Pandemics and the Throne of God…(Ascension Day)

I have finally finished the Book of Revelation in my latest read-through of the Bible. To say that Revelation is hard to interpret is about as helpful as saying that an elephant is a rather large animal. It may be difficult, but not impossible and it is worth the study. Don’t get bogged down with the specifics of the symbolism or in trying to chart the chronology. Also, make sure you are trying to understand it as if you are reading it in the first-century not the twenty-first. OK, I’m getting beyond what I wanted to say. Let’s ratchet things back to chapters 4 and 5, which I would contend is the fountainhead of the entire book.

If you have a chance, read this beautiful section. I have preached on it a number of times because it outlines key components of worship. However, narrowing the focus of this passage just to worship can obscure it from finding its key position in John’s vision. Simply said, these chapters describe the entire universe from God’s perspective. The phrase “the throne” is repeated 15 times. “God’s Throne is at the very center of the universe and precedes all of the symbolic description of the trials and tribulations that will follow.” (William Hendrickson)

“The throne” represents sovereignty, indicating that nothing can take place apart from the Providential Hand of God. Linger by the throne in chapter 4, along with the Holy Spirit (the seven blazing lamps), and with the cherubim, who can do nothing other than to gaze upon the glory of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. They never stop singing His praises, along with redeemed humanity (24 elders), who worship Him and lay all their achievements before His Throne.

In chapter 5, John sees the sealed scroll that no one can open, and he weeps. The scroll is the unrevealed and unexecuted plan of God for human history, and unless it is opened this Plan will not be carried out and will remain unfulfilled. The world will be out of control and evil will have its way. Then John’s attention is drawn by a redeemed one (an elder) to the Lion of the tribe of Judah (the Kingly tribe) who also looks like a slaughtered Lamb. It is Jesus Christ who takes the scroll in his role as Mediator and opens it by the power of his indestructible life —his death and resurrection. He is the only one in the entire universe worthy to do so. He then is enthroned. (By the way, today is ASCENSION DAY!) He takes his seat upon the throne beside the Father, so that it now becomes “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (Rev 22:1) From the throne, Christ the King mediates and executes the Plan of God for all of human history and for the church.

As soon as the King is enthroned, there is a burst of enthusiasm with three separate doxologies. Now heaven is ready; now the universe is ready; now the Church is ready—Christ is on the throne. Let the trials begin, let the wars wage, let the pandemics rage—we know that they will end in victory by the Lamb who was slain! Follow the book all the way to the end and you will see that the Throne becomes the Great White Throne of Judgment before which the books will be opened and anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire. (20:11-15) And follow it further still as you will hear the one seated on the Throne say, “I am making everything new.” (21:5)

So my friend, the key to interpreting Revelation is not to begin with the pandemics and famine, the horses and battles, the Gogs and Magogs, the mark of the beast and 666—but with the Throne of God. Likewise, the key to understanding human history is to start at the same place; not with your present circumstances, your fear, or even your suffering—but with Jesus our King and Savior, on the Throne, executing our Father’s plan for those who are His (Romans 8:33, 34). Are you His?

Blessed Ascension Day!

The Night of Power

Perhaps you do not know that tonight (May 19 this year) is regarded by Muslims around the world as one of the most highly spiritual times of the year. It is called “The Night of Power” and it is believed that Allah hears prayers, forgives sin, and is more merciful than at any other time of the year. Surah 97:3 states that “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.” The spiritual benefits that flow from Allah on this special night exceed 83.3 yrs. of normal worship!

Let us be mindful of this today as our Muslim friends and neighbors will be earnestly engaged in prayers for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness. Let us also be in prayer that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts to Jesus and to find in him the forgiveness and salvation for which their longing souls seek.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

The Progression of Spiritual Digression… part 3

We have already seen that the first step in this Spiritual Digression (Hebrews 1-6) consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptibly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.

We have also seen that the second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they became afraid, rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt.

The final and ultimate step in this digression is the scariest of all; it consists in falling away from God’s grace. “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (6:4-6) Wow! Arguably one of the more difficult passages to interpret.

Let’s look at our options. The NIV Application Commentary by George Guthrie (pp 226-230) is helpful here by listing some of the main interpretive theories.

The Pre-Christian Theory. Some believe that the text speaks of those coming out of Judaism (seekers within the Christian Community) who fall away before they are fully committed; like the seed falling on the path is snatched away before it can take root. The difficulty with this view is that the writer uses the language of full inclusion and participation, not just seeking.

The Hypothetical Theory. Some believe that the writer is using such graphic language to warn his readers of the danger that awaits them if they fall away. (6:6) In other words, the message is motivational and the writer is convinced they would never do such a thing. “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better thing in your case.” (6:9) This theory has merit and is a legitimate option.

The Lost Salvation Theory. There are some who feel that the proper interpretation is the simplest one—that the people being described are those who were genuine Christians, but who apostatized and lost their precious salvation, thereby becoming enemies of the gospel. Thus, they were Christians at one time and now they are no longer, and can never again be restored to the faith. While this option seems to fit the reality of the textual language, it fails to satisfy the test of compatibility with other Scriptures; “And this is the will of him who sent me that I should lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:39) Also, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-30) Other passages to consider are Romans 5:9; 8:1; 8:29, 30: 8:37-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5; Hebrews 10:14.

The They Were Not of Us Theory. The final theory to consider is one that claims the people being described were never Christ-followers in the first place. In spite of outward appearances, they demonstrated a lack of saving faith by their failure to hold firm to their confession in Christ to the end. They were like those who left Egypt with Moses (both Israelite and Egyptian); covered by the blood at Passover, shared in the Red Sea Crossing, who appeared to be a part of the covenant community at Sinai—until they showed their true colors in the wilderness, ultimately refusing to trust God’s authority and hold fast to his Promises about the Land. The Apostle John called these people “antichrists” and described them like this: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (1 John 2:19)

This last interpretation is one that I think best captures the reality of the writer’s thought, while at the same time passing the test of compatibility with Scripture that teaches the perseverance of those who having saving faith. In other words, continuing in the faith (continuing to remain in the believing community) is a sign of saving faith. It is the theme of the very book of Hebrews itself. “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14) This reflects the very words of Jesus, “But the one who perseveres (endures, holds out) to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:13)

I would like to make one last point. This passage about falling away from the faith should never be used as a tool of judgment to determine who is a true believer and who isn’t. Remember the parable Jesus told of the wheat and the tares growing together in the same field, and that they should be weeded out only by God in the day of Judgment? The reason is that we will usually get it wrong, because only the Lord knows those who are his. Not only that, but there will be occasions when true believers will drift away or turn away for a time, before the God of mercy who has begun a good work in them will bring them back to himself. In those intervening moments/months/years, these wandering ones do not need our judgment, as much as they need our prayers, our challenges, and our encouragement. Therefore, for anyone who claims to be a Christ-follower, Hebrews 6:1-6 should motivate us to make our calling and election sure and challenge us to persevere in the faith, knowing that it is those who continue to the end who will be saved.

The Progression of Spiritual Digression…part 2

In review: Woven into the fabric of a beautiful tapestry portraying the superiority of Jesus Christ, is a progression of spiritual digression which the writer of Hebrews needed to confront in chapters 1-6 —a slippery slope, if you will, of neglecting so great a salvation in Christ Jesus.

The first step in this process consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptiblly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.

The second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt. Thus, the writer of Hebrews applied this lesson from history to his contemporaries by warning them against failing to trust God and slipping back into Judaism in order to escape the “giant” of persecution. Failure to hold fast to their profession of faith in Jesus Christ would be tantamount to refusing to take the promised land.

Life is filled with giants. My dad used to tell me, “Every David has his Goliath.” So do you, even if your name isn’t David. And every giant comes with its own set of fears and threats and harassment. This pandemic has provided enough giants for a life-time of fear: the fear of catching the disease or of a loved one catching it; the fear of an uncertain future; the fear of economic ruin; the fear of God not caring; the fear of not seeing your kids or grandkids again…on and on we could go. Just remember, it is at the point where we are most afraid that often shows us the point at which we are not trusting God; the same point where we risk turning away from him because of an unbelieving heart.

What is the author’s antidote to turning away? “But encourage one another daily, as long as it called Today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (3:13) Just as drifting away is a process over time so is the hardening of heart because of the deceitfulness of sin. When we do not trust God because of a certain giant, it starts a hardening process in our hearts by deceiving us into believing lies about God—does he really love me, why did he let this happen, is he punishing me? When not dealt with properly, these lies make it easier to mistrust God for the next giant. If you look at that unfaithful generation that failed to enter the land, they didn’t become unfaithful overnight. They left a trail of unbelief all over the wilderness that culminated with the catastrophe at Kadesh Barnea.

Thus, the daily encouragement of one another to help us turn toward God is the antidote for the deceitfulness of sin and the sclerotic process of unbelief. John Piper has said, “God has appointed a means by which he will enable us to hold our confidence firm to the end….Develop the kind of Christian relationships in which you help each other hold fast to the promises of God.” Richard Phillips adds, “Like climbers roped together on a steep mountain, like soldiers teamed together on the battlefield, we must keep track of one another. We must work together if we are to reach our objective safely.” And so, the Body of Christ has been designed to protect, encourage, warn, and restore us on our spiritual journey, so that we do not becomes self-deceived and hardened by indwelling sin.

In one of the episodes in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his friend Hopeful, on the way to the Heavenly City, passed through an area on the King’s Path called “Enchanted Ground.” The wicked prince had placed this there in order to make pilgrim’s sleepy and stop to rest so his soldiers would capture these sleeping pilgrims and take them all the way back to the City of Destruction. And so, Christian and Hopeful began to get very sleepy (yawn!). What did they do? They encouraged each other about God’s goodness in their lives and how he proved himself faithful to each of them in spite of their unfaithfulness. The more they talked the wider awake they became, and soon they were passed the Enchanted Ground. What an apt illustration for the power of encouragement.

Social distancing should not be a hindrance to Christian encouraging. A phone call, a text, an email; WhatsApp, FaceTime, Messenger; even snail mail cards and letters are all means of being/keeping in touch and encouraging one another while it is called Today! You may never know whether your encouragement kept one pilgrim from drifting away and other from turning away.

The Progression of Spiritual Digression…

We are not sure that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews— some have suggested Barnabas, Priscilla, Clement of Rome, and my theory, Apollos. Anyway, the book was most likely written to Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem in the latter part of the first- century AD, who were seriously considering turning back to Judaism in order to escape being persecuted as Christians. The author sets forth a view of Jesus Christ which hallmarks his superiority over the law of Moses, over the Aaronic priesthood, and over the old sacrificial system. Why would anyone want to go back to the lesser after experiencing the better by comparison: A better Covenant; a better Priesthood; and better Sacrifice? We are not sure whether there had been a wholesale defection at that point or whether the letter was sent early enough to nip it in the bud. I believe it was the latter.

In addition to the beautiful portrait portraying the supremacy of Jesus Christ (comparable to Colossians 1), the author sets forth a progression of spiritual digression which needed to be confronted. In Hebrews 1-6, the author outlines this subtle and dangerous process—a slippery slope, if you will, of neglecting so great a salvation in Christ Jesus.

The first step of this process consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptiblly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality. The brakes don’t suddenly fail on your car, but slowly, over time, due to inattention. Our bodies do not fail us, typically, all at once, but after warning signs that we have ignored. That is why we schedule regular maintenance checks on our vehicles and annual physicals for our bodies. If I had not gone for my annual physical a few years ago that uncovered my early stage pancreatic cancer, I would most likely be dead by now!

And so it is with the life of the Spirit. The drift begins by a lack of intentionality and regularity in the practices of faith formation and spiritual development that are needed at every point of our lives. Sometimes this inattentiveness is due to pure apathy, but sometimes it is due to paying attention to the wrong things, like fear, bitterness, disappointment, guilt and unrepentance.

I have held onto my precious faith in the Lord Jesus for over 60 yrs, but I will easily run the danger of drifting away from him if I do not keep my eyes fixed daily upon Jesus; in his Word and in repentant prayer. Age does not make you faithful; faithfulness makes you faithful!

So what do you have in place in order to prevent or deal with the drift? It is really important that you consider this, especially during this time of social isolation and, for many people, a lack of schedule. Make one; work the program; practice the disciplines; pay attention! Stop drifting away!

Next blog we will look at the next step in the digression…

(Coming soon to this blog site… the story of Pilgrim’s Progress for kids in 6 episodes)