God’s people doing what God’s people do
Revelation 13: Meanwhile, God’s holy people passionately and faithfully stand their ground.
As I struggle my way through symbolism that has challenged Bible scholars across the centuries it’s nice to find some firm footing, if for just a moment. I can’t identify the Beast or the Beast’s puppet or solve the 666 riddle. Since John writes to specific congregations in a specific place and time I don’t buy into any interpretation that can only be grasped 2000 years in the future, so the 666 reference, in particular has to make sense historically, but again, I’m not the go to guy for this kind of stuff. What I do like is the momentary firm footing of “Meanwhile, God’s holy people passionately and faithfully stand their ground.” Their situation doesn’t sound very good. There’s some kind of leopard-bear-lion Beast dominating the whole world. This Beast hates the Church and intends to destroy it. Life is hard under this persecution (is it Rome or some future event or both?) and it appears that the Church will be crushed. God’s people, though, stand firm. In spite of prison and the sword their passion for Christ empowers them. In the face of this crisis of (literally) Biblical proportions they “stand their ground.” That’s exactly what God’s people do. It’s not that we travel easy roads, smelling roses all the way. Sometimes we take some hits that are anything but easy. We don’t like it and we do all we can to avoid it, but in the end, whatever comes we passionately and faithfully stand for God. Even as I have a hard time getting the rest of this passage into focus, my view of this truth is 20/20.
Take Away: The Lord’s people have staying power even in impossible situations.
A mystery within a mystery
Revelation 10: Don’t write a word.
The final three of the seven trumpets are called the “woe-trumpets.” Following the sounding of the sixth trumpet and the woe ushered in by it, there’s an interlude before the final trumpet sounds. Mysterious things happen. A mighty angel calls out and is answered by Seven Thunders. John dutifully starts to write it all down but is told, as the prophet Daniel was told centuries earlier, to seal up what he’s just heard. To this day any effort to understand this scene is more a guess than anything else. Simply put, no one has a clue as to what’s happening here. For an event in a book called “Revelation” it feels quite strange to have John commanded to silence. However, not knowing or understanding something leaves us in familiar territory. Frankly, what I do know of spiritual matters might fill a thimble. What I don’t know would fill an ocean. That doesn’t mean that I rejoice in my ignorance. I want to know all that’s knowable and understand all that’s understandable. This mysterious passage reminds me that not only am I not expected to fully understand everything that there are some things I’m not allowed to understand even in part. In some cases, I explore the best I can, grasp as I’m able and then move on, trusting God with all the mysteries that are beyond my grasp. In the specific case of this passage, I read it, scratch my head a bit, and move on; filing this mystery with a million others that I must leave in the capable hands of the Almighty.
Take Away: We don’t understand many of the things of God, but we can know him. That’s enough.
The mystery has been solved
Colossians 2: We’ve been shown the mystery!
A new church has started down the block and old First Church seems dull in comparison. New Church not only offers a different style of music, but there’s a lot of talk about amazing spiritual experiences and hitherto unknown secrets being revealed. The folks at First Church can’t help but notice what’s going on down the street. How come their pastor never tells them some of these secrets to success? Why doesn’t he lead them into the mysteries of the spiritual? Something like that is happening at Colossi and Laodicea. Those with a different approach to God have come to town claiming that their way unlocks doors that have before been locked. If the Christians listen to them they can go beyond where they are and press on to spiritual power and authority beyond what they’ve ever imagined. The Apostle tells them that that’s completely wrong. The great mystery, the wonderful secret to spiritual power and success has already been explained to them. It can all be summed up in one name: “Jesus.” To be connected to him is to be connected to all there is of God. He warns them that to rush off down some other road is a “wild-goose chase.” Paul urges them to focus only on Jesus and, in him to be dominated by the love of God. The mystery has been solved and the secret has been revealed. His name is Jesus.
Take Away: Our religion isn’t bound up in mysteries. Rather it’s all about relationship: knowing Jesus as Savior, Lord, and Friend.
The story continues
Acts 28: Paul lived for two years in his rented house.
The adventure at sea over, the prisoner Paul arrives in Rome. There, in a rented house with a Roman guard, Paul sets up shop, welcoming those who come to talk about Jesus. Luke’s account ends here. Frankly, it’s not a very satisfying ending. When I conclude reading the gospels I finish each of them feeling quite satisfied. After all, the resurrection pretty much sums up the story. Beyond that, the book of Revelation probably wins the prize for having the most satisfying conclusion. The book of Acts, though, leaves me wondering what happens next. Here’s Paul, still a prisoner, waiting his turn to state his case in Caesar’s court. I have to look beyond the Bible to find what happens next. The most common speculation is that Paul is released after two years, probably because his case is thrown out of court. He returns to his missionary efforts, and, later on, is arrested again and this time is executed in Rome. Why our writer, Luke, doesn’t continue his account is unknown. Perhaps he leaves Rome, never to return, while Paul is held under house arrest. Perhaps he did continue with part two of his account but it was somehow lost. Maybe the cliff hanger conclusion to Acts is intended to remind me that the Book of Acts is still being written. After all, the purpose of the book is to tell how the Holy Spirit works through the Church to carry out the mission given it by the Lord. The story won’t be complete until the return of Jesus to this world. To some extent, all Christians are characters in this continuing story. We don’t think about it very often, but it might be said that we’re living in the book of Acts.
Take Away: The Holy Spirit continues to work in this world. How can I best cooperate and partner with him?
Not blind trust
Isaiah 45: I am God. I work out in the open.
Isaiah speaks to people who have incorporated idol worship into their religion. The religions of other nations have greatly influenced them, causing their view of God to include lots of mystery and magic. In his message, Isaiah includes the words of the Lord who reminds them that he’s never told them to, “Seek me in emptiness, in dark nothingness.” In fact, the Lord has done just the opposite. He’s told them his plans ahead of time. He’s even offered them choices: “do this and I will do that, or do that, and I will do this.” This God doesn’t work in the darkness and serving him doesn’t involve a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Serving God certainly requires faith on our part. There’s much about that Almighty that’s transcendent, beyond our understanding. However, his desires for us are an open book. As Isaiah says it, “Turn to me and be helped —saved! — everyone, whoever and wherever you are!” Living in a relationship with God isn’t an exercise in ignorance. This God partners with us, directing our lives, but, at the same time, allows us to operate freely within his purposes. This God prefers light to darkness and is, in fact, the Creator of Light (both physical and spiritual). We serve him in absolute trust, but, since his purposes for us have already been clearly stated, it isn’t blind trust.
Take Away: Living in a relationship with the Lord isn’t an exercise in ignorance.
Those mysterious sons of God
Genesis 6: The sons of God noticed that the daughters of men were beautiful.
What’s going on here? Who on earth (or beyond this earth) are these sons of God? Do we have some angels coming to earth and being attracted to our women? Now that would make for some juicy sermon material! Alas, I don’t think it will work. We don’t find any evidence in the Bible of angels being called “sons of God.” Still, the writer of Genesis says that the result of the union of these mysterious sons of God and the daughters of men is a race of giants: big, aggressive, and conquering. I think the best way to work on this passage is to read it backwards. That is, the result of all this is that God concludes that “human evil is out of control.” The rebellion that started with Adam and Eve has gotten progressively worse to the point that humanity is focused on evil all the time. A branch of the human race has sprung up that threatens God’s plan to redeem human beings. The part about sons of God is how the writer introduces this accelerating fall of humanity. Now, having put it into perspective, the identity of these sons of God isn’t quite as important as it was. It’s just the set up describing why God is about to take drastic action against humanity. It may be that the writer is simply giving us a poetic view of how a race of “mighty men” who have no fear of God came dominate the earth. I do have a theory that I’ll share with you, but its pure speculation. I think the sons of God are the decedents of Seth. It’s through him that the Son of God will trace his lineage. It’s Seth’s offspring who are listed as living those extremely long lives in the previous chapter. I also think the “daughters of men” are the offspring of Cain. That murderer was driven out and is no longer counted as one of God’s people. Just because Cain and his descendants are considered to be outsiders doesn’t mean they fade to nothing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They’re building cities, developing the arts, and bringing the world into the Bronze Age. You might say that humanity has forked into two distinct groups: those who worship God (sons of God) and those who advance humanity apart from God. When the God-worshipers start intermarrying with these humanists the Lord decides he must act aggressively to save humanity. At least that’s my take on it all.
Take away: God will act aggressively to redeem humanity…that’s true in broad terms, but also at the personal level as well.
Genesis 3: God put a mark on Cain to protect him.
The murderer has been confronted and has confessed. The sentence is banishment to a hostile world. From now on he’ll be an outsider, apart from the family (it’s not a nation yet) God claims as his own. Cain is crushed by this sentence and already feels the icy grip of loneliness on his life. Not only that, but he knows he’s getting off with a sentence lighter than he deserves. He senses that the proper penalty for murder is death. In addition, he realizes that other people know it too. God may be banishing him, but he imagines other men hunting him down and taking his life that justice might be done. What the Lord does in response is, at the same time, one of the great mysteries of the Bible and also one of many great acts of mercy. Cain’s marked in some way that says to all he encounters “This man is under God’s protection, leave him alone.” I have no idea of what that mark is, in fact, I can’t imagine how it works. However, I do know it’s a mark of mercy and I have a very good idea of what mercy looks like. It looks like the Lord forgiving me of my sins rather than condemning me as I deserve. It looks like hope instead of fear. It looks like Jesus on the cross of Calvary.
Take away: Thank God for the “mark of mercy!”