Saturday, 26 July 2014

Jeremiah 11-20 'Faithfulness is painful'

Sri Lanka Bible commentator Ajith Fernando wrote a book entitled, 'The Call to Joy and Pain.'  The sub-title reads 'Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry.'  As we look at the book of Jeremiah this morning we will see how difficult it is to embrace such suffering.  You see, being a disciple of Jesus is not supposed to be easy.  We follow a Saviour who was known as a man of sorrows.  Jesus warned his followers that they will not escape pain if they want to be faithful to him.

1.  Faithful people speak the truth (11-12)

We begin chapter eleven with Jeremiah speaking some hard truths to the people of Judah.  He reminds them of the covenant; the covenant made at Mount Sinai.  God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt brought them to that mountain and told them how to live as his people.  This covenant told them that they would only remain in the promised land if they lived a life of obedience and repentance.  But the people were not repentant and obedient.  It was as if they had conspired together to forsake God and worship other so-called gods.  Soon Judah would suffer the consequences of their disobedience and be kicked out of the land.

The people opposed God and they will oppose his faithful messanger.  Jeremiah is led like a lamb to the slaughter (11:17).  Who does this remind us of?  Jesus was like a lamb led to the slaughter as he went to the cross (Isaiah 53:7).  Jeremiah's suffering anticipates the greater suffering of Jesus.

His suffering prompts Jeremiah to complain.  'Why does the way of the wicked prosper?  Why do all the faithless live at ease?' (12:1b).  To which God responds, 'if you think things are tough now just wait, things are going to get tougher.'  Family and friends will forsake him.  Like Jesus he will be betrayed by some of those closest to him.  

2.  Faithful people remember their mission in the world (13-15)

In chapter thirteen we have the first of several prophetic acts that Jeremiah is called to preform.  'This is what the Lord said to me: "Go and buy a linen belt and put it round your waist, but do not let it touch water"' (13:1).  He then left took the belt to the Euphrates and left it in the cleft of a rock.  When he returned to get it, many days later, it was spoiled and useless.  Similarly, it was as if the nation of Judah had been taken to a foreign land as they chased after foreign gods.  They were supposed to display the glory of God to the nations but now they are like a spoiled garment not fit to be worn.  Chris Wright applies this principle to us writing, 'if there is fundamentally nothing in the least admirable about the lives of Christians individually, or the collective witness of the church, then there is small hope of the world finding anything to admire in the God we represent.'

What is said next is shocking.  When the punishment comes and Judah cries out to God he will refuse to listen to them.  It will be too late to be rescued.  We can always experience God's saving mercy if we turn to him in genuine repentance but these people are not repentant.  Also, sometimes it is too late to be rescued from the consequences of our actions.  The murderer might turn to God and be forgiven but still have to serve a life sentence; the adulterer may repent and be forgiven by God but still find his marriage is beyond repair.  The New Testament teaches that we reap what we sow (Galatians 6).

Again Jeremiah complains.  'Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends!  I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me ' (15:10).  He is disillusioned with serving God because all he gets is strife, contention and hatred.

How does God respond?  With a gentle rebuke!  '... If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me' (15:19a).  It is not that we cannot go to God with our pain and questions.  But Jeremiah's negative spirit will damage him unless he repents.  We are not permitted to wallow in self-pity.  The disillusioned believer sees no good in anything.  They are always pessimistic.  They pour water on the enthusiasm of others.  They are a destructive influence amongst God's people.  Therefore God calls us to repent of our negativity.

Although being a faithful witness involves suffering God promised his presence.  He assures Jeremiah '... they will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you ... I will save you from the hands of the wicked and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel' (15:20-21).

3. Faithful people are sorrowful yet rejoicing (16-17)

The life of Jeremiah contradicts the false promises of the prosperity gospel.  The prosperity gospel says faithfulness leads to wealth and happiness; Jeremiah's faithfulness would involve suffering and sorrow.  In chapter sixteen Jeremiah is called to endure the loneliness of singleness and social isolation.  Yet despite the pain Jeremiah can speak of God being 'my strength and my fortress, my refuge in time of distress ...' (16:19).  The apostle Paul wrote of being 'sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything' (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Despite Judah's unfaithfulness God still plans to bless the nations.  His people may be unfaithful but God is faithful.  He promised to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham and he does.  'To you the nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, "Our ancestors possessed nothing but false gods, worthless idols that did them no good"' (16:19).

This book has a lot to say about the heart. 'The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?' (17:9).  Jeremiah trusts God to heal his heart, (17:14).  Listen to the beautiful words in the Anglican Service of Holy Communion.  'Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.'

4.  Faithful people know justice will be done (18)

In chapter eighteen Jeremiah is directed by God to go to a potter's house.  He watches the potter work with a piece of clay.  The potter shapes the clay but he also responds to imperfections within the clay.  The final outcome is a mysterious interplay between the potter and that clay.  ‘Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it' (18:6-10).

Sadly this final call to repentance meets with a hard stubborn heart.  Now this people who persistently reject God focus on attacking  God's prophet.  'Jeremiah will now endure for the rest of his ministry the kind of vicious opposition that confronted Jesus from the beginning of his' (Wright).

5.  Faithful people will experience opposition (19-20)

Again, at the beginning of chapter nineteen, Jeremiah is told to go to a potter's house.  He is to purchase a clay jar and to get some of the civic and religious leaders of the community to accompany him to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom - this valley was used as a dumping place.  There  Jeremiah pronounced a terrible message of doom.  Jeremiah will smash the jar as a picture of the fact that The Lord will smash Judah.

They will not repent, their hearts a resistant to God and so now only judgement awaits.  Jeremiah's words incite the anger of Pashur the priest.  He had Jeremiah the prophet beaten and put in the stocks (20:2).  Self-righteous people hate those who speak of the reality of human sin.

We finish with Jeremiah complaining again.  Yet despite the pain involved in his ministry there is an inner compulsion.  'But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot' (20:9).

Conclusion - Jesus is the faithful one

Jeremiah's ministry anticipates the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus was a man of sorrows who faced murderous opposition as he served God faithfully.  He calls us to take up our cross and follow him.  But Jesus' ministry surpasses that of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah succumbs to bitterness and asks God not to forgive his persecutors whereas Jesus asks God to forgive those who crucify him.  Jeremiah ends this section dreaming of losing his life in order to avoid his mission whereas Jesus chose to lay down his life in order to fulfil his mission.

As I prepared this sermon I was struck by some words in the ESV Study Bible:  'Jeremiah's ministry causes him hard work, sorrow, and shame.  He accepts his role, but has no illusions of fame, approval, or appreciation.'  Will we persevere when no one encourages us?  Will we strive to serve God when the only words we hear are critical?  Will we delight to work for God when no one thanks us?  Will we stand firm when the world is against us?

Being a faithful disciple of the man of sorrows will be difficult but remember that God is good.  He will enable us to endure.  We are strangers and pilgrims in this land who are on our way to a better place.  Christ travels with us.  There is joy in the midst of the pain and a heavenly friend who is greater than all opposition.  Even the complaining Jeremiah bursts into song in the face of the goodness of God.  'Sing to the Lord!  Give praise to the Lord!  He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked' (20:13).

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Jeremiah 7-10 'Am I beautiful?'

Joel Osteen is pastor of America's largest Protestant church.  On one occasion he was speaking on the Oprah show about his 'I am' sermon. Oprah invites him to lead the audience in a chant of positive declarations.  He gets them to stand and repeat after him: 'I am strong', 'I am secure', 'I am victorious', 'I am disciplined', 'I am beautiful' and 'I am looking forward to my future'.  No admission there of the reality of sin or the desperate need of God's forgiveness.  What a contrast to the honest, God-given and plain-speaking words of Jeremiah.

This morning we will get a picture of how ugly our hearts are without Christ and are reminded of the beauty God wants to create in us.

Base your assurance on transformation (7:1-8:3)

At the beginning of chapter seven Jeremiah is told to go to the gates of the temple and preach.  Notice that he is speaking to people who believe they were worshiping God.  People like us!

But these people had separated worshipping God from obedience to God.  Their religion was superstition and their assurance was false.  They chanted 'this is the temple of The Lord, the temple of The Lord, the temple of the Lord' (7:4).  They believed that because the temple was in their city God would never let disaster come to that place.  Such assurance was false assurance.

What's your assurance based on?  Is it based on the fact that you prayed a prayer of commitment many years ago at a religious meeting?  Is it based on the fact that you attend church?  These are not reliable guides as to whether you are a Christian or not.

Being a Christian is about being forgiven and transformed.  God punishes his Son for our guilt and gives us the righteousness of Christ. God gives us the Holy Spirit so that we have new desires and power to reflect his character.  It is this fruit of his presence in our lives that demonstrates we are born again.  It is his beauty in our lives that shows we belong to him.  So in his first letter John warns that those who make a habit of sinning have not been born of God (3:9); that if we aren't willing to share our wealth with fellow Christians then God's love does not abide in us (3:17); and that if we won't listen to God then we don't know him (4:7).

Have a teachable spirit (8:4-17)

The problem with Judah was that they rejected God's instruction.  Their prophets and priests were like an incompetent doctor telling a terminally ill patient that they in the fullness of health.  The people themselves would admit to no wrongdoing.  'None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, "What have I done?"' (8:6b).  Judah doesn't know how to find God. 'Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration.  But my people do not know the requirements of the Lord' (8:7).  

They chose to listen to false teachers who told them what they wanted to hear.  False teachers who 'dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  "Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace' (8:11).  Judgement was coming but the false teachers told them all was well.  We need to warn people that apart from Christ they are enemies of God who are awaiting his judgement.  Yet in Christ we can have true peace with God. 

They did not understand what God required of them and they chose to listen to false teaching.  One of the most important things we need in the Christian life is the discernment to recognise teaching that reflects Biblical truth and teachable spirit that is willing to be conformed to what the Bible says.  Do we look for God to shed his light on our lives?  Many people sit in church hoping that other people will be convicted by the sermon.  They are aware of other people's failings but don't want to face their own.  But all of us are on a journey towards increased Christ-likeness.  All of us need to look to the Bible for guidance.

Be influenced by the Spirit of truth (8:18-9:9)

Jeremiah is deeply upset by the spiritual state of Judah.  However he doesn't simply sit in smug judgement over them.  He weeps for them.  'Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!  I would weep day and night for the slain of my people' (9:1).  He weeps for them but he also pleads with them.

One of the things that upsets him is their dishonesty.  'They make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies' (9:3a).  'For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer' (9:4b).  '... They have taught their tongues to lie ...' (9:5).  '... in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me,’ declares The Lord (9:6).  

It doesn't matter whether you are lying to the state or to a friend.  It doesn't matter whether you are lying for financial gain or to make yourself look good.  It doesn't matter whether it is exaggeration or deceit. It is all lies.  Remember that the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth and the devil is called the father of lies.  Who do we please when we act with integrity?  Who do we please when we act deceitfully?

In Romans the apostle Paul cites deceit amongst the evidence of universal human sinfulness.  When we witness the tug of our hearts towards dishonesty we are to be awoken to our need of the forgiveness Christ offers.  A day of judgement awaits and we need to take hold of the free gift of grace offered to us in living relationship with Jesus.

We need to experience a change of heart (9:10-26)

I don't know how a preacher like Joel Osteen handles a text like this.  Jeremiah did not go to the people of Judah and get them to chant 'I am successful', 'I am beautiful' and 'I am looking forward to my future'.  I can't see Oprah applauding a Jeremiah sermon.  He said to the people 'you are wicked', 'you are corrupt', 'you are unloving', and 'you are doomed'.

On our own all of us are spiritually repugnant but God offers to make us beautiful.  Jeremiah pointed out that while their foreskins were circumcised their hearts were not.  They needed forgiveness and they needed to experience God-given inner change.  'What can wash away my sins?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus!'  In him we become beautiful.  In him we are made clean.  God even gives us new desires so we become more like him.

‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me; that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord (9:23-24).  We have a beautiful God and we should want to experience the beauty of godliness.

Anything minus God equals nothing (10:1-25)

Finally, in chapter ten we are reminded that the chief sin that God will judge is idolatry.  Idols are empty and God alone is the creator and Lord.  'Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk' (5a).  'But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King' (10a).

The problem with idols is that they cut us off from the only source of salvation.  An idol, by definition, is anything that gets in our way of having a full-hearted relationship with God.  For the rich young ruler his wealth was an idol because he would not let Jesus be more valuable to him.  For some their idol is revealed in the fact that they will not let Jesus tell them what is sexually permissible.  For others bitterness is an idol that keeps them out of the kingdom - they will not forgive and so they will not be forgiven.  

God wants to make you beautiful.  He wants to wash away the ugliness that you sin has created.  He wants you to experience forgiveness and change.  He wants to begin a process of making your character more like that of Jesus.  But the people of Judah did not want to be made beautiful.  So Jeremiah told them that the Babylonians would come, conquer them and take them into exile.  'Listen! The report is coming – a great commotion from the land of the north!  It will make the towns of Judah desolate, a haunt of jackals' (10:22).

If Jeremiah was to speak to us he would address our idols, our lies and our greed.  He would remind us that all the unrepentant face a judgement far worse than exile.  But he would also point to a gracious God who calls people to repent; a loving God who punished his Son so that we could escape punishment; and a God who wants to make us beautiful by making us like him.
 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Jeremiah 1-6 'The wife who turns to adultery'

We are about to begin a whistle-stop tour of one of the largest books of the Bible, the book of Jeremiah.  Here we will see the passion of a prophet who weeps over an unrepentant people.  Here we will see the wonderful kindness of the God who offers grace to the most obstinate of nations.  Here we see that human wickedness does not thwart God's plans for the world.

This morning we are going to look at the first six chapters of this book.  We will be introduced to Jeremiah and hear a call to repentance.

Introduction (chapter 1)

Four miles to the north-east of Jerusalem lay the town of Anathoth.  There lived a man in his late teens called Jeremiah.  The word of The Lord came to him during the thirteenth year of king Josiah of Judah.  That's 627 B.C.

At this stage in the unfolding plan of the Old Testament God had rescued his people from Egypt and brought them through the wilderness into the promised land.  Yet the people continually rebelled against God.  So God divided the kingdom in two.  They kept on rebelling so God had the Assyrians conquer the northern kingdom (Israel) and take its people into exile.  The southern kingdom (Judah) did not learn from this.

At the end of chapter one God gives Jeremiah two pictures.  The almond tree was the first tree to bud.   When the people saw it budding they knew that spring was coming.  In the same way, when they hear God's word they need to realise that God is about to act.  Then there is the boiling pot facing away from the north.  If the people of Judah do not turn back to God its contents will be poured out.  The coming of the Babylonians to Jerusalem casts a shadow over this entire book.

The faithless spouse (2:1-3:5)

At the beginning of chapter two Jeremiah is sent to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah (the southern kingdom).  But his message begins with Israel (the northern kingdom).  Israel had been conquered and scattered because they had gone from being a enamoured bride to an adulteress wife.  God had rescued all his people from Egypt and this had caused the people of Israel to delight in their God.  But their love had not lasted beyond the honeymoon.  Israel was soon chasing after the gods of the local fertility cults.  We might be reminded of Jesus' words, in the book of Revelation, to the church at Ephesus: 'but I have this against you, that you abandoned the love you had at first' (Rev. 2:4).

They had committed two evils.  'They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves; broken cisterns that hold no water' (2:13).

We are designed to seek meaning in life.  The desire for pleasure is not necessarily wrong.  But Jesus said he is the living water that is to satisfy our spiritual thirst (John 4:10-14).  Only in him can we experience true peace with God.  Life without him is like a movie with the main character removed.  I had a teacher who used to see us eating junk and declare that, 'you are what you eat.'  God declares 'you become what you worship.'  If you worship at the temple of materialism, if you praise the idol of popularity, if you pay homage to image, you will become as fickle as the celebrities that act as the priests for those gods.

The need to turn (3:6-4:4)

While God had judged the northern kingdom of Israel, sending the Assyrians to conquer and scatter them, God still calls them to repent.  'I will not look on you with anger, for I am merciful,' declares The Lord (3:12).

This teaching on repentance centres on the need for a new heart.  Do you find yourself continually being tripped up by the same temptations?  Ask God to do a work in your heart.  Ask him to give you an increased distaste for this sin and a renewed passion to honour him through obedience.  We need to acknowledge our guilt (3:13) and have God heal our unfaithfulness (3:22).  

Come thou fount of every blessing ... Bind my wandering heart to Thee.  Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.

Warning of judgement (4:5-31)

Despite witnessing God's judgement on Israel the people of Judah had not learned anything.  Indeed now they were worse than Israel (3:11).  It is interesting that these words were spoken during the reign of Josiah.  Josiah was a great king who sought to reform the religion of his day but the people had not followed him.  God now addresses Judah with a warning of judgement.  Disaster will come from the north.

Look at how Jeremiah feels about this.  He writhes in pain at the thought of what is going to happen to his people (4:19).  Remember how Moses wanted to be cursed rather than have his people punished for their idolatry (Exodus 32:30-32).  The apostle Paul experienced unceasing anguish when he saw his people reject the Saviour (Romans 9:1-2).  This sorrow reflects the heart of God.  Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37).  God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but wants them to repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11).

Becoming a Christian brings us many joys.  The Christian life is to be characterised by grace and peace.  But the Christian life is not immune from sorrows.  Living in Christ heightens our compassion.  Now our heart breaks when we see that person, who used to say they follow Jesus, walk at a distance from him.  Now our heart breaks when we see loved ones refuse God's wonderful over of forgiveness and life.  We plead with them to repent and we cry over their hardness of heart.

The quest for a righteous person (5:1-31)

At the beginning of chapter five God tells Jeremiah to go into Jerusalem to see if he can find one person in who does justice and seeks truth so that I may pardon her the whole city.  In this book we will see the link between repentance and justice for the most vulnerable in society.  The love of God within us she cause us to share his concern for the widow, the migrant, the poor and the fatherless.

This search for one righteous person might remind us of Abraham pleading with God over the wicked city of Sodom.  Abraham was shown that God was willing to spare that whole city for the sake of ten righteous people living there.  God is always slow to to anger and patient before he brings judgement.  But there were not ten righteousness people in Sodom.  

This scene in Jeremiah should also point us forward to Jesus.  A whole people being spared judgement if one righteous man can be found.  We are a community of people who have been spared judgement because of one righteous man amongst us.  We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but we are saved because of Jesus, our righteous Saviour.

The consequences of not repenting (6:1-30)

Finally, in chapter six, we see the consequences of the people's refusal to repent.  They had no compassion towards those in need (6:7).  They took no pleasure in the word of God (6:10).  They were greedy and corrupt (6:13).  They heard God's warning and invitations but refused to repent (6:16).  They went through the motions of worship, they went to the temple, but their hearts were not right with God (6:20).  So the coming judgement is inevitable.  They perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved.

Conclusion

The people of Israel and Judah were in a unique position.  They were inheritors of the promises to Abraham but not all of them were living in relationship with God.  In the New Testament there is no exact equivalent.  You are either in the new covenant community and in relationship with God or not.  I suppose the closest we come to unbelieving people in Israel and Judah are people who have come close to the church and the gospel but have not actually been born again.  They might think they are Christians but they are not.  Jesus warned that not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sitting here week by week in church cannot save you.  Being able to name the day or hour you prayed a prayer at a religious meeting does not necessarily make you a Christian.  What matters is faith expressing itself in love (Galatians 6:15).  What makes you a Christian is God bringing you to a place of repentance and maintaining you in a life of repentance.  A relationship with him involves forgiveness and transformation.  Test yourselves and see that you are in the faith.

Does his presence within cause us to be compassionate towards those in need?  Do we love his word which enables us to see more of God's truth and beauty?  Do we share his brokenness over people who refuse to come to him?  Have we kept our first love for God and his people (as a Christian your best days of faith should always be ahead of you)?  Are our words characterised by the Spirit of truth (and not the father of lies)?  

May we be found in the faith and as people who love God may we see from these verses how God wants us to live, delighting to live lives that seek to please him!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Revelation and the church

The word translated 'church' in the New Testament means 'an assembly' .  Church is people rather than place.  Church is community not buildings.  The New Testament never speaks of the house of God but does speak of the household of God.  Look around at the Christians gathered here this morning and you see church.  Look around at the walls and roof of this place and you see the rain-shelter in which the church meets.

This morning we are looking at the church in Revelation.  The first thing that we see is that the church consists of people who are loved by Christ (1:5).  Yet in the world not everyone shares Christ's passion for his people.  The book of Revelation speaks of satanically-inspired enemies of the church. The church will be persecuted in the world.  But we do not lose hope because we are journeying through this world to a wonderful home.

1.  The church needs to listen to Jesus (1:9-3:22)

In 1997 I went on a holiday with my parents.  We visited the sites of the towns mentioned in the first three chapters of this book.  They were in the Roman province of Asia which is now in modern Turkey.  Ephesus and Pergamum are still amongst the most amazing places I have ever been to.

While the church is made up of every Christian it consists of local groups of believers meeting together.  Jesus addresses seven of these local churches.  It is worth noting that the number seven is symbolic of completeness and that there were at least ten churches in Asia at that time.  Therefore it is safe to say that these churches are chosen representatives and that these words are for every church at every time.

When we read these letters to the churches we should ask:  Are we like the church at Ephesus, with its sound theology but lack of love?  Are we like the church at Thyatira, which was hard working but tolerant of immorality and compromise?  Are we aiming to be like the church at Philadelphia, who kept Christ's word and would not deny his name?  Are we wanting to be like the church at Smyrna, which was materially poor and spiritually rich (unlike Laodicea, which was materially rich and yet spiritually poor)?

While these letters to the churches call for community repentance notice that they finish on a note of individual repentance (3:20).  'If anyone hears by voice ...'  The church is not made more beautiful by members pointing to the faults of others.  A critical spirit never made the bride of Christ more lovely.  Revival of the church begins with individual Christians repenting, opening themselves up to more of the influence of Christ, and inspiring others to do likewise.

2.  The church is persecuted in the world (4:1-20:15)

I believe the book of Revelation has a message for every generation of the church.  While the beast-like powers, of chapters thirteen and fourteen, may have a particular fulfilment in the period immediately preceding Christ's return they have their equivalents throughout the ages.  The first hearers of Revelation would have had no trouble relating these figures to the government of the Roman emperor Domitian as he presented himself as being divine and persecuted those who would not worship him.

The beast from the sea represents religious or political ideologies that oppose the gospel.  This beast delights to see us keep our mouth shut about Jesus.  This beast would have us deny that Jesus is the only way to God.  This beast would have us water-down a gospel that proclaims the desperate need all people have to be forgiven and restored to God.

The beast from the land represents political regimes and economic structures that persecute the church.  This beast delights when he sees us compromise for financial gain.  This beast would enjoy seeing Christians distort their tax returns and work outside the tax system.  This beast would approve of unethical business practices and the black market.

Ultimately the beast from the land and the beast from the sea want our total allegiance.  They will stop at nothing to get their way.  The powers that be will kill to get their way.

Why does God allow the church to suffer in this world?  He allows the church suffer in this world because as the church stands firm she is being refined and made beautiful.  In this world the church is a bride being prepared for her wedding day.

Will we survive all the tribulations we face in this world?  Christians may die but they will remain faithful.  Tribulation, persecution, danger and sword can not separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8).  Christ has sealed those who are his (7:4).  God will keep us firm to the end.  Those who love Christ will face the allure of materialism, the pressure to compromise, the temptations of affluence, and the danger of spiritual complacency.  But we will show that we are his as he gives us the power to overcome.

3.  The church is on a pilgrimage to a land of love (Chapters 21-22)

While the church faces pressures in this world she looks with anticipation to what is to come.  The final chapters of Revelation show us Christ's people gathered together in a world of love.  In the 1700s, referring to the closing chapters in Revelation, Jonathan Edwards wrote: “The glorious presence of God in heaven, fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens [the sky] in a clear day, fills the world with light.” (Rev. 21:23).  “All the saints in heaven love God for his own sake, and each other for God’s sake, and for the sake of the relation that they have to him, and the image of God that is upon them.”

While pride and selfishness hinder our love for God and his people in this world in the New Heaven and New Earth all such barriers to love will have been torn down.  Even now the love we experience for God and his people gives us a taste of what is to come.  “That which was in the heart on earth as but a grain of mustard-seed, shall be as a great tree in heaven.  The soul that in this world had only a little spark of divine love in it, in heaven shall be, as it were, turned into a bright and ardent flame, like the sun in its fullest brightness, when it has no spot upon it.”

“And oh! what joy will there be, springing up in the hearts of the saints, after they have passed through their wearisome pilgrimage, to be brought to such a paradise as this!  Here is joy unspeakable indeed, and full of glory — joy that is humble, holy, enrapturing, and divine in its perfection!  Love is always a sweet principle; and especially divine love.  This, even on earth, is a spring of sweetness; but in heaven it shall become a stream, a river, an ocean!"

Conclusion

I remember listening to a speaker who asked what our favourite picture of the church was.  I think I said mine was the bride of Christ.  In Revelation we see that the church is a people loved by Jesus.  He allows us suffer in this world but gives us the grace to endure.  In this world the church is being prepared as a bride for her wedding day.  The pressures we face purify and refine us.  Like every bride we look forward to the wedding.  For we are on our way to a world of love.  We are going to join Christ forever.  The book of Revelation finishes with a reminder of our evangelistic task.  We see the bride of Christ issue an invitation to all.  'The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price' (22:17).

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Gospel and Revelation

I am sure that you have all heard about twitter.  Twitter is a social media site where you post your opinions in one hundred and forty characters or less.  A number of years ago a controversial Christian leader decided that he would post his understanding of the gospel in a tweet.  He wrote: "The gospel is the counterintuitive, joyous, exuberant news that Jesus has brought the unending, limitless, stunning love of God to even us".  I don't see anything wrong with that except for the fact that it uses big words and lacks content.

A better tweet came from a friend of mine who wrote: "The gospel is the news that God, in great love and at great cost, has provided the effective means of rescue for a world that is doomed" (David Blevins).  I like another tweet of the gospel which points out that "our sin is so serious that nothing but the death of God's own Son could deal with it; which is what God has done for us" (adapted from Randy Newman).

How would you tweet the gospel?  You might look to the book of Revelation for help.  For Revelation is a gospel book.  We are going to look at the gospel in Revelation and then try to write a tweet about what we have learned.

'Tell me the old, old story'

'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.'  Humankind has a special place in this creation, we are uniquely made in the image of God.  God put the first two humans in the Garden of Eden and lived in relationship with them.  So we can speak of God's people, in God's place enjoying God's blessing.  But this human pair rebelled against God.  Now sin separates us from God, we no longer live Eden, our world is under God's curse and we are subject to death.

However God set about restoring what humankind lost.  He made a promise to a man he would call Abraham.  This promise spoke of a new people, who would live in a new place and experience God's blessing.  Indeed he promised that through Abraham's seed all the nations of the world would be blessed.  The whole of the Old Testament is the outworking of this promise.  We see a chosen people, trying to live in a promised land and enjoy relationship with God.

Like Adam and Eve that Old Testament people continued to sin.  Like Adam and Eve they were kicked out of he promised land.  Yet God was not finished with his promises.  At just the right time he sends Jesus who gathers a new people and brings them into a new creation.  We see the fulfilment of this in the book of Revelation.  Here we read of a new heaven and new earth and see God's people, in God's place, enjoying God's blessing.

We hear echoes of Genesis in the book of Revelation.  The heavens and the earth become a new heaven and a new earth.  The tree of life is there (22:2).  We see that God has undone the curse that followed the fall, there is no longer a curse (22:3).  While death followed the initial rebellion in Revelation we read 'blessed or those ho die in The Lord (14:13).  God had promised he would bless the whole world through Abraham's seed; in Revelation we see a multitude gathered from every tribe and tongue (7:9).

The first part of our tweet: 'God restores what humanity lost.'

'Nothing but the blood of Jesus'

I once read a blog post where the blogger was giving out about all those hymns that are obsessed with the blood of Jesus.  But the blood of Jesus is essential to the gospel.  

The first announcement of the gospel comes immediately after the fall.  In cursing the serpent, which Revelation tells us is the devil, God says 'And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel' (Genesis 3:15).  A descendent of the woman will be bitten by the devil and yet will finish the devil off.  Just like the whole of the Old Testament is a working out of the promises to Abraham it is also a great search for this serpent-crusher.

In Revelation we read of the strike and the crushing.  On the cross, wicked people, inspired by the devil, crucify God's beloved Son.  Yet that apparent victory signals defeat for the devil.  For Jesus is the one 'who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood ...' (1:5).  It is only a matter of him before the devil is thrown into the lake of burning and tormented day and night for ever and ever (20:10).

So we continue our tweet: 'God restores what humanity lost. His Son dies freeing us from guilt.'

'Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place'

We should all know that becoming a Christian is all about what God has done for us not what we do for God.  We are told that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works, so no person can boast.  We see this portrayed in Revelation.  There we read about being freed from our sins by Jesus' blood (1:5b) and of those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (7:14).  But while we are not saved by good works we are saved for good works.  God's Holy Spirit dwelling within us brings inevitable change.  Our changed lives serve as proof that we have been rescued from sin.  

'And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life.  The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books' (20:12).  On one hand we will stand on the day of judgement simply because of the mercy of God.  He has put our names in the book of life and washed away all our guilt by the blood of Jesus.  On the other hand we will be saved because our lives demonstrate the transforming power of the Christ's indwelling presence.

'Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city' (22:14).  We are people who been sinful and yet we have been forgiven.  'Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood' (22:15).  It is not just notorious sinners who are left outside.  Jesus equated lust with adultery and hatred with murder.  The apostle Paul called greed idolatry.  It is is not that Christians never fail, the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin (1 John 1:7).  But if we don't take God's call to be a holy people seriously and if we refuse to let him tell us how we should live our lives then we are demonstrating that we have never been born again.

So we continue our tweet: 'God restores what humanity lost. His Son dies freeing us from guilt.  Transforming our lives in the hope of eternal joy.'

Conclusion

I would want to finish our explanation of the gospel in Revelation with an invitation.  Revelation invites us to repent.  The gospel calls us to repentance.  It tells us to turn around and place our trust in Jesus.  This book contains two of the most open and gracious invitations in the whole of the Bible.

So our tweet of the gospel according to Revelation is: 'God restores what humanity lost. His Son dies freeing us from guilt.  Transforming our lives in the hope of eternal joy. So repent and live.'


Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jesus and Revelation

A. W. Tozer writes, 'I warn you that it is entirely possible to turn the Revelation into a source of blight to your soul.  On the other hand, it is possible to find in this Revelation a great source of light and blessing'.

Some people read Revelation to speculate about how it might fit together with world politics.  Often they end up feeling proud of themselves for seeing things that the rest of us are ignorant about.  Time always proves their speculations wrong.  They have read this book to the blight of their soul.

Other people read Revelation to see Jesus and to learn how to be faithful to him during times of tribulation.  For them Revelation is a great source of blessing, and God uses it to prepare them for heaven.  

Our first look at this book seeks to see something of what it says about Jesus.

Jesus: the divine and human lord (chapter one)

'The revelation (or unveiling) of Jesus Christ ...' (1:1).  Jesus is both the one who is revealing and the one who is revealed.  He is the central theme of this book.   The opening chapter gives us a resplendent picture of Christ.

Christians are called to be witnesses in the world as we imitate the one who is the faithful witness.  Christians have hope in the world because Jesus is the firstborn of the dead (we will be raised in him).  Christians have confidence in the world because he is the ruler of the kings of the earth (even though the first hearers of Revelation were subject to the emperor Domitian they needed to realise that he was subject to their Lord).  Christians have joy because Jesus is our saviour who loves us and has freed us from our sins by our blood.  Christians look forward to the end of time because Jesus is set to return.

John, who was imprisoned on the island of Patmos, hears a voice and turns to see Jesus.  In Revelation we see that Jesus is fully human and yet fully God.  

Jesus is called the Son of Man.  The Son of Man was a glorious figure in Daniel who was both a human person and a divine person.  I think that is mind blowing to think that Jesus is still human.  He took on flesh and was born as a baby, he was raised from the dead with a glorious human body, and now he sits at the right hand of the Father.  And what are the only manmade things in heaven?  The scars of his crucifixion which are still visible to see.

The Jehovah's Witnesses will tell you that Jesus is only an archangel and not God the Son.  The Unitarians deny that Jesus is truly divine.  Revelation proves otherwise.  Look at the title given to The Lord God in verse eight: 'I am the Alpha and the Omega'.  Now turn to the title given to the Son in chapter twenty-two verse thirteen: Jesus says, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega'.  Right throughout the New Testament we see Jesus being given titles that belong only to God.

Another pointer showing that Jesus is God the Son is in the fact that he receives worship.  I find it quiet amusing that on a couple of occasions John gets overcome by what he sees and falls down to worship the angel who is explaining the vision.  John gets rebuked.  The angel says, 'You must not do that!  I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets ... Worship God!' (22:9).  Yet in the book of Revelation we clearly see Jesus being worshipped.

In chapter one we see Jesus' royalty as he is clothed in fine robes with a sash around his waist; he is the King of kings.  He is infinitely wise, as is shown in his white hair (the ancients knew that wisdom should come with age).  He has eyes like flaming fire that same see beyond any facade; thank God that the one who knows us better than anyone else nevertheless loves us better than anyone else!  He knows our sins and yet has freed us from them by his blood.  He has feet of burnished bronze that will trample upon those who continue to resist him. But his people need fear nothing because he hold the keys of death and hell.  

Jesus: the one foretold in the Old Testament (chapters four and five)

A friend of a friend gave me a book that he claimed had changed his life.  It was an exposition of chapters four and five of Revelation.  My friend's friend was right.  Seeing the splendour of God, portrayed so amazingly in these two chapters, should turn our world upside down.

We are given a picture of heavenly reality.  The focus on chapter four is on God the Father and then chapter five turns to God the Son.

The Son is called the Lamb.  Why?  Because the book of Isaiah spoke of a lamb that would be lead to the slaughter and be sacrificed for the sins of his people.  “You are worthy to take the scroll ... you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9).

He is also the Lion of the tribe of Judah; in Genesis (49:8-12) Jacob had promised his son Judah that one of his descendants would be an eternal king.  A line of descendants went from Judah to king David, and king David was promised that one of his descendants would be the eternal king.  Jesus is the root of David - not only is he the Messiah coming from David's line, he is the source of David's rule.

Some people are impressed by the preacher who speculates about the book of Revelation and identifies figures in this book with political leaders.  But the teacher to be impressed with is the one who can take this book and show how it relates to the Old Testament.  For this book is filled with quotes, echoes, titles and allusions from the Old Testament.

Jesus: the conquerer (chapters six to twenty-one)

What follows from beginning of chapter six to the beginning of chapter twenty-one are a series of visions revolving around the number seven - for example there are seven seals opened, seven trumpets blown, seven bowls of wrath poured and seven woes pronounced.  I believe that these various scenes give portraits of what it is like to live in the time between Christ's first and second coming.  We live in a time characterised by famines, war, death and opposition to the truth.  Yet in all this Jesus is with us.  This portraits generally end with Jesus defeating all his enemies.

 '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 wages 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.  Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.  “He will rule them with an iron sceptre.”  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' (19:11-16).

Some students in a Christian college in America were having a hard time trying to figure out how to understand the book of Revelation.  They decided to take a break from their studies and have a game of basketball.  There in the corner of the hall was the elderly caretaker reading.
'What's that you're reading Joe?', one of the students asked.
'The book of Revelation,' he replied.
'Oh, you can't understand that,' the patronising student responded.
'Yes, I can,' said the caretaker, 'it's quite simple: Jesus wins!'

Jesus: the focus of eternal joy (chapters twenty to twenty-two)

The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon taught, 'If we are to overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by looking to Jesus.’  Whatever opinions you have on the book of Revelation remember that it is primarily an unveiling of the person of Jesus.  Look to him and ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to rejoice in him.  For you were made to delight in the three persons of the Trinity forever. 

Near the close of Revelation Jesus establishes his new heaven and new earth where he will be worshipped eternally.  If he is not your delight then heaven will never be your home.  John Piper asks, 'Can we really say that our people are being prepared for heaven where Christ himself, not his gifts, will be the supreme pleasure?  And if our people are unfit for that, will they even go there?'

'Lord Jesus, open our eyes to see the beauty of your character that we might be ready to enjoy you now and always'.  Amen.  


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Prophecy in preaching

Before John Piper preaches he often prays that God would give him prophetic insights that would drive the truth home for his listeners.  On one occasion this happened in a dramatic way.

John was preaching on small groups and reminding the congregation of the fact that you can set up a small group anywhere.  He encouraged people to think about trying investigative Bible studies with their non-Christian friends.  Then, off script, he gave an illustration.  'You might even work on the 34th floor of the IDS tower.  Maybe you should call your people together and have a small group meeting.'

After the service a woman approached him and asked, 'why did you say that?'
It turns out that she worked on the34th story of the IDS building and had been praying about starting a small group.