Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revelation - Kingdom Come

Palm Sunday is the day when the church remembers Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Riding on a donkey, He paraded into the city as the crowd shouted “Hosanna” which is Hebrew for “Lord, save us!”  Waving palm branches in the air and spreading their cloaks before Him, they welcomed the Messiah and proclaimed Him as their King.  We view this situation as unique, yet it wasn’t the first time this scenario had been played out.  Welcoming a hero into town was a well-known practice, and there was a right way to do it that the people all knew about.
            In those days, when a conquering hero would return to the capital city, the people would leave town and greet him on the road before he entered the gates.  They would join in the procession and re-enter the city with him, celebrating as they went.  In this way, the people identified with their hero, and he with them.  He had gone out and conquered in their name.  His triumph was theirs, and their joy was his.  This is what they did with Jesus, meeting Him on the road before He entered Jerusalem and hailing Him as Messiah.
As they acted out the first Palm Sunday, the people were simply doing what they had done before, as they welcomed other dignitaries into town, with the exception of their declaration of Jesus as their Savior.  Little did they know that they were also serving as a prototype for the second coming of Christ.
In our study through the book of Revelation, we have used the word “Rapture” many times.  Though the word itself never appears in the Bible, neither do many other theological terms that we use.  While some deny the Rapture, I believe that the concept is found throughout the scriptures.  Among other passages, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18[i] says:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

            While some Bible scholars deny the Rapture, others affirm it but disagree on when it will take place.  Some believe in a pretribulation rapture, while others believe that it will take place somewhere in the middle or the end of Jacob’s Trouble.  It is not my purpose to figure out timelines, other than affirming the Bible’s teaching that believers will be instantly translated to their glorified forms and will meet Jesus in the air.  1 Corinthians 15:51-52 says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
            Whether it happens at the beginning, middle, or end of the Tribulation, it is certain that when Jesus returns, He will do so along with the dead in Christ who have risen, and with those still alive who have met Him in the air.  In Revelation 19:11-16, John writes about the Second Coming, which may be at the same time or some time after the Rapture:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.  And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”

            Just as the residents of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus as their victorious Hero by leaving the city and parading back in with Him, so the raptured and resurrected  Church will be taken up, to return with Him along with the heavenly host.  No matter whether you believe in a pre-trib, post-trib, or mid-trib Rapture, the fact is that we don’t really know when it will happen, so why not live as if it’s today?  Our Daily Bread has a story about the need to be ready at any time:

While on a South Pole expedition, British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left a few men on Elephant Island, promising that he would return. Later, when he tried to go back, huge icebergs blocked the way. But suddenly, as if by a miracle, an avenue opened in the ice and Shackleton was able to get through. His men, ready and waiting, quickly scrambled aboard. No sooner had the ship cleared the island than the ice crashed together behind them. Contemplating their narrow escape, the explorer said to his men, "It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!" They replied, "We never gave up hope. Whenever the sea was clear of ice, we rolled up our sleeping bags and reminded each other, 'The boss may come today.'"

            In the same way, Christians need to be ready for the Lord to return at any moment.  Since we don’t know when He will return, we should be found ready when He does split the sky. 
In Revelation 19, after the return of Christ, we see the doom of the Beast and False Prophet, who are thrown into the Lake of Fire.  Their followers are destroyed with the sword that proceeds from the Lord’s mouth.    
Chapter 20 records the binding of Satan, and his imprisonment in the Abyss for a thousand years.  Just as people debate the timing of the Rapture, they also disagree on the meaning of the Millennium, or thousand-year reign of Christ.  Verses 4-6 say:

Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.  Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.

Some say that the Millennium has been taking place since the beginning of Christian history.  Others who look to a future unfolding of the Millennium see it as a literal thousand year period.  Still other futurists look toward an actual future reign of Christ, but maintain that this is a symbolic number.  Personally, I don’t think it matters much.  The important thing is that not only will Jesus be reigning, but that His followers will rule with Him.  The afterlife isn’t a time for believers to placidly play their harps on clouds, but a time to get to work serving the Lord.  When the Millennium is complete, Satan will be unbound for a time, to make one last-ditch effort at deception.  This will cleanse the earth of any who might possibly reject the Lord’s rule before Satan’s followers are destroyed and he is thrown for the last time in the lake of fire (verses 7-10).  The Millennium will have ended, but now the eternal reign of Christ begins—it is interrupted by so short an interlude that it doesn’t matter whether the 1,000 years are literal or symbolic.  In reality, Jesus will reign forever and ever.
Verses 11-15 describe the Great White Throne judgment, where the dead are judged, and those whose names are not found written in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire. 
Chapter 21 tells of a new beginning.  People who talk about the “end of the world” should read this chapter, because in it they will see that instead of an ending, God is bringing about a new beginning:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”  And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new (verses 1-5a).” 

Heaven is a place where believers go now when they die, but there’s coming a time when the raptured, resurrected, and redeemed will reside on a renewed earth, with a restored Jerusalem at its center.  Here, both the holy city and the garden of God are united in one perfect harmony.  The city is bedecked with bejeweled walls, pearly gates, and streets of gold.  The garden is resplendent with a river of life flowing from the throne of God.  Trees grow along it, bearing fruit which heals the nations (chapter 22).
These final chapters of John’s Apocalypse clearly say that there are those who are admitted to this new kingdom, and those who are on the outside.  Not everyone is saved.  Some have been thrown into the lake of fire, and some are simply left out because of their immorality and idolatry.  John warns his readers to “wash their robes,” meaning that they should put on the purity of Christ.
Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book…Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (v. 7, 12-13).”  This is echoed in verse 17, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.”  In verse 20, Jesus says, “‘Yes, I am coming quickly.”  Then John replies, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
            These final words, “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Lord Jesus is coming” were a common greeting used by first-century Christians.  Revelation 22:20 is rendered in Greek as “Erchou Kyrie Iesou,” but the common expression “Come, Lord” was in Aramaic: “Maranatha.”  This term came to replace the typical Jewish greeting of “Shalom” (Peace), because Jesus had said that there would be no earthly peace.  Instead, in their greeting they encouraged one another to wait for His coming.  Believers of past, present, and future generations can hang their hats on this one word, “Maranatha,” and trust that the Lord will come, just as He said He would. [ii]
Today, as we come to the close of our study on Revelation, we move from “Hosanna,” which is a cry asking salvation, to “Maranatha,” a cry of expectation.  Only those who have truthfully pleaded the former can say the latter with any hope.  The truth is that the Lord is coming—but only those who are saved have anything to shout about.  If you haven’t received the Lord as your Savior, God’s Word gives a vivid picture of your eternity apart from Him.   But if you ask the Lord to save you, He will give you an eternal home and hope for each day.  I pray that you will trust the Lord for your future, and ask Him to save you today.

[i] All scriptures are taken from the ESV.
[ii] Paul uses “Maranatha” in 1 Corinthians 16:22—the only time it appears in Aramaic in the NT.  Read more at

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Revelation - Wars and Rumors

                A little over four years ago, the last living U.S. veteran of World War I died.[i]  As of last year’s seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, only about one million veterans of World War II remain alive.[ii]  Few Americans currently know a living World War II veteran.  Still, the generations roll on.  Most of our older veterans are now from the Korean War.  My father, who turned seventy this year, is a veteran of the Vietnam War.  Even our Desert Storm soldiers are turning gray.  It seems that every generation of Americans has had its war—and this nation isn’t so much different from the rest of the world.  War is part of the human experience.
            Sometimes I hear people pointing at some current conflict and saying, “Jesus said that in the last days there will be wars and rumors of wars—we must be getting close to the end.”  Unless I have time for deep theology, I just smile and say, “Yep,” because I know that “now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed (Rom 13:11)[iii],” and that we have been in the End Times since Jesus split history from BC to AD.  Still, they have a point.  In His apocalyptic discourse, Jesus did say:

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes.  But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs….But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:6-8, 13-14).

            Jesus’ “beginning of birth pangs” is not the End Time Tribulation.  He said that the Gospel had to be preached in the whole world before the end would come.  The verb tense he used points out that you “will be hearing” (continuous action in the future) of wars and rumors of wars.  In other words, war is part of the human condition, and it’s going to continue right up to the end.  Just because there’s some new conflict in the world, that’s not a sign that that the world is coming to an end.  Just as surely as war is part of the world’s past, it will be part of the future.  The Book of Revelation has a lot to say about both the earthly and cosmic conflict that rages between the powers darkness and light.
            From the beginning of John’s book of Revelation, Jesus reveals Himself as a fearsome Lord with burning eyes and the Word of God represented as a sword in His mouth (Rev 1:14-16).  The word “war” appears twelve times in John’s Apocalypse.  The first time is in Revelation 2:16, where Jesus tells the people of Pergamum that if they do not repent of their false teaching, “I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.”  It takes a lot to rouse the Lord’s anger, but spiritual deception is enough to rally Him to battle.
            In chapter 6, when the seals are opened and torments released , the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse bring conquest, war, famine, and death.  Christians are martyred and cry out for justice.  These are things that have been taking place since the foundation of our faith, and they will continue to the very end. 
            In chapter 9, when the trumpet of God’s judgment sounds, an army of unearthly locusts led by a demon prince makes war on the earth.  Four angels who had been bound at the Euphrates are released, killing a third of mankind.  Terrifying armies invade the Holy Land.  Many biblical scholars have tried their hand at interpreting these terrifying creatures.  Some suggest that they are spiritual beings, others that they are monsters of flesh and bone, and still others that they represent helicopters and tanks.  Rather than painting myself into an interpretive corner, I’ll simply say that they represent war that leaves death and destruction in its wake.
            Revelation 11 has the Antichrist making war against the two witnesses of God.  He brings everything in his arsenal against them, but they destroy their enemies with fire from their mouths (again, representing the Word of God).  They also have the ability to invoke plagues, as Moses did on Egypt.  Eventually, they are killed but rise victorious three and a half days later.
            Chapter 12 depicts a cosmic war between The Dragon (Satan) and a woman (Israel), who is clothed with the sun, moon, and stars.  She bears a child (Christ), whom the Dragon tries to destroy, but both she and the child are whisked away to safety.  Personally, this reminds me of Satan’s attempt to do away with the infant Jesus through Herod’s treachery, and God’s protection of the holy family in Egypt for about that same time—three and a half years.   This is but one example of the war that the Devil makes against God’s plans. 
Another example is given in the same chapter—a more ancient struggle in which the archangel Lucifer became Satan (The Adversary) when he rebelled against God’s rule and was thrown down by the archangel Michael and the heavenly host.  This heavenly narrative is overlaid with the earthly story of Israel bringing forth the Messsiah so the reader can see the connection between celestial and terrestrial struggles.  Since Satan is unable to gain victory over Christ Himself, verse 17 says, “the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”  In other words, the war continues even to this day.  As long as believers uphold the name of Christ, the Devil will beset us.
In Revelation 13:4 ,7, and 10 we read that the Antichrist makes war against God’s people.   Many are killed and many are led into captivity.  God’s people are called to perseverance
Revelation 16:13-16 depicts the armies of the world drawn up to the final battle in the valley of Meggido, or Har-Magedon, or Armageddon.  Though it comes from a different passage of scripture, many Bible scholars connect the reaping of chapter 14 with this battle.  “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses’ bridles, for a distance of two hundred miles (14:20).” 
Chapter 17 gives Christians hope when it says, “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful (v. 14).”
Revelation 19-20 shows the return of Christ.  Far from “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” this conquering King has bloody robes and eyes of fire, and the sword of His mouth strikes down the rebellious nations.  The Beast and the False Prophet, and eventually Satan himself are permanently thrown into the Lake of Fire. 
All this warfare in the book of Revelation may seem harsh to the average reader who wants to view Jehovah as a God of love and grace.  Indeed, the bloodshed in this book is part of the reason why it is rejected by so many.  Yet why should we judge God for using war to judge the nations, since they so readily use the same tool to exact their judgment against one another?  Violence has been part of the human experience from the very first death.  Since Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, humanity has shown itself to be a race that is violent to the core.  As a result of sowing the wind, they reap the whirlwind of God’s judgment. 
We should not judge God for using such destructive methods for His retribution.  After all, every human who is born dies.  To God, and ultimately to the human spirit, a young death in war or an old death in bed are all the same thing.  Either way, the soul is brought before God’s throne, and that’s where the real judgment takes place.  Revelation 14:13 gives a perspective on the death and destruction that takes place in all these wars.  “And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.”  Though believers are persecuted, though they die in war and the plagues and famines that result from war, they are blessed if their hearts belong to the Lord. 
The first generation of Christians who received this book of Revelation was not surprised by the violence it contained.  Bloodshed was all too familiar to them.  In and of itself, that era was closer to death than our own.  Besides their greater attachment to the meat they ate, human death was more familiar.  Infant mortality, primitive medicine, and short life spans all contributed to people’s greater acquaintance with death.  Add into that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the persecution of Christians under Nero and Domitian, and you get a Christian populace that is not at all stunned by the violence in Revelation.  To them, it meant that despite Satan’s attacks, Jesus has already won the victory.
The final generation that sees Christ’s return will witness warfare on a scale never known to humanity.  When battle lines are drawn up in the Valley of Meggido, no doubt somebody will say, “Aw snap—I read about this in the Book of Revelation!”  In that day it would be best not to be on the side that fights against the Heavenly Host
For believers today, all the violence of Revelation reminds us that just as there have been wars and rumors of wars in the past, these are just the beginning of birth pangs.  They are going to continue to the end of time.  In fact, “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now (Rom 8:22).”  We should not be shocked when we see violence and war getting worse.  We should know that it will continue to increase as things fall apart, and as the Day of the Lord’s coming gets nearer.
Scripture tells us that warfare is part of the human condition.  But we should not be deceived enough to think that it is merely the result of human conflict.  Ephesians 6:12 tells us that there is spiritual conflict behind it.  “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”   Instead of being angry at the people who cause conflict, understand the background causes and meet spiritual battle with prayer.  “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might (Eph 6:10).”  And remember that Jesus has already won the victory.

[i] “Last living U.S. World War I veteran dies” By Paul Courson, CNN.  February 28, 2011 9:33 p.m. EST.  March 25, 2015.
[ii] “The Looming Approach of a World Without World War II Veterans” by Emily Badger.  March 25, 2015.
[iii] Unless otherwise noted, quoted  scriptures taken from the NASB.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Revelation - Antichrist

I’m glad that you’ve stuck with this study on the book of Revelation.  Together we’ve looked at the fact that just as God revealed Himself to John, He will still unveil His plan to us, if we listen to His voice.  We talked about modeling our own worship after the examples of heavenly worship we find in Revelation.  We saw that the wrath of God unleashed upon humanity isn’t a heartless vengeance, but an attempt to turn our hearts back to Him.  We discovered that God’s people are marked with the seal of the Holy  Spirit, and asked not just to endure hardship and tribulation, but to be bold witnesses for Jesus.  God has special blessings in store for those who overcome.  Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most noteworthy figures in the book of Revelation: the Antichrist.

            When I was young, it seemed like Christians were always trying to answer the question, “Who is the Antichrist?”  Both Ronald Regan (who has six letters in each of his three names, and survived a gunshot) and Mikhail Gorbachev (who had the Hebrew letter vav dripping blood on his forehead) were noteworthy candidates.  So was every leader that emerged in the Middle East, as well as every Pope.  Today, people are still trying to figure it out.  Most recently, I heard that Jesus secretly predicted the name of the Antichrist—that in Luke 10:18[i], when Jesus said “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning,” He was really speaking Aramaic and not the Greek of our New Testament, and that if you translate lightning from heaven from the Greek back into Aramaic, you get Barack Obama.  Seriously, all politics aside, this is just bad scholarship on so many levels—the most striking of which is the fact that Jesus was using the past tense, not the future, so He couldn’t have been talking about the Antichrist anyway.  So let’s quit trying to point the finger at somebody that we suspect might be the living Antichrist, and let’s see what the Bible has to say.

            Revelation 13: 1-4 gives a vivid, although symbolic, description of the man we call the Antichrist:

And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore.  Then I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and on his horns were ten diadems, and on his heads were blasphemous names. And the beast which I saw was like a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority. I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast; they worshiped the dragon because he gave his authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” 

            More on the Antichrist, or Man of Lawlessness, can be found in 2 Thessalonians 2:2-12, but for today’s purposes we’ll stay with the narrative as it continues in Revelation 13.  In his arrogance, the Beast (Antichrist) who is empowered by the Dragon (Satan) blasphemes God and makes war against the saints.  Then another beast (false prophet) arises, performing great signs and making a religion about the worship of the Antichrist. Verses 16-18 tell of the mark and number of the beast:

16 And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, 17 and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name. 18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.

            Along with the identity of the Antichrist, people have been trying to figure out both the mark and number of the beast since the dawn of our faith.  Many portray the mark as being the number 666 on a person’s hand and forehead—visible to the naked eye.  Others think it has a more symbolic meaning.  What kind of mark or number could enable people to buy and sell, without which they can’t transact commerce?  When social security numbers first came out, people were convinced that this was the mark of the beast.  Then, when credit cards came out it was the same.  Now people are talking about microchip implants with the same concern. 

            Preterists, who believe that the book of Revelation is all about the Roman persecution of Christians, say that the identity of the Antichrist, the mark and the number of the beast, are all obvious to those who study history.  A man’s name can have a number because many of the ancient numerical systems were based on letters (take Roman numerals, for example).  Using the system called Gematria, in which letters represent numbers and vice versa, we find that the name “Caesar Nero” is, in fact, 666.

            Nero was the first emperor of Rome who sought to stamp out Christianity.  The Roman historian Tacitus even called the emperor cruel, and declare the innocence of those who were put to death by crucifixion, beheading, burning alive, and attacks by wild animals for the amusement of onlookers.  The apostle John was himself boiled in oil before his exile to Patmos.  It was under Nero’s persecution that Peter was martyred by being crucified upside down, and that Paul was beheaded. 

            As to the mark that allows buying and selling—Preterists say that this is Roman coin, which bore the image of Caesar Nero on its face.  Without this coin in your hand (there’s no difference in Greek between “in” and “on”), and without it preoccupying your thoughts, you couldn’t buy or sell.  In other words, unless you engaged in worship of the emperor and his government, you were toast—literally.

            While I believe that preterists make a good point here, I think that they’re only partly correct.  It seems clear to me that John was writing about Nero and Roman coin.  But I believe the book of Revelation to be God’s gift not just to the first generation that received it, but also to every Christian who comes afterward.  So preterists are right when they say that these references were all about Nero, but they’re wrong when they stop there and neglect to look at the future.  Futurists, on the other hand, are also wrong when they see only prophecy and not also history.  History repeats itself, and John is saying in Revelation that the kind of Antichrist to look for in the future is one just like Nero.  Don’t receive his mark, John warns, or divine wrath will fall on you along with those who follow this deceiver (14:8-11).

            Chapters 17-18 tell of another famous character, besides the Antichrist and the false prophet.  Often named The Whore of Babylon, she is described thus:

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality, and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly (Rev. 17:1-6). 

            Again, generations of Christians have tried to identify this woman, who personifies the false religion of the Antichrist, led by the false prophet.  Some have suggested the Catholic Church, citing the seven hills of Rome and the scarlet garments.  Others have said put forward radical Islam, along with its penchant for beheadings.  Still others propose the New Age Movement, a revival of ancient paganism mixed with ideas from major world religions.  Personally, I believe that John had the emperor cult in mind—but that, since history repeats itself, Revelation also speaks of a future religion surrounding the Antichrist.

            Just as Christians around the world expect the return of Christ, so followers of other world religions expect the advent of an end-time leader.  Hindus anticipate Krishna’s appearance, while Muslims expect the Imam Mahdi.  Jews are still waiting for the Messiah, while Buddhists hope for Buddha Maitreya.  No one religion such as Catholicism is the Whore of Babylon.  Instead, a future world religion will be formed from all these hopes, with the Antichrist as its god and the false prophet as its head.  This is why Jesus said not to look for His return in the desert or on the mountain, but in the sky.[ii]  No matter what signs and wonders some “god-on-earth” may perform, he isn’t Jesus unless he returns in the clouds.

            So, preterists believe that the Antichrist, false prophet, and the false religion were all in the past.  Futurists look for a literal unfolding of prophetic events in the time to come.  The good news for both is that no matter which way you look at it, Revelation declares that (as my New Testament professor Tommy South put it), “God wins!”  While these nasty characters wage war against the Lamb, He overcomes them “because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful (Rev. 17:14).”  After Babylon falls, along with her religion (ch. 18), we read about the doom of the Antichrist and false prophet :

And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone (19:20).

When preterists and futurists ask me to settle the debate for them, I tell them that they’re both right—about the once and future Antichrist.  Yet they miss the boat entirely if they fail to see Revelation’s application for today.  1 John 2:15-18 warns about not a person called The Antichrist, but a spirit of antichrist:

15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.
18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.

            Just as Nero was THE Antichrist that opposed first century Christians, and just as THE Antichrist in the future will torment the church, so many antichrists today stand against the truth of God in the world and the power of God in His people.  Beware anything that would leave its mark in your head (thoughts) or your hand (actions).  Don’t be deceived by the world and its lusts—for it is by these that the spirit of antichrist works against you.  Instead, overcome the world by the blood of the Lamb.  Remember the message and hope of Revelation—God wins!  Be firm and be faithful.

[i] All scripture quotations are from the NASB.
[ii] See Matthew 24 in its entirety.  Part of this chapter seems to deal with events that would take place soon, and part deals with events that would come to pass in the far future.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Revelation - Overcomers

I have a mark on my forehead that few people notice today.  The scar has faded over time.  I got it when my brother and I were horsing around, and I hit my head on the corner of the TV.  But when I look at that scar, I don’t remember any pain.  I only remember my older brother helping me, carrying me across the road, through deep snow to our neighbor’s house for help.  I remember the kindness of our neighbor who cleaned my wound and put a bandage on it.  When I look at the mark on my forehead, I only think of love.

            The Bible says that God’s bear a mark on their forehead that identifies them as His beloved.  We first read about it in Ezekiel 9:4, but the theme is picked up in Revelation 7:2-3[i]:

And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.”

            People who haven’t even read the book of Revelation have heard of the Mark of the Beast, a sign on the forehead that identifies people who worship the Antichrist[ii], but few people know that the Redeemed have a mark on their foreheads as well.  This invisible, spiritual mark identifies God’s people as His own.  This seal is Jesus’ stamp of approval for all who put their trust in Him, who overcome “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, [who] did not love their life even when faced with death (Rev 12.11).” 

            The first generation of Christians who received John’s book of Revelation took heart when they read about God’s seal upon them.  Not only did it remind them of a king’s signet, but it also spoke of preservation.  Just as a seal keeps contaminants out of food, so the Holy Spirit keeps believers from the spiritual toxins of the world.  This dual-purposed seal gives Christians both the protection and the authority of Almighty God—something that we need when we face tribulation.[iii] 

            Christians knew a lot about persecution by the time John wrote about his apocalyptic vision.  They were persecuted by Jewish leaders from the beginning. Emperor Nero, who had blamed them for the burning of Rome in the summer of 64 A.D..  Likely, Nero himself had started fires in the quarters near his palace so he could expand his own property, but the flames had gotten out of control.  As a cover-up, Nero made Christians his political scapegoats.  Fox’s Book of Martyrs describes Nero’s persecution as follows:

Nero even refined upon cruelty, and contrived all manner of punishments for the Christians that the most infernal imagination could design. In particular, he had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired; and others dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them. This persecution was general throughout the whole Roman Empire; but it rather increased than diminished the spirit of Christianity. In the course of it, St. Paul and St. Peter were martyred. 

To their names may be added, Erastus, chamberlain of Corinth; Aristarchus, the Macedonian, and Trophimus, an Ephesians, converted by St. Paul, and fellow-laborer with him, Joseph, commonly called Barsabas, and Ananias, bishop of Damascus; each of the Seventy[iv]
            Emperor Domitian began his persecution of Christians in A.D..  He required that subjects address him as “Lord and God,” and Christians naturally refused to obey.  Foxe’s Book of Martyrs says:

The emperor Domitian, who was naturally inclined to cruelty, first slew his brother, and then raised the second persecution against the Christians. In his rage he put to death some of the Roman senators, some through malice; and others to confiscate their estates. He then commanded all the lineage of David be put to death.

Among the numerous martyrs that suffered during this persecution was Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem, who was crucified; and St. John, who was boiled in oil, and afterward banished to Patmos. Flavia, the daughter of a Roman senator, was likewise banished to Pontus; and a law was made, "That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion...

Dionysius, the Areopagite, was an Athenian by birth, and educated in all the useful and ornamental literature of Greece. He then travelled to Egypt to study astronomy, and made very particular observations on the great and supernatural eclipse, which happened at the time of our Savior's crucifixion. The sanctity of his conversation and the purity of his manners recommended him so strongly to the Christians in general, that he was appointed bishop of Athens. Nicodemus, a benevolent Christian of some distinction, suffered at Rome during the rage of Domitian's persecution.  Protasius and Gervasius were martyred at Milan.  Timothy was the celebrated disciple of St. Paul, and bishop of Ephesus, where he zealously governed the Church until A.D. 97. At this period, as the pagans were about to celebrate a feast called Catagogion, Timothy, meeting the procession, severely reproved them for their ridiculous idolatry, which so exasperated the people that they fell upon him with their clubs, and beat him in so dreadful a manner that he expired of the bruises two days later.

John himself had been boiled in oil because of his testimony.  Having miraculously survived, it was assumed that he could not be killed so he was exiled to Patmos.  There, he wrote this book of Revelation to encourage those who similarly suffered for Christ.  Christians were marked with Jesus’ stamp of approval.  Even if they were not protected physically, they were preserved for eternity by the Holy Spirit’s seal.

Preterists believe that the book of Revelation is entirely about the Roman persecution of the early church, and a call for Christians to endure.  Futurists believe that the book is exclusively about future events that are yet to take place.  However, I believe that the Holy Spirit included Revelation in the canon of Scripture for all generations of Christians, and not just for the first or the last generation.  Believers in all ages have endured persecution of one kind or another.  Revelation is a call for faithful believers in the past, present, and future.

Revelation 6.9-11 describes the souls of Christian martyrs beneath the altar of God in heaven, crying out for justice.  “And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also (v. 11).”

In Revelation 7 and 14 we find 144,000 Jewish believers who likewise have been sealed by God.  Many have made much of this number, but it is not our purpose to investigate it here.  Suffice it to say that God’s people are marked as His, and that He promises rewards for those who bear His mark of faithfulness.

Some futurists believe the Rapture of the church[v] will happen before this time of Tribulation.  In Luke 17:22-37, Jesus describes his appearance as happening at any time—suddenly and without warning.  Quoting Revelation 3:10, pretribulational (dispensational) premillennialists point to Jesus’ words:  “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”  They also point to 1 Thessalonians 5.9, which says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Escaping wrath means being raptured, they maintain.

Other futurists believe that the Rapture will happen in the middle of the Tribulation or at the end.  They ask, “Who says it’s God will that the church escape hardship in the future, when we’ve endured it all along?  “Where would all these saints come from, who endure the Tribulation,” they ask, “if all the believers are raptured at the beginning of the time of trial?”  So it seems that your opinion about whether the church will go through the Tribulation depends greatly on your theology of suffering.  Do you believe that God will allow believers to suffer the Tribulation, or do you think His love will let Christians to escape it?  If you’re a futurist, then this is a question that must be answered.

Historicists believe that the timeline of Revelation covers not a seven-year period of Tribulation, but the full scope of Christian history, from the dawn of the Church to the Day of Judgment.  For them, persecution and endurance are continual themes for every generation—and it doesn’t matter when or if there’s a Rapture.  The fact is that sometimes, God’s people are removed from struggle and sometimes they are preserved through it.  The book of Revelation calls for believers to endure—and to do more than endure.  Christians are called to bear bold witness for our Lord, even in the midst of trial.

In the first century, many Christians under persecution recanted their faith in order to save their lives.  For first-century believers, Revelation was a call to continue, even if they had to pay with their last breath.  As an encouraging example, Revelation 11:1-14 gives a tale of two witnesses who stand up to the Beast, even though it ultimately costs them their lives.  Christians are reminded that even though they are killed, they will share in Christ’s glorious resurrection.  So too, Jesus encourages us, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev 2:10b).”  Revelation is a call for believers of all ages to overcome the evil one, and to endure tribulation however they find it.

In His letters to the seven churches, Jesus has some final words to say to those who overcome:

“To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God… He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death… To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it… He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father;  and I will give him the morning star… He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels… He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God… He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne (Rev 2:7, 11b, 17b, 26-27; 3:5, 12, 21).”

I pray whatever trials you endure and whatever tribulations you go through, that you will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of your testimony.  I pray that you will be faithful, and that you will receive your crown.

[i] All scripture quotations taken from the NRSV.
[ii] Rev 13:16-17; 14:9-12; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4
[iii] Jn 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; Rev 9:4
[v] Luk 17:34-37; 1 Thes 4:13-17; 1 Cor 15:50-58

Monday, March 16, 2015

Entertaining Angels - Swiss Chris

Last night, my daughter and I happened across a cyclist who had pulled up in our church parking lot to take a picture.  The sun was in the right position and the light was perfect for some beautiful photography.  We introduced ourselves to the cyclist, who said his name was Chris-Alexandre Gionchetta.  Chris is from Switzerland, and has been riding his bicycle across the world for four and a half years.  He has cycled through countries like Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Mongolia, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, and South Korea.  More recently, he has been traveling from west to east across the U.S.  He is on his way to Washington, D.C., where where he will board an airplane and fly back to Europe.  

Chris' bicycle (his third in his 35,000 mile journey) was laden with bags and gear.  I asked him where he stayed at night.  He said he usually found some out-of-the-way place to camp.  We invited him to camp in our yard last night.  He graciously accepted our invitation, and we were also blessed to share the evening with him.  After Chris and I toured our church and stood in our baptistery (he'd never seen one before), we had spiritual conversation about everything from Mormons and Muslims and meditation to Buddhists and Baptists.  He says that everywhere he has gone in the world, he has found one thing: love.  We also enjoyed some and not-so-spiritual conversation, enjoyed some simple food, and laughed until the clock showed it was later than I expected.  This morning after we shared some breakfast, Chris struck camp and we shot a few photos before he got back on the road.  He has seventy-five miles to travel today in order to stay on schedule--I hope he makes it.

Chris' message that he shares with everyone he meets is that you can live your dreams. "People say they have no time to do things, but you just have to make time.  I made time to ride my bicycle and it has given me so much time to think.  Just think."  Around the world, Chris has shared his inspiring message of peace, human solidarity, and "I can do it" attitude.  He speaks before thousands of children at schools through his foundation, the All School Project (click here to learn more).  He loves to share stories of bears and an appendix operation in Russia, bike theft in Vancouver, eating insects and Chinese medicine (not necessarily related), falling in love and breaking up, and all the wonderful people he has met on the road.   With Chris' can-do message, he would probably disagree with me when I say, "If you can't go see the world, at least you can welcome the world when it comes to see you."  Instead, several times he said, "Oh, but you can go see the world--and you have someplace you can stay when you get to Switzerland!"
If Chris was blessed by our hospitality, we were even more blessed by his company. I'm glad that our family had the opportunity to meet him--and especially that my kids had the chance to be inspired by this "chance" encounter.  The first thing that my 13-year-old did after the cyclist left was to pump up his long-neglected bike tires and go for a ride with a friend.  I'm struck by what we might have missed if we had seen this ragged-looking traveler, averted our eyes, and said, "Oh, there goes a homeless guy!"  By engaging him in conversation, we met someone we will never forget, who blessed us more than we could have blessed him.

The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews 13:2 (NLT) wrote, "Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!"  Chris may not have wings, but he certainly touched my family in a positive way.  I pray for wind at his back and safe travel for the rest of his journey.  And I pray that when the world comes to your door, you'll open your home and your heart to its love.