Monday, 26 September 2011

Jesus Loves and Speaks to the Church

Jesus loves the church for which he gave himself. John said “To him who loves us…” (1:5). It is out of that context that Revelation chapters 2 and 3 flow. It is out of that context that he speaks to the church sometimes hard and difficult words as well as words of comfort and strength. Some would like to say these letters represent church ages, others that being seven it represents the total sum of what God says to the church, neither of which is adequate. These were written to specific churches at particular time for a paricular reason, and in no way do they cover all of the problems we might find in the church. In fact while revival is taking place in one area, a church may be dying in another.

In chapters 2 and 3 we have seven letters to seven churches. Each of these letters comes out of the context of Jesus as the ascended Lord of the Church, who walks among them. The church in Revelation was going through a difficult time. Persecution was on the increase. It was tough. Nevertheless that doesn’t rule out other aspects of life and in these letters Jesus addresses each of the churches with a divine diagnosis.

These are prophetic words. The argument is raised that preterists empty Revelation of it’s prophetic content, but that is to limit prophecy to futurism. The fact of the matter is that much of prophecy in the Bible is of the nature of divine diagnosis and remedy, and that is what Revelation is about. How we need that divine diagnosis today, and the remedy God provides – Something to be noted here is that he doesn’t say the same thing to each church, a mistake that seems to be commonly made today where all churches are put in the same boat, and the same diagnosis and remedy applied.

In each of the letters we read, “I know…” That God knows can be both comforting and disturbing, comforting about the struggles and trials we face as Christians and churches, but disturbing when it’s about the things we thought we could hide, and get away with. We may feel we can make a good impression, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing that is hidden from him – he knows. What does he know about you?

Nevertheless the “I know…” here is redemptive, he knows and he reveals his knowledge of us not to condemn, but to change. So often we are blind and don’t see clearly. We are also very good at justifying ourselves – “Yes, I know, but you don’t understand…” Such arguments don’t stand a chance with God.
I wonder if such a word were to come today what would God say of you and your church? And would you be willing to hear it?

Which brings me to the recurring words, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches?” Listen is probably a better word as we know all to well we may hear but not listen – we heard what our mother said, but we didn’t listen! Are we listening. Yes the Spirit speaks today, the prophetic voice can still be heard – if we are willing to stop ad listen. Perhaps the churches in Revelation thought they were doing OK given the circumstances, but God’s voice cuts through all of that and diagnosies their real condition, and reveals every situation for what it is.

Repent occurs in six of the seven letters. Repent is not a word we like to hear, as it involves admission of guilt – being in the wrong. It’s a humbling word, but with God it also becomes a lifting and saving word. The word to six of the seven churches involved a call to repentance, a recognition of what was wrong and a change of direction/action.
What do you need to repent of? Don’t delay, thats the devils way – it can wait til torrow. No, do it today, and be a recipient of God’s geart mercy and grace.

For one church there was no such call – Philadelphia; the challenge was to hold on. That’s what some need to hear. God knows the difficulty, the trial, he is with you and he says ‘hold on to what you’ve got, don’t let let anyone take your crown.’ Earlier John had spoken of the people of God as a “kingdom, priests” or ‘kings and priests,’ (1:6). This is not about the heavenly crown, but the crown of life, their reiging in life (Romans 5:17).

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Revelation 1 A Brief Look

What do you know about Jesus? How do you see him? To some he’s just a teacher or healer, or good man, to many just a very nice man, but the Bible says a whole lot more.

“The Revelation of…” It’s a Revelation, an unfolding. It is meant to be understood.

“Of Jesus Christ” – it’s about Jesus. John knew him, but now he gets another powerful revelation, a revelation that Jesus has won! This is where some end times theology falls down as it proclaims a yet cosmic battle in the future, and undermines the cross.

“About what must quickly take place” or as Wuest translates it in his Expanded Translation of the New Testament which seeks to bring out the full meaning of the Greek, “must necessarily come to pass in their entirety shortly” ….. “the time is near,” or “the things which in it have been written and are on record, for the strategic, epochal season is imminent.” This idea of imminence is repeated v. 10, in chapter 2 and 3, and at the end.

“Made it known” (ESV) or more literally “Signified it” (HCSB) that is it was in signs, sign-i-fied. It was meant to be seen, it’s cinematic, and it’s not all that it appears to be! The stars are the angels, the lamps are the churches, the seven heads of the beast are ‘seven mountains’ and ‘seven kings,’ the Lion is the Lamb who is the Son of God, the new Jerusalem is not bricks and mortar but the people of God. This means we cannot take it literally, but must take John’s pictures/symbols as symbolic of something or someone.

Our problem is reading backwards into the text, from a modern day, global, high tech world. The fact is it was for them and they were meant to understand it! The first place to look is Scripture itself which is filled with such images – Revelation has more references to the OT than any other New Testament book. As Dennis Johnson puts it, “Revelation only makes sense in the light of the Old Testament.” At the same time God does not simply cut and paste, so care needs to be exercised.

“Is blessed…” There are seven blessings pronounced throughout the book – what kind of blessing would it have been if these words were totally unrelated to them, for some distant generation?

“Prophecy” is not just about prediction but more frequently as it is the Old Testament a sense of Divine diagnosis, and the needed response/cure.

“To the seven churches in Asia.” This also helps to set the time and the place/context. (also v.10). Seven particular churches, in a particular place, at a particular time in history. Asia Minor was divided into seven postal districts and each of these places was the main town in the district from which information was distributed.

“Grace and peace.” This is a common apostolic greeting emphasizing that our new life is, and was, and always will be, by and dependent on God’s amazing grace, and the need to receive and be living in his ‘peace’ no matter what the circumstances.

“From the One…. and the seven spirits/sevenfold Spirit and Jesus Christ…” reminds us that the God of the Bible is a Trinitarian God – a holy, happy, blessed fellowship of co-equal persons from all eternity to all eternity, One in Three and Three in One, and that having been made in his image is the basis for all our relationships.

“To Him who loves us….” Here we a have a reminder that the gospel is central, as John gets caught up in praise to God for the good news of Jesus Christ – washed, freed, kings and priests!

“Look! …..” draws immediate attention – what is said here has an imminent and a later context, and echoes the word of Jesus in Matthew 24.

“Coming with the clouds” is an O.T. reference to God coming in judgment, and had a present as well as a future reference. It can also be read as, “Look! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. And all the tribes of the land will mourn over him. This is certain. Amen.” This doesn’t have to mean that literally every eye will see him, but can simply mean it will not be done in a corner, but will be a very public event.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega….” An alphabet speaks of the letters we use to convey knowledge. He is the fount of all knowledge, the beginning and end – it is he who will have the last word.

“Partner in tribulation, kingdom and endurance….” John is suffering, even as they are, but it’s for the sake of the kingdom and requires endurance. Acts 14:22.

“In the Spirit..” a particular and conscious awareness of the Spirit – do we have such experiences? How do we identify them?

“Seven gold lampstands, and seven stars…” the seven churches and their angel or messenger, perhaps leader.

“Among them…” Here were seven suffering churches, and John sees Jesus standing among them. What reassuring words.

“One like the Son of Man…” This harks back to Daniel 7:13,14, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom, so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will now be destroyed.”

Many empires, emperors, kings, rulers have come and gone, but his one will not, he is greater than Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander and any Caesar, or for that matter Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddaffi! John saw him even as Daniel did, and stunned he falls down before him.

John, the Christians and the churches lived in a world where Caesar was lord or king of all the known earth. Look at what he says: “Don’t be afraid! I AM ….”

Notice that HE holds the keys of death and Hades, because he has defeated them. He is the resurrection and the life, and the gates of hell will not prevail! Whatever Rome or the Jewish persecutors, or the devil, would throw at the church He has the last word, because he has already won! And because he has won we may have every confidence in him.

John has an increasing revelation of Jesus Christ, from his first encounter in the Gospels to this one in Revelation. Has your knowledge and experience of Christ grown? Are you open to fresh encounters?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Revelation – A Radical Church in the Real World
A brief overview of Revelation (part 1)
Revelation is a book that has inspired artists, writers and film makers – of which apocalyptic films with their visions of a catastrophic end of the world is a growing category. It has inspired and frustrated and been the subject of many weird and wonderful interpretations!

There are four different ways of interpreting Revelation, and the fact that people who love the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and have a high regard for the Bible have come to differing conclusions, means we need to approach it with care, and not be too dogmatic, and ‘diss’ those who think differently, let alone call them heretics or doubt their salvation – and yes, some do!

Unity is important and scripture says we should be careful to maintain the ‘unity of the Spirit’ in the bond of peace’ whilst we grow together towards maturity in the faith. This requires grace and humility. Our understanding of the end times should not be, and is not the basis for our fellowship.

Historical – There are two schools of thought:
1. Linear – a straight line from the day it was written right up to the end of time. In this view then, Revelation describes the chronological order of history from the day it was written right up until the end of time. The problem with this view is that the details have to be forced into it, and at any given time while it might apply in one place, it doesn’t fit in another, and no two writers seem to agree as to what events are actually being referred to.
2. Cyclical – a repeating circle of events. In this view Revelation is seen as covering the whole of church history, but more than once, i.e. Revelation provides us with six overviews, picturing history from different angles, or as one writer sees it, as covering the whole church age in seven developing cycles. Again such endeavours appear to be forced upon the text, and writers are not necessarily agreed on the number of cycles or overviews there are.

Idealist – The Idealist agrees in many ways with the historical view but sees Revelation in terms of recapitulation rather than time specific, in other words the literary order doesn’t necessarily follow the actual historical order of events, but is a way of repetition in order to elaborate on God’s purposes and so confirm their certainty. It is about what seems to be the unending struggle between good and evil, and how the victory can be experienced by an overcoming church wherever it finds itself in history. The problem (though the truths taught may be correct) is that it means Revelation ends up as no more than a ‘myth,’ it being spiritually true, but not historically, or to put it another way Revelation is no more than a Pilgrims Progress, or a Chronicles of Narnia.

Futurist – this approach which is widespread today and widely publicised and popularised through the fictional Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye, usually means that after chapter 3 all that’s referred to applies to an unknown time, somewhere in the unknown future, and when it does take place it will be compressed into a very short dramatic, even cataclysmic, period of time. It should be noted that this dispensational approach to Revelation came rather late on the scene, some 150 – 200 years ago, and has also led to all sorts of conjecture/speculation especially with regard to modern events, i.e. nearly every crisis in modern times has had people looking for answers/meaning in Revelation, from the six day war in 1967, the crisis in Kuwait, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq etc., only to be proved they were false starts. The most recent example was Harold Camping’s announcement that Jesus was coming on a certain date this year, only for it to pass into history as a non-event.

Another problem is that what is written between chapters 3 – 19 is of no relevance as the church will not be there to match it all up. This view in its extreme dispensational, pre-tribulation, pre-millennial form also has a tendency to divide up scripture in a way that does injustice to the overarching story of God and his people, so that instead of there being one unifying story there are actually two, with the church as the sub plot or story, or worse still God’s alternative idea until he could get back on track with his original plan.

Another problem with Futurism is that it suits the cosy, comfortable Christianity of the middle class West, and leads to a weak Christian life and a church with an escapist mentality – when things get tough praise God we won’t be here!

Preterist – this means ‘to look back,’ and there are two schools of thought here,
1. Hyper-preterist, or full preterist, which sees the whole of Revelation as having been fulfilled, and with it all the prophecies relating to the second coming. This means that there is no second-coming of Christ to look forward to because it has already taken place. This seems to go too far, and not do justice to the whole of Scripture regarding the end times.
2. Partial-preterist which sees the large part of Revelation as having immediate significance for the people it was written to, but with the last few chapters referring to the last days.
One argument against the preterist view is that it means Revelation has nothing to say to us today. This nevertheless is a false argument as the same would then apply to most of the Bible. The answer is that Revelation is to be treated in the same way as we would treat Ephesians or Corinthians etc..

Sadly it seems that many ignore the normal principles of interpreting scripture when it comes to studying the book of Revelation and treat it as an entirely different species of book, even disconnected from the rest of the Bible – one of the great dangers is reading backwards from where we are in our time and culture – when we do that we’ll see things that are just not there.

Some principles of interpretation
There are two things that are generally understood by all with regard to scripture:
1. The Bible is clear in its message and can be understood.
2. The message of the Bible is an integrated whole – it is coherent and without contradiction, it has a grand theme.
Three further points flow from the above:
1. Scripture must interpret scripture
2. Every text must be taken in its context – textual, literary form, cultural and historical.
3. No interpretation should contradict the overall message of scripture

The language is symbolic, not all to be taken literally. “When I use a word,” said Humpty-Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I want it to mean – neither more nor less.” The same applies to Revelation, how John used the word is of foremost importance. Numbers aren’t to be taken as statistics. Pictures are not to be taken literally. The best guide is the Old Testament as there are more references to the it than any other book in the New Testament.

It is revelation – an unfolding; not designed to be a mystery/hidden. John expected them to know, or work out the number of the Beast. Daniel was told to seal the words of his prophecy, but John is to open them up, why? Because they were needed at that time.

This is highly debated with most favouring a date in the 90’sAD largely based on something that Irenaeus a Church Father wrote, the translation of which is entirely open to question and doesn’t fit with what he wrote, elsewhere. He was also known to be less than accurate with dates and times.

Reasons for an early date (internal):
1. Written to the seven churches….
2. The emphasis on imminence… soon, shortly
3. The temple is still standing… (note Jewish historian Edersheim refers to John & Revelation must have been written before 70AD)
4. The synagogue of Satan – Jews were still a major force of persecution, still, strong, influential, powerful. After 70AD many were sold as slaves, and weakened they were in no position to persecute.
5. John expects them to know the number of the beast.
6. The seven kings (17:10) the sixth is still reigning (Nero) doesn’t make sense any other way.
7. Daniel is told to shut up the words of his prophecy, John is told to open them up.
8. John’s imprisonment on Patmos – has to be earlier as he was told there was still much he had to do which would not have been conceivable with a later date that would have made him too old.

Revelation is only understood in the light of the rest of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and when done so provides a logical conclusion to the inspired canon of Scripture. We must track the story from God’s purpose in creation, through the fall into sin, the promise of a Saviour, Abraham, Israel, and the coming of Jesus Christ who fulfilled the prophetic purposes of God in his life, death, and resurrection. He was God dwelling with men (presence). He was the mediator (priest). He was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (offering). In him forgiveness would be found, relationship restored, and as a result the Old Covenant represented in the Temple as the place of the presence and relationship with God with its priesthood and offerings was coming to an end, and the temple and all it activities would be destroyed and cease.

The Holy Spirit had been poured out on 120 Jewish believers – this was the beginnings of the church Jesus said he would build. They went out and preached the good news, thousands of Jews believed and were added to the church, persecution came from the Jewish authorities, people were dispersed, the gospel was also presented to the Gentiles and they start getting added to this previously ‘Jewish’ church, that Paul describes as ‘one new man,’ and one body. Persecution intensified. Letters are written to the churches.
Revelation was one of those letters, and became the conclusion to the ‘canon’ of Scripture, God’s inspired Word for all people, in all places, in all generations, tying up the loose ends, and also affirming the prophetic ministry of Jesus (i.e. Matthew 24).

Revelation then has to do with the close of the old covenant, the judgment by God of unfaithful Israel as a nation (that is Israel of that day), the destruction of the temple and end of the priestly ministry, and the opening up of the new age of grace.

Theological Themes
1. Christology – Jesus is Lord, Lion and Lamb.
2. Satan – most extended consideration of … and destruction
3. Sovereignty of God – despite all that’s going on
4. The Judgment/wrath of God
5. The Gospel – redemption & salvation
6. Protection and perseverance of the saints
7. The end of the old covenant age.
8. Heaven and Hell – very real destinations.
9. The church – struggles (suffering), endurance and ultimate glory

Five characteristics about God in Revelation
1. He is Trinity
2. He is Holy
3. He is Sovereign
4. He is Good
5. He is Just – theodicy; a defence of God’s righteous character and judgement
• His judgment reveals his righteous character, especially against evil in the world
• Even though God judges the depraved earth dwellers God still offers them the opportunity to repent
• He executes his righteousness by turning sin upon itself
• His justice is demonstrated in his vindication of the righteous

Part 2 coming