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.

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A Divine Investment

And so we come to the final day in reading the New Testament.

It ends with an amazing vision.

The Lamb of God, the Living Word, erupts from heaven in glory. It’s a passage that gives me pause, and makes me tremble, every time I read it.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.

With justice he judges and makes war.

His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.

He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.

He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.

Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”

He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16; NIV84)

With images from the Old Testament, the Word comes forth in John’s vision, with a sword from his mouth (Isaiah 11:4), with the iron rod of rule (Psalm 2:9), treading the winepress of judgement (Isaiah 63:3).

The beast, Satan, is then held captive, for only one given reason – to keep him from deceiving the nations of the world, for what the text calls 1,000 years. Understand this, though. However these verses have been interpreted, the simplest interpretation is the most clear: the force and seduction of evil is not so strong that entire nations of people will see it as their only choice. It’s power is limited, because God has limited it.

So be careful about how you see this amount of time, because if this number is taken literally, then you have no choice but to take every number in the entire book literally.

The martyrs, then, those who gave their very lives for the Lamb, were brought back to life, to reign with Jesus. Staying within what John saw in this vision, again, is the simplest and clearest alternative. This reign, of a “thousand years” is only for those who have been martyred.

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

They were killed, then, in the presence of Christ, they were brought back to life, in the presence of Christ. The price they paid, for their “testimony,” was worth it.

Yet these “thousand years” come to an end, and Satan is released to fight a losing battle. His release cannot defeat the infinite plan of God, nor can it impede upon God’s holy and perfect city. There are people, in this city, who have accepted God’s forgiveness. And there are people, outside this city, who have refused it. No amount of time can change this.

The forces, too, that aid Satan in this battle, have not changed, which, again, highlights the constant and complete and total miracle of grace – only God can change a heart and offer freedom, while evil can only enslave and struggle.

God’s kingdom, in this book, emerges as victorious, as a new city. In John’s vision, it is a cube, with each side being 1,400 miles in length, made of gold. Gilbert Bilezikian sees this city as God’s complete and perfect vision of a community of people consumed and radically changed by God’s grace. He writes:

… the lavish description of the city’s decorations, of its walls and foundations covered with all kinds of gems, and of the city itself made of a single block of pure gold, fourteen hundred miles high and wide, figuratively suggests an enormous divine investment in the making of the church. For God, the church is the centerpiece of history. He draws on all that is dear and durable from the world and from the passing generations to gather a pilgrim of people destined to be a showcase of his grace for eternity.

To this magnificent project, he devotes all that he as, including the gift of himself in the person of his Son.

A divine investment of grace. I like that.

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And so, we come to the end, which is filled with this divine investment, because the very last verse of the last chapter of the last book is all about that very grace.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (22:21)

We are reminded, as we close the pages, that all of God’s holy activity on our small and meager planet is an extension of who he is, of who he claims us to be.

It is this grace that rescues us from the mires and consequences of the evil in this world.

It is this grace that allows us to dream kingdom dreams, of a community of people consumed by the love and mercy of God.

It is this grace that shows our world that we are, truly, from a different realm, by the way we’ve been loved, and the way we, in turn, love.

It is this grace that redeems our hearts when they are broken and in pieces.

And it is this grace that confirms for us a place in God’s city as adopted children with full rights to his entire creation.

Grace. It is all about grace.

Thank you, God.

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Today is day 90, and the final day of our 90 days. Thank you for joining me. In a few days I’ll have some new thoughts here, about what this experience has been like for me. I want to let it settle, first, and pray over these things.

Blessings to you, dear reader, and I pray you experience the total experience of God’s grace and fullness in your life today.

Even the Devil is God’s Devil

There is no cosmic struggle against good and evil.

Movies make it their plot, but with God, there is no such thing.

Martin Luther may have said it best, when he wrote, “Even the devil is God’s devil.”

And that’s true. Here it is in our reading today:

For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled. (Revelation 17:17; NIV84)

There is no evil strong enough to even contend with God, because God, in his sovereignty, even controls what evil beings do.

Now that’s big, and that’s a pretty deep rabbit hole. Too big, probably, for this post.

Yet here, in the context of Revelation 16, God’s final judgment on all evil in the world begins. Seven bowls, filled with his wrath, are poured on the earth, and bring plagues that sound a lot (again) like the ten plagues given to Egypt.

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God has a special place in his heart for oppressed believers. Because when he frees them, in the words of Jesus, they are free indeed.

In Revelation 17, the prostitute of the world is punished. For John’s readers, there is little doubt that this woman is the city of Rome, and possibly even the Roman empire. But since Revelation has multiple applications, it’s entirely acceptable that we see this as the final judgment on the world, and on all of the nations and peoples and governments that have systematically oppressed the church, the very kingdom of God on this pale blue dot in space.

At the end of this chapter, though, God gives the authority to the beast to devour her. To eat her. And the beast, in Revelation, was evil – but God uses this evil beast to devour another evil prostitute.

God is most definitely in control.

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It’s interesting, though, that God wants people to turn to him. Even the bowls of judgment were meant to cause unbelievers to turn. Following the fifth angel, and the fifth bowl of God’s wrath, are these two verses, which say much:

The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (16:10, 11)

Even though it is the moment of God’s final justice, he still offers people a chance to believe in his name.

Astounding. And an amazing image. It’s not the first time, though. After each plague against Egypt, the Pharaoh was given an opportunity to release the Hebrew slaves. God is a God of amazing patience.

But when the judgement begins, it is not pretty. An angel from God’s presence fills the earth with glory from the throne room, and begins a praise for the destruction of this city.

It is with a sigh of relief, then, that today’s reading begins, and ends. The suspense of this judgment has filled the pages of Revelation, until it is delivered. The saints under the altar, have wondered how long they would need to wait for their vindication.

No evil can overtake you. Rest in the power and justice of God today, because nothing can stand against him. Read here, again, from the letter to the Romans, and be encouraged today!

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

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Today is day 89.

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.

Chased by a Red Dragon

It is perhaps, with the greatest unease, that I finished today’s reading.

Unease, though, is not the same as fear. I feel like I have been told a truth I knew to be truth, but never really wanted to hear.

In today’s reading, from Revelation 10 through Revelation 12, there is again, hope for the people of God. It is a resplendent, overwhelming, and miraculous hope that keeps one from sinking into the mires of terror.

Yet today, the hope isn’t before the terror. It is in the midst of the terror, and the images of fear.

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Two witnesses are attacked and killed. These two witnesses, in Revelation 11, call us to the lives of both Elijah and Moses, with their abilities to devour their enemies with fire and turn water into blood.

Here, the two witnesses represent the church itself, and in the midst of this chapter, and even with their incredible powers, they are tormented and killed, with their bodies left in the street to rot.

The world celebrates at their murder. The celebration will be so exuberant that people will exchange gifts because they have finally died.

It is (another part of this book that is incredibly) disturbing.

I can only imagine, as John watched all of this, that he was horrified.

Until this happened to the two witnesses, anyway.

But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. (Revelation 11:11-13; NIV84)

Again, there is hope.

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But there is still terror. It follows fast in the vision.

Revelation 12 is filled with an image of a pregnant woman and a dragon waiting to eat her child. John saw this vision, and it must have terrified him. It must have. It terrified me. A red dragon, poised and in position to eat a child right after it is born is not the scene of sweet bedtime stories.

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The woman is Israel – a very pregnant Israel, painfully expecting the Messiah. (It’s not Mary. I’ve grown so tired of people lazily believing this woman is Mary.)

The evil of our world, though, was waiting to stop the coming of the Messiah. Herod, himself, ordered that all the baby boys be killed when he learned the king of the Jews was born.

It is interesting, though, in John’s vision in Revelation 12, that all of Jesus’ life is omitted. He was born, then he was “snatched” to the throne of God.

Yet as that happened, in John’s vision, Michael, the archangel, is the one who made war with Satan, not the other way around. It doesn’t appear to be much of a fight, even with Satan earlier described as the red dragon, with the power to hurl stars from the sky. The evil is defeated in heaven, yet left to pursue the woman, the new Israel, which is now you and me and all of the believers.

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This vision is still happening.

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The church is still being pursued by evil. The church’s ability to overthrow our planet must be so intense, that as long as it is influential, evil will constantly chase it. And though the church is ultimately victorious, we are not immune from these persecutions.

Which, for me, only raised on question today. How much evil is attacking our churches?

Because if this vision is correct, then the more intense the attacks, the more influential our churches really, truly are.

But if the attacks are weak, and our churches are too distracted to be attacked, then our influence must be extremely petty.

Wow. Tough thoughts today.

Thanks for reading.

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Today is day 87.