Monday, April 21, 2014

Revelation 9 - The 5th and 6th.

Monday, April 21, 2014 - 'Whose Got the Key?'
1 Then the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven which had fallen to the earth; and the key of the bottomless pit was given to him. 2 He opened the bottomless pit, and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the pit. 3 Then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth, and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power

This sounds like the trailer for a new sci-fi film, or at least a bad dream. A 'star from heaven' was seen 'falling to the earth'. We've encountered this aspect of John's visions before under the third trumpet. Jesus also spoke about falling stars (Mk 13:25), much as John did in Rev. 6:13 in regards to the 6th seal. References to stars falling is clearly metaphorical in some biblical cases (Rev. 1:16,20), but in others it seems to be speaking literally. Yet, if taken literally, a 'star(s)' could not simply fall on the earth without totally obliterating the earth. On the other hand, did John see meteors ('shooting stars') rather than stars? Did he mislabel what he saw? The Greek for star is 'aster'. Was John talking about an aster-oid hitting the earth? 

Who was the one that received the 'key of the bottomless pit'? Was it figuratively given to the literal asteroid, to the fifth angel (Rev. 20:1), or was it given to the 'fallen star from heaven'? If to the asteroid, then all that follows is a description of the results of the impact.  This wouldn't make much sense in light of verse 4 where only those without the 'seal' are hurt. An asteroid impact couldn't be that selective.

If the latter, then the 'falling star' was a metaphor for some 'being' that had 'fallen from heaven'. Was John alluding to Satan having been thrown down to the earth (Rev. 12:9)? When John spoke of the stars falling from heaven (Rev. 6:13) was he referring to the angels that had been booted out of heaven with the devil? If all that is what the vision was referring to, how could it still be a future event? Are Satan and his angels still in 'heaven'? Or, does 'heaven' refer to a spirit world, a dimension that totally differs from our dimension? Doesn't Satan operate out of that spirit world even now? Is he going to be cast out into our dimension where he is no longer able to 'hide' in spirit form? Once thrown into the open, will he work to darken our world with increased pain and suffering? 

Whether it is the fifth angel or the devil that receives the key to the bottomless pit, it is God who initiates the resulting darkness and suffering. What, then, is the 'bottomless pit' - otherwise translated as the abyss (Rev. 9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1,3)? Is it the earth or something else in John's vision? All evil seems to come up out of it, yet it is where Satan is thrown to and not permitted to deceive the nations for 1000 years (Rev. 20:1-3). Is that because no one is left on earth at that time?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 'Tortured Souls'
4 They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months; and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. 6 And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them.

This verse begins with a seeming contradiction. The 'locusts' were commanded to 'not hurt the grass of the earth', yet under the first trumpet 'all' the green grass had already been burned up. If we are only discussing symbols, then the story is inconsistent. On the other hand, if all this was intended to be taken more literally, or to be a mix of the literal and the figurative, then the trumpets sound over a longer period of time - i.e. the green grass has time to 'grow' back. 

So, what was meant by the grass of the earth, any green thing, or any tree? We may assume from verse four that these 'green things' refer to anyone who has the 'seal of God on their forehead'. In other words, God gave permission to the 'locusts' to torture anyone who had not received the Spirit. Clearly it would not have been Satan that protected those who were sealed. On the other hand, why would God choose to torture those who were unsealed? If those who are unsealed are to be forever lost to the kingdom of God, why would God not simply, mercifully, extinguish their lives? Torture for five months? Heaven will be watching with delight as these human beings long for death, but are kept from dying?

Again, if this passage was intended to be taken literally, or at least literally in part, then we are left with a very ugly picture of God. But, what if we're looking at all this wrongly? What would be another way to interpret this? Did the author really have such a picture of God? Did his cultural beliefs about the Eternal One shape his vision? Does his 'revelation' tell us more about what this first century author believed about God than it tells us about the end of time? Did the author impose his vengeful spirit upon God, making God in his own human image? Does the God Jesus revealed have a 'dark' side? Does Jesus have an angry, mean-spirited side? 

Maybe, rather than having presented a future time when God tortures millions of people for having rejected Him, Revelation reveals that John was a 'tortured soul'.   

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 'Locust Leader'
7 The appearance of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle; and on their heads appeared to be crowns like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men. 8 They had hair like the hair of women, and their teeth were like the teeth of lions. 9 They had breastplates like breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle. 10 They have tails like scorpions, and stings; and in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months. 11 They have as king over them, the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in the Greek he has the name Apollyon

Many Bible scholars have attempted to interpret what John actually was seeing in his vision of the locusts. Before coming to any conclusion about the identity of the locusts one must first determine 'when' this part of John's vision took place (or will take place). To begin with, recall that the fifth trumpet comes 'after' the opening of the sixth seal. Since the seals were not opened until Jesus had demonstrated through the cross that he was worthy to open them (Rev. 5:2,9), both the seals and the trumpets obviously must refer to some time after the cross. Ok, but how long after?

Note that it is 'before' the fifth trumpet sounds, that God has already sealed his people and the great day of God wrath has also already arrived (Rev. 6:17; 9:4). Does that help us better determine the time frame? Could God have sealed his people in the past, just before a cataclysmic event, or must this sealing only apply to the last generation of humanity? There is one other element to consider. If we conclude that the 'star that fell from heaven' (Rev. 9:1) described Satan having been cast out of heaven (Rev. 12), whenever we place that event determines when this fifth trumpet sounded. If we believe that Satan and his angels were cast out of (fell from) heaven at the resurrection, then all of John's vision really referred to the first century. If we believe that Satan and his angels have yet to be cast out of heaven, then this vision has yet to be fulfilled. On the other hand, if we decide that the 'star that had fallen from heaven' was not referring literally to Satan, then we are back to square one.

If this vision is about the past, then our interpretation of the locusts will measurably differ from any technological interpretation based on something yet future. John did not say that they were locust-like, but said they were 'locusts'. He then went on to say that these locusts were 'like horses' with 'human-like faces'. They had hair like a woman, yet teeth like a lion. They were winged, armored, and had scorpion-like tails from which they produced a tormenting 'sting'.  I don't know how they could be 'locusts', yet not at all appear like locusts.

All these 'locusts' were under the control of a 'king', Abaddon, who John described as the 'angel of the abyss' - the bottomless pit. This king has been variously defined as 'the antiChrist', Satan, the underworld's minister of torture, or even a good angel that God calls to do bad things - an interpretation based on Rev. 9:4 and 20:1. When we gather all these pieces together what do we end up with? Again, was all this the workings of a tortured soul or the God-given portrayal of end time events?    

Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 'Heavenly Anger?'
12 The first woe is past; behold, two woes are still coming after these things. 13 Then the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, 14 one saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 And the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released, so that they would kill a third of mankind. 16 The number of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them

When dealing with destructive forces, especially those that are commanded to torture their victims, it is easy to lose sight of 'who' is ultimately behind all this. Verse 13 reminds us that in John's vision he repeatedly confirmed that the command center was the throne of God. 

Earlier we suggested the idea that the various players in this mayhem had been placed on the 'chess board' of our world, but were held back from acting until God gave the word. Just before the seven trumpets began to sound, John saw four angels holding back the four winds until the bond-servants of God had been sealed (Rev. 7:1-3). Here again John reminds us that God prepares his agents of destruction, but does not release them until the time is right. In this case the four angels who were bound from acting at the 'great river Euphrates' were finally released.

John gave us a time frame of 13 months and 25 hours. Was this how long they had been waiting for their turn to act, or was this how long they would be free to act? If the former, then, as some have suggested, from the breaking of the seventh seal (Rev. 8:1) until this point, the trumpets had been sounding for over one year. If the latter was in mind, then the killing spree that God had ordered, would extend over this period of time. 

A 'third of mankind' were seen killed by this second woe at the blowing of the 6th trumpet. This didn't mean that God instantly withdrew life from one third of the human race. Rather, an army of 200,000,000 horsemen went forth to destroy those who did not have the seal of God. Who were these horsemen? If they were killing only 'unsealed' human beings, were these 'killers' those who who had been 'sealed', heavenly angels, or were they demons who just delighted to kill anyone God would allow them to kill - sealed or unsealed? On the other hand, would 'demons' agree to punish folks who 'worshiped demons' (Rev. 9:20)? 

What was the purpose for this 'plague'? Was God attempting to 'force' repentance for their immoral murders by killing them (Rev. 9:21)? Certainly that doesn't make much sense. What was 'heaven' up to?

Friday, April 25, 2014 - 'Not My God'
17 And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sat on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone; and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone. 18 A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeded out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents and have heads, and with them they do harm.

I can't help but find this vision more than a little disturbing. All this presents God as 'all-powerful', yet begs the question: 'why would an all-powerful being need to be so dramatic? None of this changes the minds of the 'sealed', nor does it elicit repentance among those who are unsealed (v. 21). If the unsealed are so obviously repugnant to heaven, why didn't God simply annihilate them with a word? Why months and even years of torture? Neither God nor Jesus seem to resemble the Father nor His Son as presented in the gospels. So, what's up with all this? Has God changed or are we seeing another side of God? Is this really how God deals with His enemies, despite how Jesus taught us to deal with our enemies? For what eternal purpose could any of this have for us, or for any other being in the universe?

The only rational answer that comes to mind is that John's vision reflects his cultural notions about heaven and hell. It is a vision that would have resonated with an anciently held notion about the 'gods', but does not necessarily endear modern people to this vision of God, despite our valiant attempts to explain it. Jesus taught that it is the love of God exhibited through grace that leads troubled human beings to place their faith and hope in God. If our pews are filled with folks who have placed their faith in the God of vengeance, the God who delights in torturing all our enemies, the church will present a very different gospel message to the world. Is the gospel message about God's love for mankind - even for those who reject Him (Rom 5:6-10), or about the hope that some day God will torture our enemies? Which picture of God buoys up your faith in Him?    

Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 'The Final Contradiction'
20 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; 21 and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.

When I read about a man who murdered an abortion doctor because the doctor murdered the unborn, my first reaction was 'how insane'. How can someone be pro-life, yet take a life? On the other hand, it is obvious that a government often has no choice but to take lives in order to protect other lives. There are those who will stop at nothing in order to kill innocent people. They need to be stopped and sometimes, maybe, the only way to stop them is to take their life. If my neighbor is determined to kill my child, and the only way I can stop him is to kill him, well...

Yet, God is not 'man'. God, by definition, is all-powerful and all-wise. The scriptures tell us that God spoke and the world was created. In other words, God isn't limited by the options available to man. When God is portrayed as if restricted to the same methods of man, then 'that' God is a creation of man and is not God. If the stories of scripture are factual, God walks on water, makes a donkey speak, held back the sun, raised the dead, withheld the prophet from speaking a curse, kept lions from eating Daniel, etc, etc. If all that is true, why must we accept a picture of God who terminates this world by torturing the unsealed? Was this meant as drama, to somehow 'delight' the sealed? Do the righteous find enjoyment in watching the torture of their enemies? If yes, should they? Certainly this 'ending' cannot be the only way for God to put a final end to immorality on earth?

Why are the unsealed tortured and murdered for their immoral acts of murder? If I, a mortal being, find that the only option I have left in order to protect a loved one is to kill an intruder, does my situation make my act 'moral' or am I simply 'justified' in my 'immoral' act of murder because I had no other choice? Would not my choice to kill only the 'lesser of two evils'? 

But is God without other choices? If I possessed the infinite options of God when confronted by an weapon bearing intruder, murdering him would not be 'justifiable' in even a human court of law. If I could have restrained the intruder, I should have. If I was able to confiscate his weapon, but didn't, I would not be justified in killing him. Yet we, when reading Revelation, easily justify the infinite God's use of torture as a means for dealing with His enemies? Maybe this was a reasonable conclusion among the ancients, but it should not settle well with modern man. 

So, what is our growing consensus about John's book called The Revelation? Were the concerns of many early church fathers about this book justifiable? Should this book have been added to our NT canon of scripture? If not, what approach should we take to other scriptures, particularly in the OT, that present God in human-like anger mode? 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Romans 12 - 'Counter-Cultural'

Monday, April 7, 2014 - 'Integrity'
1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Taken as a whole, the first two verses scream 'integrity'. In other words, Paul is 'urging' the Roman church to be faithful to their chosen faith. The Christian faith is not something that is one of many ways we may approach life, depending on our emotions, the day of the week, or who we happen to be with at the moment. The Christian faith is about a holistic way of living 24/7/365. Everything we think, feel, and do each day is to be guided by our belief system. 

Christianity doesn't present us with a buffet table of lifestyle options to choose from, but with a Person to follow. To be a Christian is to follow the Person, Jesus. It is to believe that He is the Messiah of Bible prophecy, died upon the cross, was resurrected, and is our living Lord who has gifted us with his Spirit. To live in total dependence and trust in Him is to have presented ourselves as a holy sacrifice - the only way to be acceptable to God. When we choose to be like Jesus in every way possible, we worship Him.

When someone is a part-time Christian, they are functionally an agnostic. In other words, they are not yet sure what they truly believe. Now, this is not to say that every 'Christian' must look and act the same. How one understands Jesus will differ, but those differences will be based on a sincere desire to know Him and to follow Him, rather than because there are some things we like about Jesus and choose to emulate, but somethings we don't like about Him and thus choose to ignore. The question here is, have you chosen to follow Christ wherever He leads you each moment of your life. The question is not, do you meet someone else's expectations of what a Christian should look and act like. At issue is your heart, not your religious expression. Who really has your heart?
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 'Team ID'
3 For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. 4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another

At first glance, Paul seemed to be leveraging his religious stature in a somewhat prideful and thus contradictory manner. It was as if he was saying, 'God made me the leader, not you. So, be humble in your calling and don't give me any grief.' On the other hand, consider verse three as interpreted by the Message bible:

"I'm speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it's important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him."  When we think of verse three in this way, it completely changes the meaning. Paul no longer appears to be 'leveraging' God's grace to him in order to raise himself above others, rather he is so humbled by God's grace toward him that he invites others to view God's grace similarly.  Despite our differences, when we see ourselves as part of the 'body of Christ' we find our identity from the 'whole', rather than imposing our identity upon the whole. It is similar to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, 'though I may have the faith to move mountains, without love I am nothing.' In other words, regardless of our intelligence, talents, education, social privilege, or divine gifts - if I don't have love for my neighbors, all that I have is worthless before God. Our true identity, our self-image and self-esteem, from the Christian point of view, must come from valuing our role as a vital part of a team, not from narrowly valuing what we bring to the team, as if we could be 'whole' without them. 
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 'Diversity'
6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

All religious appeals and arguments for uniformity end at this statement. 'We ALL have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us'. In other words, for anyone who believes in God as the Creator of mankind, it is clear that God delights in diversity. God's idea is for humans to find unity in our diversity, rather than a unity based on uniformity. 

Not only are we called to 'exercise' our different gifts, but we are to 'exercise' them 'according to the proportion of our faith'. This suggests two things. First, as my faith matures, I will exercise my spiritual gift(s) differently. Secondly, because we are all growing from 'faith to faith', we cannot expect others to apply a particular spiritual gift the same way as we would. For instance, all who are gifted to 'teach' will not 'teach' in exactly the same way, because the 'faith' of one individual differs from the 'faith' of another individual with the same gift. There is therefore an endless variety of manifestations within each one of the 'gifts of grace' which is not only subject to different levels of faith, but because of natural temperament, experiences of life, educational background, etc. Again, diversity, not uniformity.

Each person is unique, but that uniqueness is a 'gift of grace'. Our worship is our response to His grace, permitting God to use our uniqueness for His purposes. Our efforts should not be in trying to be like anyone else or in attempting to exclude everyone who is not 'gifted' exactly as we are, but in serving others through the gifts we do have. The genuineness of our worship is not found in measuring up to someone's precise definition for how to use our gift, but in applying our gift(s) with purity of intent in each moment.

Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 'The Real McCoy'
9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

How can 'love' be 'hypocritical'? If it is truly 'love' it can't be 'hypocritical'. So, what was Paul saying? Most likely he was warning us not to pretend to love. Don't be insincere just to fit in or in order to measure up to another's expectations. Also, don't mistake sentimentalism for love. True love 'abhors what is evil'. We never need to apologize for calling evil, evil. Evil does exist and it needs to always be condemned as such.  Yet, if our mission is merely to go about calling out evil, then we've missed the point of the gospel.

True love tenaciously 'clings to what is good'. It never gives ups. It never let's go. Yes, true love is devoted to a person, though it is not stupid. We can love a person AND call something that that person is doing 'evil'. Love is not blind to evil, yet it sees beyond evil. Love sees the person Christ loves despite their evil. 

True love does not hesitate to honor others who truly love, yet this honor is not based simply upon the fact that they have the label 'Christian', nor does it wait until a person is consistently and perfectly loving. 

True love does not procrastinate, but initiates, treating each person as if they were the Lord Himself, despite the fact that they fall short of being like Christ in every way and in every moment.

Those who love rejoice in the Source of their love. If their love is genuine it is because of their faith in God. If they truly have faith in God their love will often shine no matter what trials they must endure. They call upon God, their only source of strength and hope and love. Another test of God-inspired love is the practice of hospitality and the support of other believers who are in need. 

So, here's the question: is your love God sourced?

Friday, April 11, 2014 - 'Tested'
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation

Though we may convince ourselves that we actually live out verses 9-13, verses 14-16 serve to expose any self-delusions on the true state of our Christian faith. Any religion that is genuinely interested in serving the best interests of humanity will implement these checks and balances. 

'Acceptable worship' is based on being 'transformed by the renewing of our mind'. One of the key indicators of a 'renewed mind' is empathy. We give evidence of a 'haughty mind' and have become 'wise in our own estimation' when we judge others as worthy or not worthy of our compassion. All folks are worthy of our compassion even if they themselves have never shown compassion to others.

Saturday, April 12, 2014 - 'A New Kind of Good'
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is common these days to portray Jesus as a militant zealot who attempted to overthrow the Roman government. I disagree, and I believe Paul does as well. True, Jesus taught principles that were vexing to the powers that existed - both in the institutional church and in the government of the Romans. Yet, his objective was not to overthrow these entities, but to invite anyone within them into his own kingdom - which was a spiritual kingdom. 

I don't believe that Jesus ever considered it his mission to completely change the nations or the religions of this world. I don't really think he envisioned that as a possibility worthy of his time and effort. His gospel was about a change of heart. He helped folks live in this world 'just as it was', yet to be of a different 'heart' within this world. He called folks to 'defect in place', to be something beautiful in the midst of chaos, to be a 'temple' of his grace among whomever was being oppressed, and to be an oasis of hope for those who faced daunting issues.

True, by inviting folks to enter His kingdom of grace and thereby changing the way they would live in this world, he was in some respects changing 'this' world. Yet, many grasp the end result out of its context and take it as their mission. In other words, just because kingdom people bring change to this world by having been changed through Christ, it is not our mission to change the world. Rather, it is our mission to invite others to join us in the kingdom of God. Whenever our mission becomes 'to change this world', we unwillingly end up being more like this world than like Christ. Changing 'this' world it God's responsibility, not ours. Our calling is to be like Christ in the world by becoming citizens of His kingdom, in His realm. 

The 'god' Jesus called 'father' was not one who would intervene and make the world all pretty again, but the one who would help us become beautiful in the mess that the world is.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Acts 11 - 'Stretch Your Thinking'

Monday, March 24, 2014 - 'Religion Gone Wrong'
1 Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 

This is an example of 'religion gone wrong'. It is the very thing that Jesus rebuked without mercy. Even today, with one side of the mouth the church proclaims that 'God so loved the world that He gave...', then with the other side of the mouth the church says 'but not them, of course'. When will the church cease being a haven for bigots?

Rather than rejoicing with Peter, the 'Christians' in Jerusalem who were Jews that believed that Jesus was the Messiah, rebuked Peter for acting like Jesus - in that he spent time with 'uncircumcised men and ate with them'. In other words, they assumed that no one could be a genuine follower of Jesus unless they first became a Jew like 'them'.

Any time we expect others to be 'like us' in order to be 'right' with God, we are effectively replacing Jesus. Even Paul's words to the Corinthians is somewhat suspect. 'Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ' (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1). To 'mimic' anyone other than God is to mimic a poor copy. All of our imitations of Christ are interpretations. The best advice we can give others is to get to know Jesus who alone was the 'express image of God' (Heb 1:3). Again, though, even our desire to be like Jesus will always be an interpretation. 

With this in mind, maybe the first question the brethren should have asked, should have been one that immediately went to the source. In other words, 'Peter, don't tell us only what you did, but what did you hear the Spirit say to you?' Unfortunately, as is still common among those who claim to follow Christ today, the messenger (Peter) was first judged to have been in the wrong, rather than assumed innocent until proven guilty. Before coming to a conclusion about someones choices, we need to find out the facts that led up to their choices. Wherever judgment of others is the first response to something different, grace is absent and thus religion has gone wrong.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 'Laying Out The Facts'
4 But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6 and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ 10 This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. 11 And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14 and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning

If others are interested in and willing to give us an uninterrupted opportunity to defend what may seem to be unorthodox behavior, it is often wise to respond by presenting our case in a logical and sequential manner - as did Peter - rather than with an equally emotional and accusatory tone. In order to grasp our reasons for doing as we did, others need to clearly see the whole picture. Far too often we meet the rash rebuke of others with an equally rash reaction, which destroys any chance for being rationally heard. 

After Peter carefully laid out the facts, he was far better positioned to ask the brethren, 'if given the exact same circumstances, what would you have done differently?' God had met Peter where Peter was in his biases. Peter then, patiently, met the members of the Jerusalem council where they were, with all their biases. Note that as Peter presented the facts of the story, the most important fact was that the Spirit had led him each step of the way. In other words, Peter portrayed himself in the story as being a humble follower of Christ, rather than as his usual impetuous self.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 'Sacred Questioning'
16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

After carefully and logically describing 'what' happened, Peter made an appeal to the church leaders to 'remember' Jesus. In other words, he invited them to examine the events he had related to them, through their best understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

Peter not only invited them to examine his story with the mind of Jesus, but he then guided them in the process. 'If God gave to them the same gift', then...  If God baptizes true believers with His Spirit, and these Gentiles not only said that they were believers in Jesus, but also were baptized in the Spirit 'just' as the disciples had been, then the only rational conclusion could be that God has accepted them 'just as they are'. Isn't that how the Spirit works with us as we read the scriptures? Doesn't He guide our reading, helping us to discern the truth that we need from each reading?

Peter's finished his explanation with, 'what else could I do?' This is a powerful defense. He had once rebuked Jesus, but had learned to let God lead the way and then to stay out of God's way. The church leaders came to the same conclusion. 'Well, then, God has revealed His will'. Hooray! Finally they were, at least for the moment, all on the same page.

The question that came to my mind after reading all this is, 'am I willing to deconstruct events in my life to see if God was in them, or do I either assume He was or wasn't simply because it resonated or didn't resonate with me? The leaders in Jerusalem initially rejected Peter because what had happened didn't match up with the way they believed God would act. Yet, to their credit, they were willing to have their minds changed by hearing Peter out. 

That which may not 'feel' right at first, when carefully examined, may lead us to a totally different understanding of the event and maybe even change our whole picture of God. The question is, are we willing to do the necessary work or do we steal ourselves away from anything that challenges our status quo thinking? The former represents a fearless mind that implicitly trusts in the presence and guidance of the Spirit, while the latter suggest a mind that doubts God and thus trusts in self far more.

Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 'The Response Curve'
19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord

Despite all evidences to the contrary, the majority of Christ's followers could only imagine presenting the gospel to those most like themselves - other Jews. They took what could be called a 'conservative' approach. This does not mean that their hearts were any less moved by faith in Christ. Some folks merely have a more cautious personality. Within every group there are those who sociologists call 'early adopters' - the visionaries or innovators. They boldly go where others won't. In this case the 'early adopters' went forth and preached the gospel to the Greeks. The result was that they were able to reap a large harvest of new converts.

Where do you tend to 'fit' on the response curve when presented with a new idea? (1) early adopter, (2) pragmatist, (3) conservative, or (4) laggard? 

Friday, March 28, 2014 - 'Labeled'
22 The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Do you notice the 'grace of God' working around you, not only in your life, but in the lives of others? When you do notice God at work, do you bring it to the attention of others and then encourage others to be thankful for the gift? Are you yourself an avenue through which God's grace can be displayed and witnessed?

Having come to faith in the Lord is just the beginning. There is much to learn about living out faith. Living out our faith is not necessarily synonymous with living out a religion. Many conform their lives to their denominational preferences, yet not necessarily to the character of Christ. To be the 'perfect' example of a good Baptist or Episcopalian or Methodist is not the same as being a heaven honored representation of the Spirit of Jesus in the world.

What have you been taught by your church? Have you been encouraged to emulate an old, yet long deceased saint or to imitate a 'saintly' old, but still living member? 

Barnabas and Paul spent a year teaching new believers? What kinds of things do you think they taught the new believers? Verse 26 may give us a clue.

The work of Barnabas and Paul in Antioch resulted in a new label given to the disciples. They were called 'Christians'. In other words, those who observed the results of their teaching upon the new believers discerned that they were being taught to follow the Christ. In other words, the new disciples weren't being called Paulists, or Barnabists, or Baptists, or crossites, or resurrectionists, etc. They were being called Christians because it was obvious that they had been taught to be like Christ. If most of them had 'graduated' that year long new disciple training class with the mannerisms and perspectives of Paul, the community certainly would have labeled them something different than 'Christ-ian'.

How might others label you after observing the influence of 'church' teaching on your life? Did you exit class looking and acting more like your bible teacher, draped in your particular denominational 'colors', 'wearing' only the traits of your unique culture, or as a political partisan? On the other hand, have you really begun to appear, sound, and act more like the Christ described in the gospels?

Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 'A Prophet?'
27 Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.

It is interesting that the 'prophets' came from 'Jerusalem' to inform the new believers that their money was needed in 'Jerusalem'. It seems rather suspiciously self-serving, but was it? Who was Agabus? Was he a legitimate prophet? Since both Barnabas and Paul seemed to have gone along with this, we may assume that they discerned the hand of the Spirit at work. 

Agabus was recorded as speaking once more to Paul (Acts 21:10). In both cases he warned of coming trouble. It is interesting the the name 'Agabus' also means 'locust'. The locusts were often associated with famines - exactly what Agabus was warning the people about. He was asking the believers to 'act' like Christ by caring for those in need. Though the 'whole world', the Roman Empire, would be suffering from the famine, some would suffer more than others. Those in Antioch were called upon to give from their little to those who had nothing. How would we have responded? Do we often given only from our abundance?

Do prophets exist today? How would you respond to a stranger entering your church and telling your congregation that the Lord wants all of you to donate to another Christian church in another city that is struggling? How could you be sure that the 'prophet' was really a prophet? 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Revelation 8 - 'Seventh Sevens'

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 'The Calm Before The Storm'
1 When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

We've studied the first 6 seals (ch 6), then the 'interlude' (ch 7) that described those who would be 'able to stand' in the 'presence of' the 'wrath of the Lamb'. So, here we are at the last of the seven seals which is itself divided into seven 'trumpets'.

As soon as the 'seventh seal' was broken open by the Lamb, there John reported having witnessed in vision an ominous moment of silence in heaven. Actually, heaven was 'hushed' for more than a moment. It lasted about 'half an hour'. It was as if to say, 'this is it. What is about to happen on earth is what we've all been waiting for. We are at the point of no return. This is the final end to sin and evil in the universe. What is about to transpire will be awful, yet necessary.'

Whereas the breaking of each of the seven seals revealed the players and described the preparatory last day events, the blowing of each of the seven trumpets seems to announce the unleashing of the 'players'. Silence did not mean lack of activity. No one was singing or praising or making thunderous announcements. All were silently making their final preparations just before the trumpets were to sound.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 'What's In Your Prayer?'
3 Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake. 6 And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them.

Just before the trumpets began to sound, the will of God's people was added to the will of God. In other words, the dramatic end to life as we know it on earth did not go forward by God's will alone. God worked with man. The time of the end was a joint decision between heaven and earth.

What this seems to imply is that the followers of God have, through the ages, wanted an end to sin and suffering, but had not been ready for the final showdown until this point. Maybe you have been one of these 'saints' who have hated sin, yet did not want Christ to return quite yet. 'Soon', you may have prayed, 'but please Lord, not today'. Certainly the earth has experienced many horrors. Certainly there have always been those who cried out to heaven and said 'come now Lord'. But our text suggests that there is a time when all the prayers of the saints cry out the same request, 'enough already. It is time to end this.' 

The first four trumpets are the 'undoing' of the first five days of creation. First, a third of plant life is destroyed, then a third of sea life, then a third of our fresh water sources, and then a third of our light sources go dark. Why a 'third' of each of these?    

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 - 'Oops, No More Grass?'
7 The first sounded, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.

We always suspected that 'Judgment Day' was going to be a bear and, according to John, it doesn't seem like it will be a one 'day' affair. Rather, it appears to be a progression of events. But why? Even 'Judgment Day' is 'measured'. Does God simply want those who reject Him to suffer torture? Or, does this progression of judgment indicate opportunities for repentance?

Notice that 'all the green grass was burned up' as a result of the first trumpet, yet under the fifth trumpet the locusts were prohibited from hurting the green grass (Rev. 9:4). What does the green grass represent in John's vision? If it is 'all' burned up under the first trumpet, did it 'all' grow back by the time of the fifth trumpet? Ah, but that would be taking things too literally.

It is clear that the phraseology used under each of these trumpets is metaphorical. For instance, does God really through blood from heaven upon the earth?

Thursday, March 20, 2014 - 'No More Sushi?'
8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood, 9 and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.

The first four trumpets seem measured. In other words, only a third of this or that is destroyed. It is as if these judgments were still intended to awaken mankind to faith in God. On the other hand, if ships were destroyed, human lives were most likely lost as well.

Notice what is missing. Animals and birds are left out of these judgments. Also, no mention was made of trains, planes, or automobiles. The vision was limited by first century knowledge, which tells us a lot. We might compare it to a delusional state of mind. Delusions one hundred years ago involved ghosts and demons. Delusions today involve machines attacking people. The mind can only produce what it is aware of.  

Friday, March 21, 2014 - 'The Bitter Truth'
10 The third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters. 11 The name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter.

Again, an angel delivered to the earth something that brought suffering to humankind. In this case the fresh water supplies were made bitter. The absence of fresh water cause the death of many people.

While we may entertain ourselves in imagining that this great star is some alien invasion, a nuclear meltdown, or the devil himself possessing people, we must notice that it originates in heaven as a judgment sent by God. My point is that we wouldn't be speculating on the identity of these items unless we first had them in scripture. If we are going to speculate on their identity we shouldn't pluck them from their context. 

Nothing is clearer in this chapter than the fact that these 'plagues' all originate in heaven - from the very throne of God. These seven angels of heaven stood before the throne of God in heaven where each of them received a trumpet from God Himself. Whatever these destructive trumpets are, they arise from the imagination and choice of God. That is the 'bitter truth'.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014 - 'Dark Days'
12 The fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were struck, so that a third of them would be darkened and the day would not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way. 13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in mid-heaven, saying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!

All kinds of mischief arises when the lights go out. With a third of the natural source of light turned off, if taken literally, darkness wouldn't be the only repercussion. 

At this point, a third of the shipping is gone, a third of sea food is unavailable, a third of fresh water sources is undrinkable, and mankind will have one third less sunlight. Life would truly be miserable on earth. In the next chapter we have a clue that God's people are still on earth and have been experiencing these first four judgments along with everyone else (Rev. 9:4), yet they are protected from the fifth judgment.