God Vs. The Problem of Evil

God Vs. The Problem of Evil

A study on revelation chapter 9


I co-host a Theology Podcast called, “Remnant Radio,” and recently we did an episode about a so-called “prayer strategy” that’s caught like wildfire in the charismatic church. But when you do a little research, it sounds eerily similar to a second-century heresy, called Gnosticism.


After we do a show, we receive feedback from all over the world, and one of these people told us what happened to him, a few days after seeing our show. He was praying for a woman with insomnia. She’d been taking huge doses of highly potent sleeping pills, and even they weren’t doing the trick. The person praying—we’ll call him Joe—started asking her questions, and as it turned out, she was heavily involved with the very “prayer strategy” in question. Joe told her, “This could be a ‘spirit of Gnosticism’ causing your insomnia.” She flat-out denied the possibility. But she was so desperate to sleep that she let him pray, not believing it would work.


So Joe invited the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then with an authoritative voice, he said, “In the name of Jesus, I command the spirit of Gnosticism to leave.” Immediately, and involuntarily, the woman’s back arched so that her head was looking straight at the ceiling. Then she lurched forward. He commanded it one more time, and she lurched back again, and then forward, and then suddenly—I know this is strange—she threw up in a nearby bowl. When the episode finished, it was like she had woken up from a trance. She went home, and without a single sleeping pill, she slept like a baby through the whole night.


Now I recognize that if you’ve never heard a story like that, you probably think I’m crazy. But when we read the New Testament, stories like these fill the pages… stories of demons causing blindness, deafness, fevers, scoliosis, mental illness, and much more. If a demon is the cause, secular remedies are insufficient. Supernatural problems require supernatural solutions.


And this sets us up for our discussion today. We are in the last message of our series, the Eye of the Storm, which is a series on Revelation 6-9. Next week, we’ll continue in Revelation, but the theme will shift, and the series will be called, “Epic.” But to place our focus back on chapter 9: God has been pouring out His judgments upon the earth, and each one has become successively darker. Chapter 9 is the darkest (and strangest) of them all. Now, let’s read:


1 And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. 2 He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. 7 In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9 they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10 They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. 12 The first woe has passed; behold, two woes are still to come. 13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind. 16 The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. 17 And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. 18 By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound. 20 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, 21 nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.


There are obviously loads of bizarre images that would be difficult to unpack, even if we had the time. It reads more like a nightmare than a chapter in the Bible. In truth, that’s actually the primary point: the Last Days will be characterized by unprecedented evil.


This is of course prophesied in many other chapters of the Bible, as it pertains to evil human beings. But the focus of Revelation 9 is less about evil human agents than it is about evil demonic agents. In the Bible, demons are more than just symbols for evil; they are evil angels that deceive, tempt, and oppress human beings. Just before the end of the age, mankind will be slammed with a tsunami of these evil angels.


Now, I recognize that you probably have never heard this idea before. Just like I’ve been saying throughout this series, most American Christians get their “eschatology” by looking to present-day news headlines, instead of by looking back to the first century, as we should. It’s impossible to understand the Book of Revelation, if we divorce our interpretation from the context of John’s world.


Let me just give you an example of what I’m talking about, specifically as it relates to Revelation 9. One well-known prophecy teacher interprets the symbols of this chapter as weapons of modern warfare—and he has many followers who teach the same thing. The “stinging locusts,” they say, are Cobra helicopters from the Vietnam War, releasing deadly nerve gas from their scorpion-like “tails”. The calvary of 200 million, they say (or, at least, said), must belong to “Red China,” because they are east of the Euphrates River, and only they could field an army that large. The sting of their deadly tails, we are told, refers to ballistic missile launchers, which they will wield in an end-times invasion of the holy land. If you get your end-times theology from Christian pop-culture, this is the sort of scholarship you get. And it completely misses the point of the passage.


In reality, it was the common Jewish expectation that the end of the age would unleash a deluge of demonic activity. It was believed, for instance, that 90% of Satan’s demons have been bound ever since God flooded the earth in Genesis 6. Peter and Jude actually refer to this belief in the New Testament (without necessarily validating the proportions), when they say that God keeps these evil angels in “chains of gloomy darkness.” In the last days, it was expected that Satan would be released from the “abyss” or “bottomless pit,” and the remaining 90% of demon spirits that have been “bound” since the days of Noah would also be liberated. As Michael Heiser notes in his scholarly work, Demons, scholars have long noticed the connection between ancient Jewish/Christian beliefs about an end-times release of demons, and the teaching of Revelation 9.


If you thought our present world was evil, consider that Satan is operating with a severely limited demonic army. Revelation 9, 12, and 20 all speak of Satan and/or demons being released for a very short time, at the end of the age, and this is why the last days will be characterized by unprecedented evil.


Now that we’ve established the context, let’s look at some specific verses. This “demonic onslaught” begins in verse 1, with a “fallen star.” We know this is not a literal star, for it’s called “he”, and stars were often symbolic for angels. “He” has been given the “key to the bottomless pit,” which in Jewish thought was “the place of the dead” or “the abode of demons.” In verse 11, we see that this same figure is the “king” of demons, and his translated name means, “Destroyer” or “Destruction.” Who do you think this is?


Satan, or the devil—precisely. In the fifth trumpet (verses 1-12), Satan releases an army of locusts who torment human beings with a sting like a scorpion for five months. It should be obvious that these are not literal locusts. John uses the word “like” eight times to indicate that he’s using symbolic language. Furthermore, literal locusts harm vegetation—not humans—but these specifically DO NOT harm vegetation and DO harm humans. So what are these “locusts”? First of all, they are an army. The Old Testament commonly speaks of innumerable armies with the metaphor of locusts, and here in Revelation 9, the word “battle” is used twice to describe their nature.


What kind of “army” is this? Considering they come from the “abode of demons,” the answer should be obvious. Apocalyptic literature characteristically described demons as having both animal and human-like features, as we see here. And last of all, the scorpion sting confirms this interpretation, because—as Jesus displays in Luke 10:19—scorpions were a common symbol for demons. All this to say: the last days will be characterized by unprecedented evil because Satan will unleash a locust-like swarm of demons to torment the earth, both physically and psychologically.


And that’s just the fifth trumpet! The sixth trumpet gets worse. It’s essentially the same thing—more demons being released—but it’s more intense because it involves death, on a mass scale. We know that these agents of death are once again demonic because verses 14 and 15 refer to the “angels that have been bound…” Good angels are not bound; they are free to serve God. These are evil angels that had been bound by God until the end of the age, to wreak havoc through an army of 200 million (innumerable) life-destroying demons. The point, once again, is that there will be unprecedented evil in the last days due to a tsunami of demonic activity.


I fully recognize that what I’ve just said is very… heavy. And besides that, it’s hard to fathom: why would God release such an army of evil angels on the earth?


I’ll offer two reasons. The first is: Because that’s what we “wanted.” Now, I recognize that nobody was adding, “horde of demons” to their Amazon Wish List this week. But there’s a sense in which people choose demons over God every day, and it’s captured for us in verses 20-21. There, we see a long list of sins, but the one that garners the most attention is the root of them all—idolatry. Anything we prioritize ahead of God is “idolatry,” which verse 20 equates with the worship of demons. In other words, if you love your job or your mate or your bank account or your comfort more than Jesus, you might as well be bowing at the altar of Satan. This is the clear teaching of the Bible (Deut. 32:17; 1 Cor. 10:14-22).


For all of human history, we have consistently chosen to reject God. So we can’t be too upset when after thousands of years of telling God, “We don’t want You,” He finally gives us our wish. Revelation 9 is what the world looks like when God removes His protective hand. Suddenly evil angels are unbound. A world without God is a terrible world. There really will come a time when God finally says, “As you wish.” And it will be a time of unprecedented evil.


But the knife cuts both ways. Idolaters receive the object of their worship—demons—but so do the people of God. God’s protective hand is removed from everyone in the world, except those who belong to Him (9:4). If Jesus is the center of your affection, He promises to keep you in the eye of the storm. The sting of the scorpion cannot touch you; the torment of the serpent cannot strike you. Satan may be the king of demons, but Jesus is the King of Kings. He has power to grant everyone precisely what they want. Those who want Jesus, get Jesus—and the protection that comes with Him. Those who don’t want Jesus get precisely what they wanted—a world without His protective hand.


Now, for a second reason to explain this unprecedented wave of evil, and it comes back to what we said in the beginning: supernatural problems require supernatural solutions. The way the “releasing” of Satan and his demons in the last days is portrayed in apocalyptic literature (including Revelation), is that it’s for a very short time, and that it’s for the ultimate purpose of meeting their final judgment.


The Book of Revelation is—on a cosmic and global scale—what “Joe” witnessed on a personal level. Do you remember how the woman had no idea that a demon was destroying her life? It wasn’t until Joe gave the command that the demon manifested, causing her body to lurch and even vomit. If the demon stayed hidden, her torment would continue. Manifestation was the key to elimination.


Again, this is what we see in Revelation 9, but on a cosmic level. God gives the command, and millions of demons—previously hidden—become manifest. This involves a painful “lurching,” if you will. The earth will be shaken by this violent manifestation of evil. We just have to remember that the God who releases Satan’s demonic army in the last days is ultimately achieving a sovereignly good purpose. Without manifestation, there can be no elimination.


All of this is relevant for us right now, as we’re told that this is the most important election of our generation. Of course, we’re told the same thing every four years. I’m not going to lie—I feel disenfranchised by it all. I do believe it’s important to vote, but I’m tired of being told that if we just get the right social machinery in place, society will continually improve, until we ultimately achieve something like utopia. All it takes to prove this wrong is one good crisis. When the wheels fall off, people go crazy. No secular structure could possibly deal with the problem of evil. Only God can do that—and He has. He started the work through Jesus, who allowed evil to manifest for a short time at the Cross, only to rise above it three days later. He continues the work through His church, which pushes back the kingdom of darkness by the power of God’s Spirit. And He’ll complete the work at His return, when Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, and Jesus establishes our eternal utopia, also known as the kingdom of God.


There’s nothing wrong with longing for utopia. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can vote for it. Supernatural problems require supernatural solutions. Jesus is the only One who can truly resolve the problem of evil.


I’d like to leave you this morning with a quote from the prophet Joel about how God’s people should respond to this unprecedented wave of evil. The background for Revelation 9 was a prophecy in Joel 2 about a devastating “locust invasion” that was coming in the last days. He probably didn’t realize that God would fulfill his prophecy—not with bugs, but with evil angels. Regardless, here’s what he says about how to respond. It comes from Joel 2:12-14:


“For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? Yet even now, declares the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him?”



Interpreting The Bible and The Times

Interpreting The Bible and The Times

A Study on Revelation chapter 8

On Friday the thirteenth—April, 2029—an asteroid named Apophis will come close enough to us to destroy TV satellites. Apophis is taller than a hundred-story building, traveling at ten-times the speed of a bullet. If scientists miscalculated Apophis’ trajectory, it would blast the earth with the fury of 65,000 atom bombs. The name Apophis derives from the Egyptian god of darkness and destruction.


Apophis is one of 4,700 “PHA’s” (potentially hazardous asteroids)—much like the football-field-sized “city-killer” that caught astronomers by surprise when it whizzed by this June. Many bible scholars believe that an astronomical event could be what’s described by Revelation 8, which is our chapter for today. Prophecy teacher Thomas Horn openly speculates that NASA is involved in a mass-coverup about Apophis. When he was interviewed by the 700-club, he shared what he believes to be a prophetic dream, where an asteroid caused mass devastation. When he woke up, he said, “it was as if a voice spoke into my room. I don’t know if it was an audible voice, or if it was just in my head. But I heard a single word, and that was the word, ‘Apophis.’”


We’re in a series called, “The Eye of the Storm,” which is a study in the Book of Revelation. To give you the context: in chapter six, the Lamb of God opened six of the seven “seals,” each revealing another “plague” of sorts. In chapter 7, there was a pause so that God could set His own people apart for protection. Now, in chapter 8, the seventh seal is opened, and it ends up being seven more trumpets—each revealing more plagues. The purpose of this unexpected delay of the end is to bring people to repentance and salvation. Now, let’s read.


1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. 6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. 7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. 9 A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. 10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. 12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night. 13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”


So, how should we understand these plagues? Prophecy teachers err, in my opinion, on two sides. On one side, they interpret everything so symbolically that the plagues mean nothing for the times in which we live. On the other hand—and this is especially true today—teachers tend to “over-literalize”, so that people are worked up into a panicked frenzy over every headline, regardless its biblical relevance. My hope is that, by the end of our time together, you’ll be able to interpret both the Bible and the times by properly balancing literal and symbolic interpretations. To help us, I’ll address three characteristics of the plagues we just read about. The first, we’ve just touched on: the plagues are not merely symbolic; they are also literal.


As I’ve mentioned, there can be a tendency to interpret Revelation in an overly symbolic manner. For instance, some interpreters understand trees to represent “men of high standing” and grass to represent “common man,” so that all that’s happening in these trumpets is a somewhat intense societal upheaval, which may just as likely be speaking of the French Revolution as it is about humanity’s future. Unfortunately, this does not do justice to the text.


What we have to remember is that our model for understanding these plagues goes back to the Exodus story. The plagues of fire and hail, water turned to blood, and darkness, all appear in the Exodus story, and then they reappear here. If we believe the Exodus plagues literally happened, then it’s more natural to understand their reoccurrence in Revelation as being literal also. Furthermore, when the plague of water-to-blood occurs again in Revelation 16, an angel tells us the reason: “You shed the [literal] blood of God’s people, and now you’ll be given [literal] blood to drink.” Once again, it’s far more natural to understand these plagues literally.


So, how might this play out, if it is indeed literal? We can’t say with certainty. But if it was Apophis, all four of these trumpets would play out almost simultaneously: The first trumpet focuses on the burning of earth’s vegetation, which would be the outcome of burning space debris, caught in the gravitational pull of Apophis, colliding with the earth like warning shots of an approaching enemy. The second trumpet would describe the impact of Apophis’ cataclysmic splash into the ocean, instantly destroying millions of creatures and spilling much blood. The third trumpet describes how this falling “star” would pollute the earth’s drinking water, which feasibly could result from seismic activity—set off by Apophis’ disruption—suddenly releasing toxic gases into rivers and aquifers. Last of all, the fourth trumpet emphasizes the darkness of the sky, which undoubtedly would result from the ash, dust, and debris of a meteoric crash.


Regardless of how this happens, the plagues are not just symbolic; they are also literal. If our interpretation causes us to understand these plagues as anything less than cataclysmic, we are being overly symbolic. Interpreting the times requires us to rightly interpret our Bibles.


Now, let’s move to our second point. The plagues are not just natural; they are also supernatural.


And this is where we see the symbolic side coming into play. Most Bible scholars agree that John’s original audience would have interpreted the “falling star” as a fallen angel, for this was common metaphor in the day. In fact, we even have an example of a “fallen star” in Revelation 9:1 that’s referred to as “he,” and in 9:11, he’s called “the king” of demons. Almost certainly, the “falling star” of 8:10 is an evil angel that has been cast down by God in judgment.


So does this mean it can’t be a meteor? I would suggest that it could be both a meteor and a fallen angel; in other words, the judgment could be both natural and supernatural. I say this, once again, because of the background of the Exodus story. Most people think that the Exodus plagues were merely natural—the plague of darkness, the plague of hail, the plague of frogs—these were all natural phenomena. What people miss, however, is that they were simultaneously supernatural judgments against the “gods” (demons) of Egypt. Take, for example, the plague of frogs, where God sent frogs on the land of Egypt in such quantities that people couldn’t stop stepping on them. Have you ever thought that was just a strange form of judgment? It wasn’t random. God was publicly mocking the Egyptian goddess, “Hequet,” who manifested her presence in the form of a frog. To step on a frog in Egypt was a capital offense. So you could imagine the terror when the soles of Egyptians’ feet were unavoidably covered with the corpses of their beloved “god”! Every Egyptian plague mocked one or more of Egypt’s gods. Thus, the Exodus describes both a supernatural judgment upon demonic so-called “gods” and a natural judgment on earth. Given this background, it seems feasible that Revelation 8 could describe both a supernatural judgment (a fallen angel) and a natural judgment (asteroid).


Again, I’ll make a conjecture of how this might happen. I’m not even saying I believe this; just that I believe it’s possible. Let’s come back to Apophis. It’s not hard to see how the asteroid could fulfill the “natural” side of this cataclysmic judgment. But might it be more than a coincidence that this asteroid is named after an Egyptian god—almost as a poetic reminder of the original Exodus, which figures so prominently in Revelation 8? What if God’s supernatural victory over an evil angel subsequently plays out upon the earth with the strike of an asteroid, so that His judgment is both natural and supernatural? Perhaps it happens this way, and perhaps it doesn’t. What’s most important is not that we get the details all right, but rather, that we interpret both the Bible and the times. The plagues are natural and supernatural.


Okay, and now for the last characteristic of the plagues. This one is going to sound a little silly, but just hang with me as I unpack it: the plagues are not just bad; they are good.


Again, the Exodus serves as our backdrop. If you were an Egyptian, the Exodus plagues were 100% bad. But if you were an Israelite, the plagues were actually… good. They meant that your evil slave-drivers could no longer oppress you. Like the plagues of Exodus, the plagues of Revelation are not just a terrifying judgment, but also, a means of liberation. This is why, throughout the Scripture, God’s final judgment is called “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Whether the day of the Lord’s wrath is terrible or great depends on who you are. If your sins have been forgiven through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you’ll be protected in the eye of the storm. But if you have not repented, the day of God’s wrath will be terrible. That’s why we should all take heed and give our lives to Jesus, before it’s too late.


Now, I want to point out one more way in which these plagues are portrayed as good: not only are they a means of liberation, but also, they are an answer to prayer. The introduction to the trumpets in the first five verses reveals a scene where there is silence in heaven for a half-hour. In Jewish thought, God would have periods of silence to hear the prayers of the saints. Clearly that’s taking place in verse 4—where prayers come before God, and then the judgments fall.


I know it seems strange that the answer to our prayers would come in the form of plagues, but that’s short-sighted. When you pray for a baby, you take it for granted that it will include pregnancy and labor. In the same way, when we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for Jesus to come back, for God’s perfect peace and healing and justice and relief… we have to understand that, just like with pregnancy, pain precedes the promise. This is the sense in which plagues are an answer to prayer: pain precedes the promise of Jesus’ return. The plagues are good in the same way that birth pains are good: they mean that the promises we’ve been praying for—even groaning for, like a woman in labor—are soon to be delivered.


Now, let’s summarize: the plagues are not just symbolic; they are also literal. They are not just natural; they are also supernatural. The are not just bad; they are good. Whether they are “good” for us depends on where we stand with Jesus. Thus, the insistence on being a people of prayer who find their refuge—not in a bank account, not in chemical happiness, not in an asteroid-bunker—but in Jesus, whose name means, “safety”.


With these things in mind, I think we have to have our head in the sand to not understand these present global “shakings” as a precursor to the greater global shaking that’s predicted in Revelation. To interpret the Bible rightly is to interpret the times also. Outside of Noah’s flood and two world wars, there’s never been an event that affected literally every human on the planet like what we’re now experiencing. In the midst of these “shakings,” Revelation 8 gives us a picture of God’s end times church—sheltered in the eye of the storm and ushering in the return of Jesus—through prayer.


That’s why I want to make an urgent plea for you to join me in a concentrated season of prayer and fasting, from now, till the end of the year. I’ve committed to fasting more intensely. Maybe you could do a day a week, or even a lunch a week. With regard to prayer, starting tonight at 7pm, and then every Sunday night for the foreseeable future, we are going to have a thirty-minute-long prayer meeting over Zoom, as a perfect match for the thirty minutes of silence in heaven. If you can only make it for five minutes, that’s fine. Just click the link we send you this afternoon, or find it in the description of this video. I’m asking you: in light of the Bible and the times, will you commit to making this prayer meeting part of your Sunday evening routine?


I believe the shakings we’re now experiencing will intensify through at least the end of the year because pain precedes God’s promise. I want your family to be ready, and I want our church family to be ready. The way we get ready is by turning to Jesus, more than ever before. Jesus is coming quickly, and despite what the hardships might seem to indicate, Jesus is not the god of darkness and destruction. He’s the Prince of Peace, and He’s the Savior of the world.




Rapture, Tribulation, and God’s End Times Army

Rapture, Tribulation, and God’s End Times Army

This week, we are continuing our series in the Book of Revelation, called “The Eye of the Storm.” The Book of Revelation is a book about “the end times.” When it comes this, the two most heated debate topics are “the rapture of the church,” and “the Great Tribulation.” The words, “Great Tribulation” refer to a time, just before the end, when there is tremendous suffering at the hands of a world dictator, called the Antichrist. The “rapture” refers to the moment when Jesus returns to rescue and resurrect His church in the clouds of heaven.

For the first 1800 years of church history, 100% of the church believed that the end-times church would go through the Great Tribulation, and that the “rapture” occurred at the end of the age, and that it was synonymous with the “Second Coming of Christ.” But in the year 1830, a man named John Nelson Darby came up with a brand-new idea. Darby taught that before the very public “Second Coming of Christ” at the end of the age, there was a “secret return” of Jesus that would occur before the Great Tribulation. He said Jesus would rapture His church into heaven, rescuing us from the Great Tribulation, so that while the world suffered terribly for seven years, the church would sup with Jesus in heaven. At the end of this Great Tribulation, there would effectively be a third coming of Jesus to consummate the age.

If you were taught that this was the only real option for understanding “the end times,” and you wondered why it seemed hard to find any mention in the Scripture of two separate returns of Jesus, I’d like you to know that zero people believed it prior to 1830.

I recognize that might throw you for a loop. I will rarely if ever be dogmatic about these things, and I reserve the right to change my opinion “on the way up.” At the same time, I’ll be honest: I feel far more secure standing on the universal teaching of the church for 1800 years, than on a newly-conceived doctrine. Thus, I will teach from the historic position of the church, which is: the end-times church will endure the Great Tribulation, at the end of which, Jesus will return to publicly (not secretly) rapture His church, resurrect our bodies, and make all things new.

All of this naturally raises the question, “How will God care for His people if we have to endure the Great Tribulation?” This is essentially the same question asked in the opening of the sixth seal, which we read last week. There, we saw the wrath of God about to fall on the earth, and the people cried out, “in the day of God’s wrath, who can stand?” Chapter 7 answers them. It shows precisely how God will care for His people throughout the Great Tribulation. Let’s read:

1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed. 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

I’m going to answer two questions today. First, what does it mean to be sealed? Second, whom does God seal? Now, let’s start with the first question: what does this even mean?

Every interpreter agrees that it means two things: First: ownership. The seal of God’s servants stands in contrast to “the mark of the Beast,” which is a designation of the Antichrist. The point is that both Christ and the Antichrist mark their own. It’s a seal of ownership.

Second, it’s a seal of protection. In verse 3, the angel says, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God…” Then, in chapter 8, God pours out plagues on the earth, sea, and trees. The sealing makes us plague-proof! 

One thing I want you to notice is the language God uses to describe His protection. He uses the language of “sealing,” not “removal.” When I went to the beach recently, I sealed my iPhone in a protective case, so that it didn’t get harmed by water or sand. My phone was not “removed” from me at the beach, but it was protected by the seal. God uses the same language here. God doesn’t remove His people from the earth; He seals them. We are protected, not ejected. 

Now, I can imagine someone might say, “Michael, how can you say that we’ll be protected through the Great Tribulation, when God’s people will be martyred during that time?” We have to be clear on what we’re protected from and what we’re not. We are protected from God’s wrath, not Satan’s wrath. And there’s very good reason for that, which I’ll now unpack.

First, let’s talk about God’s wrath. When God turns the sea into blood or pours down fire and brimstone, beginning in chapter 8—these are expressions of God’s wrath. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says that we are not destined for wrath, but for salvation. God’s people are miraculously protected in the eye of the storm, just like Israel was during the plagues of Exodus.

Satan’s wrath is a different story, though. In Revelation 12:17, we’re told that Satan is released for the Great Tribulation, that he has “wrath” because he knows his time is short, and that he “makes war” on God’s people during this time. In chapter 13, verse 7, we learn how Satan wages war: through a Satanically-empowered dictator who will “conquer them.” God’s people WILL go through the Great Tribulation, and from a worldly perspective, we will be conquered. The Antichrist will appear to have eliminated Christianity from the earth. During the Tribulation, it will look like Satan has won, because for a time, we won’t be protected from the Antichrist. 

But the message of Revelation is that even when it looks like Satan won, God wins. There’s a reason God allows Satan some extra leash at the end of time. And this brings us to our second question: who is sealed? Who is sealed?

On the surface, it seems obvious that all of God’s people are sealed because in verse 3, we’re told that He will mark all of His servants. But verses 4-8 introduce complication. There, it seems that only 144,000 Jews are sealed. Prophecy teachers who believe in a secret hidden rapture before the Great Tribulation say that these are Jewish evangelists who are converted immediately after the rapture. But this becomes strained when you realize how out-of-character it is for God to protect Jews from His plagues, and not Gentile believers. Then it becomes even more strained when you get to Revelation 14, and you realize it’s not just 144,000 Jewish people, but Jewish males who are sealed. Are we really to believe that God will only protect a few Jewish adult males during the Great Tribulation?

What we’re touching on is the danger of interpreting Apocalyptic literature in an overly literalistic manner. Something more profound is taking place here. And to understand what that is, we have to understand the grander narrative, which goes back to chapter 5.

Perhaps you’ll remember that in Revelation 5, John “heard” the name of “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah”—this was a reference to a conquering military Messiah, which was Israel’s expectation. But do you remember what happened when John turned and saw Jesus? Rather than seeing Jesus as a Lion, He sees Jesus standing, as a Lamb who had been slain. John heard the Lion; He saw the Lamb. These are completely different images! And yet they’re the same. Why? God was re-interpreting the Jewish understanding of Jesus. They expected a Military Messiah, and they got a crucified one. He conquers, like a Lion! But He does so by laying down His life, like a sacrificial Lamb. Jesus conquers by being conquered, and then rising again.

Now, fast forward to chapter 7, and the same thing plays out—not just for Jesus, but for His people. Just as John heard the Lion and saw the Lamb …. Now he hears the numbered tribes of Israel and sees an innumerable multitude from every tribe. Just like the Lion IS the slain Lamb, the numbered Jewish army IS the innumerable multitude of slain martyrs from every tribe. Once again, God is re-interpreting Israel’s expectation. Israel expected to muster an end-times army that would one day conquer the unbelieving nations. This is the reason for the numbering of the tribes in Revelation 7—it’s how Israel numbered their fighting men. But while Israel expected a conquering end-time army of Jews, God re-interprets both the nature of that army, and their victory. The army will consist not only of ethnic Jews, but of people from every tongue, tribe and nation. And rather than conquering the nations with weapons, they’ll conquer like Jesus—by winning their hearts with sacrificial love. So now, to answer our question: who is sealed? All of God’s church. We are God’s end-times army, an innumerable multitude from every tongue, tribe, and nation.

I have a friend who understands those prophecies of an end-times army literally, and he told me once, “I believe that when Jesus comes back, He’ll give us oozies to kill unbelievers at the battle of Armageddon.” Not only do I say, “No thanks,” but also, it misses the point. God is going to conquer evil through His church in the same way He conquered evil through His Son. Not by violent overthrow, but by absorbing the world’s violence and then rising above it. Satan is given a longer leash in the end-times, but it only gives him more rope to hang himself with.

Now, I can imagine someone who believes in a Pre-tribulational Rapture might say, “Michael, this is just not encouraging to me. I thought I was going to be in heaven during the Great Tribulation, and now you’re telling me that I might have to live through it.”

I think what we need is a reminder of what Christianity even is. Christianity is not a nice piece of furniture in your home, to make life more comfortable and give you inner peace. It’s a bid to take up your Cross and die. It’s a call to join God’s end-time army of faithful servants who are not afraid of death, and who conquer the nations with sacrificial love. 

On April 28, 1958, a 26-year-old Korean graduate student by the name of In-Ho Oh was walking home in Philadelphia when he was beaten to death by eleven homeless teenagers. In-Ho Oh was a Christian, and he came from a devout family. This beating occurred during the Jim Crow era, and the eleven homeless kids happened to all be black. This stoked racial tensions to an all-time high, as the racist community sought the strongest possible sentence.

But that’s not what In-Ho Oh’s parents sought. When the day of sentencing arrived, having sat through the entire murder trial, they stunned the courtroom by begging the judge to release their son’s murderers so they could give them a home and offer them the care they never had. They explained that they were Christians, and they wanted to express a small token of the grace they had received from Jesus Christ. The judge was known to have been hard-hearted and unemotional. But even his heart melted when he saw their love and courage. The judge teared up as he explained to the parents, “This is not the way our justice system works.” 

That may not be the way our justice system works, but it’s the way God’s end-time army conquers the nations. Not by returning hate for hate or violence for violence, but by melting even the hardest hearts and breaks town the tallest barriers. This is how God demonstrates, once and for all, that the answer to evil is not more evil, but sacrificial love.

The Labor Pains of the Messiah

The Labor Pains of the Messiah

The labor pains of the messiah

Pic 1 Lord I’m drowning; Pic 2: S, 2020 every second—but wait, there’s more; Pic

3: If 2020 was a person (Mayhem)…. One more… “See we’re living in the end times!”

I can actually relate to that last one a little bit. Christians are notorious for false end times

predictions that never came true. False predictions of rapture, false predictions of the Great

Tribulation, false predictions of the Antichrist, the list goes on.

When you see Christians jumping on every headline, it makes you want to give up on biblical prophecy altogether. But that would be a terrible mistake. 30% of the Bible is prophecy, and a majority of it relates to “the end times.” The Book of Revelation opens by pronouncing a blessing upon those who read it aloud. The message is to be understood, not by scholars, but by everyday people who simply hear it read. Remembering this will prevent us from falling off the cliff of end-times insanity, while also motivating us to properly understand the hour in which we live.


We’re starting a new series called, “The Eye of the Storm,” which is our second series in

Revelation. Just before the scene we’re about to read, the Apostle John has a vision of heaven,

where he sees the Father sitting on a throne and holding a scroll. This scroll reminds us of

Daniel chapter 12, where the prophet is told to “seal up scroll until the time of the end.” Daniel

is told to seal the scroll; Jesus gets to unseal the scroll. The unsealing begins in chapter 6, with

each seal representing a new revelation that would soon take place. Let’s read Revelation 6:

1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four

living creatures say with a voice like thunder, 2 And I looked, and behold, a white

horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and

to conquer. 3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say,

4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth,

so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. 5 When he opened the

third seal, I heard the third living creature say And I looked, and behold, a black horse!

And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the

midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of

barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine; 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I

heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, &”!&”; 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale

horse! And its rider 39  name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority

over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild

beasts of the earth. 9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those

who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out

with a loud voice, “ Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge

our blood on those who dwell on the earth” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and

told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be

complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. 12 When he opened the sixth

seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as

sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig

tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being

rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the


earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave

and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the

mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne,

and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can



There are two questions I want us to answer today: First, why do these “seals” occur? Second,

when do they occur? Understanding the answers to these questions will help us know how we

are to respond in these crazy times. So now, let’s start with first—why do these seals occur?

In the previous chapter, we saw God reveal Himself as a Savior who would rather die violently

for His enemies than punish them; we saw a God who prefers mercy over judgment. And then

suddenly, we see terrible human suffering issuing forth—not from the throne of Satan, but the

throne of God! So again, I ask, why is this happening?!

Number one: God is judging “earth-dwellers.” God is judging “earth-dwellers.”

This phrase requires some unpacking. In the Book of Revelation, “unbelievers” are referred to

as “earth-dwellers,” or in the ESV translation, “those who dwell on the earth.” Our first example

comes in verse 10, when the martyrs cry out, “how long before You will judge and avenge our

blood on those who dwell on the earth.” This phrase is used nine times in Revelation of those

who reject God, and thereby experience His righteous judgment.

In contrast, God’s people are referred to—for instance, in Revelation 13:6—as “those who

dwell in heaven.” I know that sounds strange because we physically dwell on earth. But

according to the Bible, you spiritually dwell in heaven. The Apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 2

that “our citizenship is in heaven.” He’s not saying that we physically dwell there right now, but

that our true place of belonging is not on earth, but with our Father, who is in heaven. The

point is that no matter how scary these judgments become, they’re not aimed at heaven-

dwellers, but at earth-dwellers who reject their Heavenly Father. God will shelter you in the eye

of the storm. Next week, we’ll extensively explore what His protection will look like.

So the first reason for the seals is: Judgment on earth-dwellers. The second reason for the seals

is: mercy for earth-dwellers. Mercy for earth-dwellers.

The final judgment doesn’t come until the sixth seal, and everything before the sixth seal is

intended as a warning. The numbering of the seals represents an intensification, sort of like

when I try to move by kids to action by counting, “1-2-2.5… 3!” I used to make fun of my mom

for doing this when I was a kid, but now I do it because it actually works! It creates a sense of

immanence, that “Soon, Dad will reach the last number, and I’m doomed if I don’t act!”

That’s actually God’s intention in numbering the seals—it’s to help “earth-dwellers” feel the

intensification of His warnings, so that they turn to Him for mercy. I personally don’t believe we

should understand these seals to be literally sequential—as if the white horse comes, then the

 red horse, then the black, then the pale one. The reality is that the last horse actually re-lists all

the plagues of the first three horses, suggesting they won’t be sequential, but simultaneous.

The reason they are numbered is that God is getting the world’s attention. He’s saying, “Stuff’s

gonna hit the fan, and I’m trying to wake you up before you run out of time.”

This is actually happening right now: the coronavirus is claiming thousands of lives; the global

economy is sputtering; wildfires in Australia have killed over a billion animals; giant Saharan

dust clouds are traveling across oceans; trillions of locusts have invaded Africa TWICE this year

alone—what in the world is happening?! Is God up to something?

The non-Christian world is asking the exact same questions. According to a poll quoted by Dr.

Michael Brown, over one-in-five non-Christians are beginning to research Bible prophecy about

the end times. If God just allowed the earth to grow in peace and prosperity forever, we’d

forget Him more and more, just like we’ve been doing for decades. The purpose of the seals is

not just judgment; it’s mercy. As uncomfortable as we are right now, nothing compares to the

eternal regret of not responding while we still had time. There’s coming a day when the sixth

seal is opened, and the universe, as we know it, melts like wax. Nothing is secure except God in

heaven, and those whose citizenship is with Him there. Don’t put your hope in a world that’s

soon to be shaken. God alone has the power to keep us—in the eye of the storm.

Now, I’ll offer one more reason for the seals, and it’s this: to eradicate evil forever.

Have you ever noticed how, if you want to deep-clean a room, it gets messier before it gets

cleaner? If you only want a surface-cleaning, all you have to do is start putting junk away. But

eventually that junk piles up, and you need to bring it to the surface to properly deal with it.

That’s what’s happening here. All of the judgments we read about in the Book of Revelation are

leading toward an ultimate renewal. When evil is this pervasive, you can’t just wave your hand

and be done with it, even if you’re God. Evil must be allowed to come to the surface, to do its

worst, so that God can do His best. We saw a preliminary example of this in the Cross, where

evil did its worst to Jesus, and God used it for good. We’ll see another manifestation of this, the

closer we get to Jesus’ return. God is doing a deep-clean of the universe. He’s allowing evil to

do its worst so He can do His best by eradicating evil forever.

The next question is: when do these seals occur?

A huge portion of the church in America believes that all of these seals are future, but that has

not been the belief of the historical church, since the first century. I want to give two reasons

why I believe it’s far more natural to understand them as already occurring.

Number one, because they directly issue from Jesus’ enthronement. Here’s what I mean by

that. In Revelation 5, we learn that Jesus—after His resurrection—has ascended to the right

hand of the Father, where He presently reigns over the Universe. Chapter six flows immediately

out of this, as though His enthronement leads directly to the opening of the seals. In fact, there


is strong historical support for the fact that the first five seals played out within one generation

of Jesus’ resurrection. In cycles, they have been playing out throughout the church age, and

they will continue until the sixth seal is opened, and until Jesus returns.

Second, when Jesus teaches about “the end times,” He describes the first five seals as “the

beginning of labor pains.” His point is, “This is not yet the end; it’s preparation for the end.” The

labor pain metaphor is extremely helpful in understanding the seals. Between the first and

second coming of Christ, we can expect “contractions” to come upon us suddenly. These

contractions look like all five of the seals happening simultaneously—“all at once!”, as we see is

happening now—but with gradually increasing intensity, until Jesus returns.

I still remember well Alicia’s “birthing experience” with our first daughter, Anna. The nurses

made the terrible mistake of designating me, “Coach.” Unfortunately, I knew nothing about

birthing, so every time I saw Anna’s head, barely beginning to show, I kept saying, “She’ll be

here any minute!!” This went on for sixty minutes. Finally, with a look of exasperation like I

have never seen before or since, Alicia squeezed my fingers nearly off, and then said to the

nurse, “Is she here any minute?” The nurse said, “No honey, it’s going to be a little while.”

That’s a picture of what’s been happening for two thousand years. People have been making

false predictions based on looney theories and biblical misinterpretations. When we do this

dogmatically, we lose credibility as the people of God. It would be better for us to view each

“wave” of human suffering as another labor pain, leading up to the climactic one. All of the

seals were present in the first century. They were present again, throughout the centuries. In

the 20 th century, the period of 1914-1945 was the largest “contraction” in human history. We

had two world wars, killing 60 million people. We had the Spanish Flu, taking out another 50

million. We had the Great Depression. And within all that was the rise of Adolf Hitler, who

probably foreshadowed the future Antichrist.

After that wave, things calmed down, and the world has experienced seventy years of

unprecedented prosperity. But now, we’re entering another wave. This very well could be the

last “contraction” before the Great Tribulation, which we discuss next week. But the reality is

that just like pregnancy, you can’t predict which one is the last wave before the water breaks.

There’s a chance this is it. I think we should expect things to intensify on every level for a little

while—economically, socially, politically, geopolitically. I am not saying this as a prophet, but as

a student of Scripture. We’re in another wave, and it won’t just disappear like a bad dream.

I am not saying this to scare you. Humankind has experienced these waves throughout history,

and we’ve always come through. What we have to remember is that the pain is leading us

somewhere. The reason that millions of people every year choose to get pregnant, even though

they know it will be nine months of hell, is that the reward of new life is worth the pain that

precedes it. The Universe is pregnant right now. Let’s not focus on the pain of the pregnancy,

but rather on what it means: Somebody’s Coming.



What I do Matters

What I do Matters

What i do matters


I want you to imagine a conversation between yourself and a young boy, and the subject of school arises. You ask why he goes to school. “To learn,” he says. “And why do you learn?” “To get a good job.” “And why do you want a good job?” “To make money.” “And why do you want to make money?” “To eat.” “Why do you want to eat?” “To live.” “And why do you live?”


And then there’s a long pause.


Many of us are living in the space of that long pause. Our lives are full of activity, but are they full? Our lack of answer for WHY causes us to feel like the proverbial hamster in a wheel – running ever faster, but never running further. You can’t make progress until you answer WHY. And it can’t just be answered logically, either. It must be exercised practically, so that the purpose for your life is pressed outward into the way you work and play and relate and study. Can you honestly say that you are living with purpose in every area of life—even the mundane, everyday tasks? Or do you feel more like that hamster, stuck in the pause of running faster but going no further?


We’re in the last week of a series called, “Tell yourself the truth” – combatting the lies we tell ourselves with the truth God tells us about ourselves. This week, we’ll address the lie that “What I do doesn’t make a difference.” Our passage this morning is 1 Corinthians 15. A great theme of this section is the theme of “vanity” – that is, that life is empty and hamster-on-a-wheel-like. But then there’s a qualifier. Life is empty IF Jesus’ tomb was not. But if Jesus’ tomb was empty, life is full. In other words, the meaning of life hinges entirely on the resurrection of Jesus. With that introduction, now, let’s read 1 Corinthians 15:50-58:


50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

The way I’d like to approach this passage is by showing three ways in which resurrection gives life meaning. We’ll start now with the first way: Resurrection means that matter matters.


Paul begins by saying, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”—but then he goes on to describe resurrection. We might have expected him to say, “Flesh and blood can’t inherit the kingdom, and therefore, we’ll ditch these bodies and live forever as spirits.” But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says that we’ll exchange one kind of physicality for another. The problem is not with physical bodies, per se, but with the fact that our current ones are perishable (also translated, corrupted) and mortal. That is, our bodies are both easily addicted and slowly dying.


That’s why Paul says twice that our bodies will “change” – that is, when Jesus returns, departed spirits in heaven and living believers on earth will receive a new body that doesn’t die, decay, or get addicted. Resurrection is not just going to heaven when you die; resurrection means new bodies. It means that death cannot diminish you to a mere spirit. It means that God never gave up on the goodness of His original physical design. Resurrection means that matter matters.


This is something Corinth especially needed to hear because they’d begun subtly making a distinction between “spiritual” and “physical”, as though “spiritual” was good and “physical” was at least not as good. I think we do the same thing. We tend to think that overtly spiritual acts like worship, prayer, and Bible reading are superior to overtly physical things like driving through rush hour traffic, cranking out a spread sheet, or cooking dinner. But if we live with this false dichotomy, we’ll inevitably feel like a hamster on a wheel, because the majority of things we do are overtly physical. What if I told you that flipping a burger could be just as sacred as singing to God? There’s a way of living – and we’ll get to it shortly – in which we allow the resurrection of Jesus to press outward into the way we work and play and relate and study… so that every physical thing we do matters. Resurrection means that matter matters.


And now for our second point: resurrection means that life matters.


This is what we see in verses 54-56, where Paul marvels at the victory of resurrection. If you think about it, there are two ways in which the world could experience “no more death”. The first is that everything dies. Like fire consumes the wood until there’s nothing left, death would consume life until there’s nothing left. This is actually the way the Universe is heading right now. Galaxies are growing further apart, and as they do, they grow colder and colder until their energy is used up, and every star dies, including the sun. As TS Eliot wrote: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang, but a whimper.” If the atheists are right, death will be no more because death swallows up all life.


But if the Scripture is right, death will be no more because Jesus swallows up all death. Let’s come back to 15:56: 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. What’s happening here? Paul is pointing out that death is not just a result of natural processes; death is theological. It comes about as a result of sin’s deadly poison (“sting”), and that poison gains potency through the Law, because the more rules God gave, the more we rebelled. Because death is theological, God couldn’t just wave His hand and end it. Dealing with death required Him to pull up the root causes of death: sin and law. Through His life, He fulfilled the Law. Through His death, He paid for sin. And then through resurrection, He swallowed death forever.


It makes all the difference in the world, which worldview we hold. An illustration from the life of Jim Watson will help you see what I’m talking about.


Jim Watson is one of the scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. He was a brilliant man. But he also didn’t believe in God. When people told him, ‘Jim your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t believe there’s a purpose for human existence.’ He would always respond, ‘Not really – I’m anticipating having a good lunch.’”


It would be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic. The only way Jim Watson could deal with death was by distracting himself from it with humor and or the thought of his next sandwich. The same is true for anyone who doesn’t believe that Jesus will ultimately swallow up all death. If death wins, all we can do is distract ourselves from its terrifying reality. This explains why anxiety and depression are spiking like never before during COVID. Not only is there an unknown virus traveling around the world, but now they don’t have entertainment and sports and work—at least not in the measure they once had—in order to distract them. So many people live without any sense of purpose beyond their next good lunch, or their next night out, or their next deadline, or their next great accomplishment. If death wins, this is all just a distraction from the reality of our mortality.


But if life wins, what we do while living lives forever. Because we live forever. Achievements aren’t lost in space. Memories don’t fade into blackness. The smallest act of love for the smallest person will be eternally remembered. Resurrection means that life matters.


And now, last of all, resurrection means that work matters. Let’s read verse 58 one more time: 58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.


The key phrase in this passage is “in the Lord.” Everything you labor for “in the Lord” has meaning. Pop quiz: If you yell curse words at the guy who cuts you off, are you cursing “in the Lord” or not? Of course not. You can’t sin “in the Lord.” What about when you use your words not for cursing, but for praising Jesus – are you, then, praising Jesus “in the Lord?” Absolutely.


But now for a neutral question. Something that’s neither sinful nor overtly spiritual. What about when you drive through rush hour traffic, crank out a spread sheet, or cook dinner? The answer is – it depends. Maybe this example will help you see what I mean.


Before I became a pastor, I was a Financial Analyst. I literally cranked out spreadsheets for a living. And when I was offered the job to work at Wellspring, I gave my old company a one-month notice. During that last month, I had a strong sense from the Holy Spirit that I wasn’t supposed to just “mail it in” during my last week. I was supposed to double-down, and work even harder. I was to set the next person up for success as a witness to the whole company that Christianity doesn’t just affect me in the afterlife; Christ affects my everyday life.


I worked harder in that last month than I did in all my previous months. When the finish line was in sight, just a few days away, I could see that I wasn’t even close to finishing a “manual” I had been working on for the next person to fill my role. It was very detailed, because I did not want the person to miss out on any of the knowledge I’d acquired in that position. So when 5pm rolled around, and people started to close their laptops, I kept typing away on mine. By 7 o’clock, most people were gone. By 8pm, it was me and the janitorial staff—and I wasn’t even halfway finished. The clock kept moving, but I stayed there – All. Night. Long.


The next morning, people began rolling in, offering their customary greetings. Then my friend Jeremy said, “Wait a minute, Rowntree – didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday?” Word began to spread that I pulled an all-nighter in my last week of work. People couldn’t believe it. Why would you work so hard when you have no promise of a raise or a bonus?


Simple: I was working for Jesus.


Motive is what transforms the mundane into the meaningful. Whether you’re driving through rush hour traffic, cranking out spreadsheets, or cooking dinner, if you’re doing it for Jesus, you’re laboring in the Lord. And whatever you do “in the Lord” lasts forever. That’s the power of resurrection. Without it, our works die in the dust, just like us. But because of resurrection, our works live on – just like us. It’s not what you do that makes something spiritual; it’s whom you do it for. Eating a cheeseburger can be just as worshipful as singing to God. In fact, it can be even more “spiritual” because worship songs can be sung heartlessly, but eating a cheeseburger can be done with thanksgiving. Motive is what transforms mundane into meaningful.


So how do we live this out practically? How do we push this sense of purpose, of living for Jesus, into everything we do? I have three words for you to remember: DEDICATION, DILIGENCE, AND DIALOGUE. Dedication. Diligence, and Dialogue.


Dedication means that just like Solomon dedicated the Temple to God, or like Israelites would dedicate their firstborn to God, we dedicate even our most mundane tasks to God, and suddenly they become holy. The secular becomes sacred. The physical becomes spiritual.


Diligence means that after you’ve dedicated that task to the Lord. You work hard at it, “as unto the Lord.” This applies in the workplace and at home. When I exercise, I ask God for strength to help me “give it my all” for His sake, as an act of thanksgiving that He’s given me a functioning body.


And last of all, there’s dialogue. This happens throughout the work you do. In the beginning you talk to God by dedicating the work to Him. Throughout, you ask for wisdom and strength. And at the end, you give thanks. And of course, this is only your side of the conversation. God is the other side – and the most important one. Whenever you’re laboring for the Lord, keep your spiritual ears open. God will give you wisdom on how to make that sale or solve that problem. Ask Him questions. And if He doesn’t answer directly, He’ll answer indirectly by just giving you the solution in a way that feels like you did all the work! At the end, you’ll find yourself saying with the Apostle Paul, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).


So WHY do you do the things that you do? Why do you LIVE? The reason Jesus emptied His tomb was to fill the pause at the end of that question. Jesus wants to be the WHY driving everything we do. Rather than believing the lie that what we do doesn’t matter, tell yourself the truth that whatever you do with Him lives forever.







It’s All About Me

It’s All About Me

It’s All About me

I’d like to begin with a question this morning—one that is increasingly relevant with each
passing week in our nation: What’s wrong with the world?

A journalist for the Times once asked this same question of some famous authors. One of them,
a Christian named GK Chesterton, responded like this: “Dear sir, I am. Yours, GK Chesterton.”
How different would the world be if we removed the log from our own eye before removing
the sawdust from someone else’s? Undoubtedly, our national conversation would be very
different. For one, it would be… a conversation. Instead, we have a shouting match, where
millions of people are talking over each other, down to each other, and past each other.
Today, we’re in the third week of a series called, “Tell Yourself the Truth” – combatting the lies
we tell ourselves with the truth God tells us about ourselves.

This week’s “lie” is “It’s all about me.” You might call it, “the me-centered Gospel.” It’s a Gospel that says, “My feelings, and my opinions, and my needs, and my dreams matter most—more than yours, and even more than God’s.” No one says this out-loud, of course, nor do we consciously think it. But it lurks beneath
the surface, driving much of our attitude and behavior. Every sin or injustice you’ve ever seen,
or allowed, or perpetrated has been the result of a me-centered Gospel. Every sin or injustice
would be instantly undone if Christ became the axis upon which our lives spun.
We’ll be in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 today, which is the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in
Thessalonica. I’m reading from the New International Version:
9  Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have
been taught by God to love each other.  10  And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout
Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more,  11  and to make it
your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your
hands, just as we told you,  12  so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that
you will not be dependent on anybody.
Our central point this morning is that Christ doesn’t remove our ambition; He transforms it.
Christ doesn’t remove our ambition; He transforms it.

The part I want us to zero-in on is in verse 11: “make it your ambition to live a quiet life.” —isn’t
that the strangest wording? Ambition is a loud word. It screams for attention—“look at me, I’m
a big deal!” But Paul says, “make it your ambition to live a QUIET life”. To live a quiet life means
to have deep inner peace, which manifests as minding your own business (instead of stirring up
drama), and working hard with your hands (instead of being a restless “busybody”).
This verse has always challenged me because I’m an ambitious person. That’s not necessarily a
problem; it just depends on what we’re ambitious for. The world says, “Make it your ambition
to write a best-selling novel,” or “to increase your influence,” or “to succeed in business.” Why?
Because if we leave a big splash, it shows that we’re a big deal. It’s the me-centered Gospel.

Unfortunately, being a Christian doesn’t make us immune to the me-centered Gospel. Too
often, what I find myself doing is translating my ambition into prayers for God to help me fulfill
my hopes and dreams. It’s not that God doesn’t want to answer those prayers. But it’s a matter
of priority. If my heart is set more on God fulfilling my dreams than on me fulfilling His, I’ve
effectively turned God into my own personal genie. Instead of me existing to serve Him, I act
and pray as though He exists to serve me. It’s the me-centered Gospel with a religious veneer.
So what are you ambitious for? To make a splash, or to live a quiet life? The way we know we’re
living the me-centered Gospel is not by whom we claim to worship, but by what actually drives
us. There’s so much pressure in our world today to be extraordinary. But what if you just lived
an average life of doing your day job and quietly loving others—would it really be a waste? No,
I’ll tell you what’s a waste: living to make a splash that will only be forgotten. What we need to
do is to tell ourselves the truth: Forgettable in the eyes of the world is memorable in the eyes of
God. And memorable in the eyes of the world is forgettable in the eyes of God. It’s like that old,
famous, uncomfortable quote: “Preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.”
That quote is from an 18 th century German Aristocrat named Count Zinzendorf—but he’d be
happy for you to forget it. He left behind his big opportunity in politics so he could expend his
vast resources to support refugees, slaves, and missionaries. Zinzendorf won’t be remembered
by historians, but he’s forever remembered in the halls of heaven. He was ambitious for a quiet
life of preaching and living the God-centered Gospel. Christ doesn’t remove our ambition; He
transforms it.
You say, “How does this happen?” Through the work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s come back to the
passage. Verse 8 tells us that the Holy Spirit was teaching the Thessalonians sexual purity. And
then in verse 9, he says they were “taught by God” to love one another. In fact, they were so
“taught by God” to love, that they didn’t even need human teachers, Paul says! From there,
Paul goes on to talk about ambition for a quiet life, minding our own business, and working
with our hands—all of which he sees as an expression of brotherly love, which the Holy Spirit
teaches. In short, the Holy Spirit transforms our ambitions by teaching us to love one another.
I just think that’s profound—that the Holy Spirit teaches us, independently of the ministry of
other human beings. Undoubtedly, he uses humans also, but even prior to that, He’s already at
work. It’d be easy to pass right over that, but it’s something that God spent thousands of years
working toward. Let me explain.
We’ll start with Moses. God used Moses to deliver Israel from their Egyptian oppressors, and
shortly afterward, He formed them into a nation with laws. Israel’s laws were spelled out in the
first few books of the Bible, and they included the Ten Commandments, written on tablets of
stone. Sometimes these laws were collectively referred to as, “The Old Covenant.” If Israel kept
the laws, they would be blessed. But if they did not keep the laws, they’d be cursed.
Unfortunately, Israel didn’t keep the laws. But rather than cursing His own people to the extent
the law demanded, Jesus was cursed in their place. The Law of Moses said, “Cursed is anyone

who hangs on a tree”; so God sent His Son to hang on a tree and absorb Israel’s curse, thereby
fulfilling the Old Covenant, and then blessing the whole world with a new one. A better one.
This “New Covenant” was God’s multi-thousand-year project for improving upon a covenant
that told us what to do outwardly without empowering us inwardly. A good example comes
from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said that new laws cannot make a man love me,
but it can stop him from lynching me. The beauty of the New Covenant is that it actually CAN
make a person love you. It’s not just external punishment; it’s internal transformation. That’s
what it means when Thessalonians says, “you have been taught by God.” The law that was once
foreign and external—like Moses’ tablets of stone—has become our native language, like part
of our DNA. The New Covenant is God re-programming us to live for Him.
Does this mean we’ll live it out automatically? Of course not. Have you ever had a computer
crash before? Just because it’s programmed to run smoothly, doesn’t mean it will. It has to
cooperate with the owner. And it’s the same with us. God is our Owner—it’s not about us.
Insofar as we walk in friendship with Him, the Holy Spirit teaches us love, transforms our
ambitions, and helps us to operate in accordance with our new spiritual DNA. Are you walking
closely in friendship with Jesus this morning?
Now, allow me to offer a practical illustration of what this might look like.
John Perkins is a 90-year-old pastor and Civil Rights activist. In his book, One Blood, he talks
about the sins of black anger and white indifference. His brother Clyde fought in World War II,
came home, and he was murdered because of his race. As a black man, John felt such a raging
fire over the tragedies he and his people had suffered. He said he wanted to wear it like a
badge of honor to whip the white man with and play the victim card. But Jesus wouldn’t let
him. The Holy Spirit taught him differently. Almost immediately after finding Jesus at the age of
twenty-seven, he says God challenged his prejudice. One of the ways He did so was through the
hands of the white nurses who bandaged his wounds after he was beaten in the streets of
Mississippi. He says they were symbolic for the people who beat him. He wanted to hate all
white people, but God used their compassion to break down the wall of anger, distrust, and
bitterness. Today, Reverend Perkins has been used by God perhaps as much as any living
person to bring about reconciliation between whites and blacks. But he couldn’t become part of
the solution until he realized he was part of the problem.
And it’s the same for us. None of us can be part of the solution until we realize we are part of
the problem. For John Perkins, the issue was “black anger.” And for much of the white
evangelical church, it’s white indifference. Now, I’m going to be honest with you guys. I’m
afraid to say that out-loud. I’m afraid I’ll be labeled as a virtue-signaller who’s been
brainwashed by media and the radical left. I do think the media thrives on inflaming our
tensions. But they’re not the ones who “re-programmed” me. That, I can only attribute to the
work of the Holy Spirit, who transformed my ambition and taught me love. If we want to be
taught by God, we have to be teachable. The Scripture says His thoughts are different than our
thoughts, which means that sometimes His thoughts will disagree with ours. If the Holy Spirit
only tells me things I already agree with, I’m probably not listening to the Holy Spirit. If I agree

100% of the time with everyone in my tribe or political affiliation, I’m probably not being taught
by God. Being teachable means we posture ourselves to receive from the Holy Spirit, even if it’s
not what we want to hear. Instead of asking yourself, “Am I a hate-filled racist,” ask God
whether you’re doing all you can for the sake of reconciliation. The greatest commandment is
not “Don’t hate,” but “Love.” Jesus loved us so much that He died for reconciliation between
races, and then He appointed us to be ministers of reconciliation. We’re commissioned to be
peacemakers. Reconciliation is written on our hearts. Now it’s up to us to live out our new
“programming” with a foot-washing, cross-dying love that shouts to the world, “It’s all about
Him.” If we want to change the world, we have to let God change us—through the quiet work
of the Holy Spirit.



Ache For Eden

Ache For Eden

The House that Built Me

Two years ago, I was returning from a motorcycle certification course, when I decided on a whim to stop by the home I grew up in. I was taking a picture in front of the home [show pic] when the present owner saw me and asked what I was doing. This led to him inviting me inside and giving me a tour. This is a picture of the Murphy bed I slept on as a teenager [pic]. The entire house was virtually unchanged, down to the pencil markings on the door jam that showed how tall we were. [pic]. 

Have you ever visited the house you grew up in? It’s such a strange feeling. The word we use to describe that feeling is, “Nostalgia”. Nostalgia is that ache in your soul for something that once-upon-a-time defined your daily reality.

I bring this story up for two reasons. The first is because of what the world is now going through. After just one month, we all feel nostalgia for “the old normal.” We miss hugs and handshakes and water cooler conversations. We miss restaurants and waiters and predictable paychecks. We miss meeting new people and visiting old people. We miss worshiping together in-person. As we struggle to discover our new normal, we ache in our soul for the old one.

The second reason I bring up this story is that longing for restoration to “the way things once were” is built into the fabric of our DNA. Like a duck that longs for water or a bird for blue skies, God has placed within our hearts what I call an “ache for Eden.” Eden is the center of God’s original creation and our original home. It was a place that existed before sin, before struggle, before Coronavirus, and before death. Eden was a “garden paradise.” 

Whether we recognize our “ache for Eden” or not, it’s there. Like a whisper you can barely hear, like a dream you faintly remember, something deep inside of us aches for home, for paradise lost, for that missing-something. This ache is actually healthy—it’s meant to drive us to God in the same way that hunger drives us to food. But too often it drives us to pain-numbing excess and mindless distraction—each, about as satisfying as scratching a mosquito bite. 

John 20:11-18: the story of Mary Magdalene

Today I want to talk about the way Jesus’ resurrection answers our ache for Eden. Our passage for today is John 20:11-18. This is the story of Mary Magdalene (not the mother of Jesus), whose devotion is rewarded with the first visitation of the risen Christ. Let’s read: 

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic,[b] “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

Our approach to this passage is to discuss the three “restorations” that resurrection leads to, each of which answers our ache for Eden: the restoration of our world, the restoration of our bodies, and the restoration of our relationships. We’ll begin with the restoration of our world.

The Restoration of our World

The very first thing we see in verse 11 is a weeping Mary Magdalene. Both the angel and Jesus say to her, “Why are you weeping?” The repetition should catch our attention: the question is intended as a mild rebuke. She fails to understand that the prophesied day when every tear will be wiped away, in some real sense, had already begun. The resurrection of Jesus is the first domino to fall in God’s grand reversal of all that makes us weep. All violence, all cruelty, all evil, all death—Jesus absorbed each of these, visibly, on the cross. But instead of succumbing to them, He rose again. And in doing so, He rose above them.

This is why it’s no surprise that Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. It’s an allusion to the world’s original state of paradise. The world was broken by the sin of the first gardener (Adam); it will one day be restored by the resurrection of another “gardener” (Jesus). 

The reason this is all relevant is that we’re told in every political cycle that if we just get the right political platform, the right economic system, the right party in office… we are destined for progress. The 20th Century alone should have destroyed that notion. We’ve had Republicans and Democrats, capitalists and socialists. Yet in spite of all our “progress” we saw nearly 200 million people die of war alone—some say that’s more than have ever died in every war in history. Our “progress” has seemingly just made us better at killing. Now here we are in the 21st century, hoping that a tweak to the world system will set things right. A microscopic virus is laughing at us. I’m all in favor of tweaks, but at the end of the day, our collective ache for Eden will never resolve by the efforts of dying men. Our hope is not in politics or politicians, but in the King of heaven, who launched His project for restoring the world through resurrection.

So first, resurrection one day leads to the restoration of the world; second, resurrection leads to the restoration of our bodies. The restoration of our bodies.

The Restoration of our Bodies

When Mary discovers Jesus’ identity, she understandably embraces Him. Jesus responds, “Don’t cling to Me, but go and tell My brothers what you’ve seen.” This not just a practical command to be on with her mission. It’s also a statement about the nature of resurrection, emphatic throughout this narrative. Jesus is not a ghost. He’s not a spirit. He could be touched. He could be hugged. He could be clung to. Jesus’ resurrection was physical

Sadly, two-thirds of Americans think the word “resurrection” merely refers to dying and going to heaven. In the words of one Bible scholar, “That’s not the defeat of death; that’s the description of death.” Jesus defeats death by reversing it physically. This happens on the day Jesus returns to fully restore our two homes: the world we live in, and the body we live in.

On several occasions I’ve said goodbye to people on their death bed. I can remember that final squeeze of the hand while it still feels warm. Those final words. That final locking of the eyes. That final moment of closure as the casket is closed and then lowered into the ground.

It’s heartbreaking to see people all over social media talking about their final moments via Zoom and FaceTime. Their inability to squeeze a hand or truly lock eyes or even hold a funeral. There’s something about human physicality that makes us fully human. Without it, goodbye doesn’t feel like goodbye. God made us to be more than pixels on a screen. Your longing to be with people again is something like the biblical hope of resurrection. We are human beings with fingers and toes—made to shake hands and to hug and to worship in big rooms with collective voices and outstretched arms. These are the activities that make us fully human. And that’s what resurrection is about. It’s about the restoration of our full humanity—body, soul, and spirit—so that we never have to say goodbye again. Just one eternal hello and a fully human sharing of life.

Now let’s discuss the third restoration: the restoration of our relationships.

The Restoration of our Relationships

The brokenness of our world and our bodies all began when Adam and Eve broke with God. When our relationship with God is broken, everything is broken. But when our relationship with God is restored, we become part of God’s cosmic restoration project. 

That’s what makes Jesus’ statement in verse 17 so triumphant: “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” It’s the first time in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus refers to God as “Your Father.” Through Jesus’ death, our sin was paid for. Now, through His resurrection, our relationship with God can be restored. This, then, becomes the foundation for restoring every relationship. Why? Because we all worship the same Father, by the same blood of Jesus, and by the same Spirit. In Christ, it’s not just individuals restored to God; it’s God’s entire household. This is why Jesus tells Mary, “Go and tell My brothers…” (v. 17).

And now this brings us to the million-dollar question: Are you right with God? Before God makes restores our two homes, He wants to restore our hearts to Him. Every relationship is a two-way street, and God has done His part. He’s chased us all the way to the grave and back again. Now our part is to respond to God with faith and repentance. Again, I ask: Are you right with God? Or are you satisfying the ache in your soul with pain-numbing excess and mindless distractions? 

The House That Built Me

I’d like to finish with the lyrics of a former #1 hit by Miranda Lambert about visiting her old childhood home, called, “the House that Built Me.” It goes like this: 

You leave home, you move on and you do the best you can 

I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am 

I thought if I could touch this place or feel it
This brokenness inside me might start healing

Out here it’s like I’m someone else

I thought that maybe I could find myself… 

Why would Miranda Lambert feel that by returning “home” and touching it, she might restore her lost self? Logically, this doesn’t make much sense, but spiritually it makes tons of sense. She’s responding to a hunger God placed in her DNA… that “missing-something”… that longing for restoration… to her ache for Eden…

Selling millions of albums and making millions of dollars predictably didn’t help her find her lost self. 

Whatever you’re chasing—that promotion, that high, that relationship—won’t help you find your lost self either. Lost sheep can’t find themselves, and neither can lost people. Jesus says, “I came to seek and save the lost.” How did He do it? He came, He lived, He suffered, and He died.  For three long days He made His home in the grave, so that for all eternity we could be at home with God.



The Diverse Excellencies of Jesus Christ

The Diverse Excellencies of Jesus Christ

The Diverse Excellencies of Jesus Christ 


Today we’re going to talk about what I’m calling the “Diverse Excellencies” of Jesus. Jesus’ “excellency” is not just seen in His individual attributes, but in how these diverse attributes so impossibly fit together. Knowing intimately these “diverse excellencies” protects us from reducing Jesus to a Good Luck Charm Savior or a Rubber Stamp for our political opinions—as you’ll see. It also helps prepare us for what God’s about to do on the earth.


Today’s passage comes from Revelation 5, and it’s part of a series called, “Behind the Scenes,” because God is giving us a “Backstage Pass” into the divine plan for setting the Universe Aright. In the scene we’re about to read, the Apostle John has been caught up into a heavenly vision, where He sees God the Father holding a scroll that describes the future of the earth as though it was a past event. Suddenly John begins to weep because no one is worthy to open the scroll or bring its contents to pass. Verse 5 introduces us to the One who’s able to wipe away John’s tears, and ours also, if we heed his message. Pay attention to His diverse excellencies….


And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Did you catch the “diverse excellencies” in this passage? Jesus is portrayed as both a mighty conquering lion and as weak little lamb. The Greek word used for “lamb” in verse 6 literally means “little lamb.” Like, Jesus is “Mary had a little lamb” kind of non-threatening. 


Can you get any more opposite than lion and lamb? It’s like saying that Jesus is a nuclear bomb that invites our embrace. He’s a tornado with a tender side. Jesus is the Lion who came to conquer darkness, and to establish His eternal Kingdom. But as a sacrificial Lamb, He would achieve these things not by overtaking the bad guys, but by dying for them. It’s amazing enough that Jesus is a Lion OR a Lamb, but He is both at the same time. His diversity makes Him even more excellent. He is unflinchingly just, yet wildly merciful. He’s powerful, yet vulnerable. Passionate, yet calculated. He has no beginning, yet He was born. He has no end, yet He died. He’s Divine, yet Human. Lofty yet lowly. He’s a conquering Lion and little Lamb.


Now, you say, why is this all so important? Here’s why: Knowing Jesus as both Lion and Lamb prepares us for the judgment of the world. Knowing Jesus as both Lion and Lamb prepares us for the judgment of the world. How is that?


One way of looking at it is that there are two kinds of people: we might categorize these as “Lamb Christians”—who know Jesus as Lamb but not Lion—and “Lion Christians”—who know Jesus as Lion, but not Lamb.


“Lamb Christians” who know Jesus as only as a gentle Lamb will be rudely awakening when He pours out His judgment on the earth. Revelation 5 leads right into chapter 6, where Jesus (not the devil) unleashes judgments of war and social chaos and economic disaster and plagues. The same God who flooded the earth in the days of Noah and rained down fire and sulfur in the days of Abraham will one day judge the earth again. As painful as these judgments are, they are only a warmup for the Final Judgment. They are meant to steer the world to repentance. 


In my humble opinion, many Americans are what you might call “Lamb Christians.” We love to emphasize that Jesus is kind and peaceful and merciful. He’s as approachable as a Little Lamb. He’s Friend, but not Lord. He’s a Good Luck Charm, but not Savior. He’s Jesus in my back pocket, tucked away until I need Him. It’s not enough to know Jesus as the Lamb who offers mercy; we must also know Him as the Lion who administers justice.


At the same time—as I always say—there’s a ditch on both sides of the road! Some know Jesus as only a Lamb, but others know Him as only a Lion! I heard a “Lion Christian” last week on television, bragging about his bold stances—not for the Gospel—but for the Republican Party. He called one of my spiritual heroes, Tim Keller, a “Wimpy Christian” for not fighting the culture war. “Lion Christians” view the Gospel through a political lens, instead of viewing politics through a Gospel lens. Like Christ the Lion, they want to conquer the powers of darkness, but their weapons are mean-spirited words and public policy instead of faith, hope, and love. 


It’s not enough to know Jesus as the conquering Lion; we must also know Him as the Lamb who was slain. Jesus is our way of escape. His mercy is as fresh as the wounds that still mark Him.


Now let’s summarize: How does the diverse excellency of Jesus affect us? When you know He’s a Lion, you won’t be offended by His judgments; when you know He’s a Lamb, you run to Him for mercy. Knowing Jesus as both Lion and Lamb prepares us for the judgment of the world.  


Now my next question is: what do we do with that? Do we stock up on TP and hunker down? Do we hop on Twitter and start blaming people for the Coronavirus? Or do we look to the Word of God for our response? Let’s return one more time to verse 8: And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 


The harp represents the worship of God’s people on earth, and the golden bowl of incense represents the prayers of God’s people on the earth. Our prayers are to God like sweet-smelling incense, and our worship is to God a sweet-sounding melody. 


In the flow of the chapter, people on earth are worshiping and praying, which leads to people in heaven worshiping and praying, which leads to thousands of angels worshiping and praying, which leads to all of creation worshiping and praying. What’s the point of all this? The point is that, first of all, we respond to Jesus as the Judging Lion and Merciful Lamb by seeking His face with holy urgency. The time is short. Repent of your sins. Find mercy while you still can. Second, our worship and prayer have some kind of role in the way things play out in the last days. Your prayers and your worship—feeble, yet faithful—have the power to launch a global movement, whereby Jesus ultimately earns the praise of every creature for His diverse excellencies.


So how is your prayer life right now? How’s your “worship life”? Have you ever considered the way your prayer and worship have the power to impact heaven and earth, and to usher in the return of our Lord? When was the last time you spent an hour crying out to Jesus or just praising His name? When was the last time you gathered your family to seek His face?


This has an incredible measure of relevance for us today. A microscopic virus has brought the world empires to their knees. It’s shaken everything that can be shaken. Governments are shaken. Kings are shaken. Economies are shaken. Sports and Entertainment are shaken. 

Churches are shaken. Life as we know it is shaken. What are we to do when everything is shaken? The world needs to see a church that’s running to God in prayer instead of running to the hills. They need to see a church that hasn’t stopped singing in spite of the shaking. 


This week, one of our elders, Douglas Coco, was laid off without a dime of severance after six years in High Level Management. When I heard the news, I wasn’t just sad for him; I was angry over the injustice of zero severance. It’s corporate greed run amok with survival instinct.


Douglas handled his own fiery trial better than I did. Later that day, he posted this on Facebook [pic]: “Appreciate prayers, I’m now looking for what God has in store next for my career. What they don’t realize is God is going to redeem these COVID layoffs. Don’t look back at Egypt… focus forward on the Promise Land. Trusting you Lord.”


That’s the kind of faith that God is looking for in this hour. A faith that’s not shaken when everything else is. A faith that runs to Jesus as our merciful Lamb and as the Lion who devours our darkness. 


To finish Doug’s story, I have some good news. Within 48 hours, Douglas already had landed a new job, and it looks like it will be far better than his previous one! 


Now I know that it doesn’t work that way for everyone. There’s no promise in the Bible about how quickly God will answer our prayers. But we do know that our prayers are to God like a sweet-smelling incense. And our worship is to God a sweet-sounding melody. 


Everyday, we’re reminded that we’re not in control. But we do have the heart of Him who is.




Wisdom Or Faith?

Wisdom Or Faith?

Faith and wisdom


At risk of being called an alarmist, which I am not, I have been trumpeting before many others that the Coronavirus is to be taken very seriously, and that it will change our lives significantly. In the coming weeks, it will become more serious.


On March 15, we cancelled our “in-person” church service before we technically had to. Some local churches still met. I explained at that time that this was our best expression of faith, wisdom, and compassion. Faith: because we were responding to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom: because continuing to meet in large gatherings would put our most vulnerable at risk. Compassion: because this global pandemic could be used by God to show the world the heart of Jesus for vulnerable people.


Now, I’d like to circle back to that balance between the first two words—faith and wisdom. Wisdom tells us to wash our hands, maintain social distance, and do all the things you’ve been hearing now for weeks. Proverbs 22:3: “The prudent see danger and hides himself. The naïve proceed and pay the penalty.”


But what about faith? Should not faith lead us to sometimes defy conventional wisdom? Wisdom says, “Save money” (Pr. 6:6-11), but on one occasion, Jesus told a man to sell everything he had (Mt. 19:21). Wisdom says, “Flee from danger,” but one occasion, Jesus told Peter to walk on water (Mt. 14:29).


Wisdom is like guardrails on a winding mountain road; it keeps us on the path. But sometimes faith leads us off-road. It leads us into dangerous territory. It blazes a new trail.


So how do we know which one to follow, when the two seem to be in tension?


The answer is: the voice of God. Notice in the two examples above: it was right for the man to sell everything because Jesus told him to, and it was right for Peter to step out of the boat because Jesus told him to.


If Jesus tells you to do it, then do it—that’s faith. But if Jesus doesn’t tell you to do it—don’t do it. Even if it looks like faith because you’re boldly doing dangerous things, you might be in danger of something else, namely testing God.


Testing God means that we “put Him on the spot” to protect us from foolish behavior that He never commanded us to do. Satan told Jesus to jump from the top of the Temple—an act of bold faith?—but Jesus said He would not test God by putting Him on the spot.


I once read of a group of three girls who were endangered by a flood, and rather than running to higher ground like everyone else, they tried walking on the water like Jesus. Sadly, but predictably, they all drowned. Why—did they not have enough faith? I would say they had a lot of faith, but it wasn’t in Jesus. Jesus never told them to step out on the water, like He did for Peter. If anything, they had “faith in their faith” which was no faith at all, but rather, testing God—putting Him on the spot.


So what is God speaking to you in this hour?


Generally, I believe He’s speaking to all of us about the wisdom of hiding ourselves from danger—for our own sake, and for the sake of the vulnerable. But now let’s talk about faith.


The greatest threat to our immune system is not a viral infection, but sin. And the greatest immune-booster on the planet is not Vitamin-C, but faith.


Faith heals. Faith delivers. Faith saves. This is one of the primary messages of all the Gospels. Healthy faith knows how to heed wisdom, but faith for good health is an even greater defense than good hand-washing.


Why do you think Jesus performed so many healing miracles? He actually cares about your physical health. He has the power to heal, and not only that…  3 John 2 says, “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.”


God doesn’t just care about healing the sick; He cares about preventing sickness!


Let’s not allow wisdom to become fear that if we don’t protect ourselves perfectly—you can’t!—we’re sure to get coronavirus. I say, “Do your best, and trust God with the rest.”


On the other hand, let’s not allow faith to become foolhardiness, rushing headlong into danger that Jesus hasn’t called us to rush into. Rather, let’s walk in friendship with Jesus, which perfectly balances the tension between faith and wisdom, between healthy faith and faith for health. In the coming days and weeks, you’ll hear of more opportunities for serving this community in a way that balances these tensions.


If the church walks in a wisdom-less “faith” or a faithless “wisdom,” I don’t believe our light will shine. But if we walk the tension through a friendship with Jesus, I believe people will repeat the words said during a different plague (quoted by a 4th century pastor named Eusubius): that the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.”





Cashing In On Fear

Cashing In On Fear

Cashing in on Fear

I’d like to begin with a list of headlines, all of which have one thing in common: 

  • “Is America coming to an end?” 
  • “Stock market might crash within days” 
  • “The Greatest Catastrophe since the Great Depression”

What do these all have in common? They all come from the year 2011. Do you remember the “Fiscal Cliff” that was going to send us into financial oblivion? Or the Arab Spring? Or the Tsunami that destroyed a nuclear reactor in Japan? Here we are nine years later, and despite what we were told, the earth remains on its axis and Jesus remains on His throne.

The media sure knows how to cash in on fear. But you know what—it’s not just the media. It’s the church too. Last week, I came across a billboard: “Is the Corona Virus a sign from God? Find out this Sunday at _____ Church.” Whether it’s the Corona Virus of 2020 or the election of 2016 or the Blood Moons of 2015 or the Fiscal Cliff of 2011 or the Great Recession of 2008 or the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004 or the towers falling in 2001 or the turning of the Millennium a year before… there’s always something to freak out about. Of course, I expect the world to freak out. But it makes me sad that the church seems more freaked out than the world. 

Today, we’re starting a new series in the Book of Revelation called, “Behind the Scenes.” I have to be honest with you – when God first started speaking to me about a series on Revelation, I felt like this (meme: “I ain’t going there.”) I didn’t want to be the fear-mongering pastor, and I also don’t have all my interpretations sorted out. Like you, I still have questions. But here’s what God spoke to my spirit, the more I prayed about this series, beginning last year.

First, He said that a lack of certainty is not a liability, but an asset (for reasons I’ll explain later). If you feel bewildered by Revelation – don’t fret – so has every theologian with an ounce of humility. If you feel scared by Revelation – don’t fret – this Book is not about evoking fear, but easing it, as we’ll soon see. 

The second thing God spoke was that this is a year and a season in which the Book of Revelation will become increasingly relevant for believers. If we’re afraid of this Book, we’ll miss out on the blessing promised to those who read it, as we are soon to do.

Revelation 1:1-3

So with that introduction, let’s jump in to chapter 1. We’ll start with the first three verses as an introduction, and then we’ll jump down toward the end of the chapter as a way of focusing on the forest and not the trees. Revelation 1:1.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants[a] the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

The Time is Near?

First, let’s talk about that word “near” – two thousand years doesn’t seem very “near”, does it? The Apostle Peter recognized that as Christ’s return tarried, this would increasingly become a problem. To this he offered us two bits of advice: (1) Time is relative to an eternal God, for whom a thousand years is as a day, and a day is as a thousand years (2 Pt. 3:4-9), and (2) We can hasten (or slow down) the timing of Christ’s return by our behavior (2 Pt. 3:12). We have to understand “near” from a divine perspective, not an impatient human one.

Behind the Scenes

Now, let’s talk about that opening phrase: “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” That word, “revelation,” comes from the Greek word “apocalypsus,” from which we get our English word, “Apocalypse.” In English, the word has come to refer to cataclysmic global events—and those are certainly present in the Book of Revelation—but the word itself in Greek doesn’t technically refer to those. “apocalypsus”, according to the Greek dictionary, means “unveiling.”

That’s why our series on the first 5 chapters of Revelation is titled, “Behind the Scenes.” God is giving us a backstage pass for the “unveiling” of Jesus Christ. There are two forms of this: first, the unveiling of His plan for setting the universe aright (i.e., the future); and second, the unveiling of Jesus Christ Himself. So let’s tackle these two “unveilings,” each in turn. 

First, the unveiling of God’s plan for setting the Universe aright.

Setting the Universe aright of course means that war and poverty and death and evil will be completely eradicated. But the way biblical authors thought about this “right-setting” was not merely in terms of what would be done away with, but also in terms of what would be established: namely, that the two realms of heaven and earth would no longer be separate, but one. In Revelation 11:15, for instance, we read that when Jesus returns, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever.” Later in Revelation, we see that the age we live in is consummated—not when human beings are zapped away to heaven—but rather, when the heavenly city (called the New Jerusalem) comes down from heaven to earth, “like a bride adorned for her husband”, and the two realms overlap. God’s vision for the future is a marriage of heaven and earth.

We would be naïve to think this “setting aright” will be simple and painless. Like a doctor re-setting a broken bone, the re-set of this broken world will require some sharp and sudden movements. These movements are detailed in Revelation 6-20. There are plagues, wars, famines, persecutions, earthquakes, hailstorms, and locust invasions. There’s also a dragon, a seven-headed beast rising out of the sea, a second beast rising out of the earth, and a giant prostitute seated upon many waters.

Understanding Apocalyptic Literature

This brings up another point, which we can make by coming back to that word, “apocalypsus”. Not only does this Greek word speak of the content of Revelation; it also speaks of its genre of literature. Throughout the Bible, we have some Books that were written as narrative, some as songs, some as letters, and some as prophecies. Revelation fits all of those elements in various parts, but the most prominent genre ascribed to this book is that of “apocalyptic” literature. 

Apocalyptic literature began with the Old Testament Book of Daniel, and it continued with many extra-biblical Jewish writings, all the way into the second century AD. It was characterized by bizarre visions of global conflicts in heaven and on earth, and it was written to encourage suffering people that the One who is “behind the scenes” has it all under control.

It would be a huge mistake to be overly literalistic with these apocalyptic visions. They were never meant to be reduced to perfectly sequential timelines and flipcharts, but rather, to excite emotion and stir us from spiritual slumber—like waking up from a disturbingly vivid dream.

On the other hand, we also have to be careful of danger on the other side: just as we can be overly literalistic with these bizarre visions, we can just as well be overly dismissive—chocking the whole book up to symbolism, rather than wrestling with the realities being presented. Yes, there are symbols, but they are symbols of real figures and real events that have tremendous relevance for the church in every age, not least of which, the church in this age.

Be Careful Who You’re Listening To

So how do we avoid both extremes? Here’s my advice: be careful who you’re listening to. 

Several years ago, a pastor wrote a book predicting there would be a cataclysmic economic downturn in the year 2015, as he pieced together biblical prophecy and American history. When the downturn didn’t happen, rather than apologizing, he doubled-down, and said he was right (because you can use statistics to prove anything). The same thing has happened with a slew of end-times preachers who’ve predicted various dates and revised them quietly, but without being humbled, they continue with total certainty, and people blindly follow them.

I get the appeal: in a world of paranoia, certainty sells. But we have to be careful about over-certainty. I don’t have a problem with connecting modern events and events from Revelation. But let’s have humility in our approach, and discernment in our study. For me personally, I don’t consume “end-times material” from people who speak with total certainty about the future, or who refuse to acknowledge their errors. Revelation predicts the future, but it’s not a crystal ball. His plan for setting the Universe aright is revealed in the form of apocalyptic visions that on one hand must be taken seriously, but on the other hand, must be considered humbly. 

Revelation 1:9-20 – the Unveiling of Jesus Christ

Now let’s move to the second “unveiling” of Revelation: the unveiling of Jesus Christ Himself. Picking it up in verse 9, we’ll read through the end of the chapter:

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Times of Tribulation

The first thing I want you to notice is in verse 9: John uses the word “tribulation” to describe what he and the church are ALREADY going through. In fact, he says, this is part-and-parcel of what it means to be Christian. The Book of Acts uses the same word to describe the normal Christian life: “It is through many TRIBULATIONS that we enter the kingdom of God.” 

A lot of Christians are terrified of the end times, and they’ve developed an entire theology around avoiding “tribulation.” We obsess over whether Jesus will return before, during, or after the “Great Tribulation” of Revelation 7:14. I’m not suggesting this question is irrelevant. What I am saying is that our obsession is perhaps a manifestation of a deeper problem in our hearts. If you were to ask John, “Will Christians go through the Great Tribulation,” he’d likely say, “I’m already going through a great tribulation—I’m a nonagenarian living on a deserted island!” If you asked believers today in Iran or North Korea, they’d say something similar. The American church is the wealthiest and perhaps most comfortable church in human history. And it seems that our primary concern, too often, is not, “How can I extend the reign of Jesus across the earth,” but rather, “How can I ensure that Jesus will keep me comfortable?” Regardless of what happens with the “Great Tribulation”—we’ll talk about that in a few weeks—we can rest assured of two things: (1) if you’re faithful to Jesus, you will suffer tribulation that can sometimes be characterized as “great”, and (2) in one way or another, God does find a way to care for His people in times of tribulation (2 Pt. 2:4-10).

When Jesus says to “fear not” He doesn’t follow it by saying, “…because the Tribulation won’t be so bad.” John wasn’t afraid of Tribulation (or Corona Virus, or 2020 elections, or running out of toilet paper at Costco!). John was afraid of—get this!—Jesus. He was afraid of Jesus. So afraid that he fell at Jesus’ feet like a dead man. And for good reason. It’s not every day that you see a man with fiery eyes and a sword for a tongue!

John’s Vision of Jesus

Now let’s talk about this vision. And I’ll remind you once again: this is a vision. Jesus doesn’t have a literal sword coming out of His mouth. As a symbol, it speaks of the way His Word pierces our heart. His hair represents wisdom and connects Him with “the Ancient of Days”, who is God the Father, depicted in Daniel 7 (go back and read it later). Jesus’ fiery eyes represent His penetrating knowledge of every sin, his robe and sash represent His royalty and priestly service. His feet like burnished bronze portray Him as One who passed through the furnace of judgment on the Cross, unscathed. And the voice like many waters communicates how overwhelmed John must have felt at hearing His voice—like someone sitting at the base of Niagara falls. If you saw all of these things, do you think you might fall to the ground like a dead person, too? 

The Book of Revelation—while it IS an unveiling of God’s plan for setting the Universe aright, even more than that, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Not just the weak and wimpy Jesus depicted in Renaissance paintings. Not the tame and relevant Jesus of modern evangelicalism. But the Jesus who died and is alive again, who is the first and the last, and who holds the keys to Death and Hades because He actually suffered both for us, and still came out breathing. If we make Revelation ALL about the future, and not about Jesus—not only have we missed the point, but we’ve missed the solution to what we fear. 

The Solution to Fear – the Fear of God

The solution to fear is not certainty. You’ll never have that on this side of heaven. The solution to fear is having a greater fear that displaces it. 

I want you to imagine, for instance, that you have a fear of going bankrupt in the next 6 months. And then one day, for some extremely strange reason, you wake up in the morning to discover a rattlesnake under your pillow. What happens in that moment to your fear of bankruptcy? It’s entirely replaced by a far greater fear.

That’s the way it works with the fear of God: it displaces all other fears. What is the fear of God? Here’s one definition: To fear God is to be overwhelmed by God’s power and presence. To fear God is to be overwhelmed by God’s power and presence. That’s what’s happening to John, when he falls to the ground like a dead man. 

The fear of God has fallen on hard times in modern times. People say that the God of the Old Testament wanted us to fear Him, but the God of the New Testament is different. Unfortunately, that idea—that the God of the Old is different from the God of the New Testament—was condemned as a heresy (“Marcionism”) by the early church. Further, many verses in the New Testament tell us to fear God, including four times in the Book of Revelation alone. 

Why are we so afraid of the fear of God? I think it comes back to the American idea that (even if we wouldn’t word it quite this way) God exists to make me comfortable. Fear is uncomfortable. And it even seems incompatible with love. But this is because we misunderstand: there’s a right kind of “fear of God” and a wrong kind of “fear of God.”

The Right and Wrong Way to Fear God

Let’s come back to verse 17. There, John is told to “fear not.” Why? Is it because it was wrong for John to be overwhelmed by Jesus’ power and presence? Is Jesus telling John, “Stop being such a wimp, I’m really not that glorious?” No, Jesus is correcting the wrong kind of fear. 

It’s like when Moses says to the people of Israel—after having a similar knee-knocking encounter with God on Mount Sinai—“Don’t be afraid. This happened so that the fear of God would keep you from sinning.” There’s a wrong kind of fear (“don’t be afraid”) and a right kind of fear (“fear of God keeps you from sinning”). The wrong kind of fear is that God will smite you. The right kind of fear is that merely being in God’s presence overwhelms us. The wrong kind of fear makes you want to flee, as if from a rattlesnake; the right kind of fear makes you want to stay, as if in the presence of One who transcends. 

Fearing God is being overwhelmed with awe by His power and His presence. It is not the same as “fear that God will smite us.” As it says in Proverbs 28:14: “Happy is he who fears God always.” Or Psalm 130:4: “Forgiveness belongs to You—therefore You are feared.” Why would we “fear” a forgiving God? And why would we be happy at the very moment we feel fear? Perhaps we should ask the disciples, who were more afraid AFTER Jesus calmed the storm than they were before He calmed it (Mk. 4:35-41). The reason we fear God is that His power and presence overwhelm us with holy wonder. 

This is the fear that displaces all others.

What are you truly afraid of?

In the context of Revelation, I think all of this helps us understand more clearly how to process the “end times.” The real question to ask ourselves is, “What are you truly afraid of?”—not having enough food? Or the One with fiery eyes and a voice like the roar of many waters? Are you more afraid of Death or the One who conquered it? Are you more afraid of the storm or Him who calms it?

Whatever you fear the most is the idol you truly worship. If you fear the loss of comfort, you worship comfort. If you fear the loss of health or money or prestige or a certain relationship, you worship those things. No amount of fear-management can overcome idolatry. God is the fear that displaces all others, and He does so by assuming His rightful place on the throne of our heart, in response to faith and repentance.

The Shining Lampstand of God’s Church

Nobody knows what’s going to happen with this Coronavirus, just like nobody knows what will happen with the 2020 elections or anything else. The future is always uncertain. What IS certain, is that the One who holds the keys to Death and Hades walks not in the aisles of your nearest Costco, but among the lampstands—that is, His church. If you want more of God’s presence, go where He is. He’s in the gathering of the saints on the Lord’s Day. And He’s out on the mission field, shining His light.

Our lampstand shines brightest when the world turns dark. Sociologist Rodney Stark explains Christianity’s growth on account of this very phenomenon. When two plagues each wiped out a third of the Roman Empire’s population—one in 165AD, and the other in 251 AD—Christians showed their faith, not by running from plagues (like everyone else, including the physicians), but running to them—to nurse the sick and honor the dead with burial. This happened repeatedly throughout history. It happened in the Black Plague, that killed 60% of Europe. It happened in the 16th century, when Martin Luther risked his life to pastor his dying flock. 

Brian Palmer is an atheist journalist who writes for Slate, and during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago, he wrote an article called, “In Medicine We Trust.” In it, he expresses discomfort with the fact that the majority of those risking their lives to care for dying victims are missionaries. Without these missionaries, he says, healthcare in Africa would fall apart. Here’s how he finishes the article: As an atheist, I try to make choices based on evidence and reason. So until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa, I suggest we stand aside and let God do His work.

If the church is as scared as the rest of the world, our lampstand won’t shine. But if we worship the One who holds the keys to Death and Hades, it changes the way we view death, and it changes the way the world views God. 

This is not to suggest we should be reckless or unprepared. There’s a world of difference between preparation and paranoia. What I am saying, is that the unveiling of Jesus Christ is both the cause of fear and also the cure for it. Put differently, the only way to “fear not” is to displace our fears with the one that is greater.

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