The blood of the martyrs
Revelation 6: I saw the souls of those killed because they had held firm in their witness to the Word of God.
The seals unveil future events, although readers though the centuries have been all over the place in their understanding of just what it is John is seeing. Perhaps the broad view is the best one. History is marching to a climax and as that climax draws near the world’s going to experience powerful and disturbing events. As the fifth seal is removed we see those martyred for their faithfulness to the Lord. In John’s day people are already suffering for their faith. John, himself, in fact, is exiled from the church. However, things are going to get worse. Many will die on the floor of the Coliseum in Rome. History, in fact, will see many faithful Christians die as martyrs. Sad to say, it continues to this day. John hears their voices as they cry out for justice. They’re told that the day of justice is coming. As I think about these who’ve followed Jesus even into death I feel small and insignificant. I confess that I’m hardly worthy to share the name “Christian” with them. I don’t want to forget that my heritage of faith has been a costly one. I don’t want to forget those who, even as I write these words, are paying a dear price for standing firm in their faith. At the same time, the promise of this passage speaks to my heart today. These have already been given “white robes” – honored in heaven. The day will come when the books will be balanced and justice will prevail. It doesn’t take my feeling any sense of vengeance at all for me to say, if God is just, then he’ll “avenge their murders.”
Take Away: The justice of the Lord demands that things be set right, and that day is, indeed, coming.
Planning for tomorrow with an eye toward God
James 4: You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.
James challenges Christians in how they talk about the future. He advises us to not state with an attitude of certainty what will happen tomorrow. Instead, we’re to be humble about it, saying things like, “If it’s the Lord’s will we’ll do this or that tomorrow.” Now, he’s not giving us some formula to say as much as he’s describing an attitude we’re to have. He’s opposed to Christians living self-willed, God-ignoring lives in which we imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient and operating independent of the Lord. He’s not against my making plans and having dreams. At the same time, he’s in favor of my planning and dreaming with an eye toward God. The Lord, himself is a planner, operating on a scale far beyond my comprehension. As an individual created in his image I too plan, thinking about a desirable future and working now to bring it to pass. However, unlike my Heavenly Father, my view is limited and because of that, my expectations are flawed. I remember that I’m to pray for my “daily bread” trusting the Lord to supply the need of the day. To plan for the future while ignoring God isn’t only foolish. According to James it “is evil.”
Take Away: Ultimately, my future – my life – is in God’s hands and not my own.
Minding my own business
John 21: Master, what’s going to happen to him?
John finishes his story of Jesus with the account of an early morning, and private, encounter with the resurrected Savior. Our Lord and his disciples have breakfast together and then Jesus and Peter go for a walk. Peter, who denied the Lord three times, is now asked three times if he loves Jesus. Each time, as a result of his declaration of love, he’s given responsibility in the Kingdom. By the third time, though, Peter is burdened with the repeated question. Jesus responds by explaining to Peter that his love will be his source of strength in difficult days ahead. He’ll be a prisoner and will be led to places he doesn’t want to go. In the midst of such a trial, Peter will find strength in his love for the Lord. Meanwhile, following along is the disciple John. Everyone knows John is Jesus’ favorite and Peter wants to know what’s coming for him. Jesus, though, isn’t going there with Peter. Peter needs to worry about Peter and not about the beloved disciple. I think we tend to concern ourselves with what God is doing in the lives of others too much. We forget that we aren’t called to make Christian clones of ourselves but are to “feed the sheep” and let the Master handle the rest of it. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned when I see someone struggling or has even lost their way. Of course I’m concerned. Still, I need to be careful to love them and encourage them to follow Jesus and not be too focused on exactly how the Lord might want that to happen in their life.
Take Away: I love others and want to see them allow the Lord to lead their lives, but my main concern is to keep things clear between myself and the Lord.
Luke 21: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too.
Jesus’ description of future events is sobering. He describes false teachers, betrayal, wars, earthquakes, persecution, destruction, and other huge events. Since I know that some of this already happened I’m tempted to think I’m clear of at least some of the things our Lord describes. Then I run head long into Jesus’ declaration that these words are for all of his followers. He says that coming big events are obvious to those who pay attention even as the coming of summer is forecast by the budding of the trees. Our Lord wants his followers to pay attention, not so much to specific things, like the rise of a false Messiah, but to the general flow of things. After all, a person who watches just one tree as a predictor of summer might or might not see new leaves. However, one who watches an entire forest will see proof abundant that things are changing. On one hand, I think it’s a mistake to list a few “signs” and focus in on just them. After all, one might have misread the meaning of the passage in the first place. However, if I pay attention I might just see that big things are brewing. At that time, I don’t have to be afraid, according to Jesus, but I do want to be sure I’m ready for what I believe is coming.
Take Away: Even if I miss some of the signs I’ll be okay if I stay ready.
The curtain falls, but Act II is about to begin
Malachi 4: Remember and keep the revelation I gave through my servant Moses.
Did Malachi understand that these words were to become, for Christians across the ages, the closing words of the Old Testament? It’s highly unlikely. However, I believe God, the Holy Spirit knew it. The last two paragraphs of Malachi are an excellent ending for the Old Testament. For those of that day, still living under the Law, one of the last words is “remember.” They’re to keep the “rules and procedures for right living” given them by Moses. If they do that they’ll have done what the Lord requires of them. However, there’s another last word. It’s, “also look ahead.” The Lord isn’t finished working out redemption for them and all that has happened thus far has prepared the way for the really big deal that’s yet to come. As the curtain’s falling on this, the first act we’re told that the next act is going to be both interesting and surprising. They’ll know it’s starting when Elijah shows up to usher it in. For the people of Israel, that’s a long 400 years distant in the future. As for me, all I have to do is turn the page to see what has, up to now, been the black and white picture of God’s salvation plan displayed in living color.
Take Away: Even to this day we are wise to obediently remember what the Lord has told us while at the same time look forward to what he has promised us.
Back to the future
Micah 5: Bethlehem…from you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.
It becomes quite clear to anyone who reads through the Old Testament prophets that speaking of future events is not their job one. Most often they focus on current events, calling people to a genuine walk with God and to living just lives as his people. However, once in a while, they’re given pretty specific insights into God’s plans. You might say that they get a glimpse of the future – not as though the future is out there to be seen if you just know how, but that the Lord shares some specific part of his intentions. As Micah describes God’s plan to remake his people he gets a glimpse of the coming shepherd-leader and realizes he will come from David’s home town of Bethlehem. In the years to come, that little revelation will grow large in the minds of God’s people. And well it should, this is something concrete, a test to be applied in identifying the Messiah. Meanwhile, Micah doesn’t dwell on this juicy bit of revelation and moves on to describe the ministry of the One sent from God. Clearly, there’s a lot to think about as I read things like this but today I’m simply reminded that God doesn’t do stuff by accident. In this passage, we find the Lord planning 700 years into the future where he intends to do something connected to an event just as distant in the past. That is, he plans for the Messiah to be born in the town where the greatest King of Israel’s history was born. The Lord not only has specific plans for the future but he also has the heart of a poet in those plans.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t do things by accident.
The God of whatever happens
Jonah 3: God…did change his mind about them.
What an interesting statement! God intends to do one thing, but then, in response to what they do, he changes his mind and does something else. This view of God challenges our thinking about who he is and how he works in this world. The Lord’s willing to be influenced by what we say and do. Of course, in this case, this is what he wanted to have happen. Had God only wanted to destroy them we’d have no story of Jonah and the big fish. Instead, we’d have another Sodom and Gomorrah story about fire and brimstone wiping out a sinful city. The reluctant prophet is sent on this mission exactly because God wants their lives to change. This is a classic Old Testament prophet situation. The prophet says, “If you do this, God’s going to do that…if you do that, God’s going to do this.” The Lord’s message to Nineveh is that, because of their sin, destruction is coming. However, even though it’s unspoken, they’re also being given a choice. If sin is bringing destruction, repentance will bring life. When the people of Nineveh make the right choice God is happy to change his mind. This kind of thinking opens up all kinds of possibilities for us. When I pray, asking for God’s intervention in some matter, I’m not just going through a spiritual discipline. Rather, I’m actually being allowed to influence God! My standing in this world is much more than my traveling some predetermined path to some predetermined conclusion. I’m a partner with God who’s allowing me to work with him in changing the world. Here’s a view of a God who’s never at a loss; who always knows what he’ll do in response to what I do of my own free will. Such a view doesn’t make God less. Instead, it makes him more. He’s God whatever happens.
Take Away: As his people we’re partners with the Lord who allows us to work with him in changing the world.
The big picture
Daniel 12: It will be a time of trouble, the worst trouble the world has ever seen.
Imagine the second part of Daniel as a mural done by a master artist depicting the rise and fall of kingdoms through history. As we examine the mural we see mighty nations rise, then divide, and then fall to some new world power. Some folks have patiently examined Daniel’s “mural,” attaching labels to the various kingdoms he describes. Those folks might be right and they might be wrong. Frankly, for me to attempt this is a waste of time. The least of those who seriously attempt to match nations up with Daniel’s vision is superior to me. I get lost in it all fairly soon. I do come away from Daniel’s sweeping picture with certain impressions. For one thing, I’m reminded that, even though I firmly believe human beings have free will, there’s an overarching flow of human history that’s firmly in the hands of God. Second, even though it seems some things happen outside of God’s providence, I’m reminded that the Lord remains Sovereign over all. Whether or not I think God is orchestrating, down to some detail, the flow of events I need to remember that nothing’s happening on the world stage that he isn’t at least allowing to happen. Finally, I see that there’s an end to the story. Things won’t forever continue as they are. Daniel sums it up with a description of everything coming to a head with “the worst trouble the world has ever seen.” The Lord isn’t a bystander to human history. He’s ushering us along to some specific events and, ultimately, to a specific conclusion. As I watch the world news and see the clashes of world powers, it’s good to remember that nothing that happens is a surprise to God. That may not be a very complete view of the nature of prophecy, but it’s not a bad place to start and, while I may not understand the specifics, I do get the big picture.
Take Away: There’s an overarching flow of human history that’s firmly in the hands of the Lord.
The unseen part of life
Daniel 10: I was waylaid by the angel-prince of the kingdom of Persia.
In general, I’m not a mystic person. That is, I don’t see the devil behind every bad thing that happens and I don’t think most of the events of life are being orchestrated by God. Still, I do believe there’s an entire part of our existence that’s very real yet mostly unseen. That isn’t really much of a stretch for us anyway. For instance, a person born blind can be fully convinced of the reality of color even though he’s never seen it. However, in that case the blind person has plenty of people around him who do see so he has an abundance of input concerning what is personally beyond his grasp. When it comes to the spiritual dimension there’s much less reliable information. We end up in passages like this one receiving just a fleeting glimpse of events beyond our normal sight. Even then, the purpose of the passage isn’t to explain all this anyway, so I have to tread very carefully here. Daniel has an encounter with a messenger of God, an angel. Others sense this being’s presence, but can’t see it. They flee. Daniel though, sees and faints at the sight! The angel is there to talk about future events, but in passing mentions that he was delayed by another angel for three weeks and also mentions he has to go back to fight against that same being when he’s finished with Daniel. I know that better educated people than I have worked through this passage, coming to various conclusions about the part of existence we cannot see (or concluded that this passage has nothing to do with that). For me, I accept the fact that there are realities that I can’t see. While I don’t think I go around with a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on the other, I do believe that this part of existence is just as real as the coffee cup sitting here on the table. I also believe that there are times when the unseen is very close by and having a direct influence over me and what’s happening in my life. Finally, I realize that I am, in general, blind to all of this. I have to trust the Holy Spirit, who can see it all and who was sent to be my Guide to help me navigate through the unseen part of life.
Take Away: We should be thankful for the guidance of the Holy Spirit who sees what we cannot see and helps us avoid that which would do us harm.
The bottom line on the bottom line
Daniel 7: The Old One sat down.
The Book of Daniel is clearly divided into two parts. The first half recounts for us stories of God’s empowerment of and protection over the Hebrews who were taken into Babylon. The second half contains Daniel’s reports of his visions and dreams concerning the future. I think anyone will agree that the stories are more fun than the visions. However, we find in these six chapters of Daniel Old Testament writing that reminds us of the Book of Revelation. In fact, it’s likely that the writer of Revelation borrows some of his imagery from these visions. When Daniel is tossed into the den of lions we read about it as a very personal account of faith and deliverance. Now, his visions of the flow of history are so broad in scope as to take our breath away. He sees kingdoms rise and fall as bewildering history unfolds before him. Theologically, I firmly believe the Lord has granted us free will and, because of that, the future isn’t predetermined in detail. However, I also believe that God is ushering the human race to a future he’s already declared. In other words, I’m free to cooperate with God or not. Because of that, my future isn’t predestined. The big picture, though, is known to God because he’s already determined to bring it to pass. When the Almighty decides to do something, well, he doesn’t have to see the future to state that it will happen. In this specific vision, Daniel sees a series of future kingdoms appear, flourish, and then give way to the next. At one point he notes that in the midst of all the rising and falling that there’s a fiery throne and on that throne sits the Ancient of Days. I love that picture. Kingdoms rise and fall, human history marches through time, and in the midst of it all we see God in his glory and authority. I don’t claim to have all that great a handle on prophecy but I think I have this one figured out. Through it all, in it all, above it all: God is.
Take Away: Everything else gives way. God remains.