Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 90: The Millenium, The New Heaven and Earth, The End

So an angel comes down from heaven with a key, and the angel chains Satan in the abyss for a thousand years.

And there is one thousand years of peace, when the saints reign with Christ.

Ever heard of "the millennium"?  Right here in Revelation, Chapter 20, is the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ.

There are several schools of thought about the millennium.  Some people believe that there will be a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ.  The pre-millennial view is that Christ will come before the thousand year reign, and that he will take believers away (rapture) before the tribulations.  The "post-millennial view" is that Christ will come at the end of the 1,000 years, a time of peace (maybe not a literal thousand years) during which most people will become Christian.

Others (including most Lutherans, by the way) believe that the millennium is not literal, but that the 1,000 years represent the entire church age.  "Amillenialism teaches that good and evil, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, develop simultaneously and grow until the end of this age."  (this sentence is from an old book on The Revelation by Esther Onstad, "Courage for Today/Hope for Tomorrow."

At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan is loosed again briefly, and then, the new heaven and the new earth arrive.  God will dwell with God's people in a new creation that is what God intended in the first place. There is no longer any death or darkness, the holy city is replendent with jewels and wealth, and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of those who have suffered and have been persecuted and have been vilified in this life.

So the basic message of the book of Revelation is this:  even when the world looks darkest and most frightening, even when God's people are being persecuted and killed, the victory belongs to God and the Lamb.

At the very end of the book of Revelation, the Prayer is this:

Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 89: Babylon and Company

We're nearing the end of the Book of Revelation, and I can't say that I'm unhappy about that.  It's hard to read, for a number of reasons:  1) the symbolism, some of which is pretty easy to follow, some of which is impossible to discern; 2) the violence, 3) the gloom and doom.  But read Revelation in the midst of a war, or if you are a religious minority being persecuted, or at one of those scary apocalyptic times in history, and perhaps the book of Revelation becomes more interesting.

Now we hear more about Babylon (Remember, "Fallen is Babylon the great!)  Babylon probably referred to a particular government or Kingdom at the time Revelation was written (possibly the Roman Empire, with its 7 hills), but now it has come to mean any corrupt kingdom or people.  Babylon does not recognize any god but itself, and idolizes power, wealth, greed, violence.  You name it.

Babylon is "a whore" (pretty strong language) and is contrasted with the church, which is the Bride of Christ.

Babylon will be defeated.  And it's not pretty.

So at the end of Revelation 19 we have this great scene of worship, but we also have this gruesome scene of the defeat of the beast.  And as much as I want the good guys to win, I still have a hard time reading the words about the "feast" at the defeat of Babylon, and "drinking the blood of kings."  All I can say is, when I read these horrible words, is I remember talking to Veterans, and especially Veterans of World War II, and how they don't like to talk about their war experiences much, or at all.  I think it is because they have been to hell and back, and even though Hitler (for example) needed to be defeated, there is no way they want to glamorize what they went through.

So Revelation is about the war between good and evil, between God and the forces of Evil, and the good news is that God will win, God has won already, but in the meantime, the battles are sometimes gruesome.

Tomorrow, we come to the end.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Day 88: More Worship, More Warnings, No Repentance

Again, John sees visions of the saints (the 144,000) worshipping around the throne of the Lamb.  I love the detail about the name of the Lamb and his father written on their foreheads.  They sing a "new song" in front to the throne and (here's something I'm going to remember, too) no one can learn the song except the 144,00).  It's not that I'm eager to exclude people who can't learn the song, it's just that lately I've become so aware of the power of music, and how God uses music to imprint the truth of his love on our hearts.

Three angels bring warnings to the earth about the coming judgment.  They warn people to worship God, to turn from following "The Beast", to watch out for Babylon.

(and do you notice this line?  "Favored are the dead who died int he Lord from now on."  "Yes, says the Spirit, so they can rest from their labors, because their deeds follow them." -- this is where we get our hymn, "For all the saints, who from their labors rest.")

Then there is the judgment, the two harvests.  The Human one has a sharp sickle in his hand, for the harvest is ready.  there is another angel as well, also reaping a harvest, but this is a harvest of judgment. The image is clusters of grapes, "cutting the vineyard of the earth" -- again, here's a song with which you may be familiar, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/he is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored".  This hymn was written during the civil war, a bloody conflict that must have seemed like the end of the world to those who were fighting.  Both sides felt that God was on their side, and that truth was on their side.  But this hymn was written by an abolitionist, and she used words from the Revelation to express God's judgment on the country for the sin of slavery.

After this there are seven bowls with plagues that will come over the earth.  To me, what I notice most in these chapters is not just the plagues, but the fact that it seems that no matter what plagues are unleashed on the earth, people do not repent.  (This reminds me of the story of the Pharaoh and the people of Israel in Egypt.  God sends many plagues, and yet Pharoah does not repent.  It also reminds me that the book of Revelation was written during a time of great persecution, and was written for a people who were being persecuted.)

We are nearing the end of the book of Revelation.  How much destruction is left?  What more can be said?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Day 87: It gets Worse

...and weirder, too.

This section of scripture is filled with strange, and fearsome images.  We're no longer talking about famines and wars and plagues, but both worship and wars in heaven.  There are beasts and dragons.  So it's obvious that all of this is symbolic, not literal.  What are these visions about?

In chapter eleven a temple is being measured, and there are prophets.  Many people think that this refers to the literal rebuilding of the temple.  Others believe that the measuring and rebuilding of the temple refers to the growth of the church, until the end of the age.  Prophets will come who will testify to the truth of Christ's victory over sin and death, and ultimately, no one will be able to stop the prophets' witness, even though terrible things happen.

The scene shifts to heaven, where the heavenly throng worships and sings "the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ..."  (see how this keeps happening?  reminding beleaguered people of the ultimate victory).

Even though we think of the beast and the dragon as future enemies, it's very possible that the early Christians read them as powerful people who were actively persecuting them then.  Emperors of the Roman Empire and other leaders opposed to the church were waging war against Christians, and the dragon and the beast might be those leaders.

Some people consider that the woman being pursued is the ideal church (remember that sometimes the church is compared to a bride.)

It's worth mentioning that number "666", since so many people refer to it.  Some people try to read it as a code, and think that it might refer to a specific evil person.  Others point out that in Hebrew, numbers have meaning (for example 7 is the number of perfection,  3 represents completeness, and 4 is the number of the earth).  So 6 is one short of a perfect 7, and 666 might just mean "perfect evil.'

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Day 86: The Terrible Things

Back on earth, the seventh seal is broken, and things begin to happen on the earth that no one prays for and no one hopes will happen.  Seven trumpets are ready to be blown, and each will unleash a new plague on the earth.  The first four plagues have to do with things that will happen in creation, and the last three will be plagues on the people.  And incredibly, the plagues do seem to have something to do with the incense, the prayers of the saints.  Are the terrible things that are happening a sort of repayment for what has been done to God's people?  I don't know.  And I'm not sure that it is good to try to think about it too hard, to figure it out too closely.  It is enough to know that Terrible Things are happening on the earth.  Some of the references will be familiar to those who read the Old Testament (regarding wormwood, and also locusts, and the day becoming like night).

It's a pretty dark picture, with people begging for death, but not dying, and yet not repenting of their sins, continuing to focus on themselves and on things that aren't lifegiving.  And if I thought that anyone gloated over such a scenario, and said, "they will get theirs!", I would want to throw the book of Revelation out of the Bible.

But then, I think about the Holocaust, and those who were vilified, and imprisoned, and killed.  The star of David was imprinted on them, but used as a means to seek them out and kill them.  And I wouldn't blame them at all if they thought of those who sent them to gas chambers, and if they thought, "they will get theirs!  They won't ever repent!"

That's the sort of time that Revelation was written for.

So during this dark time, those who had a seal on them will be saved.  It that seems heartless, think of it like a star of David, which at one time was used to identify those who would be killed.  But not it will be used to identify those who would be protected.  I think that's what John is doing.  "You were singling us out for death," he says.  "But later, God will single us out for protection."

Then (notice again) the scene shifts to heaven again, and the most awesome angel imaginable appears on the scene.  John is not allowed to record what he hears from the roaring of the voice of the angel.  And he orders John to eat the scroll, and he finds it both bitter and sweet, like the Word of God contains both promises and commands, both comfort and judgment.

And John is ordered to prophesy again.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Day 85: Visions of Heaven and Earth

So, in Revelation, chapter 4, we start getting into the nitty-gritty of John's vision.  (One of my friends says that she's not sure what John was smoking, and yes, what he sees is strange, but....) Please note that the vision begins in heaven, not earth.   When we think of the book of Revelation and its visions of destruction, it's important to remember that there are other, alternating visions as well:  visions of worship, visions of the throne of the Lamb.  Those visions are just as important as the other ones (perhaps more so).

So the scene opens with the throne of God (and seven of all sorts of things again).  If you can close your eyes and imagine, it's not only strange, but awesome, with a rainbow like an emerald, and a sea of glass.  There are worshipping creatures around the throne, and they are singing "Holy, Holy, Holy"  (sound familiar?)  Many of our hymns come from the book of Revelation.

In chapter 5 there is a scroll to be opened, and no one worthy to open it.  John weeps.  But wait!  There is one who is found worthy to open the scroll!  The "Lion of Judah, the Root of David" (hint:  Jesus) is worthy because he has been victorious. And the Lion, the Root, steps forward, and guess what?  It is a Lamb.

Hey!  Here's a nice aside:  There are twenty-four elders, each holding a golden bowl of incense, and the bowls represent the prayers of the saints.  Somehow I like that, but I like metaphors.  "Let my prayer rise before you as incense..."

Anyway, at seeing the Lamb, everyone breaks into song again,  "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain..." (again, sound familiar?)

And then the Lamb opens the seven seals ..... and then, literally, "all hell breaks loose."  With each seal comes a new plague.  (Have you ever heard of "the four horsemen of the apocalypse?"  Here's where they cone from.  The first horseman is on a white horse, so some people think he represents goodness, but most believe that since, the other four are all negative, that first horseman represents false messiahs. The other horsemen are war, famine and death.  Some people think that these represent special forces let loose at the end times.  But others (and I am one of them) would like to point out that all of these things:  false messiahs, famine, war and death, exist in every time and place.

So, a whole bunch of bad stuff is happening.  Six of the seven seals have been opened.

And then we switch, and again we see visions of heaven.  There are the 144,000 (okay, this is not a literal number, but it is 12 X 12 X 1,000, which is a way of saying the fullness of those who will be saved -- and remember that !2 is the number of the tribes of Israel and of the disciples).

And again, there is worshipping.  Especially the people who are worshipping are those who have come through persecution.

Chapter seven closes with a promise:  "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Some people say that the only people who can really understand the book of Revelation are those who are being persecuted,* because the book was written for Christians who were being persecuted.  It was written to remind them that no matter how bad things are, no matter how bad things get, God is still in charge, will protect and vindicate them.  The one who rose from the dead is still victorious.

If we cut through the strange visions and just look for the core, "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" comes up more than once.

*and by persecution, I don't mean having to listen to people say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas.  I don't mean not being able to pray in school, or having atheists make fun of your faith, although I'm not taking that lightly.  I'm reserving persecution to mean "persecution"  -- being imprisoned, tortured, abused, oppressed for confessing and living your faith.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 84: The last Book of the Bible -- love it or hate it

The Book of Revelation (notice the singular) elicits strong reactions -- some people are absolutely fascinated by this book, its strangeness, the visions, and the violence.  Maybe it's the fact that it seems like a code they have to crack is what hooks them; perhaps it's the idea that this books holds keys (sort of like Nostradamus) to the end of the world.

There are others that think that the last book of the Bible for a reason.  It is the last book they are interested in reading.  A couple of years ago when I  offered a course in Revelation to our adult forum during the winter, a few extra people showed up -- but one of our Bible presenters, a retired pastor and great theologian, asked me, "Why are we studying THAT?"

Yet, here we are, and I hope that along the way we can clear up a few misconceptions about that book. There are things to be decoded in it, and there are things that (contrary to what you may have heard) cannot be decoded.  They were written in the way they were to hide them from Roman persecutors; the book of Revelation was written to give hope to persecuted Christians, without giving away too much information to those who were persecuting them.  It is a form of literature called "Apocalyptic", which is not so common in the Bible, but does exist, in a few places (Matthew, Mark and Luke all have short apocalyptic sections, and the Old Testament book of Daniel is known as apocalyptic literature.)   The word "apocalypse" means "revelation", and it does have to do with visions of the end of the world.  Usually this literature was written in a time of persecution, when the people also did not have much power.  Prophets also interpreted the present and the future, and often called the people to repentance and hope.  Apocalyptic prophets preached God's defeat of their enemies and ultimate victory.

That being said, the first three chapters of the Revelation are also a letter, aren't they?  Like all of the other letters that precede this one, John (on Patmos) writes, not to individuals but to churches, seven churches in particular.  He is writing both to encourage and to admonish them, and he has specific words for each church.   Ephesus has lost their first love,  Smyrna is going to suffer, but God will give the the crown of life.  Pergamum is holding on, but some follow "Balaam's teaching" (whatever that is).  Thyatira has done great works, but has also put up with Jezebel, Sardis thinks it is alive, but is dead.  Philadelphia has been faithful and will be protected through a time of persecution.  And then there's the church at Laodicea -- they think they're rich, but they are really miserable.  They are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.

A few little things to notice:  each congregation has an angel.  the message is to the angel of the church.
One of the most famous verse in the Bible, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" is, in fact written to that seventh church, the one at Laodicea.  It is a part of their call to repentance.

The figure that John sees at the beginning of the vision (with the hair white as well) is very similar to a figure in the book of Daniel, the "ancient of days."

Notice all the sevens.  Seven stars, seven churches, seven lampstands.  There are a lot of interesting things with numbers in this book.  The number 7 recurs (this is the number of perfection or completeness in Hebrew numerology).  So, are there really SEVEN churches, are is seven a number indicating John means ALL the churches?

Whatever the answer, this much is for all of us:  "If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."  And know that the strange words of Revelation has really, two purposes:  to cause us to repent, and to give us courage.

What comes next will be easy to hear, but not always to easy to understand.....