Category Archives: Sin

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.

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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.

All-Access Backstage Pass

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 4:1-6a

Part 9 (3:14-22)  ΑΩ  Part 11 (4:6b-11) →

Backstage passes.

They’re the ultimate in tickets. They’re the trump card of concert-going coolness. “I have tickets in the 5th row!” “Oh, you do? I have tickets on the couch next to Bono after the show. Blaow.”

I’ve never really had the dream-scenario backstage pass experience. My TWOG co-author Steve has had me come backstage with some of the bands he’s played with in the past couple years, and while the artists were super cool and friendly, it was pretty uneventful. I mostly just ate some of the band’s pizza and tried some all-natural peanut butter that one of the artists was really into. It wasn’t exactly what you envision as the “backstage experience.” The peanut butter was really good, though. And I’m all about peanut butter.

There is a singular text in the Bible that offers something like a backstage pass.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it…” (Rev. 4:1-2)

John has been invited into the throne room of God. He’s going to be shown what is about to take place and how it all fits together and makes sense. This isn’t a vision of “what it will be like when we go to heaven.” This is John being invited to pass for a few moments through the thin veil that separates heaven and earth—between backstage and front stage—and be shown God’s plan for the rescue and recreation of the world. What he sees, he’ll be asked to write down (see 1:19) so that it can be communicated to the believers still living on the earth-side of the veil.

Here’s the problem with that… How do you describe what is indescribable? If something is ineffable, how do you “eff” it? What words can you use? What language is capable of capturing what’s said backstage on the couch next to the Creator of all things and the author of every language?

Answer: None.

So, John does the best he can. And the book of Revelation is what comes out.

This is one of the most important principles to keep in mind when we’re reading and interpreting Revelation: Human language has its limits. If you try to take John’s words too literally, you’re asking John to do something with language that cannot be done with language: Perfectly describe something that is beyond description.

Someone once explained it to me this way: Try to imagine that you find yourself in the Amazon rain forest among a primitive tribe that has never had contact with the outside world. Now try to imagine that you’ve been asked to explain to them how electricity works. What would you say? … “Well… It’s like this… powerful spirit… that travels along a… um… vine. And the vine goes inside your hut and into a small, round… ah… sun… that’s in your hut. And this sun can make the inside of your hut light when the actual sun goes away. … Now… How do I explain why you would want it to be light in your hut after the sun goes away? … You see there’s this thing called ‘TeeVee…’

You’d have to use words and descriptions that they understand to communicate, to explain things that they can’t possibly comprehend yet. You could probably make your point, and they’d understand what you’re getting at, more or less. But if they took what you were saying too literally, when they eventually saw the real thing they’d say, “Oh, well… That’s not at all like what you were describing!”

It’s very important to keep that dynamic in mind when we’re reading Revelation if we really want to hear God’s message to us, and not just end up with the truly bizarre and sadly best-selling Left Behind series.

In the opening scene of this vision that John will be communicating to us, he sees the Lord Jesus, enthroned in a room that obviously defies description. When John says that Jesus had the appearance of “ruby” (v. 3), you’re not supposed to think of Jesus as bright red. You’re supposed to think of him as indescribably beautiful. When he talks about a “rainbow that shone like an emerald,” you’re not supposed to think of a green rainbow. You’re supposed to get the sense of unimaginable majesty.

Jesus is surrounded by twenty-four elders. These almost certainly represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles—representatives of the entire people of God, past, present and future, ruling over the world as God’s vice-regents. God’s perfect (“seven,” the number of perfection in v. 5) Spirit is present. And this is happening in God’s ultimate temple. The “sea of glass” in v. 6 recalls the “sea” that was present in the Old Testament temple.

Keep in mind, nothing has happened yet. None of the plot has unfolded.

But the stage is set.

Whatever happens from here on out happens because the indescribably wise and powerful God at the center of it all has determined that it would. And that’s the message of these first six verses for us:

King Jesus reigns.

He is without rival. His rule never trembles or weakens. Not for a moment. In the midst of the worst events in human history, God’s throne is never shaken. In the mist of the worst of what is to come (and it will be worse than anything this world has yet seen), God will not be worried. He will not be unsure. He has never scrambled to come up with a “Plan B.” He has never had second thoughts. “Our God is in heaven; he does all that he pleases.” (Ps. 115:3)

And if that’s true of all the upheaval and calamity and turmoil the world has seen and will yet see, how much more so is it true for the events of your own life? You have seen trouble. You have seen hardship and sadness. You have experienced loss. Believer, do you know that Jesus reigned through it all? Do you know that he was not surprised? Do you know that he wasn’t afraid of how it would go for you, his beloved?

The tapestry of his creation has become frayed and tattered because of our sin and rebellion. But he is weaving the threads—one by one, including the threads of your life—back together, crafting a masterpiece that will be far more beautiful than even the original.

He will not say, “Very good,” over his recreated world as he did over the original.  He will say, “Perfect. Finally. This is perfect.”

The Reputation and Reality of Holiness

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:1-6

Part 6 (2:18-29)  ΑΩ  Part 8 (3:7-13) →

One of the things I’ve tried to emphasize most in my writing and speaking throughout the years has been what one might call the absoluteness of Jesus. I’m almost certain that “absoluteness” isn’t a word. But it does convey fairly well what the angel of the church at Sardis is saying about Jesus.

Jesus deals in absolutes. Something is right or it’s wrong. Something is good or it’s evil. You’re either with him or you’re against him. You’re either faithful or unfaithful. You’re a follower of his or you’re not. Our culture is very fond of blurry lines and expansive gray areas between the black and white, but Jesus really wasn’t. He draws a very clear line and asks us which side of it we’re on.

It seems to me that there is a tendency among believers to try to isolate areas of sin and rebellion in their lives—a few certain behaviors and decisions that are contrary to God’s revealed will, but nevertheless we try to “protect” from God’s intervention. We say, “I will give him all of my life, except this part. And I will go along with him as he refines and beautifies every part of my life, so long as he leaves this protected area of rebellion alone.”

It’s a story very familiar to me. I attempted to maintain a certain reputation among believers while I guarded a protected area of rebellion that for some time I refused to allow God to enter. Until it did what those protected areas always do. They turn on us. They break out of their boundaries and infect everything else. They never stay contained where we planned for them to. Suddenly we find ourselves ruined and broken, not having realized that what we were so closely protecting was actually a grenade with the pin pulled out.

Jesus says to the believers as Sardis, I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. WAKE UP! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God (vv. 1-2).

Perhaps the single most important element in the pursuit of holiness is one that is almost never addressed. It is the virtue of prizing God’s thoughts about us far above anyone else’s. Good reputation is what happens when our known deeds make us highly esteemed by other people. Holiness is what happens when our known and unknown deeds make us highly esteemed by God himself.

Our progress in holiness will largely be determined by which we decide we want more and will chase after. Of course, high esteem among people often follows in the wake of genuine holiness. But as Sardis found out (along with myself and many of you) good reputation can be achieved without an absolute commitment to Jesus in every part of our lives. It can be achieved by harboring areas of rebellion, so long as those protected areas are not known.

The problem, of course, is that there are no true “protected areas.” There are no “unknown deeds.” “I know your deeds,” God says. I know them. You have not confessed them. They may not be public. But I know them. You have a certain reputation, but your reputation does not reflect realty.

So the question is: Do you want the reputation of holiness? Or do you want the reality of holiness?

God shows his grace toward us reputation-chasers with his call to WAKE UP! It is grace that he shouts and shakes us, allowing us to blink our eyes and let fall away the trance we so often walk around in, believing that what people think of us matters most of all.

It does not matter most of all. Here’s what will matter most of all: “The one who is victorious will…be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels” (v. 5).

What does that mean? What does it mean that Jesus will acknowledge the holy and victorious ones before his Father?

It means that in the end he will introduce him to the Father. It means that Jesus will usher us into the very throne room of God and say, “Father, I’d like you to know [your name here.] I know his deeds. I’ve seen his life. He has given it to me completely.

That will be the moment in which reputation will become a perfectly and completely empty concept. We will be completely and truly known by the one whose knowing matters more than anyone’s. That’s the moment we’re after. That’s why Jesus is so absolute. It’s why he’s so demanding. It’s because he wants that moment for us. He sends his Holy Spirit to work in us, driving us toward that moment. He died to bring to life our hearts, minds and eyes so that we can see that moment.

So may we choose to concern ourselves above all with God’s thoughts about us. May we care less about our reputation among people, and care nothing about it if it is ill-deserved. May we seek the sort of life that leads to the moment when Jesus introduces us proudly to his and our Father.

Why Didn’t Adam and Eve Die?

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:8-11

Part 3 (2:1-7)  ΑΩ  Part 5 (2:12-17)

A question I was asked with surprising frequency when I served as a pastor was, “Why didn’t Adam and Eve die when they ate the fruit? Didn’t God say they would?” Seems pretty clear, right?

“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.'” (Gen. 2:16-17)

He said “when you eat from it,” right? Not, “If you eat from it, someday you’ll die.” Not, “If you eat from it, you could die at any time.” No, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.” WhenAt that moment. That instant. Right? Did God forget he said that? Did he chicken out? Is he like one of those parents that issue over-the-top threats of penalties for disobedience to their kids (e.g. “If you ask, ‘Are we there yet?’ one more time I am going to take away all of your toys FOREVER'”) and then realize they can’t possibly follow through, and subsequently their kids learn to ignore them? Is that what God is like? Did he just change his mind? Did he realize he was being a little hasty before, and decided to take it down a notch?

No. God did exactly what he said he was going to do.

But death isn’t mainly what happens when your heart stops beating and your neurons stop firing. Death isn’t mainly a physical event. Death is mainly a spiritual event. Physical life and death are merely shadows and pointers toward the truest forms of life and death, which are spiritual. According to Scripture, just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re alive. Not in the truest sense. And just because your heart stops doesn’t mean you’re dead. Not in the deepest sense (cf. Rom. 5:12-21).

That idea of death and life is at work in God’s message to the church at Smyrna. God, through John, is encouraging them to persevere through the attacks and persecution of their opponents, who in this case are people claiming to be Jews. But John makes it clear—as Paul did on several occasions (see Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6)—that they’re not really Jews at all (v. 9). Being born into a Jewish family doesn’t make a person Jewish. Only being born (again) into God’s family through faith in Jesus can make a person a true Jew. These “so-called Jews” who are persecuting the believers in Smyrna aren’t truly Jews at all because they are attacking the followers of the Jewish Messiah. Which is why God calls them a “synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). They’re certainly not Satan-worshipers. But in aiding and organizing the persecution of followers of Christ, they have become a group of people in league with Satan.

The believers will be under attack from this group (and likely others) for “ten days,” a symbolic period of time drawn from Daniel 1:12-15. Revelation is constantly alluding to Daniel, Ezekiel and others, and this is a great example. The “ten days” recalls Daniel and his three friends’ time of intense and painful testing to reveal whether they would remain faithful in suffering, or would compromise with pagan religions. God is essentially posing the same questions to the believers at Smyrna: Will you remain faithful through suffering? Or will you take the easy road of compromise? Will you trust me even when it hurts? Or will you mix and match ‘gods’ and beliefs to suit your own needs and comfort?

How they answer that question will have eternal ramifications. As it will for us.

God says to them, and to us, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (v. 11)

The second death. That’s the one that counts. N.T. Wright explains:“There are, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily death to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus has already passed that way, and those who belong to him can know that he will first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise them to new life in his final new world. But the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. This ‘second death’ will, it seems, do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do for the physical body.” (Revelation for Everyone, 18).

In other words, the “first death”—what happens when your heart stops beating and your brain stops sending signals—is pretty inconsequential. We tend to make a huge deal out of it. But it is significant only as a time marker. What happens before that moment in time determines what will happen after that moment in time. That’s it.

Those who persevere in faith and faithfulness to Christ before that time marker will not be touched by the second death. The final death. The death that entered the world with Adam’s sin. But those who make up their own god to worship—a god made to their liking; a god that doesn’t have a timeless will; a god whose standards merely mirror the standards of whatever time and culture we happen to live in; a god made in our image… They will find themselves swallowed up by the second death. And that’s the one that counts.

So, may we refuse to worship a god of our own making. May we drink deeply of the life that flows only from the God Who Is. May we trust and treasure Christ. May we follow him alone, and not ask him to follow us. May we trust that his sacrifice on our behalf is alone and entirely sufficient to endear us to God. And as his sons and daughters through Christ, may we enjoy life. Life forever. Life for real.