A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

Our Father

“Pray then like this:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done—on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Why return to an older version of English when praying this prayer? We know that there are no magic words; we know that God does not want to hear us babbling like pagans. Why, then, do so many Christians pray these exact words in this exact way? Why do we memorize these words, teach them to our children, and say them exactly this way when we gather for church services?

Sometimes, as Christians, we pray together. We unite our voices in prayer to God. When we join together for prayer, we find it helpful to say the same words, rather than each believer speaking a different prayer. Jesus himself gave us these words, although Matthew first wrote them in the Greek language. We use a translation into English that is four hundred years old. We do not update these words for the sake of those believers who learned them this way long ago. Moreover, we maintain this antique language and grammar in memory of those who prayed these words before us. The saints in Paradise prayed these words, and their voices from the past mingle with ours in the present when we approach our Father in the prayer that Jesus gave to his one true Church.

When Christians pray together, we unite around these words. When we go into our rooms and close the door to pray secretly to our Father, we are not bound by these memorized words. Jesus does not want to hear us rush through the words of this prayer, saying them as quickly as possible. Instead, Jesus intends this prayer to be an outline upon which we can hang all our joys and worries, hopes and fears, and everything we might want to discuss with God.

Many books have been written about this prayer. Martin Luther once said that, when he prayed this prayer properly, he could not finish in less than an hour. Many times he would pray only one portion of the prayer and leave other parts for the next day. This prayer is meant to be a very personal prayer; yet, it remains our prayer as we talk with our Father and ask him for our daily bread and to forgive our sins. When we pray this prayer, we pray not only for ourselves but for all the members of the Church on earth, those we know and those we have not yet met.

Jesus has us begin the prayer by talking to God about God. We call him Father, remembering that Jesus has paid to adopt us into his family. We celebrate his name, his kingdom, and his will. For many Christians, the hardest words to pray are, “Thy will be done.” We give God permission to do what he knows is best. When Jesus prayed those words in Gethsemane, he knew that his Father’s will for Jesus included the cross. God’s will may permit trouble, suffering, and even death in our lives. Binding the first half of the prayer together, we ask that God’s name be honored and his kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Then we speak to God about our needs. We pray for daily bread (not mine, but ours)—not cake and ice cream, but bread; not a year’s supply, but enough for today. Tomorrow we will pray about tomorrow’s bread. Next, we ask for the forgiveness of our sins, which is also a daily need. Yesterday’s sins were forgiven yesterday. We prayed about them yesterday; God has already forgiven them and forgotten them, so we do not need to mention them again. We promise to forgive others the same way we have been forgiven, which is also a daily concern. We have already forgiven the sins committed against us yesterday; we do not remember them today. Today we ask God for help to forgive those who have hurt us today. We ask God to lead us today, to keep us far from temptation. We ask God to rescue us today, to keep us safe from evil. We ask these things for ourselves, knowing that we will receive them, because each of them is part of God’s will for us.

Some Christians pray about the kingdom and the power and the glory; others do not. Some copies of the Bible have these words; others do not. Palestinians Jews frequently ended their prayers with a similar expression in the first century. Whether Jesus included these words as he talked about prayer does not matter, because prayer is not a magic formula that must be said in one precise way. These words are fitting because they echo the thoughts spoken at the beginning of the prayer. No harm can come from saying them; no harm can come from leaving them unsaid.

Christians have a custom of ending every prayer with a Hebrew word—“Amen.” This word expresses confidence and hope. It says that we know that God has heard our prayer and is answering our prayer. No magic resides in the word “Amen.” A prayer is no less a prayer if the word is not said. We want to express our confidence and hope, especially when we pray together. We affirm that we agree with all the requests spoken in the prayer, but especially we affirm our faith that God has heard our prayer and is answering it.

If you should pray at bedtime and should fall asleep before you reach the “Amen,” do not fear. God still hears your prayer. He will still answer your prayer. What could be more beautiful than falling asleep in the lap of your heavenly Father? J.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Office of the Keys

Jesus says: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Luther explains: “What is the Office of the Keys? The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Salvageable adds: Who has the power to forgive sins? As the Pharisees said to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Jesus has authority to forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Moreover, he has authority to forgive sins because he sacrificed himself on a cross to purchase forgiveness for sinners. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he was granting Peter authority to forgive sins. With that came authority also to withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.

Who exercises the office of the keys in the Church today? Some say that the keys belong to one person at a time; they say that the head pastor in Rome, the pope, is the only person who has those keys. Others say that all the apostles were given the same authority in Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:23. They suggest that church workers—especially pastors and ministers—hold those keys. On Easter night, though, when Jesus repeated his authorization to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness, he preceded that by breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” From this, I conclude that every Christian has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. When the congregation gathers, the pastor exercises that authority. The keys are given to the pastor by Jesus through the call of the congregation. Outside the gathering of the congregation, every Christian possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian can use God’s commandments to warn sinners of their need for forgiveness. Every Christian can use God’s promises to share forgiveness with sinners.

When would a Christian, especially a pastor, withhold forgiveness? When a sinner does not want to be forgiven. When a sinner loves the sin more than the Savior. When a sinner clings to a sin and does not repent. Jesus gave a four-step process for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners: deal with them first one-on-one; then raise the matter again with one or two witnesses; then tell it to the church; and if they will not listen to the church, treat them as pagans and tax collectors.

Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as mission opportunities. In fact, the only Gospel that contains that passage about how to treat stubborn sinners is the Gospel written by Matthew, the former tax collector. When Christians share God’s commandments, their goal is to share forgiveness. When Christians warn sinners to repent, their goal is to share forgiveness. But Jesus also tells Christians not to cast pearls before swine or to give dogs what is holy. Announcing forgiveness to a sinner who loves the sin more than the Savior is casting pearls before swine. Promising forgiveness to a sinner who does not want God’s forgiveness is giving dogs what is holy.

Jesus spoke far more often about bringing forgiveness to sinners than he spoke about making disciples. In his model prayer, he told his followers to promise to forgive trespassers, but he did not have them promise to make disciples. The Great Commission is best accomplished through the Office of the Keys. When Christians use the commands and the promises of God to bring God’s forgiveness to sinners, they are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus came and the purpose for which he established his Church. J.

Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.