should someone want to take a vacation, he or she might walk into the forest, build a cabin, and live there for five or ten years, and then return to his or her work—and it would be less sacrifice of time than taking a weekend off in today’s hectic world.

The city (which represents God’s people in the new creation) needs no sun or moon, because the glory of God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp. This is not to say that the sun and the moon will no longer exist—merely that they will not be needed, because we will walk in God’s light. Therefore, its gates will never be shut, because no enemy will oppose it, and nothing will be able to harm it.

Nothing unclean will enter the new creation or the city of God. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will dwell there. Is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life? How can you be sure?

I once taught a semester on the Old Testament in a Christian high school. Toward the end of the semester, as Christmas was approaching and the students were easily distracted, I gave them a difficult test. I warned them that they would have to do well on the test to pass the class. They all did poorly, and they all knew it. The next time the class met, I announced that one copy of the test had earned a perfect score. (It was the answer key, which I had filled out myself.) I then said that no name had been written on the perfect test. I told the students that I had taken the liberty of writing each of their names on the answer key and giving each of them credit for the perfect test.

I then told them that Jesus had done the same thing for them. He had lived a sinless life in the place of their sinful lives. He had then written their names on his perfect righteousness, giving each of them credit for what he had done. This is how you and I know that our names are written in the book of life: Jesus has written them there himself.

(taken from Revelation Unveiled, upon which I am still working) J.

 

 

 

 

Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

The beauty of diverse styles of Christian worship

This spring I’ve been giving a series of lectures on World Religions. A week ago, I spoke about Christianity. This morning before class a woman took me aside to share her experiences within the Christian faith. She had been Lutheran, but a few years ago she switched to an Anglican congregation, which she says is very similar. (I agree.) She also attends a non-denominational church once a month with a friend (and she goes to that congregation’s weekly Bible class as well). She commented that she had attended the Easter Saturday service at the non-denominational church, but it hadn’t felt right. She then began to list for me the things missing from the service, such as a reading from one of the Gospels, and the Lord’s Prayer. But, she said, the preacher’s homily was good and quoted a lot of Bible verses.

The main thing for her, she said, was looking around and seeing lots of young adults at the non-denominational service. She figured that if the church was drawing them in and they were learning about Jesus, she wasn’t going to complain about the music (unfamiliar to her) or the parts of the service that were missing. I agreed with her that it’s good that Christian worship is diverse, that there are different ways of worshiping that appeal to different people. (I think that was the point that she was making, reflecting my discussion last week about enormous diversity within Christian thought and practice.) But I also mentioned that not all young people are drawn to the sort of worship offered in the non-denominational churches. Some young people enjoy the historic liturgy. They crave the traditions that grew in the Church over the centuries, the forms of worship that have united rather than dividing the saints of the Church across lines of age and economic status and culture. When those traditions are followed without being explained, they can be dry and boring, and therefore distracting. Where the meaning of the traditions is taught and shared, many Christians find great meaning and joy in the divine service as it has been followed for many generations.

Twenty years ago I might have said more to this woman about the richness of Christian traditional liturgy. In this case, I was quick to say that diversity is good, that the Church as a whole is blessed when Christians in a city can choose among different forms of worship, whether traditional, contemporary, or blended. I sincerely hope that the traditional liturgy never disappears; but I am glad that Christians who do not find liturgy meaningful can worship in a style that suits their personality and draws them closer to the Lord.

When I was in school, we students often discussed the different levels of formality in worship styles. One of my friends referred to those levels as “very formal, somewhat more casual, and massive casualty.” In a formal setting, worshipers sit on pews; in a somewhat more casual setting, they sit on folding chairs; and in massive casualty they sit in bean bag chairs. In a formal setting, the pastor wears a long white robe (called an alb) or perhaps a long black robe under a shorter white robe (called, respectively, a cassock and a surplice); in a somewhat more casual setting, the pastor wears a business suit; and in massive casualty the pastor wears a Hawaiian shirt. In a formal setting, the singing of the congregation is accompanied by a pipe organ; in a more casual setting, the singing is accompanied by a small rock band; in massive casualty, singing is accompanied by either a mariachi band or an accordion—and, of course, in some congregations the singing is accompanied by no instruments at all.

So long as the message of Jesus is taught and his forgiveness is shared, the style of worship is less important than the content of the message in the preaching, the singing, and the other elements of the service. New styles that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; new styles that distract people from his message are bad. Traditions that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; traditions that distract people from his message are bad. The Church exists for Christ, to be both his Body and his Bride. Distractions of any kind should give way to those things that serve his purpose. And, in different gatherings of Christians, those things that serve is purpose may be different indeed. J.

Saint Rodney

I met Rodney at a time that I needed the very inspiration he offered.

I had been accepted into graduate school during my last year of college. On a path towards a career of working in the church, I had majored in religious studies while in college. Between college and graduate school, I took a summer job at a Christian publishing company.

The transition from college to graduate school was not easy for me. In college I had enjoyed the freedom to take any position and support it with evidence; in graduate school, I was expected to agree with the professors on most positions. Political turmoil within the denomination increased tension on campus: students joked that the salt shakers in the cafeteria contained microphones to transmit our conversations to the office of the school’s president, while the pepper shakers contained microphones to transmit our conversations to the office of the denomination’s president. Uncomfortable with the campus environment, I decided that winter to take the spring and summer off and to use that time to decide whether to return in the fall.

Those months away from school I shared an apartment with a friend, working an evening job in fast food and a daytime job at the Christian publishing company where I had worked the previous summer. Meanwhile, Rodney had been hired at the publishing company. He was of Japanese-Hawaiian origin and was a large man who had been a sumo wrestler and had played on the offensive line for the University of Hawaii’s football team. He was not yet a Christian during his college years, and he had abused alcohol and drugs at that time, causing chronic health problems that would continue to plague him later in life.

Rodney became a Christian and then became a pastor in Hawaii. Here is the kind of pastor Rodney was: he had given his name and telephone number to the downtown bartenders so that, if they had a customer who was despondent and needed help, the bartenders could call Pastor Rodney and he would drive to the bar and provide Christian counseling. The spring we met, Rodney was taking graduate classes at a Christian college and also receiving regular medical treatment for the failure of his kidneys.

Our boss called Rodney his dreamer. Every week Rodney had a new plan for his life, a new thought about how he could be involved in Christian outreach, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who were lost. He was waiting for a kidney transplant, but he had already declined offers of live donors, preferring to trust the Lord and medical treatments to carry him until a suitable kidney was available. Rodney spoke with wonder about the form of dialysis he was receiving, one that used the abdominal cavity to provide the filtering he needed for his blood. He spoke of it as a God-given back-up kidney hidden in the human body.

Rodney died while receiving treatment at the hospital on May 6.

His infectious enthusiasm for serving the Lord and his Church contributed to my decision to return to school that fall and muddle through the program until I received my degree and certification. Every year I remember Saint Rodney on May 6, and I thank God for the part Rodney had in my professional development. J.

Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.