Category Archives: Sovereignty of God

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.

John Calvin on Piety

From the Institutes (I.II.1):

“By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires. For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that [nothing] is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.

A Year Ago

I was let go from my role at our church a year ago today. September 4th, 2012.

In part, I remember it because it was the evening of my fantasy football draft. I left my team co-owner hanging, wondering where I was. He did all right, though. Drafted a team that ended up winning the league championship for us last year. Incidentally, our league draft falls on the same night this year. Let the title defense begin. And the bad memories, I suppose.

That’s the other reason I remember the date, and probably won’t ever forget it. It was the worst night of my life. That sort of thing tends to stick.

Most of you don’t know exactly why I was let go. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that the people who lead the church I served were made aware of some very serious mistakes I had made, and as a result they had to end my tenure at the church I was deeply privileged to serve for 6 ½ years. I deserved it. They did what was right. Period.

Of everything that has happened in the last year, that’s the part that is easiest for me to understand. Sin and consequences. Action and reaction. My kids can wrap their young heads around that. What I don’t understand—what I cannot comprehend—is what has happened since.

This year… …Boy, I’m frustrated even as I begin this paragraph because I know that I’m not going to be able to convey what this year has been. Even looking pensively out the window of this hipster hangout coffee shop isn’t helping my wordsmithing. Isn’t it supposed to?

This year has been by far the most difficult of my life. I’m sure I speak for my wife, too. And this year has been by far the sweetest of my life. (I think I speak for Leslie too… Chime in anytime, m’love.) This year has been the most arduous of our 12-year marriage. But the resolve of our commitment to each other has never been stronger or deeper. I’ve learned more about myself this year, and seen more change in myself than in any year of my life. I’ve learned more about the church this year than in any year of my life—including the 6+ years during which I spent the majority of my waking moments in a church building. Or at a hipster hangout (wannabe) coffee shop near the church building.

This is the year of my life when I was most tempted to give God the finger and see if Kierkegaard and Thoreau wanted to meet me at the aforementioned hipster hangout (wannabe) coffee shop. And it’s the year of my life when I have grown most confident in the eternal existence and goodness of Jesus, and the indomitable truth of his word.

These are the things I can’t wrap my head around. How can these all be true? In the same year. I thought it was physically impossible for darkness and light to co-habitate the same space at the same time.

A few weekends ago I was sitting, reading and thinking by a lake. (Thoreau-like.) I hadn’t read the biblical book of Habakkuk in quite some time, and decided to read through it in one sitting. You should be impressed. It’s three whole pages long. Reading it reminded me that I’m definitely not alone in my confusion about how God can grab a few sweet potatoes, some really bitter herbs, throw them together, call it life stew, and make it taste good.

Habakkuk: I feel like something’s wrong, here, God. You’re good, and you’re in charge, but it seems like there’s an awful lot of bad people winning.

God: Yeah, about that… I’m actually planning on doubling down. The worst people are going to win big for a while.

Habakkuk: Oh, good, ‘cause I was starting to… Wait… what?…

[ominous music, commercial break]

God: Yeah, the worst thing you can imagine in your life is going to happen. I’m going to see to it that it happens. It’s going to be awful. You’re going to hate it. You’ll be filled with shame instead of glory. You’re going to wish you were dead. It’s going to be worse than you think. Are you writing this down? You probably should be…

Habakkuk: Hm. You sure you know what you’re doing? Do you need any advice? Probably not. But… Do you? Maybe I can help.

God: I’m good. I’ve been around longer than you. Here’s the thing, though (and this is pretty important): This is all going to turn out very, very sweet. It will be for your good. It will be for my glory. It will be for your joy. It will be for my fame.

Habakkuk: Okay. I guess I’ll just wait here, then? …And even as everything falls apart around me, I will rejoice in you. I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Not after.

Habakkuk didn’t say that he would be joyful after the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried and flowers grew again. He said he would choose to trust God during the calamity, and take joy in God’s plan—even though he didn’t understand it—simply because it was God’s plan and God’s plans are always good.

I wonder how long it took Habakkuk to put together the pieces and make sense of God’s plan after the carnage took place. Maybe he understood it right away. Maybe he never did. Maybe he never grasped the significance of what God had him write. But I know that with the benefit of only a year’s worth of reflection (mostly in hipster hang… nevermind…), I can already see the beauty in the brokenness of my and Leslie’s life. I see more of it every day.

And yet, here’s the conversation I’ve had with myself in my head a thousand times this year:

Me: If you could go back and change the past, would you?

Me: Oh, of COURSE. Absolutely. 100%. I’d give anything to go back and do things differently.

Me: So, you don’t think God’s plan and design for your life is the best one? You’d change it if you could?

Me: Oh… Well… I mean… You know what I mean… right?

Me: You’re asking me if I know what I’m thinking? … Yeah, I know what you mean. I know you regret your decisions and are repentant. I know that if you were in the same situation again, you’d do the right thing. But what I’m asking is: Do you believe that what has happened, happened because God planned for it to happen—that God planned it for his ultimate glory, for your ultimate good, and for the ultimate good of his people?

Me: Man… That’s a tough pill to swallow. I am finally becoming the man I want to be. And I doubt it would be happening if I hadn’t dropped an H-bomb on my life. But… I doubt I can help wishing that I could undrop the bomb. You know what I’m saying?

Me: Yeah. Welcome to Habakkuk’s world.

Anyway

I did a lot of looking backward this year. Looking back on what’s been lost. Looking back on what might have been. Looking back on the wreckage. I’m glad I did. Not to have done so would have been callous. And I don’t want to forget the lessons of our scars. The shrapnel (or thorn) in my side will be significant for the rest of my life.

But this year is for something else. This year is for looking forward. Looking forward to what might be. Looking forward to what could be built. There is a family to raise up and a bride to love. There are fields to plant. There are castles to build. There are dragons to kill. There are dreams to dream.

Maybe next September 4th I’ll be preparing for a campaign toward a fantasy football three-peat. Probably not. But I’m glad I’m where I am this September 4th, and not where I was last. And I can’t wait to see what God has in store for the next year. Whatever it is, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God, my savior.

The Secret to Making A Great Mix Tape

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 1:9-20

Part 1 (1:1-8)  ΑΩ  Part 3 (2:1-7) →

Do you remember cassette tapes?

Try hard.

If you were born after 1985, you probably never actually owned one, but you definitely saw your dad’s Journey, The Police, and Tony Robbins tapes in the glove box of his Chevy Lumina, right?

The thing I loved most about cassettes by far was the making of mix tapes. Making a great mix tape—particularly if you were making it for someone else (The girl from the roller rink maybe?)—was a very subtle art form that required a lot of attention to pacing and flow. Someone once said, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t want to [burn out], so then you got to cool it off a notch.”

That sage advice reminds me a lot of the pacing and flow of the first chapter of Revelation. As we saw in my last post, John opens with one of the most forceful and powerful assertions of God’s power and sovereignty in all of Scripture (see 1:4-8). He kicks it off with a killer, to grab attention. And then… he takes it up a notch.

John hears a voice—as loud and clear as a trumpet (v. 10). And as he turns toward the voice he doesn’t hear, but sees something staggering:

“…Someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

What would be your reaction if you saw such a thing?

Now, “son of man” isn’t a term referring merely to Jesus’s human nature. “Son of Man” was Jesus’s preferred way to refer to himself and it was a title that was drawn directly from Daniel 7, in which Daniel sees “…one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of very language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

We don’t know how, but somehow John knew that the being he saw in his vision was this unspeakably powerful “Son of Man” of Daniel’s vision, coming to bring his judgment and rule on the earth. His attire (drawing on imagery from Daniel 7:9) makes it clear that he is completely and perfectly holy. His blazing eyes symbolize the fact that he is an all-seeing, all-knowing judge. His voice reminds us that when we hear him speak, we are hearing the voice of the one and only God of Israel (cf. Ezek. 43:2), and the sword coming out of his mouth emphasizes the power and judgment his voice will bring. His face shining like the sun reminds us that no one can look upon Almighty God unaided without blinding their own eyes.

God has taken the vision up a notch. And John response is right:

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17).

N.T. Wright says, “For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving intimacy. John would agree with the second of these, but he would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside. To see Jesus as he is would drive us not to snuggle up to him, but to fall at his feet as though we were dead.” (Revelation for Everyone, 7)

We should love Jesus. He loves us. We should feel we can approach him. He has died for that. But we should never make him small. We should never think of him as our “pal.” We should never think of him in ways that domesticate him or bring him onto our level, as though he is not the ruler of all the universe, of which we are an infinitesimally small part.

But listen. After God takes the intensity of this revelation up a notch, he knows he needs to bring it down a notch. The weary and worried believers that are being addressed are already terrified because of their persecutors. Should they also be terrified of their savior? Of course not. And so John sees this staggeringly powerful God place his right hand on him and say, “Don’t be afraid” (v. 17).

Don’t

be 

afraid.

Again, imagine the effect this must have had on the battered, broken, scared and doubting believers. Is there anything they would have needed to hear more? “Don’t be afraid.” I imagine God meant more than just, “Don’t be afraid of what you’re seeing at this moment.” He meant it more deeply—more comprehensively: “Don’t be afraid of what you’re experiencing. Don’t be afraid of what’s happening around you.”

Why? Why not fear? Why should we not be afraid?!…

Because, “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

We need a God that big. For all of the terrifying, unsettling, depressing and defeating things we see in the world and in our lives, we need a God who would absolutely terrify us… if he did not kneel down to us, meet our eyes, place his hand on our shoulder and say, “Don’t be afraid. I’m bigger than all of this. And I am with you. I am for you.” A Jesus who is your “buddy” or “pal” will not be big enough and strong enough to rescue you when life falls apart. Don’t think of him that way. “Fun” as that may be, it makes him smaller than what you’re going to need. A Jesus who has long hair, a well-trimmed beard, and wears Birkenstocks (as in all of the most historically inaccurate church basement portraits) will not be powerful enough to take on your worst enemies. He will not be able to conquer death and sadness. He will not be able to raise the dead and flood the earth with justice.

So let us never make him small. Let us envision Jesus, like John, as more powerful and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. Even as we remember that he died for us, and says to us even now, “Don’t be afraid.”

Breathe Deep. You Weren’t Wrong. (Revelation 1:1-8)

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Part 1

Introduction  ΑΩ  Part 2 (1:9-20) →

I would imagine that everyone has had the experience of suddenly realizing they might be wrong about something important.

In November, I was in New Jersey getting ready to catch a flight out of LaGuardia. It was 9am and I was having a leisurely breakfast in my hotel because I knew it was an hour drive to the airport and I didn’t need to be there until 11am, thinking my flight left somewhere around 12:30pm. …Until an alarm went off in my head and made me think, “Wait… Do I need to be at the airport at 11am, or does my flight leave at 11am?! Bleepity bleep! I think it might leave at 11….” My stomach sunk, my heart rate tripled, and suddenly my breakfast wasn’t as leisurely.

We’ve all experienced something like that, right?

Many of the earliest Christians in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) had an experience like this with regard to the single most important thing in their lives. They had made up their minds that a poor carpenter named Jesus, who they had never seen, never met, and had only heard about from a man named Paul (or some other traveling evangelist), was actually the God who spoke the universe into being. He had been executed by the Romans, but they believed that he had risen from the dead and was now the ruler of all the kings of the earth, reigning over the world.

But even as they looked up and worshiped their king, they looked around and things seemed very… off. Things didn’t look how they expected them to look if Jesus really was ruling the world.

Rome and the Caesars were still dominant on the political landscape. Their communities and churches were being denigrated, persecuted and executed by mocking opponents. They were having to meet in secrecy and were under constant pressure to give up on their ridiculous beliefs about Jesus and give in to the Roman demand that they worship Caesar alone as their king.

In short: They wanted to believe that Jesus was truly the sovereign king he claimed to be. That he was really in charge. That he was governing the world in love and justice. But everything around them urged them to doubt that he was. They had become fearful that they had been wrong about Jesus, and as a result many of them were throwing in the towel on their faith, or compromising and mixing their faith with Roman Caesar-worship in order to escape trouble.

Revelation is written for a single purpose: To say to those believers, and to every believer who has looked around at the world and wondered if they were wrong to believe that Jesus is really risen and reigning over the world: “Breathe deep. You weren’t wrong.”

John begins his address with one of the strongest affirmations of the presence and power of God in the entire Bible:

“Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Think about what an encouragement just those two verses would have been to weary and worried Christians. What did he just say to them? He said: God IS. He was. And he will come. He is bringing much-needed grace and peace to you through his powerful and perfect Holy Spirit (more on the “seven spirits” thing below). Jesus Christ is faithful. He will not let you down. He has risen from the dead. You weren’t dreaming. And he is the ruler of all the kings of the earth. Caesar, your persecutor, who appears to be sovereign over you is not. Breathe deep. You weren’t wrong. Jesus is who he said he is.

And not only does John remind them who God is, he reminds them who they are as followers of Christ: They have been freed from the power of their sinful ways by the sacrifice of Jesus himself (v. 5). They are sons and daughters of the King, and they represent the King on earth as his kingdom (v. 6). And they are called to be priests of God, bringing the message of God to a world desperately in need of it (v. 6). Their lives are not meaningless. They are not throwaways. In fact, because they have been adopted by the King, their lives could not possibly be more significant.

And even if they doubt those things, God assures them that they will soon be certain. He is coming. And everyone who opposed him will mourn and weep because they will realize against whom they have rebelled. How does God know? Because, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty'” (v. 8).

So, what’s the message for us in this passage? First of all, is John even speaking to us—Christians living in the 21st century? On the one hand, John clearly addresses his letter to the seven churches in Asia. So maybe all of this was just meant for them and it really has nothing to do with us. On the other hand, numbers are always significant in the Book of Revelation, and they are almost always symbolic. The number seven was known throughout the Old Testament as the number of “perfection” or “completeness,” and as will become even more clear later in the book, it continues to fill that function in Revelation. In verse 4, for example, it could be that the “seven spirits” before the throne refers to the seven angels of the churches that we’re about to hear about. But since the address is from God, his son Jesus, and the “seven spirits,” it seems even more likely that the seven spirits actually refer to the one, perfect and complete Holy Spirit of God. John has been in communion with the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and is now extending grace and peace to the churches on behalf of the Trinity.

Which means that while John’s specific audience is the seven churches of Asia, the number seven is no coincidence. He means to address the complete people of God; The church worldwide—you, me, and every believer who has and ever will live.

So what does God, through John, intend to say to us? His message is this: Christian, do you doubt? Do you hurt? Do you ever worry that you have believed a fairy tale, and that now you’re just “making believe”? Do you look around at this world with all of its shootings and war and societal ills and poverty and abuse—or even just look at your own life with its challenges, worries, stresses and disappointments—and say, “How could God possibly be in charge? How could God possibly be ruling over this? Will he ever come? Will all of this ever be made right?”

And God’s unequivocal answer to you—and to every worried, doubting believer who has asked any or all of these very good questions—is, “I AM. I was. I always have been. And I always will be. I will come. Every eye will see me. Suffering will be destroyed. Death will be undone. Hurts will be made right. Abuse, pain and deformity will be rolled back. Evil will be eradicated. This world and all of its brokenness will be enveloped in perfect peace, justice, love and beauty.

I am the Alpha and the Omega. You weren’t wrong. Breathe deep. Look to the sky. I am coming.