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.
Happy in Jesus
1Peter 1: You trust him, with laughter and singing.
Peter’s words are addressed to believers who are “scattered to the four winds.” These followers of Jesus don’t have it easy. They’re treated as outsiders and sometimes they suffer because of their faith. However, Peter’s writing to them isn’t heavy and grim. He doesn’t advise them to grit their teeth and hold on. Rather, he describes the victory that’s already theirs. He envisions their gatherings as joyful, celebrative events in which they sing and laugh, buoyed by the living presence of Jesus in their lives. The idea here isn’t that they pretend everything’s okay when it obviously isn’t. Instead, it’s that they see a bigger picture and weighing their current situation against “total salvation” they find that they’re the big winners. Beyond that, it’s more than just “pie in the sky” for them. Something has happened and is happening in their lives right now. These are people who just can’t get over how blessed they are. While it’s true that my life is quite easy, especially in comparison to that of these scattered Christians, I do share in their blessings. As I get together with my Christian friends, whether it’s in formal worship or relaxed fellowship, I hear lots of good singing and good natured laughter. That, my friend, is exactly as it should be.
Take Away: It’s good to remember that it’s a joy living in Jesus and that it’s fun being with his people.
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.
Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
Continuing the story
Hebrews 11: Their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole.
This chapter of the Bible is called the “faith chapter” because of its almost poetic description of the power of faith. Now, it’s not just faith in faith. The focus of this powerful faith is clearly identified as “trust in God.” If I place my faith elsewhere, no matter now sincere that faith might be; it will be an act of foolishness that will take me down the path of disappointment and maybe even destruction. The heroes of faith described in this passage didn’t believe in belief. Rather they believed in, and trusted in, God. These people weren’t disappointed as the Lord came through for them in wonderful ways. The writer takes us on a faith tour, stopping before each exhibit just long enough to remind us of their victorious stories. Before we’re ready, he tells us time is up and we get just a glance down the hall of “current events” where we see people making great sacrifices for their faith, believing whatever it is they’re facing is worth the reward they’re earning. As we prepare to move on, our host says something quite surprising. As wonderful as their examples of faith is, it’s incomplete. We’re not on this tour just to look back. Rather, we’re here to be inspired to join in; to add our stories to theirs. Their looking-forward-to-God’s-better-plan-faith is to be balanced and completed by our embracing-the-better-plan-that’s-now-available-faith. As we live in this new salvation plan we prove the validity of their faith years ago. They carried the torch of faith as far as they could; now it’s been passed on to us. What an honor, what a privilege, and what a responsibility is ours.
Take Away: We don’t just remember great faith of years gone by – we embrace it and advance it to our day and age.
Hebrews 6: The basic foundational truths are in place.
There are lots of important things for Christians to know but what are the most important ones? Before moving on to the deeper things of God what are the basics that must be first mastered. Using the lingo of the university, what courses are included in Christianity 101? The writer of Hebrews lists 5 “courses” that must be passed before the believer is ready to deal with more advanced topics. First is trust in God. For me to even be a Christian in the first place I must stop trusting in myself as a source of salvation and start trusting in the Lord. Second is baptism. This entry sacrament is an important part of my becoming a participant in the grace of God and shouldn’t be overlooked. Third is “laying on of hands.” This may be the most challenging of the five, but I think it’s an understanding that God calls people to the ministry and that the church is to recognize that they are called and then to ordain them as set apart for service and leadership by the Lord. Perhaps this needs to be understood early in the Christian life because the Lord often calls people to a life of ministry early on, or even as a part of, their salvation experience. Fourth is “resurrection of the dead.” Believers are, well, believers. We believe Jesus was resurrected from the grave on that first Easter morning. We believe that because of his resurrection all who trust in him share in that same resurrection hope. Fifth is “eternal judgment.” New Christians are to understand that eternity is at stake in their lives and in the lives of all people who will stand before the Lord in final judgment. These five things aren’t all there is to faith. In fact, they aren’t even all there is at the core, but the writer of Hebrews highlights them as a good starting point. Once these things are settled, it’s time to move on. He says, “Let’s get on with it!”
Take Away: We don’t want to camp out just inside the gate. At the same time we need to master the basics before we can move on.
The Antichrist and the last days
2Thessalonians 2: Don’t let anyone shake you up or get you excited over some breathless report or rumored letter.
The congregation at Thessalonica is, in the words of Elvis, “All shook up,” over some gossip that Paul says Jesus has already returned and they’ve missed it. Paul reminds them of what he told them about this topic while he was with them. The events surrounding the Second Coming will be too big to miss. Two huge, worldwide events will dominate all else: a great Apostasy and the rise of a very bad person who’ll pretend to be God Almighty. The spirit of this personification of evil is already evident in the world, so they already have an idea of what it will be like but when the real deal comes no one will be left wondering whether or not “this is it.” The Apostle hurries to reassure them that everything’s going to be okay. Just when it seems all is lost Jesus will appear and without any difficulty at all, will handle this bad guy. Paul tells his readers he’s not all that concerned about this stuff. After all, he has bigger fish to fry. Just what is that? Why, it’s putting his time and energy into thanking God for what he’s doing and is going to do in their lives. So, what am I to do with “end days” concerns? I’m to be aware that some bad things are coming to the world. I’m to remember that Jesus is coming back and he’ll handle it all with ease. Especially, I’m to keep my eyes on the Lord and use my energies in living for him and in him and not let myself get worked up over stuff I barely understand in the first place.
Take Away: I trust the Lord, not my knowledge about how everything will happen at the end of time.
The bottom line
1Thessalonians 5: If he said it, he’ll do it.
When Paul first preached the gospel at Thessalonica he made it quite clear to them that not only is Jesus coming back, but that they can be ready for that sure event. Both of these things are absolutely true, facts that can be taken to the bank. He also told them in no uncertain terms that the date of the Lord’s return is quite uncertain. No secret codes reveal the date. We’re sure he’s coming but we’re in the dark as to when. What’s left? In the words of Jesus, we must “be ready.” Paul reminds them of that as he closes this short letter. As I live my life in the Lord, trusting in him and cooperating with him, he makes me “holy and whole” and keeps me “fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.” The bottom line in any discussion concerning the Second Coming is that, while we don’t know when it will happen, we can be (and must be) ready for it. So I pay attention to the things that matter: prayer, cooperation with God, showing compassion, staying away from “anything tainted with evil.” I don’t know “when” but I’m reminded in this passage that I do know “how” to get ready and stay ready for Jesus to come back.
Take Away: The most important thing in life is being ready for the sure return of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
It’s out of our hands
Acts 21: “It’s in God’s hands now,” we said. “Master, you handle it.”
In spite of repeated warnings from God’s people that this trip to Jerusalem will end with him in chains Paul remains convinced that this is what the Lord wants. He believes that the gospel will be advanced in entirely new ways as a result of his facing whatever it is that he must face there. Frankly, I’m not clear as to whether or not this is the Lord’s express will for Paul. It may be that this is mostly Paul’s idea and that the Lord has warned him but also assured him that he can get good out of what is coming. On the other hand, this may be exactly God’s plan. I just don’t know. Paul’s friends, though, know what they want. They want Paul to stay out of Jerusalem and away from the trouble that awaits him there. The great Apostle, though, is having none of it. He’s bound for Jerusalem and nothing they say is going to change his mind. At this point they do the only reasonable thing: they hand it all off to the Lord. Why try to press the debate with Paul? Why lay awake at night and worry about it? Sooner or later we find ourselves right where they are. We don’t agree with the course of action a respected brother or sister in Christ is taking, but they’re convinced that it’s the right thing to do. At that point, we need to decide to take our hands off and trust the Lord with it. From then on, we can go on loving and supporting our friend without trying to change their mind or even holding an “I told you so” in reserve. Know what? The Master really can handle it.
Take Away: There’s a time for letting others work out their own lives; for letting the Lord and them handle things without our help.