Category Archives: Missional

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.

Advertisements

You’re Not Wealthy Enough

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:14-22

Part 8 (3:7-13)  ΑΩ  Part 10 (4:1-6a) →

In a sermon I preached a couple years ago I was describing the significance and necessity of ministry in the suburbs. Despite the fact that urban ministry is all the rage, and ministry in the suburbs is often viewed by urban types/hipsters as “selling out,” I tried to point out that people are dying in the suburbs just as they’re dying in the city:

“It’s just that they’re dying of wealth; They’re dying of prosperity; They’re dying of overwhelming stress and impossible expectations; They’re dying of prescription drug addiction; They’re dying of families shattered by adultery and divorce and workaholism; People in the suburbs are dying of ‘The American Dream.’ And ultimately they’re dying for lack of a Savior.”

If there were a suburb-like environment in 1st century Asia Minor (roughly modern day turkey), it was Laodicea. It was situated in a prime location on important trade routes, is was the banking center of the entire region, people came from all over the Mediterranean world to study at its excellent medical schools, it was a style- and trend-setter in clothing; It was an enormously wealthy and comfortable city. Its residents were so wealthy that they had more or less lost all perspective on how wealthy they were and how the vast majority of the rest of the world lived.

And God tells them that they’re not wealthy enough.

Have you ever been kept awake at night because of money concerns?

I certainly have.

How am I ever going to pay back these student loans? How am I ever going to get rid of this credit card debt? How am I ever going to make the mortgage payment this month? If I lose this job, how am I going to provide for my family? What are we going to do with all of these medical expenses? How are we ever going to be able afford to adopt?…

I imagine most of us have been there at one point or another. Maybe when we were young and hadn’t gotten on our feet yet. Maybe when things went terribly wrong and everything suddenly became unstable and uncertain. Your mind races through the options again and again, reconsidering every possible way of bringing in money over and over and over again. Hard as you try, you cannot stop trying to think of ways that you might be able to get just a little more. Your eyes bore holes in the ceiling. You pace. You think. You watch some TV to try to get your mind off it. It doesn’t work. You pace and think some more.

New question: Have you ever been kept awake at night because you couldn’t stop trying to think of new ways to be rich in good deeds?

I wish I could say I have. I try to do good and love other people well, and I try to lead my family in the same. But I can’t think of a time I was literally kept awake trying to think of more ways to become rich in good deeds—not in the way I have been kept awake trying to think of the best way to ensure financial resources for my family.

God says to the wealthy Laodiceans: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” (v. 17) Every outward sign points to the Laodicean believers living rich lives. The American Dream. The Good Life. But they are desperately poor because they are leading almost entirely useless lives.

One of the most commonly misunderstood passages in all of Scripture is Rev. 3:15-16:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

It’s usually assumed that what God is saying is that he is revolted by what have come to be called “lukewarm Christians”—believers who are half-committed to following Jesus; who say they’re “Christ-ian,” but make no appreciable effort to make their lives look like Christ’s. And God would rather than they be fully committed or not committed at all. But that’s not quite what God is saying. I have a hard time believing God would ever “wish” that someone would not be committed at all.

Numerous commentators have pointed out that the one thing Laodicea lacked was its own natural water source. It’s city planners had built massive, miles-long aquaducts to bring hot spring water to the city from Hierapolis, and cold, mountain run-off from Colossae. But by the time the hot water had traveled the distance from Hierapolis, it wasn’t hot enough to bathe in or effectively wash clothes or dishes. By the time the water arrived from Colossae it was no longer cold enough to be refreshing to drink. All of Laodicea’s water was worthless. It wasn’t useful for anything.

What God is “spitting out of his mouth” is people whose lives aren’t useful.

The concern he raises in verse 15 is about deeds. “I know your deeds.”  Despite the appearance of wealth, they are impoverished because their lives are not rich in good deeds.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not implying that we have to do a certain amount of good deeds to become acceptable to God. I’m not smuggling in a works-righteousness theology through the back door.

I’m saying that a poverty of good works in our lives should keep us awake at night.

How can I do more? How can I love better? How can I free up more to give? How can I bless more people? How can I serve my spouse and children more selflessly? I should get up and pace and think this through… How can my life be more useful?…

Before the end of the day, what good thing could you do for another? What blessing could you give?

May we be people whose dreaming and scheming about lives rich in good deeds make us lose sleep.

Excuse Making and Pillar Building

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:7-13

Part 7 (3:1-6)  ΑΩ  Part 9 (3:14-22) →

How good are you at coming up with excuses?

Man… I’m pretty good. It’s frustrating to me how easy it is for me to come up with clever reasons for not doing what I should be doing—at least in some areas of life.

I’m not an excuse maker at work. I work hard, do the job, take responsibility when I’ve gotten something wrong, and ask for feedback on how I can do even better. I’m not an excuse maker when it comes to my family. I love strongly, discipline firmly and fairly, invest time and thought, I’m intentional in discipleship, and when I screw up, I seek forgiveness—even from a 6- and 4-year-old who don’t even fully understand why Daddy is apologizing and asking forgiveness from them for forgetting to lead family devotions this week.

But I tend to be pretty good at coming up with excuses for ignoring the voice of the Spirit. Especially when he’s prompting me to do something that transgresses social norms—the customary rules of a civil society. Too often I don’t do things that might “weird people out.” Like asking a client how I can pray for him and his wife because she’s having surgery (“Not professional”). Or sharing the story of Jesus with a stranger working on her laptop at Caribou (“She looks busy”). Or… I mean, you know, right? Social norms and civil codes too often make us ignore the quiet voice we know to be God’s own, prompting us to live out his design for our lives—the only design that really matters.

It’s why I need to hear God’s words to the church at Philadelphia over and over again. Excuses couldn’t have been easier to come by than for the believers at the church in Philly. They’re being opposed by a dominant, vocal, well-established Jewish population who have favor with the powers-that-be and who try to sabotage their work at every turn. These are Jewish opponents of followers of the Jewish messiah. What could be more discouraging? It reminds me of the way whistle-blowers in large companies often get treated. They try to tell the truth and do the right thing, and their own company eats them alive. So, would-be whistle-blowers often don’t blow the whistle. They just quit. Better to keep your head down and move on to something else.

It would have been very easy and very tempting for the believers in Philadelphia to do the same. Worship Jesus in private. Keep to yourself. Keep your head down. Meet in secret. Don’t “weird anyone out.” Don’t break social norms. Be excited about Jesus. That’s fine. Just keep it to yourself. Keep it in church. Keep the fire in the fireplace.

But God, the Cosmic Interferer, says to them: “I’ve opened the doors for ministry for you. All of them. We’re going to set the world on fire. Ready?”

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know you have little strength…” (Rev. 3:7-8)

Jesus isn’t refusing to acknowledge the challenges. He isn’t looking through rose-colored glasses and imagining that it will be easy. He knows we’re tired. He knows there’s lots of excuses. He’s simply saying, “I’ve done the hard work. I’ve placed open doors for ministry all around you. Walk through them. I’ll be there. I’ll help you. Ready?”

And the privilege we receive for walking through these doors and living as his followers is the gift of being “pillars in the temple of my God” (v. 12). The temple of God is the church—not the church building, but all believers everywhere. He’s calling us to be pillars.

A pillar. I don’t want to be a brick. I don’t want to be a bit of mortar. I don’t want to be part of some decorative facade or something else that looks nice, but doesn’t matter much to the temple itself.

God, make me a pillar.

May I quit with the convenient excuses. May I overturn the social norms like so many table of money changers.

God, make me a pillar.

May I stop typing and talk to this girl with the laptop who needs to know Jesus. May I call that client back and see how I can pray for him.

God, make me a pillar.

May I listen willingly and earnestly to your Spirit, go where he points, and do what he says.

God, make me a pillar.

Driving Between Two Ditches

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:12-17

Part 4 (2:8-11)  ΑΩ  Part 6 (2:18-29) →

I think that the most difficult thing about being a pastor was probably the fact that I often found myself needing to teach on an issue—and teach with passion—despite the fact that I didn’t really measure up on that issue myself.

No one assumes that pastors are perfect. But then again, they kind of do. They suspect that pastors have this being-a-Christian thing pretty much nailed down. After all, they’re professional Christians, right? I don’t think I ever projected perfectionism. I tried to make it clear that I was always including myself in my exhortations to the congregation. But still… How do you preach passionately about giving when you’re not a particularly passionate giver? How do you urge people to be compassionate when you’re not all that compassionate? How do you encourage purity of mind, when that’s really not something you’ve got nailed down?

I once heard someone ask John Piper if he considered himself a joyful person. After all, he had written the book on finding our deepest joy and satisfaction in God. He said something like, “No. It’s called ‘Desiring God.’ Not ‘I Have Arrived at Deepest Joy In God.’ I’m not a particularly joyful person. I just know what I want really badly.”

That’s why it’s taken me so long to write this post. It’s tough to write passionately about something I don’t have nailed down. But I know what I want really badly. When you’re a pastor, Sunday’s going to come whether you want it to or not. The people are going to be there. You have to say something. Blogging is obviously different. There’s not that handy built-in deadline. But I need to write this. I’m not standing up until it’s done.

In Revelation 2:12-17, God turns his focus to Pergamum, the third of the seven churches in Asia Minor. the church at Pergamum had almost exactly the opposite problem of the church at Ephesus. The Ephesians were so concerned with doctrinal integrity and internal maintenance of purity and solidarity in the church that they had become completely ineffective at reaching people outside the church. The church at Pergamum, on the other hand, was so concerned about engaging their culture that they had increasingly begun to accommodate and blend with their culture.

Some of them clearly had stood firm. Despite the fact that the social pressure to participate in pagan worship in the many temples in Pergamum was so intense that God describes the city as “where Satan has his throne” and “where Satan lives” (v. 13), he affirms many of the believers:

“Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city…” (v. 14)

But many had not stood firm. There were apparently some in the church who were leading others into idolatry and sexual immorality. People who in the name of cultural engagement and “relevance” were enticing their brothers and sisters to compromise their convictions and throw themselves into the stream of the ways of Pergamum. John draws on a story from the Old Testament to illustrate what was happening:

“There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.” (v. 14)

Greg Beale explains: “Balaam was a pagan prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to pronounce a curse upon the invading Israelites. God prevented Balaam from doing so and caused him to issue a blessing on them instead (see Num. 22:5–24:25). However, Balaam subsequently devised a plan in continued disobedience to God whereby some of the Moabite women would entice the Israelite men to ‘defect from the Lord’ (31:16) by fornicating with them and joining with them in the worship of their pagan gods (25:1–3). This plan was successful, and God punished the Israelites for their idolatrous involvement. …Balaam became proverbial for the false teacher who for money influences believers to enter into relationships of compromising unfaithfulness, is warned by God to stop, and is finally punished for continuing to disobey.”

The truth is that every believer, at some point, is going to deal with either “Ephesus-think” or “Pergamum-think.” Maybe both. My experience is that most people who grow up in the church are trained in “Ephesus-think” and they have to figure out how to break out of it and become ambassadors of Christ who effectively engage the world without slipping into “Pergamum-think.” On the other hand, it seems that most people who come to Christ later in life find “Pergamum-think” more natural, and they have to figure out how to weed immorality out of their lives and build solid Christian relationships without slipping into “Ephesus-think,” where they don’t have a single genuine friendship with a non-believer and are completely ineffective at drawing near to messy people who are far from Christ.

I’ve lived in both kinds of “think” and unfortunately I’ve allowed myself to be burned by both. Apparently I’m not particularly good at living in either Ephesus or Pergamum. I want internal purity and congregational cohesion, but there have been times when those pursuits have made me worthless as an evangelist and “friend of sinners,” like Jesus. And I want to engage with culture and form substantive, genuine relationships with messy people. But there have been times when those pursuits have drawn me too far in to the place “where Satan has his throne,” so to speak.

I want to be better. I want to be stronger. I want to set a better example. I want to drive the road between these two ditches without ending up in either. And here’s what I’m clinging to:

“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (v. 17)

This is God’s promise of blessing and reward to those who are victorious. And victory, in this case, is navigating the opportunities and dangers of Ephesus and Pergumum while remaining “true to my name.” (v. 13). Those who have lived too long in Ephesus should not go be citizens of Pergamum. And citizenship in Ephesus is not the answer for those who have lived too long in Pergamum. As our lives bring us through the temptations and blessings of being both a citizen of the world and of heaven, our call is not to plant feet firmly in either until heaven comes to earth. Rather, our calling is to faithfulness in both.

To the faithful, God promises “hidden manna”—sustenance, provision. Life. And he promises a “white stone with a new name written on it” (v. 17). Wright explains: “Pergamum’s great buildings were made of a black local stone. When people wanted to put up inscriptions, they obtained white marble on which to carve them. This was then fixed to the black buildings, where it stood out all the more clearly. …The fact that nobody knows this name except the one who receives it [means]… Jesus is promising to each faithful disciple, to each one who ‘conquers’, an intimate relationship with himself in which Jesus will use the secret name which, as with lovers, remains private to those involved. The challenge to avoid the false intimacy of sexual promiscuity is matched by the offer of a genuine intimacy of spiritual union with Jesus himself.” (Revelation for Everyone, 23)

So, God, make me faithful to you through Ephesus and Pergamum. Make me true to your name as I navigate the church and the wider world. Forgive me for the times I have failed to engage the world without being infected by the world, and for the times I have become so insulated by the church that I haven’t loved the lost well. Wash away my filth, heal my wounds, and help me to do better for you this time around. Amen.