The 4th Sunday of Easter
The Lamb is Our Shepherd
Text: Revelation 7:9-17
It’s dark, isn’t it? The valley. I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and it is so dark. The darkness is so thick, sometimes I feel like there is no light in my life at all. The path is rough, rugged, and runs every which way. With with darkness surrounding me, I hardly know where I’m going. I stumble and fall a lot. Even worse, I know as I’m walking through this dark valley that I’m a sitting duck, or a sitting sheep I suppose. I’m an easy target. I’m weak. I’m vulnerable prey. There are dangers all around me. There is darkness all around me. I’m lost. I’m alone. I’m afraid.
Ever feel that way? There’s a reason why Psalm 23 has some of the most popular Bible verses in the world. Even people who don’t believe in the Bible will quote it. Perhaps the most striking picture that people know is in verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” That verse is so popular because all people can relate to it. Read the rest of this entry
The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
A Portrait of Victory . . . Now and Forever
Text: Revelation 20:1-6
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” He also said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net.” He said a lot more than that as well. Now do you actually think that when you are a part of God’s kingdom you live inside of a mustard seed or you get trapped in an actual net? Of course not. Jesus spoke in parables—picture language to help explain things, in this case that the kingdom of heaven seems small but grows large like a mustard seed or catches people like a net catches fish.
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and, “I am the bread of life,” and, “I am the gate.” Is Jesus actually a gate or bread or a vine? Are you actually a branch and not a human being? Of course not. More picture language to help us understand.
You see, one of the keys to understanding the Bible is to understand what kind of text you are reading. Are you reading a narrative—a simple historical story about Moses or Jesus, for example? Are you reading a letter—information from some apostle with lots of doctrinal content? Are you reading picture language—something that is representative of something else but put in language we can understand? Parables are one example of that.
One of the quickest ways people get in trouble with Bible interpretation is to be confused with what kind of text they are reading. Imagine if someone took a historical account, like Jonah and the big fish, and said, “This account is not really true, but it means to tell us that sometimes we get swallowed by “big fish” in life and God delivers us.” No, the story of Jonah is an actual, real life event. Or imagine someone thinking picture language was real and actually believing that Jesus is a vine or a gate or a lamb or a lion, rather than the God who came in human flesh. When you read the Bible you have to understand what you are looking at.
There are few places that is more true than in the book of Revelation. And of all the chapters of Revelation, one of the most problematic for many is Revelation 20, the beginning of which is the second lesson this morning. Here’s where the problem lies:
Revelation is apocalyptic literature and prophecy. What does that mean? It’s a book filled with picture language about the present and future. Take today’s lesson for example. It describes Satan as a dragon, an ancient serpent, that is bound in chains. Is Satan really a dragon or a snake? Of course not. The Bible tells us that Satan is a fallen angel. But the picture of dragon or snake communicates power and danger to us. And could Satan really be bound by actual iron chains? Of course not. He’s an evil angel. Chains can’t hold him. Clearly this is picture language.
Well the problem is when people start reading Revelation 20 not as picture language but as actual, literal details. You can’t do that. This is not a historical narrative. This is a beautiful painting that uses picture language, like the parables, to describe something very important. So let’s take a closer look this morning at what lies before us: A beautiful painting, A Portrait of Victory . . . Now and Forever.
Here are the first verses: “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.”
As we look at this beautiful picture, several things become very clear to us. From here and other clues in Revelation it is clear that this angel is actually not an angel but Jesus Christ himself. It tells us that the dragon is actually Satan. It also becomes clear that the Abyss is hell. It’s also clear that Jesus is pictured in this painting as locking up Satan and restricting his activity. The key question is: What is the thousand years?
Remember that you can’t say when looking at picture language text, “The angel is symbolic, the dragon is symbolic, the chains are symbolic, but the 1,000 years are literally 1,000 years.” If it’s picture language, it’s picture language.
So we look for more clues. Many of you know my rule of thumb. If you don’t know what something in the Bible means, then you should keep reading. And as we read more of the Bible and Revelation we learn that the 1,000 years represents an indefinite time period—a time period that began with Satan being bound and that will end at The End on Judgment Day.
When was Satan bound? We think of God telling Adam and Eve that the serpent’s head would be crushed. Or Jesus saying during his ministry that he saw Satan fall. Or finally Jesus declaring on the cross, “It is finished,” and then later Jesus rising from the dead.
Jesus has already crushed and defeated Satan. You could say that it’s like he has put a chain on him. He is defeated right now. His movement is restricted. But like a pit bull in a yard on a chain, as long as we are in this world we are within the reach of Satan on his chain. And toward the very end of the world, it will get worse as Satan is temporarily set free before his final and total defeat.
The broad portrait that we are looking at in these first three verses is a beautiful one. It’s a portrait of Jesus’ victory over Satan, that the devil has been defeated and locked up. He does have some power now, but for a limited amount of time—not literally 1,000 years, but for a certain amount of time until Jesus returns. We call that time the End Times, the time we are in right now.
The portrait is expanded with more picture language: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands.” (That beast is antichristian forces that work in cahoots with Satan.) “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
John saw God’s people, both those alive and those who had been martyred sitting on thrones and ruling with Christ because they did not follow Satan and his evil forces. They even rule right away with Christ during the End Times and then into eternity. These people are said to have come to life in the first resurrection and aren’t affected by the second death.
This is another picture that becomes clear with careful reading of God’s Word. The Bible reminds us that we come into this world dead in sin. But when we come to faith in Christ we have a new life in Christ. That’s the first resurrection—becoming a believer and having life with Jesus. The second resurrection would be of your body on Judgment Day.
In the same way there are two deaths. There is physical death when your life ends and then there is eternal death in hell. The picture here tells us that those who have life in Christ might die the first death (physical death), but the second death, hell, has no power over us because we reign with Christ who conquered death.
So now we understand the full, beautiful portrait. Through his life and death Jesus bound Satan in defeat. But for a while, from the time Jesus ascended until the Last Day, Satan has limited power and range to do damage. And yet during those same End Times we are pictured ruling with Christ and already seated on thrones because we have come to life through faith in him. Death and hell have no power over us. It’s a beautiful portrait, really—A Portrait of Victory . . . Now and Forever.
But as with all good artwork, we have to ask one more important question about this picture today: What does this mean for me today?
Well first we must address Satan. It’s clear here. Satan is dangerous. He’s like a dragon, like a serpent, ready to pounce on prey, destroy, and kill. Yes he is on a chain and defeated already. But right now we are in that yard with the pit bull. As long as we are in this world, we are within reach of him on his chain. That means we are vulnerable to his attacks.
So how foolish we are when we mess with that fiery dragon, that deadly snake! How is it that we can convince ourselves that a little sin won’t be so bad? How is it that we don’t recognize when we are sliding down a slippery slope? How is it that we don’t keep ourselves from the traps that he lays? How is it that we actually enjoy indulging in certain sinful things, as all the while Satan laughs that we allow ourselves to be within his reach? Why doesn’t the threat of the Abyss and the second death known as hell terrify us so much that we wouldn’t dare go near that dragon or mess with his sins? Why is it that we almost revel in playing with fire—eternal fire? Why do we let sin be so appealing to us every day when Satan has nothing to offer but Jesus has everything to offer?
So we see this portrait of Jesus our victorious King who holds the keys to death and hell, who has all power over all things including Satan, and we humbly fall before him. We are not worthy to stand in front of so mighty a King. We are not worthy to dare to enter into the presence of such a victorious and glorious God. We should be chained up and locked right in that abyss with that dragon whose company we so often enjoy.
But this is where this painting truly becomes beautiful. Take a step back. Don’t focus on the part of the painting with the dragon. Look at the whole painting, the bigger picture. This is A Portrait of Victory.
That dragon Satan is chained and locked up because Christ has won. He has defeated the devil and rendered him powerless. Christ offers his death to those who are dead in sin. He offers the spiritually dead a new life of forgiveness in his love. He offers us thrones to sit on right now as he places crowns on our undeserving heads and invites us to join him in his glorious reign over all our enemies.
This victory is yours and it’s yours right now. Satan is locked up and chained. He’s powerful, but not more powerful than Jesus. So as we fall at our Savior’s feet because we fell into Satan’s traps again and again, Christ picks us back up, washes us clean in his love once more, puts our crown back on, and sits us back on our thrones. As we know that this chained dragon is still around and lurking and prowling, it is Jesus who will give us the power to overcome temptation. It is Jesus who will give us the power to stay away. It is Jesus who will give us the power to find joy in his kingdom rather than reveling in Satan’s sins.
But that’s not all. This victory is yours not only now. This victory is yours forever. Another reason we know that Jesus’ reign won’t be 1,000 literal years is that it says elsewhere in Revelation that he shall reign forever and ever. Your reign with Christ has only just begun. One day your physical life will end with death. But your reign won’t end there. The second death (hell) has no power over you. That means that your reign will only continue seated on a throne next to Christ who will be on his throne, and we all will reign with him forever and ever.
You know, some people (actually many, many people) become very, very confused by these words of Revelation 20. The problem is that they aren’t seeing this as apocalyptic prophecy, or picture language. They try to read this as a historical account. That Jesus will actually reign for 1,000 years. That he will raise some people in one bodily resurrection, then others in a second resurrection, and so on and so forth.
But when you understand that God painted us a picture to help us understand something profound, these words become majestically beautiful. In simple terms and in simple pictures God reminds us here of a very simple concept: Jesus wins. Jesus has already won. He crushed Satan and locked him up only for final defeat on the Last Lay, which means that Jesus wins forever.
Here’s the best part of this picture: You’re on the winning team. You’ve been raised to life through faith in Christ. One day soon you’ll also rise to eternal life in heaven. Jesus has won. You have won. Now and forever.
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Am I Safe?
Text: Romans 7:1-8
Where were you? That was the big question to ask this last week on Thursday. Where were you 13 years ago on September 11, 2001? Every year Americans take time to reflect upon one of the greatest tragedies on American soil in U.S. history. Some of you were there in New York. Some of you know people who were there in New York. All of us remember where we were, what we were doing, and how we found out.
None of us will forget the feeling either. It was so terrible an attack and so personal an attack and so close to home that no matter how many years pass by we will not forget. The destruction. The dust. The deaths. The sadness. The tears. The anger. The fear. This is the terror that terrorism brings, and we all experienced it personally.
Now here we are 13 years later and still waters are starting to break again. For 13 years we have had relative peace. Yes, there have been attempts at attacks. Yes, there has been war in the Middle East. Yes, soldiers have lost their lives. But we have had relative peace and quiet, especially here in America. Now though, the glassy sea of peace is being disturbed by waves of terrorism.
Our archenemies are at it again. Muslims, worldly enemies to Christians for some 1,400 years, have another faction of militant soldiers taking arms against us. Thirteen years ago it was Al-Qaeda. Today it is Isis. This group is taking up jihad—holy war—in active, aggressive, and frightening ways. They are hunting down Christians. They are marking their homes with that U-shaped symbol you may have seen (which stands for the word Nazarene in Arabic). Men, women, even children are not safe as they are brutally slaughtering any they find. The public nature of these attacks and the video footage they purposefully share strikes fear. Now rumors are spreading about Isis living among us in the United States and immanent and impending attacks. There’s a reason they are called terror-ists. It makes a Christian wonder. Am I Safe? Read the rest of this entry
Praise the King of Kings and Lord of Lords
Text: Revelation 19:11-16
There’s nothing easy about being a Christian. We are living in a world where we are the vast minority. Christians are outnumbered almost three to one on this planet. To make it more challenging, we are left to believe in and defend Jesus whom we cannot see and whom we have never seen. We speak about and believe in a God that we only partly understand. That’s not easy.
The disciples had it made compared to us. They got to walk and talk with Jesus. They could see him, listen to him, eat with him, touch him. They were eyewitnesses to his miracles, his death, his resurrection. They saw Jesus ascend into heaven. We Christians would give anything to do that!
Yet many of the disciples were left with questions. They were unsure of being left behind. They were unsure of being alone. They were unsure of how they were going to carry out their task of making other disciples. So if those eyewitness disciples were left with questions or doubts in their minds, how much more difficult is it for us who have never seen Jesus before!
It shakes our confidence at times. There is so much evil around us. Terrible things are happening every day. And because we can’t see Jesus we feel alone and helpless.
Today we receive just the encouragement we need. The apostle John shares his vision of our great King and Lord Jesus Christ. This vision gives us courage and comfort to Praise the King of Kings and Lord of Lords for what he has done, for what he does now, and for what he will do. Read the rest of this entry
6th Sunday of Easter
Jesus is Here!
1. With his rebuke
2. With his riches
3. With his reward
Text: Revelation 3:14-22
I always know when trouble is happening. All parents know when something is going down in the house. What’s the telltale sign? It’s quiet. Too quiet. Normally the kids are loud or rowdy or pretending they are Batman or Dora. But suddenly you realize it is abnormally quiet. Too quiet.
“Gwendolyn, what are you doing?” “Nuffin’.” “Gwendolyn, what are you doing in there?” “Nuffin.’” “Gwendolyn, tell me what’s going on!” “Don’t worry about it!” (That is an actual conversation that has taken place far too many times lately.) Those are the times that the parent walks into a room and sees every drawer pulled out of every dresser and every piece of clothing piled up in a fort, or all of mommy’s makeup on the child’s face and on the floor.
The same things happen in schools. The teacher turns the back for one second and things start flying through the air. A teacher steps out for one second to discipline a studen and all the others think it’s party time. The teacher is correcting papers at the desk and the students think there is no way they will be caught passing a note, or these days, sneaking off a couple text messages. Then the teacher turns to look and suddenly everyone sits up straight and holds up a book—as if that isn’t completely obvious!
It’s amazing what kids think they can get away with. It’s as if they think they are above the law or immune to punishment. It’s as if they think they are untouchable. It’s as if they think they will never get caught and no one will ever know. But we parents, we teachers, have eyes in the back of our heads. We see everything. We know everything. We will always find out the truth. We will always catch them. They will never get away with anything! Read the rest of this entry