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Then I Looked

There is a recurring theme in the book of Revelation that you do not want to miss. The author will tell you about one thing that he sees or hears about. He will paint a picture, but then he will turn, and he will see something else. For example, in chapter 5, John hears that the lion of the tribe of Judah will take the scroll from the hand of God. But when John turns, he sees a lamb that appeared slain taking the scroll.

We see something like this at the beginning of chapter 14. Revelation 13 is a frightening chapter. There we see the dragon and the beast. We see the beast rise with the power of empire. And we see the mark of the beast, the 666 that has fascinated the world for so very long.

That mark indicates a name, though you will certainly hear much debate as to how that all works. The mark also apes the marking of the Lord. Back in chapter 7, God sealed people who belong to him, identifying them as his and under his protection.

Thus, another point behind that number of the beast is simply an identification that the people who hold that mark are identifiable as owned by the devil and by the rebellious, anti-God world system. Chapter 13 talks of people not being allowed to buy or sell without the mark. That, of course, reminds me of parts of our modern culture where people who do not mark themselves as standing with the world against the ways of the Lord are ostracized, ridiculed, or even fired for their refusal to applaud what God calls evil.

Chapter 13 ends ugly. It is scary. It looks like, with that beast and his mark, the devil is winning in the world. And then comes chapter 14.

Revelation 14:1 – Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.

Then John looked. As the scene got ugly, John turned, and God showed him something else, something deeper, something better. Yes the devil looked like he was winning. Yes, the devil looked like he had the world in the palm of his hand. But when John looked, he saw that the ugliness of sin was not the only thing to be seen.

Here in the beginning of chapter 14, John reminds us that God has sealed his own. The people of God bear the mark of the Lord. And even in the face of a corrupted, tainted, violent world system, the people of God are still able to stand with the Lamb. No matter how dark and how wicked the world gets, the Lord will not lose his own. And no matter how powerful it appears the beast gets, the Lord will not allow the world to finally fall to the enemy.

The world we live in right now can look ugly. Perhaps it will get worse. But the truth beneath it all is something we need to see from Revelation. You may look and see the messed-up system around you, but that is not the final truth. The final truth is that God knows his own. God marks his own. God keeps his own. And the Lord God will preserve his own. This world may hate us. It may even kill us. But God will keep us. The Lord Jesus will return. We will have, in Christ, victory and resurrection life. The evil will not win. The Savior will be victorious. And Jesus will reign with those who are marked as his own forever.

Do not let the darkness of this world make you lose hope. Even now, we still carry the gospel to the nations and watch our sovereign God make disciples. Even now, we stand in opposition to the world that marks itself as following anything but the word of God. Even now we call people to repent. Even now we push back the darkness. WE see victory. We see setbacks. And we live in true hope, true knowledge that, at the end of it all, Jesus will reign. So, yes, we see ugliness. But then we look, just like John did, and we see the Lord still standing and still holding firm to his own.

A Real Reason for Celebration

I have often been helped by John Piper’s discussion of duty versus delight in the Christian life. Piper points out that it is more to God’s glory and more to our good when we obey, not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a delight in the glory of our God. It is better for us to seek the joy of honoring the Lord than it is for us to simply obey like a child being forced to eat an unsavory vegetable dish. Of course, Piper does not suggest that disobedience is ever a good option, but obedience out of delight is better.

I thought of this concept as I was reading through the latter chapters of Isaiah.

Isaiah 61:10–11 (ESV)

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;

my soul shall exult in my God,

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,

and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

to sprout up before all the nations.

In this text, the prophet declares in glorious Hebrew poetry that he will rejoice in the Lord. The words used are strong words. He will rejoice. He will exult in God. This is deep, emotional, joy-filled celebration. This is not mere duty. This is the prophet saying that he is going to celebrate God with all he’s got.

Why will he celebrate the Lord? The simple answer is salvation. The prophet will celebrate God because the God he is going to celebrate has robed him with salvation. The Lord has dressed his prophet in righteousness, and Isaiah says that it is like the fine clothes a couple puts on for their wedding day.

Stop and consider what it means, Christian, to be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Compare that to what it would look like to be clothed in the best righteousness you can muster. If we are left to ourselves, our garments would be tattered and filthy. No righteousness of our own would be acceptable to the Lord. And the best metaphors that we have for how nasty our garments would be, well, it is rough to say the least.

But then consider that God gives us a new robe, a clean set of clothes. We cannot appear before God in our righteousness lest we die forever. But God covers us in the righteousness of his Son. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life as the God-Man. And God the Father will clothe us in that perfect righteousness of Christ, imputing to us a perfection that we have never lived and could never live.

When you take time to consider the gift of salvation and righteousness, it should cause you to celebrate. This is great news! This is glorious stuff! And verse 11 says that, from this concept, the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up like garden plants. Our salvation will result in sanctification, as we desire to live to please our Lord. Our salvation will also result in praise, as we will joyfully celebrate, we will exult in, the grace and glory of our God.

Plain Truth in a Strange Passage

Because I read through a Bible-in-a-year plan on a regular basis, I often find myself in the book of Revelation as the year closes. Some years I find myself more fascinated with the mysteries. Others I find myself hard pressed to want to again consider what all the symbols might mean. In all instances, I am reminded of the glory of God, the ugliness of sin, and the victory of Christ.

At times, as we study a book like Revelation, it can be an incredibly helpful thing, in the light of such mysterious language, to find something very straight forward, very simple. And something like that hit me in my read through Revelation 9. No, it is not a pleasant passage, but it is surely clear.

The context is the trumpets of Revelation 8 and 9. In those chapters, we have seen some terrifying disasters. And the text has described for us fantastic creatures bringing much death. And while many will debate what those creatures are or what they symbolize, the reaction of humanity to them is telling. And that reaction is not a mystery at all.

Revelation 9:20-21

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

When the people of the earth in the book of Revelation are faced with the horrors of these creatures, when they come face-to-face with their own mortality, the people do not change. One might think that a reminder that we live in a world that is well beyond our control might have an impact. One might think that that a reminder that we die, and that there is a judgment to come, would change the hearts of men and women. But the word of God is clear that it does not. When mankind is set on rebellion, logic and emotion are powerless to change us.

What did the people cling to in the passage? The list is awful. They would not repent of their idolatry—no surprise there. But they also would not repent of murder, sorcery, sexual immorality, or theft. People facing the judgment of God will still kill. People facing the clear evidence of the power of God will still worship false gods or turn to fortune-tellers. People, even in a world that is falling to pieces, will cling to sexual immorality and materialism. Human nature is depraved.

Now, let’s think of three quick things. First, we see in this text that certain sins are a big deal to God. We must not allow our culture to tell us that, since society has moved on to a new consciousness, the old morality no longer applies. God is the one who tells us what is right and what is wrong. Idolatry and sorcery, false religion and the embracing of supposed spiritual energies and powers, are direct assaults on the glory of God. Murder and theft, things we basically still see as criminal, are things God hates. And right there in the list, even in the face of the eye roll and sneer of society, is sexual immorality. God takes these sins seriously. And one way we know they are all significantly evil is that God includes them in the list of sins that man doubles-down on to his own destruction.

Second, just note the basic depravity of humanity. I’m using that word in a technical and theological sense, not as an intended insult or expression of exasperation. Ever since the fall of mankind, humanity has been corrupted by sin. Every aspect of our humanity is fallen. Our nature is to oppose the Lord. By the grace of God, people do not tend to be as evil as we possibly could be. But the fall of man has so impacted us that it is impossible for a human being, apart from the transforming grace of God, to be pure before God. And that depravity is so deep-seeded that, even in the face of genuine judgment, humanity will scratch and claw and fight to keep our sin rather than submit to the God who made us.

And that leads me to my third thought today. How great is the grace of God? I am just like the people in the verses above. I am, by nature, nasty to the core. I would fight God tooth and nail were it not for one simple thing: God saved me. The sovereign God over all the universe and beyond did a work of supernatural power in my soul to bring me to himself. After God transformed my spiritual heart and made me spiritually alive, I repented of sin and believed in Christ for salvation. I have never yet been anything like perfect. Some of the worst things I’ve ever thought or worst impulses I’ve ever acted upon were still in my future. But the Lord had changed me. I could no longer sin without conviction. And, by the grace of God, my desires began to be turned to the Lord and his glory and not toward my natural evil.

God is good, mighty and gracious. He is the only one who can change a human being who would otherwise spit defiance at him with his dying breath. May we allow these moments of clarity in Revelation, these scenes that are not at all difficult to interpret, to remind us of the power and grace of God. Mankind is irreparably fallen. We, by nature, will never turn to the Lord. Sin is significant, no matter what culture thinks. But God is gloriously gracious. He saves sinners, transforming us from what we would naturally be into something that can truly honor him. Let us repent and be amazed at the grace of our God.

What We Lose When We Ignore Eschatology

Prophecy can be a tough subject. People in churches get very passionate about the study of the end times. Yet, people also recognize that this topic is hardly a settled issue. We find all sorts of views about the millennium, about the tribulation, about the church, about Israel, and about the return of Christ.

One sad thing as we consider the topic of eschatology, the study of last things, is that many Christians give up quickly. Many will see the conflict that has happened among groups, and they will decide that we just cannot figure it out. Many will see the odd images in apocalyptic literature and will determine that this is just too much to deal with. Some will look at the broad segment of the church that embraces end-times fiction novels on the one hand, then look at the segment of the church that mercilessly makes fun of that genre on the other hand, and they decide that there is no value in trying to figure it out.

But when we ignore end-times thinking, we stop thinking about some of the things that are abundantly clear in Scripture. When we stop thinking about the fact that Christ will wrap up history and return in triumph, we can become far too this worldly minded.

Revelation 5:12-17

12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Here in Revelation 5, we witness the opening of the sixth seal on the scroll that was in the hand of God. We have already seen the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the cry of the martyrs for justice. Now we see what surely looks like a glimpse of the very end.

What must we see? There is coming a day when the world as we know it will change. Verses 12-13 talk about incredible signs in the heavens. That language, in the Old Testament, is applied to the turning upside-down of a nation as kings and governments fall. That is the minimum those verses mean, that the world structure as we know it will be utterly changed, that national powers will fall. Of course, it could be that genuine, never-before-seen signs in the skies will happen.

Verse 14 talks of the heavens being rolled up like a scroll. We have nothing in our history to compare to that. It appears that a moment is coming when all that people have relied on as solid and stable, all that the naturalist has rested on as unchanging, will indeed be changed. Mountains, islands, skies, all things will change in a moment.

The result, in verses 16and 17, is that all kinds of people tremble. Rich people and poor people, powerful people and weak people, military people and civilian people, all people tremble as the return of the Savior is made plain. People know that Jesus is returning, and for the first time in their lives, many people will realize that they are face-to-face with the right wrath of God.

How much of this is literal? How much is figurative? I’m not terribly worried about those questions right now. Instead, note the question that the kings of the world will ask at the return of Jesus: “Who can stand?” Who can stand when the Savior returns? Who can face him? Who can oppose him? Who can stay his hand? Who can turn back his wrath?

The answer to that significant question is obvious. No person can stand against the Lord Jesus at his return. No power can hold him back. If the sun, moon, stars, islands, mountains, thrones, kings, and armies have no power over Jesus, neither will any other force in the universe you can imagine.

What we lose when we get bogged down in arguments over the end times, or even worse, when we refuse to think about the end times, is the biblical reminder that Jesus is coming, and no human power or spiritual force can stand against him. Jesus will return, and he will impose his will. Jesus will return, and the judgment of God will fall on those who have hated him. Jesus will return, and all who are under his grace will receive his blessing.

It is so easy to look at this world and think that it is all there is. WE see the sky and think it is immoveable. We see the mountains and we just know they are steady. We see strong nations and, contrary to the lessons of all of history, we think they will stand forever. And we forget that the nations have no stability in the face of the Savior. The devil and his demons have no strength to stand against the Savior. We have no more power to hold Jesus back than one human being has the power to hold back a falling mountain. Our Savior is coming back. He will reign. He will change the world. And we must never lose that truth, regardless of how hard anything else is in an end times discussion.

Terrifying and Welcoming

How do we know what God is like? We do not know from our personal experience and observation, at least not infallibly. Your experiences and mine are all questionable. We miss things and misinterpret things. But God has revealed himself perfectly in Scripture. And, of course, God revealed himself through the incarnation, life, and teaching of the Lord Jesus. This may well be one reason why Jesus is known as the “word” who is with God and who is God in John 1:1.

When you think of Jesus, what do you think of? In general, we immediately go to the gracious scenes. We think of children flocking to the Savior to sit on his knee and hug his neck. We think of Jesus smiling and turning water to wine to save a wedding from disaster. We think of Jesus walking on the sea and beckoning Peter to join him. We think of the disciples sharing a meal, reclining at table near to one another in fellowship. We think of Jesus healing and feeding and doing kindness.

And all of these are right thoughts about Jesus. All of these are right thoughts about who God is. God is love and loving. God is gracious and compassionate. God is faithful. God invites his people to come to him for soul satisfaction.

But let us not only see one part of the revelation of who God is.

Revelation 4:5a – From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…

In Revelation 4, John gets a glimpse of God the Father on the throne of the universe, and that vision is literally awesome. He sees colors and beauty of such brilliance he can only describe the scene as similar to the beauty of the most precious stones he knew. He sees a scene of such authority that crowned elders fall on their faces as angels declare God to be “Holy, holy, holy.” And he sees a throne that sends forth thunder and lightning.

Just think of the lightning and rumblings of the throne in Revelation 4:5. What do they tell us? They show us that God is mighty. They show us that God’s power and judgments are terrifying. They show us that God is one we approach with caution.

The beauty is, the Father on the throne and the Son holding children are the same God. When Phillip asked Jesus to show the disciples the Father, Jesus’ response was, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). The same Jesus who gently healed the sick and who had dinner with sinners is also the same Jesus whose eyes flashed with lightning as he stormed through the temple courts, overturning tables and driving out criminals.

As we think about the birth of the Savior and the celebration of Christmas, I think it would be wise for us to try to remember all that God is, as that will help us to be faithful as we celebrate the Savior. Jesus is loving and gentle. Jesus is holy and awesome. Jesus is one we can approach in humble surrender and know he will receive us by grace through faith. Jesus is the God whose throne flashes lightning and rumblings and peals of thunder. The one who became flesh is still the God who created the universe. So let us rejoice in him. Let us feel that warm joy of Christmas. And let us bow down and cry, “Holy!”

A House of Prayer for All Nations-Not a Divided Body

How concerned should a Christian be with his or her particular people group? Is it required that we look deeply into who are our ancestors? Is the color of our skin or the sins of our long-dead forefathers important to who we are in the church today? Is there a call for the church to divide people based on past wrongs or perceived social advantages in the present?

I wish such questions were merely theoretical, but if you pay attention to the things being said in the church in America today, you will see that the move toward an embrace of social justice causes has begun to bring about division in the body. People are now beginning to put descriptor words in front of the word Christian to say what they are. There is a focus, on the part of some, on identifying as white Christians, black Christians, Hispanic Christians, etc. We would love to think that the church would remember that ethnic divisions and social stigmas have no place in the church, but such is not the case today.

Surprisingly, I thought of this issue in my read through Isaiah, a place I was not expecting to bring it to mind.

Isaiah 56:3-8

3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
8 The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”

Do you recall when Jesus cleansed the temple by turning over the tables of the money-changers? The Savior quoted from this passage of Isaiah. He reminded the religious leadership that his Father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations. People from all people groups were to be able to come to that place and find a pure experience of the worship of God. And the religious leaders were causing divisions, erecting barricades. When the Jews charged exorbitant amounts for people to exchange their currency for temple currency, were they not discriminating against the foreigner even more than the Israelite? Jesus saw that the religious leaders were doing things, not to unite a people of God, but to heighten animosity between people groups.

Interestingly, in the context of the passage that Jesus quoted as he drove out the animal-sellers, the Lord says that the foreigner is not to say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people.” Even during the days of national Israel, where there was a difference between Jew and gentile, God made it plain that there will not ultimately be a separation. The foreigner who comes to the Lord in faithful worship is not to feel separated. The foreigner is to stop identifying as foreign, outcast, different and simply identify as a worshipper of God. As we see in verses 7-8, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

If the Lord tells the foreigner not to think of himself as foreign anymore, if the Lord says that his house is a house of prayer for all peoples, are we not undermining the very fabric of the grace of God when we strive to reintroduce to the people of God division based on ethnicity? Of course we want to be honest about our past and admit that true evil has been done in the sin of racism. However, to then move forward and call upon people to continually walk in shame based on their ancestors’ sins or to tell another group they should separate and seek out theology only from those whose skin color matches their own, that is exactly the opposite of what this passage is about. The word of God points to a people of God, a single people of God, a people who are not defined as foreigners and insiders. We are just one people.

And this is exactly what the New Testament is telling us. When we see that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek (cf. Gal. 3:28; , Col. 3:11), we see that God has no interest in our bringing about any sort of division in the church based on skin color, national history, birthplace, language, social class, advantage or disadvantage, or anything else. . One beauty of the gospel is that God brings together for himself a multitude from every nation. And when that multitude is together, we have no hint in Scripture that the church is to take time to ask people to apologize for their nation of origin. The New Testament does not include stories of Romans apologizing to Jews for the cruelty of the emperors. The New Testament does not include stories of men apologizing to women in the church for the way that the society at large has treated them. Instead, the New Testament is clear that, once we are gathered together into the body of Christ, our divisions are taken off and we look at one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity is not national anymore. Our identity is not our past. Our identity is the name of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, the imputed righteousness of Jesus.

Dear church, may we fulfill the word of God. We are being built together—all people, all colors, all pasts, all languages—to be a temple of God. We are one house. And may we be a house of prayer for all nations. May we never try to tell people that they, because of their skin color, must take a lower or seek a higher place. May we never lift anybody up or put anybody down because of the history of their forefathers. May we only see the people of God as one church, one body, one family of God.

Something We Believe But We Do Not Believe

Just for fun, let me share with you a familiar Bible verse. You know this one if you have been in church for any time at all. You probably can quote it. And of course you believe it—except maybe you don’t.

Isaiah 55:8-9

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What did God just say? He says that he does not think like we think. His thoughts and ways are above ours. How much above ours? God’s thoughts are infinitely above ours. How far up is up? How far is it to the end of the universe? That is an illustration of how much greater are God’s thoughts than ours.

We believe this. Really we do. WE know that God is infinitely above us. We know that his ways are not our ways. We know that he can see things we cannot see. We know that he knows the past, the present, and the future in ways that we cannot imagine.

But, then again, we do not believe this verse. We really don’t. How can I say that? Just consider when you come across a biblical concept that you struggle to understand. Especially consider when you come across a biblical concept that does not appeal to you. It might be hell. It might be theodicy. It might be election. It might be end times doctrine. What do you do when you struggle to understand something or understand the why behind something? Do you not assume that things are impossible if you cannot understand them?

How about when you face personal suffering? Do you demand an explanation from God? That is what Job did. Job thought he should be able to understand God’s reasoning. And when the Lord met with Job, the Lord made it clear that God’s thoughts are infinitely higher than Job’s thoughts. And then, at the end of it all, God never explained to Job his motivation. God simply helped Job to come to a place of accepting that God is big, Job is small, and that is OK.

We believe that God’s ways are higher than ours and his thoughts higher than ours. We know that God is infinitely above and beyond us in his wisdom. And then again we do not believe these things when we struggle to understand. May we become a people who rest in the truth that God’s ways are not ours. God does not think like us. God does not work like us. God’s knowledge is not limited like ours. God’s motives are not polluted with sin like ours. God is God and we are not.