The Difference Between Knowing And Understanding


I know a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean I understand them. I know my car does this piston thing, burning fuel to make it run, but I couldn’t explain much more about the workings of the engine. I know less about my computer and a tenth of that about the Internet.

Still, though I don’t understand them, I use those basic tools. I know how to drive, how to enter information into my computer, how to access any number of sites and services on the World Wide Web.

I know, but I don’t understand.

Quite frankly, I’m fine with things the way they are. There are mechanics, tech guys, and webmasters who understand these things and take care of fixing them when they break. I trust their expertise and don’t feel like I need to kibitz—they’re quite capable without my input.

There’s an idea in our culture, however, that seems to treat God differently. He, the thought goes, is a mystery and we’ll never know Him because we will never have true understanding of Him. He is, after all, so far beyond mankind that we shouldn’t expect to understand Him or to know what He’s like. Here’s an example of this kind of thinking from a comment to another blog:

For me, I find that looking for the answers is satisfying enough, even if I never find ultimate truth. Omniscience is a beautiful, holy ideal. I know I will never attain it, but why stop trying? My brain is wired, therefore, with a strange dilemma: there is no ultimate truth, yet I’m going to search for it.

Rather than critiquing or responding to that comment, I want, instead, to take what I hope is a Scriptural look at the mystery of God.

First, the Bible makes it clear that God is indeed far beyond Mankind, that He doesn’t do or think like us:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9-9).

Such a situation seems to lend itself to belief that God is in fact a mystery. However, God has shown from the beginning of time that He had no desire to be a mystery.

First He made Man in His own image, after His own likeness. Just by looking at people, even in our fallen state, we can know something about God.

Second, God was engaged with Man, walking and talking with him rather than withdrawing and watching from afar. Even after man sinned and suffered the consequences, God interacted with Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Solomon, Daniel, and many others.

He also gave His Law and for forty years gave a visible indication of His presence with the people He chose as His own. He stayed with them, fought for them, fed them, kept their cloths from wearing out, disciplined them, and fulfilled His promises to them.

Still, there was a mystery — something God kept in reserve that all those people only caught a hint of. That mystery was Jesus Christ:

Of this church I [Paul] was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:25-27 – emphasis added).

All throughout the New Testament, then, the mystery is mentioned in light of its unveiling.

Mat 13:11: Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven …

Rom 16:25 … according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past,

Eph 1:9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him

Eph 3:3 that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery …

[emphases added]

Furthermore, we learn from Scripture that Christ is the image of the invisible God, that it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him. Hebrews spells out succinctly God showing Himself to Man:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:1-3a).

Is God a mystery?

How can we say that He is when He says He is not?

Does that mean we understand everything about Him? Not by a long shot.

But remember, understanding and knowing are not the same thing. We cannot let the thinking of our time push us off of the sure knowledge of God that we have — not because of our great intellect, which is nothing in comparison to God’s infinite knowledge, but because of God’s kindness and love which spurred Him to reveal Himself to us.

What He has told us, then, is sure knowledge, the testimony of omniscience. We can know what He has revealed, though we may never understand it.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2012.

Advertisements
Published in: on July 20, 2017 at 5:44 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,

Revelation


The Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye attracted attention to eschatology—the “part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” (Oxford English Dictionary). They are by no means the first writers to depict the events cataloged in the book of Revelation and other passages of prophecy. Back in 1972 A Thief in the Night, the first of a series of four feature-length films, made it’s way into theaters.

There was also a badly written novel—the title escapes me—that encapsulated the entire story of The End . . . in about 250 pages. I’m sure there were others. Certainly there have been since Left Behind. In 2010 Scars: An amazing end-time prophecy novel came out. In 2011 an author announced he was beginning work on The Revelation: a new end-times novel as part of NaNoWriMo.

Years ago, before Revelation became a subject of fiction, churches favoring a dispensational view of Biblical history, held prophecy conferences, complete with charts and time lines.

All this to say, there has been a fascination with Revelation and what it says about the future. But of late, perhaps in reaction to the so popular Left Behind books, there’s been a bit of a backlash against end-time fiction. Some publishers, for example, state in their guidelines they do not want end-time stories. Some bloggers make repeated references to the “bad theology” of the Left Behind books.

I suppose the main struggle with the book of Revelation is to know what is symbolic and what is literal. In some instances, an angel tells John, and therefore us, what the visionary language means.

As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev. 1:20)

These passages are not nearly as common as the pictorial, symbolic language filling most of the book.

That we struggle today to know what John saw that was figurative and what, literal, should be no surprise. The disciples struggled to understand Jesus, too. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, He told them. Oh, no, the disciples said, we forgot to bring bread. I’m going up to Jerusalem to die, Jesus said. Who gets to sit on Your right hand and left hand when You take over, the disciples asked.

When was He talking in parables, when was He speaking plainly? If they couldn’t tell, it should be no shock that we struggle a bit with the same issues when it comes to the revelation Jesus gave to John.

But there are some things we can know. So what is good theology when it comes to the book of Revelation? What is this book recording John’s vision of angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath and seals and beasts and the harlot Babylon, all about?

As my former pastor said as part of his introduction to a sermon series over the book, the one clear truth is that Christ wins. That being said, I think there are some additional key themes that run through Revelation which, I believe, Christians on either side of the theological divide, agree upon.

First, Jesus Christ is the Lamb that was slain, making Him the only one qualified to open that which God has held secret from past ages and generations.

In addition, He will return as the Conqueror and the King, defeating Satan and assigning him eternal punishment.

Revelation also portrays divine judgment on those who follow Satan, who do not repent and give God glory.

Throughout, the book shows God as righteous in His acts, even those that come directly from His wrath. Here’s an example:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.” (Rev 16:5-7)

Another key theme is God’s provision of a new home—a new heaven and a new earth—for those whose names are written in the book of life.

One more, though undoubtedly there are others: there’s a clear warning to the churches to hold fast to the truth, to love God and obey Him, to resist false teaching or the lure of riches or complacency.

Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday. It shows us what He cares about and what His wrath looks like. It shows that He is worthy to be praised for His justice as well as for His redemption, for His majesty as well as for His righteousness. It shows that He is the Lamb who is Worthy.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2012.

But The LORD


While we live in the physical world, we simultaneously live in a spiritual world. For starters, we have spiritual natures. In addition, whether we recognize it or not, God is not the only supernatural person. Other spiritual beings exist all around us. This is why Elisha could say to his servant in 2 Kings 6:16, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” The “those who are with us” consisted of chariots of fire filling the mountain which the servant couldn’t see until God opened his spiritual eyes.

In talking about creation, Paul refers to rulers and authorities, thrones and dominions, the latter being part of the invisible world he mentions in Col. 1:16.

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

Who all these spiritual beings are is of interest to a good many people, but the truth is, the Bible tells us very little about them. We know there are two basic camps, however—those who do God’s bidding and are good, and those who stand in opposition to Him and are evil.

These spiritual forces have real power. Two angels, for example, were involved in the destruction of Sodom. Satan himself apparently decimated Job—destroying his property, killing his children, and striking him with disease.

Of course these beings are not operating independently. The angels are carrying out God’s commands, and Satan is doing only what God has given him permission to do. He was, for example, expressly forbidden to take Job’s life.

But still, Satan is active and so are any number of evil spirits. The New Testament records one man with evil spirits who had supernatural strength so that he could break free of chains meant to restrict him. Then there was the girl who had an evil spirit which made it possible for her to tell fortunes. Others caused a person to be mute or to lose control of their body so that they would be thrown into the fire.

The fact that we don’t see overt manifestations of evil spirits as a part of normal life here in North America doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t active.

The Bible tells us we need spiritual armor, so my supposition is that much of the spiritual activity we face has little to do with the physical, though possibly there is far more than we recognize as coming from spiritual causes. But that’s going astray from the point I want to make in all this.

Men and women throughout history have worshiped, but many have chosen a god instead of the LORD. For much of their history, the Jews dabbled with polytheism, though the LORD had specifically told them to have no other gods before Him. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome—they all worshiped various gods. They were religious, and they recognized the existence of power that was beyond the physical.

The problem was, they credited created beings with supreme power and authority—whether Zeus or Baal or Molech or some other idol.

Interestingly, Isaiah wrote a stirring passage about idols being nothing but a man-made construction with no power. In chapter 44 he describes the process of cutting timber, burning half for fuel or for a fire to cook over, then fashioning from the other half an idol he bows to and worships:

No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!” (v. 19)

So which is it—are idols blocks of wood or are they evil spirits with actual power? I suppose spirits can inhabit the blocks of wood, but why would they? The wood itself, as Isaiah pointed out, is blind and dumb. Regardless, I conclude the physical idol, whether possessed or not possessed, is nothing but a chunk of matter. The people who worship idols however, are indeed worshiping a spiritual being—a false god.

So I came across this verse, and I thought, here’s the line of demarcation, the point that clearly separates false gods from the One True God:

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens. (Ps. 96:4-5—emphasis mine)

Creation, as Romans 1 states so clearly, points to the One True God. It is in what He has made that His invisible attributes can be seen:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (v 20)

As I realized anew the significance of God’s creative work, I understood more clearly why Creation is such a battlefield. To discredit God, Satan aims to distort the work that inexorably points to Him.

There are a few key issues like that—the Bible as God’s authoritative word, the person of Jesus, and creation. Isn’t it interesting that these are the critical means of God’s revelation of Himself to Mankind, creation being the first and Jesus being the final and ultimate revelation, with the Bible being the authoritative source that explains both.

Praise God for loving us so much He has made Himself known.

This article with some revision is a reprint of one by the same name that appeared here in February 2012.

Published in: on March 2, 2016 at 6:35 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Where Are We Looking?


glass half fullI had a discussion with a good friend last night about looking at the glass as half full or half empty. Some people see life in all it’s darkness and gloom and hopelessness. Others see it as full of hope and promise. What makes the difference?

Some say it’s temperament—some of us are simply born with a propensity to look on the negative side while others can’t help but see the possibilities, even in the deepest pit. Interestingly, one of my favorite bloggers touched on this subject in her response to a comment at another site.

Apparently the commenter made reference to life being sustained by death. As he explained it,

all life on earth depends on the death of other creatures for its sustenance, from plants who use the decayed remains of animals and other plants, to the animal kingdom, where some kill plants to live, while others kill the plant-eaters to survive.

InsanityBytes, the blogger in question, had made the point that our focus determines our understanding. Those looking at death, see dead animals and dead plants instead of nourishing and delicious food. In the same way, those looking at the temporal are blind to God’s grandeur.

It’s a good point I think.

But I suspect there’s also the matter of our measuring stick. If we measure all things by the standard of humankind, then we shrink the world into manageable explanations and theories—physical things we can verify with our physical senses. All else, we simply reject.

Demons? Don’t be silly, there are no such things as demons? I know because I can’t see them, and my perceptions are the measure of what is real! No ghosts either. Or angels. And certainly there is no God! No heaven. Or hell. Or afterlife of any kind. Those things simply can’t be proven in physically verifiable ways, so someone had to make them up.

As soon as we recognize that humankind actually isn’t the measuring stick, that there might be things in existence that we don’t know or haven’t experienced or can’t comprehend or dissect or explain, then the world opens wide. Now there are spiritual possibilities we hadn’t conceived of, given our limited focus.

No longer are we locked in to the temporal; we can lift our eyes to the eternal.

But how can we?

This is where revelation comes in. It’s true that, by definition, the finite cannot know the infinite. We who are limited are incapable of understanding limitlessness. What is it like to live before time? To have no beginning or end? To never grow weary or tired? To have infinite power and wisdom and love and mercy and justice?

We need a snapshot, a story, an explanation—a revelation—to open up that which is beyond our ability to apprehend on our own. Even then we will be peering through a darkened window and glimpse only shadows of the reality.

But those shadows grow sharper the longer we look, the keener our eyesight. We focus. We stare unrelentingly at that which we know to be true though we can’t manipulate Him—for what we’re looking at is God—and we can’t force Him to act in ways that are more to our liking.

At some point we realize that the image of God is Jesus and He isn’t as murky as we first thought. We realize that He is the standard by which all is measured. In fact, no glass is half full or half empty. All are empty until filled with Living Water, and then they are never empty again.

Sadly, some people will insist on making humankind the measure of all things. They’ll never lift their sights any higher, never realize that humans don’t control the wind or the waves or the sun, moon, and stars.

Humans don’t dictate what is right and what is wrong; the moral code embedded in our hearts is not of our creation. We can ignore it or corrode it, but we can’t remove it any more than we can erase God by saying He doesn’t exist.

To those who refuse to look beyond humankind as the arbiter of reality, the glass will be leaking. Death does sustain life, but for how long? What happens when death overwhelms life? What happens when death overwhelms me? The adage is true: one out of one dies. But those of us who look to God and not to humankind know the last part of that statement: and then comes the judgment.

It’s a warning, not a condemnation. We have all already failed. The sentence has been delivered: guilty, destined to die, both physically and spiritually.

But Jesus stands in the gap.

He’s changed the Valley of Weeping into a spring, covered the dry ground with the waters of the early rain. He has done what we need in order that we might be restored to right standing with the Father, in order that we might walk in the newness of resurrection life instead of the deadness of our sinful condition.

Half full or half empty? Truly, the answer lies in our focus.

Published in: on November 3, 2015 at 5:33 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Revelation, The End Times, Eschatology


Book_of_Revelation-John on PatmosI’m currently reading in the book of Revelation which has one section that recorded letters to seven churches contemporary to the Apostle John and another section related to the coming and yet future judgment of the world (though a segment of Christians believe the judgments of Revelation were fulfilled in the first century).

As the popularity of the Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye would seem to indicate, a good number of people are fascinated by the latter subject, even those who don’t actually believe. You see this every time someone makes a prediction about when this judgment will take place. It’s like people can’t help but pay attention and wait for the approaching zero hour, then laugh a little (or a lot) when nothing happens.

Some people react almost as if they’ve cheated death. See, they seem to be saying, I can do whatever I want, and the world isn’t going to crumble around our heads. This judgment stuff is a crock.

Which is precisely what Peter warned about in his second letter:

in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3b-4)

Interestingly, Peter connects the end times judgment with the water judgment of old, saying that those who scoff at the coming wrath have missed the lesson of history:

For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. (vv 5-6)

All this relates to Revelation, to the end times, to eschatology (“the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” – Oxford American Dictionary) because God told Noah He would never again destroy the world with water, that judgment would next be delivered by fire.

But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. (v 7)

It is this coming judgment which both fascinates and frightens mankind.

Christians take seriously the admonition to be on the alert, to be ready. Many are looking for Christ’s return, not to reign but to take believers out of this world before the disastrous things John prophesied come to fruition.

Some are looking for the Antichrist—the one who will rule by Satan’s power and will make war against God’s people. They’re mindful of the “mark of the beast” which non-believers will accept and believers will avoid.

And many believe the end-time events will take place during a seven year period, though there’s debate about whether Christians will be on the earth during any, part, or all of the prophesied judgments.

Interestingly, Peter reminds his readers that God doesn’t reckon time the way we do:

But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.

In this light, I think it’s somewhat humorous that so many who study the Bible are certain about the seven years of tribulation. What if it’s seventy years or seven hundred years? Maybe we’ve been experiencing the tribulation for centuries. What if the first fourteen hundred years after Christ were the things Jesus said in Matthew 24: “merely the beginning of birth pangs”? Then come the end times—seven hundred years of them.

It’s rampant speculation on my part, but no more so than those who have the times all figured out, since they do not take into account that God can reckon time however He pleases. But the really significant point I think is why He didn’t immediately bring judgment on the world after Christ’s resurrection, why He continues to “delay”:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

It’s such an amazing truth—made more so by those who mock, saying He’s not coming back because He never came in the first place or never ascended to heaven; and by those who accuse God of not loving the people who are off somewhere out of earshot of the gospel.

These are the kinds of things we can expect in the end times—people listening to lies instead of God’s word. Truth is, He’s coming, but He hasn’t come yet in order to make provision for every single person who will come to repentance.

Amazing that the dark days of Revelation are as much a proof of God’s love for humankind as any bright day of blessing. He waits and warns and gives signs and prophecies. But in the end, some will refuse to acknowledge God even in the face of destruction. Perhaps the saddest couple of verses in Scripture say

Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory . . . and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds.(Rev. 16:9, 11)

How many times have I heard atheists say something like, if that’s your loving God, I want nothing to do with him. It breaks my heart. Can they not see there is an eternal destiny at stake?

Years ago, before personal computers, tablets and cell phones, children had activity books which often included mazes: Help Dorothy reach the city of Oz, or help Timmy find Lassie—some great prize was waiting on the other end of a twisted, tangled, branching set of pathways. Often there were three or four starting places and little known to the unsuspecting child, if you chose the wrong starting place, you could try all you want, but you were not going to get to the prize.

So too with real life. There is only one way, but if we’ve headed off in the wrong direction, we have the option of backtracking—of repenting—and changing course to follow the Light, to traverse the Way.

That’s what God wants, and that’s why He patiently waits.

The Power Of Perseverance


open-door-1152770-mPhiladelphia was the penultimate church Jesus addressed in His messages to the seven churches which John recorded in Revelation. This message was perhaps the most unusual of all.

Jesus begins as He most often did—letting them know that He was mindful of their deeds. But instead beginning a list, either pro or con, Jesus rather embarks on a litany of what He has done or will do for them.

First, He put an open door before them. Apparently Philadelphia was situated in a place that gave them the opportunity to “evangelize” for Greek culture. They were a showcase-city, serving as a “little Athens” that gave people a taste of what being Greek was all about.

Jesus’s open door would seem to mirror this kind of evangelizing, only for the kingdom of God. Christ had “put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name.”

In telling them He would give them an open door, Jesus gives them the reason why. Was their “little power” a reference to their faith? Some how I can’t imagine Jesus calling His Spirit a “little power.” What I do know is they kept Christ’s word and did not deny His name.

Thus, the open door.

I think today of the various groups who profess the name of Christ and yet deny His person, His word, even His work.

He isn’t God. Or, The Bible is myth. Or, People can find God without believing in Christ. Those who say these kinds of things are false teachers, and Jesus does not promise them an open door.

Next Christ told the church in Philadelphia, people who claim to be Jews but are lying, who are from the “synagogue of Satan,” would bow at their feet. And Christ would make them know that He loved the church in Philadelphia.

Again, I don’t really understand. In Scripture whenever people are going to bow down to one of God’s servants, he always stops them. No, I’m a man, or No, I’m a servant. Worship God. Here, however, it is Christ who will make them come and bow down at their feet. One commentary says that they are bowing in their presence, not actually to them. And that might be the best explanation. It would certainly be consistent with the rest of the Bible.

Clearly they will be set apart because Christ will make known His love for them. This reminds me of what Jesus said to Sardis about confessing their names before the Father and the angels. Jesus will publicly declare His relationship with these believers. It’s better than getting an autograph or having a five-minute photo shoot. This is God saying, These are my guys and gals, my special people who I love.

The third thing Jesus said He would do for them also had a specific reason:

Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.

As a reward for their perseverance, Jesus promised them a “keeping.” They would not have to face what the whole rest of the world would face.

Soooooo, those people died and there still hasn’t come upon the earth “a great hour of testing,” if that refers to the Tribulation. Then what was their reward?

Well, this is Revelation, with all the picture-language details about the end of this age. So of course commentators link Christ’s promise to the Tribulation. But I’m not so sure. I’m also not a Bible scholar.

Still, it seems to me, this message first had to mean something to that church in Philadelphia. Then it means something to us based on what it meant to them. So what would they hear?

First that their perseverance was something God was honoring. Second that His way of honoring them was to keep them from testing which the rest of the world would have to face. I know God is faithful. He wouldn’t promise something and not deliver, so I have to think the “testing” in this passage is something other than the Great Tribulation. And that He did, in fact, keep them from it. Was this something people face at death, perhaps? Was it the persecution that would come on the church from Rome? Don’t know.

I do know Christians have been and are persecuted, so clearly this passage is not a blanket promise—persevere and you won’t have to endure persecution. This testing has to be something else. Could it be doubts in later life? The fear of facing our Maker? Whatever it was, I’m sure the church in Philadelphia benefited greatly.

Next Jesus tells them He is coming quickly. OK, His return doesn’t feel quick to me. But again, that’s my errant perspective. In 2 Peter 3 God makes it clear that His “delays” are an evidence of His kindness to give people a chance to repent and that He isn’t tied to our view of time (with him a thousand years is like a day).

In addition, His coming “quickly” carries with it the idea of suddenness rather than in a short period of time. The point here is that those who have ears to hear need to be ready.

Then an interesting admonition to the believers Jesus commended for their perseverance: “Hold fast to what you have.” It’s like saying, you who are holding on, hold on!

Please understand, this was not a command to be greedy. Rather, like the parable of the ten virgins, the five who had the oil because they were ready were not stingy for not sharing.

What we’re holding fast is Christ. We know this because the result of holding fast is to keep our crown. James tells us the Lord promises the crown of life to those who love Him.

Jesus isn’t done showering them with good things. He says the one who overcomes will be a pillar in His temple. This reminds me of Peter calling us living stones being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God through Christ, who just happens to be the cornerstone of this temple.

In addition, Jesus will also write on him who overcomes, God’s name (which stands in stark contrast to the stamp of the antichrist which later chapters of Revelation detail), and He’ll write on Him the name of the New Jerusalem, AND Christ’s new name.

No doubt about who the overcomers will be identified with.

Published in: on August 6, 2014 at 6:43 pm  Comments Off on The Power Of Perseverance  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Jezebel In Our Midst


Seven_churches_of_asia.svgIn Christ’s fourth message to the churches in Revelation, He follows the familiar pattern established in the previous three. He catalogs both commendable traits and those which He counts against them. Then He delivers a warning and a promise.

Thyatira, home of Lydia, Paul’s first convert in Asia, receives some of Christ’s strongest words in each of those categories.

First comes the list of what these believers had right. It’s quite impressive:

  • Deeds.
  • Love.
  • Faith.
  • Service.
  • Perseverance.
  • Greater deeds now than at first—i.e. growth, progress, spiritual development, living out their faith more each day.

As great as this commendation is, Jesus says, “But I have this against you.” That’s an ominous opening to the next section—perhaps the most detailed of all the confrontations sections in these messages.

The problem: the church in Thyatira tolerated a Jezebel—someone in their midst who called herself a prophetess. Bad enough, but here’s what she was on about:

she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.

Immorality and idolatry. These activities would be bad enough if someone in the church engaged in them (see Paul’s chastisement of the church in Corinth when they tolerated a man involved in incest), but this Jezebel is teaching others and leading others—Christians, mind you, believers Christ describes as bond-servants—into immorality and idolatry.

The amazing thing to me is that Christ then says He gave this Jezebel time to repent. Repent! She’s immoral, she’s idolatrous, she’s leading Christ’s followers astray, and what does Jesus want? For her to repent! What mercy!

What a stark contrast to some in the church in the West who call down God’s wrath on the disobedient, as if we know in advance that God will not extend mercy to them or that they will never repent. This Jezebel in Thyatira didn’t repent, but God gave her time to do so as an exercise of His mercy.

As an exercise of His judgment, however, He will bring her down, along with all those who “committed adultery” with her. James calls those who are friends of the world adulteresses, and the Old Testament prophets frequently used the image of Judah or Israel as an adulteress because of their unfaithfulness to God. So clearly Christians who act in this same faithless way—putting their own lusts before God or even “mixing their worship”—would be subject to the discipline Christ will bring.

It’s a sobering warning:

Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. (Rev. 2:22-23)

What about the rest of the church, those who didn’t actually follow after what the people in that day termed “the deep things of Satan”? Christ told them to hold fast to what they had—their works and love and faith and service and perseverance and growth.

I think it’s notable that he didn’t call them to repent. I take it they were not endorsing this Jezebel or accommodating her. I suspect, instead, they were either not in a position to deal with her or were too small a group to make their voice heard.

As Christ did in the other messages, He promises something to “he who overcomes.” But this time He adds a little extra: “he who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end.”

This idea of doing something beyond overcoming reminds me of what Paul told the church in Thessalonica: “Excel still more.” I think this is why God gives us the admonition not to grow weary in well doing. The Christian doesn’t go on vacation from our service to Christ. We don’t retire from loving others or persevering or growing. Rather, we are to be like the sprinter racing hardest at the end, running through the tape, not slowing up.

The reward Jesus promises is particularly interesting. He quotes from Psalm 2—a Messianic passage. Here are the pertinent verses, with the portion which Revelation 2 utilizes in bold type:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”
“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.
’ ” (vv 6-9)

In Revelation, Jesus says what God has given Him, He will give to those who overcome and hold fast. Interesting that those who did not follow the deep things of Satan or get drawn into the immorality and idolatry of Jezebel will one day be in positions of authority over the nations. In other words, there will be a time when they are not helpless to stop the waywardness currently surrounding them.

Christ closes by promising to give them the morning star. As one commentator notes

Jesus offers them a reward greater than the kingdom. He offers them the reward of Himself, because He is the Morning Star (Revelation 22:16). (“Study Guide for Revelation 2” by David Guzik)

Immorality? Yes, we see that in the church today in the rampant involvement in illicit sex. Idolatry? To our sorrow, yes, it’s there in our self-worship and greed. The “deep things of Satan”? We see the love of “mystery” and the twisting of Scripture so fitting of the Liar and Father of Lies.

But towering above all that Jezebel brings to the church is Christ, our true Reward. We will one day see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known. We will see His purity, His holiness, His righteousness—the same righteousness with which He clothes us.

Published in: on July 31, 2014 at 7:12 pm  Comments Off on Jezebel In Our Midst  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Warning To The Church In Ephesus . . . Or In America?


An early Christian ichthys symbol carved into some marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey.

An early Christian ichthys symbol carved into some marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey.

A few years ago I wrote a post about the book of Revelation in which I drew this conclusion: “Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday.” I think that’s an accurate evaluation. A lot of the “someday” portion of Revelation is couched in picture language, and Biblical scholars don’t agree about their meaning.

But there’s a short section at the beginning of John’s vision that was quite contemporary to him. In these chapters Jesus comes to John and tells him to write “the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”

It is “the things which are” that I’m interested in because I wonder if they are not also the things which will take place.

Jesus delivered specific messages to angels apparently assigned to particular churches existent at the time of John’s writing: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

I find it curious that only these seven churches are addressed. What about the church in Corinth or the one in Antioch? Why these seven? Were they unique?

The symbol Jesus used for them was a golden lampstand. Was the idea that these were golden somehow significant. I don’t know that any Bible scholar can tell us. However, we do know from various places in Scripture that believers are to be light to the world. So the image of a lampstand for a church certainly seems fitting.

In addition, the particular messages which Jesus delivered to the various churches, while uniquely fitted to each unique body, seem universal in their application. What He said to one church would seem to apply to any church with similar qualities or circumstances or failings.

So when Jesus delivers a message to the angel of the church in Ephesus and tells John to write it down, He would seem to be delivering the same message down through the church age to any body of believers who share the matters he addressed.

His message to this first church contained six parts: an explication, a confrontation, an admonition, a warning, a commendation, and a promise.

First Jesus gave an analysis of the church. This is what was true about the believers in Ephesus: there were things they’d done, work they’d performed. They’d persevered, which implied things weren’t always easy.

They also didn’t tolerate evil men. Instead, they tested those who put themselves forth as teachers. They held fast, endured, and don’t grow weary because of one thing: the name of Christ Jesus.

That’s a pretty fair evaluation. I wonder how the Church in America would stack up in these areas. Do we have a record of things accomplished and work we’ve performed? I suspect so. Have we persevered when things weren’t always easy? That’s harder to say because the church in America has had very little adversity.

Do we tolerate evil men? Sadly, our record there is spotty at best. We have tolerated evil men—false teachers and cult leaders who often got their start within the church. Perhaps this toleration is because we haven’t tested those claiming a position of leadership as we should have. Ironic, since we have God’s written word. We aren’t forced to rely upon hearsay or occasional letters or itinerant preachers sent from the apostles. Instead, all we have to do is test what a teacher says by comparing it to the Bible.

Finally, do we hold to our faith without growing weary because of the name of Jesus Christ? Or do we become disappointed with God when things don’t go our way? Do we complain and grumble when God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers?

In an examination of our over all condition, I’m not sure the Church in America would stack up all that well against the church in Ephesus.

On the other hand, Jesus admonished the believers in Ephesus for something that may be all to similar to the condition of believers in America: “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4).

Loving God first would seem to be the point here. Loving Him so that nothing else came ahead of Him. This confrontation seems like another way of saying, you’ve allowed idols to steal away your affection. I can think of a few idols the American Church has bowed to—ease, traditions, our nation, our families, to name a few.

Jesus next gave the church in Ephesus an admonition: remember what you used to do, repent, and get back to doing what you had been doing.

The Church in America used to evangelize and share with their neighbors, feed the poor and take the lead in things like establishing universities and leading the fight against slavery. The Church in America read their Bibles and went to prayer meetings. God was important and obeying His word was important.

Do we need to repent and get back to doing what we did before?

View_from_odeonJesus next warned the Ephesian believers—if you don’t repent, Jesus would remove their lampstand, their witness, from that place. This, remember, was the church Paul wrote to about putting on the armor of God, repeatedly telling them to stand firm. And what’s the condition of the church in Ephesus today?

Then His praise: they hated deeds Jesus also hated. These deeds are those of the mysterious Nicolaitans. I’ve not heard a pastor yet who claims to know who these people were. Apparently there’s no record of them outside the Bible, and there’s no other explanation of them or their deeds. But there really doesn’t need to be. Whatever they did, it was something Jesus hated. Scripture gives us plenty of things that would fall into that category.

So the question: are we tepid about things God hates or are we white-hot angry about the things He hates. If we’re unsure what God hates, we can start with this list from Proverbs:

Pride and arrogance and the evil way
And the perverted mouth, I hate (8:13b).

Or how about this one:

Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD (12:22a)

I’m not so sure Jesus would commend the Church in America for hating deeds He hates.

Jesus ended His message with a promise:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’ (Rev. 2:7)

“To him who overcomes” seems directed to individuals rather than to the Church collectively. The promise is familiar. Eating of the tree of life harkens back to the Garden where God walked and talked with the man and woman He had made and found to be very good. It evokes the image of the feast in the parable Jesus told. It alludes to eternal life, and this promise is certainly for any in the American Church who “overcome.”

There isn’t much of a context clue to explain what “overcomes” means, but there are clear passages that deal with God granting eternal life, the most well-known being John 3:16.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

I surmise, then, that “overcoming” is tied with believing in Jesus. There are lots of “professing Christians” in America today who don’t believe in Jesus as the Bible reveals Him. But the true Church? Well, belief in Jesus is really the dividing point, isn’t it.

Published in: on July 28, 2014 at 6:29 pm  Comments Off on Warning To The Church In Ephesus . . . Or In America?  
Tags: , , , ,

Addressing Christian Agnosticism


Your first impression might be that I’ve made a mistake in my title because there’s a contradiction in terms. How can Christians be agnostic?

I wish the problem were nothing more than a slip of the tongue, but sadly I think agnosticism is creeping into the Church. More and more frequently I hear people who claim to love Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, turn around and say incongruous things that come from postmodern thought.

I’ve already addressed, in several posts (here, here, and here), one of the issues that lead to agnostic thought—that God is mystery (as opposed to transcendent).

Another issue is the idea that we humans, being so fallible and so restricted by our limited experience can’t begin to get God right. We can know some things, such as Christ dying on the cross for our sins, but we’re bound to get a lot wrong.

As proof for this position, those holding it often point to denominationalism and the split between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants.

I tend to think this view stems from good motives. One charge against Christians has been a prideful, know-it-all attitude. This we-don’t-know-everything position seems initially to be a more humble approach. The problem is, a well-intended position can still be completely wrong.

Mind you, I’m not saying we should revert to a prideful stance. The fact is, however, taking a we-don’t-know/we-can’t-know” position still puts Man in the forefront. It may sound humble, but it’s still all about us.

The truth is far different.

Since the Fall, knowing God has never been about what Man can or cannot know.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you so that He does not hear (Is. 59:1-2).

In other words, unless God intervened and removed our sin, we would have no way of knowing Him beyond what we could see in creation. Since He did intervene, however, we’ve had a game-change.

Even in the Old Testament, before Christ, God said to His chosen people

“But let him who boasts, boast of this, that understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord (Jer. 9:24 – emphasis added).

When Jesus came, He made it abundantly clear that He was here to make known the Father.

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:7-9).

Paul confirmed this numerous times, none more clearly than the simple statement in Colossians 1:15 – “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” [Emphasis mine.]

If we know Christ, then, we know God.

What’s more, we not only know Christ if we are His, but Scripture says we have His mind.

For who has known or understood the mind (the counsels and purposes) of the Lord so as to guide and instruct Him and give Him knowledge? But we have the mind of Christ (the Messiah) and do hold the thoughts (feelings and purposes) of His heart. (I Cor. 2:16, Amplified Bible, emphasis mine)

Have I yet mentioned the Holy Spirit? He who lives in every believer:

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. (John 16:13)

Part of the Holy Spirit’s work was also to inspire Scripture. Consequently we know that its revelation is true. Hence, everything it says about God is true.

The problems that those advocating for agnosticism point to are a reflection of us not believing the revelation that is before us. Some dismiss portions of the Bible, while others say they believe it but twist it to their own purposes (Harold Camping comes to mind as an example). Others take a particular passage and interpret the rest of Scripture in light of that truth, rather than taking all of Scripture and interpreting particular passages in light of the totality. Still others chose one over another of truths that seem contradictory.

What we need is the faith of Abraham who believed God even when His command seemed to contradict His promise.

Seriously, agnosticism falls away if we take God at His word. What don’t we know about Him that we need to know?

And yet God, like any other person (but more so) has a depth we will never plumb fully.

So what am I saying? Can we or can’t we know God? We can, absolutely. James says, when we draw near, He in turn draws near to us. But in knowing Him, we discover there is more to know.

If we sit on the sidelines, however, saying how impossible it is to know God, if we succumb to the agnosticism of the age, we will end up like the Pharisees—staring Jesus in the face and not recognizing Him.

This article was originally posted here in August 2011 under the same title. It is one of a group of posts that are part of the Less-Than-3-Stars club. 😉

The Future Of The Church In Western Society


St-Damase-Eglise_churchIs the Church in the US on the decline? Our influence upon society is not as great as it once was. We have numerous false teachers claiming to be part of the Church. And to a degree we ourselves seem more intent upon working for societal change than for spiritual change. Could it be that the Church is dying?

Not at all.

With little effort, we can learn about the growth of the Church in unexpected places–places that persecute Christians and places with economic struggles.

And yet, there is a distinct pattern developing. Look at the churches the Apostle Paul established on his missionary journeys. Over time, they disappeared as salt in their world. Look at the churches spread throughout the Roman Empire. Who today is worshiping in the great cathedrals of Italy, Denmark, or Belgium? Or what about those churches established after the Reformation by Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Wesley? Where is their witness in Germany or France or England?

One might wonder if Christianity doesn’t just play itself out after time, and perhaps the Church in the US is experiencing the downside as Biblical faith is ushered out the door. There may be some truth to this concept, but not as a part of inevitability due to some endemic problem with religion or, specifically, with Christianity.

The problem is with Mankind, not with Christianity.

Interestingly, the Bible forewarns the Church of the possibility of losing our place in society. I’m referring to Revelation 2 and 3, in which John, via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, records a message to seven specific churches.

Here’s the thing. Should God by His mercy give many more years to this world, then the Church in the US must pay attention to what Scripture says, or we too can lose our place in the evangelism of the lost.

So what is it we find in Revelation? First, to the church in Ephesus:

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent.
– Revelation 2:4-5

My question, then, is this: Has the Church in the US left its first love? Do we love God as much as we love liberty? Or our family? Or our health? And our wealth?

Perhaps the worst mistake a church can make is to operate as if there is no error in us, or within us. Certainly Paul didn’t approach the churches he wrote to in the New Testament as if, now that they’d come to Christ, sin was a thing of the past. Instead he warned, reproved, confronted, and forgave.

These elements are also present in John’s writing in Revelation. No surprise, since both authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What I like about John’s passages is that the messages to the churches categorize the sinful behavior–for them and for us–he’s warning against.

However, in an enumeration of specifics, it’s easy to use those in prideful comparisons. Well, I gave the newspaper delivery guy a $5 Christmas bonus last year, and I know my neighbor didn’t. Too bad he’s not as generous as I am. And while I’m thinking about it, thank God, I’m not like those selfish Wall Street CEOs.

Looking at the overall command–love your neighbor as yourself, for example–forces us to either examine our own lives or ignore the commandment. Neither option will lead to pride in connection to law keeping. If we examine our lives, we will repent or rebel. If we ignore the commandment, we’ve already chosen to rebel.

The angel’s admonition from God to the church in Ephesus was to repent because they had left their first love. The second church to receive similar instruction was that in Pergamum:

But I have a few things against you, because you have some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality … Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.

Here John points out what these people were doing by relating their actions to those of an Old Testament prophet–a prophet, it turned out, who was trying to work both sides of the fence. He had said he would only report what God told him to. God’s message was a curse on the army opposing Israel. But it was the king of Israel’s enemy who hired the prophet. So he turned around and told the king what he could do to erode Israel rather than defeat the nation outright.

Pergamum was tolerating just such people–those who taught others how to chip away at truth and lead God’s people into turning their backs on Him. They were, in fact, tolerating false teachers. Might this not be something the Church today should guard against?

I’m not talking about the leaders of a particular body or denomination. I think all of us who name the name of Jesus need to see if those we listen to are consistent with Scripture. Or do our teachers direct us to political action more than to prayer? To demand of God rather than repent before Him? To express our anger toward Him instead of praise the Giver of good gifts? Or any number of other ideas that square with psychology, societal norms, or what have you, while clashing with Scripture.

Who on my bookshelf holds to the teaching of Balaam? My prayer is that the Church in the West will repent. But that starts with me.

Originally posted as Part 1 and 2 of a miniseries “A Christian Worldview of the Church”

Published in: on November 1, 2013 at 6:39 pm  Comments Off on The Future Of The Church In Western Society  
Tags: , , ,