Category Archives: Book of Revelation

Wrath Is Way Underrated

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6:9-17

Part 14 (6:1-8)  ΑΩ  Part 16 (7:1-8) →

I love the board game Risk.

If you’re not familiar with the game, it was created by a Frenchman a little over 50 years ago, originally as a game called La Conquête du Monde (“The Conquest of the World”). No doubt the frenchie was a little nostalgic for the glory days of Napoleon and French world dominance. And, to be sure, La Conquête du Monde is infinitely better than “Risk.” Because, after all, the game is entirely about conquering the world. Sure, “risk” is a big part of the strategy of the game, but calling the game that is a bit like calling the game of basketball “Dribble” instead.

There’s really only two ways the game of Risk can end.

First, one player can eradicate the armies of all his (or her) opponents, thus completing his conquest of the world. That’s the most common way for a game to end. The other way it can end is when a player, irate over the decimation of his armies and disgruntled over a broken alliance on which he relied too heavily, that instead turned on him and hastened his demise, kicks over the board in the ultimate act of Risk jihad: “I’m as good as dead and mad as hell, so I’m taking all you jerks and your armies with me.”

It happens. I’ve seen it. After all, it’s La Conquête du Monde. It’s war, and things get messy in war. Especially when there’s also queso dip on the table.

As Revelation 6 continues, things appear to be growing bleak for God and his people. The four horsemen of verses 2-8 are wreaking havoc all over the globe, bringing conquest and tyranny, war, famine, poverty and death—all of the basic ills that continue to plague humanity to this day. Furthermore, we’re told, that it’s not going to end until a certain number of believers have been killed for their faith.

The faithful cry out to God: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?!” (v. 10). God’s perhaps less-than-fully-comforting response is to tell them to “wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, [are] killed just as they had been” (v. 11).

Tumultuous times and earth-shattering events are witnessed as the sixth seal is opened. John chooses the language of earthquakes and the moon turning blood red, stars falling and heaven and earth being rolled up like a scroll. As always, it’s important to remember that John is employing rich, symbolic imagery. As N.T. Wright observes,

“In the Old Testament, language about the sun turning black and the moon becoming like blood, the stars falling from heaven, and so on, was regularly employed as a way of speaking about what we would call ‘earth-shattering events’—not at all meaning actual earthquakes, but rather tumultuous events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the smashing of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001: events for which it is hard to find appropriate language except through vivid symbol and metaphor” (Revelation for Everyone, 66).

Obviously, the sun isn’t really turning black and the heavens aren’t really being rolled up, or this would be the end of the book. There would be no place for the rest of the story to unfold.

The point is that just when you thought the situation on the world stage couldn’t have gotten any messier or grown any more bleak, it does just that. Persecution, martyrdom, famine, war and death reach epidemic levels.

And the people of God cry out, wondering why God hasn’t just gotten up and kicked the board over.

After all, he did it in the days of Noah, right? Game over? Let’s start a new one? Clearly this one is lost. I mean… Look around.

But God is playing the long game. The enemy has made a mess of the board, strewing armies all over the map. But God has Alaska, Argentina and Greenland locked up (translation for non-Risk players: It doesn’t look like he’s winning, but he’s in a position of power). He is waiting for evil to do its worst, to display to the world fully the ugliness and bankruptcy of its self-centeredness and rebellion against its rightful king. Only then will his armies come flooding into the world, bringing God’s wrath to every corner:

“Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their  wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Rev. 6:15-17).

“Wrath?… You mean justice and love and mercy and goodness, right? Wrath is such an ugly word. Would a loving God really be wrathful?”

Wrath is very misunderstood and completely underrated. Wrath is the supreme expression of the love of God in this context. God’s wrath is the eradication of injustice, corruption, of abuse, of poverty, neglect, hate, greed, pride, conquest, war and death. God’s wrath means the end of evil. There couldn’t possibly be a higher expression of God’s love for his people and his creation than wrath in this case.

It isn’t cruel to eradicate cancer cells. It’s loving. It’s good. It’s painful and ugly and never something one would choose—we could wish the body never got cancer to begin with. But it has. And cancer’s eradication is ultimately for the flourishing and renewal and life of the body.

In the same way, God’s coming wrath is not to be feared by his people. It isn’t an occasion in which he sets aside his love for a moment in order to loathingly do what has to be done. God’s wrath is an overwhelmingly benevolenteven violent outpouring of his love. It is to be celebrated and invited as the deeply loving act that will, at last, signal the defeat of evil and the death of death; the dawn of worldwide human flourishing and global joy.

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Hitting the Bottom

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6:1-8

Part 13 (5:8-14)  ΑΩ  Part 15 (6:9-17) →

Sometimes the best way to rescue someone is first to let them hit the bottom.

God is always willing to teach us things the easy way. Unfortunately, we’re not always willing to learn them the easy way. But just because we’re not willing to learn them doesn’t mean God is going to stop teaching them. He can’t. He’s too good a father. He loves us too much. And good and loving fathers don’t stop teaching their children when they refuse to listen. They keep teaching it. But they do it with a wooden spoon in hand.

Because I’m not a very good kid, I’ve learned most of the most important lessons of my life the hard way. But as a result of learning them I have a deeper sense of my sonship to the Father than I’ve ever had, and feel recreated, renovated and redeemed.

God is and will do the same thing for his creation.

Revelation 6:1-7 is about God giving his creation over to itself. He’s letting it have its own way. As Paul says, he “gave them over” to their sinful desires (Rom. 1:24). He’s allowing the fallen world to do what it does best: conquest, war, famine and death.

As Revelation 6 opens, the seals of God’s scroll—his battle plan for the defeat of evil and blueprint for the resurrection of the world—begin to be broken. One after another they are broken by the Lion-Lamb—the General/Architect—as he prepares to unfurl the scroll and make war on everything that has marred his world, and then to resurrect and renovate it. The moment the entire creation has been waiting and longing for (cf. Rom 8:22) is arriving, but as it waits, the fallen world is allowed to hit the bottom so that it can learn the hard way what it refused to learn the easy way.

The white horse (v. 2) represents the constant power-lust and greed to which the world has been subject since Cain killed his brother. The Akkaidians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, Rome, the Arabs, the Mongols, Britain, Nazi Germany, the United States… There has never been a time in the history of the world when a dominant power was not attempting to extend its domination through military, economic and/or cultural power. The red horse (v. 4) follows close behind, representing the incessant war that has plagued the globe in every age.

The black horse signifies the economic corruption that is so often found at the root of conquest and war between nations and peoples. A voice shouts,

“Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, but do not damage the oil and the wine!” (v. 6)

In other words, ordinary, necessary goods and services skyrocket in price, while luxury items hold steady, allowing the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor.

Finally, the pale horse and Death, its rider, emerges with Hades, the personification of the abode of the dead, in tow. These are the ultimate threats of every conqueror, every despot, every tyrant. No age has had a shortage of dealers of death, and ours is no exception. In fact it may be the worst. It’s well known, for example, that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.

For a very long time, God has been teaching humanity the hard way what comes of rebellion, corruption and pride. We are refusing to listen. But God loves his creation too much to stop teaching.

N.T. Wright comments,

“For too long [the church has] healed the wounds of the human race lightly, declaring ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace except at a superficial level. We have been unwilling to look below the surface and see the dark forces at work. But if God’s new creation is to be brought to birth, the deepest ills of the old one must be exposed, allowed to come out, and be dealt with.” (Revelation for Everyone, 62).

The fallen world is still falling. It will hit the bottom. Pride, greed, war and conquest will continue to mar the beautiful face of Creation. And that’s certainly not what we want to hear. We don’t want to wait any longer. We cry, “Maranatha! Come soon!”

And he will.

The seals are being broken. The scroll is opening even now. We have begun to anticipate his coming by living as though the new heaven and new earth have already dawned. We have begun to anticipate it by loving, serving, speaking truth, becoming self-sacrificial, declaring the gospel, binding up broken hearts, working with integrity, healing the hurting, making peace, confronting deception and injustice, and in all ways exemplifying the life of God’s new world until the scroll is unfurled, evil is destroyed forever, and God’s Kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Center of the Gospel: Cross or Kingdom?

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5:8-14

Part 12 (5:1-7)  ΑΩ  Part 14 (6:1-8) →

Have you seen the musical Wicked? How about Blue Man Group?

I know there are people out there who are fanatical about Wicked. In fact, it seems that most people who see it end up thinking it’s the best thing ever to grace the stage. And it may very well be. But I guess I missed whatever it is that has made it such a sensation.

I actually had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway and… I fell asleep. I couldn’t help it. I recall having slept just fine the night before, and I’m not one that has much of a problem staying awake if I need to. But I was just. so. bored.

And that’s not to say that the musical isn’t great. It probably is great, as far as musicals go. I’m in no position to be an informed critic. I just couldn’t stay awake. I so much prefer situations in which I feel like I’m participating. Which is why I’ve never had more fun as a part of an audience than I did at Blue Man Group, a stage show in which individual audience members—and at times the entire audience—is involved in the show. I won’t wreck the surprise for those of you who haven’t been. For those of you who have: I caught the marshmallow in my mouth. [High-fives all around]

I think this dynamic might explain, in part, why I’ve always had trouble with the traditional evangelical formulation of the gospel. It makes the audience completely passive. They play no role whatsoever. Typically it goes something like this: Jesus came to die for my sins so that I could be forgiven and go to heaven.

Is that statement true? Of course it is. It’s just that it leaves so much out. And to call it “the gospel” is not to condense the gospel into a brief statement that faithfully encapsulates the whole, it is to represent one strand of the gospel as the whole of the gospel. It would almost be like saying that Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi. …Well, yeah, that is a very key thread in the story. But let’s be careful about saying that Star Wars is about that. Star Wars is not easily summarized or condensed, and neither is the gospel.

An intra-evangelical debate has gone on for some time—and intensified in the last few years—about whether the gospel is mostly about Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross, or Jesus inaugurating the Kingdom of God on earth. And while there are exceptions, generally speaking the more conservative evangelicals speak as though the Cross is the core of the gospel, and the Kingdom is an add-on that you mention if you have time (or not at all). The Cross is what you talk about with an unbeliever. The Kingdom is something you can talk about while you’re discipling/mentoring someone if you happen to take them through the books where the Kingdom is a central theme… What are those books called again?… Oh yeah… The Gospels. More progressive evangelicals generally flip that: God’s work to establish his Kingdom on earth—and our participation in that work—is the central message of the gospel, and Christ’s work on the Cross is (at best) something we need to cherish but keep in the background or (at worst) something we need to rethink and possibly further downplay in significance.

It seems to me that Revelation 5 has a useful response to the mistaken tendencies of both conservative and progressive evangelicals.

In Revelation 5, three songs are sung to the Lion-like Lamb that has just been revealed as worthy to open the scroll—God’s battle and renovation plan for the world. The first song goes like this:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

Do you see what I’m seeing? Read it again. What do you notice?

Verse 9 is the “gospel” of the conservatives and verse 10 is the “gospel” of the progressives. I guess I’m wondering why modern evangelicals feel the need to pick one or the other, or even to emphasize or prioritize one piece over the other. The earliest believers clearly didn’t. Verses 9-10 are one sentence in the original. If you’re reading an NIV or NLT translation, they put a period at the end of verse 9, and they’re wrong to do so because it’s a misleading error.

Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed himself so that by his death he could rescue his people, anointing them to act as his vice-regents to rule with him, and his worship leaders to point people to him. That’s the gospel. And all I did was paraphrase verses 9-10.

Jesus did not come to die to make you a passive participant in his salvific work, who receives the gift of his sacrifice and then sits around just waiting to die and go to heaven, like someone watching (or falling asleep at) a play. And Jesus did not come with his Kingdom-inaugurating message, inviting well-intentioned, basically good people to get on board and help him, without a thought as to how it’s possible for people to do any good at all when they are, biblically speaking, enemies of God, filled with darkness and enslaved to sin under the rule of the Evil One.

The gospel is not either about the Cross or the Kingdom of God. We don’t need to emphasize one over the other. One does not need to be prior to the other. We don’t need to decide whether we’re going to be “Kingdom” people or “Cross” people. And anyone telling you in a sermon or a book or a blog post that one is more central or more important is distorting the gospel.

We don’t need to argue about which blade is more important in a pair of scissors. We don’t need to debate whether the front or back wheel of a bicycle is more necessary. No one needs to write a book about whether your right or left foot is more vital to finishing a marathon.

And you don’t need to choose only one sentence with which to express the gospel. But if you really feel compelled to do so, let me strongly suggest the use of some commas:

Jesus gave himself up to be killed in our place, bearing our sin, so that we could be forgiven, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and sent out into the world as his pastors and ambassadors, who work to make their small corner of the world look like God’s kingdom—his new world—and who call the people around them to recognize and embrace their king and savior.

Hear the Lion. See the Lamb.

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5:1-7

Part 11 (4:6b-11)  ΑΩ  Part 13 (5:8-14) →

I love Amazon.com.

Love. Love, love, love. I order a lot of books, and I love the experience of seeing a package addressed to me sitting on the front porch. (And who doesn’t?) Once in a while I order so many books that I forget which books I’ve ordered and I literally have no idea what’s in the box on the porch. Which is the best. It’s like a little Christmas.

That I made.

For myself.

I’m sure you can relate. Or not. At any rate, when the boxes arrive they’re always addressed to me, so I know they’re mine. But imagine that one day a box arrived on my front porch, and instead of saying “Bryan McWhite” in the address line it said, “To the one who is worthy to open this.”

Bummer. Self-made Christmas is over. I’m gonna be pretty sure that’s not addressed to me. I’m not the one who’s supposed to open it. And is there anyone around who is? Will we ever know what’s in the beautiful, brown Amazon-stamped cardboard box? I could weep…

A (somewhat) similar scene unfolds in Revelation 5:

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” (vv. 1-3)

Think of God, in this scene, as an Architect/General. In chapters 1-3 he has given the church some initial details of his cosmic plan. He is going to war against the forces that have marred and corrupted humankind and his creation. He will defeat and destroy these forces once and for all, and will rebuild his broken and tattered world—a greater and better Eden. The scroll he’s holding, then, is his battle plan and blueprint for rebuilding. It’s perfectly sealed (“seven seals”) with a sealing wax that can only be cracked by one who is truly worthy.

And no one fits the bill.

God decided, from the beginning, that his great battle plan would be initiated by humankind. For God to press ahead without a worthy human being to lead the charge and the rebuilding effort would be an admission that he was mistaken; That his plan had failed; That he had hoped in humanity and that his hope had been not only mistaken but foolish. And yet it appears that that’s exactly what’s happened. Humankind has gone completely astray. They’ve all rebelled. They’ve all fallen. Even the best of them have become corrupted by sin and self-interest.

So, John weeps (v. 4), because for a moment it appears as though God’s plan will not unfold. Evil has won after all, and will be allowed to engulf the earth completely. God’s new world is a dream that will never be realized. Hope is lost, because humankind has failed. We ran God’s beautiful plan straight into the ground.

This is where we find ourselves. Looking at the ground, sobbing over the shattered remains of our world, like a kid standing over the broken pieces of his favorite toy, knowing his recklessness alone led to this. We should all feel this. We’ve all contributed to the wreckage. And none of us have lived lives virtuous and worthy enough to undo the wreckage.

But then one of the twenty-four elders speaks:

“‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.‘” (Rev. 5:5)

So there is someone who can crack the seal? There is someone who is worthy to initiate God’s rescue and renovation plan? There is a human being who is untouched by sin, corruption and darkness? Who is he?

“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:6-7)

Did you catch that? “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. …Then I saw a Lamb…”

This is one of the most stunning portraits of Christ in the entire Bible. John hears “Lion” and sees “Lamb.”

The one and only human being worthy to break the seals and unfold God’s cosmic plan to defeat evil and restore his broken world is Jesus, the Lion who wages war on evil with terrible ferocity, but who wins the war by self-sacrifice—by being slain himself. But don’t think for a moment that the fact that the Lamb was killed means he’s weak. The Lamb has seven horns (a symbol of perfect power) and he has seven eyes (a symbol of perfect knowledge). This Lion/Lamb is invincible. He cannot be killed by any means but self-sacrifice. And in his self-sacrifice he wields the most dominating and unstoppable power the universe has ever seen.

Suddenly we understand more clearly why the elders have fallen down before him; Why they cast off their crowns before him and worshiped (4:10). He is staggering. He is worthy of our praise and songs. Celebrate him. Celebrate the Lion and Lamb who is our once-and-forever rescuer and redeemer. But we cannot just celebrate him from afar, like fans of a favorite artist or athlete.

We must follow after him in his likeness.

N.T. Wright sums it up well:

“There have been, down the years, plenty of lion-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus died for us; but now God’s will is to be done in the lion-like fashion, through brute force and violence to make the world come into line, to enforce God’s will. No, replies John; think of the lion, yes, but gaze at the lamb. And there have been plenty of lamb-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus may have been ‘the lion of Judah,’ but that’s a political idea which we should reject because salvation consists in having our sins wiped away so that we can get out of this compromised world and go off to heaven instead. No, replies John; gaze at the lamb, but remember that it is the lion’s victory that he has won.” (Revelation for Everyone, 54)

So, church, may we lay down our lives like lambs, in sacrifice and love, commending salvation through Christ to friends, family, and co-workers. And may we fight for justice, truth and goodness like lions, declaring the end of the reign of evil. May we follow closely behind our great Architect/General—the Lion-like Lamb and Lamb-like Lion.

It’s About to Get Weird.

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 4:6b-11

Part 10 (4:1-6a)  ΑΩ  Part 12 (5:1-7) →

If Revelation is known for anything, it’s for being “that weird book at the end.”

I once heard a story of a person who had never read the Bible before, but was given one as a gift when he became a believer. He read the whole thing cover-to-cover, and when he was asked what he thought of it he said, “It’s pretty good. I especially liked the science fiction stuff at the end.”

Sounds about right. What else would you call it?

Academics call it “apocalyptic literature,” but let’s just stick with “the weird stuff” at the end of the Bible. The problem with being weird is that no one pays attention to you, because they have no idea what to make of you. Not that I would know. Especially not in elementary school.

Most people steer mostly clear of Revelation, mostly because it is so weird and they don’t know how to make sense of it. Some people, on the other hand, get so into revelation that they start making charts and timelines that they hang on their bedroom wall and thus become so weird that people can’t make sense of them. Both extremes are unhealthy. But we need to read Revelation because it’s God talking to us. And I think once we see what’s really there, we’ll love reading it. Revelation 4 and 5, in fact, are two of the most powerful and wonderful passages in the entire Bible.

Picking it up halfway through 4:6, where we left off, we step further into the throne room of the King, and are immediately confronted with some pretty bizarre imagery:

“In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings…” (Rev. 4:6-8)

What the what?

Now, first of all, let’s remember not to get so literal with this imagery that we’re imagining completely preposterous things and missing the point (see my previous post). These creatures are representatives of the animal creation, including humans as merely one creature among the others at this point. The lion has always been recognized as the king among wild beasts. The ox is the massive leader of domesticated animals. And the eagle is the iconic king of the birds. Their wings portray their readiness to do the will of God anywhere and everywhere. The eyes covering them all around denote both a sleepless commitment to keeping watch for God over his whole creation, and also depict them as agents of God himself, who is all-seeing and all-knowing.

The most stunning reality of these creations, however, isn’t their appearance. It is the fact that they are praising God. And not only are they praising God, but they never stop praising him:

“Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.'” (Rev. 4:8)

Have you ever seen a lion praising God?

How about an ox? An eagle? You ever seen mountains and hills burst into song, or trees clapping their hands? (Isa. 55:12; I’m reminded of one of my favorite Sufjan Steven songs.)

No?

The remarkable truth is that if you have seen a lion, you’ve seen a lion praising God. If you’ve seen an ox, you’ve seen an ox praising God. If you’ve seen mountains, you’ve seen them singing to God, and if you’ve seen trees, you’ve seen them clapping their hands for Him.

Look out your window. Can you see a tree?

That tree is clapping, cheering for God. Right now. As you’re looking at it.

All of creation was designed to point to its Maker in adoration and to reflect his glory. Humans, apparently, are the only part of creation that is capable of turning praise off. N.T. Wright observes,

“Only humans, it seems, have the capacity to live as something other than what they are (God reflectors, image bearers). Trees behave as trees; rocks as rocks; the sea is and does what the sea is and does.” (The Case for the Psalms, 120)

If we were living according to our design we would constantly—with every word, thought and action—be falling down before him who sits on the throne, casting aside our proud crowns of self-rule, and worshiping, singing:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (4:11)

Everything in the book of Revelation is ultimately about worship. The creation and everything in it was designed to worship. Constantly. With full enjoyment and perfect happiness. That’s our design, just like it’s the design of lions and eagles and rivers and canyons. But that design was marred. It was distorted. It’s broken. And everything in Revelation is meant to show how God is acting decisively to put things right. God isn’t discarding it and starting over again. He’s going to war against the forces that have corrupted and defaced it, and which threaten to destroy it.

And every act of worship we undertake—in word, thought and action—undoes some of the damage. God is recreating his world through us. We are joining with all creation, participating with its original and perfect design, pointing to the one we were made to reflect.

This Sunday as you sing, think larger than the congregation of people you’re standing among. When we worship, we worship with mountains. We worship with redwoods. We worship with bees and fleas, and with planets and stars. All of them singing. All of them part of the congregation of Creation, pointing with one voice to the greatness of the King, who is restoring all things.