Category Archives: Suffering

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.