Revelation 12: She was giving birth to a Child.
John’s vision shifts to new images including that of a dragon and war in heaven. It’s my guess that his original readers better understand the symbolism than we do. Interpretations are all over the map but due to the fact this book is written to be read by first century Christians I lean toward understandings of it that keep their perspective in mind. Also, there’s such a strong parallel to the story of the birth of Christ that I tend to think that John’s using that well known story to illustrate something more. Mary, the most blessed of women, gives birth to the Son of God. Immediately, Satan tries to have him killed but, being warned in a dream, his earthly father, Joseph, takes them and flees to the desert, Egypt. Throughout his ministry there’s a war for the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls. Ultimately, though, Satan’s defeated as Jesus goes to the cross, winning the ultimate victory for all who will come to him. It all fits, kind of. The question for Bible scholars is “What does it illustrate?” Most say that the woman represents the Church and that the battle represents the war waged by the enemy of our souls in an attempt to defeat the Church. If that’s right the message here is one of divine protection and ultimate victory. Even readers like me, in spite of my struggles in understanding the passage, can conclude that, whatever the exact meaning here, God will protect his people and that ultimately, in Christ, victory is ours. I know I don’t get everything that’s going on here, but that’s a pretty good place to start.
Take Away: We don’t have to understand everything to have a firm grasp on the fact of the Lord’s provision for, and protection of, us.
Revelation 11: Get up and measure God’s Temple and Altar and everyone worshiping in it.
This chapter of John’s Revelation might be considered to be the first conclusion of the book. We’re now at the sounding of the final trumpet and once it sounds Judgment Day has arrived as time comes to an end. However, John has much more to see as the description of specific events will be expanded. Before that final trumpet sounds John’s given the same task Daniel was given many years earlier. He’s to measure the “Temple and Altar and everyone worshiping” there. One understanding of this that works for me is that this is a measurement of God’s Church in preparation for judgment. Everything’s about to wrap up and the time Jesus referred to as a dividing of sheep and goats is about to begin. Now John’s given the task of seeing how the Church, represented by the Temple and Altar in the vision, measures up. As John prepares to go to work he’s told to ignore those in the outside court. They may be hanging around the Temple and appear to belong. However, they aren’t part of the worshiping body. I’m not claiming to have figured things out here but there’s a lot of truth in that interpretation. At some point the Church will be measured and people will give an account of themselves to the Judge of the world. Just hanging around the fringes won’t cut it. Those who are faithful, serving the Lord, worshiping him in both good days and bad, though, have nothing to fear even in the fearful days described in this passage.
Take Away: Oh I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.
The Church: Christ at work in the world
Ephesians 1: The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world, the world is peripheral to the church.
Paul’s writing is filled with superlatives as he begins his letter to the church at Ephesus. God’s people, he tells us, have within our grasp “the immensity of this glorious way of life” and it’s with “utter extravagance” that the Lord bestows his gifts on his people. He tells us that all this comes from one Source: Jesus Christ. Jesus makes all the difference in (and out of) the world. It’s not “here and there” or “them and us.” The glorious plan and possibility is that in Christ everything comes together. This great Unifier works through and with a specific group of people who have made him Lord of their lives. That group, we’re told, is the Church. Obviously, Paul’s not talking about a denomination here and he’s certainly not thinking of some local body of believers. This is the “capitol-C” Church. It’s through this body, “his body,” that Jesus is bringing everything together. As I look at the Church today, it’s a mistake for me to only focus on its failings. Jesus sees the Church as his body and as the hope of the world. Even as I acknowledge its failures, I’d better remember its purpose and the source of its power and authority in the world.
Take Away: God has chosen to work through the Church to bring salvation to the world.
God at work in the Church
1Corinthians 12: They all originate in God’s Spirit.
One result of the “gifts contest” at Corinth is that various gifts have been elevated to the point that the “Gift-giver” has been somewhat overlooked. On the Day of Pentecost the disciples receive, not merely spiritual gifts, but the Gift-giver himself, the Holy Spirit. From that day on, the Holy Spirit has administered the gifts, bestowing them as he deems best, not for individuals, but for the Body of Christ: the Church. When the Spirit decides that the Church needs “wise council” he bestows the gift of counseling on the right person. When he sees the need for healing, he grants someone the gift of healing. If a person sees a healing take place and decides that would be a neat gift to have and starts begging for that gift, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Or, from a different point of view, if a person is given the gift of teaching and decides that their gift is the one everyone needs, well, they’re simply wrong. No individual “owns” their spiritual gift. The Church is the beneficiary of spiritual gifts, but not the dispenser of them. Paul wants the “gift oriented” congregation at Corinth to stop focusing on gifts and to start focusing on the Holy Spirit, acknowledging his authority over the Church. He’ll hand out unique capabilities and enable people to serve in various capacities in the Church as he sees is best. God, the Holy Spirit is in charge, not us.
Take Away: Let’s be “Spirit-oriented” rather than “gift-oriented.”
Stop acting like babies!
1 Corinthians 3: Are you really much different than a babe at the breast, content only when everything’s going your way?
Only an enemy or a dear friend can say the things Paul says to the church at Corinth. Their behavior, he says is “infantile” and “unscriptural” and Paul is “completely frustrated” by them. The problem is their infighting. People are choosing sides and jockeying for position. They approach every situation from a “me” point of view, judging everything by what they’ll get out of it and whether or not whatever it is in play will suit their tastes. Paul, their friend, tells them to stop acting like babies and get over themselves. He reminds them that it’s all about Jesus, not them. It would be nice to think that the “baby problem” is unique to Corinth but you and I both know it’s not. It’s human nature to measure everything by our own desires and tastes. On one hand, there’s a place for that. After all, we bring unique experiences, knowledge, and insights to life. There’s a place for us to express ourselves and let our preferences be known. I don’t think the problem at Corinth is that some folks like the preaching of Apollos better than they like the preaching of Paul. The problem is that individuals selfishly insist on getting their own way and focus their energies on forming coalitions so they’ll have more say than others. Paul tells them to cut it out and remember that the church isn’t theirs in the first place. When I’m manipulating things behind the scenes or openly demanding my rights I’m dislodging Jesus from his place as the Head of the Church.
Take Away: Like it or not, it’s not all about me.
The power of love
Song of Songs 4: You looked at me, and I fell in love. One look my way and I was hopelessly in love!
Previously I mentioned that some Christians have made this book into an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. As I said then, I’m not all that convinced, although passages like this do remind me of scriptures like Ephesians 4 where I’m told that: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…and to present her to himself as a radiant church… holy and blameless.” That passage describes Christ’s passionate love for the Church, a love that takes him to the cross. In the portion of Song of Songs that’s before me today, the man describes the power of his love for the woman. In Ephesians I see the power of Christ’s love for the Church. Whether or not Song of Songs is intended to connect me to Christ and his love for us, I’m reminded in this passage of the power of love and the sacrifice one who loves is willing to make for his beloved.
Take Away: “Love” is, ultimately, an action word…real love takes action on behalf of the one who is loved.
Resistance is futile
Esther 3: There is an odd set of people scattered through the provinces of your kingdom who don’t fit in.
On the TV show “Star Trek the Next Generation” Captain Picard’s big enemy is the Borg. This mechanical-biological menace goes around “assimilating” people. Once the poor person is captured, they are melted into the Borg and lose their self-identity. When Jerusalem falls its citizens are relocated to various places in the Babylon Empire in an attempt to assimilate them. Conquered people are expected to lose their self-identity and simply see themselves as part of that vast kingdom. However, the Jewish people were called by God Almighty to be a “chosen people” centuries earlier. Obviously, there were many failures, still they resisted assimilation in Egypt and again when they moved into the Promised Land. Now, they insist on seeing themselves as, not just part of Xerxes kingdom, but as a people in exile. Haman is a bad guy who wants revenge on Mordecai by eliminating both him and his entire race, but he’s right when he says they “don’t fit in.” Okay, from Star Trek to Babylon to today…we too are a called out people. We’re the Church and we’re called to be in the world but not of it. As the fictional Picard resists being assimilated and as the historical Jews resisted, so are we to resist. We interact with our culture, influence it, and confront it — but as God’s people we must never be assimilated by it.
Take Away: Resistance is not futile.