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 …”

How You Can Know God Is Speaking

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1; NIV84)

The early Christian community, with a syncretism of a rich Jewish tradition and overwhelming secular influences, was familiar with spirits. Several stories in early biblical writings attest to their persuasive power, and even cultural norms indicated the presence of supernatural influences.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we find a warning for the people of God, to be on guard against prophets who convincingly claimed divine truths, and even offered proof, but did so in ways opposite of early Jewish law.

You can read it here. It’s pretty stout. These prophets were being used by God to test his people. And they were also punished when their origins were found to be from unholy places.  Continue reading

Your Last Hour

There are variations to this cliché, but here it is for us, today:

What would you do if you knew you only had one more hour of life to live?

Or one more day? Or one more month? Year?

Those are very probing questions. Some of you are living with this very sort of knowledge, and are therefore answering this sort of question with every breath.

Here is the very probing statement, though, in our reading today:

Dear children, this is the last hour … (1 John 2:18a; NIV84)

It has an ominous tone to it, almost like a dark sentence in a darker novel. I can see people, afraid, huddled together, with lightning flashing against a rain-splattered window. The older member of the group, the wise one, turns to his companions, and says the very same thing.

The remaining part of the verse has grown, in our combined religious consciousness, to be even more ominous. Here is the complete verse:

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. (2:18)

The antichrist, according to this letter, is a person who denies that Jesus is the Messiah, sent by God (2:22), and therefore, can be anyone, without needing to be anyone in particular.

For believers, it may be not be a grave temptation to decide that a man named Jesus never really was the son of God, or to decide that God exists, but would never stoop to the depths of humanity. Yet, before we move this temptation aside, we may want to consider the siren call of the doubt this could potentially cast in our own life. In fact, this may be the strongest temptation you face, in your own final hour.

In that very last hour, the antichrist of modern culture will try to convince you that God did not send a saving agent to the world, to lavish a divine love on us. If you adopted this temptation, after looking over the valleys and mountains of your past, then your last hour would be very, very different. It is that doubt that can potentially ruin your last hour of life on earth. That is why it is given so much attention here.

We are protected, though, in this last hour. God has, indeed, lavished upon us a love, that has anointed us (2:26; 3:1). We are children, confident of in the house of a Father, protected by all who claim that God has not made us his very own. We walk in a house of light, surrounded by the brilliance of God, protected from the evil that only humanity can produce, when they are apart from God.

So, be aware of this temptation in your last hour. It will come. Remember the words from this New Testament, letter, though. God has covered you with love. Don’t abandon that hope.

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Today is day eighty-one.

How We Limit God

It was a series of unprecedented actions.

The formation of the universe …

Taking a man away in the midst of his life, and doing so without making him die …

A great devastating natural disaster, with the promise that a few could be saved …

Requiring a man to go into unknown, uncharted territory …

Promising a child, born from two people well past their child-bearing years …

Becoming the guardian, protector, savior, and deity of mere humans …

Asking a man to kill — to sacrifice — his own son …

Receiving the praise, and valuing the blessings, of an old man, when he couldn’t even stand on his own …

Sending a destroyer to kill the firstborn of an oppressive nation — and saving the firstborn of the oppressed people …

Parting an entire sea, so people could actually walk through it, on dry land …

Destroying the city of walls of a stronghold city in a new land …

Saving a prostitute, because she believed in a force bigger than herself and her family …

Conquering entire kingdoms …

Closing the mouths of hungry and terrifying lions, in the presence of prisoners …

Quenching the fury of punishing flames, reserved for the faithful …

Resurrecting children from the dead …

And giving strength and courage to the tortured and the persecuted …

All of these things were done by a God, for a people who believed he could do each of them.

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It’s a commentary on our lack of dreaming, I think. The things above are now passed on to successive generations of believers as cute stories in children’s books. We’ve relegated them to the realm of fairy tales and make-believe, lumping them with all sorts of other stories children see or hear.

We’ve placed them there, and found ourselves at odds with the enormity of these actions. It takes faith, for us, just to even consider that these things actually happened in the past.

And that says nothing about the faith it would take for us to actually believe these things could happen again.

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2; ESV)

I love the word “weight” here. It’s the correct word, too, taken straight from the original language of this New Testament book. It has all sorts of meanings.

It could be extra body weight. It could be training weights. Both would be acceptable in this brief illustration. The point is that everyone has a weight that keeps us from believing in an unprecedented God.

Doubt stems from the weight we carry — the weight we purposefully carry. That weight has contaminated our ability to dream big dreams for God, and to believe in big things from God. It’s the weight of tradition. It’s the weight of debt. It’s the weight of guilt. It’s the weight of a failing health. It’s the weight of past mistakes. It’s the weight of addictions. It’s the weight of movies. It’s the weight of gossip. It’s the weight of drama. It’s the weight of uncertainty.

And weights — any kind of weights — will only bring you down, and load you down, and stop you in your own spiritual formation. They will keep you from believing.

This passage isn’t just about running a race, or finishing it without sin … it is about living a life of belief, of faith, in a God that can do things we could never imagine.

It’s believing in a God that resurrects people today. Who parts bodies of water today. Who gives people supernatural courage today. Who asks people to sacrifice the things that are most precious to them today. Who validates the faith of what we would call the “worst kinds of sinners” today.

We have little doubt that God can do these things. We have great doubt in our ability to believe God can do them for our eyes to see.

My weight is different from your weight. But the sin in our lives is the same. And both will impede our walk, and our run. Don’t let them. Lay aside the weights, and refuse to become constantly entangled with your sin. There are big things waiting to happen, and you don’t want to miss them.

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Our God is a God of unprecedented actions. He is full of surprises. He is the author of imagination. He is the creator of creativity. If we only expect him to perform in the ways of our own limited thinking ability, then God will fulfill that request. Why? Because we lack the faith that he can do bigger things.

The list above, of his unprecedented actions, were achieved because all of the people in Hebrews 11 believed those things could actually happen.

By faith, we understand …

By faith, Abel offered …

By faith, Enoch was taken …

By faith, Noah … in holy fear built an ark …

By faith, Abraham, when called … obeyed and went …

By faith, Abraham, even though he was past age … was enabled to become a father …

By faith, Abraham … offered his son Isaac …

By faith, Isaac blessed …

By faith, Moses’ parent hid him …

By faith, Moses … chose to be mistreated along with the people of God …

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea …

By faith the walls of Jericho fell …

By faith the prostitute Rahab was not killed …

Make no mistake. God performed all of these unprecedented actions.

But God limited his own ability to the faith of the people for which he acted.

And I confess, today, that for far too much of my life I believed in a petty God.

Today, though, in this fresh reading, I am ready to see what my eyes have not yet seen. And I pray, God, for the courage to go where I’ve never been, to see things I’ve never seen, and to experience things I’ve never experienced.

I hope you take this journey with me.

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This is day 76. What a journey this has been.

 

An Indestructible Life

It’s like meeting Jesus. Again.

The first four chapters of the New Testament book of Hebrews moved me greatly yesterday. I read them, and re-read them, and re-read them, perhaps, a dozen times. Though I’ve read this New Testament book many times in my life, yesterday was just a time when the Word of God was speaking to me.

Today is no different. These next three chapters of Hebrews, though not as poetic as the opening of the book, are powerful. Staunch. Solid.

I need solid. I need stable. I’m so tired of modern religion making church about everything else but Jesus. The first few chapters of Hebrews are powerful enough to be read every Sunday from pulpits and altars across the church landscape.

Jesus is exalted in this book. He is …

one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. (Hebrews 7:16; NIV84)

This story of Jesus is not the same story we read in the gospels. Those four writers had an agenda. They needed to tell the story of Jesus in quick ways, that emphasized his most powerful moments. Very little of those accounts offered Jesus’ suffering, or his humanity.

Yet Hebrews exposes the humanity of Jesus for us. It’s his story, from another angle. We know the powerful Jesus, the miracle-worker, the resurrection-worker. From the gospels, though, we know little (and maybe don’t want to know?) of how Jesus hurt. Of the times he cried. Of the times he questioned.

Maybe we are afraid of a God that looked like us, and talked like us, and hurt like us. Maybe we are afraid of a frail God.

I think we are much more comfortable with Jesus being the conduit for the creation of our entire universe (1:2). This Jesus has power that can’t be explained. We can worship that with ease, because we worship easily all that is a mystery to us.

Consider this image — part of the universe of his creation and power:

In the middle of this image, in brownish-band on the right, is a small blue dot.

That small blue dot is Earth.

This is a famous image of our planet, taken in 1990, from almost 4 billion miles away.

All of human life, and all of human history, was lived and written on this pale blue dot. All of it. And from this vantage point, it is nothing more than a speck to be crushed.

We love the power of a God that can make this, and prove to us, in an image like this, that we are incredibly special to him. We are not crushed, nor are we in despair, in spite of our obvious weakness on display in this image.

And on this tiny blue dot, God became a man, a fully realized human, who, himself, was indestructible.

But this indestructible man spent much of life, like we spend much of ours, with fear. With doubt.

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-10)

This passage is not about his suffering at his death. This passage is about the suffering as he lived. It is the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ humanity.

But even more startling is that we learn, here, that this suffering enabled Jesus to be fully aware that he was, in fact, God’s son. He was “made perfect,” and his suffering was the avenue of this process. To go a little farther, his suffering was essential to his full realization. And this process was only completed upon his death, or, at the end of his life.

That should blow your mind.

His entire experience as a human was a process for him to achieve perfection. While he taught others, in the gospels, he also learned. He was both the teacher and the student. He was both hopeful and fearful. He was both brave and afraid. He was both powerful and weak.

Every moment he healed, he faced trials of doubt. This story of Jesus is the flip side of Jesus, his vulnerable side. And how I am thankful for this testimony.

We have all spent dark times speaking to God, petitioning God, with cries and tears. Oh my, have I spent time like this.

Jesus, though, lived an indestructible life. His perfection was achieved through this suffering. He had the ear of God because of his reverent submission — not necessarily because he was the son of God.

His reverent and humble submission is what gives us access to the very same presence of God. We, too, can approach the throne of God with boldness (4:16).

His indestructibility is our hope. It is our peace. It is evidence of a God, who visits this pale blue dot of our planet, to live the dirty and disappointing experience of human life, and to do so without one spot of sin and rebellion.

Is this hard stuff? Absolutely. Even this book says it’s another level of learning (5:11). But I’m thankful for it. And I’m thankful God has enough faith in us to expose his own vulnerability.

Wow. What a word today.