Monday 28 November 2011

The worst of sinners? (1 Timothy 1:15)

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15

How could the apostle Paul describe himself as the worst of sinners? Was he using exaggeration? Or was Paul being subjective - he just felt as if he was the worst person on the planet?

     Paul himself recounts his past as “a blasphemer, persecutor and a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13). In other words, calling himself “chief of sinners” was not hyperbole nor was it exaggeration. Paul had previously persecuted the church. He even had a hand in the death of Stephen, the first recorded martyr in the book of Acts (Acts 8:1).

     Yet Paul says, he was “shown mercy because (he) acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Mercy is not receiving what we do deserve. Paul was guilty but God was merciful in withholding judgement and not punishing Paul as he rightly deserved. Yet Paul received something even greater than mercy: he received grace.

     Grace is receiving what we do not deserve. Paul received abundant grace - overflowing grace - in the form of forgiveness, love and faith in Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:14)

     This was true of Paul and this is true of us as well. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. And he seems to begin verse 15 by saying, “You can trust this. You can bet your life on this!”

     Still, what are we to make of his declaration as the “worst” of sinners. Notice how the same word occurs in the very next verse: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

     The Greek “protos” literally means “first”, or as some translations have it, “foremost”. The English Standard Version reads, “That in me, as the foremost, (the word 'sinner' doesn’t occur in the original) Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience”.

     Paul is therefore describing himself as a sinner on display. He is the foremost sinner. He is a sinner in the limelight. Notice that he doesn’t just say, in verse 15, “of whom I was the first” - referring to his past sins; but that Paul says quite emphatically, “of whom I am the first”. It is in the present tense. Meaning: Every single day he lives is given Paul to display the overflowing generosity of God through Jesus Christ, that others might recall his actions in the past, that many might behold his changed life in the present, and that all might marvel at his hope for the future, and know that all this has been poured out on Paul, a sinner purely by the grace of God.

     Finally, this grace is given Paul for our benefit. He stands merely as “an example” (1 Timothy 1:16) that we might similarly trust in Jesus Christ and receive eternal life.

Sunday 27 November 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Compassion (Matthew 20:29-34)

The theme of our Christmas series can be summed up in one word: Expectation. What are we looking forward to? What are we hoping for?

For many, Christmas is a time of great expectation: the holidays, the presents, the shopping. For others it can equally be a time of great disappointment: the loneliness, the cold weather, the credit card bills.

The bible tells us that Jesus came to fulfil all of  God’s promises - every single expectation of God’s goodness, his salvation, even his judgement - laid out in the Old Testament. But he does so in such a way that surprises our greatest expectations and soothes our deepest disappointments. In the coming weeks we will be looking at our expectations of joy and happiness, of faith in God, of truth and of love.

But for today we are dealing with the expectation of God’s mercy. Twice we encounter these words, “Have mercy on us” in verses 30 and 31. It is a cry for help and it is met with a response of compassion. Verse 34: “Jesus had compassion on them.”

Out of all the expectations I mentioned earlier - happiness, faith, truth and love - this one is perhaps the hardest: the expectation of mercy. Especially in a Chinese culture like ours. Not that our culture says that we shouldn’t be merciful or charitable, that’s not what I mean. Rather, some of us feel embarrassed to admit that we need help. We are pai seh. Even when times are desperate we act as if everything is OK. When things go wrong we cover it up and maybe even, get angry.

That describes the crowd we see in verse 29.

The crowd

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.
Matthew 20:29

Jesus is at the most popular stage of his career. As a preacher and teacher of God’s word. As a miracle worker healing the sick and raising the dead. At this point in his ministry, Jesus was well-known and well-liked. And here we see that a large crowd follows Jesus as he and his friends leave the city of Jericho. Their destination was Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and it is no coincidence that this was near the time of the Passover, the biggest festival of the entire Jewish calendar. Everyone was expecting Jesus to do something big. If ever there was a time and a place for Jesus to make his stamp in the history, it was here and it was now.

“Hey, it’s Jesus!” they would have said to one another as they say him walking by. “Let’s follow him to Jerusalem and see what he does next.” As the crowd grew around Jesus so did their expectations of Jesus.

What they did not expect were the two blind men of verse 30.

The cry

Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
Matthew 20:30-31

This week alone there will be two carol services at Great St Mary’s, two huge Christian parties organised by CICCU and the Christian Graduate Society, not to mention a special Christmas event for language students next Sunday evening with an International choir. God willing, these events will attract hundreds, if not, thousands of students around the city to hear the true message of Christmas - that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.

But imagine that as you were walking up to Great St Mary’s tomorrow night - full of anticipation of an evening of carols, a powerful presentation of the gospel, the warm mince pies and mulled wine served at the end - and as you’re walking there joined by the hundreds of other undergraduates headed toward the same destination, you pass by the local Sainsburys where a homeless man stops you and says, “Big issue, sir?” How would you react? I doubt any of you would have reacted the way this crowd did in verse 30.


“The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet”, verse 30 tells us. It is important to understand why. Maybe it was because the beggars were causing a scene. Maybe they were embarrassed. Yet there is something troubling still in their behaviour. You see, the crowd sincerely thought that they were doing Jesus a favour. In their minds, Jesus was someone too important to deal with the riffraff. “Can’t you see we’re on a really important mission of evangelism with Jesus? Stop being a nuisance and be quiet!” If they carried around one of those WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”) bracelets you sometimes see Christians wearing today, well, they thought Jesus would have told these two to sit in the corner and be quiet.

And yet the two blind men didn’t shut up. “They shouted all the louder,” verse 31 tells us. More importantly, do you notice what these two blind men were shouting? They addressed Jesus as “Lord”, and as the “Son of David”. That is they weren’t asking Jesus for money, “Spare any change, mate?” Rather they were addressing Jesus as who he really was - as Lord and as the Son of David.

“Son of David” was a name we find in the bible given to God’s chosen King. For hundreds of years, God promised that one day he would send a king - a King of Kings; and ultimate King - to establish the kingdom of Israel; to establish the kingdom of God. And what these two beggars were saying was that Jesus is that king. Or to use another bible word, Jesus is the Christ.

Furthermore, by pleading for mercy, the blind men were not so much asking for pity, but were in effect addressing Jesus as a judge. “Lord, have mercy”. It is what you say before a judge in a courtroom as a convicted criminal. And one more thing, they called Jesus, “Lord”, a name that is repeatedly used in the Old Testament to refer to God. Now some of you might say, “That’s a bit much! They didn’t know that Jesus was God.” And I agree with you. The two blind men were speaking better than they knew. But Matthew records their words for us here in the bible, twice, to make us think of who Jesus really was. Who did the crowd expect Jesus to be? How did his closest friends see Jesus?

Remarkably, these two blind man saw clearly what a whole crowd of followers (including Jesus’ own disciples in verse 29) could not see. He was the Christ. He was the Judge. While everyone else was admiring Jesus for his teaching and his amazing miracles, these beggars were humbling themselves before the Son of God. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

And while everyone else was eager to just walk on by and ignore the ramblings of these two nobodies, Jesus stops, he calls them over and Jesus actually asks them how he could be of service to them.

The compassion

Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Matthew 20:32-33

I wonder if you have any friends who are blind. I do. I say that to be mindful of what I say next about these verses. The blind men ask to be healed and Jesus miraculously restores their sight. Not partially. Not over the next few months. Instantly and completely - hence the last sentence in verse 34 which reads, “Immediately, they received their sight and followed him.”

I believe this really happened. As I mentioned earlier, I am mindful of how this sounds to friends who have lost their sight, friends who have never been able to see in their entire lives, even of friends who have had serious health problems in the recent past. I remember and occasion many years ago of a sister who walked out of the room when a pastor referred to a miraculous healing from God. She was very angry with the speaker. “How could he say that? This just creates a false expectation in God,” she said. The truth is many Christians suffer from illnesses that are not healed instantly. Many live with their illness to their dying day.

The dilemma we face today is not simply “Can God heal me?” but “Will God heal me?” Meaning: the real question we need to ask this passage is not “Could Jesus heal these two men?” But “Why?” Why did Jesus heal these two blind men? Why does Matthew record this incident for us to read in the bible?

In verse 33, the English NIV has the two blind men saying, “Lord, we want our sight.” But the ESV is perhaps more helpful when reads, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Throughout his three-year ministry, Jesus healed many, many sick people according to the gospel writers (see for instance Matthew 4:23-25 where large crowds come to him from Syria, Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judea), and yet what is surprising is how selective the gospel writers are about which event of healing gets recorded in the gospels. In fact, so specific is their selection of this healing of hte blind men that it in all three of the synoptic gospels - here in Matthew 20, in Mark 10 and in Luke 18. The question is why? What is so special about this healing?

The reason is: the bible pointing to something bigger than physical healing. It is pointing us to faith and it teaches us that faith involves two things: it involves (1) seeing ourselves clearly and (2) seeing Jesus clearly. That is the significance of the request in verse 33, “Lord, open our eyes.” They are saying two things. Firstly, they are admitting their helpless condition. They are blind. “Our eyes are closed. We cannot see.” But secondly, they are recognising that only Jesus is able to open their eyes. Three times, they address Jesus as “Lord”. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

These two men saw themselves clearly and they saw Jesus clearly. Unlike the crowd. Unlike the rich man (Matthew 19:16-22) who was confident of being accepted because he had a good education from Cambridge and came to church every Sunday to play the keyboard for youth group. Unlike the disciples who were shooing away little kids because they weren’t important enough to hang around Jesus (Matthew 19:13). In effect, the crowd saw Jesus the way we see Santa Claus: someone who brings us nice toys for Christmas if we are good enough and behave when Grandma visits over the holidays.

That was not how the blind men saw themselves or Jesus. These blind men knew they didn’t deserve anything and they couldn’t do anything to help themselves. But they saw Jesus as someone powerful enough and merciful enough to help them out of their helpless estate. When Jesus said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They didn’t say, “I need a new car. I need a new job. I need a holiday.” They said, “I’m blind. Help me.”

And the reason why this story is in the bible three times is to drive home the point - that’s what we are. Helpless. Pitiful. Blind. I wonder, how do you see yourself today? “Well, I’m doing all right. A few problems in the office, but nothing really serious, you know?” Or do you say, “I’m a wreck. I’m here because God’s the only one who can help me and I really need his grace and mercy”? How do you see yourself today?

Or what would it take for us to see ourselves this way? You know, I have yet to meet a rich, healthy, Cambridge graduate at the peak of his career, just back from a business trip to Asia flying first-class on BA, turning up in the church one day in his brand new Aston Martin just to me and say, “I’m hopeless! I am a sinner!” But go through a serious illness. Suffer through a tragedy. Lose a loved one. Sometimes, all it takes is just a tiny toothache and we cry out to God shaking our fists at him saying, “Why is this happening to me?”

What would it take for you to see your need for God today? CS Lewis writes:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

I wonder if God is speaking to some of you here today who are going through a really difficult time in your life, saying, “These two blind men - this is your condition. The blindness. The helplessness. You need to see that you can’t work your way out of this mess.”

And I wonder if God is saying to you, “This is my Son, Jesus. Call out to him. See him as he truly is. Lord. Christ. The merciful Judge. The compassionate Saviour.”

A compassionate saviour

Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:34

Christmas is the time we remember the birth of Jesus Christ. God became a human being. And the bible tells us that Jesus was fully God and fully man. And by that it doesn’t just mean that he had arms, legs, hair and armpits like us. The reason why Jesus had to become a man was this: and here’s what the book of Hebrews says -

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those are being tempted.
Hebrews 2:17-18

“Because he himself suffered,” that’s why he can help us. He became like us (“in every way” that bible tells us) in order to identify with our suffering and temptation, in order that he might be merciful and faithful to us as our high priest. Jesus is a God who has suffered. Isn’t that amazing? That’s what Christmas is saying. Jesus took on our humanity. He took on our suffering.

And that’s why it is such a silly thing to want to hide our suffering and pain from Jesus. Or to think that he will not understand. Because he does.

But notice as well that Hebrews as that Jesus made “atonement for the sins of the people”. What does that mean? It is helping to explain about what really happened on the cross. Jesus was paying the price of our sin by taking the punishment for our sins. That price was rejection from God.

You see, these two blind men - how did Jesus help them that day? “Well, he healed them, that’s obvious enough.” What was their condition before? “They were blind, duh!” Yes, yes. But weren’t they also rejected? The crowds saw them as trash. They talked to them like trash.

What happened when Jesus touched their eyes? Verse 34: “Immediately they received their sight and followed him”. They followed Jesus. To Jerusalem. To the passover. To the cross. They were able to see the whole thing. Previously, they were rejected by the crowd. Now, they are accepted by Jesus.

That’s what Jesus does for us at the cross. It changes us. By making us whole - giving us sight, faith, life. But it also changes us so that we now follow him. The cross enables us to see ourselves clearly and to see Jesus clearly. Jesus opened the eyes of these two blind men, so that they could follow him all the way to the cross.

What about you? Do you see? If you don’t, why not be honest about it. Ask God to open your eyes so that you can see clearly who you are and who Jesus is.

If you do see clearly, then follow him. Follow Jesus to the cross.

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shining in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy
(“Open the eyes of my heart”, Michael W. Smith)

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Brokenness (Philippians 2:5-11)

An old video sermon from last year's Solid Rock music event at the Chinese Church entitled "The humility of Christ and the glory of God".

Monday 21 November 2011

Reflecting on Christmas

Here is a collection of Christmas-themed sermons and posts from previous years:
And of course, do join us at the Chinese Church for this year's advent and Christmas series entitled "All I want for Christmas" based on Matthew's gospel chapters 20 to 21.

Friday 18 November 2011

Questions on Revelation 22

Here are some interesting questions I recently got from some friends going through Revelation Chapter 22 followed by my thoughts below.

1. River of life
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
Revelation 22:1

Question: Why is the sea symbolising opposition gone but there is now a river? And why are both compared to crystal?

1.    There is no more sea in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1)
2.    In Revelation 4:6, the sea is “glassy” like crystal;
In Revelation 22:1 the river is “bright” like crystal
3.    The first symbolises movement. Glass was imperfect in the ancient world - shimmering
4.    The second talks about light (literally, the river is a “lamp” like crystal) - there is light coming from this river of life flowing from the throne
5.    The reason for the similarity is to highlight the stark contrast - Opposition and death has been replaced with sustaining life flowing from God.
6.    (It is also worth looking at Genesis 2:10-14 where the four rivers flow out from Eden bringing life and blessing.)

2. The time is near
Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.
Revelation 22:11

Questions: Why is the time near? Why do the vile continue to do vile things?

1.    This is a direct reference and fulfilment to Daniel’s prophecy in Chapter 12
2.    At the end of Daniel’s visions, he is told to seal up the book until the time of the end (see Daniel 12:4 and 9)
3.    “Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.” Daniel 12:10
4.    Notice, the reason for their evil actions is ignorance of God’s will - "none of the wicked shall understand".

5.    In Revelation however, John is told not to seal up the words of the prophecy (verse 10) for the time is near. Daniel 12:10 is being fulfilled
6.    And when Jesus came proclaiming the secrets of the kingdom (Matthew 13:11) he said, “He who has ears, let him hear!”
7.    The fulfilment of this is the gospel. The full plan of God is now revealed through the cross.
8.    Either we will hear and respond to the gospel in repentance and trust
9.    Or we will be hardened by the gospel and continue to do evil

3. The bride
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
Revelation 22:17

Question: Who is the bride?

1.    The new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:2
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
(see also Revelation 21:9)
2.    The bride represents the church.
3.    All marriage is a parable of Jesus and his church, according to Ephesians 5:
4.    Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her... This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Ephesians 5:25,32
5.    Here in Revelation it is not Jesus speaking but us, calling out to Jesus to return. “Come”.
6.    Meaning: one of the signs of a genuine believer in Jesus is the expectation of his return and a deep longing for God’s full presence in his/her life.

Thursday 17 November 2011

The reluctant hero (Judges 6)

A familiar situation

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help.
Judges 6:1-6

Again. That is how the chapter begins, with a scenario we have encountered before in the book of Judges. The Israelites fall into sin - again - and God “gave them into the hands” of their enemies. Again. This time, it’s the Midianites, a foreign nation so powerful and oppressive that “it was impossible to count the men and their camels” (verse 5).

The Midianite strategy was to attack the Israelite nation’s food source, coordinating their strikes with the harvest season to destroy every trace of vegetation or plant life in the land. Even the livestock was not spared, “they... did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys”.

Driven to starvation (“Midian so impoverished the Israelites” - verse 6), the people of God turn back to the LORD calling for his divine help. God answers but in a very unexpected way.

When the Israelites cried to the LORD because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”
Judges 6:7-10

Imagine your mum reminding you to take an umbrella with you before leaving the house. “Forecast says there’s going to be heavy rain today. Don’t forget.” “Yes, ma,” you say, “I know. I’m a big boy now.” But you do forget to take your umbrella so after school you call your Ma on the phone, “Please pick me up, it’s raining!” “OK,” she says. She turns up in the car and gives you a lift home.

Next day. “Remember your umbrella!” goes Ma. “I know, I know!” you say. But you forget. So you call Ma and she drives over and picks you up again. This goes on every day for a whole week. You call. She answers. She drives you home.

Except one day you make the usual call home and Ma doesn’t say, “Sure, I’ll be right over.” Instead, she begins to nag. “I told you to pack your umbrella but you never listen do you? You always ignore what I’m saying to you!” Then she puts down the phone. No word on picking you up. No solution on how you’re going to get home in the pouring rain. She just cuts you off mid-conversation.

That’s essentially what God does by sending the prophet to Israel.

I saved you from slavery in Egypt. I gave you this land. I told you not to chase after other false gods. But you have not listened to me. That’s what God says.

That is all that God says. No word of help. Just the rebuke of an angry and annoyed parent. But of course, God does send help. He raises up a judge named Gideon.

You are the one

The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”

“But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian.”

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”
Judges 6:11-14

Gideon’s name in Hebrew means “hacker”. Today, a hacker is a term for a computing super-geek who breaks into a complex computer system bypassing all its layers of security and protection. Every Hollywood spy movie must have the hacker - the skinny, socially-inept teenager who hacks into a high-security government facility server, accessing blueprints, unlocking doors and controlling CCTV cameras, all from a laptop in his bedroom while guzzling copious amounts of Diet Coke.

Gideon had a strong, impressive name, something close to “Terminator”. The angel of God even calls him a “mighty warrior”. Verse 12: “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” God tells Gideon, “Go… and save Israel out of Midian’s hand”!

It’s like Morpheus confronting Neo saying, “You’re the One!” but Neo’s thinking “I am no one”. He works in a cubicle. He’s just trying to get through the day without his boss firing him from his mediocre middle-management job. But one day the mysterious Morpheus appears in an overcoat, black sunglasses and leather pants too tight for a man his age, saying, “You are going to save the world”?

When we first meet Gideon in verse 11, he was “threshing wheat in a winepress”. It is saying that Gideon was afraid. He was hiding. A winepress is a space dug into rock for crushing grapes. Gideon was hiding out in this winepress – out of view of the Midianites – in order to thresh wheat: a process of separating the kernels from the stalk by beating the heads of wheat and letting the winds blow away the chaff. A winepress was not an ideal place to do this but Gideon didn’t want to attract any attention from the Midianite armies. Threshing wheat in a winepress is akin to barbequing steaks in your bathroom to hide the smoke.

Gideon wasn’t brave. Gideon wasn’t strong. But the first thing Gideon questioned was not his own strength or confidence, but God’s presence with Israel. “If the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders our fathers told us about?”

Gideon had been brought up in the knowledge of God. He knew about the rescue from Egypt. He even knew enough to recognise that Israel’s current problem with the Midianites was actually God’s judgement on them. But Gideon had never seen God’s “wonders” first-hand. Furthermore, it’s ironic that Gideon talks about the previous generation who taught him about these wonders – “our fathers”. As we will soon find out, Gideon’s own dad had abandoned God. In fact, the whole village was worshipping a foreign god set up in his own back yard. Gideon was alone in his faith, the very faith his fathers had taught him, the very faith his fathers had left behind.

But God speaks to Gideon directly. God gives Gideon a personal assurance of his presence. “The LORD is with you” (verse 12). “Am I not sending you?” (verse 14).

This is God’s personal, unmistakeable, powerful promise of his presence with Gideon. As the following verses will demonstrate, God continues to assure Gideon of his presence, in spite of this young man’s doubts and brazenness.

I will be here

“But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The LORD answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.” Gideon replied, “If now I have found favour in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.”

And the LORD said, “I will wait until you return.”
Judges 6:15-18

“Give me a sign,” says Gideon, “that it is really you.” It is a bold request to ask of God, not least because God had already given him his word of promise. “I will be with you,” God says yet again in verse 16.

Still, we must not ignore the massive task God has put ahead of our hero. “How can I save Israel?” he says. God wants Gideon to face an army so vast, the Midianite forces, that verse 5 describes them as “impossible to count”. I mean, what if God turned up one day while you were doing your laundry and said to you, “Go and attack France! Gather up the students of your college, call your supervisors, porters and cleaning ladies. Assemble them and march down to Dover.” You would say, “My college is the least impressive and poorest of all the colleges in Cambridge – Queens’ - and I only managed to scrape through last year with a third class in my Tripos!”

God answers Gideon, “I will be with you.” One plus God is the majority.

Even so, Gideon is unsure. So he asks God for a sign – a sign of God’s favour; a sign of God’s presence. “Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you,” he says.

Gideon went in, prepared a young goat, and from an ephah of flour he made bread without yeast. Putting the meat in a basket and its broth in a pot, he brought them out and offered them to him under the oak.
Judges 6:19

Gideon rushes to the kitchen and pulls out whatever he can find. Turns out he’s not a bad cook. He even bakes his own bread (without yeast, of course, from what he could recall from those stories he learned as a kid in Sunday School about the Exodus). The star dish is the goat stew he whips up. Yummy! Jamie Oliver would be proud.

He is trying his best to impress God. Yet, it in his mind, this really is just a fancy meal. When he addresses the angel as, “Lord,” in verse 15, the NIV footnotes makes clear, that this is akin to saying, “Sir”. He is being courteous. Polite. As far as Gideon is concerned, this is just another man – distinguished and important he may be – but just another man. This “offering” Gideon painstakingly serves up is, in his mind, nothing more than dinner.

So what this visitor tells Gideon to do next must have surprised him. “Pour out the broth,” he says. Empty out the contents of the pot full of yummy delicious stew!

The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And Gideon did so. With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the LORD touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the LORD disappeared. When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the LORD, he exclaimed, “Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!”

But the LORD said to him, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.” So Gideon built an altar to the LORD there and called it The LORD is Peace. To this day it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
Judges 6:20-24

Gideon realises that he was dealing with an angel sent from God and he freaks out. Gideon essentially thinks he is going to die but God reassures him one more time, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.”

Notice that God reassures Gideon time and time again about his presence. When he first meets him threshing wheat in the winepress, “The LORD is with you” (verse 12). When Gideon questions his own ability, “I will be with you” (verse 16). Even when Gideon runs off to the kitchen to re-enact his favourite episode from Masterchef, “I will wait until you return.”

And here, even after the angel has left, when Gideon thinks he is about to die, God voice comes down from heaven to calm his nerves. “Peace! Do not be afraid.” In answer to our prayers for blessing, comfort, confidence or love, God’s greatest promise to us is that of himself. “I will be with you,” he says to young Gideon.

Gideon responds with thankfulness and worship. He “built an altar … and called it The LORD is Peace,” as a reminder that God had met him there, accepted his offering and given Gideon the promise of his presence and peace.

However, things weren’t going to stay peaceful for long.

Spring cleaning

That same night the LORD said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”

So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the LORD told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.
Judges 6:25-27

Baal was the local pagan god of the Canaanites. Asherah was the female counterpart to Baal, symbolising fertility and blessing. The heart of the problem was not the Midianite forces which oppressed Israel and destroyed their food supplies. The issue was idolatry. Israel had turned away from God to worship idols. This is what verse 1 was referring to when we read, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD”.

Notice as well that God tells Gideon to tear down “your father’s altar”. These idols had been set up prominently in Gideon’s dad’s own backyard! This same dad who taught Gideon all about what God did in the Exodus, rescuing Israel and bringing them to the Promise Land.

Gideon’s dad is like a Christian who still calls himself a believer – he still goes to church every Sunday - but keeps a giant statue of Buddha in his back garden next to the lavish koi pond where he parks his Mercedes every day. God tells Gideon, “Take your dad’s prized Mercedes and pull down that idol, destroying it completely. Then take apart your dad’s Mercedes and built a cross in that same place – out of Mercedes parts!”

“Build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God … using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering,” God says to Gideon, giving him instructions to “recycle” the idol into parts for a “proper altar” to God. Gideon obeyed God, but did this at night, “because he was afraid of his and the men of his town.”

It looks like he had reason to be afraid.

In the morning when the men of the town got up, there was Baal’s altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar! They asked each other, “Who did this?” When they carefully investigated, they were told, “Gideon son of Joash did it.”

The men of the town demanded of Joash, “Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.”

But Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” So that day they called Gideon “Jerub-Baal,” saying, “Let Baal contend with him,” because he broke down Baal’s altar.
Judges 6:28-32

The townspeople turn up at Joash’s front door, armed with pitchforks and torches ready to lynch Gideon for his sacrilegious act of vandalism. “He must die, because he has broken down Ball’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.”

But Joash defends his son. That’s simply amazing! He speaks to this “hostile crowd” and begins to mock the very pagan gods he had been worshipping up till now. “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning!” If Baal really were a god, he would defend himself and not allow his own altar to be torn down by a puny kid.

All this from a former Baal worshipper - possibly even, a Baal priest - since the altar was in Joash’s own backyard. Furthermore, Gideon had trashed the Merc – I mean, the bull – in order to build another altar – a proper altar to God. Joash should have been hopping mad at his son. You would have expected Joash to be leading the mob, not confronting them. But it’s obvious, isn’t it, that Joash now recognises how foolish it is to try to defend an idol, how much more foolish then, to worship one? “Let Baal contend with him,” that’s what they said of Gideon from that day onwards, giving him the new name, “Jerub-Baal”. Meaning: Let Baal deal with this kid. As if, he could.

Earlier on, Gideon was protesting before God that he was the “least” in his family. Yet what we see here is God using the youngest and most insignificant member of this family to turn the head of that household back in repentance towards God. Because of Gideon’s faithfulness, his own dad finds renewed faith and trust in the LORD.

And what we see next is God using Gideon to bring the whole people of God back to himself.

Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them.
Judges 6:33-35

It’s the scene of a great battle! The enemy nations have banded together to attack Israel. But God empowers Gideon by his Spirit. He blows a trumpet summoning all his clan to follow him. Remember, these are the very same people who were out to kill him just a few verses before. But not they follow Gideon into battle. Not just them, but also the clans of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali.

So, not just the tiny college that is Queens’ College – but Trinity, John’s and King’s team up behind you, gathering at the ferries ready to cross over to Calais. You have numbers. You have the Spirit of God. Everyone’s ready for battle.

But instead of marching on, Gideon stops. He stops to check with God, one more time, just to be sure. “Aiya! Tim Kai Leh?” his soldiers must have been thinking of their brave general.

Just checking

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.
Judges 6:36-39

The story of Gideon and his fleece has become proverbial of our pursuit to know God’s will for our lives. Countless pastors and missionaries have shared their personal “fleece” stories about God confirming a difficult decision ahead of them by miraculous means. There have also been countless preachers who say Gideon is behaving irresponsibly by testing God yet again instead of trusting in his word.

The amazing thing to note is not simply Gideon’s boldness in testing God again and again, but rather God’s patience and graciousness in responding to this young boy’s doubts, again and again.

In the first test, Gideon asks God to make the fleece wet and the ground dry, laying the fleece on the threshing floor. He wakes up the next morning to find the fleece wet with dew - so wet that he is able to squeeze out a bowl of water.

Someone in my bible study group suggested that maybe Gideon wasn’t too bright - that it wouldn’t have been too difficult for God to just pour a glass of water on the fleece to make it wet. That’s why Gideon asked for the reverse to happen instead; for the ground to be wet but the fleece to stay dry (I’ll leave you to decide for yourself if that idea has any merit, haha!). The second test was much trickier. The wool fleece would naturally absorb any moisture from its surroundings. Yet that night, God did as Gideon asked, “Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered in dew” (verse 39).

Notice how Gideon addresses God so very cautiously with his second request. “Do not be angry with me.” Gideon knows he is asking for a lot. In fact, the word he uses is “test” - “Allow me one more test with the fleece,” Gideon says in verse 39 - something which God explicitly forbade in the Law of Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not test the LORD your God”, as well as Hebrews 3:7). When Israel tested God, God punished them with death.

But God, in turn, was also asking much of Gideon. Gideon was chosen to lead the nation into battle. Gideon was chosen to save Israel out of the hands of the powerful Midianite forces. Gideon was chosen to turn his people back to God.

And what we have seen throughout this chapter is God being gracious and patient with Gideon, time and time again. No rebuke. Not even a word of warning. Just constant reassurances and reminders of God’s peace. And God’s presence.

“I will be with you.”

Knowing God’s will

Should we test God the way Gideon did? From this passage alone, I think we can neither commend Gideon’s behaviour in testing God, nor can we even condemn his actions in seeking God’s will.

In the Chinese Church, the two biggest issues people struggle with most, again and again, are marriage and work. “God, is this person the one?” “God, is this job the one?” And you get all kinds of prayer requests in this regard - For God to open one door and close all others; For God to do a miracle and point them in the right direction.

Yet sometimes I wonder if God is giving us the same answer he gave Gideon when he was in doubt of God’s will. I wonder if God’s answer to you in your deepest moments of uncertainty, in that crisis of faith, or in that difficult situation that seems so precarious is simply this:

“I will be with you.”

In response to our prayers for blessing, comfort and knowledge, God’s greatest answer is to give us himself. He does that supremely through his Son, Jesus Christ. That is the what Christmas, which we will be celebrating in just a few weeks, is all about, isn’t it? That in Jesus, God came to be with us. That in Jesus, God became like one of us.

The bible tells us that Jesus shared in our humanity; he was like us in every way. He was human. He got tired. He was tempted. He felt pain and deep anguish. Yet he never sinned. All throughout his earthly life, Jesus walked with his heavenly Father in perfect obedience and love.

And just before going to his death on the cross, the bible tells us of how Jesus was in a garden praying to God. There in the garden called Gethsemane, he sought the will of his Father.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Luke 22:42-44

Jesus did not want to go to the cross. The cross meant death - not just physical death; spiritual death. Death that meant separation from God. Jesus who had existed in eternal love and fellowship with his heavenly Father was about to bear the full weight of punishment for the sins of the world. At the cross, he would cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So great was his anguish that drops of blood trickled down his brow. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” Jesus did not want to go to the cross. He prayed that he might not have to go to the cross. And as an angel descended from heaven to strengthen him, he prayed all the more earnestly pleading with his heavenly Father.

Yet Jesus also prayed that his Father’s will be done. And on the cross, Jesus the Son of God obeyed his heavenly Father. Willingly. At the cross, God’s will was seen and done. Next time you want to know God’s will for your life? Look to the cross. Look to Jesus. That’s God’s will for your life and mine. It’s Jesus.

Peter puts it like this:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
1 Peter 3:18

In Jesus, God was with us. In Jesus, God was like us. And in Jesus, God is for us. Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins to bring us to God.

He walked where I walked
He stood where I stand
He felt what I feel
He understands.
He knows my frailty
Shared my humanity
Tempted in every way
Yet without sin

God with us!
So close to us
God with us
(“God with us”, Don Moen)

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The last stand (Revelation 7)

Audio recording of the sermon preached on 6 November 2011 at the Chinese Church on Revelation Chapter 7. An outline of the talk was posted here.

Download MP3

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Sunday 13 November 2011

Silence in Heaven (Revelation 8)


Millions of people across the United Kingdom observed a two-minute silence on Friday to mark the 93rd Armistice Day. Wikipedia defines “armistice” as a situation in a war where warring parties agree to stop fighting. The key aspect in an armistice is the fact that “all fighting ends with no one surrendering”.

Armistice Day commemorates the first armistice signed during World War I on 11 November which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning—the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. Since then, it has become an annual day of remembrance for all soldiers killed in the line of duty.

For many who lived through the war; for those who lost loved ones in the war; for those who continue to live with the ravages and scars of war - the two minutes of silence is a moment to grieve, to remember and to be thankful.

We open our study today from Revelation Chapter 8 with just such a moment.

Silence in heaven

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
Revelation 8:1

This silence is symbolic of the calm before the storm. What triggers the silence is the opening of the seventh seal. This picks up from Revelation 6 which we studied a couple of weeks ago, where Jesus opened six of the seven seals on the scroll which unleashes God’s final judgement on the earth. And here he opens the seventh, and “there was silence in heaven for about half and hour.”

Like the silence observed each year at Armistice Day, it doesn’t mean that the war has ended. It just means that fighting has stopped for the moment. The opening of the seventh seal is like Jesus hitting the pause button. It is a moment to reflect on what is going on: God is finally bringing all his purposes of judgement and salvation to pass. It is a moment to consider who it is we are dealing with: the Sovereign Lord who is Holy and True, who cannot tolerate sin and who will judge all who oppose his rule. It is a moment for us to evaluate our lives: what is our attitude towards this God. How do we respond to Jesus and his saving work on the cross?

In moments like these, it may be appropriate to cover our mouths; to be silent. To be careful with our words and actions before such a holy God. To listen to what he is speaking to us even now in his word. And to see what he is doing in our world and in our lives even today.

The prayers of the saints

And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.
Revelation 8:2-3

Notice that in verse 2, John sees “the” seven angels. He is referring to the same seven angels we met in Chapters 2 and 3: the seven angels of the seven churches to whom this book of Revelation is addressed. They stand before God, representing each church - and indeed, representing the whole church of God, such is the symbolic nature of the number seven - and they are given seven trumpets.

But then John’s focus turns to another angel in verse 3 who approaches God and stands at the altar. What he does next triggers an end to the silence. This angel stands at the altar to offers up the prayers of the saints.

The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
Revelation 8:4-5

A censer is a pot which is used to hold burning incense. Back in Asia, many homes have altars with small pots where joss-sticks are placed. Some of you will remember how smoky the whole house would be, as the smell and smoke of joss-sticks and incense would get into every room, into your clothes and maybe even make your eyes start to water. (Smoke got in your eyes. Whoawhoaawhoaaa.)

We read in verse 3 that this angel at the altar holds a hand-held censer and is given a lot of incense - meaning, he is creating a lot of smoke - and in the next verse, we see that this smoke rises up before God “together with the prayers of the saints.” This is Revelation’s symbolic picture of how our prayers reach God. They are carried by the angel, they rise up to heaven and they are presented right before God’s throne in heaven. The prayers you said this morning. The prayers we say together as a church. The prayers we say to God privately in our hearts. God hears every word. God hears every prayer.

Every one of them, that is, offered up in Jesus Christ. That’s the connection with the altar. You see, there are two types of altars in view here. The first is the altar of incense, producing the smoke and the pleasing smell of the incense before God (Also worth noting are “the golden bowls full of incense” held by the seven elders/angels before God’s throne in Chapter 5, verse 8, “which are the prayers of the saints”). But then we read in verse 5 that the angel fills his censer with “fire from the altar”. This is now talking about the second type of altar - the altar of sacrifice. That is, God’s accepts our prayers because they presented to him through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His offering on the cross makes our offering acceptable. His death guarantees that our prayers are heard.

And what happens next is God’s answer to our prayers. The angels hurls the censer filled with fire taken from the altar unto the earth resulting in judgement: symbolised by the thunder, lightning and earthquake.

Now you’re probably saying, “But I never prayed for that! I asked God for a sunny day, or for my favourite singer to win on X-Factor.” The prayer that is in view here is the one we heard a couple of weeks ago in Chapter 6 at the opening of the fifth seal. There the souls under the altar - those who died in their witness to the gospel - cry out to God, “How long!”

How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
Revelation 6:10

Remember God’s response to this prayer: Patience.

Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
Revelation 6:11

God is infinitely more patient than we are. In the face of evil and unjust suffering, God holds back his righteous judgement. More specifically, here in the face of the death of Christians for the sake of the gospel, God is also patient.

Now, the kingdom of God advances not through military conquest, neither through human ingenuity and never through coercion or manipulation - but only through the testimony of the good news; the proclamation of Jesus’ death on the cross. But God knows that speaking this news gets us into trouble. People will reject the gospel and they will reject those who hold to the gospel to the extent, that some will lose their lives simply for speaking and holding to the gospel. God knows this. He has even ordained it.

I wonder if we are honest enough about this in our evangelism. I wonder if we are clear enough about this to our missionaries. God tells the souls under the altar to wait until the number of their fellows brothers who were to be killed as they were had been completed. The gospel is carried into the world through our speaking, but also through our suffering.

God response with mercy and patience in the face of evil and unjust suffering - even the suffering and death of faithful Christians in service to the gospel. He holds back his righteous judgement back in Chapter 6.

But here in Chapter 8, judgement finally comes.

For the rest of the chapter, this judgement is symbolised by four trumpets - and that is very significant. The trumpets announce God’s judgement - similar to a call to war (as we saw this week at Rock Fellowship as Gideon blew his trumpet to assemble the troops). Also, the seven trumpet ought to remind us of Jericho, when seven priests blew seven trumpets as they marched around the city seven times for seven days. God destroyed the walls of Jericho, not Israel. All they did was do a bit of walking - round and round - every day (Joshua 6). Or trumpets also signalled the God’s presence as God spoke the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 - “The sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him” (Exodus (19:19).

But here in Revelation, the trumpets are symbolic of God’s warning. Revelation 8 is God’s warning to us of certain judgement to come. And the remarkable thing Revelation does with these four trumpets is to warn us of a future certainty by pointing back to a past reality - specifically, the reality of the plagues in the Exodus.

Fire from heaven

Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
Revelation 8:6-7

Like the seven seals, when the first four seals were subdivided from the rest - where we got the four horsemen; so here with the seven trumpets, the first four trumpets can similarly be grouped together.

These four trumpets in Chapter 8 bear a striking resemblance to four of the plagues in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. The first is the plague of hail and fire in Exodus 9. The second and third trumpets correspond to Exodus 7, when the Nile river was changed to blood. The fourth trumpet is the plague of darkness recorded in Exodus 10.

But let’s look closer at each of the first four trumpets, beginning with the first:

The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.
Revelation 8:7

The hail and fire is thrown down to the earth, very much like the first angel at the altar who threw the golden censer filled with fire unto the earth. So, there’s a connection there. Yet at the time, there is also a connection with the previous chapters 6 and 7.

Last week in Chapter 7, we read of God’s instruction to the angels to hold back the four winds of judgement - to keep them from harming the earth “or … any tree”. But here, any such restriction has been lifted. “A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.”

Why a third? Some suggest a connection to the famine in Chapter 6. The destruction of a third, and not all of the vegetation means there is a lack of food resulting in a rise in the price of food. Interesting, the account of the hail and fire in Exodus 9 (some manuscripts even add the word “trumpets” making Exodus 9:23 read, “The LORD sent fire, hail and trumpets”) also includes a description of partial destruction of the food source: “The flax and barley were destroyed... the wheat and spolt however, were not destroyed”, Exodus 9:31).

More likely however, the one-third destruction formula found here represents partial judgement, as this formula is repeated in all four of the trumpets in Chapter 8 - one third of the earth, one-third of the trees, one-third of the sea, one-third of the waters, one-third of the sun, moon and stars. The one-third formula is Revelation’s way of saying: This is just a fraction of the judgement to come. It will get much worse than even this.

The judgement of the first trumpet is poured out specifically on the earth (as opposed to the sea and waters in trumpets 2 and 3). Looking at Exodus 9 and the plague of hail, fire and trumpets, we get additional insight into the purpose of this plague and judgement.

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
Exodus 9:15-16

The plague announces God’s judgement over the earth, yes, but more so, God’s sovereign authority over the earth - “that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth,” is what God says to Pharaoh, King of Egypt. However, when Moses finally spread his hands towards the LORD “and the thunder and hail stopped, and the rain no longer poured down on the land (literally, earth),” Pharaoh sinned again. He hardened his heart against God.

The first trumpet is God establishing is his authority over his creation in judgement over those who continually reject his authority.

Sea turned to blood

The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
Revelation 8:8-9

A popular interpretation of this bit involves a meteorite crashing into earth from space - the huge mountain in verse 8 - polluting the sea water and killing all the dinosaurs - hence the death of the “living creatures in the sea” in verse 9. Or another theory suggests that this is talking about a volcano erupting red hot lava - turning the sea “into blood”.

Again, it is worth considering that these symbols build on the rich imagery already found in the Old Testament. In Exodus Chapter 7, Moses is commanded by God to strike the River Nile with his staff and “it will be changed into blood” (Exodus 7:17). Also the prophet Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgement on Babylon, described in Chapter 51 as a “destroying mountain”, which God would reduce to a “burnt mountain” (Jeremiah 51:25). (Revelation itself makes this connection to Babylon in Chapter 18 where an angel picks up a large boulder, throws it into the sea and then says, “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.” - Revelation 18:21).

In both cases, God is pouring out judgement on proud and powerful nations which oppose God’s rule and oppress God’s people - Egypt in Exodus, and Babylon in Jeremiah.

Furthermore, this judgement is poured out upon “the sea”. The sea is consistently pictured in Revelation as a symbol of rebellion. We saw that back in Revelation Chapter 4 where God sits in judgement on his throne and before him is the sea. At the end of Revelation when John sees the new heaven and the new earth, he writes, “there was no longer any sea” - God has vanquished all opposition and rivals to his authority.

The second trumpet is God’s judgement on kingdoms which use their power to reject and rival God’s kingdom. The picture of the huge mountain being thrown into the sea is symbolic of God destroying all such opposition - powerful as they may seem. Again, as we saw earlier in God’s encounter with Pharaoh, he raised Egypt up precisely for the purpose of demonstrating his power.


The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.
Revelation 8:10-11

At first glance, the third trumpet is very similar to the second. This judgement also involves a large object falling from the sky into “the waters”. But while Trumpet No. 2 focuses on powerful opposition against God, Trumpet 3 is about the those who practice idolatry, turning away from God. That is the symbolism of behind the “bitterness”, the poisoning of the waters and the name “Wormwood”.

Wormwood is not codename for some super secret meteor about crash into planet earth. It is the name of a plant native to Asia, Europe and northern Africa, which is bitter-tasting and produces a poisonous extract. It is this bitterness that becomes symbolic of God’s judgement.

The LORD said, “It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law. Instead, they have followed the stubbornness of their hearts; they have followed the Baals, as their fathers taught them.” Therefore, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “See, I will make this people eat bitter food (wormwood) and drink poisoned water.
Jeremiah 29:13-15

The same word occurs in Deuteronomy, this time describing the actions of the people of God turning away from God to worship idols.

Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison (wormwood).
Deuteronomy 29:18

Interestingly, when we look at Exodus 7 again at the poisoning of the waters of River Nile, we see there God’s judgement, but also Pharoah’s response to this judgement.

Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. Instead, he turned and went into his palace, and did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river.
Exodus 7:22-24

The third trumpet is a judgement on stubborn and unrepentant hearts that continue to rebel against God to pursue false gods. The bitterness of this judgement, indicated by the name Wormwood, and the poisoning of the drinking waters is symbolic of internal nature of this punishment.


The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.
Revelation 8:12

The fourth trumpet is one of the reasons why the symbols in Revelation are unlikely to be sequential. For one thing, the sun, moon and stars were destroyed back in Chapter 6 at the opening at the sixth seal, and yet here we find only one third of the sun, moon and stars affected by judgement. Having said that, both symbols in Chapters 6 and 8 have a common theme: God is de-creating the world. He is reversing the order of the universe leaving it to descend into chaos.

Instead of a sequential order of events, Revelation presents us with repeated patterns building on a common theme - each time, reinforcing the point that God is sovereign over his creation; each time, bringing home the message that Jesus will bring all of God’s purposes for judgement and salvation to completion through his work on the cross.

The judgement brought by the fourth trumpet is darkness. “A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night”. Again the account in Exodus sheds light on the purpose of this judgement.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.
Exodus 10:21-22

Notice that the Israelites had light while the Egyptians were covered with darkness - “darkness that can be felt”. It was so dark that they couldn’t even see one another (Exodus 10:23) such that everyone had to stay home for three days. The darkness here is equated with blindness - the inability to perceive your environment and surroundings. The plague of darkness in Exodus 10 ends with God causing a deeper form of darkness, blindness and ignorance to fall on the heart of Pharaoh, such that he could no longer perceive God’s presence or grace.

But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” “Just as you say,” Moses replied, “I will never appear before you again.”
Exodus 10:27-29

I find this to be very scary passage - even though there’s no blood or sickness or even death. For me, to read in verse 27 of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, making him stubborn in his rebellion. And then to hear Pharaoh’s words telling Moses to leave his sight, with Moses simply saying, “I will never appear before you again”. And then for Moses to comply with his request - that is scary. Pharaoh gets specifically what he asks for - judgement from God.

This week, one of our friends at Rock said that her colleague wanted to teach her how to swear. He was feeling frustrated with a work situation and for him, swearing and cursing was a way of releasing stress. He was puzzled why this Christian girl refused to say any of the words he was trying to teach her.

I can only guess what it was he tried to teach her, but I think that much of it have been offensive to God. When we use God’s name in vain, when we talk about hell flippantly, when we foolishly refer to judgement as something trivial - much of this talk is foolish and ignorant. We think nothing of offending others. We think nothing of offending a holy God.

Compared to course joking and cursing, Pharaoh’s request is actually quite mild. “Get out of my sight.” That’s all he said. He didn’t want to see Moses anymore. Yet he had seen the plagues. He had seen first-hand the power of God and the judgement of God. This was not an innocent request. Pharaoh was fed up. He didn’t want to deal with God or with Moses anymore.

“Get out of my sight!” Pharoah said. “So as you say,” Moses agreed. He didn’t want to deal with Moses anymore. He didn’t want to hear God’s word anymore. In effect, Pharaoh wanted to separate himself from any trace of God. And finally, God complied. The darkness is symbolic of God pulling his presence away from Pharaoh.

What if God took you at your word? The things you said to him. The things you said about him. What if God dealt with you according to your words. The bible says one day he will. We will not be able to stand - our words will condemn us. We will have no defence - our guilt will be plain before us. Unless we take God at his word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:1-3

Jesus is God’s word in the darkness, speaking to us and calling us into his marvellous light. He is the light of men - leading us to God. He is the light of life - showing himself as God. God sends Jesus as a light shining “in the darkness”. He wants us to respond. He wants us to see Jesus and come into his presence.

Yet as John writes in verse 3, “the darkness has not understood it.” Sometimes we see this light and turn away. Like Pharaoh, we say, “Get out of my sight”.

The fourth trumpet is a judgement of darkness. God pulls back the light of his salvation and grace. It is only partial: One third of the sun; one third of the moon and stars. Meaning: God is still merciful. There are still moments to respond to God’s grace.

The trumpets are warnings. The question is: have we taken heed of these warnings?

The fulfilment of the ages

As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”
Revelation 8:13

We will look at the final three trumpets next week in Chapter 9. For now, chapter 8 simply ends with a clear warning: it will get worse - much, much worse, in fact. “Woe! Woe! Woe!” says the eagle flying midair in a loud voice, almost as if to say, “You think this is bad? Wait till you get a load of Chapter 9!” While the first four trumpets are judgements poured out on creation (earth, sea, water, sun, moon and stars), the last three are poured out on people; the last three trumpets are personal.

But again, the trumpets symbolise warnings. They warn us to take God’s judgement seriously and the question is: Have we heard these warnings?

Now by warnings, I don’t mean speculation. Revelation is often a book used to speculate on world events: some try to predict which kingdom is symbolised by the burning mountain; some try to predict dates when a meteor will crash into earth’s atmosphere and then point to the falling star in Trumpet Number 3 and say that’s Wormwood.

But notice that while Revelation does point forward to future events it also points backwards. It keeps saying, “This has happened before.” The first four trumpets correspond to four of the plagues in Egypt. Even the name Wormwood is used again and again in the Old Testament to symbolised God’s judgement on idolatry and false worship. Meaning: the way to take God’s future judgement seriously is to take the bible seriously. We must be careful not to treat the Old Testament like fairy tales - only to be taught to kids in Sunday School but having no relevance to Christians today. Referring to the Exodus, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:

These things happened to them as examples and were written as warnings for us on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
1 Corinthians 10:11-12

Do you hear what Paul says? These are warnings... for us. Today. On whom the fulfilment of the ages has come - meaning: it was always meant for us, who now understand Jesus and his death on the cross as the fulfilment of all God’s promises in the bible.

How does Chapter 8 begin again? With Jesus opening the seventh and final seal. The cross is the key. It is the only way we can understand salvation. It is the only way we take seriously God’s judgement.

And what happens when Jesus unlocks the final seal? Silence. It is an armistice. The war is still ongoing, but when we come to the cross, we find peace and we receive protection. On the cross, Jesus took my punishment on himself. On the cross, Jesus took God’s judgement on himself.

The cross is God’s declaration of peace to rebels like us - rebels who have rejected him, who have denied his authority, who have turned out backs on him. Did you know that Jesus was killed as a rebel? The cross was a political statement - a capital punishment invented to warn off all potential rebels - This is what we do to terrorists. Jesus’ body was hung on a pole to make that statement. The cross was invented a warning of sure and certain punishment.

Except Jesus was not a rebel. He was innocent. Yet when false accusations were made against him, he did not say a word. The bible says all this was in accordance to God’s will.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.
Isaiah 53:10

Why would God do this? Why would God punish his own Son for my sin? One, to show me my sin. I look to the cross and I see just how serious my sin is against God. Two, to show me his love. I look to the cross and see his wounds, his scars - I receive peace and forgiveness.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:5

By his wounds we are healed. The violent death of the Son of God results in peace between rebels and God. This is God’s love for us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

We have looked at some pretty horrible pictures of judgement today and I do apologise if I have freaked you out. It is a scary passage. Yet friends, as scary as the pictures we have seen in Revelation 8 have been - and I must contend, that as a Christian, I do believe in the certainty of these events - they are real and they will happen; still, as terrifying as these four trumpets truly are, I want you to see God’s full and final judgement on our sin not in these trumpets but on the cross of Jesus Christ.

The cross is God’s warning to us: Judgement has already come. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s message to the world: Either your punishment and death was dealt with on the cross. Or you are filling up for yourselves judgement that will be poured out on that last and final day when Jesus returns as King and Judge.

The key is the cross. The cross is turning point of history; the turning point of judgement and salvation. There we see God’s punishment for our sin. There we see God’s forgiveness for our sin. There we God’s love for us through his Son.

At the cross, God demonstrate His love for us
While we were sinners Jesus came to die
So by His blood We could be justified.

So be not ashamed of the cross,
It bring salvation to all who believe,
God is revealed, Guilt is removed
forgiveness can now be received.

So be not ashamed of the cross.
Tell of its power to all who will hear.
Great is our joy, glory is ours
From death we can now be set free.
(“At the cross” by Bryson Smith and Philip Percival)