Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The circumstances of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25)

I wonder where or how Joseph proposed to Mary. It looks from the rest of the Gospels that he was older than her, perhaps by twenty years or more. Whenever it happened, he would have been very happy. He was a devout man and the Lord had provided for him a devout person as his future wife. Then he heard that the unexpected, even the unthinkable, had happened. His future wife was pregnant, which for Joseph could only mean one thing – Mary had been unfaithful. We can imagine his surprise and shock. 

We can excuse Joseph for responding in this way, but the question does arise as to how we should respond when we read these verses. Our response should not be that the miracle has yet to come, when the infant is born. Instead we should rejoice that the miracle has happened already inside Mary’s womb – the Incarnation occurred when Jesus was conceived. We can do what Joseph could not do and turn elsewhere in the New Testament and see what it says about the miracle.

When we do, we discover that the persons of the Trinity were involved. This is another reminder that Christians should always be Trinitarians. The two mysteries of our faith (the three persons in the Trinity and the two natures in Jesus) appear together here, as it were, as they do on other occasions in the Gospels when the authors focus on specific experiences of the Saviour, such as at his baptism or when he was on the cross. Matthew mentions the activity of the Holy Spirit, as does Luke in his account. 

The Book of Hebrews records the Son saying to the Father, ‘A body you have prepared for me.’ It is best to see this as the Father planning the human nature of Jesus – this body and soul were going to experience incredible things – think of the Transfiguration and what happened to it when he was on the cross. The Father planned the amazing beauty of the perfect man, but he was also going to give to his Son the most awful burden – our sin – to carry away.

The work of the Holy Spirit was to fashion the human nature of Jesus in the womb of Mary – Luke uses the word ‘overshadow’ to describe what took place. Everything that Jesus would become was woven by the Spirit into what he was putting together. We are not to imagine a period during which he did this fashioning. Instead we are to remember that the Son united himself instantaneously with the human nature the Father planned and the Spirit produced.

What are we to make of poor Mary? We know what Joseph mistakenly thought, but do we give her thought? The Son of God was not placed within her without being affected by her. She contributed in maternal ways to the humanity of her Son. This was God’s planning. If Jesus had been born of another woman, he would probably have looked different. Maybe he would have a different colour of eyes or of his hair. Of course, he was not affected by her sinfulness. 

Yet there she was, in a situation of confusion and rejection. It is true that she knew the whole story, but who would believe her? It does not look as if Joseph even asked her what had happened. Instead he made his plans, but it was good for Mary that God could intervene on her behalf. There is a lesson here for us. If we are being misrepresented, leave it with God to sort out.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The greatest birth (Matthew 1:18-25)

The birth of Jesus is a great mystery. In fact, it is generally regarded as one of two great mysteries of the Christian faith – they are the mystery of three persons in the Trinity and the mystery of two natures in the person of Christ. Saying that there are two great mysteries does not mean that there are only two because, as we know, there are many mysteries connected to the Christian faith. Nevertheless, the Trinity and the Incarnation are obviously very deep.

The appropriate response to both mysteries is twofold: first, there should be worship and, second, we should try and grow in our understanding of each. The approach must be done in that order – if we try to learn without worship, we will not learn anything of value. It will only be theories, even if we are correct in our explanations. The obvious example of this is the great difference between Herod, who learned nothing of the meaning of the coming of Jesus despite being informed about what the Scriptures had to say about the location of the birth of the Messiah, and the wise men who worshipped the infant Saviour.

The mystery of the Incarnation is made more mysterious because although it was a miracle it was also a humiliation. From one point of view, what had seemed impossible – the coming together of deity and humanity in one person, the Son of God – would have been expected to result in adulation and esteem by those who heard about it, and that this amazing person then would have been given a very pre-eminent place. We know that eventually Jesus would receive the place of honour from the Father at the ascension, but before then it was one stage of humiliation after another.

Having said that it was a mystery, we can also see that the biblical description is very matter-of-fact, which could seem surprising given its importance. We might have wished that Matthew had given more details in his brief account of this incredible event. Instead he begins, ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.’ Yet we must admit that the Bible is very matter-of-fact in how it describes important events. This is how the week of creation is described in Genesis 1. It is also how the story of the Day of Pentecost is told in Acts 2. And we know it is how the Bible describes the Day of Judgement. The fact is, a real miracle requires no exaggeration. Instead, the policy on such occasions is, Say it as it is. 

Of course, we can also see that Matthew can pack a lot into a sentence. When he wrote, ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way,’ he is saying, ‘Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.’ Two details of this statement can be pointed out. First, the word translated ‘birth’ is not the usual word for birth. Instead it is a word that points to origins, so it looks as if Matthew is pointing out to his readers that the way Jesus came into the world was different. Second, with regard to him calling Jesus the Messiah, one would expect his readers to say to themselves something like this: ‘All the details of the Messiah are given to us in the Old Testament. What does the Old Testament say about his birth?’

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The uniqueness of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17)

The first verse of Matthew 1 stresses that Jesus is unique. It is likely that a Jew who knew the Old Testament would be very excited when he first read this opening sentence of Matthew. We should imagine one such person receiving this gospel or hearing it read. The first verse would grab his attention and he would say to himself, ‘I am going to be told how Jesus becomes the fulfilment of what was promised to Abraham and David.’

Four names are used of Jesus in verse 1. First, there is his name Jesus, which was chosen for him by God. It means that salvation is of the Lord. A reader might say, ‘How will he bring that about?’ Matthew will tell us that Jesus will do so by going to the cross and suffering there instead of sinners. Such a competence makes Jesus unique because he is the only Saviour for sinners.

Second, there is the name Christ, which means ‘anointed one’. The Jewish reader would know that in the Old Testament it was predicted that the Messiah would be anointed with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Isa. 11:2).  We can assume that the reader would be curious when this would happen, and Matthew will inform him of that Jesus, when he was baptised by John, received the Spirit in a special way and began to perform miracles and engage in other activities connected to the coming of the Spirit.

Third, Jesus is referred to as the son of David, which is a reminder that he would be a King. The reader would wonder when Jesus became King and from where he would rule. Imagine his surprise to read later on that Jesus would become King after he rose from the dead and have all power given to him.

Fourth, Jesus is the son of Abraham, not only because he is a descendant of Abraham, but also because he fulfils the promise that was made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 and elsewhere that all people would be blessed by God through what would be achieved by the Seed of Abraham. 

At the end of Matthew, we have what is often called the Great Commission. Its details are connected to Jesus being the son of David and the son of Abraham. We can see a reference to him as the King when he says that all power is given to him in heaven and on earth, and we see a reference to him as the son of Abraham when he tells his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations.  

This name of Jesus is a permanent name. He is always going to be the Saviour anointed with the Spirit, reigning for ever on the throne of David, and bringing blessings on a universal scale. I suspect we are so familiar with this set of names that we don’t experience the impact that our unknown reader would have had when he first read them.

In addition, this name or set of names of Jesus is precious because each of them describes what he does for his people. They look at him with gratitude and confess that his name is as ointment poured forth, very fragrant. And because that is the case, his name is peerless, and they magnify and exalt him, glad to know that he is supreme throughout the heavens and the earth.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Listening to the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17)

We can see in this genealogy a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53 that the Messiah would be numbered with the transgressors. Of course, this prediction is fulfilled in a variety of ways, such as when Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan and when he was numbered with the criminals at the cross. And it is also fulfilled here because every person, apart from Jesus, who is mentioned in the list was a transgressor of God’s law. It is even possible for us to look at Old Testament passages and see what some of those sins were.

It has often been pointed out that Matthew mentions four women in the list – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. We might be surprised at the women he does not mention – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, for example. Regarding the women he mentions, it is often said that there are question marks about their characters. I don’t think Matthew stresses that aspect. It is likely that Tamar and Rahab were immoral, but we cannot say that there was anything immoral about Ruth. Bathsheba was compelled by royal demand to yield to the intentions of David. Rather than highlight their sinfulness, I would suggest that the inclusion of them highlights their outsidedness and their weakness. 

We know that Tamar, Rahab and Ruth were Gentiles, and it is possible that Bathsheba was as well given that she was married previously to Uriah the Hittite. Here we are given an insight into the plan of God, which was to include Gentiles in his kingdom. 

Moreover, each of those women was vulnerable: Tamar had been abandoned, Rahab was in danger of perishing in Jericho, Ruth was a widow with no prospects in a strange land, and Bathsheba was the victim of a royal whim. Yet they found a place in God’s programme, a reminder that he shows grace to the unworthy. They were taken from the place of being nobodies and were made recipients of honour by God.

What else does the genealogy remind us of? We can see connected to it the patience of God regarding the right time for Jesus to come into the world. As Paul writes in Galatians 4:4-6: ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.’ No doubt, the Lord had many reasons for choosing the moment of the birth of the Messiah.

We also see connected to it the fact that the Lord is interested in people. It is likely that we would be unable to say very much about the names mentioned here. Yet the Lord knows who they were. Not all of them would be regarded as true believers in Jesus – for example, Jeconiah was cursed by God, but many of them were. Their names may be forgotten even by those who read their stories in the Bible, but their God never forgets them.

Moreover, we are reminded here that the Lord can protect his plans no matter how dangerous a situation becomes. If there ever was a threat to the royal line disappearing into oblivion, it was during the time the people of God were in exile in Babylon. Yet even then the Lord preserved the record of the line from whom the Messiah would eventually come. 

The genealogy also reminds us that the sins of believers cannot prevent the fulfilment of God’s intentions, even although the sin had sad consequences for the guilty person. David sinned regarding Bathsheba, and we might imagine that any child coming from that relationship would be ignored by God. Yet we see that Solomon, instead of being allotted a place elsewhere, becomes the next person in the genealogy. All we can say as we look at this is, ‘The Lord is wise and gracious.’

The genealogy also reminds us that the Lord is a covenant God. We see this in the first verse where reference is made to two covenants, those with Abraham and David. This is a reminder that he never forgets his promises and that we should not judge situations by what we can see. When did it ever look as if the Lord would fulfil his promises? Even the best of the people mentioned in the list failed in one way or another. But it was not dependent on human faithfulness, but on the promise and power of God. No doubt, many devout persons prayed earnestly for the Lord of the covenant to keep his covenants with Abraham and David.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17)

Matthew wrote his Gospel initially for Jewish readers. There was a tradition in the early church that he originally wrote it in Hebrew and afterwards wrote the same account in Greek. Whether that tradition is true or not does not really matter. We can easily see from the way he writes his account that Matthew wants to remind his readers that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament predictions in different ways, and those prophecies would be common knowledge among Jews. The likelihood of a Jewish readership is also seen in that Matthew links Jesus to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and to David, the first king of Israel. Both Abraham and David had received promises from God about their descendants.

As we can see, Matthew begins his account of the ministry of Jesus by referring to his genealogy. To us, this may seem a strange way of writing an account of his life. I have many biographies at home and none of them begin by mentioned the ancestors of the person whose life is being told. It was very different with the Jews. They valued their ancestry, and we know that several of them appear in the Old Testament.

This is not the only genealogy of Jesus in the Bible. Luke provides one as well (Luke 3:27-35). There are some differences between them, and this is explained by saying that one of them is the line of Joseph and the other is the line of Mary. Both Joseph and Mary were descended from David, but not from the same son of David. Here the son of David that is mentioned is Solomon and in Luke the Son of David that is mentioned is Nathan. Luke also traces the line of Jesus back to Adam whereas Matthew only goes as far back as Abraham. Generally, it is assumed that Matthew gives the line through Joseph and Luke gives the line through Mary, although it could be the other way round. We know that Matthew left some names out of his genealogy (for example, several kings of Judah are omitted, but he does not tell us why they were omitted). 

Many Jewish family lists were lost in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple in which many of the lists were kept. Both Matthew and Luke were written before AD 70 and it would have been possible for Matthew and Luke to find the genealogies there if they wanted to do so. One interesting aspect of the genealogies of Jesus is that none are given later. There is a message in this in itself because we can see that one purpose of the Old Testament genealogies was to preserve the family lines from which the Messiah would come – he would be a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David. Once he was born, there is no longer a need for biblical genealogies. 

Matthew divides his list into three sections: from Abraham to David, from David to the exile in Babylon, and from Babylon to Jesus. What is the significance of his division? I would suggest that he is saying something about the state of kingship in Israel. The first division is preparation for the coming of the right King (which was David, not Saul), the second is the list of the kings that descended from David, and the third describes Israel in land without a King, even although they had a royal line. But Matthew has good news for his readers when he says in verse 13 that the permanent King, that is the Messiah, has arrived.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The New Jerusalem - the street of the city (Rev. 22:1-5)

The angel takes John to the most important place of the city, which is the throne of God and of the Lamb. They are depicted as a shared fountain, which is the source of life for the inhabitants of the city. The water of life could be a reference to the Holy Spirit or it could be a reference to what the Holy Spirit brings to the city. This river reaches all the inhabitants – there is only one street on which they all live and the river keeps flowing, bringing the riches of God’s grace to all of his people.

John has already been told about the street in 21:21 where he was told it was made of gold. One assumes that the street is as long and as wide as the city. This would mean gold everywhere, which is a way of saying that the church will be ablaze with glory. What is rare here – gold – is used to depict how wonderful and great the life of the church will be there.

The street of the city contains a very large tree which extends over the river and covers each side of the street along its length, which means that it will be accessible to all the inhabitants of the city simultaneously. It looks as if the tree is likened to a shade, a reminder that the church then will be a place where all is comfortable.

Moreover, this tree of life bears fruit continually, on which the inhabitants can feed. There is nothing wasteful about this tree – even its leaves ensure healing. Leaves were a kind of medicine in the ancient world. I don’t think John is suggesting that any of the inhabitants can become ill; instead, he is saying that as long as they use the tree of life they will be healthy, which is what they will delight to do.

I suspect that access to the tree of life is a reminder of the fullness of eternal life. In Eden, Adam and Eve were barred from eating of the tree of life because it would have meant for them an eternal existence without hope. In contrast, because God’s people will have been restored to glory, it will be safe to have eternal life

Then John describes the activities of the members of the church now that the curse has gone. They shall be before the throne and engage in constant worship of God through the Lamb. Their worship in this life did involve access to the throne and adoration of its divine occupants. Yet it was often done as if they were in the night, unable to understand fully what they were doing and what God was revealing. In the eternal world, the members of the church will have full access to God through the Lamb. The light they will have will be direct, unlike light through a creation of God (the sun) or through what they made themselves (a lamp).

Unlike what happened to Adam in the original temple in Eden, the members of the church of Christ will never lose their royal status and they will reign for ever and ever. Throughout eternity to come, they will be the royal priesthood serving God through the leadership of their Mediator, their Prophet, Priest and King.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The New Jerusalem – the residents of the city (21:24-27)

John is then told that the light given to the church will influence all the nations as well as those who have authority (kings). Who are these nations and who are the kings? They are not enemy nations or hostile kings. I would suggest that the nations and the kings refer to the people of God. Here we have a fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham about the nations and royal descendants.

The people of God can be described in numerous ways. When they are described as nations, we are reminded that there will be people there from all the nations of the world and that in some way their sinless national features will remain. Yet there is not a hierarchy of nations, as if one ethnic group is more important than another.

When they are described as kings, we are reminded of the status they have – they reign with Jesus – and the focus is on their individual contributions to the life of the church as it will exist then (they bring their glory into the city). In the eternal world, there will be harmony and activity.

We are then told about two aspects of earthly life that will not exist in the church in eternity. First, there will be no night. Night-time was when the gates of a city were shut because that was the time when enemies could sneak in under the cover of darkness. In this life, the church often has nights when her enemies cause havoc. But that will not happen in the world to come.

Moreover, nothing unclean will enter the city, and this term describes people who engage in sinful practices. This is a reminder that the members of the church will then be entirely holy. In this life, it is often the case that tares are mixed up with the wheat and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between them. Nothing sinful will exist in the future perfect church.

John is reminded that there is an exact register of the inhabitants of the city. I suppose we are being told the same point as is stated when mentioning the unclean. It is possible to be on a church roll and not to be listed in the book of life. Again, in the ancient world, the authorities did not know exactly who lived within a city (a bit like the problem today connected to immigration). But the names of the church in eternity will correspond to the Lamb’s book of life. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The New Jerusalem – some features (Rev. 21:9-23)

John is given an expanded description of the church which was briefly given to him by the angel 1n 21:2. There he was told that the church was both a bride and a city, a reminder that she has a loving relationship with Jesus and is also a dwelling place with structures.

John has a similar experience to that of the prophet Ezekiel when he was taken to a high mountain to see what God was doing with his people (Ezek. 40:2). We will see the need for a very high mountain for John when we are told the size of the divine city – one would need a special viewpoint from which to see it. The dimensions here make those seen by Ezekiel seem small.

The first detail we are told about the church is its origin – it comes down from God in heaven, although we are not told to where. Probably, we are to assume that it descends on to the new earth. Moreover, it is described as very bright because it possesses the glory of God (21:10-11). What this means will be revealed later in the description.

We are then told that the city had a high wall with twelve gates (21:12-14). Usually a wall was built for defence purposes, so maybe John is being reminded that the city of God has a secure defence. In addition, each of the gates has an angel standing at it, and I suppose we could deduce that he is there to keep out those who should not get in. This does not mean that any enemy will try and do so. Rather it is an illustration of permanent safety.

The gates are named after the twelve tribes and the foundations of the wall are named after the twelve apostles, and this could be a reminder that God’s people from all dispensations are one. Moreover, the geography of the city indicates that the church is central to whatever plans God has in the world to come – it equally faces all directions. His people will be involved in the outworking of his eternal purpose. We are not told what we will be doing, although earlier in the book we are told that the church will be following the Lamb wherever he goes. Because he is central, his people will be central with him.

The gates and the foundations of the wall, the wall itself and the street of the city are likened to precious jewels (21:18-21). Each gate is a pearl and each foundation stone is linked to a jewel. This probably points to the inestimable value of the people of God as well as to the brightness connected to their glorification. One Old Testament verse that comes to mind is from Malachi where the prophet speaks about the Lord collecting his jewels on the day that he returns the second time.

The measurements of the city indicate that it is very large (21:15-22). Twelve thousand stadia is about fourteen hundred miles. Its length, width and height are the same. On our earth, such a city extends beyond our atmosphere. What can we deduce from such dimensions? Obviously, a large number of people can live in it. The fact that it is a cube reminds us of another important cube in the Bible, which is the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was where God dwelt in the midst of his people in the temple. Now the whole city, the church, is the temple and God Almighty and the Lamb (the Father and the Son) dwells within the church. The bigness of the city surely points to the bigness of God.

John is reminded that the church is not a physical creation dependant on natural light (21:23). I don’t think verse 23 is stating that the sun and moon will not exist after the renewal of all things, although they may not be in the new universe. Instead we are reminded that the light found in the church is different from physical light. Rather the light that God’s people will experience comes from their union with God

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The voice of the Father (Revelation 21:5-8)

John has seen that the new earth has become the dwelling place of God and it will be the place where the comfort of God is experienced in its deepest way. But as yet there does not seem to be anything for the people of God to see. Then they hear the voice of the heavenly Father saying from the throne, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ I think it is the Father who is speaking here because it is the same person who speaks the next couple of sayings, and the third one indicates that it has been the Father who is speaking.

There is a marked contrast with the process that God followed in Genesis 1. At the beginning, God took a week to make the perfect world. On this occasion, when the new beginning occurs, he speaks the word and the whole space is remade. We are not told what will be there. Instead we are told that everything will be new, fit for the Saviour and his people to enjoy forever. It is usual in the Bible for its readers not to be told about the details of heaven.

It looks as if John had been so overwhelmed by what he had just seen that he had stopped recording what he was viewing. So he is told to resume recording. Maybe he had a look of astonishment on his face because he is told that what he has been told is reliable and accurate.

The voice from heaven concludes with words of great encouragement for God’s people and with a list of those who will be in the place of punishment. The encouragement begins with an announcement of completion – ‘It is done.’ Maybe this is a reference to the completion of the salvation of sinners because those saved are now in God’s presence. It is a plural pronoun, pointing to the idea that everything has been completed.

Then the divine speaker says who he is. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters in the Greek language and here mean the same as the beginning and the end. The Lord does not mean that he had a beginning and will have an end. Instead, this title is a way of saying that he is eternal. He existed before the beginning and will exist after everything else has had its day. Moreover, the title is a reminder that he is the sovereign of time and of all that happens within it. He decides when something begins and ends. He did so with regard to the first heaven and earth, and now he begins the new heaven and new earth.

He mentions that in the world to come, he will give the water of life to the thirsty. This refers to a spiritual longing being satisfied. The water of life is a reference to God and the grace he provides – he is the fountain of living waters. We were made to know God, not only intellectually, but also experientially. This experience is connected to all believers entering into the fullness of adoption, of life in the family of God. The new universe is their inheritance which they will enjoy forever. This fits in with what Paul says in Romans 8 will be the experience of the Lord’s people when they are glorified with the Lord.

We are told about the future in order for us to have spiritual comfort and not to satisfy unbecoming curiosity. Therefore we should express our gratitude to the Lord for revealing these details to us. Whatever we may be going through, we can turn to this brief passage and focus our minds on the certainties that lie ahead for the people of God. For them to know that they will be with him in a new world is amazing.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The voice of Jesus (Revelation 21:3-4)

We now hear several utterances and the first speaker seems to be Jesus because he is distinguished from God, which is usually the way the Father is described. Yet since the voice comes from God’s throne, the speaker must be divine. So I think the Saviour is speaking here. 

The announcement concerns the quality of life that will be experienced in the new world. First, God has a new dwelling place. Obviously, since the Lord is omnipresent, it does not mean he is confined to this new location. But this new location will be where he reveals his glory in particular ways to those with whom he will dwell.

The new earth is the place where the covenant of God is fulfilled. We know that the story of the Bible is God looking for a people, his people. Abraham was called to become the one through whom the worldwide family would come; the vision was enlarged through the creation of Israel who were intended to be a light to the nations; then Jesus came and sent out his servants to gather in the number that none can count. Yet the obvious detail about the people of God is that they were never all together on this earth. But they will be together in the new earth and they will be so forever. It will be amazing to see God’s covenant intentions fulfilled exactly.

The new earth is the place where the effects of sin are removed. What is life like in this world? Sorrow, weeping and pain. How you ever counted how many sad faces appear on our news programmes? Such things will not exist in the ages to come on the new earth. We know that God could deal with those memories in more than one way. He could use his power to wipe them from our minds and arrange for a communal forgetfulness. Yet would that be a fatherly way to do so? Or he could deal with us personally and spend a couple of seconds with each of his people.

That would be effective, but it is not what Jesus says will happen. Instead, God will wipe away every tear. If we saw a child crying, or a widow mourning, and the would-be comforter did not spend much time with them, we would not regard him as much of a comforter. But if he spent as long a time as was necessary to go through the process, we would call him a man with a heart. If a creature can do this, how much more can God do? He will take the time to deal with all the issues that caused distress to his people.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

New earth, no sea and a city (Revelation 21:1-8)

Many people are frightened by what they imagine is over the horizon. The future is unknown, and they prefer the confusion of an uncertain present to thinking about the world that is to come. Yet God in his love and mercy sent to John a message about the future that was conveyed to him by his Saviour, Jesus. It is beneficial to imagine how joyful Jesus would have been as he revealed to his servant some of the things that would shortly come to pass.

John now sees a new universe. The sea has passed away, along with the first earth. Clearly, the absence of the sea is significant, because its absence is highlighted by John. The sea was regarded at that time as a place of danger and of separation, and as far as John and his fellow exiles were concerned it ensured their confinement in exile. Moreover, the horrid beast who had instigated the persecution of the church had arisen from the sea. All those reasons would have caused John to rejoice that the sea would be no more.

Maybe there is an allusion here to Genesis 1, where when God started his work of creation, it was all sea, yet with the progression of days the space allotted to the waters was reduced. The sea at the beginning was not a suitable place for humans to dwell, so land had to be formed. But now there is a new world about to begin and the sea has gone, with all its negative influences.

Yet at this stage the new earth has nothing on it. The first event that John sees with regard to the new earth is that the people of God come to inhabit it. They are described as the holy city and we are told that they are dressed for a wedding, which is a reminder how she was attired for the marriage supper of the Lamb that is described in chapter 19. This wedding occasion is going to be endless. The heaven that she comes from is not the sky, but rather the heaven where God dwells.

There may be another contrast here with what happened at the beginning. In Genesis 1, the man and the woman were created last and they did not see God’s previous works of creation. However, in this passage, before anything is formed, the King and his bride are brought together, meaning that they will observe whatever is made subsequently by God.

The picture of a city reminds us that the people of God are a community that is organised. Calling it a city has been common throughout the Bible. Abraham looked ahead to it, a psalmist sang about it Psalm 87, and Ezekiel prophesied about its coming and reminded his listeners that its significant reality would be that the Lord is there. Of course, the first city was erected by Cain to celebrate the triumph of man, but at the end it will have no celebrations. The final city, however, will celebrate the grace and abilities of God.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Revelation 20 – four thoughts

It looks to me that here John uses the word resurrection to describe heaven and the word ‘death’ to describe the places where sin will abound (whether on earth today or in the lake of fire). He does not say that the first resurrection is spiritual regeneration, which is how we often use it. Instead he uses it to describe what happens to the martyrs when their souls get to heaven and are crowned. Other believers also experience the first resurrection when their souls enter heaven.

The thousand years does not refer to a literal millennium – instead it covers the length of time between when Jesus bound the devil until shortly before he returns as judge. Nor does the thousand years refer to what happens in a restored holy land – instead it covers everything that happens anywhere between the binding and the final rebellion. Today we are living somewhere in the thousand years. It is not a literal number, but a symbolic one.

As far as the binding of Satan is concerned, Jesus gave foretastes of it during his years of public ministry. He showed he could the devil during the temptations in the wilderness and every time he delivered someone from demon possession. When his disciples were used to deliver someone from demon possession, it was evidence of the Saviour’s ability to bind the devil. Paul says in Colossians 2:15 that when Jesus was on the cross he made a public display of the devil’s defeat.

I would suggest that the aim of this chapter is twofold. One is to show the completeness of the victory of God illustrated by the binding of the devil, the defeat of the rebellious army, and the verdicts from the great white throne. The other is the glory enjoyed in heaven by departed saints, whether or not they were martyrs. They are blessed beyond words. They are perfect in holiness and they function as priests and kings in the presence of Jesus.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The victory of God (Revelation 20:7-15)

Earlier John had been told that the devil would be released for a little while after the period represented by the thousand years was over. Within that brief period, the devil deceives the nations and leads them in an attack on the kingdom of Jesus. The imagery is taken from the book of Ezekiel where Gog and Magog attacked the holy land and were destroyed there by God. A similar outcome occurs here, with the devil’s army destroyed, and he is given special punishment, similar to how the beast and false prophet were dealt with. This is obviously not a literal battlefield. The people of God are not located in a literal camp and city.

Yet we can learn some important truths from this description. First, God is going to have complete victory. Second, large numbers of people will be willing to join an attempt to dethrone God. Third, however bad things are today from a spiritual point of view, they can get a lot worse.

Then John is given an awesome description of the final judgement day. It will be a day of cosmic upheaval. The description is of an ancient trial in which a king judges his enemies. Unlike our trials, there is not a jury. Everyone who is at it is described as dead – they have experienced the first death because they are about to experience the second death. They have undergone a physical resurrection, and all will be there no matter how their lives ended. Evidence will be presented about their lives – this is the point of the books – and each is judged for his or her own actions.

Some matters to observe are these. First, there is the awesomeness of the Judge – his presence causes disturbances. This is probably a description of Jesus, although it could be a reference to the Father. Second, there is the accuracy of the book of life – only those whose names are in it will not be punished by the Judge. Third, there is the size of the assembly – all those who have defied God are there.

Fourth, there is the complete triumph of God – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the last enemy that will be destroyed is death and here it and the temporary place of the dead are overthrown (tossed into the lake of fire). There will be found the beast (the political opponents), the false prophet (the religious opponents), the devil (the leader of the opponents), death (the consequence of the opponents’ practices) and the place of the dead (Hades) – all of them will experience the second death forever. Jesus will have defeated them all. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

Reigning with Jesus (Revelation 20:4-6)

John sees thrones but we are not told where they are located. Given that the description is similar to previous descriptions of the heavenly throne room, it is likely that John was shown what was taking place in heaven at that time.

He saw rulers, which may be a reference to angels, but more likely refers to believers who have died. Then he mentions those who had been martyred for the sake of Jesus (including John’s own brother James). They reign with Jesus during the thousand years.

Their coming to life is said to be the first resurrection, yet what is surprising about them is that John does not see their bodies. Instead he sees their souls. This also would suggest that the location of the thrones is heaven.

Here we have information about what the righteous dead are engaged in during this period of a thousand years. In heaven, they function as priests and kings. As priests, they participate in the worship of God and of Christ, and as kings they reign with Jesus.

We don’t know what or how those contributions take place. Yet we can deduce several details from the description. First, they are conscious, involved in the life of heaven. Second, they are consecrated to divine service. Third, they will experience the work of the Spirit – this is implied in their roles as kings and priests because such were anointed for their tasks. Fourth, they have communion with God and with Jesus.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The binding of the devil (Revelation 20:1-3)

The meaning of the thousand years is very much discussed today. How should we interpret the passage? It helps us to see what is happening when we realise that four different events are described in the chapter and we will focus on each of them briefly. They are (1) the binding of the devil, (2) the reign of the martyrs, (3) the defeat of God’s enemies and (4) the day of judgement. We will consider the first today and the others tomorrow.

What is meant by the curtailing of the devil? In the account, he is chained and thrown into a bottomless pit and a secure lid is placed over it. The imagery of this pit suggests that devil finds it impossible to get out of this curtailment. He is always falling down the pit, and even if he managed to reverse this he cannot get past the lid. The reason why he is placed within this pit is to prevent him from deceiving the nations for the period of the thousand years.

We should ask a couple of questions at this stage. First, when was the period when the devil deceived the nations? One answer would be that he did so during the centuries before Jesus came. Since Jesus ascended to heaven and began to build his worldwide church, it cannot be said that all the nations are deceived. So we can deduce that during that period the devil is prevented from hindering the complete spread of the gospel.

A second question concerns the nature of the binding. If the period of the church is the same as the thousand years, we can see lots of places where the devil seems to hold millions in spiritual blindness. The binding does not mean that he is inactive. Instead it means that he cannot do what he used to do. God limits the range of the devil’s influence.

Here, the devil is said to be the ancient serpent mentioned in Genesis 3 as the creature who tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. On that occasion, the Lord announced that a Champion would come and defeat the serpent. That prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus defeated the devil at the cross.

There are several comforts that we can take from this reality. First, the binding is evidence that God is in control. Second, the activity of Jesus on the cross included defeating the devil and the removal of his power over the nations. Jesus did defeat the powers of darkness when he was on the cross, as Paul states in Colossians 2:15. Third, during this long period represented by the thousand years, the gospel will triumph among the nations as the kingdom of Jesus progresses.  

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Final Battle (Rev. 19:11-21)

John hears a second invitation to a supper, this time a very different supper from the marriage supper of the Lamb, and this time a call to birds of carrion to have a very large meal. It is pictured by use of a description of an ancient battlefield.

We are told the outcome in terms of that kind of situation, not the processes of the battle. John mentions the gathering together of the enemy forces, and then describes their destruction. He may want to stress how weak they were against Jesus even when gathered together. The leaders of the enemy are captured alive and then given a special punishment and the troops that followed them are all slain. We have a description of what will be the state of things regarding his opponents once Jesus has finished his campaign for righteousness.

We should remember that the beast and the false prophet don’t refer to specific individuals but to the political and religious systems that opposed the reign of the King. Their being thrown into the lake of fire tells us that their influence will come to an end and will never reappear. Those who followed them will all be destroyed by the word of the King, which is a graphic way of him pronouncing judgement and experiencing total victory. We are not to deduce that the statement of them being slain suggest annihilation in the sense of avoiding conscious eternal punishment – that would be to take a detail of the illustration and make it contradict clear statements elsewhere in the Bible.

We can take a message of hope from this passage because Jesus is going to win. He will fulfil all the promises made about the conquering Messiah. Sometimes he conquers sinners graciously. The rest will be defeated by him. At the end of the day, or should we say the night, he will emerge totally triumphant.

We should always remember too that all attempts to defeat Jesus will fail. It does not matter how strong they seem. This is one way we can look at history. Consider how powerful the enemies of Jesus seemed in the past at different times. Then consider how powerful his contemporary enemies appear to be. This passage shows how impotent they are against Jesus even when they are all gathered together.

Moreover, Jesus is going to win by himself. The description presents a group of powerful people ranged against the Saviour. Yet it does not matter how many of them there are. They may be mighty, but he is always almighty. He has defeated many and will defeat the rest through his divine authority.

Yet Jesus is going to associate his people with him in his victory. They are described in this passage as marching behind him. Yet they don’t contribute much to the victory and nothing apart from the King. Any involvement they have requires his power to implement it. This is how we are to understand this holy war.

Friday, 18 August 2017

What the King does (Rev. 19:11-21)

John is given another vision of the war that is taking place between Jesus and his opponents. It is not a literal war – after all Jesus does not ride into battle sitting on a horse. Instead what we have here is a description of Jesus and his eventual victory over all his enemies.

Several interpreters regard this passage as focussing entirely on the second coming of Jesus, with the Saviour being presented as marching out to the Battle of Armageddon or to the Day of Judgement. It is obvious that the passage ends with a description of a final conflict, but it seems to me that the previous part of the passage is concerned with the age-long spiritual war that Jesus had been engaged in since his ascension and enthronement.

Yesterday we thought about what this passage says about four names of Jesus mentioned in it. Today, we can think about some other details in the passage. First, John observes that Jesus is seated on a white horse and this posture is a threatening one. Military commanders often rode on white horses into battle. Jesus is not described as about to take part in a ceremonial parade. Rather he is on the march in a war. When did this war begin? It commenced with his ascension and will last until all his enemies are defeated.

What would a commander need in ancient warfare? He would need good eyesight to observe everything that his opponents were planning and to see what would be the best positions to fight from. Moreover, he would need to have authority from his king or emperor to engage in whatever strategy he chose to implement. When it comes to the leader of God’s army, Jesus has unusual vision because not only does see all things visible he can also see all things invisible. Therefore, his enemies can hide nothing from him. Indeed, he knows all possible responses by them as well as all actual activities in which they engage.

How much authority does Jesus have? In the vision, he has many crowns on his head. Of course, in real life, a king can only wear one crown at a time. Yet it is possible to be the ruler of more than one kingdom, and some monarchs have a list of countries over which they rule. Jesus having many crowns in the vision is a way of saying that he has full authority, and he has received this authority from his Father. The Saviour is not like the beast who wore temporary crowns, with temporary describing a very brief period in contrast to the permanence of the reign of Jesus.

What is he wearing? John sees that the royal robe of Jesus is bloodstained and is connected to the prophecy of the Messiah in Isaiah 63 where the prophet predicts that he would defeat the enemies of his kingdom. This would suggest that the war had started, and what John sees is a king already engaged in battle, with the blood of his opponents already on his garments. From an external viewpoint, the persecution that was affecting John and other believers at that time did not seem as if Jesus was doing much to prevent what was happening. But that assessment would only be made by those who could not see the full situation. In contrast, the king was at war already defeating some of his opponents.

What about his army? We are told that his soldiers are holy and pure, riding on white horses. It is difficult to work out if these soldiers are angels or saints. Elsewhere in the book, angels are depicted as riding on horses. Recorded in the Bible are numerous occasions when angels dealt with the enemies of God’s people. Yet the description of the army is similar to how believers are described in the preceding section about those called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. So I would say that here we have a picture of the justified people of God engaged in righteous activities, because that is how they engage the enemy. They do so by following their King and imitating his love of righteousness.

What is his weapon? His weapon is unusual because it is said to be a sword that comes from his mouth, in other words, his powerful pronouncements. Through the use of this weapon, Jesus will bring judgements to his opponents because of their behaviour. He does this to implement God’s just anger against the behaviour of those who oppose him.

No one can defeat him.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Who is Jesus (Rev. 19:11-21)?

The description of Jesus mentions, among other important details, four names that he has. In this post we will consider those names. The first one is ‘Faithful and True’ and this name reveals his character. He is also called Faithful and True in the description of him in Revelation 3:14, in the message to the church in Laodicea, a church that he had threatened with judgement for their lukewarmness. Since he is called Faithful and True, we need to ask to what or whom he is faithful and true. The answer is that he is faithful and true to his Father and his will, which means that he is also faithful to his people, because their deliverance is his cause. The war in which he engages follows the Father’s plan for their salvation, which involves the defeat of his enemies. His character is revealed in his righteous actions. We should note the order of his actions – first, he judges and, second, he deals with the enemies. Therefore, those whom he punishes deserve it.

What is his second name? Connected to his authority is a special name that he possesses. His name is a secret of some kind. John cannot mean that the Father and the Holy Spirit don’t know what the name means. Instead he must mean that no creature knows about it. Moreover, what is meant by knowing here? Does it mean lack of information about the name or does it mean a lack of understanding of the name? Maybe it is the name ‘Son of God’, and no creature knows the full meaning of that divine name. Perhaps the name is Lord, and who apart from God can fully grasp what that name means for Jesus? If it is the name Lord, then we are reminded also of the place Jesus was given at his ascension when he was enthroned at the Father’s right hand. Whatever this second name is, it reminds us of the supremacy of Jesus because there are aspects to his person that are beyond human discovery.

What is his third name? John is also told that Jesus is The Word of God. This could be a reminder of who Jesus is as the eternal God. In John 1:1-14, Jesus is called by this name. As the Word, Jesus spoke the universe into existence and as the Word he maintains everything in existence. And he did not cease to be the Word when he became a man. He is the almighty God. This is a reminder of the incredible power that he possesses, and later on in this passage we will see that he can defeat his opponents by the power of what he says. All he will have to do to ensure judgement will be to announce it.

What is his fourth name? Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. Here we are reminded of a truth about Jesus that was once prominent in our outlook, which is that he is King of the nations as well as the King of his church. So from this position or power he executes judgments on those who disobey his will.

It is important that we have this reality before our minds when we see all the injustices taking place on the earth, whether in the past or in the present. We are not to imagine that the only activity that Jesus supervises as King is the spread of the gospel. In addition, he functions as a Judge, and sometimes before the final day of judgement he brings strong judgements to bear on governments and others that oppose him. This would have been a powerful message for the persecuted Christians of the first century as they faced the might of the Roman Empire. It would have been hard for them to believe that one day the powerful empire would be gone. But it did, and so will all forms of opposition to the King. He does it at his own timing and when he does nothing can stop him because he rules with a rod of iron.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Called to the marriage of the ages (Revelation 19:6-10)

The angel who has been speaking to John about the wonderful topic of the wedding of the Lamb states a benediction. He says that those who are invited to the marriage supper are blessed. This is not a reference to the general call of the gospel in which everyone is invited to believe in Jesus. Instead the invitations to the marriage feast are sent to those who, in line with the illustration of a Jewish marriage, have already signed the agreement and are now in the meantime waiting for the feast to begin. In a mixing of metaphors, the members of the Bride are now the guests.

Those who would have read this statement from this book for the first time would have been going through difficult circumstances connected to persecution and other problems connected to their profession of faith in Jesus. We could say that their making of the wedding garments was bringing them great trouble. They needed to hear divine consolation and comfort. And they are reminded that, despite their circumstances, they are truly blessed.

Most believers have had their embarrassing moments. Sometimes they have them when they have been listening to amazing news. John here has one when he attempts to worship the angel. Maybe he was so caught up in the glorious description that he forgot the messenger was not the subject of his message. Yet even the rebuke he received was a statement of assurance because John was told that he was still a servant of God and a member of his family, and because he was such he had an invitation to the wedding. We can learn from the method of the angel how we are to correct one another.

Good angels and converted humans share one purpose, which is to testify to Jesus. His glory is their common theme, and instead of bowing to an angel John should have joined him in bowing before God. This is our testimony too as we speak in a prophetic manner to the world as we wait for the wedding to take place.