In a Row of Graves

Check out this picture …

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Eran and I took our daughters last weekend to visit all of the headstones of those in our family who have passed away. This row of markers is the row of my grandfather’s family. The headstone, in the bottom left corner, is my grandfather’s. Trace the row to the top right corner, and you’ll see the headstones of his brothers and sisters, and his parents.

This is their family. Once upon a time, my grandfather was a kid, in a house full of kids. His parents were in the middle of parenting. There was once a lot of noise in their house; memories were being made, and exhaustion was being fought. But the kids grew up. They left their house, fought a war, had a family, and had their own grandchildren. And now, he and his family are together again, next to each other in their graves.

The time we have with our children is precious. And it’s fleeting. Don’t waste a minute with them. Don’t emphasize petty things like sports and movies. Emphasize, instead, God’s love and grace and mercy, and how God wants to use them to heal a broken world.

Read the gospels together.

Pray together.

Speak to them of how God is testing you, and how he is blessing you.

Remind them that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are just illusions of community.

Teach them how God wants his church to be a kingdom — the kingdom — on earth, and not an organization with great things to do, and with fantastic personalities to hear.

All of this has been especially heightened for me, though, in my two experiences in the past month serving the families of children with cancer. To say that I was humbled, and overwhelmed, at the serious tests these families endure is a vast understatement. These parents truly know the value of family, and they embrace it to its fullest experience, every day — in ways I cannot.

So again, I say, the time we have with our children is precious.

Because one day, regardless of our health and wealth right now, each of our families will only be known by the words etched in the stones at our graves.

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Eight Things I Learned From Reading the New Testament

It’s been a cool eight weeks since I published my ninetieth straight blog in ninety days.

Through this past summer, I ventured into the readings of the New Testament, every day, and then, through prayer and some additional readings, would write something here that moved me.

I’ve blogged only once since then, writing (or really just quoting) something brief I was reading.

There has been little time since the end of August to write much. And also, the process was so exhausting that I needed a break from this format.

Yet, in the past week or so, this format has beckoned me. My creativity seems to be waning right now, in this season of life, and this is a shred of an outlet. So I’m back. At least for now.

I did want to share here, though, some of my perspectives on reading and writing through the New Testament. And since I keep reading that blog posts should be short, I’ll make this one brief.

Here’s what I figured out.

  • Reading the Word of God requires an investment. Once we relegate our reading to “something that has to be done,” we’ve lost the passion of the narrative, and the intensity of God’s story in our world. It should not be a burden, but it should cost us something.
  • Outside writings were very helpful. It’s no secret that reading a document written in a different millennium, and from a different culture, would have scores of nuances about that environment that are just lost to us. Even the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, isn’t readily known by most of us, and translation steers interpretation.
  • People get mad quickly. A few posts of mine generated some heat. I attribute that solely to people’s unmovable opinions, and a lack of biblical literacy. If we can’t read the Word of God and expect to be shaken, then we’ve sorely missed the point.
  • It is a relentless story. Morning after morning, day after day, three chapters at a time, the Word was a force in my life. It consumed every thought. I liked that. But it changed me, and my family. Our search for God’s purpose in our own lives, I think, has just begun.

Here are my bothers, though:

  • Jesus attacked the good folk. While we’ve tried to vilify Jesus’ opponents, they weren’t bad people — at least before they began to plot his death. They tithed, preached against adultery, had an extreme desire for holiness, went to communal worship, read the Scriptures, and raised their kids together. They had good behavior. Until Jesus’ advent, the Pharisees weren’t the villains. Their lifestyle was, in fact, aspirational. In every sense, they were good, “church-going” people. Yet their obstinacy, and their inability to be moved by the very presence of God in their lives exposed their blackened hearts. I wonder if the good folk in our world, the good, church-going folk, would be the ones Jesus would expose.
  • My experience with Western Christianity has been to ignore the things that are troubling. Where did women actually fit in the story of the New Testament? What about Mark 4, when the Word was sown, but was never given a chance to grow — and not to the fault of the people (or the soil) — where does God fit in that? What about the three stories of baptism in Acts 8, 9, and 10, when the Spirit was received by people before, during, or after their water baptism? Or Revelation 17, when God is the one controlling the evil in the vision? Is our ignorance the right response to the story of God?
  • We know, and teach, very little of the culture of Paul’s travels. How quickly our perspective of each of his letters would change, if we only knew what life was like to the recipients! How many temples of various gods did he see? What was the celebratory culture in each of those temples like? Why did he say so much about eating together?
  • Discipleship, to Jesus, was a mobile lifestyle. Very little, in the New Testament, is said about people staying put. Now, to be fair, letters and gospel stories were written to people who were static. But the idea of discipleship is mobile. Even if you are settled, aren’t there scores of people in need? Why do those people, today, remain largely untouched by the gospel message?

I promised brevity, and I’ll keep that promise. It’s no surprise that my 90-day journey is still being referenced. I’ve gravitated now, though, to a through study of the gospel of Mark, and am writing a few things for our leaders and teachers of our small groups. I hope, one day, to make those accessible.

And, by the way, you can find all 90 posts right here.

Fate of the Believers

I’m writing some small group discussion guides from the gospel of Mark. And, in doing so, am doing some research on the gospel itself.

Today, I read Tacitus’ Annals, in which he described how the Roman emperor Nero actually pitted the Roman Christians against the entire city, when he blamed them for the destructive fire during his reign. It was to these survivors, then, that the gospel was probably written.

I’ve read Tacitus, before, but I wanted to share this with you. Today, for some reason, it was a bit more intense. Here is the quote from Tacitus:

Neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated. To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called ) …. First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned — not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus [Maximus], at which he mingled in the crowd — or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest.

These people were believers. It’s a moment in time, but it makes our own personal bad days seem a bit better. And it reminds us that the call of Christ is never, ever meant to be one of leisure.

The Doors Are Closed

This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints. (Revelation 13:10; NIV84)

Yes, the saints are protected.

Yes, God will wipe away every tear.

Yes, victory is within God’s hands, and he offers it to us.

The future is ours, because the future is his.

But patient endurance can melt. Revelation 13, to me, poses one of the most difficult temptations for the church.

In the vision, the dragon, the supreme force of evil, on earth, gave incredible power to the beast who seemed to withstand a wound that should have killed him. This beast became the object of worship for all of humanity. He was aided by a second beast, who led this unholy worship by force, marking the foreheads (or hands) of everyone, to control the world’s economy, in the name of the beast who was worshiped.

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So to me, of most of the symbols in John’s vision, this one is pretty clear.

The first beast, which was seemingly invincible, was the Roman empire. It was an evil government, particularly when it began various local persecutions against believers. Many emperors accepted worship from the entire Empire as if they were gods.

The second beast? Undoubtedly those who pushed this agenda in the various imperial cities across the Empire.

But there must be some real-time significance, and I think for us, it means we need to be especially careful about what we decide to worship.

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Presidential elections, in America, cause such a state of frenzy, as if our hopes and dreams depended upon the person in the White House. How petty are we, to believe something like this. The book of Revelation, with its visions and signs, declares, at the beginning, in Revelation 4, that God is on his throne, and not one human action escapes his sovereignty. He knows everything. And, if there are times of caution and danger, then we are only told to have patient endurance and faithfulness.

God knows what he’s doing.

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It’s not just that he knows what he’s doing, though, but what’s happening here, on planet earth, even in modern America, is a continued sign that this is not heaven.

If a secular government could provide for every longing and need (which they can’t, even when they make awfully big promises), then what need would there be for God? For heaven? For rest?

Revelation 13 speaks of the danger of falling in line with such worship, with such frenzy. No mortal can provide for your implicit safety. The only way that can happen, according to Revelation 13, is if they mark every single person, and control every single moment. If a mortal can only provide for you by limiting you, then that certainly is no god worthy of any sort of worship. And obviously, there is only One who can control everything.

Yet, in our reading today, we find, again, that God is not willing to overwhelm John with such despair that he cannot see the ultimate hope. Revelation 14 opens to another sign of the Lamb, and the protected church, on Mt. Zion, with beautiful music and new songs and supreme worship of the true deliverer.

Hope.

Because in the next few verses, in Revelation 15, we see the beginning of the end. As the multitude praises God Almighty, the God of all, the sovereign God over time and space, angels leave the tabernacle with golden bowls of wrath, and then the doors of the temple are closed, and smoke fills John’s vision. This final judgement against evil cannot be stopped.

I agree, too, with some commentators, that these visions aren’t to be interpreted in a chronological order, but rather, should be seen as the vision John sees – a God, orchestrating every moment in history and at the end of time. If that is the case, then, for today, we get the result of our decisions to worship anything other than God.

And we see the result of our allegiance to the Lamb.

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Today is day 88.

The Hope Before the Terror

It is an astounding vision of heaven, not one, perhaps, to which we are accustomed.¹ This vision is found in Revelation 7 through Revelation 9.

All destruction on earth has stopped in the vision John is allowed to see in the book of Revelation. He stands at an open door, and sees something that is overwhelming.

Awesome.

Exciting.

Exhilarating.

You get the sense, as he writes, that even he doesn’t know how to describe what he sees.

The sixth seal has been broken from the scroll by the Lamb. Yet before the seventh seal is broken, John gets a powerful reminder of what is reserved for those who overcome.

The overcomers will be marked and protected.

Yes. John gets to see the hope before the terror – because it will get worse, before it gets better.

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John wrote that he witnessed 144,000, from the twelve tribes of Israel, marked for protection. 144,000. Compared to the billions of people who claim to believe in Jesus, across the scope of time and space on planet Earth, 144,000 seems like a number too small. Maybe some discernment is helpful.

The total number – 144,000 –  is the product of the number 12, which is squared and then multiplied by 1,000. 144,000 is meant, here, to be symbolic of completeness. I don’t believe it’s meant to be a literal amount.

Moreover, since the church, consistently, in the New Testament, has taken the title of the new Israel (especially in 1 Peter 2:9), these thousands are also symbolic of the believing church alive – and protected – when the seventh seal is broken.

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After John witnessed this marking, he then saw what one commentator calls the “bliss of the redeemed in heaven.” There is an innumerable (innumerable … more than the counted 144,000!) multitude of people, from all ethnicities, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, holding palm leaves in their hands. They are those whose lives had ended, and had ascended to the very presence of God.

They were people who had also overcome.

This innumerable multitude would never experience uncertainty ever again, because God has wiped away every tear from their eyes.

John needed to see these scenes of hope, of those alive, who believe in God and who will be explicitly protected. He also needed to see those who died and had received the completeness of the very souls in the presence of God. He needed to see them in particular, because what he saw next is, quite simply, terrifying. The imagery that follows is hard to imagine – graphic and unnatural and grotesque.

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The seventh seal was broken by the Lamb, and all of creation goes quiet. An angel then stood before the altar, and ministered the prayers of the saints to God himself.

And again, the prayers of God’s people are so important – precious – that God includes them in this dramatic unfolding of the end of time.

Did you catch that? God includes the prayers of his saints in this dramatic unfolding of the end of time.

We know that, because the trumpets, and the destruction that follows God’s hearing of these prayers, can only be seen as an answer to them.

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The answer to those prayers, then, comes from God in the form of fire. Lots and lots and lots of fire.

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Fire. The answer to those prayers came in the vehicle of fire.

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These answers sound like plagues, don’t they?

They are meant to sound like plagues. They are meant to remind us of another time, in history, when God sent plagues in response to prayers and cries for deliverance.

The Egyptians had once enslaved the Israelites. And the Egyptians faced the full attack of God when they refused to free the Israelites.

So again, we find the very same plagues, sent to the oppressive forces who have attempted to enslave the people of God.

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And, as if these plagues – these answers to prayers – weren’t enough, the abyss is opened, and smoke arose from the abyss “like the smoke of a gigantic furnace.”

Again, fire.

Now, the opening of the abyss is seen as an answer to the prayers of God’s people.

Locusts also came from the abyss (again, one of the ten plagues against the Egyptians) and are released, but are told to not kill any human. The locusts should only torment the humans, and make them afraid (which, of course, is nothing like those protected in the presence of God, in the vision John saw before the horrors began).

At last, at the sound of the sixth trumpet, from the sixth angel, four other angels are summoned – four angels “kept ready” for this very moment. We must see, too, that these four angels, and their specific preparation, are tied to the answer of the prayers from the altar seated before God.

These four angels were sent to kill a third of humanity.

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Notice, again, that in the unfolding moments of history, God allows our requests and prayers to be an active ingredient in these amazing moments.

Please, whatever you do, don’t miss that.

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And our reading ends, today, with these terrors not being enough to convince humanity to repent of their idolatry. Really. Think of all the horrible images in these visions, and then read this verse:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20, 21; ESV)

And this is the cliff-hanger of our reading through these entire ninety days. There is much, much more John sees in this vision.³

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I’ll only say this about the many different ways to interpret this vision. I’m not sure we are supposed to figure out which beast is which person in history. The point of this vision isn’t to make us try to decipher every character. Moreover, to try to decipher these visions can only mean that we don’t trust the God on the throne, protecting us from whatever violence and judgment is delivered upon our oppressors.

If God is on the throne, isn’t that enough?

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But for today, know this. Your words, to God, are special. They are, perhaps, besides his Son at his side, his most prized possession in the array of this throne room. They are kept close to him, closer than any elder or any angel. And when he chooses to grant his saints the reprieve they desperately want, his rescue is both valiant and terrifying.

Yes, dear believer, our prayers are reserved for the end of our world. And their answers are mixed with the fire of cleansing upon those who stand in opposition to God.

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These things are incredibly scary. Even so, God has marked you for protection. He will deliver you to his throne room, to be protected and delivered from every fear.

So, whatever comes next in this vision, do not be afraid!

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¹Today is day 86.
²Our reading today, by the way, is Revelation 7 through Revelation 9. I began this journey eighty-six days ago, which was a challenge to read through the New Testament in 90 days, and blogging every day of that day’s particular reading. To say that I have waited all summer to read Revelation is an obvious understatement.
³John knew it was a vision, which, obviously, he interpreted according to this own life experiences. His admission of such is found in Revelation 9:17. Read it carefully, where he says this, “And this is how I saw the horses in my vision …”