Day 363: Revelation 13-16; The Beasts, The Mark, and the Bowls of Wrath

Today we get the dubious pleasure of meeting more beasts and seemingly crazy images that John is being shown in this vision.  Right off the bat we meet two beasts.  The first one is a beast the arises out of the Sea and has many of the same features as the dragon from yesterdays reading.  In fact, the dragon gives in the power that it has and “his throne” on earth.  There have been many interpretations about what this image means.  Some have interpreted it as a symbol of the Roman empire and its rule in the world.  At this time the Roman empire was heavily persecuting Christians throughout the known world, times were rough and the empire itself probably seemed like a beast of sorts, trying to stamp out the Christian movement while it was still in its infancy.

Other’s have seen this beast as the antichrist, a false messiah that will show up in the world speaking great words and drawing many to himself as he has great authority on the earth.  This has been interpreted to signify a particular human or perhaps a government and perhaps even a corporate institution that will both wield authority and also set itself up as a sort of “savior” of the world.  Like we have held all along though, this Scripture is not meant to point out any one specific thing as being exactly what John is seeing here, but rather to serve as a warning, like Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, that there would be those that would come that would try to draw people, especially believers away from God.

We also meet the second beast today, one that rises out of the land.  Where these beasts come from are rather significant in the Hebrew worldview.  Remember that water symbolizes death and chaos, from the time before creation was created.  It was out of the swirling waters of nothingness that God created everything and it is out of this same chaos that the first beast comes from.  However the second beast is one that arises from creation itself, from the land that has been long plagued with sin.  Perhaps this represents a different nature to this second beast.  It is clearly seen that this second beast has a direct impact on the relationships of people as well as commerce and even the ability to live and make a living.

Together these three, the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth have been called the “unholy trinity.”  This is a direct opposition to the Triune nature of God, and these three directly oppose God.  In some ways this makes sense in that the dragon is seen attacking the woman, trying to thwart the overall plan of God, the beast from the Sea comes from the same place that we see John talk about Jesus, the Divine Word made Flesh, coming from in the very beginning.  The second beast then would be in contrast to the Holy Spirit, working within the hearts of humanity, working against their relationships with each other and with God.  While this is an interpretation, the number that is given for this seems to coincide with this a bit.  John gives the number 666 as the mark of the beast, but also says that understanding this number calls for wisdom.  It could mean a lot of things, but the significance of the three numbers that are all one less than seven, a number representing the divine, does seem to suggest something.  The three numbers often represent God, the three persons of God, and the number seven represents wholeness or completeness.  It would stand to reason then, that God’s number could easily be 777.  With that being said, the number 666 represents imperfection, only an attempt to be divine, to have any sort of power.  It is only with the One True God that the fullness and completeness of Divine power, love, and grace and be seen.

Finally today I want to draw our attention once again to the working of God’s wrath in Revelation 16.  These are very powerful images that come to us, visions of God’s wrath being poured out on the earth from bowls.  In some ways it is very difficult to even read about and these images bring to our minds questions about how the God of Love could do such things.  Once again I think it is important to remember that God’s love is actually the source of God’s wrath.  When sin entered the world, all of creation was corrupted and set on a path of sin.  From that time on, oppression and injustice were present.  We see this throughout history and especially when it comes against the people of God, the wrath of the Lord is kindled.  This isn’t judgment out of anger, it is the deep deep passion of God’s love for His creation that has been aroused to righteous anger.  The Lord is indignant because all He has created which He loves so much is being torn apart by sin.  As we read about these bowl judgments we see that it is said time and again that people would not turn to God, that instead of repenting they would curse God and not worship Him.  Ultimately this is the goal of God’s wrath and judgment upon creation; it was when He was judging Israel, it is now, and it will be when these come to pass in whatever form they come in.  God is trying desperately to get the attention of those who refuse to follow Him and in so doing He is also punishing the sin that has plagued all of creation.

Unfortunately, these are not things that we often here anymore.  We talk a length about the love of God and the compassion that He and stuff.  These are all well and good… however it leaves a lot of questions to be answered when we read of God’s judgment on creation.  The fact of the matter is that God is a God of love, but He is also a God of justice and we have to hold both of these things in His hand.  We like to think that everybody is just going to be happy in the end, but as that end approaches there will be those that won’t be happy about it, those that have chosen to reject God and oppose Him.  While there will be ample time for them to repent, with lots and lots of warnings as we clearly see here, there will be a time when the end will come and the choice to oppose God and refuse Him will be final.  Again this is unfortunate; my heart aches even as I write this, but it is the reality that we are presented with in Scripture… no matter how much we don’t want to hear it.  Jesus Christ offers us the hope of salvation by grace alone through our faith in Him.  All we need to do is accept Him as our Lord and Savior and believe in His Name.  We never know how much time is actually left which means that we need to be sharing the Gospel of Grace with everyone all the time!

(I would like to mention, that the articles that I am referencing as “related” are those that have been suggested by wordpress and do not necessarily support of coincide with the beliefs that I hold or write about.  I neither cast my unknowing support to them nor do I say that they are wrong, simply conversational partners in this journey through the Scriptures.)



Day 362: Revelation 8-12; Trumpets, Witnesses, and a Great Battle

We talked a bit about judgment and wrath yesterday, however we did not speak of one important aspect to God’s wrath and God’s judgment, something that I think needs to be mentioned here as we continue in our journey to the end of all things.  If we think back to the prophets, we see the warnings of the impending doom that come from the mouths of the prophets, warnings of the judgment AND a call to turn to God, to repentance so that the judgment may be averted.  While many of these images are unique to the book of revelation, they do hold similarities to those warnings spoken by many of the prophets about the judgment that would take place on Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem.  Here too we see God working to get the attention of all people, working to call them to repentance that they may turn to Him and be saved.  The image of the trumpets then, is not one that is so strange as trumpets and horns have been used throughout the ages to communicate with and get peoples’ attention.

I’m kind of at a loss for words in what to write next.  As we are walked through the judgments we see a great number of people dying and horrible natural disasters.  There is this meteor that falls into the water of the earth called “wormwood” which is the  name of a very bitter plant.  It could be representative of the bitterness of God’s judgment.  We also see that only a portion of the world’s population was killed, which means that there are limits to the judgments that are being poured out, at least for the time being.

There is really so much to write about here in these five chapters, we see a number of angels and demons working in different ways.  The demons seem to be working to torture and tempt those still on earth, working against God to continue to keep humanity on its destructive and sinful paths.  The Angels also seem to be at work, warning humanity of its impending judgment, carrying out the work of the Lord.  We also see that there are “witnesses” that show up as well.  In the “Left Behind” series these witnesses are Elijah and Moses who come back to earth with supernatural powers.  Actually, many of the signs that they do are indicative of the things that both did while they lived on this earth.  They were also present at the transfiguration of Christ before He journeyed to Jerusalem and to His death.  It could also be symbolic of the witness of the Word of God to the people, the two could simply represent the Old and New Testaments.  In any case, these join with the work of the Angels and that of the believers in declaring the Word of the Lord and warning humanity of the impending judgments and encouraging them to believe in Jesus.

Finally today we come to a somewhat extended narrative in this vision about “the woman and the dragon.”  There is a lot that takes place in chapter 12 and we will be revisiting it in further chapters as well.  John says that “a great sign appeared in heaven.”  This sign was that of a woman that was dressed like the sun, and had a great deal of imagery about her that is similar to one of the dreams of Joseph way back in Genesis 37.  It is enough to say that with this imagery, most people think that she is representative of the people of God.  In fact, we have talked about Israel being represented in the Bible as a woman adorned for her bridegroom, who is God.  Here she is pregnant and gives birth to a Son, another image of Jesus present in Revelation.

The dragon is also there, ready to snatch up the baby, who we are told is “the one who is to rule all the nations…”  Many people associate this dragon with Satan, with the different heads and crowns and horns to represent his earthly rule over the kingdoms of the world.  Some have also seen this as an image of the Roman empire, or perhaps corrupt world governments in general throughout history.  However, what we see is that the powers of evil were working against the plan of God, trying to prevent the coming of Jesus and the salvation that He brings.  We saw this with Herod at Jesus birth and we tend to see it often in our lives with those that persecute Christians and repress the freedom to worship God.

The deeper imagery here is revealed in verse seven of chapter seven, of a great war that is going on between the angels of God and the dragon, the evil powers that would seek to enslave and destroy all things.  While we may be naive as to what is going on all around us, there is a great war that is being waged between good and evil, between God and Satan.  This is something we tend to dramatize, glorify, and even over emphasize.  I think though that the point here really is that we need to make sure that we are aware of what is going on around us in our world today.  Satan would have us believe that he doesn’t exist, that demons don’t exist, and that he is not working against us to bring about our destruction.  What John is showing us here is that there is definitely more to this world than what we see with our eyes.  This doesn’t necessarily give us the right to start attacking corrupt governments, destruction groups, or evil people, but rather to pray against them, pray for them, and ultimately trust that God is on our side and that He is fighting for us.

We see clearly that the dragon is defeated here.  He has been thrown out of heaven and though he is still on the earth seeking those that he may devour, his doom has been sealed and his final defeat assured.  It is only a matter of time really, which is yet another thing that John is communicating here.  Has he had been encouraging the churches with his letters, so to does he encourage them now by laying out this vision that we might persevere with the assurance that the end of this story has already been told, and that our victory is assured in Jesus Christ the only true King and ruler of this world.

(I would like to mention, that the articles that I am referencing as “related” are those that have been suggested by wordpress and do not necessarily support of coincide with the beliefs that I hold or write about.  I neither cast my unknowing support to them nor do I say that they are wrong, simply conversational partners in this journey through the Scriptures.)



Day 361: Revelation 4-7; Worship, Seals, and Horsemen

The first thing that we see after the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor is John’s description of what is going on in the throne room of heaven before the presence of God.  John is drawn up into heaven, or perhaps what we talked about in the prophets as being the spiritual realm that exists alongside of ours.  We often think of heaven as being this far away, very distant place in which we get to go when we die and escape from this world.  However, the prevailing vision of the prophetic literature as well as the Hebrew culture is that of an “alternate reality” of sorts that exists alongside of our own.  Things that happen in this world are but shadows of that which happen on the other side of the divine.  This is why we have seen things like the Temple, the house of God and the center of the universe for Hebrew culture, illuminated in visions and other theophanies where the barriers between the physical and the spiritual worlds “break down.”  As we continue to read through Revelation, remember that this is one of the things that John is likely thinking right now.  His experience is like that of Isaiah, Moses, and other people in Israel’s past that have experienced a direct encounter with God, and this would be the way in which he understands what he sees.

What we see today, first and foremost, is the worship that is taking place around the throne of God.  John is drawn up into the heavenly realm in which he is able to witness the true nature of worship.  This too has been something that has been talked about through the Scriptures time and time again.  Isaiah witnesses this in the narrative of his calling in Isaiah 6, many of the prophets talk about the nature of true worship, and Jesus Himself, when talking to the woman at the well in the Gospel of John talks about the true worship of God being that of worship in Spirit and Truth.  While the worship at the Temple may have been representative of the worship of God, it was but a shadow of the true worship which is always taking place around the throne.

In this vision we encounter some strange images which are not the first that we will encounter.  We see four living creatures, like those in the visions of Ezekiel, and 24 elders, and so on and so forth.  We have talked about these a little bit in some of our discussions about prophetic literature, and there are different people who would say that they mean different things.  Perhaps they do represent all of creation, perhaps they are some sort of divine guardian.  In all honesty though, the interpretation of what they represent is really peripheral to the nature of what they are doing which is worshiping God with their whole being.  We also encounter a great deal of numbers within the visions of the prophets and here again in John.  We’ve talked about this since the beginning of our journey through the Bible as well.  Numbers are quite often important and very often are representative of things.  The number 3, for instance, represents the trinity, and along with 1 and 7 are representative of the Divine.  Seven is also the number of completion representing the whole of whatever it is referencing.  Some have said that the “seven letters” represent God’s message to the whole Church and the “seven spirits” of God represents the fullness of God’s nature.  Seeing the “24 elders” has often be representative of the fullness of the people of God, the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles (representing the whole Church).  Again, while these numbers are important, they pale in comparison to the fullness of the meaning of what they are all doing, which is worshiping God with all of their being.    This is the image of worship that we are given, true worship in which we are called to participate as the people of God.  Notice that this worship is worship in Spirit and in Truth, it is fully about God, focused only on Him.  Every tribe, tongue, and nation is present, and there is, as has been stated so many times in the epistles, no differentiation between them except for the understanding that they are from different backgrounds.  All are worshiping God; no longer to petty inter-racial or stupid stylistic worship conflicts mean anything, because the only thing that matters is God.

There is really so much to write about in these chapters that books and books could be written, and have been written.  In our reading today we also encounter the narrative of the opening of the seven seals.  While there is much to talk about when it comes to this particular mini-vision I think what I am going to choose to talk about is not the individual seals, though I would be happy to engage that some other time, but rather the greater picture of what is happening and how we understand it in light of the whole narrative of Scripture.  First of all, we need to remember that once again we are seeing that number seven… in fact we see three sevens coming up with the different “judgments” that will take place: Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls.  What I think is important to remember here is what we learned about judgment and wrath from the prophets.  Again, this would be the main way that John would understand what he is seeing here.  God’s judgment and God’s wrath are poured out on the earth here, but all of this, remember, arises from God’s unquenchable love for His creation.  This is an interesting paradox because out of intense love God rises up to judge the earth… like a parent who so longs for their child to live in the right ways and will even punish them for not doing so, God also arises out of this intense love and moves against the sin, the injustice, the oppression that so plagues all of creation.

What we need to understand here too is that John is not necessarily laying out a perfect sequence of events, each of which must happen before the next so that the end of time can come.  This notion of a timeline that is hidden within the books of the Bible and needs to be pieced together has been popularized by those holding to the notion of “Pre-Millennial Dispensationalism” and also the wildly popular “Left Behind” series.  While these folks hold very true to the doctrine that they have pieced together using segments of Scripture from all over the Bible, a method we call ‘proof texting,’ their reading of the book of Revelation and the theology that they come up with does not jive with the union of the whole of the Bible.  John is interpreting what he is seeing here, a vision that is “out of this world” in a way.  Yet it is important to understand, as this is part of the greater narrative of God’s Word, that we understand that God is not suddenly acting different here, doing something completely off the wall at the end of His book as if there is supposed to be some sort of crazy plot twist to thrill the reader.  God has always been working towards this end, an end that sees all of creation brought back to perfection when He again dwells with us here on earth.  God has always been working against evil, working to restore creation and reconcile humanity.  As we read, let us remember what we have already learned, what we have encountered in Scripture, what we have talked about for the past year, and let us look into these words and some of these strange images using that lens, the lens of Scripture, not our own desire to see what we want to see.

(I would like to mention, that the articles that I am referencing as “related” are those that have been suggested by wordpress and do not necessarily support of coincide with the beliefs that I hold or write about.  I neither cast my unknowing support to them nor do I say that they are wrong, simply conversational partners in this journey through the Scriptures.)



Day 360: Revelation 1-3; Introduction to Revelation

At last, after a long journey through the Bible, through the story of God’s redemptive work throughout history, we have come to the final book, the conclusion of it all: the book or Revelation.  The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John is the conclusion of the this epic journey that we’ve been on, focusing on the what Jesus reveals as the final chapters of this story.  John, who is often considered to be the Apostle John, who wrote the Gospel of John and possibly the three letters attributed to John, is also considered to be this writer here as well.  The Apocalypse of John, as this book is commonly called, happened on the Island of Patmos, an island off the coast of what is now Turkey.  John was here, exiled probably from the city of Ephesus, and on this Island Jesus reveals Himself, all that He will do, and (spoiler alert) how He will bring all things to the perfect ending that has been foretold since the beginning.

Revelation is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read, and even harder to interpret and truly understand.  Some of the greatest theologians in the world have decided not to write commentaries on the book of Revelation because of its difficult nature.  Other’s have taken it as a code, a mystery that needs to be dug through and uncovered to find out the true meanings, dates, times, and even characters that this book will show them.  Discussions around the end times have only intensified in the last 15 to 20 years with the writing of the Left Behind series and what seems to be the increase in the idea of the Rapture and other various means of escape from this world before it all goes south.  However, this book needs to be read just as the rest of the Bible, not as a code some mystery to be revealed, but as part and parcel of God’s self-revelation to His people.  The book is written in apocalyptic style, meaning that it is different than that of a “prophetic style” in that John is writing down this vision, this revelation about things that are to come.  Like the book of Daniel, and sections within the prophets, John is not writing in a way that he would name certain people, events, or even nations that hadn’t necessarily happened (or existed) yet.  What we are seeing here are broad brush strokes about the trajectory of what is to come, the cosmic battle between good and evil, and the ultimate outcome when things come to their final conclusion.  This is the reading that we will take as we walk through this final book in these final days of our journey through Scriptures.

Our reading today starts with the prologue of revelation, truly an introduction to all that we are about to encounter.  The true introduction to this, is that of the revelation of Jesus, the center of all that we are about to encounter.  Like the Gospel of John, what we get at the beginning of this book is a prologue, a prelude for all that we will encounter, and a model of how we are to understand what we read.  As with the Gospel of John, we see that Jesus Christ is at the center of all things from which all things before and after radiate outward.  John writes:

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty…’
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength…
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’

John then goes into writing the letters that Jesus tells Him to the seven churches in Asia minor, what is now modern day Turkey.  Each of these Churches have an individual letter written that addresses various issues and needs that they had been dealing with.  Though they may have been struggling with different things, and may even have wavered from the right path and even struggled in the midst of persecution, Jesus’ words are to encourage them to keep the faith and to keep on faithfully following Him lest they completely fall away.  Times were rough for the Church, there was a great deal of struggling that was taking place, yet in all of this, Jesus was present and remained faithful to them.  These letters, as we read them, also have encouragement for our churches as well.  We too face a number of struggles and issues that seek to sway us from the path that Christ calls us to walk.  The words of our Lord encourage us to remain faithful to all that He has called us to in the midst of struggles, persecution, and trials even if it may not be easy.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.  And I will give him the morning star.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.



Day 359: 2 John, 3 John, and Jude; The Final Epistles

Each of the last three Epistles that we read today has a bit of a different theme.  The two epistles that are credited to John are written by the same person that wrote the first epistle of John, and then there is Jude.  Some think that Jude, who claims to be the brother of James, who would have been the half brother of Jesus and perhaps the same James that wrote the book of James.  It is also possible that Jude was Judas, who is mentioned in Luke 6:16 as one of the disciples of Jesus who was the “son of James.”  This is not Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus, but the lesser known Judas who was also a disciple of Jesus.

2 John:

The main theme of 2 John revolves around relationships with one another. John, drawing from Jesus teachings in the Gospel of John, talks about loving one another and loving God.  He points out that this isn’t a new commandment that is being given, but simply an extension of what they already know and believe.  John records Jesus’ talking about love in John 15, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  What is love?  Loving God is walking according to His commandments for our lives.  What is God’s commandment for our lives?  Remember… Shema!!  We are called to love God and love our neighbor!  This is really what it all boils down to, this is what Jesus teaches, and as believers this is what we are called to.

To go along with this, John talks about being aware of false teachers.  I think it is interesting that he says that those that come to them without “this teaching” which has to do with loving by following God, should be rejected by them.  Could it really be that easy?  Could it be that we have a Church have maybe made the whole message of God, the incarnation of Christ, and all of our theology and doctrine into a much more complicated message than it needs to be?  Could it be that, as John said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  John writes at another point, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  All of this is revolving around the same thing, the love of God for us and our love for Him!

3 John:

John’s third letter was written in much the same manner as his second letter.  Keeping in mind that John’s writings are always revolving around the same themes.  Here he is talking about how the faith community should be accepting outsiders.  In these days it was likely that there were many people that were coming in and out of the communities as they traveled around.  It was also likely that there were some that would have tried to take advantage of that in many different ways.  If these folks are anything like I am, or perhaps we are today, we tend to be wary of those who come as new folks in our communities.  Often times we tend to act nice but ask questions that are “tests” to make sure they will fit in with us.  John says that we should be accepting of those that come into our communities especially for those that are travelers.  In what we do and how we treat them, the name of Jesus will be spread for the better or the worse.  Of course there will be those that are bad, evil, wrong-doers and they could damage the community, yet if we are showing love to them and love to each other they will either have nothing bad to say about us, or be won over by the love of Christ.  Friends, we should aspire to this at all times.

Jude:

Finally, we come to the book of Jude.  In many ways, the book of Jude is a review of what we have already read in 2 Peter chapter 2.  Many people believe that the second chapter of second Peter was actually an adaptation of the letter that Jude wrote.  I suppose it could be the other way around, but based on the writing style, it seems as those Jude was rushed while Peter elaborates on what Jude said.  As we transition into the last book of the Bible, and begin to see a greater perspective of the “false teachers” in the world and the greater battle between God and evil, the words of Jude ring loud and clear.  There are many people in the world that are lost in lives of sin, giving themselves over to the desires of the flesh.  Sadly, there are many who would even be considered leaders in that, guiding others into a life of sin.  As was mentioned in 2 Peter, we need to be careful not only of those people, but of those from within the Church that preach a Gospel other than of Jesus Christ crucified.

Jude writes to conclude his letter, “But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”  It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.  But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit,  keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.22 And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”  (arguably this is the greatest doxology in the Bible).



Day 358: 1 John 1-5; That You May Know

As we come to the final epistles of the New Testament, we take a look at the letters that are attributed to the Apostle John.  Once again, it is not entirely known as to whether or not it was indeed the Apostle John, the writer of the Gospel of John, that wrote these letters, or if it was someone within the Johannine community, probably one of John’s disciples, that was writing to those that were in the “Johannine ” churches.  In similar fashion to our denominations today, the churches of the first century had some distinctive features that made them different from each other.  Churches that were started by John may have looked a little different than those that were started by Paul.  It wasn’t as if anything was wrong with one or the other, but it was likely that their worship styles were different and perhaps even some of the teaching emphasis was different as well.  John even makes mention of some of these differences in his first letter here, saying that some of the teachings of Paul were difficult to understand.  It could be that that Johannine churches were composed more of poor and uneducated people rather than of more educated, potentially upper class people that might have made up some of the more Pauline churches.  This would make sense, in some ways, as John himself was a fisherman by trade, where Paul was a religious leader and a Roman citizen.  Fishermen tended to be poorer, where the religious leaders often came from families that were religious leaders and were fairly well off.  In this sense, Paul talks in more of a “high church theology” where John is relating to “less educated” community.

Remember, when we were in the Gospel of John, that His writing was quite simple in nature, not using a lot of difficult grammar, large words, or grand theological concepts.  He does, however write in a way that can be understood easily on the surface but also can be deep and theologically rich.  John is a master of words.

Remember too, in the Gospel of John, that John the Apostle does a great deal of playing with themes, especially with the theme of light and darkness.  It is this theme, in fact, that makes the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which will happen tomorrow (at the time of this writing), when the light entered into the world, a light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome.  It is one of the first themes that John brings up here in his letter as well.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Again, remember that John’s Gospel, as well as the letters attributed to John, deal with some specific heresies that had arisen in the church.  Like Peter and Paul, John is encouraging the members of his community, and of the churches throughout the world to keep the faith, to hold fast to the Word of God and not listen to these false teachers.  One of the main heresies that he is teaching against is that of Gnosticism, a group of people that had very different beliefs about the work of Jesus, the nature of the psychical and the spiritual, and the notion that there was some sort of “special knowledge” that people needed to be saved, something that was found in places other that Scripture.  John is writing so that his readers, the believers in his communities and in the church would know Jesus is truly the savior and that there isn’t anything special that they have to do.  John 20 gives an end to the Gospel that gives an explanation to this effect.  All we need is Christ, to believe in His name, and in that we will have life, true life in Him.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

John concludes this letter in much the same manner:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.  And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.



Day 357: 2 Peter 1-3; Trouble from Within

The second letter that is attributed to the Apostle Peter also contains encouragement to resist persecution, yet this time the main focus of his letter is about the trouble that is coming to the Church from within.  At the time of its writing, there were a great many false teachers and false teachings that had arisen from within the church, people that, as Peter says, had taken the writings of Paul and the Scriptures (which at that time would have been the Old Testament and possibly some of the Gospel writings) and twisted them.  These teachings were  fraught with teaching that only leads to their personal gain.  Peter writes:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

These two themes, persecution from outside the church and false teachings from within, have been something that comes up time and time again in the writings of the New Testament.  It is no secret that the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins by grace is something that the devil wants nothing to do with.  He works to thwart every advance of the Kingdom of God in every way that he possibly can.  This may sound a bit alarmist to many people, especially now days, but like Peter, I must insist that this is not only something that was going on in the days of the early church, it is something that has been plaguing the church since its beginning and continues to do so now.  Arguably, the church is facing more and more threats of false teaching from within its own walls in the 20th and 21st centuries than it ever has before.  Especially in North America, and in the United States where the freedom of speech that we all cherish protects and even allows people to speak false doctrine at will.  Please hear me on this, I wouldn’t trade the freedom of speech that we have for anything, but what I am saying is that the Church needs to wake up and see that this is happening and continues to happen!

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing,following their own sinful desires.  They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.  But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

The Church has done a poor job in recent years of silencing the heretics and false teachers that claim to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Protestant and Catholic denominations have each seen their fair share of groups breaking away from the teachings of the church because of “new revelations” or “a new understanding of the Bible.”  We are familiar with some like Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormonism.  Some new teachings that we have begun to encounter are those of the prosperity gospel, people like Joel Osteen who trade the message of the gospel of a “feel good message” through which he makes tons of money.  There have also been other developments within the religious spheres.  Scientology, the Atheist Church, and other like them have sprung up, proclaiming a way to better humanity without any need for God, Jesus, or the Gospel.

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.  For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.  They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.

While an assault on the moral character of these individuals is not warranted by me, they are certainly sinners in need of grace just as I am, it is important to understand that there is false teaching and heresy that is still very much present among us.  Certainly their rights to say whatever they want to say are protected by the American Constitution, and for that we should be thankful.  This country affords us the ability to worship freely without fear of retribution or persecution from authorities and protects us (or at least it should) from persecution from others as well.  However, though the Bill of Rights doesn’t say this, it should also encourage us to be awake and alert to what we are hearing from the pulpit on any given Sunday.  There is NO Gospel apart from Jesus Christ.  There is NO Salvation apart from the grace of Jesus Christ that we receive through faith.  No amount of money, work, good deeds, or ‘spiritual’ experience can bring us back into right relationship with God.  We are all sinful, we will all continue to sin.  May we understand this and go forth, awake and alert, so that we may not be led astray.



Day 356: 1 Peter 1-5; Courage in the Midst of Suffering

As we continue in our reading, we come to the books of first and second Peter.  Tradition holds that it was the Apostle Peter that wrote these two books, probably while he was in Rome.  Whether or not this is true, I guess, is besides the point.  Reading today you’ve probably picked up on a common theme that has been prominent, especially in the latter letters of Paul and these general letters that have gone out to the whole church.  As the Church continued to grow and spread out throughout the Roman Empire, it continued to face a great deal of persecution and struggle.  The Roman government acknowledged the Church as a sect of Judaism, something that was not necessarily beneficial to Christians.  The Jews has often been hostile to Roman rule, which caused many believers to be persecuted on behalf of the Jews.  More than that, the Jews themselves obviously didn’t accept the Christians as well, thus causing more persecution.  Many believers lost all that they had, their homes, businesses and any sort of ability to sustain a living for themselves and their families, all because they professed faith in Christ.  The further on we go in the first century, the more this becomes prevalent.

Peter, or the writer of First Peter, knew this and was writing into this very issue.  The Church had been scattered throughout the Roman Empire; this letter is addressed to the churches throughout what is no known as Turkey.  Peter also addresses this letter “To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion.”  He could mean a number of things here.  Returning once again to Dr. Robert VanVoorst’s book Reading the New Testament Today, VanVoorst writes that Peter could be referring to “spiritual exiles” in that all believers are spiritually exiled from the fully realized kingdom of God and reign of Jesus Christ here on earth.  Another reason could be an implication that the writer was looking to target a Jewish audience as well, using words like “exile” and “dispersion” which show up in the Old Testament a great deal.  In any case, it is clear that Peter is writing to many churches during a time of increased persecution.

One of the main points that Peter is making in this letter actually speaks directly into this time of trial and struggle and in many ways echoes the book of James.  Peter is imploring the believing community that they are called to live lives of faith and to testify to Christ Jesus, even if it brings them troubles in this life.  From the very beginning, Peter talks about the salvation that we receive in Christ Jesus, and continues by saying “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’

It may be easier in life to acknowledge faith in church and even in our speech with other Christians, yet hiding it from the rest of the world so as to not face persecution.  However, this is not the way that we as disciples of Christ are called to live.  In my discipleship class this year we have talked at great length about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what that looks like in our lives and in the lives of the church.  Ultimately this is lived out in the calling that we have had since the beginning, To Love God and To Love Neighbor.  This is the greatest commandment that Jesus testifies to and that even Israel was called to.  This calling has two aspects, an inward action to love God and to love neighbor, and an outward action to show the love of God in our lives and to do that towards our neighbor.  Faith and Christian discipleship are not something to be lived out only in the Church building on Sunday mornings, they are things that are to be lived out EVERYDAY, they are the out flowing of what happens on Sunday morning.

What does this look like?  Peter addresses this by saying that it looks, first and foremost, like having Christ as the cornerstone of our  lives.  It also shows up in our submission to authority and respect of it in the world (whether we agree with it or not).  It shows up in how we love and treat our family, with love and respect.  It shows up in our vocations, even if it leads to suffering or persecution (a word I use in the lightest of senses because Christians in North America do not truly know what it means to be persecuted to the point of imprisonment and death).  It also shows up in our we interact with other Christians as well, which brings us back around to the notion of discipleship.  Peter exhorts the “elders” among them to be good shepherds of the flock, something that we often loose in our churches today.  Older folks do not feel that they can relate to the younger generations, or that the young have any desire to listen to them, but they do and the church is in desperate need of people that are solid in their faith to come alongside the young and immature so that they can be built up into Christ.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.



Day 355: James 1-5; Authentic Faith

There isn’t a lot that is really known about the writer of the book of James or the approximate time of its writing.  Some people hold to the idea that James was written by the half-brother of Jesus who didn’t believe in Jesus at first but was later converted and worked in the Church during the first century.  However, this is not known for sure and neither is the time frame in which it was written.  Honestly, it could have been written anywhere in the second half of the first century.

This epistle has not always been very well received.  Unlike most of the epistle writings that we have encountered thus far, James is one of the more practical writings, talking the authentic living out of our faith in Christ Jesus.  Martin Luther called this epistle the “epistle of straw” because he thought that it went against all of Paul’s teachings on justification by grace through faith alone.  On the surface, I could totally understand why he may have thought this.  Any discussion about how to live as Christians, what is appropriate and inappropriate, what we can do and can’t do walks the line of a “works-based righteousness” model of salvation.  Dealing with this thought about salvation has often been a struggle in the Christian Church, having to put down a number of heresies surrounding it.

However, if we take a few moments to read deeper into James (and if you’re feeling like James is all about works-based righteousness, I would encourage you to read it through again) we see that James isn’t at all talking about earning salvation through works, but rather the appropriate way of living which sees the marriage of faith and works together.  In fact, James’ audience is likely dealing with these issues at the time of his writing.  One of the many struggles that the church encountered in the first century, really up until the conversion of Constantine, was those Christians who said that they had faith, but didn’t show it by how they lived.  One of the main reasons that this was a struggle was because those that showed that they were Christians outwardly, through the way that they lived and through their interactions with others were often subject to persecution, arrest, torture and even death because of their faith.  This is the very reason that the writer of James starts out his letter with encouragement in the face of persecution.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing… Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

From my perspective, the rest of this letter is really about the exposition of these two major claims in the opening of His letter.  James’ major thrust here is that our faith needs to be shown in our actions, lived out in our lives everyday.  He says this through a whole bunch of different methods, all of which have to do with lifestyle and response to the call of God.  We need to be doers of the Word of God, not just hearers.  People will see our faith in our actions, not simply hear them in our words.

To be honest, this book is something that the contemporary church needs to read again and again; it is a call to missional living.  Especially in North America, believers have learned to live segmented lives in which we are very quick to acknowledge our faith in church, or even with our church friends, but if we are outside of those spheres, no one would ever know that there is anything different about us.  How is it that we expect to spread the love of Christ to people in our lives if we live as though our faith means nothing to us?  This is really what James is getting at.  We need to be careful of what we say, taming our tongues.  We need to not be segregating and dishonoring people, judging them for their racial, social, and/or economic status.  We need to not boast about tomorrow and not live as the world lives.

I know… this all sounds like legalistic Christianity speak… one person saying that if you want to be a Christian you have to do all these things… but honestly that is not it at all.  James never says that you have to do these things to earn salvation.  Nothing he says is at all in contrast with any other part of Scripture.  In fact, he references the Shema (or part of the greatest commandment) in his writing!  We aren’t talking about earning our salvation here, we are talking about the Romans 12 aspect of salvation, offering our bodies as living sacrifices, being renewed by the Holy Spirit, and then living it out day in and day out no matter what the cost.  In this we are called to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves because as we saw in the book of Hebrews, all of faith comes from seeing what God has done for us and believing.  James simply takes it one step further to tell us that, in view of all this, we need to live our our faith in a way that can be seen by all, for the glory of the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit.



Day 354: Hebrews 11-13; By Faith (Israel's Hall of Fame)

Keeping in mind that the whole of this book was written as an encouragement to those believers who were facing persecution, especially from the Jews, and to those who were believers but may have been backsliding into Judaism.  With that in mind, there isn’t much else to say that isn’t eloquently spoken about in chapters 11 and 12.  So, I encourage you to read them again and remember all that we have covered over the last year.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.  By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.  By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.  By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.  By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.  By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.  By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of GideonBarakSamsonJephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

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.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”



Day 353: Hebrews 8-10; Covenant and Redemption Through Christ

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.  For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.  Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.  They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’  But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.  For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

Today’s reading continues the discussion of the Jesus as the Great High Priest and brings brings it around to several aspects of Israel’s belief system that are also integral in understanding the person of Jesus Christ.  The writer of Hebrews opens chapter 8 by making the point of the argument from the past three chapters.  We then move on from there to see that Christ’s coming is the reality which these Old Testament shadows were pointing to.  Like the Tabernacle and the Temple were earthly shadows of heavenly things, so too were the priests of Israel shadows of the true office of priest which was fulfilled in Christ.

More than that, Christ as the Great High Priest is also the mediator of the covenant.  This is not the old covenant though, as we have seen, but a new, vastly superior covenant.  Again, like all these things in the Old Testament, the covenant was the basis for all of that was to come in Jesus Christ, and it was then fulfilled in Christ.  More than that, it was not done away with but renewed and made new in Jesus Christ who is the mediator of the New Covenant in His blood, the one He instituted on the night He was betrayed.

Now, at the end of Hebrews 8, the writer talks about the Old Covenant being old and obsolete.  While in many ways this is true, we no longer have to worry about the stipulations of the Old Covenant, what we often call the Law.  This if often what we call the basis for Christian freedom, along with our freedom from sin and death in Jesus Christ.  We are called to live in a manner that is pleasing to God and that spreads the love of Christ to all those we meet, but we are to do it in response to the grace that we have received, not to try and earn our own salvation.

The writer goes on to talk about the Redemption that we have in Jesus Christ, saying many of the same things that we have been saying.  Here is a portion of chapter 9 that I would encourage you to reread… it talks about the redemption that we have in Christ Jesus through the shedding of Christ’s blood in a better way than I ever could!

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.  For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.  Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.  For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.”  And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.  Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.



Day 352: Hebrews 5-7; Jesus the Great High Priest

Did you ever have that one pastor that didn’t seem like he lived in the real world and couldn’t relate to anything or anyone?  Have you been at a church that has cycled through pastors more times than you’ve had birthdays in the past year?  Sometimes it seems like those that have felt to call to lead the church are the ones that are buried behind a barricade of books and an office door that is too often closed.  Other times is seems like the right people for the job keep moving on to other churches or opportunities.  So many things in life are disappointing; either very good and too temporary, or a bad fit and seemingly way to permanent.  Today’s Scripture though, tells us that Jesus is neither.  Jesus is perfect and permanent!

If you take some time to think about the potential for a Messiah coming, and then remembering that the Messiah was actually God that was incarnated into human flesh, it doesn’t take long to realize that there could have been many things that could have gone wrong with this.  God is holy, perfect in every way.  In some cases, people can and have accused God of being so far removed that He could never fully understand the hurt, pain, and difficulty that we face in life everyday.  Some would consider God to be both unknowable (agnostics) and/or completely disconnected from the world (deists).  In any case, these are both potential understandings for God and could have been how Jesus came to earth, so wholly different that he wouldn’t fit in anywhere and really wouldn’t have understood what human life is really like.

On the other hand, the sending of a Messiah that took on human flesh, and lived a human life in all its fullness is also one that is abundantly temporary for our situation.  We all know that the death rate has held pretty steady at 100% for all of recorded history.  There had been and have been plenty of “messiahs” that have come before and after Jesus whose existence on this earth and in this life was cut short… very short.  Their grandiose claims cut short, followers were left to pick up the pieces and figure out what to do next.

Jesus is neither of these.  Jesus is neither just a human or just divine, He is perfectly both.  To accomplish what He came to do, He has to be both.  As the end of Hebrews 4 says from yesterday’s reading, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to talk about Jesus as fulfilling the office of high priest, the one who intercedes for the people to God.  In the past, these high priests were human and had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before the could come before the Lord and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.  Yet Jesus, the Great High Priest, knew no sin and as a matter of His intercession for us, offered Himself as the sacrifice, thus cleansing us from our sins forever.

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.  Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.

Yet Christ takes on this office and brings it to its fulfillment.  In fact the nature of the office of priest and all of the Hebrew Sacrificial rites point towards Jesus and the sacrifice that He made.  Without them we would really have no context in which to truly understand the fullness of Jesus work in life and in death.

I like how the writer of Hebrews continues on to talk about the certainty of the promise of God that we have in Christ Jesus.  Because of all that had happened before, and God’s continuing work through His people leading up to Jesus Christ, we can know and have full assurance that through Christ we too can be sure of the promise of God in our lives as well.



Day 351: Hebrews 1-4; Introduction to Hebrews

Today we make a transition out of the Pauline Epistles and into what is known as the “general epistles.”  These books, Hebrews – 2 Peter, and Jude, are books that are written not to a specific church or person, but rather to the general audience of the Church throughout the Roman empire as it continued to grow and address a variety of issues and subjects, which compliment Paul’s writings well.  Paul is not considered to be the author of any of the general epistles either.  Most of the authors’ names show up in the title, with the exception of the book of Hebrews, whose author is anonymous.

The book of Hebrews is the first and longest of the general epistles.  There has a been a great deal of debate throughout the years about the authorship of this book.  Dr. Robert VanVoorst, in his book Reading the New Testament, points out that there have been many suggestions as to who Hebrews was written by.  Some, though this is not generally accepted anymore, suggest that Paul wrote this book.  This has been largely dismissed due to the major grammatical and stylistic differences between the writing in Hebrews and that of the Pauline letters.  VanVoorst writes, “The first author to cite this epistle was Clement of Rome (around 96 C.E.), although he does not say who wrote it… From the Earliest times in church history, whenever Hebrews’ authorship was mentions there has been great dispute about it.  Tertullian (in the second century) was the first to suggest Barnabas as its author.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth was the first to suggest Apollos, and this is a common conclusion today.  Adolf von Harnack, the greatest church historian of the nineteenth century, proposed that Priscilla was the author, which if true would make Hebrews the only NT book to be written by a woman.  (This makes an intriguing explanation for Hebrews’ anonymity.)   All in All, the argument about authorship is full of conjectures.”

While the author may not be known, it is very clear that this letter is written to the Church in general, and especially to Jewish converts to Christianity that might have been backsliding into Judaism.  It could also be that Jewish pressure on the Christian Church was on the rise and this was a letter written by one of the leaders of the Church to encourage those who were facing persecution from the Jews.  Many people think this letter was written in the mid 60’s A.D. because of its many references to the Temple which was destroyed when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and destroyed for the final time, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  However, it isn’t abnormal for those writing after A.D. 70 to write as if the Temple of God is still standing, something common because of the beliefs that the Jewish people held about the house of God and the deeper nature of God’s existence and presence.

Though it is fun to know the context in which the letter is written, it is the content which is significantly more important and to which we turn now and for the next couple of days.  In some ways, Hebrews could be seen as an exposition on the speech that Stephen gave in Acts 7, when he was before the counsel of Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember how he walked through the story of the people of Israel and God’s faithfulness, how it all led up to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, their Messiah?  Well, we see a great deal reference to the Jewish religious systems here in the book of Hebrews as the writer references God’s work in the past and how it points to Jesus as the Messiah and then continues on into what that means for the believers, the Church, and the world.

You can see this general trend even in the beginning chapters of this book, our reading for today.  The author begins by making the point that God isn’t doing something new here, He has always been speaking through various means.  Whether Abraham, Isaiah, Moses, David, or any of the priests that Israel had, God used them to reveal Himself.  Yet now “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”  It is not as though God is doing something different here, He continues to speak and reveal Himself, the truest revelation of which comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Word made Flesh.

We see also that the author is making tons of references to Old Testament Scriptures and again, to Jewish religious systems.  He talks about the high priests, the prophets, Israel’s rejection of God, Joshua, Moses, and Abraham in the first four chapters.  Obviously, whoever was writing this was very acquainted with the Scriptures.  In many ways, one of the messages of the book of Hebrews is the understanding that we can’t fully know or understand Jesus without understanding all that God had been doing in redemptive history to work up to His coming.  As we have said time and time again, the who religious cult of Judaism and the sacrificial rites, the religious structures, the providence of God in their lives, and even the giving of the law all point towards this greater event in the coming of the Messiah.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.



Day 350: Titus and Philemon: Living into Identity

There are two books contained within our reading for today, both written by Paul.  Titus is one of the Pastoral Epistles yet, containing a great deal of similar information as 1 Timothy.  Philemon is another one of Paul’s Prison Epistles, written to a man named Philemon, as well as Apphia and Archippus about a slave named Onesimus.

Titus:

The book of Titus was written by Paul to Titus, a leader in the Church whom he left on the island of Crete  to teach the Cretan people, spread the Gospel, and build up the church.  As I was reading this, I got the impression that this may not have been where Titus wanted to end up, and that the task was rather difficult for him because of the nature and culture of the people of Crete.  According to one of their own, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This, no doubt, made Titus’ job a bit more difficult as he sought to build up the church and disciple people of God.  For Paul, the qualifications for Elders that he lays out here are not that different from those that he lays out for Timothy, yet  think they become all the more important within this context because of the difficulty in finding such people and the necessity to have them as leaders in the church.

As I’m reading this it also draws into my mind some of the issue that the contemporary church is facing as well.  There have been no shortage of reports about church leaders that are not meeting these qualifications and those that are, in their service, committing awful crimes against others both in and out of the church.  Pastors, Elders, and other leaders seem to be caught all the time in affairs and in sexual sin, yet it seems like the church continues to remain silent on these issues.  In other places, Pastors have watered down the Gospel so much that Jesus is hardly mentioned for fear that it might offend someone.  The ideas of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are running rampant in the church, making the Gospel seem irrelevant and the Word of God meaningless.  Paul speaks to us here as much as He is speaking to Titus: “teach what accords with sound doctrine.”  Moreover, he gives rather specific directions for the Christ-like living, something that is a necessity for the community of faith.

I have tended to say this at just about every mention of Christian living, but I don’t think that it can be emphasized enough.  While is seems that Paul is laying down the law for how people are to live in accordance with their faith in Jesus Christ, this is not a “law” in respect to a set of rules that need to be followed for one to earn their own salvation.  In fact, as Paul has said time and again, that it is out of the freedom that we find in Christ Jesus, the fact that we are no longer a slave to the law and sin, that we choose to live out our lives in a way that is godly and Christ-like.  Paul’s urging in Romans 12 is a testament to this, that because of the mercy that we are shown by God in Christ Jesus, we present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, being transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, that we may live out Christ’s love and spread the Good News of the Gospel everywhere  we go.

Philemon:

The book of Philemon is a rather unique book in the New Testament because of the context in which it was written.  Being only one chapter long, Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a name that means “useful,” because of his recent conversion.  Onesimus was apparently a slave of Philemon, something that was a common practice back then (whether we condone slavery or not is really not the issue here), and had left his service to Philemon after stealing some things.  Paul writes in the understanding the what Onesimus did was very wrong, yet in the time away from Philemon, he had come to faith.  Now Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus to ask Philemon’s forgiveness.  Onesimus is returning to Philemon because it was right for him to do that as he was still technically the slave of Philemon.  Yet Paul is arguing for a deeper understanding of Onesimus as a brother in Christ rather than just another servant.  Moreover, Paul willingly pays whatever debt is owed to Philemon for the crime done against him.

A great deal of the theology of this letter comes from Paul’s other writing about equality and oneness in Christ Jesus.  Paul writes in several different places that there is no distinction between slave and free, male and female, etc.  Keeping in mind that there was a rather different understanding of slavery and even servitude back in this day, Paul is advocating for a deeper understanding of a person’s identity in Christ Jesus superseding that of any other identity that a person has.  This has been important to the Church in every age and context, but has become even more important in the last 200 years with the struggles against slavery, inhumane treatment of the people and the poor, this notion of equality in Christ Jesus has become an even bigger and important topic.  From Oscar Romeo to Martin Luther King Jr. the book of Philemon has become an important book in the conversation and understanding of our identity and equality in Christ Jesus.



Day 349: 2 Timothy 1-4; Pastoral Advice and Admonition

The second letter to Timothy, if written by Paul, was probably one of the last letters that Paul wrote before he died in Rome.  This letter is also probably one of the most personal letters that Paul writes, displaying his passion for desire for the continued spread of the Gospel and the success of the Church after he dies.  Paul, or the Pauline Writer, is encouraging his readers to continue to be faithful to the Word of God and to spread the Gospel of Christ Jesus, guarding against the myriad of other teachings that were emerging and seeking to corrupt the church.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Paul goes on to talk about not only being unashamed of the Gospel, but to also remember the one who called you.  I am reminded here of a song by Big Daddy Weave called “Audience of One.”  This song talks about worshiping as if there is only one person there, God.  Paul talks about this same idea when it comes to the work that Timothy is doing in the Church.  He says things like “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.  An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.  It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”  He also says later in chapter two, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Finally, Paul talks a great deal about the nature of the Scriptures.  He talks about how important it is in leading a godly life.  What I find interesting is that he links the importance of Scripture and the persecution that he endured.  Paul says right after this that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  I think this is a very important link for us as we look at our own lives and the struggles and ‘persecutions’ we face day in and day out.  Paul continues, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

When we face down evil in this world, whether it be struggles in our own lives or the many issues going on in the greater world around us, we cannot disconnect the importance of the Scriptures in our lives as a a guide and as that which builds us up, prepares us, and equips us.  The Word of God is not just some self-help book, nor does it fall under the category of “sacred writings” as Paul says, but it is a companion, something that goes with us… something that should in inside of us.  There have been many instances in Scripture where the reference of the Word of God has been that of “digestion” or “eating,” and this is the type of thing that Paul is referring to.  He isn’t simply encouraging Timothy to just read it, but to get it inside of himself that it may become part of him.  In that way, no matter what is faced in life, God’s Word will be an intimate part of how he deals with it.

As addendum to this, Paul encourages Timothy to preach the Word of God always.  He says, “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”  There is no time when the Word of God should not be spoken, not be preached, and is not useful for learning, teaching, and the building up of the Church.  This is why we preach the Word on Sunday, because it is part of who we are as the Body of Christ.  Our lives revolve around the Word of God as we live in response to the grace that He has shown us.  Americans tend to segment their lives in this respect, keeping church at church and work at work and home at home.  But for the follower of Jesus Christ, it is the Word of God that pervades all of these areas of life, encouraging and admonishing us in whatever places we find ourselves.