Wednesday 31 August 2011

The glory of God in the suffering of Christ

Last Sunday we read of Jesus’ words spoken to his church in the midst of their suffering for the sake of the gospel. I highlighted three main lessons from Revelation 1:1-9 on how we can effectively encourage our brothers and sisters when they face times of depression, difficulty and even death.

1. We share in their suffering
John identifies himself as a brother and a companion in their suffering. He doesn’t give advice on how to avoid suffering. He joins them in suffering.

When someone is faced with great disappointment, anguish or loss, what he or she may need most in the first instance is simply for a friend to sit next to them silently. Perhaps all you can do is cry with them. We mourn with those who mourn.

2. We show them Christ in his glory
The words of comfort we read in Revelation - these are Jesus’ words. He speaks these words of comfort and of conviction. Only he can lift our gaze to behold his glory. Only he can open our eyes to perceive his sovereign will and power sustaining us in the midst of uncertainty and oppression.

The Son of Man is the one who receives all power, glory and authority to rule and judge from God, the Ancient of Days. But the Son of Man is also the one betrayed into the hands of the Gentiles, mocked and rejected by his own, crucified on the cross.

The exalted Christ is robed as a king, his feet gilded with bronze, ready to do battle against the powers of evil and to trample over his enemies (Daniel 10). The ascended Christ pleads before the Father in robes of the High Priest - he is our advocate and mediator. He walks with us through the fires of persecution; as the Son of God walked alongside Daniel’s friends in the burning furnace.

This is the King of glory who fights for us. He is the Priest full of compassion who walks with us.

3. We help them find strength and assurance in the cross
John falls down as though dead. On the cross, Jesus was truly dead; he was raised and now lives forevermore! He reminds us: we no longer need fear death. Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades.

In the midst of our pain and suffering, Jesus strengthens us by drawing our attention to his pain and his suffering. For there on the cross, we see the apex of God's glory in Christ. It is only from the certainty of his death and the knowledge of Jesus' suffering that we receive the assurance of our forgiveness and the hope of eternal life.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Monday 29 August 2011

A heaven without God (Exodus 33)

God’s blessing minus God

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
Exodus 33:1-3

What if God offered you all the blessings of heaven? What if he gave you the deepest longings in your heart - success, wealth, happiness, peace - everything you’ve ever wanted and dreamed of? Everything, that is, except God.

You get to go to heaven. But God says He won’t be there.

That’s the deal on the table in Exodus 33. God tells the Israelites that he will give them the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey”. These former slaves from Egypt will become prosperous landowners. Their descendants will continue to live there for generations to come. God will even send a bodyguard, “I will send an angel before you,” he says. This heavenly Rambo will take care of every opposition along the way.

“But I will not go with you,” God says. God offers them everything, but takes himself out of the equation. This is God’s blessing minus God.

Would you take up the offer?

Lose the bling

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
Exodus 33:4-6

For the Israelites, they sense something profoundly wrong with the situation and “they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments.” The stripping of their ornaments - jewellery, ear-rings; essentially their “bling” - reminds us that all this is connected to the events of Chapter 32: The golden calf. In last week’s study we saw how the people of God were told by Aaron to produce their gold ear-rings which he used to manufacture an idol in the shape of a golden calf. It was a bootleg version of the ark of the covenant: an attempt to manufacture their own form of worship, and in doing so, their own false god to worship.

God is angry with them. That’s part of the reason he is keeping his distance.

But another important reason is this: God is keeping his distance for their safety. “If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.” God’s holiness means he cannot tolerate sin. God’s justice means he must judge sin. The Israelites have proven themselves to be stubborn in their sin - “You are a stiff-necked people,” God says - they will continue to be sinful. God knows, they will continue to face the danger of God’s anger and judgement for their sinfulness.

Yet there is hope. God still meets with one man. He speaks to his servant Moses.

Face to face

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.
Exodus 33:7-11

The past seven chapters, prior to the incident involving the golden calf, have seen Moses receiving instructions from God about worship. And all these instructions centered on one location - a construction of a tent called the Tabernacle, where God’s presence will come and meet with his people. At the Tabernacle, the priests would serve God and the people would come offering worship and sacrifices to God.

But now we read that Moses pitches a tent, meets God in this tent, that he sets up outside the camp, “some distance away”. What it is saying is: the whole plan for the Tabernacle is now suspended. There might not be a Tabernacle. There won’t be any priests or sacrifices. God’s presence will no longer be with his people. It’s like watching an episode of Grand Designs where the newlyweds pour in their time and all their life-savings into drawing up detailed architectural plans, purchasing the best materials, hiring the most skilled builders, only to have the whole project stalled. In the meantime, the happy couple who were expecting to move into their swanky new designer home have had to spend the past year living in a rusty old caravan in their parents’ backyard. That’s Moses with this ten pound tent he got from Argos that he pitches in the Israelite community’s backyard in order have some face-time with God.

But there, God meets with him. The pillar of cloud descends and “the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Moses’ relationship with God is so unique compared even to all the rest of the prophets in the Old Testament, that the closing verses of Deuteronomy would say this: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” He had a connection with God that was that close and just that personal. He met with God face to face.

You da man

Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Exodus 33:12-14

The “you” in verse 14 is a singular “you”. God says to Moses, “You da man!” Or as Austin Powers put it so elegantly, “It’s just you and me, baby! Yeaaah, baby!”

That is, God promises he will be with Moses. But just not with the people.

But Moses isn’t pleading for himself. He is there as a representative - a mediator - for the whole nation of Israel. For the whole people of God. “Remember that this nation is your people,” he says to God. Don’t give up on them.

And the amazing thing is, God listens to his mediator.

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Exodus 33:17

Just think for a moment: What is Moses asking God to do? To not send them away? Yes, in part. To not judge Israel for their sin of idolatry? Moses already succeeded in that petition (at least, in part) back in Chapter 32, as we saw last week.

What Moses, on behalf of all the people of Israel, is asking God to do, is to go with them. He is asking God to be with them.

But God had already said that he is keeping his distance for their good. His very presence would endanger their lives. “If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.” (Verse 5)

Moses is pleading for God’s presence to remain with them, not just in times of blessing, but even if his presence results in judgement. What matters is God, not the blessing.

And God agrees to Moses’ request. “I will do the very thing you have asked.” A couple of chapters on, the Tabernacle begins construction and it is located right in the centre of the campsite. The priests are ordained. The worship of God is established in the midst of the people of God. God dwells with man.

But there is more.

Show me your glory

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
Exodus 33:18-23

Moses wants proof. It is a daring request when you consider who Moses is asking. He says to God, “Show me your glory.”

And God replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”

God’s glory is seen in his goodness. Not his power. Not his majesty. Not his wisdom and omniscience. All of which are glorious of God; unique to God.

But the proof and evidence that God displays before Moses is his goodness. God is good. That statement is profoundly awesome. That the God we worship is loving and cares for his creation and lavishes his grace upon us sinful, rebellious human beings - is a measure of how truly glorious this God we worship is. God is good.

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

So, God hides Moses in a crack in a rock. God will pass by and what Moses will see in the end is the trailing edge of his glory: His back, as it were. That’s all. Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says the most you will be able gaze upon, for your own safety, is an outline of the shadow of my presence.

We have seen his glory

For almost a hundred years now, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been held on Christmas eve every year at King’s College, Cambridge. It is a series of bible readings, meditations and and hymns sung by an all-boys choir, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Thousands queue outside in the freezing cold, some the night before, just to get a seat in the chapel. Millions tune in on radio and TV.

The opening carol is always “Once in Royal David’s City”. And the last bible reading, or the “ninth lesson” as it is called, is taken from John’s Gospel Chapter 1, ending with these words:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

Two thousand years ago, the apostle John, reflecting on the experience of Moses and the Israelites in the desert wrote about his own experience.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling - literally, tabernacled (as the Authorised Version has it) - among us. It’s the picture of God’s presence with Israel. It’s the picture of Moses standing before God face to face. But it is saying, we as Christians, have witnessed something even Moses, the prophet of God, never got to see in his lifetime.

We have seen Jesus.

O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Friday 26 August 2011

Eyes of fire (Revelation 1:9-20)

I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Revelation 1:9

Do you know how sometimes when you have had a crummy day and everything goes wrong? You had a big argument with your best friend. Someone stole your bike. You flunked Maths. Your boss yelled at you. You missed out on the HP Touchpad firesale.

You just feel crummy, don’t you? You close down your Facebook account. You mope all day long and watch “One litre of tears”.

But then you bump into a friend in church and he’s had a crummy day, too! And the strangest thing happens: He moans about how horrible his life is, how awful his situation has been... and you start to feel better! It’s weird (and it sounds a bit wrong, I know)! But strangely enough, seeing someone and meeting a friend who is just as depressed and just as morose as you are lifts your spirits!

Why is that? The bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice; but also to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). That is, we connect with one another not just when things are all dandy and super and fine. But also when times are tough. We remind each other: You are not alone.

One of the best things you can do for a friend who is going through a tough time in his or her life - is not just to say “Cheer up! Things will get better!” But to let them know that they do not have to go through their pain and suffering alone. As Christians, we too, suffer. As Christians we are willing to share in their suffering.

That is what John is saying in verse 9. “I am your brother and your companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance in Jesus.” He wants to encourage his friends who are going through intense persecution because they believe in Jesus. Do you know anyone like that? Have you ever written an email or a Facebook message to encourage them? To remind them, “I’m your brother; I’m your sister. I am here for you.”

The reason John is in Patmos is because of “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”. Patmos was a prison island, like Alcatraz or Australia. He was exiled - put on a ship and sent far away from his family and friends because he had been preaching the gospel. So when John says, “I understand your suffering”; for John to say, “I am your brother and companion in this suffering” - these aren’t just empty words of comfort. He knows what it means to suffer. He knows what it means to be alone.

Usually we have to remind churches to pray for missionaries. Pray for Judy during her studies in California. Remember our good friends like Joyce, Jimmy, Alan, Molly, Kinki and Kit who have left Cambridge and gone back to Hong Kong where there are greater pressures at work. Or we hear stories about Christians in China who meet in secret, whose pastors have been locked up for years and forced to deny Jesus. So we often say, pray for them, send help to them, take every opportunity to encourage them.

But that’s not the situation here. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

John, who himself has been exiled and imprisoned writes to the churches - some of which are rich and big and successful. He is encouraging them.

I don’t know how much longer some of you are going to be with us here in the Chinese Church. Some of you are leaving next month of uni. Others might go next year. But maybe, just maybe, wherever you go, you could write back and you could encourage us: To remain faithful. To suffer well.

Especially when it is suffering for the sake of Jesus. John wasn’t imprisoned because he took part in the riots in London. It was because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Being a Christian will get you into trouble. Let me just say that right up front: being a Christian will get you into trouble. People are not going to respect you for believing in this book, the bible. People are not going to thank you for telling them about Jesus dying on the cross. And people are not going to like you because you want to live differently from the world - in your workplace, in school, in your marriage - because Jesus says so.

And John isn’t write to the church saying, “Look at how successful I am! Here are ten ways to win your friends to Christ. Here are ten steps to being successful in evangelism.” No, he says I have been telling my friends about Jesus. I have been speaking the gospel. That’s why I am suffering the way I am. And you know what? That is encouraging. Because that has been the experience of Christians for thousands of years. Because of that is the very message of who Jesus is and what he did on the cross - John says, this is “the testimony of Jesus”.

In fact, what John wants us to see is not his suffering; he wants us to see Jesus.
On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
Revelation 1:10-11

Revelation is essentially a letter sent out to seven churches in seven cities. These were churches that John planted and pastored. And the names of these churches appear in geographical order, arranged according to their position along the major trade-route running theough the Roman province of Asia, or what is now modern-day Turkey. It would be like writing to the seven colleges in Cambridge - Corpus, Catz, Kings, Caius, Trinity, John’s, Magdalene. If you’ve lived in Cambridge for any length of time, you would know that I have ordered the colleges according to their location along the major street running through the city.

Now, Revelation is not seven letters - it is one letter to seven churches. Seven is symbolic of God. We saw last week that there were seven spirits before the throne of God (Revelation 1:4) - his one Spirit residing in each and every one of his churches. This is a letter written to the whole church of God and we are meant to read all of it, not just the bit we think applies to us. The church in Ephesus wasn’t just to read the bit addressed to them: they were to read what was written to Smyrna, Pergamum and to all the rest. Similarly for us, it would be very tempting to try to identify with one type of church (are we more like Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum?) I am not saying that we won’t find similarities here and there (we should if we call ourselves God’s people). But a big mistake would be to ignore what God says to the whole church, to every church, addressed in this letter.

And it would be a bigger mistake to think this is just what John is writing. Because John hears a voice telling him to write these words. He turns around to find out who it is who speaks these words to the church.
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man”, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest.
Revelation 1:12-13

These are the first of many symbols we will encounter in the book of Revelation. The big question is: What do they mean? And the answer is: the bible tells us. Look to the end of Chapter 1: “the seven lampstands are the seven churches”.

There is a big difference between vision and video; between symbols and cinema. A popular video on Youtube can have millions of hits and just as many comments and opinions. A Hollywood movie can have all kinds of reviews and ratings on rottentomatoes and IMDB. The visions in Revelation often have one clear meaning and one clear purpose. And always it is the bible making clear what the bible says. We measure God’s word in the light of God’s revealed truth.

The lampstands represent real, actual churches in real, actual cities in the first century. More importantly, among the lampstands, John sees someone “like a son of man”. The Son of Man was Jesus favourite way of referring to himself. If you read the gospels, we find this phrase “son of man” used over 80 times to identify Jesus. The reason it appears here in Revelation is firstly to identify the person speaking to John as Jesus in the New Testament; but secondly to ground these visions in the context of the Old Testament, specifically the book of Daniel where in Chapter 7, Daniel sees the vision of “one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (we saw that last week in verse 7). It is an Old Testament prophecy that at the end of time when God comes to judge the living and the dead, God will give all his authority, glory and power to this figure, the one who is like the son of man, in other words, Jesus. It is saying that Jesus will return with all God’s authority to judge and to rule.

He is dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet symbolising his kingly authority, or more likely, his priestly role in tending to the lampstands. In Exodus, we learned that one of the duties of the priests in the Tabernacle was to make sure the lights on the lampstand never went out. Every night he had to tend to the oil, making sure it was always filled and trim the wicks. In the same way, Jesus serves as High Priest before God’s presence in tending to and inspecting the seven churches of God represented by the seven golden lampstands.
His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
Revelation 1:14

Again this is taken from Daniel Chapter 7, where God, who is described as the Ancient of Days, has clothing as white as snow, and the hair on his head was white like wool (Daniel 7:9). It symbolises old age, yes, but moreover wisdom and stature. You might not think that having white hair is a good thing, or that growing old is something to thank God for. But the in the bible, old age is a symbol of God’s blessing and grace upon your life. Abraham was buried in Genesis 25:8 it says, “a good old age” adding the words, “with white hair” - Abraham was blessed with long life, and his white hair is mentioned as a symbol of that long and blessed life.

But here, it is not Abraham who has white hair, or even God the Ancient of Days whose hair is as white a wool, but Jesus. Again, this is symbolic. It is not a comment on Jesus’ hairstyle. It is saying that Jesus has taken on God’s role in judgement because he has the wisdom and authority to do so. His eyes of blazing fire symbolise how Jesus sees all and knows all. He says in Chapter 2 verses 18 onwards to the church in Thyatira, “These are the words of the Son of God whose eyes are like blazing fire... I know your deeds, your love and your faith, your service and perseverence.” Jesus sees our actions, our thoughts and content of our hearts.
His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Revelation 1:15-16

Some have tried painting a picture of Jesus using these descriptions resulting in an image that makes Jesus out to look like Megatron. You see it in some church stained-glass windows with a double-edged sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. That is clearly not what we are supposed to do with these images. John is not told to draw a picture on a huge canvas and email it to the church. We are not told to make a computerised animated video using the latest 3D technology from Transformers and upload it to Youtube. John is told in verse 11: Write on a scroll what you see; and again in verse 19: Write it down. What we are meant to do with Revelation is read it, hear it and take it to heart (verse 3).

The reason is because what we are reading and hearing are the words of Jesus Christ. That is what is meant by the sword coming out of his mouth. These are his words.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12

Whenever we open this book, God speaks. We have no interest in hearing some guy talk about his experience, thoughts and fancy ideas - as smart or as nice as he may be. We want to hear Jesus. These words are his words speaking to us. You might ask God to answer your prayers in all kinds of situations, in all kinds of ways. Do you hear God’s voice in this book? Do you hear the voice of rushing waters, the words that cut right down to dividing soul and spirit. Because if you did - if you really did - you would react the way John does in verse 17.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
Revelation 1:17

The point isn’t that John saw something scary and fearful. It wasn’t the fire in his eyes or the sword in his mouth. The point is that John saw him: he saw Jesus.

My job today is not to make you worship. The song-leader’s job today is not to make you worship. Our job as Sunday School teachers, bible study leaders, preachers and elders and deacons is to show you Jesus; to point to him in his revealed Word: who he really is. I want to do this as clearly and as faithfully as I can as God enables me to do so. Because if you saw Jesus for who he really is: you would worship. You wouldn’t be able to help it. You too, would fall on your knees and worship him as God.
Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Revelation 1:17-18

“Do not fear,” Jesus says to John. But notice that Jesus gives two reasons why John should not fear - one is life the other is death.

First of all, Jesus is alive. He was dead but he now lives forever and ever. Meaning the life he has is resurrection life - life from the dead. He is talking about the cross, which is at the centre of how Jesus has conquered death and sin.

Secondly, Jesus now holds the keys of death and Hades.

Now what do these two reasons have to do with fear? Some people like to wear T-Shirts with the brand “No fear”, and usually what I take that to mean is that they have “No brains”. I get what it’s supposed to mean: You are conquering your fear. It’s fearlessness and courage. But often I see a teenager wearing a T-Shirt that says “No Fear” and he goes off and pulls stupid stunt like parkour-ing off the ledge of the Computing Service building, all in the effort to look cool while foolishly endangering his life.

Some fear is condemned by the bible: fear of man, for example, over the fear of God. Doing stuff just to please your friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend, your colleagues at work; knowing that, that thing you are doing is something God isn’t pleased with. Some do not fear God. Many do not fear God at all.

But here is John dealing with the fear of death and the fear of God. This is a fear we ought to be aware off. When God says, “Do not fear!” God isn’t saying there is no basis for this fear. He is saying that he has overcome the cause of John’s fear - the fear of death and judgement.

Jesus is saying, “I have conquered death, through my death on the cross.” He did this by conquering sin - the cause of death. Our sin and rebellion against God is the reason why death entered the world. God in his holiness, perfection and justice cannot tolerate sin, wickedness and rebellion. But what Jesus did on the cross was take our sin and our judgement for sin upon himself. The sentence has been passed. The payment made in full and in blood. There is therefore no more death; no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

But secondly, Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades. Death still exists. Hell still exists. But it is Jesus who holds the keys - all the keys - to death and Hell. He is the Judge.

Paul says to the Athenians:
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Acts 17:31

True: Jesus has risen to bring everlasting life to those who trust in him. He is the firstborn from the dead (Revelation 1:5). Christians will receive new life that is indestructible and everlasting in the new age of the kingdom.

But Jesus also rose from death as proof that he will return as Judge. He holds the keys to death and Hades.

And the only reason why John should no longer fear, is not because there is no such thing as death and hell and judgement, or that God has done away with hell and judgement; but that Jesus has taken his death and judgement on his behalf as a subsitute. He died so that we would no longer die. He lives that we might have life everlasting. Jesus is both judge and justifier - the one who brings judgement and the one who brings forgiveness.
Write therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.
Revelation 1:19

If you have read the book of Revelation before - or maybe you have heard sermons on it - you may have noticed that Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the seven churches, and after that comes the visions: The throne room, the seven seals, trumpets and bowls. Some says therefore, that verse 19 divides Revelation into two sections: what is now - dealing with the church; and what will take place later: the visions of the end. And that’s quite possible.

The problem is Revelation itself doesn’t provide such a division, or even a marker that says the letters are the present situation, and the rest is the future stuff. Rather, Jesus is telling John to write about the real situation going on in the church and the world - the way Jesus sees things from his perspective. The thing to see in verse 9 is not the now and later - but the fact that Jesus says to John “Write down what you see”. It is picking up from verse 11 where Jesus says again, “Write on a scroll (again the emphasis that it is one letter; one book - not seven) and send it to the seven churches”. In other words, Jesus wants us to be able, as it were to see what John is seeing through these words - his perspective on the world and the church. This is a world that wars against God. This is a world under the judgement of God. This is the church that has been purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What Revelation does is uncover for us the mystery of God’s plan. Remember: “revelation” means “uncovering” or “unveiling”; the same way you got up this morning and “unveiled” the curtains to let the sunlight in. Revelation should not cause us to be more confused, but more clear about who Jesus is. And Jesus clears up a mystery for us in verse 20, about the seven stars and seven lampstands.
The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Revelation 1:20

We will find out more about this in the coming weeks as Chapter 2 addresses the seven angels in the seven angels. Some have speculated whether angels here really are angels in the heavenly angelic being sense. After all, the word “angel” simply means messenger (which is important to note each time we see the word, since it reminds us that the angel is carrying a message from God. It helps us ask the important question of “Why has God sent this angel?” or “What is God saying through this angel”). As such, some have offered the explanation that the angels here in Revelation Chapters 1 to 3 refer not to heavenly beings but earthly pastors: Jesus is addressing the senior pastor of each church.
I think it would be much easier in this case, to take verse 20 at face value. After all, Jesus is clarifying the mystery, not adding to it. The stars in his right hand represent angels, and by that, it means angelic heavenly beings. Later on in Revelation 12, the dragon sweeps one-third of the stars in heaven flinging them to earth - and I take it there to mean that Satan influences angelic beings (the stars) to rebel against God. The fact the each church has a superintendent angel above it may similarly correspond to the angel in Daniel’s vision who does battle with the “prince of Persia”, implying that there is a heavenly dimension to every earthly spiritual albeit regional battle.

We do need to be careful about getting carried away in speculating about such details, but at least in Revelation, I think we can come to this conclusion: that as Christ addresses the physical earthly gathering of God’s people as the church, in the same way he addresses the heavenly and spiritual dimensions of such gatherings. Our struggles are not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, authorities and forces in the heavenly realms. From God’s perspective he has raised up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms. There are heavenly dimensions to our earthly gatherings in Christ’s name.

This is why there is some significance, I think, in the situation in which John receives this vision of Jesus. He tells us in verse 10, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit” and it was on this day - the Lord’s Day - that he saw the risen Jesus Christ. This is the only reference in the whole bible to the “Lord’s Day” as possibly referring to Sunday (and I think it is) as the day in which Christians gather for worship. Remember now, John is exiled. He is no longer physically with the church. He can’t meet up with his brothers and sisters in Christ. But on this day and not another, when he knows all other believers have come together, he is in the Spirit and he hears the voice of Jesus. This is the day Jesus chooses to speak to John and have him write down the vision in a book to be sent to his churches.

Friends, today as we gather on the Lord’s Day to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, let me ask you: Have you heard his voice? Do you see in these words, spoken by Jesus himself, the clarity and vision and power of who he really is? As the judge of all the earth. As the Son of Man walking amongst his lampstands? Whose voice is like the sound of rushing waters. Whose word is a double-edged sword dividing soul and spirit.

Do you see who Jesus really is?

I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!
And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Revelation 1:17-18

Behold Him there, the risen Lamb,
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace.
One with Himself, I cannot die,
My soul is purchased by His blood.
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Saviour and my God!

Wednesday 24 August 2011

God gives the growth

“My grandpa grows watermelons,” said a five-year old to me recently over lunch at a holiday club for kids, “but it takes sooo long for it to grow!”

“Well, how old are you?” I asked.

“I am five years old,” he answered.

I said to him, “You’ve taken this long to grow this big. And you’re still growing!”

I told him that it is God who makes things grow. We can plant the fruit and make sure it gets enough water. But in the end, God gives the growth.

It is a simple lesson the bible teaches us - not about plants - but about people. Specifically, Paul uses this picture to explain how God grows his church.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
1 Corinthians 3:5-7

I have been in Cambridge long enough to see some churches double and triple in size while some others have shrunken and now struggle to fill seats on Sundays.

At one time, the English congregation at the Chinese Church had a weekly attendance of four (including the speaker and the song-leader!). When a recent visitor remarked how much the ministry had grown since, I responded by recognising the faithfulness of the leaders back when times were lean that God was able to use to bless us now in times of plenty.

The point of these verses is not that we do nothing and wait for God to take care of everything. Indeed, what we can - and what we should - do is preach the gospel. Switching illustrations from planting to building, Paul says:

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:9-11

Preaching the gospel gives God all the glory. The gospel lays the one foundation (there is no other) of Jesus Christ - crucified for our sins; risen for our justification. We are God’s workers. The church is God’s field. The message is God’s gospel.

When times are lean, we preach Jesus. When times are a plenty, we preach Jesus. We continue planting and we continue watering. It is God who makes things grow.

Even a five year-old can understand that.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Revelation: God wins

This month we begin a new series at the Chinese Church looking at the book of Revelation.

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near."
Revelation 1:3

Saturday 20 August 2011

The man who ran from God (Jonah 1)

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
Jonah 1:1-3

I have always admired my uncle, who as a young man having grown up all his life in sunny Malaysia on the sleepy island of Penang, one day got on a boat and set sail for Europe, to pursue a career as a musician. This was in the 70s, back in the day when musicians wore white bell-bottoms pants and unbuttoned shirts baring their hairy chests (well, it probably wasn’t so hairy in my uncle’s case, him being a typical Chinaman). Most of all, I admired him for his guts. It takes some nerve to leave everything familiar behind, travel thousands of miles to a new country, learn a new language and start a brand new life. Many dream of it, of course. Few dare to follow that dream.

Still, in the case of the story of the prophet Jonah, it isn’t so much guts that sets him off on a boat bound for Tarshish, but rather cowardice, rebellion and foolishness. Jonah is a man running away from God.

What he runs away from is God’s word. Verse 1: "The word of the LORD came to Jonah”. This was a message that God gave the prophet Jonah to deliver to the people living in the city of Nineveh (a city, you will notice, which God considers “great”). Moreover, notice that this is a message of judgement. God tells Jonah to preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah’s response is to run away.

His destination is Tarshish (It is actually mentioned three times in verse 3. Where the NIV has “a ship bound for that port”, the ESV reads, “a ship going to Tarshish”). God tells Jonah to head east towards Nineveh. Instead, Jonah sets off towards Tarshish in the west.

That is, in running away, Jonah isn’t simply trying to hide from God. That would be silly enough: to think that God is bound by geography. No, what Jonah is doing is rebelling against God’s word. God says “Do this.” Jonah responds, “No, I will do the exact opposite instead.”

If you had a friend like Jonah, what would you say to him? Would you rebuke him - warning him of God’s judgement? Or perhaps you might try to appealing to his conscience - reminding him of God’s goodness?

What we read next is something I find truly amazing. Jonah displays no guilt nor anxiety at all - neither in the face of God’s judgement, nor in response to the appeal of non-believers - non-Christians - around him. Jonah sleeps through it all.

Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”
Jonah 1:4-6

Jonah isn’t oblivious to the circumstances around him. He is a prophet of God. He has heard the voice of God. To these pagan sailors, Jonah could even preach the sovereignty of God: I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. (verse 9)

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
Jonah 1:7-9

You see, Jonah knows exactly what is going on. They don’t. He can say calmly and confidently to these non-believers: God has done this. This is God’s judgement. Notice their response.

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.) The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.
Jonah 1:10-16

How do the non-believing pagan sailors respond? In fear and repentance.
Jonah says to them, “Throw me into the sea. That will solve this mess. That’s all you need to do. Sacrifice me and save yourselves.” And the remarkable thing is, these pagan sailors who do not know God, do everything they can to save both themselves and Jonah. They try rowing back. They dump all their cargo. But it was useless. “The sea grew even wilder than before.” (verse 13)

Finally, they do as Jonah says. They obey God’s word in fear and repentance. It is remarkable what they say: “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.”

Here are non-Christians, men who do not know God, pagans who worship other gods who respond in faith towards the God of the bible when they hear the message of judgement.

You see, earlier on God sends his word to Jonah and it was a message of judgement upon the city of Nineveh. But Jonah runs; and I wonder if some of us might empathise with him. We might say, “Who really needs to hear this hell and brimstone nonsense? After all, we don’t want to scare our friends into being Christians, do we?” But that is not the reason Jonah runs away. Jonah knows that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Jonah knows that these sailors need to know the real danger they are in - not just from the storm, but from the God of heaven, who is behind the storm. Jonah knows that salvation only makes sense to those who understand God’s judgement.

And Jonah runs.

He doesn’t want Nineveh to hear of God’s judgement because he doesn’t want Nineveh to hear of God. Nineveh was a city of the kingdom of Assyria - a kingdom which had attacked and occupied his own country, Israel. It was an enemy nation of the people of God. Deep in Jonah’s heart, Nineveh deserved God’s judgement. God himself says in verse 1, “Their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah also knows the God of the bible - a God of compassion; a God who saves.

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
Jonah 1:17

I like how the ESV says, “The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah”. God sent the storm. God appointed the fish. That is: God uses means and we are meant to see the hand of God in miraculous means. But in the end, it is God’s word that clarifies how and why God uses means. He appointed the fish (verse 17). He is Lord over the sea (verse 9).

The sailors get this. By the end of Chapter 1, they offer a sacrifice and make vows to the Lord. Not simply because of the storm. Rather it was the fulfilment of God’s word that throwing Jonah into the sea would calm the storm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD” (verse 16). Or earlier in verse 10, after Jonah tells them of the LORD, the God of heaven, This terrified them.”

The sailors hear the word of God and respond to the God of the Word. Yet sadly, Jonah does not.

You see, Jonah’s response to the storm is, “Throw me in.” The sailors instinct all the while was to turn back. They see the storm and they tremble. They beg for God’s forgiveness and offer sacrifices. It doesn’t remotely occur to Jonah to do the same. He sleeps. He talks the talk. But he refuses to turn back.

In fact, Jonah would rather face God’s wrath and judgement in the storm. He would rather be thrown into the sea than face up to the fact that all he needed to do was turn back.

And that is sad, isn’t it. To have preached to others and to have been lost yourself.

Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:27

How are you running from God’s word? It may be that you have heard the gospel again and again every week. It may even be that you have told others about Jesus, and others have responded in faith and repentance. The question is: have you?

O great God of highest heaven
Occupy my lowly heart
Own it all and reign supreme
Conquer every rebel power
Let no vice or sin remain
That resists Your holy war
You have loved and purchased me
Make me Yours forevermore
(“O Great God”, Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace Ministries)