n Revelation chapter 8 Jesus opens the last seal provoking one half hour of silence in Heaven. This is a dramatic pause that heightens the anticipation for what is to come, God’s judgment on the earth. Revelation chapters 8 & 9 draw heavily on the story of the Exodus. In both cases God pours out judgments (plagues) on the earth. In both cases the objects of the judgment only harden their hearts. And in both cases the people of God are in the midst of the plagues but protected from them by God. The first four plagues involve God sending destruction upon the environment. The fifth and sixth are two successive waves of demonic assault. It’s like God is giving the people what they have really been asking for, freedom from Him. They didn’t bargain on that including direct demonic attack. The images John uses at this point are based on what would give a first century Roman nightmares and not on 21st century weaponry. I argued earlier that the so-called “seal judgments” are ongoing difficulties. John ties them to Jesus breaking of the seals on the scroll to communicate that God is ultimately in control. Also, these are problems that characterize every era as Jesus advances His kingdom and moves toward the Second Coming. I think it also makes sense that the judgments in Revelation 8 & 9 have a certain timeless quality about them. In other words, John is not describing 6 specific and separate events here. Rather he is describing the ongoing judgment of God which He uses through the eras to offer repentance to people. The worst is yet to come! Regardless a first century reader would see the Roman Empire as the object of the judgment in these chapters and would read (or listen to) them in anticipation that God would soon act.
In Revelation 6 the Lamb begins to open the scroll by breaking the seals on it. And as each seals is broken something bad happens or is released. These events are not the contents of the scroll but signs that accompany the breaking of the seals. The first four seals are accompanied by four separate horsemen, each of a different color. The first rider is white and carries a bow. He is a conqueror bent on conquest. He represents “wars and rumors of wars.” The second horseman is red and he carries a sword. He is to take peace from the earth and turn people on each other. He represents “nation turning against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” The third horseman is black and he brings economic hardship. The last horseman is pale like a corpse and brings death and Hades with him. When the fifth seal is broken John sees the souls of the martyrs under the altar. These five things occur in every age and are not the beginning of God’s judgment. They are the reality of life in a corrupt age. John wants his listeners to know that these things are not beyond God’s control. At the breaking of the sixth seal all the powerful people on the earth, along with the slaves and the powerless try to hide under the rocks. They know that the Day of the Lord has come. This is an example of the ”looping” chronology of the Book of Revelation. John tells us things about the future and then loops back to the present. Then he loops into the past before jumping into the future again. I believe this throne room scene follows Jesus ascension to Heaven. In that sense it is past. Yet the events that accompany the first five seals are always present on the earth. And the breaking of the sixth seal takes us far into the future. Before the seventh seal is broken there is an interlude. This is Revelation 7. In it John sees two visions of the church. The first 8 verses speak of the 144,000 servants of God who are sealed in their foreheads. 144,000 is a number that represents completed humanity, humankind in its fullness. John sorts them by the twelve tribes of Israel. It is an unusual list because Joseph is included, and there is no tribe of Joseph. Levi is included, although this tribe is usually left off because they did not receive an inheritance of land within Israel. Dan and Ephraim are omitted. Many scholars believe the names on the list are less important than the list itself as representative of the fullness of humanity. Then John sees a multitude to great to count made up of every tribe, tongue, nation, etc. One of the elders asks him if he knows who they are. The question seems rhetorical because he quickly answers, “These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” They will now always be with the Lamb. The first century believers believed a time of trouble would precede Jesus’ second coming. It was a time of “great tribulation” and during it they were participating in the suffering of the Messiah. Further, they felt they were in that time. You can see hints of this in the NT (i.e., Col. 1.24; 2 Cor. 1.5a; Phil. 3.10, etc.). So these are the people of all ages and people groups who become followers of the Lamb. In these two images, then, John has seen the fullness of the church. The interlude comes to an end in 8.1 as the seventh seal is broken and heaven falls silent for one half hour.
In Revelation 4 the scene changes and John is brought up through a door to see God’s throne room. It is a scene of incredible power and purity. God reigns in majesty and glory as well as in wrath and judgment. Yet this is tempered by His mercy. His royal court surrounds him. It consists of 24 heavenly angelic beings and 4 “living creatures.” They worship Him continually. Thunder and lightning, symbolic of imminent and powerful action, explode from the throne. The seven spirits of God, or the Holy Spirit, are before the Father on the throne. In Revelation 5 John notices that the Father is holding a scroll in his right hand of authority. It is written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. What is it? Scholars have offered various answers including the Lamb’s Book of Life, the Old Testament, and more. The best answer is, given the context and where Revelation goes from here, that the scroll contains God’s will and purpose for the creation and is at the same time a deed of inheritance. This means someone needs to take this scroll and open it for God’s plan to be successful. John weeps at this point and it is a deep, mournful weeping. He knows that there is no one worthy enough to open it. The word “worthy” carries the idea of sufficient more than it carries the idea of purity or morality. In other words no one is sufficiently able to open the scroll and see God’s purposes fulfilled. Then one of the elders points out that Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has triumphed. These terms represent the patriarchs and the kingdom of Israel. The one called by them is the fulfillment of both. John looks for what will surely be a strong individual and sees a lamb, as if it had been sacrificed. He is the worthy one. He takes the scroll and the praise in the throne room turns from focusing on the Father to focusing on the Son for His redemptive act. Significantly the Holy Spirit, who is before the Father in chapter 4, is on the Son in chapter 5. John clearly wants to communicate a Trinitarian theology to us. In these two chapters, then, we see the powerful and mighty God who is able to overthrow Caesar but who conquers by means of sacrifice. The first century believers certainly resonated with this message as they considered their own weakness before the Empire. Their God, who is Almighty, conquers by means of sacrifice. They will need this to endure.
This message is part three of a three part series on the Second Coming of Jesus as taught in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. It deals with 2nd Thessalonians 2.1-12. We tend to come to the Bible looking for certainty. We want to absolutely know God, what it means to belong to Him, etc. And the Bible provides certain answers to many of our questions. At the same time some passages are more obscure like the one discussed in the audio file below this post. It primarily deals with the figure known popularly as “the anti-christ.” It is helpful to know some things about 2nd Temple Judaism to understand what Paul teaches about this person. 2nd Temple Judaism is the period between Israel’s return from exile in Babylon up to the destruction of the “2nd” Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. This period in Israel’s history is one of longing. They long for God to completely fulfill the promises He made to them while they were in Babylon. As they wait they look over their ancient texts (at this point this includes the Pentateuch and most but not all of the books in our current Old Testament between Joshua and Ezekiel) and they begin to see things in a new light. This is when the teaching of the Messiah gains prominence. The Day of the Lord becomes a major theme. This is also a period of turmoil as various world empires succeed each other and dominant many people including the Jews. One military-political leader outlaws Judaism and sacrifices a pig on the altar in the Temple. This person, and his act, is the basis for the New Testament idea of the “lawless one” who is now being restrained. In my view the lawless one will rise from within the church and is now being restrained by the preaching of the Gospel. In this message I also detail the other options available.
This message is part two of a three part series on the Second Coming of Jesus as taught in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. It deals with 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11. Recently a man named Harold Camping broadcast the news that Jesus would return May 21, 2011. According to CNN.com, “He has dissected scripture and crunched his biblical numbers to come up with the fateful dates. He rattles off mathematical explanations of how he did this work, throwing out Bible verses and calculations that leave an outsider’s head spinning…. But Camping also happens to be the man who once said September 6, 1994, would be the big day.” Camping was wrong in 1994 and he will be wrong again in 2011. Paul told the Thessalonians that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” His point was, don’t waste your time trying to read the tea leaves of the times (or the supposed math hidden in the Bible) and live as “children of the light and children of the day.” They were to do this in the midst of a dark age while God worked His transformation within them. When Jesus returns He will establish God’s kingdom on the earth and those who follow him will rule and reign with him. In this present “evil age” God is working the power of the resurrection which He will complete when Jesus returns. This message is about what God is doing now, while we live in this present age and wait for the not yet, the full realization of the Kingdom of God.
The audio file below this post is part one of a three part series on the Second Coming of Jesus as taught in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. It deals with 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. The second coming of Jesus is a well known teaching in 21st century. It is one of the distinctive things about Evangelical Christianity and virtually every Christian tradition teaches something about it. Even most unbelievers know that Christians believe that Jesus will return perhaps soon. And it is widely understood to be an escape from trouble. Jesus will return and the Christians will depart for Heaven with him just before all hell breaks out on earth. The Great Tribulation! The first Christians did not see Jesus return as an escape from trouble. Rather, they saw it as the culmination of trouble that they assumed they were already in the middle of, a trouble that would turn the page to close this age and open the one to come. They saw it as the ultimate act of salvation and judgment. Whenever God saves He also judges and vice-versa. The Second Coming will be the culmination of His salvation and of His judgment and the realization of His Kingdom on the earth. It is clear in the New Testament that the early Christians, especially Paul believed that Jesus would return soon, that they would see it. Paul certainly said that. He taught that it will be a public event, not a secret coming for the church. We will be welcoming Jesus into His Kingdom on earth where we will rule and reign with Him. This is the salvation that Jesus brings with Him at His return.
Contemporary evangelicalism approaches the Gospel from a place of power, of autonomy, and of entitlement. This impacts the way we understand the Gospel more than we realize. We ask questions of it that would be unusual to say the least to first century Christians. We want to know things like “how do I get saved?” and “how do I get God to answer my prayers.” The first Christians were powerless, weak, and marginalized. They were kept from the power centers of their society and so heard the Gospel as a call to be faithful and to endure in a world in rebellion to their God, and therefore potentially hostile to them. They had to navigate a culture in which idolatry was obvious but also powerful enough to ruin or possibly eliminate one’s life. In our day the idols are powerful but less obvious and, for now at least, lack the power to eliminate our lives. In this study of Revelation 2.18-3.22 we look at the last four churches in Asia: Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each one of them developed a different answer to the dilemma of how much of the prevailing culture should be assimilated and how much should be avoided. It is helpful to examine their experiences and answers to this dilemma to be able to respond to the idols of our age.
In Chapter Two of the Book of Revelation Jesus address three of “the seven churches” of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, and Thyatira. These were actual churches in the first century and John seems to have had a relationship with them. They were each contending with a problem which we also find in the contemporary church. Ephesus was the doctrinally pure church who moved away from their love for God and each other. Granted they were “right” about the truth but wrong about the heart of the matter. Jesus’ word to them is a stern warning. Today we see many “high tension” churches that draw firm boundaries around the truth, as they understand it. At the same time they are loveless toward others. Can they really love God (1 John 4.7)? This type of church is easy to caricature and that faulty picture defines Christianity to the outside world. Smyrna was the small church facing persecution. Its problem came from Jews who exposed them to the authorities as people who refused to worship the emperor. The Jews themselves were legally free from having to worship the emperor. They saw it as idolatry as did the Christians. As long as the Romans perceived the Christians to be basically Jews it was no problem. But it seems that the Jews in Smyrna made it a point to tell the Romans that the Christians were not Jews and that they refused to offer a sacrifice to the Emperor. Consequently, Jesus tells them, they can look forward to a season of imprisonment and martyrdom. Jesus’ message to them is comforting. We see this type of church, the persecuted church, throughout church history and in many places today. The third church addressed in this chapter is the church of Pergamum. This church had a problem opposite to that of Ephesus. Here prophets were encouraging people to embrace the culture, and likely, pagan worship (including immorality) with it. Pergamum did stand strong in the face of persecution but lacked the necessary regard for the truth. Jesus’ message to them is a warning that he will judge them according to the sword in his mouth, the Word of God, unless they repent. And we see many churches of this type in the world today as well.
In chapter one of the Book of Revelation John seems to be saying the visions in it are about to happen. It is the revelation of what “must soon take place.” Those who read it out loud and those who listen to it are blessed “because the time is near.” John is communicating with urgency about the state of the church. Many contemporary readers pick up the anticipation John intended with these phrases but misunderstand his overall meaning. In this message I talk about some of the things that shaped the anticipation a first century reader brought to the book and the details of the vision of Christ found in it. This vision sets the stage for the next two chapters.
UPDATE: New audio has been uploaded.
Many people read the Book of Revelation in a way similar to how one might read Nostradamus. They comb its phrases and images for details about the events leading up to Jesus’ second coming assuming it is full of end time secrets. In my mind this is faulty for more than one reason. For one thing, why would God give a message that was dark and incomprehensible to His people who were struggling with persecution that they could not possibly understand since it was about events that would unfold over 2000 years later? The answer is He didn’t. He communicated a message through John that the people who first received it understood. It meant something for them and it means something for us. The better we understand what it meant for them the better we will understand what it means for us. This message is a discussion of several background issues and provides a fair amount of historical details. Like the title says, it is an introduction to the Book of Revelation.