Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Book of Life

When it comes to theories about the End of the World, books are in abundance. John's Revelation, in particular, has generated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books and articles which attempt to chart precise timetables for Christ's return, and the relevance of current events in the fulfillment of ancient prophecy.

As one example, there is the wildly popular Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which sees the prophecies of Revelation as entirely future, including the coming of the antichrist and his defeat by the armies of God in a final cataclymsmic battle. As an alternative point of view, Hank Hanegraaff published The Last Disciple in which he attempts to show that much of Revelation's prophecies were fulfilled in the first century...and that "the number of the beast" which is "six hundred and sixty six" quite possibly refers to Emperor Nero. I find it somewhat funny that these very different books have the very same publisher.

Taking the middle road, is Steve Wohlberg's End Time Delusions in which he tries to expose the falacies of either a futurist or preterist viewpoint and argues for the Reformed perspective, one that traces its roots all the way back to Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century: namely, that the presence of the evil one has been evident throughout human history; and that it is Christ's life, death, and resurrection which has limited his power, permitting the gospel to rapidly spread and bear fruit until his return. This view takes seriously Jesus' teaching that evil will coexist with God's people -- even in the midst of God's people -- until the Last Day (see Matthew 13: 24-30 and Jesus' Parable of the Weeds).

I want to emphasize that faithful Christians have held different views on the meaning of John's vision for centuries...but agree on the most important point: Christ is coming again to rule and reign, and he alone is the one true hope of the church and this world. My point in sharing all of this is not to promote one of these books (though I must acknowledge my Reformed perspective in the interpretation of John's magnificent vision) -- but to promote the Book. For in the end the only Book that really matters is the Lamb's Book of Life, and whether or not our names appear in its pages. In Revelation 20: 12-13, we read about that Book....

"And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books...."

The first book we may assume to be the Book of our Lives...the record of what we have done, whether good or ill in this life. John says that “the dead were judged according to their works as recorded in the books.” If we were judged by this book alone, who could stand? For "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Yet John assures us that it is not by the contents of this Book alone that we shall be judged…for there is "another Book" (Amen!) and it is the Lamb’s Book of Life. This is the Book and Record not of what we have done...but the record of what he has done for us; and John implies that the names of all those who have welcomed and received God's grace through him are written there.

Certainly we must care deeply about the Book of our lives, and what story is being written there. But even more important, we must care about the Book of his Life, the life of Jesus, who was given for us and through whom the story of your life and mine is redeemed and completed! We shall be judged by works -- John assures of that -- but the question is "By whose works shall we be judged -- ours, or his?" "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God not because of works, that no one should boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2: 8-9).

Friends, many books have been written, and no doubt many more shall be written before this present age is over. God has more work for us to do in this world, more to learn, more to accomplish as partners in his advancing kingdom on earth: indeed, this world has a glorious future in the Age to Come...a future not of destruction but of resurrection and redemption. Until that Day, may your story and mine continue to be wrapped up in the Story of our Lord Jesus Christ and his work...and so become a truly eternal life...a life lived for his glory.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Good Judgment

No one wants to be thought of as “judgmental" these days! And yet the Bible seems to emphasize that God is our Judge and that he does pass judgment on sin and evil. But is God's judgment as laid out in Scripture, well, too judgmental? Some say so. Take the book of Revelation which is filled with pictures of God's judgment on the world's sin. That judgment is likened to golden bowls filled with God's wrath that are poured out upon the earth (Revevlation 15: 7, 16:1). How can a loving God be wrathful? I found it interesting to learn that the word “wrath” (Greek: thumos) also means passion and intense feeling. It makes sense that if God is truly good, than God must be passionately opposed to evil, in whatever form it takes. This passionate opposition to evil in all its forms the Bible calls God’s wrath.

Even so, people have suggested to me that, "Jesus was never judgmental or wrathful. He was kind and loving!" I would disagree that Jesus was never judgmental or wrathful. The gospels tell us that Jesus was angered by satanic forces and powers (Mt. 4:10); that he was angered by disease (e.g., leprosy in Mk. 1:41); that he was angered by the evil nature of human beings (John 8:44); that he was angered by religious hypocrisy (Mat. 12: 34), that he was angered by those who persisted in unbelief (Mt. 17:17); and that he was angered by those who acted without mercy (Mt. 18:34). Jesus’ anger revealed his passionate concern for humankind; that God is passionately opposed to evil, and will tolerate nothing but the best for us.

In John's Revelation, the angels cry: “Yes O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!” (Revelation 16:7) God's judgments are true: in other words, they are self-authenticating. They validate themselves over time by experience...even if they go against our intuition. Rev. Earl Palmer often pointed out that it is counter-intuitive to lean on one's downhill ski...and yet that's exactly what is required if you don't want to fall down the mountain out of control. The law of putting one's weight on the downhill ski may not feel right...indeed, what feels right is to shrink back and try to hold on to the mountain for dear life. But it's still the right thing to do. Years ago, when pilots encountered wind shear, their instinct was to pull up on the flight controls which would result in a catastrophic loss of lift. As I understand it, the pilot is supposed to fly down into the wind sheer to regain control of the plane, which is what they practice doing in flight school. My point is that there are many physical laws which feel counter-intuitive (e.g., the law of aerodynamics, the fundamentals of downhill skiing) but with experience, we discover that these laws are trustworthy.

Consider your experience with the Ten Commandments, moral laws that have stood the test of millenia. To disregard Sabbath rest, is to consign ourselves to endless work without worship, without worth, and without a weekend off! To dishonor parents is to ensure that each generation disregards the next and learns nothing from the past. To commit murder (says Jesus) is to be eaten away by hatred and unforgiveness; and encourage a culture of death and destruction. To practice adultery is to live for a moment’s pleasure and in return, threaten a marriage, wound our children, and undermine one of the pillars of society.

Stealing condemns the world to mistrust and fear, to deadbolts, car alarms, price gouging, and higher car insurance. Bearing false witness promotes a society of liars in which vows, treaties and handshakes become meaningless. To covet, is to believe that what you have will never be enough; to live a life in which contentment is impossible and even un-American; where we are forever dissatisfied because we’re trying to fill our souls with the stuff that cannot satisfy! I’m so grateful for the time tested truth and goodness of God’s commands. They are simply right for human life. “O Lord, your judgments are true and just!

As I said earlier, no one wants to be called "judgmental" and yet we all know that good judgment is essential and can save us from making potentially self-destructive choices. This past week, my endocrinologist helped me win approval for a device called a Real-Time Glucose Sensor. Through a tiny subcutaneous sensor which is placed under the skin, information about my glucose level will be transmitted to my insulin pump every five minutes. One terrific benefit of this continuous glucose sensor is that whenever my blood sugars become either dangerously low or dangerously high, the pump will automatically alarm, thus alerting me to the danger so that I can take corrective action. Because the sensor will be sending information to my pump as I sleep, it will help protect me from dangerous nocturnal insulin reactions which, in the past, have caused me to have violent seizures.

But my point is this, for all its technological sophistication, this continuous glucose sensor still does not save me from having to make decisions. There is a very important button that I must push on my insulin pump whenever I'm given information about my blood glucose. It stands out from all the others because it is blue, and the word on this button is ACT. Nothing will happen unless I push that blue button. I must choose to ACT, based on the information I am given. I can choose to ACT in ways that are beneficial, or in ways that are harmful to me. I think of God's commands, and his judgment about right and wrong in the same way. His judgment gives me essential information about how to live life now, and for eternity. But this does not remove from me the responsibility to make good choices, to practice good judgment, and to respond wisely. God's word provides a continuous flow of life-saving information, which I am free to use to my benefit...or to ignore to my peril.

Let me say finally, that God's good judgment is never more powerfully displayed then when he came to ACT on our behalf through his Son... showing us how to live the eternal kind of life, giving away his life for us on the cross, and defeating the powers of darkness on the third day. As Karl Barth once observed, Christ is the Judge, who willingly took the judgment we deserved upon himself when he was judged in our place. We therefore praise the Judge who has shown us the way of justice and righteousness, who has extended to us his mercy when we fail through his Son, and who has given us the power of his Spirit to walk in increasing Christ-like justice, righteousness and mercy!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: How have you experienced God's good judgment in your life; and how has God's good judgment about what is true and just been a challenge or a blessing to you?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The guy in the rubber suit

"Then I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.... let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six" (Revelation 13: 1, 18).

In John's Revelation, the power of satan is described with the most vivid and unforgettable language...a red dragon waiting to devour a Child as soon as he is born, and a beast with ten horns and seven heads (Rev. 12: 3; 13:1). John tells us that when the Child is born he is "snached away and taken to God and to his throne" (Rev. 12: 5-6) -- a bookend summary of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus!

As we learn in chapter12, this dragon is a defeated foe, for Jesus himself says that in his ministry "I saw satan fall like lightening." His message was simple: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!" Now that was a patently political notice -- even if his kingdom transcends party and politics, because it claims dominion over all the so-called kingdoms, nations, parties, cabinets, senate chambers, politburos, boardrooms and gang turf of this world. The cross of Christ was the decisive battle in which the evil one was mortally wounded. We live in the time between the times...between the already of Christ's first coming and the not yet of his second coming. In the mean time, John says, "the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short" (Rev. 12: 12).

The first and second beasts of Revelation 13, with the red dragon, complete the unholy trinity that challenges God's people in this interim period. These beasts represent the power of the State and its apparatus in the service of what John calls "the spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4:3). In the first century, the church would have immediately thought of the emperor...and rulers like Nero Caesar who scapegoated Christians when he set Rome on fire, and illuminated his garden with their bodies; or the equally brutal emperor Domitian who demanded that people call him "lord and god" under pain of death. They would have also thought of the fearful delators -- those secret Roman informers who advised the empire of anyone engaged in subversive anti-Roman activities, and who had the power to destroy people's lives. Today we have seen many so-called beasts rise to great power -- from Hitler and Stalin, to Milosivic and Chauchescu; and the delators that served their cause. Of course, we must be careful about throwing around the label, "antichrist" too freely. Both Martin Luther and Pope Leo X called each other the antichrist, and there are websites which claim the same for both George Bush and Barak Obama. Alexander Solzhenitsyn , the devout Christian novelist who was exiled for his criticism of Stalin and his successors wrotes these words:

"It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts."

The beast is mortally wounded...but certainly raging in our time and place as well. His number, says John is "six hundred and sixty-six" -- an unholy number if there ever was one, for it is one less than seven, the number which stands for God's holiness and wholeness in scripture. Many theories have been put forth as to who the number is meant to identify. Among the possibilities is "Nero Caesar" whose name, when given numerical values derived from Hebrew numerology, adds up to 666. Though Nero certainly could fit the bill, we don't want to lose sight of the fact that in John's vision the triple six stands for everything that is false and opposed to the worship of God and the Lamb. Unlike the power of the beast, who displays his might through the infliction of suffering and death; the power of the Lamb was displayed in the acceptance of suffering for our sakes when he gave his life for us on the cross!

All this talk about evil, about the beast and his number, can be unsettling. As a 10 year old boy, I remember reading the description of the beast in Revelation 13 and feeling very uneasy. The beast sounded very scary to me. But as I continued to read, I couldn't help but think how similar he sounded to some of those godzilla movies I loved to watch on Saturday afternoons. As I tried to picture the beast with my Saturday afternoon matinee glasses, I began to think not only how scary he was...but how silly. After all, I was pretty sure that godzilla was just a guy stomping around on scale models of Tokyo in a rubber suit!

The power of satan is like that...scary, but really quite silly -- to think he could ever take our Lord's place in this world or in our lives; or that his pathetic attempts at badness could ever eclipse the invincible glory and goodness of God. John says of the Christ Child in his vision, that he was born of "a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars...." (Rev. 12: 1). That's a magnificent picture of Israel and Jacob's twelve sons, whose progeny brought forth the Messiah. It's also a glorious picture of the Church, established by the Messiah and his twelve disicples, in the glory of her mission to show forth his life to the world. It's as if God was speaking to our timid hearts, "When the evil one attacks, when trials and tribulations come, remember who you are...that you are clothed with the power of the Son, that you are my chosen people whom I love. Fear not!" Or in the words of John's first epistle, "Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). My friends, compared to Him, satan is just a guy walking around in a rubber suit!

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." -- Martin Luther