Saturday, 22 July 2017
Having given to the church the encouraging description of the church triumphant, John now receives details about the Day of Judgement. Those details are given first through the messages of three angels and second through the imagery of two harvests.
The messages of the three angels
The first angel has a message of good news even although the Day of Judgement is about to happen. This is a reminder that sinners will be saved even shortly before Jesus returns. Who is this message of hope designed for? We see from verse 6 that it is for everyone. Here is evidence that the Lord is not willing that any should perish.
The account focuses on the required response rather than on the contents of the message. All that is said about the message is that it is everlasting, which could mean that it is changeless or that it deals with eternal matters. We are also told how the angel announced it – he did so loudly, which is an obvious reminder that God wants everyone to hear the gospel.
What does the angel tell people to do? First, they must turn to God. They must reverence him, show him the honour that he requires, and praise him because he is a God who judges sinners. Second, they worship because of his greatness which is seen in the ways that he is the Creator of everything. This is similar to the messages that Paul preached at Lystra (Acts 14:15) and Athens (Acts 17:24-27).
The message of the second angel is that the earthly system, summarised here as Babylon the great, has fallen. Later chapters in the book go into the significance of Babylon in more detail. It is sufficient to recognise here that she symbolises what the people of the earth trust in. Babylon covers everything that takes people away from worshipping God – it is the city that is against him. We should note that it affects every nation, which means that it describes the alternatives to the gospel that is also declared to all nations. Sadly, what Babylon provides seems sweet (wine), but it stupefies people and prevents them from seeing the danger they are facing. Imagine the devastation that people will feel when what they trusted in turns out to be false.
The third angel refers to the image of the beast mentioned in the previous chapter. We noticed when looking at that chapter that the situation described illustrates how the political and the religious powers combine to attack the kingdom of Jesus. What will happen to those who chose to side with them rather than with Christ? In these verses, we have an awful description of a lost eternity. It will involve drinking the full amount of divine anger, of experiencing indescribable torment, and of never having a moment’s rest in eternity. We should note where Jesus is here – he will administer the judgement. Paul said in 2 Thessalonians that Jesus will take vengeance on them that know not God. The intensity and extent of the judgement shows to us the seriousness of sinning against God.
John then applies the three messages to the believers he knew as well as to believers in subsequent times. His application includes an exhortation to and a description of true believers. The exhortation is to keep going, because whatever difficulties they might face as believers, a great reward is promised them.
How can we tell a true Christian? Or, to put it another way, what does it mean to endure? It means to live as a servant of God keeping his commandments because it is the path of blessing. And it means remaining loyal to Jesus in all the circumstances of life.
It is not clear whether verse 13 describes Christians in general or if it is a personal encouragement to those who would be put to death for their faith. Of course, the experience is true of all who reach heaven, however they reached it. The encouragement mentions four things about the heavenly experience.
First, they are conscious in heaven. They are not in a dreamy kind of experience, but are fully alert as far as their souls are concerned. Second, they are united to Jesus, which is what ‘die in the Lord’ means. No doubt, this illustration depicts the security that dying believers have and points to the comfort that they should know when it comes to that time. Third, they are resting, which is a reminder that heaven is the place of perfect peace. Fourth, they will be rewarded: the activities they did for Jesus on earth will have consequences for them in heaven (the word translated labour means hard work). In heaven, we will see that everything we did for Jesus was very worthwhile. This description is of believers who are now in heaven and is not a description of their post-resurrection life.
We are not told who spoke the benediction, but we are told who makes a comment on it. The commentator is the Holy Spirit. In chapters 2 and 3, the Spirit speaks to the churches as they listen to the heavenly assessment of what they were truly like. Here, he wants believers to know the certainty of the place of bliss that they are travelling towards, even if their journey is full of pain. I suspect we should deduce from his words that he is the one who provides them with heavenly rest and rewards.
The great harvest
Who is described in verse 14? It is obvious that the description is connected to the vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7. Given that the vision concerns the exaltation of Jesus, it means that we should regard this individual as Jesus as he will look on the Day of Judgement. We can see from the description that he will be very glorious.
First, he is seated on a throne of glory (white cloud); second, he is wearing the crown of glory; and, third, he has the instrument of judgement in his hand (sickle). The description is of him waiting to act, waiting for the moment which the Father has put in his own authority, the day of the second coming of Jesus. Here is Jesus gathering his people to himself. It only takes him a moment to do so.
In verse 18, in a second description of the harvest, an angel comes from the altar and tells another angel to deal with those whom he will throw into the place of judgement. The altar here is probably the altar of incense, and here we have a reminder that in some ways the Day of Judgement is connected to the process by how God answers the prayers of his people for vindication.
Again, the description of the judgement indicates that it is very severe. Such an amount of blood is very difficult to imagine. The point that John is being shown is how awful the judgement will be. This image could be taken from Isaiah 63 where the Messiah is said to crush his enemies as if in a great winepress. Where is the winepress? It is outside the city of God. What a terrible location to be in, experiencing the judgement of God.
Take a look from above. This is the message of the three angelic announcements. What is most important now and what will be most important on the Day of Judgement? Will it be the gospel or will it be the city of man with all its failures or will it be the opinions of the political and religious leaders? A look from above will reveal to us that the gospel is the only one of the three that is important.
There is only one safe city. People come into cities for security. They did that in the ancient world because they assumed that the city walls would keep them safe. Millions have placed their hopes in the abilities of Babylon and all will be disappointed. In contrast, those in the city of God will be safe for ever.
Troubles are never a reason for quitting. The temptation to do so is always there. But we should endure. Endurance is basically taking one step after another. There is no other way but to persevere. As far as most of us are concerned, we are probably two-thirds and more through life. Fifty years from now, we will be in the eternal world. Therefore, persevere.
Jesus will yet judge the world. We must remember this. He spoke about it often when he was here. His apostles and others preached about it in the Book of Acts. This is part of his exaltation, to be the Judge of all at the end of the day. How significant Jesus is!
Saturday, 15 July 2017
In chapter 13, John had described the activities of the two beasts which represented the political and religious powers ranged against the church of Christ. This combination shows itself in different ways. In the days of John, the political authority was Rome and the religious activities that were engaged in supported the authority in Caesar. Indeed, it was common for the authorities to require people to say that Caesar is Lord and the refusal of Christians to do so led to martyrdoms and other problems.
Chapter 13 also stated that the devil was behind the beasts who were attempting to destroy the church, and he still uses the same tactics today, as he has done throughout history. There are many places today where the combination of the political and the religious brings trouble for the church of Jesus.
The next activity of Jesus, from whom this vision came to John, was to give to his suffering church a picture of heaven. No doubt, this vision was sent to encourage believers as they faced troubles and trials. They were given a foretaste of the end to encourage them in the present. More details are going to be given about the activities of the beasts, but before they are given Jesus draws attention to the victory that his people will experience.
This brief vision is like the other interludes in the Book of Revelation in which readers were given a respite from reading the horrific descriptions of what was happening in the world. It is good for us to take such interludes often because we are engaged in spiritual conflict. How much thought have we given to heaven this week? After all, Jesus in John 14 before he told his disciples that they would have trouble in the world informed them about what he would be doing for them in the many rooms of the Father’s house, a wonderful picture of heaven.
We know that idea of the sealed 144,000 has been used already in this book. The difference between the previous reference in chapter 7 and this latest reference is that in chapter 7 they are viewed before the troubles and persecution whereas in chapter 14 they are described as after the period of trouble is over. In chapter 7, they were sealed before the troubles with divine names on their foreheads, a sign that God would protect his servants. Now they have arrived in Mount Zion, indicating to John’s readers that God will keep his people.
The location where the 144,000 are gathered is Mount Zion. In the Old Testament, Mount Zion was the place of power where David had established his throne. It is not difficult for us to see here a reminder that the Son of David, whom David had sung about in Psalm 89, was in charge, seated on the throne of God. Although looking by sight does not discover this fact, looking by faith will. Christians recognise that the real place of power is not located in the machinations of the first beast, but in Jesus who has received all power in heaven and on earth.
Of course, Mount Zion was also the place of worship in Jerusalem in Israel. There, under the authority of the high priest, the religious system of Israel functioned. All this was a picture of what Jesus would do as the true High Priest who leads and enables the worship taking place in heaven. There are many aspects to his priestly activity that have been revealed to us for our encouragement.
So we can see that the place reveals to us the wonder of the person of Jesus. He is unique as the One who is both king and priest. As king he has all power in heaven and in earth and as priest he represents his people permanently in heaven.
Here in the vision he is described as the Lamb and is depicted as standing. Being called the Lamb is a reminder of his character and his sacrifice. Our minds go to the biblical requirements necessary for a lamb to be offered as a sacrifice in the Old Testament ritual. It had to be without blot or blemish. In other words, it depicted perfection, a reminder that what was needed was a sinless substitute. And we know that Jesus was sinless. He never had a wrong thought, he never spoke a wrong word, and he never committed a wrong action.
On the cross, the sinless Saviour offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. He endured the wrath of God and paid the penalty for their sins. Unlike all other sacrifices, he returned to life three days later. This is how he can be in this place of prominence. After his resurrection, he ascended to heaven a few weeks later. John is reminded by Jesus that in the centre of the world of glory is Jesus, and he wants us to remember that as well.
Jesus is described as standing, which is probably a contrast to the devil who is also described as standing (12:17). A difference between them is what they are standing on – the devil stands on unstable sands whereas Jesus stands on a solid mountain.
Why is Jesus standing? Is he singing to the 144,000? After all, John says that the voice he hears is like the sound of rushing waters, which is how the voice of Jesus is described in Revelation 1:15. He says in this chapter that the only ones who can learn this song are his people, the redeemed. Do we have here a fulfilment of the Saviour’s promise described in Psalm 22:22 and quoted in Hebrews 2:12? If that is the case, it will be wonderful to hear.
John describes believers as being a specific number who were sealed with a special branding on their foreheads. Back in chapter 7, God had sealed 144,000 before the period of troubles that John described in chapter 6. The period of troubles was that between the two comings of Jesus. In chapter 7, he had also described the outcome of the period of troubles, which would be the salvation of a number that no one can count. I suppose one could ask if all the 144,000 survived to become part of the final number. Here, John is told that each of the 144,000 will be saved, a reminder that Jesus will lose none who trust in him for mercy.
Each of the people of God share the blessing of a joint-relationship with the Saviour and with the heavenly Father. This relationship began on earth, and the idea of sealing reminds us that God’s people are both God’s possession and God’s servants. We can describe this as our exaltation and our responsibility. God delights to have them in his family, but he wants them to serve him wholeheartedly. Sadly, in this life, their enjoyment of their privileges and the commitment to their responsibility is marred by their sins. In this life, they are grateful for God’s restoring grace. And we have a reminder here that in the eternal state God’s people will enjoy fully their privileges and give themselves wholeheartedly to his service.
John then describes what he heard from Mount Zion – he heard a loud song. Its loudness could only be compared to three expressions of striking noise: many waters, thunder and music. The impression that is given is that the song drowned out other noises, even noises that may sometimes be heard on Mount Zion. One commentator describes it as follows: ‘The sound is grand and gentle, lofty and lovely.’
John mentions the audience of this heavenly choir – the elders and the cherubim. These angels have a place of special privilege in heaven. The elders are depicted as sitting on thrones and the cherubim are described as the guardians of the divine throne. They are heavenly authorities and one of their roles would be to ensure that nothing unsuitable would be found in the divine presence. Instead of preventing the saints from drawing near, they are delighted to allow them to stand there.
Then we are told the qualification for participating in this song and that is the experience of redemption. The implication is that the redeemed are about to learn to sing it. As we know, redemption is a prominent theme in the Bible. The basic point of it involves purchase. Sinners were purchased by Jesus when he paid the penalty for their sins. One of the ways in which redemption was used in Israel was through the practice of a kinsman redeemer who would rescue his relations and recover their lost inheritance. Here the redeemed are with their Redeemer and they can see that he is indeed their kinsman because he is also human as well as divine.
The question can be asked, ‘What about their inheritance?’ Two answers can be given, depending on what one has in mind as the inheritance. One answer is that the inheritance is the creation and in that sense the redeemed here are still waiting for it, although it is not far away from the moment when Jesus will make all things new. The other answer is that the inheritance is the presence of God, the presence that Adam lost in the garden of Eden by his fall into sin. Jesus through his death has recovered for his people permanent access to the divine presence.
What else are we told about the redeemed when they learn the song? They will be united as they sing. As we know, unity has been hard to find in Christ’s church on earth. But when the day of glory comes, unity will be expressed fully and gladly. Jesus had prayed for this reality in John 17. Of course, the song they will sing is described as new. The newness could be connected to its difference from the old songs of the angels, although that is unlikely. Perhaps the newness is a reference to the increased depth of understanding that the singers have of the salvation themes mentioned in their new song.
We are also told about them that Jesus will be standing before them as they sing and celebrate. Given that the qualification for participating is redemption, they will sing to Jesus with gratitude for paying the price of their rescue. Or given that they have all been redeemed, perhaps they will be singing with Jesus as he leads the praise of heaven.
The 144,000 are next contrasted with the type of people who thronged pagan temples. To us who have never seen such behaviour the contrast might seem unusual. But it would be an obvious one at that time. Pagan temples were well-known for their immoral practices. Obviously, such behaviour was offensive to God. Several times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, God’s professing people were rebuked for getting involved in such rituals. It was a temptation to them in the first century because so much of everyday life was connected to what went on in those temples and Jesus had rebuked two of the seven churches – Pergamum and Thyatira – for tolerating wrong practices. The obvious factor in such behaviour was that it involved compromise with the world.
In contrast, the proper response is wholehearted commitment. From one of point of view, the life of heaven is a continuation of what believers do on earth, which is to follow the Lamb. This will be the future experience of the 144,000 throughout eternity. But it was also their determination when they were on earth because that is what a true disciple does.
John has already said that the redeemed will follow the Lamb wherever he goes. In Revelation 7, in the passage following the description of the 144,000, the large crowd of the redeemed is led by the heavenly Shepherd to the fountains of the waters of life. He knows the best places to take them to.
They are further described as ‘firstfruits for God and the Lamb’. Firstfruits was a sample of the harvest that was offered to God. It was a pledge that more was to come. If that is what is meant here, then John could be indicating that believers are the guarantee that the rest of creation will be restored by God, which is how James uses the idea in James 1:18: ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’
Alternatively, the idea of firstfruits could mean that they are consecrated to God, which is what a worshipper did when he offered his sample of the harvest to God. The idea of consecration would be strengthened by the statement that their speech and character is now faultless. Heaven is a place of wonders and two of them will be the pure speech and faultless characters of those who once were sinners.
We should thank God for giving to us this interlude during which we can look ahead into the eternal world and see some of its glories. It is an encouragement for us to do so when life gets tough. And it is an encouragement also to realise that we are a lot closer to it than were the believers who first received this vision of heaven.
Sunday, 25 June 2017
Having delivered the two demoniacs in Gadara Jesus returned across the sea to Capernaum, here called his own city. We may wonder why it is so named, given that he lived there for a much shorter time than he did in Nazareth where he had lived for almost thirty years. One answer could be that Capernaum had not rejected Jesus in the manner that Nazareth had done when its inhabitants tried to throw him over a cliff after he had preached about himself and his role in God’s great plan of salvation. Another answer could be that he performed a lot of miracles in Capernaum, a reminder of its great privileges. What did Capernaum do with its privileges? It seems in the main to have not done very much and later he rebuked it by saying if the mighty works done in her had been done in Sodom they would have repented publicly of their sins.
The power of his message
Having said what the general response of the people of Capernaum was, we can also see that there were others there who had faith in Jesus. Other Gospels tell us that there were four of them involved in this attempt to get Jesus to help their friend. Matthew wants his readers to notice their action because he uses the word ‘behold’ in reference to them. Clearly, their action was one to be admired.
As we think about this stage in the outworking of the event, we can focus on three matters: the problem of the man, the partnering of the friends, and the priority of Jesus. The problem that the man had was that he was unable to go to Jesus by himself. In his case, this was due to his physical condition. We are not told for how long he had been like this. As we think about his state, we can see that his situation is a picture of what everyone is like before they are converted, which is that they can do nothing to get themselves closer to God.
In real life, this man had four friends who were convinced that Jesus would help the man. I would stress the ‘would’ rather than ‘could’. If it was only at the level of ‘could’, it would only have been an opinion on their part. But they showed it was ‘would’ by taking him to Jesus to solve his problem. Why were four of them involved? Maybe it was because four were needed to carry the stretcher. Or maybe it was because each of them wanted to be involved. I would choose the latter option.
Their response is a picture of what every believer should be doing. No doubt, every believer can be placed in the category of those who believe that Jesus ‘could’ help sinners. Yet that may only be a correct theological opinion. It would be better to become ‘would’ persons, convinced that Jesus can help those in need. How will we know that we are ‘would’ rather than ‘could’? By taking the gospel to people.
Of course, the four men would have encouraged one another as they shared the task of carrying their friend to Jesus. They could have said simple things like ‘it is not far to his house’. Perhaps they spoke to one another or to their friend about others whom Jesus had helped in different ways. After all, he had helped many in Capernaum already. There are lots of possible things that they could have spoken about. In this, they would be a picture for us as we get involved in taking, in a spiritual manner, a needy person to Jesus. For example, four (or another number) could agree to pray about an unconverted person they know and bring him to Jesus in that way. During the process of carrying him, they could remind one another of other people whom Jesus helped. It is very important to be involved in bringing people to Jesus, and I would challenge us about whether we are doing it.
Then the moment came when they reached Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus saw their faith. Did he mean by this statement that he had looked inside their hearts and saw what was living there? Or did he mean that Jesus looked at what they had done because their actions were the evidences of their faith? I would incline to the latter possibility.
So far, the focus has been on the actions of the men carrying their friend. Nothing has been said about the man himself except that he was paralysed. But Jesus highlights something else about the man, which was that he was a sinner needing forgiveness. It is worth noting that his friends are not addressed in this way, which may indicate that they had already trusted in Jesus as the Messiah and had been forgiven their sins. Again, it may have been the case that the man was bothered about his sins and wanted forgiveness above all else. I suspect he was, otherwise Jesus would have forgiven someone who did not ask for his pardon, and who was not interested in it. The fact is that the man’s soul was in greater need than his body. Jesus knew that was the case and immediately forgave the man all his sins. All of us must realise that the need of our soul is much more important than the need of our bodies.
Imagine if all that Jesus had done was heal the man’s paralysis. Where would he be tonight if Jesus had not healed his soul? The priority for him and for us is for our sins to be forgiven. The amazing reality is that Jesus has the authority to forgive all our sins. Jesus said more than that to the man because he also indicated to him that he now belonged to God’s family. It may be the case that the use of the word ‘son’ by Jesus indicates that the suffering man was a young person, but the word also points to a close relationship with Jesus. Jesus wanted the man to have assurance of this relationship of belonging to him as well as having the assurance of knowing his sins had been forgiven by Jesus. No doubt the man had great joy in his heart as he listened to the powerful words of Jesus.
It has been the case with the miracles in this section of Matthew that something happens that brings an element of testing into each situation. The leper had been tested as to whether he would obey God’s Word after he was healed and make a journey to Jerusalem to see the priest – he failed; the centurion was tested as to whether he thought Jesus should have to come to his home – he passed; the would-be disciples were tested as to whether they would follow Jesus immediately – they failed; and the inhabitants of Gadara were tested over whether they would value Jesus above their pigs – they failed.
Now it is some scribes, the religious leaders, who were tested and they failed as well. Some folk tell us that if we could perform lots of miracles many people would believe the gospel. Many people observed the miracles that Jesus did, yet seeing them did not cause such to become disciples of Jesus. We need more than to see or even by being part of a miracle. Did everyone who ate bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand get to heaven in the end? As far as we know, only the immediate disciples of Jesus received some benefit from being there, and the benefit was realised a good while later when they realised that Jesus was the Son of God.
Right theology is a very good thing, but there are situations when right theology can be used in a wrong way. The scribes had right theology – they were regarded by the people as the orthodox – and one of their convictions was that only God could forgive a person all their sins in the sense of pardoning them. Their problem was that they did not know who God was, that he was standing there in front of them doing what only God should do. Obviously, they failed the test, but the God they did not know was willing to give them further instruction. What did Jesus do? He revealed to them things about himself, and at the same time about themselves.
First, Jesus revealed to the scribes that he could read their secret thoughts. After all, their criticisms had not been public. Rather they were talking to one another and complaining about what Jesus had claimed to have done, which was to pardon the man. Now they discovered that Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking and saying. His knowledge was not only accurate in the sense that he knew the literal words of their mouths; it was also the kind of knowledge that knew what kind of words they had used to one another. They had thought evilly of Jesus and did not accept his deity whereas here was God telling them that they were sinners.
Second, Jesus asked them to answer a question about whether which one of two statements was the easier to say. Why does he do this? From one point of view, it was equally easy to say both statements – all of us could try and do so and we would not find either one to be difficult to say. But Jesus is not referring to the ability to say something but to the authority to say something. Regarding both these statements, the scribes did not have the authority to say either even although they could say both. Jesus knew, however, that he had the authority to say both, whether or not he said them. Both statements ultimately require divine authority. Only God can forgive a sinner and only God can make a paralysed person walk. If one could do one, he would be able to do the other as well. Jesus had already forgiven the man, which was a divine action. Then he healed the man, which was a divine action. So, in addition to omniscience, Jesus revealed to the scribes that he was almighty.
Third, Jesus told them that he was the promised Messiah when he said that he was the Son of Man. As we know, this title comes from a prediction in the Book of Daniel in which the future reign of the Messiah is described. In that prophecy, the Messiah would appear before God and receive from him an everlasting kingdom. Jesus mentions a detail that the scribes, with their knowledge of the Old Testament, should have known. They should have said to themselves that here was the Messiah and therefore he had the authority to forgive sinners. It is possible that they would not have understood that prophecy in its fullness, but they should have realised that the One who knew their hearts was able to teach them.
The man walked home a living example of the power of Jesus to change a person. Imagine him reaching home and seeing the happiness of his family. Yet Matthew wants us to note what the crowds thought of what they had seen. They still had a low view of Jesus even although they had seen a clear evidence of his power and heard an explanation of who he is – God and man. But the crowds still did not regard him as divine. They only regarded him as one whom God was helping. Do any of us make a similar response? If we are unconverted, we do. We may see others whom Jesus has changed and yet not fully realise who he is. The reason for their failure was their inability to see that they needed the help of Jesus just as much as the healed man did – they all needed for their sins to be forgiven. Hopefully, we all see that to be the case regarding ourselves.