Category Archives: Eschatology

This Is Mine.

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7:1-8

Part 15 (6:9-17)  ΑΩ  Part 17 (7:9-17) →

Okay, where were we?

Somewhere between the sixth and seven seal being opened, unfurling God’s plan and purposes for the rescue and restoration of his broken world. Right? We’re at the point of no return in the Book of Revelation. The symbolism and imagery of the book are getting more and more thick and vivid and, frankly, strange.

As the scene opens in chapter 7, we meet four angels who are standing at the four corners of the earth (Don’t laugh. God knows the earth doesn’t have corners. But he’s speaking to people who don’t know that yet. Nice of him, if you ask me.) And John tells us that the angels are actually holding back a cataclysm that they’re about to bring on the earth. Another angel—a direct representative of God himself—arises and speaks:

“Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (v. 3)

And then John hears the people of God being “sealed.” We’ll talk about “sealing” in a moment, but it’s important to understand who these “144,000” people are who are being sealed. As we’ve seen before, numbers are almost always symbolic in apocalyptic literature, including in the book of Revelation. So it’s very unlikely that God is literally sealing 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After all, even the tribe names are rich with symbolism here. Notice that Judah comes first, instead of the firstborn, Reuben. This is no doubt because of the preeminence of Jesus, the lion of Judah. Dan is nowhere to be found, likely because lots of Jews believed that the anti-Christ would come from Dan. And Manasseh, one of Joseph’s children, subs in for Dan.

Twelve is, of course, a particularly symbolic number that we’ve already seen in Revelation. In chapter 21, we’re going to see that the New Jerusalem—the “capital city” of the new heavens and new earth—is going to have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel inscribed on its gates, and the foundations will have the names of the twelve apostles, both of which symbolize the completed people of God—both Jews and non-Jews. The same idea is at work here. The people of God as a whole are being sealed.

A wax seal was, in John’s day, a way to keep a scroll closed and untampered with, as we’ve already seen. But a seal could also be used as an identifying mark. For example, I have a stamp in my library at home that impresses a personal seal into all of my books, so that when people borrow them, they remember that they don’t own them and (hopefully) return them. The seal marks out the books as mine.

That’s exactly what God is doing here. God is saying to the entire world and all the forces at work within it: These people are mine. Jews and non-Jews, men and women, people from every language and ethnic group and nation—all who commit themselves to God’s Christ by their confession and by their lives—are marked as God’s special possession. And here, he is marking them out for protection and rescue from the very forces that will soon sweep through his creation to cleanse and purify it.

As we will see in 7:9-17, this doesn’t mean the people of God won’t suffer. All throughout history the people of God have suffered, and the present and future will be no exception. We in the West haven’t felt it as acutely. The first two centuries of Christians in America were a historical aberration in that Christians didn’t face persecution much at all. But we will. It is coming.

But the message of this text to the followers of Christ is: You will come through this. Not because you’re strong. Not because you’re good. But because you’re God’s.

What an incredible gift, honor and privilege to be God’s beloved. You almost can’t put words to it. It’s amazing to know that God is our guard when the world revolts against him and his people. He hasn’t left us alone to fend for ourselves while he watches, like some general who sits on his horse, far off on a cliff while his soldiers are slaughtered in the valley below. He’s with us. He’s at the front. He leads the charge. His shield doesn’t crack. And he knows each soldier’s name.

God, your maker, king, general and savior knows your name. You matter to him, because you’re his. Does that knowledge embolden you in your endeavors for him? It should. May it be so for all of us.

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.

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.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 2)

Originally written as a Christmas message, delivered on 12/19/10. Listen to the original audio recording here.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In part 1 of this post we looked at Zephaniah chapter 3 and saw how the people of God during the time of Zephaniah were waiting and anticipating and longing. Because of their disobedience and rebellion, God had removed them from the Promised Land, sent them into exile in Babylon, and sent the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple at the heart of Jerusalem.

And to the people of God all of this wasn’t just a major inconvenience; wasn’t a merely geographical problem; it was an epic spiritual crisis. Their sin was unforgiven, they had been removed from the land God had promised them, which made them wonder if God had completely and finally forsaken them, and the destruction of the temple was God’s signal that he was leaving—that he would no longer dwell with his people; that he would no longer be “God with us.”

And so they longed for the end of exile—for God to be their only true King and master. They longed for mercy—for God to find a way to forgive their sins, numerous and grievous as they were. And they longed for God to come and dwell among them once again as Immanuel—“God with us.”

We also saw in Part 1 that, in fact, all these things came to pass in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, who came to be Immanuel—the God who is with his people, who came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and reign as the only true Lord of his people, and to die in the place of his people to purchase the forgiveness of their sin finally and completely. So that brings us to where we are today. And the question I want to pose today is:

Why isn’t the story over? 

Why isn’t Christmas the end of the story? I might have given the impression in Part 1 that the coming of Christ was the end of the story—exile over, Jesus present and ruling, sin forgiven…  And yet… I think we all still have the sense that… there has to be more.

We look at the world around us and we see earthquakes and tsunamis. We see AIDS and cancer. We see abuse and divorce. We see destitution and poverty. We see hunger and famine. We see tensions between nations, tensions between political parties, tensions between races, tensions between generations.

We look around and we see so much lingering wreckage from sin and the fall, and we say, “This… still can’t be right. There’s gotta be something more, doesn’t there? Remember the old men in the book of Ezra? The old men who had seen the first temple before it was destroyed before the exile, and when they saw the new temple being built they wept (Ezra 3:12) because of how much it paled in comparison to the first temple. They wept and said, “This can’t be right. God—is there more? Is there more than this?

In many ways, we are in a similar place. We pray, “Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—knowing full well that we’re praying that because clearly the Kingdom hasn’t fully come. God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven, yet. And so we wait. We anticipate. We long.

And Christmas reminds us what we’re longing for. In many ways we’re longing for the same thing that our spiritual forefathers longed for. We’re longing for the end of exile—not exile in Babylon. Exile in a place where there is a “God of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who is not our God. We’re longing for God to deal with sin and evil—not just to forgive them, but to destroy them forever. And we’re longing for Immanuel—“God with us”—to come. Not to be among us for a time, but to reign and well dwell among us fully and finally forever.

And these are the very things Paul is anticipating in this text from Romans 8. In verse 18 he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (some translations say “revealed to us.”  Some say “revealed in us.” The Greek is a little ambiguous, but I think Paul means “revealed in us.” We’ll get to that in a moment). Verse 18 is the key to the rest of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph explains verse 18, so it’s important to understand what Paul means here. And the two difficulties in understanding it are, first, what are the “sufferings of this present time” that he’s talking about? And second, what is the “glory that is to be revealed.”

Let’s take those in turn. First, what are these “sufferings”? In many of the letters of the New Testament, there is evidence of believers who are already suffering because of persecution. 1 Peter, for example, is mainly written to encourage followers of Jesus who are being persecuted for their faith. They’re being hassled, pressured, beaten, even killed for following Jesus.

But the Christians in Rome weren’t being persecuted yet. Rome, for all its moral depravity, was a very cosmopolitan city at the time Paul wrote this letter. It was very accepting. Christians didn’t really begin to be persecuted there until years later. And Paul was writing to Rome from Corinth, which was even more accepting of religious diversity than Rome. So, as far as we know, there wasn’t any persecution of Christians either in the place Paul is writing from, nor the place he’s writing to at this point.

So, Paul isn’t talking, in verse 18, about suffering as a result of persecution. What’s he talking about then? He’s talking about suffering that is a result merely of living here. Living where?  Rome? Corinth? No… living here in the groaning creation. We live, as Paul did, as Jesus did, as Abraham did in a world that is beautiful, but badly broken. A world, Paul says in verse 20, that was subjected to futility”—that word means brokenness or emptiness or valuelessness.  “The creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness; emptiness—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.”

Who is that? Who subjected the creation to futility? 

The initial suspect might be Adam or Eve, since they’re the ones who rebelled and caused the Fall. But that’s not how the Fall narrative reads, is it?  “And to Adam [God] said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:17).

Adam sinned, but it was God who cursed the ground.  He cursed—not just human beings, but the world­—the very natural order—in which they live, and as a result the world fell into the sort of place where tectonic plates don’t always glide again each other.  They slip sometimes and earthquakes happen. Where human greed and weather patterns cause famine to happen. Where cells stop working right and cancer happens. Where bodies lose the ability to fix themselves and death happens.

But that’s not Paul’s point in verse 18, is it? His point is to say that all of this: All this death, all this sickness, all this brokenness, all this pain, all this frustration, all this tension, all this struggle we experience as a part of living in this place—all of it is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (v. 18).  Now again (I’ll spare you the nuances of the Greek dative case) I don’t think Paul is saying that this glory is to be reveled to us. It’s going to be revealed in us. It’s not going to be some spectacular thing out there that we’re going to observe. It’s going be a spectacular thing in here that we will experience.

So what is it?

What’s this glory that will be revealed in us that will be so breathtaking that any suffering we could experience here will not even be worth comparing to it?  What is this that’s going to happen in us that will make us say then, “I can’t believe I EVER grumbled about my circumstances! I can’t believe I EVER complained about my pain. I can’t believe I EVER looked at God in doubt and discontent in view of this splendor?” What is it? Paul calls it “glory” in verse 18.

Glory is a notoriously difficult word to define. We use it a lot in our churches, of course, but it seems to be one of those words that everyone can use in a sentence, but most people can’t define.  Right? I mean, Define “glory.” …  Does it mean “goodness”? Well, sure, but that’s not all. Does it mean “beauty?” Sort of. But when we say God is glorious, we’re saying more than just, “God is beautiful,” aren’t we? The core of the meaning of word really has to do with “brightness” and “splendor” and “luminosity.” But, floodlights are bright and luminous. Are floodlights glorious?

To explain glory you really need to use more words. You have to say something like, “Glory is a state of radiant beauty and splendor that flows from a magnificent and praiseworthy nature.” God is the most glorious being because he is the most magnificent and praiseworthy being that exists, and therefore his magnificence and praiseworthiness show forth in incomparable and unfathomable beauty and splendor.

Man, on the other hand…

J.M. Boice wrote,

“Man was once a beautiful physical specimen. The man Adam and the woman Eve were the glory of creation. They excelled the rest of the created order in every respect. But when they sinned, physical decay, sickness, suffering, and eventually physical death came upon them. God said, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19b). They were not originally destined to die, but die they did.  Man was also beautiful in soul, the most beautiful of all the creatures. He had a nobility that transcends our ability to fathom.  But once Adam and Eve sinned, that beautiful soul was tarnished.  Now they began to lie and cheat and shift the blame from their own failings to those of others.  Most significant was the ruination of their spirits.  The spirit was that part of Adam and Eve that had communion with God.  They had walked and talked with God in the garden. But once they fell, they no longer sought God out.  They hid from him, and the encounter that eventually came was a judgment. We enjoyed glory once, which is why we long for it so much.  But it is gone…. What a marvelous thing it is then, when we turn to the Bible, to find that the end of our salvation in Christ is not merely deliverance from sin and evil and their consequences, but glorification. God is restoring to us all that our first parents lost.” (Romans, 864)

That’s what Paul’s saying in verse 18. He’s saying that part of the gospel is that God himself will restore our glory—in ways even beyond what was lost. He will resurrect believers long dead, he will transform believers living, and will reform us all into beings whose magnificence and praiseworthiness radiate in beauty and splendor—who, as Jesus said, “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43).

And the beauty and wonder of this transformation in us will be so vastly disproportionate to the consequences of the Fall that any pain or hurt or suffering here will seem in retrospect to have been as nothing.

But here’s the part of the gospel that I think so often gets left out.  We tend to individualize the gospel. We tend to think only of what the gospel has to say about my situation. What’s it gonna do for me? How do I get saved? But the gospel is bigger than that. The gospel is global. It has cosmic implications. Let’s keep reading.  Verse 19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” That is, all creation, in a manner of speaking, waits with “eager longing” for this transformation to happen in us believers—for this glory; this radiance to be revealed in us. Why? Why is creation longing for that. Keep reading…

Verse 20: “For the creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness—“not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope…”  In what hope? What was God’s hope for his creation when he subjected it to the curse of the Fall? “…In hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage”—its slavery—“to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

What Paul is saying here is that there is a parallel between what God will do in us and what he will do in all his creation. Just as there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for us, there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for the whole cosmos.

As N.T. Wright says,

“[The earliest Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.  …What has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…is by no means limited to its effects on those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter.  It resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.” (Surprised By Hope, 93, 97)

The earth as we know it will not be destroyed in favor of a foggy, cloud land where we all float around as disembodied spirits.  Rather the earth itself will be resurrected and remade—set free from the curse that has marred and broken it. It will, in a word, be glorified. God will drench it with himself and will fill it—he will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), and he will be Immanuel once again—God dwelling with his people.

In the meantime, we wait. We wait with a taste in our mouths of what is to come. A taste that makes us anticipate and long for more. Paul calls this “taste” we’ve been given, in verse 23, the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” or “the firstfruits from the Spirit.”  He writes, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The question you should ask yourself when you read what Paul says there is, “Wait. Wait. Don’t we already have these things?  Aren’t we already adopted as sons (and daughters)? Don’t we already have redemption in Christ? Aren’t we already saved?”  Why is Paul talking like we’re still waiting for these things? Why does he say that we “wait eagerly” for adoption, for redemption, for salvation?

The answer is that Paul views our situation here and now as a parallel, in some ways—an echo—of the situation of the people of God who returned to the Promised Land in the time of Ezra, that we talked about two weeks ago. Was there an end to the exile at that time?  Well, yes.  …But no. They were back in the Promised Land, but they were still waiting for God to come and end their slavery and reign over them as their only king. Had God forgiven their sin? Well, yes. He had returned them to their land.  …But no—they still were suffering judgment for their sins. Had God returned to dwell among them? Well, yes. There was a functioning temple. …But no. It was a shack of a building and God really still seemed far off.

Have we been adopted as sons and daughters of the King through Christ? Yes. But we are not yet the sons and daughters we will be when all sin and evil in us is destroyed by the benevolent power of God, and we are glorified and transformed, becoming like God’s Son, Jesus, when we see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Have we been redeemed? Have we been ransomed—freed—from the dominion of sin so that we are no longer enslaved to sin; so that sin and death are no longer our master? Yes. Sin is no longer our master. …But sin still masters us… because we let it. And one day God will eradicate sin completely, and the war will be over. And obedience and the pleasure of holiness will fill completely every part of us.

Have we been saved through faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross? Yes. But we still wait for an even greater saving, ready to be revealed in the last day (1 Peter 1:5), a saving that will make us not merely citizens of heaven dwelling in a dark world—as we are now—but citizens of the new heavens and new earth, living in God’s new world.

What we enjoy here and now because of Christ’s death for us—forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, redemption, power, glory, joy, hope, peace, rest… all of these things are only tastes.  They are only faint tastes of the salvation that is coming. They are only the firstfruits.

These present realities that we sing about, that we talk about in church, that we write books about, write songs about… all of them—wonderful as they are—are only the firstfruits of what is to come.

Let me close this way: Here’s how this all connected to Christmas.  Jesus’ first advent—his first coming, which we remember this week—is itself only the firstfruits of what is still to come. The first advent anticipates the second advent and is the promise that it will surely come. The coming of Immanuel that we celebrate at Christmas is the firstfruits of the coming of Immanuel that we will celebrate together with him forever.

The song of our spiritual fathers was, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here; until the Son of God appear.” Our song is, “O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Because the curse of the Fall persists, the shadow of decay and death still lingers over us and this groaning creation. But when the “Dayspring” comes (Dayspring means “dawn”, “sunrise,” “the rising of light into the darkness”). When the Dayspring comes, he will disperse the shadows of death and night forever.

So as we look back, on Christmas, to the coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us, let us also let Christmas point us forward to the last coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us.

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.