December 31 / Revelation 20-22

Key Verse: “He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon!’ Amen! Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

We come at last to the final chapters of God’s story, yet it is not truly the end. It is the beginning of a glorious future for the whole creation, and in particular the long-suffering people of God.

In Chapter 20, an angel comes down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand: “He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years.”

It is an undramatic end to the ultimate enemy who had inspired the rebellion against God in the heavens, and then seduced humans to join the rebellion on earth. There is no epic struggle here. God has always been in control, and now the time has come. The angel merely seizes the devil and binds him for a thousand years. This vision follows the vision of Chapter 19 where the beast and false prophet are thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.

The big question in this chapter is the meaning of the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth (Revelation 20:4) along with the thousand-year binding of Satan so that he has no influence on earthly affairs. As we have noted, Revelation is not chronological but theological and thematic. What does this thousand year, or millennial, period represent? Since most numbers in Revelation are symbolic, we assume this is the case here.

There are three main views but a plausible interpretation, consistent with the rest of scripture, is to see the millennium as a symbolic reference to the time of the Church between Jesus’ first and second coming at the end of history. In other words, our present time.

We remember that the Gospels speak of Satan being defeated by Christ’s death on the cross. The Church’s mission since Pentecost has been to declare the victory of Christ to the nations. When the Gospel is proclaimed, people from every nation have their eyes opened and respond in faith. In this sense, Satan is bound. He can’t stop the saving power of the Good News. But he can deceive and torment. When John says that Satan is released for a short time at the end of the thousand years to once again deceive the nations, he seems be referring to a time of intense spiritual warfare against God’s people, leading up to Christ’s second coming at the end of history.

But this final blaze of spiritual warfare quickly burns out: “Then the devil, who had deceived them (the nations) was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever’’ (Revelation 20:10). Following this is the great white throne judgment, from which no one can run or hide.  The living and dead all stand before God to be judged according to their deeds.

Now comes the great moment toward which the whole story of the Bible has been moving—the reuniting of heaven and earth. Chapter 21 describes the descent of heaven to be reunited with earth. John sees “a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared.” God’s home, like a new Jerusalem, is now among His people, and they are loved by Him as a groom loves a bride.

“I heard a shout from the throne saying ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Revelation 21:3-6).

A lengthy description of the idealized City of Jerusalem follows, revealing it to be a perfect cube, made of precious stones and streets paved with pure gold. There is no Temple in this Jerusalem because “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” It is illuminated by the glory of God and believers from all nations walk in its light. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter.

Chapter 22 begins with a striking image of a river “with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” In echoes of Eden, a tree of life grows on each side of the river. The curse of Eden is gone. Everlasting life has returned. There is no night or darkness because the Lord God shines on His servants.

Though these images are symbolic, imaginative, and achingly wonderful, they nevertheless point to reality: “Then the angel said to me, ‘Everything you have heard and seen is trustworthy and true.”

Having delivered to us the visions he has seen, John now falls down to worship. An angel tells him to not be silent but let the world know that the time is near! The Lord is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Blessed are those who trust in the Lamb who was slain; they will eat from the tree of life.

It all ends with an earnest invitation to you and me—Come! “Let anyone who is thirsty come! Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life!” (Revelation 22:17).

“Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

 

TAKE-AWAY: There is a reason why the Bible is annually the best-selling book in the world, by far. It is indeed the greatest story ever told. There is nothing like it. It alone contains the words of life. We read it and then discover that it reads us. It describes life as we know it. It speaks to our minds and hearts in a self-authenticating way. We resonate with its great themes of creation, fall, redemption and new creation. Above all, it points us to Jesus, who is God with us as our Savior and Lord. Amen! Amen! Amen!

 

Prayer: Lord, we are overwhelmed by your word. It gives us life. It is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. May we continue to experience the joys of those who delight in the Law of the Lord, and meditate upon it day and night. Amen!

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December 30 / Revelation 17-19

Key Verse: “Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen!” (Revelation 18:2)

The Book of Revelation vividly tells the big story of the present suffering and the future hope of our fallen world. Though frightening in its imagery, it brings incredibly Good News: Christ is the Lord of history and he is coming soon to restore it and reign as our king.

In a sense, his coming will signal the end of human history if we define human history as beginning at the fall, when we humans sought to make a life for ourselves apart from God.

Looking at fallen human history from our perspective, it appears normal. This is the way life has always been. The powerful conquer and rule while the rest endure as best they can. Each individual, group and nation views themselves as righteous and others as evil. Things would be better if they were in control. The struggle continues and history stumbles along.

But the view from God’s throne is quite different. The world is lost. Nature and human nature are devastated, similar to coastal cities after a tsunami. Even the spiritual realm is divided by chaos and war because of the fall of Satan. From top to bottom, the whole creation has fallen far from the glory of God.

Since human beings abandoned God they have been at war with one another. Countless little would-be gods have sought to replace the one, true God. But as soon as a nation, like Babylon or Rome, has gained supremacy, it begins to oppress and not bless. Nations rise and fall, only to be replaced by other nations which are just as evil. The world needs to be cleansed by the justice of God before it can be restored.

In chapter 17, the cleansing judgment continues after the vision of the seven bowls. One of the seven angels shows John the judgment that is coming upon Rome, which is variously called “Babylon” and the “great prostitute,” because it had repressed the people of God and corrupted the whole earth.

The “great prostitute” is seen seated on a terrible, blood red devilish beast, covered with obscenities—the claims of the Roman emperors to be divine. She is drunk with cruelty against Christians. The seven heads of the beast, and what follows, represent the political power struggles and alliances after the death of Nero, but things do not get better for the Christians who are still targeted.

However, John hears a hopeful word: “Together they will go to war against the Lamb (Jesus and his Church), but the Lamb will defeat them because he is Lord of all lords and King of all kings. And his called and chosen and faithful ones will be with him” (Revelation 17:14). This prophecy was borne out in Church history. It was said of the Christians that they eventually overcame the Roman Empire because they “out-thought, outlived and out-died the pagans.”

In chapter 18, another angel, bright with splendor, announces the great news of what is coming: “Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen! She has become a home for demons.” This language is reminiscent of, and summarizes, the Old Testament prophecies against all the rebellious nations of the world. All who are politically and economically aligned with her evil practices are likewise doomed. In only a moment, all her wealth is gone. Its glory is diminished and its fate is secured: “Just like this, the great city Babylon will be thrown down with violence and will never be found again” (Revelation 18:21).

Then, a thunderous voice from heaven is heard: “Praise the Lord! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. His judgments are true and just. He has punished the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality. He has avenged the murder of his servants” (Revelation 19:1-2).

The roar of the vast crowd in heaven continues with praise for Almighty God and rejoices for the Church, His bride: “For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself.” Here begins God’s great blessing upon His people. At last, they shall celebrate with Him and experience fullness of joy.

Next, John sees heaven open and a white horse with a rider named “Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war.” It is a vision of the glory of Christ’s return. His eyes are like flames of fire, and his head is crowned with many crowns. His robe is dipped in blood and his title is “the Word of God.”  This title echoes the Gospel of John 1:1-14 where Jesus is also called “the Word.”

The armies of heaven, dressed in pure white linen, follow him on white horses. The Word of the Gospel, like a sharp sword, is proclaimed to the nations—a Word of both judgment and salvation.

Another angel appears to summon vultures to eat the flesh of the armies of the corrupt and the rebellious nations which are about to be defeated. The battle begins and the beast with his false prophet, who deceived the nations, are captured and thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Meanwhile the vultures gorge themselves.

TAKE-AWAY: The Christian understanding of human history is eschatological, meaning that it is moving towards God’s predetermined end. The disturbing images of Revelation are well-suited to describe the view of history from heaven. It is not nearly as benign as we imagine it to be from our perspective, especially when we see ourselves as the “good guys.” Sin has metastasized throughout human life and culture. The demonic grows like a tumor. And yet, the end is not despair, but the victory of God and the restoration of humanity to begin a new history, that is truly His-story.

Prayer: Lord, we shake in our boots, yet rejoice with all the voice we have, as we consider the end of things, which is really the beginning. We are so grateful that you are at work in history. Praise the Lord! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns! Amen.

December 29 / Revelation 14-16

Key Verse: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

 

Chapter 14 contains seven short segments. The first describes another vision of the 144,000 faithful believers who were first mentioned in chapter 7:4-10. These believers have the Father’s name written on their heads. There is thunderous praise from harpists and choir, celebrating their redemption before God’s throne.

The second through seventh visions introduce judgment on earth: An angel flies through the sky announcing the Gospel to every nation, tribe, language and people, calling everyone to fear and glorify God because the time of judgment is near.

Another angel follows, shouting, “Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen—because she made all the nations of the world drink the wine of her passionate immorality” (Revelation 14:8). It also warns that anyone who worships the beast or accepts his mark will face God’s anger. Believers must endure persecution patiently, obeying his commands and maintaining their faith in Jesus.

A voice from heaven cries out, blessing those who die in the Lord, for they will rest from their hard work and their good deeds will follow them. Then Jesus, the Son of Man, appears with a kingly crown and a sickle of judgment in his hands. He “harvests” the entire world. Two angels follow, assisting with this work of judgement.

Chapters 15 and 16 introduce seven more angels, who hold the seven last plagues which brings God’s wrath to completion. This vision begins with victorious Christians who have resisted worshiping the beast and his statue.  The writer John may be alluding to one of the Roman emperors of the early Christian era. There are also several references to the Exodus here. The believers stand near a sea, “singing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.”

The lyrics celebrate the greatness of God’s word and works. They declare that all nations will eventually glorify Him and worship before Him.

After this, the seven angels with the seven plagues come away from the Lord’s presence in the heavenly Temple. They are handed bowls filled with wrath. Chapter 16 begins with a mighty voice from the Temple saying to these angels, “Go your ways and pour out on the earth the seven bowls containing God’s wrath.” As the angels leave the Temple, one by one, they each pour out their bowl of wrath upon the earth.

The first angel pours out his bowl on the earth, causing horrible, malignant sores to break out on everyone who has the mark of the beast. Again, we are reminded by these sores of the Exodus story when God afflicted the Egyptians with boils. Likewise, the second and third angels pour out their bowls of wrath on the sea, and everything in it dies while the water turns to blood.

The third angel sings about the water, saying that God, the Holy One, is just in sending this judgments: “Since they shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is their just reward” (Revelation 16:6).

The fourth angel pours out his bowl of wrath on the sun and it scorches everyone with its fire. There is angry blowback to God’s judgment, but “They did not repent of their sins and turn to God and give him glory.”

The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast and its kingdom is plunged into darkness. The beast’s subjects grind their teeth in anguish and curse God, but again they do not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God.

The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the Euphrates River causing it to dry up. So the kings from the east march their armies toward the west. Three evil spirits that looked like frogs, leap from the mouth of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet—the unholy trinity. The demonic spirits have power to work miracles and deceive the rulers of the world who want to retain their power. They gather for battle at Armageddon against the Lord on judgment day.

The Lord announces that He will come unexpectedly, like a thief. Those who keep watch and are ready will be blessed! As the seventh angel pours out his bowl of wrath into the air above the earth, a mighty shout from the throne is heard saying, “It is finished.” We are reminded, of course, of Jesus calling from the cross, signifying the fulfillment of his mission to destroy sin, death and the devil.

There is thunder and lightning. And a great earthquake strikes—the worst in history—causing the city of Babylon, which is another name for Rome, to split into three sections, while the cities of many nations collapse into rubble. The Roman nation is made to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs. The people curse God as hailstones weighing 75 pounds fell from the sky on them.

 

TAKE-AWAY: The challenge for Christians in times of persecution is to endure it patiently, while continuing to obey God’s commands and maintain their faith. The “mark of the beast” represents the various ways believers may go along to get along in order to avoid persecution. But to suffer for the Gospel is to share in Christ sufferings, meaning that we shall also share in his glory.

 

Prayer: Lord, these terrifying visions of judgement are being lived out today in concrete events of our fallen history. Give us eyes to see clearly. Give us also the strength to stand strong in faith until the day we shall rest in your presence. Amen.

December 28 / Reflection

As we near the end of our year-long journey through the Bible, we want to take a moment to revisit the four great themes that have driven its story—creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

The Book of Genesis begins the story by announcing that the physical universe was spoken into existence by the powerful word of God, the one and only Creator. In response to the universal human question, “Where did we come from and why are we here?” the Bible declares that we are the product, not of random chance and impersonal forces, but of the infinite power and loving purpose of a personal God who wishes to be known.

His loving purpose is best understood to be His desire to share the eternal life He has always experienced with us. He wishes to fill the earth with human life that enjoys His blessing and sings His praise.

To this end, He created human beings in His image and likeness. He created them as sexual, gendered beings so that the growth of human life and culture on earth would be centered in the loving embrace of marriage and family, and echo the love and unity of His own triune nature. He placed them in His garden to live as embodied beings and care for His creation.

It was Paradise, but soon became Paradise Lost. What began with Creator and creature in unity and fellowship, quickly dissolved into their expulsion from Paradise and the eternal life it had promised.

This tragedy came about when humans broke Covenant with God by believing the intoxicating lie of the serpent that they could be as God, determining good and evil for themselves. They coveted God’s power and rejected His authority by willfully eating the forbidden fruit. But it turned out to be bitter fruit.

Their rebellion had an immediate effect, but not what they expected. Sin and death entered the creation. Men and women began living for themselves, using others to get what they wanted and resorting to violence to settle their conflicts. Instead of living in joyful fellowship with their Creator and in loving community with one another, they lived in spiritual alienation and personal despair.

Human wickedness got so bad, so quickly, that God was sorry He had ever made the human race. It broke His heart. But God determined, out of His love for them, that He would not let humanity go. He would allow humans to do their worst to Him, but resolved to overcome it all and be their King again.

His resolve to redeem us was hinted at along the way but was formally implemented through Abraham. By his offspring and the nation of Israel, God would bring salvation and renewal to the whole earth.

All of this happens in only twelve chapters of Genesis!

The rest of the Bible is the long unfolding story that we have explored about how God would bring about His rescue plan.  It is a plan that would ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus, His Son, who offered his life for our sins and overcame our death in his resurrection. By God’s grace, we found new life through faith in Christ, and the privilege to be His sons and daughters.

We also are called to belong to the growing company of those who worship Jesus as King. Jesus promised to return at the end of history to fully implement his Kingdom rule and restore what was lost in Eden—and much, much more.

The Book of Revelation brings the great story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration to its conclusion. In its own striking way, through an apocalyptic lens and imagery, it presents Christ as the Lord of human history. It pulls back the curtain a bit to reveal the invisible heavenly realm which exists all around us.

There we see Jesus as the Lamb of God, our Savior, enthroned with the Father, having defeated the great serpent, the devil. He is guiding the course of history, protecting his Church, and preparing to return at just the right time for final judgement and salvation.

We will see in the next few days, as Revelation concludes, that God is going to restore the entire fallen creation, along with us. Heaven and earth will be reunited. God will live among us through Jesus and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. There begins the life that is truly Life—eternal life with God our Maker!

Coming to the end of the story, we see why it is the greatest story ever told. No other story tells of such a great and gracious God. No other story gives such dignity and hope to human beings, nor envisions a world united in joyous diversity by Christ the King. No other story excites the imagination like this one, causing us to wonder about what is possible when human beings spend eternity discovering and celebrating and living out the infinite possibilities of the infinite mind of God!

 

Prayer: Lord, we rejoice again in the Gospel! How great are your riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand your loving decisions and gracious ways. Everything comes from you, is sustained by your power and is intended for your glory. All glory to you! Amen.

December 27 / Revelation 10-13

Key Verse: “The world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)

We come to chapter 10 where there is another pause in the vision. This gives the readers a moment to reflect on the judgment and salvation of God, which has been revealed and will come to pass without delay after the seventh trumpet is sounded.

Before that blast, another glorious angel descends from heaven with a small, opened scroll in hand. The angel straddles the sea and the land, i.e. the whole earth, and gives a great shout like the roar of a lion.

John begins to write down what he hears but is stopped by God for it is to be kept secret. Instead, he is directed to take the opened scroll from the angel and eat it: “It will be sweet as honey in your mouth, but it will turn sour in your stomach!” (Revelation 10:9).

Having eaten the scroll, and indeed finding it both sweet and bitter, John is told to “prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.” This indicates that things yet to come are to be brought about when God’s word becomes John’s words. But first they must become part of his life, as with any prophet or preacher. Thus, he is directed to “eat the scroll.” The sweetness and bitterness of God’s sovereign purpose will be manifested in the prophet’s words. In this way God’s word becomes reality and changes the world. We humans are his agents in doing so.

Chapter 11 is one of the most puzzling chapters of Revelation, and of the whole Bible, so we’ll do the best we can to decipher it. John is told to go and measure the Temple of God and its worshipers, probably an action meant to protect the believing community from destruction. But they will still be vulnerable because the “outer courtyard” is not to be measured and “has been turned over to the nations.”

Two witnesses are now brought forth. They are prophets, perhaps like Moses who stood up to Pharaoh, and Elijah who stood up to the evil King Ahab. Some think that they symbolize the whole church in its mission to the world, accompanied by Jesus’ authority and power.

But their powerful ministry in the world agitates unbelievers, and they face martyrdom: “When they complete their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the bottomless pit will declare war against them, and he will conquer them and kill them” (Revelation 11:7). This vivid image of the suffering and martyrdom of Christians in ministry has been born out in human history, to this very day.

Jesus does not exempt his followers from suffering—they are partners with him in his suffering. This is the nature of ministry in a fallen world. But martyrdom is not a sign of defeat. It is a prophetic sign that God’s enemies cannot tolerate His word. They will seek to destroy His people, and stop their testimony. However, their martyrdom will be the means through which many will come to worship God.

This insight now gives way to the blowing of the seventh trumpet, a blast of triumph, made famous by Handel in his Hallelujah Chorus: “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices shouting in heaven: ‘The world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever'” (Revelation 11:15).

This triumphal shouting, in turn, causes the twenty-four elders in heaven, around God’s throne, to fall on their faces and worship Him. Their prayer declares that God has now assumed His great power to move in judgement and salvation, “to destroy all who have caused destruction on the earth” and to reward His “holy people.”

In chapter 12, the scene gets cosmic. A woman—probably Israel—gives birth to the king who will rule all nations, Christ the Lord. Confronting him right away is a large red dragon with seven heads with crowns and ten horns. This is the ancient serpent, the devil.

A war in heaven is engaged between the angels led by Michael and the devil with his demons. The devil loses, and he and his fallen angels are forced out of heaven and thrown down to earth. From the heavens, a shout of victory is heard—the Lord is King! The blood of the Lamb has defeated the devil. Enraged, the devil declares war against Christians and takes his stand on the shore beside the sea.

Chapter 13 opens with a beast rising out of the sea. It had seven heads and ten horns with crowns on them. The original readers would have recognized the beast as the devil embodied in the evils of the Roman Empire. Other beasts like Rome have risen over the millennia. John writes, “These means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful” (Revelation 13:10).

A second beast arises out of the earth. Its purpose is to serve the first beast. His role seems to be to force people into worshiping the Roman emperor, under the threat of death. He commands that everyone receive a mark enabling them to buy or sell. It is the mark of the beast, branding people as worshipers of the emperor. The number of the beast is 666, a cryptogram spelling out the name, NERO CAESAR.

 

TAKE-AWAY: The great conflict at the center of human history is the kingdom of this world verses the Kingdom of God. Spiritual warfare is behind all conflicts on earth, fueling the fire and causing great suffering upon God’s people. But as hopeless as it sometimes seems, the fact is that the battle has already been won. The present struggle will come to an end, and the Lord will forever and ever! 

 

Prayer: Lord grant us patient endurance so that we may remain faithful to you during our time of testing. We rejoice that the victory has already been won and the future is bright with hope! Amen.

December 26 / Revelation 8-9

Key Verse: “When the Lamb broke the seventh seal on the scroll, there was silence throughout heaven for about half an hour. I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and they were given seven trumpets.” (Revelation 8:1-2)

In chapter 8, the seventh seal of the scroll is broken. The number seven, which is prominent in Revelation, was sacred in the ancient world, suggesting perfection, fullness and completion. Revelation contains three visions of seven judgements, written to seven congregations. This structure represents the truth and certainty of God’s work in history.

John reports, “When the Lamb broke the seventh seal on the scroll, there was silence throughout heaven for about half an hour.” After this, the seven angels who stand before God’s throne are given seven trumpets. Another angel appears with a great amount of incense to burn on a gold altar before the throne. The incense smoke ascends to God, together with all the prayers of His holy people.

Next, an angel takes fire from the altar and hurls it upon the earth, causing thunder, lightning and a terrible earthquake. This is a prelude to the seven angels blowing mighty blasts from their seven trumpets. The trumpet blasts announce further judgments in addition to those which already have passed. Most believe these new judgments to be theological, not chronological events. The judgments of God on earth reveal His determination to stop the evil that is destroying His creation so that the whole creation may be renewed by His grace and mercy.

The first trumpet blast causes hail and fire mixed with blood to be thrown on earth also. One-third of all trees and green grass is burned. The fraction one-third represents a significant but not fatal catastrophe from these judgements.

A second trumpet blast causes a mountain of fire, like a volcano, to be thrown into the sea. A third of the sea becomes blood, and a third of all living things in the sea and ships traveling on the sea are destroyed.

A third trumpet blast causes a great burning star, whose name is Bitterness (or sometimes translated “Wormwood”) to fall from the sky. It probably represents a destroying angel and causes one-third of all drinkable water on earth to be poisoned.

A fourth trumpet blast causes darkness to come upon one-third of the sun, moon and stars, as well as one-third of the day and night. These horrors upon the earth are given voice by the screeching of an eagle flying through the air calling out, “Terror, terror, terror to all who belong to this world because of what will happen when the last three angels blow their trumpets” (Revelation 8:13).

Each trumpet blast seems to bring greater terror than the one before, and now as the eagle warns, it will get even worse. Accordingly, in chapter 9, the fifth trumpet blast releases another star, which is again probably an angel, falling to earth with a key. This key represents authority from God, and opens the “bottomless pit”—the mythological place of evil powers. It is a place of chaos and disorder from whence the forces of darkness wreak havoc upon the fallen earth. From its depths, smoke pours out as from a furnace, while the air turns dark from the smoke. Again, this image is theological not geographical. Some think the bottomless pit represents human institutions overcome by evil—whether social, political, economic or religious. They seem to unleash a bottomless supply of evil which destroys creation and creature alike.

The king of this realm is Abaddon, or in Greek, Apollyon—the destroyer, which is one of the biblical names for the devil. When this realm is unlocked by the angel with the key, a horrible plague of locusts is released from the pit, bringing great misery and suffering. A sixth trumpet blast then releases four angels of destruction, leading an army of 200,000 mounted troops and killing one-third of the people on earth.

The events described in the fifth and sixth trumpet judgments recall the plagues unleashed upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus. You’ll remember that during the last plague the destroyer is released to kill all the firstborn sons of Egypt, but the Hebrew homes were “passed over” because of the blood they put on their doorposts in obedience to God. Now, in the sixth trumpet judgment, those who repent of their sins and turn to God are passed over.

But some who do not repent are nevertheless spared by chance from the destruction. One would think that they would surely repent then, but they do not. They continue in their dark and confused thinking, giving themselves over to idolatry, murder, witchcraft, sexual immorality and theft.

They are like the pagans described by Paul in Romans: “Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:22-23).

Thus, we see how deeply rooted sin is on earth. Repentance will not be universal, even with more grace and mercy offered.

 

TAKE-AWAY: The relentless terrors of Revelation are a little hard to take. Yet, in our day of instant communication, we are beset by disturbing images of all kinds of evils, misfortune and disaster from around the world. It doesn’t make the images of Revelation less upsetting, but it does make them believable to a degree pre-modern cultures have never experienced. And it makes the hopeful message of Revelation all the more precious: Jesus is the Lord of History and has triumphed over sin and death.

Prayer: Lord, in our moments of fear, keep us from despair, for we know the outcome of the great struggle on earth between good and evil. You win, and it isn’t even close. Give us courage to faithfully serve your purposes in our generation. Amen.

December 25 / Revelation 6-7

Key Verse: “After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)

 

John’s revelation continues as Jesus, the Lamb of God and the victorious Lord of history, breaks the first of seven seals on the scroll. The scroll outlines the coming of divine judgement and salvation in human history—the “great and terrible Day of the Lord” of which the Old Testament prophets spoke. Six seals are broken in chapters 6 and 7, and the eighth in chapter 8.

It is important to remember here that the great victory of God through Christ has been witnessed to in chapter 5. Now that victory will be carried out within human history.

Upon breaking each of the first four seals, one of the four living creatures around the throne in heaven says, “Come!” In response, four riders appear on four horses of different colors, symbolizing four judgements.

The first is a white horse whose rider carries a bow and wears a crown. He rides out to fight and win many battles. This probably represents the conquering kings—now nation states with modern weapons of war—wreaking havoc on earth. The Lord allows them to do their worst. As Jesus had predicted, “Nation will go to war against nation,” and “Sin will be rampant everywhere” before the end comes. See Matthew 24:4-14.

The second is a red horse whose rider has a mighty sword and disrupts peace on earth with war and slaughter, like the world wars and terrorism of our own time.

The third is a black horse with its rider holding a pair of scales in its hand, representing the economic injustice that lies at the root of so much conflict.

The forth is a pale horse whose rider is named “Death” and his companion is the “Grave.” These two are given authority over a quarter of the earth to kill with the sword and famine and disease. These represent the threat of tyrants and anarchists who bring premature death to so many innocent people.

Altogether, the four horses of the Apocalypse represent all evil which humans inflict upon one another. The terrors of a fallen world in rebellion against God are not whitewashed but acknowledged. God allows human sinfulness to give its full expression before he comes in judgement and salvation.

The fifth seal broken reveals “the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony” (Revelation 6:9). These would include Christians fed to lions in the Roman amphitheater as well as those killed today by ISIS. They are given white robes. Though they long for peace on earth, they are asked to be patient because the trouble on earth is not over yet.

The terrifying sixth seal is a picture of cataclysmic events on earth, felt by everyone. It is symbolic but frightening: “The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky was rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places” (Revelation 6:12-14).

All the people on earth hide in caves and rocks for they rightly sense these earth-shattering events to be “the wrath of the Lamb.” They are the tremors of coming judgment. Yet the wonderful paradox here is that the Lamb, whose wrath these events portend, is the same Lamb who is self-giving love. The divine wrath against sin has already been absorbed in Christ himself on the cross. All who cling to him by faith will escape his judgment and receive his salvation.

Chapter 7 now reminds us that though the earth will be blown around and shaken—and Christians will experience great suffering—they will be restored on the other side of resurrection, along with the whole creation.

The people of God are represented symbolically by the 144,000 “sealed” from all the tribes of Judah (12 x 12 x 1000). Then they are represented literally by “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb…And they were shouting with a great roar, ‘Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” (Revelation 7: 9-10).

This is a breathtaking vision at the end of history of the success of the Church in its mission to the world. It is wildly successful and culturally, racially, geographically and historically diverse! The great tribulation on earth is over in this vision: “For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

 

TAKE-AWAY: Revelation employs the themes and imagery of the Old Testament prophets to tell its story of the victory of Christ over sin and death, and therefore the ultimate victory of the whole creation. It acknowledges the suffering of Christians, and yet gives great hope for the future.

 

Prayer: Lord, how grateful we are that Christ holds the key to human history in his hand. We praise him as the Lion who is also the Lamb, our Savior and Lord! Amen.

December 24 / Revelation 4-5

Key Verse: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty—the one who always was, and is, and who is still to come.” (Revelation 4:8)

The revelation that gives this book its title begins in chapter 4: “Then as I looked, I saw a door standing open in heaven, and the same voice I had heard before spoke to me like a trumpet blast. The voice said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must happen after this. And instantly I was in the Spirit, and I saw a throne in heaven and someone sitting on it” (Revelation 4:1-2).

Heaven is God’s sphere of reality. We tend to think of heaven as “up” in the stars, and far away. In truth, God’s realm is everywhere, intersecting with the physical realm where we exist, though it is invisible to us.

In John’s vision, there is a door standing open in heaven. Think of it as appearing right in front of him, in his room—a portal to a different world where God’s elevated throne exists. John is invited by God to come up to His throne and receive information about what must happen soon. It is like going behind the curtain of human history to see how it works, and what is going to happen.

The throne room is an audiovisual wonder! God’s countenance is brilliant and colorful, shining like gemstones: “And the glow of an emerald circled his throne like a rainbow.” Surrounding Him on thrones are twenty-four elders representing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples of Christ, who consult with the Lord. It represents the unity of witness by the Old and New Testaments to God’s sovereign plan, and also the shared rule of believers with God over the world.

First-century readers would also have noted that the picture of God in His throne room, surrounded by senior consultants, was a counterpoint to the Roman emperor with his consultants who conspiring to worldly power and glory. However, the pretentious earthly powers of this fallen world are but a parody of the true Ruler over heaven and earth, and one day they will succumb to His rule. This is a comforting vision for those who are presently being persecuted by those earthly powers.

The vision of God’s throne room also includes seven torches in front of the throne.  These represent the seven-fold Spirit of God. Surrounding the throne are four strange living creatures with faces representing man and animals, with six wings each. Day and night, John reports, they keep on worshiping: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty—the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” Whenever they do this, the twenty-four elders fall down and worship, laying their crowns before the throne and saying, “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased” (Revelation 4:11).

Perhaps this shows that all creation worships God in its appointed ways—even animals. But only human beings are given the ability to know God and understand His ways.

The final detail—a mysterious one—is the shiny sea of glass in front of the throne, sparkling like crystal. It seems benign, but in Revelation 13:1 a great threatening beast rises up out of the sea. So the picture here is more likely a representation that in God’s world, as in the present world, evil and danger still threaten. God allows it for now, but it will be overcome.

The focus changes in chapter 5, to a scroll that is in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll has seven seals protecting God’s secret plan to rescue and restore the whole creation. The question is asked—the key question of the book of Revelation, and indeed the whole Bible—“Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll” and fulfill God’s plan? Adam and Eve failed. So did Israel. John notes, “But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it.”

John is shaken by this and weeps bitterly. But one of the twenty-four elders speaks out: “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5).

Then John sees a lamb that looks as if it had been slaughtered. The lamb steps forward and takes the scroll, causing an explosion of praise and song in heaven: “You are worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it. For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And you have caused them to become a Kingdom of priests for our God. And they will reign on earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

This pronouncement is followed by “the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders,” singing in a mighty chorus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” 

 

TAKE-AWAY: The vision in chapters 4 and 5 is as powerful a revelation of the glory of heaven and the greatness of God’s saving plan, as human words can express. You may recognize the text used in two wonderful choruses of Handel’s Messiah. Such a vision of the victory of God through Christ can sustain the people of God during the troubles of this life.

 

Prayer: Lord, give us the imagination to see the glory of God at work behind the curtains of human history. We praise you for the Lamb who has ransomed people from every tribe, language, people and nation to belong to you, and to reign with you in the New Creation.

 

December 23 / Revelation 1-3

Key Verse: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” (Revelation 3:20)

The last book of the Bible is attributed to John (possibly not the apostle) while exiled as a prisoner on the island of Patmos during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81 to 96 A.D.

Revelation was written as a pastoral and prophetic letter to encourage suffering believers not to be afraid in the midst of the chaos of persecution.  Instead, they are encouraged to keep the resurrected Christ in view: “I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God, and for my testimony about Jesus” (Revelation 1:9).

Stylistically, Revelation is full of the themes, striking images, symbolism and cryptic language which is characteristic of apocalyptic literature. Most agree that it is the most perplexing and difficult to interpret of all the books of the Bible. And yet it holds a unique fascination for readers. It presents a hopeful vision of the course of human history in light of the victory of Christ over sin and death, and his present enthronement in heaven.

The Church Fathers rightly placed Revelation as the last book of the Christian canon because it brings the Bible’s story to its God-intended conclusion. While Genesis narrates the beginning of humanity’s rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, Revelation narrates God’s eventual triumph over sin, death and the devil.

In doing so, it presents a distinctly Christian view of history, asserting that Christ’s resurrection and enthronement in heaven has initiated a new phase of human history. This phase, known as the Last Days, initiates the “end” of the present order to make way for a new beginning—a new Genesis.

At Christ’s second coming, the old creation will give way to the New Creation where heaven and earth are joined forever under the gracious rule of Christ, and where all the sorrows of sin and death are gone.

Chapter 1 begins with this purpose: “This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John.”

It is written to “the seven churches in the province of Asia.” The introduction gives us a clue that Revelation’s first concern is about events which were happening to Christians at that time.

Chapter 1 also tips us off that the focus of John’s message is about Christ: “He is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the ruler of all the kings of the world…All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 1:5-6). This same Jesus is coming again and everyone will see him, even those who pierced him.

John writes to the seven churches about what he received from Jesus in a dream. He sees Jesus in his glory, and falls at his feet, overwhelmed. Jesus reassures him: “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave” (Revelation 1:17-18).

John is instructed to write down what he sees—both the things happening then and the things that will happen later—and send his account to the seven churches, along with a special message for each one.

Chapters 2 and 3 contain John’s messages for the churches—first Ephesus, then Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

Each church receives commendation and correction from Jesus. For example, the believers at Ephesus are commended for their hard work and patient endurance, and for not tolerating false teachers. But then Jesus says to them: “But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Each church’s message reflects their present situation, but the commendations and corrections are applicable to the Church as well. The message of Jesus to the church at Laodicea is particularly memorable: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” (Revelation 3:20).

 

TAKE-AWAY: The Church finds its courage to persevere during difficult times by confessing Jesus as the resurrected Lord of History. His resurrection has overcome the power of death. All earthly authorities will have to bow before him. No matter what may happen to the believer during his or her mortal life, the Lord of History is with them, and the Lord of the Resurrection awaits them.

 

Prayer: Lord, give us courage to remain faithful to you not only in hard times, but especially in good times. It seems, Lord, that we are in greater spiritual danger in good times because then we are tempted to think that we don’t need you. Thank you for the ongoing invitation to share a meal together as friends! Amen.

December 22 / Jude

Key Verse: “Now all glory to God, who is able to keep you from falling away and will bring you with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault.” (Jude 1:24)

 

Jude, the writer of this brief letter, is probably the younger son of Mary and Joseph, and therefore the brother of Jesus and of James, who wrote the book of James. Interestingly, he identifies himself in verse 1 as the brother of James, but “a slave of Jesus Christ.” (None of the interesting questions about what it was like to grow up with Jesus are addressed in the New Testament! It’s probably just as well).

Jude explains to his readers that he had hoped to write a theological letter about the salvation that they share, but he has since heard news from them which causes him alarm. So this letter is written instead to warn them about false teachers.

It is interesting to note how quickly false teachings about Jesus began to circulate among the early churches, whether it was Jewish legalism and the teaching that Christians needed to keep the law of Moses to be saved, or nascent Gnosticism which stated that Jesus could not have been truly human because the material world is evil.

Of course, this is something that Jesus warned his disciples to expect (see Matthew 7:15-20). He said that false teachers who come among the congregations “disguised as harmless sheep but who are really vicious wolves” can be identified by their moral character: “Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.”

So Jude echoes Jesus when he writes that the congregation must defend the apostolic teaching that God has entrusted to them by watching out for ungodly people who worm their way into people’s trust but then mislead them. In this case, the false teachers are “saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives” (Jude, vs. 4).

This is a dangerous teaching for many reasons, but most importantly it completely misrepresents the Gospel. God is not an indulgent old-man-upstairs whose only concern is that people have a good time. He cannot just look away when we live immoral lives.

God’s plan from the beginning, as Paul expresses it in Ephesians 1:4, is to make us holy through Christ so that we can become like Him in His humanity. To use God’s grace as an excuse to sin, instead of as a means to become like Jesus, is not only false teaching—it is an invitation for God’s judgement. Jude writes, “The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4).

Several examples from the Old Testament are then given to show how willful disobedience has always brought God’s judgement.

Writing of the false teachers, he says that they live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings, meaning that they mock the spiritual realm, and instead act like unthinking animals following their sinful desires because they don’t have God’s Spirit in them.

Jude continues now with a fiery denunciation, saying that they follow in the footsteps of well-known Old Testament sinners such as Cain—who killed his brother, Balaam—who deceived people for money, and Korah—who led Israel in rebellion against God.

These people, Jude says, are bad news and should not be included in fellowship meals. They are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you; like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves; like clouds blowing over the land but giving no rain; like trees in autumn that bear no fruit; like wild waves of the sea churning up the foam of their shameful deeds; like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness.

But God’s judgement is coming. It comes partly in this life when God acts to stop sin, but it comes in finality at the Last Judgment when all sin will be judged and forever stopped.

We must understand that in the Last Days (the days between the first and second coming of Jesus) “there would be scoffers whose purpose in life is to satisfy their ungodly desires” (Jude 1:18). Christians will be their targets, but we must not lose heart. We must build each other up in faith and in sound doctrine, always praying in the power of the Holy Spirit. If any find their faith wavering because of these false teachers, the congregation must show them mercy but hold them accountable for sin.

Jude ends with a doxology, which alone makes this little letter worth reading: “Now all glory to God, who is able to keep you from falling away and will bring you with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault. All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen.”

 

TAKE-AWAY: False teaching is akin to slandering God and to leading people astray. Therefore, it is confronted with the strongest of denunciations. Discipleship in the church needs to be focused on sound doctrine and knowledge of the Bible. Despite what some may claim, the Spirit of God will never lead us to think or act outside the Word of God.

 

Prayer: Lord, keep your people safe from those who would mislead by false doctrine and clever manipulation. Grant us teachers to help us with the discipline of studying the Bible so that we may protect ourselves from lies and fortify ourselves with the truth so that we may live in a manner that honors you. Amen.