Thrones

4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years – Rev. 20:4-6

The next thing that John sees after the removal of Satan is the manifestation of something that has been time and again hinted at throughout Scripture: The reign of Christ with His people.

The earthly Kingdom of Christ is of course not a new concept in Scripture. It is prophesised in the Old Testament (e.g. Is. 2:2-4; 9:7; 60:1-4; Dan. 2:44; 7:9-14, 27; Mic. 4:1-3), proclaimed by Christ Himself numerous times during His earthly ministry (e.g. Mat. 13:24-32; 38-43; 47-50; 20:1-16; 22:2-14; Mark 1:15) and hinted at by the apostles (cf. 1 Cor. 6:3; 1 Pet. 2:9). And even though there is much to say about what that kingdom of justice, prosperity and peace will be like, for now let’s focus on the mind-boggling fact of our own involvement in it.

Have you ever thought about this? If you are like me, you are guilty of often skimming over astounding, world-shattering, transcendent truths in the Bible without anything really sticking (rule of thumb for reading the Bible: If you consume too slowly, you’ll starve. If you consume too fast, you’ll choke. Chew your daily bread).

Fact: If you are a Christian, if you are bought by the blood of Him who is to rule supreme over the whole universe (1 Cor. 6:20), one day, by His grace, you will be seated with Him on a throne and exercise co-regency under Him with all your other brothers and sisters in Christ. That tremendous fact is what John so matter-of-factly describes in a mere 58 words (in the original).

I have to go back again to that question about the meaning of life. When we speak of heaven, we speak about our glorification (following our election, predestination, salvation and sanctification). And it often seems to us to be too remote, too far away and too irrelevant to the issues (oh, those issues) we are faced with right now, right here.

The intention of this vision is to change that. Heaven is not some pie-in-the-sky pipe-dream, but a reality that will involve every one of us who has placed their faith in Christ and has been clothed with His righteousness (Eph. 4:22-24). And when we think of that, how can we look at our existence in Christ with anything but thrill, excitement and crushing gratitude? Why should we, sinners at best, be made to rule with Christ, “the King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19:16)? Doesn’t the fact that, by grace alone, we will one day sit on white thrones of holiness by His side eclipse every other ambition of our life? Doesn’t free us from pointless pursuits and make us focus on those things that are above, since all of our life has now become Christ (Col. 3:1-4)?

And as if that wasn’t enough, we can also find comfort in this: If we are to reign with Christ at a specific time in future history, then we can have assurance that He will not fail to prepare us for that task. Even despite our shocking lack of wisdom (James 1:5), our despicable indwelling sin (Rom. 7:14-23) and our alarming unfamiliarity with the realm of heaven (1 Cor. 13:12), Christ will ensure that we will be fully qualified to exercise righteous authority in His Kingdom. It’s that comforting truth that Paul told the believers in Philippi: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). It’s why we should be discouraged when we look at ourselves and worshipfully encouraged when we look at Christ.

Leaving much unsaid (the curse of blogs) let’s look at verse 5. There are some who are not raised, but will spend the Kingdom era dead and buried. These are those who have tragically died in their sins; they have died in same condition as everyone who is born. They are not better or worse than those who reign with the King. They are not less intelligent or more morally deficient. The only difference between them and those on the white thrones is that they never partook of God’s gift of grace, the gift of salvation. They never repented. They never broke under the weight of their guilt to cry out for God’s mercy forgiveness. They remain in their graves because there is no place for them in Christ’s Kingdom; nor, as we will see later on, will there ever be.

John calls the Kingdom “the first resurrection”. It is also referred to as the “resurrection of the righteous/just” (Luke 14:14; Acts 24:15), the “resurrection of life” (John 5:29), and the “better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35). In 1 Cor. 15:23 Paul speaks about this very event, telling us that after the second coming of Christ, those who belong to Him will follow.

And then, in verse 6, John makes a comment: Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! (this is also the fifth of seven benedictions that John exclaims in Revelation – cf. 1:3, 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 22:7, 14). The word for blessed (μακάριος) is the same as the one Jesus used in His famous benedictions (Mat. 5:1-12). It is a term that speaks of a state of complete joy bursting forth from God’s own blessing, without even a hint of shadow; think of it as an exploding, unquenchable light that God Himself brings forth. It’s not mere joy, peace and satisfaction; it’s beyond that, so much that we don’t have the words to fully describe it. Exactly like Heaven.

But there’s more: Those who partake of the first resurrection, those who are found in Christ, are also holy (ἅγιος). There is really only one way to understand this statement: It’s not so much a future promise as blessed, but an observation. Those who are raised to reign with Christ are holy. Not they might be holy. Not they are working on being holy. They are holy, because without holiness “no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

This statement is both an exhortation and an encouragement. It is an exhortation to Christians to pursue holiness, because that is their eternal future and their nature. If you are in Christ, being holy is your nature, and you should live in holiness because your Father who gave birth to you is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16). But also remember that, because of your ultimate destination, you are already holy (the same word for “saints”), and every flaw and blemish on your holiness will be removed when you enter Heaven.

May we all be in that first resurrection, blessed and holy.

 

(to be continued)

Satan’s hell

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. – Rev. 20:1-3

The crescendo of Revelation begins with a truly unprecedented event: The capture and temporary removal of Satan. For the first time since his fall, the former Son of the Dawn (cf. Is. 14:12) is actually bound, locked up and prevented from doing anything to influence the world.

Without wanting to start a whole eschatological debate, we can safely say that this event precedes what we refer to as the millennial (thousand-year) Kingdom of Christ. In the narrative of the apostle John, the neutralisation of Satan ushers in a long period in which Christ reigns with His people on earth as described in vv.4-6 below.

Now, I tread carefully here because it is so easy to become lost in various theological opinions concerning the millennial kingdom. It is not my intention to discuss here the merits of a-pre- or post- millennialism. Suffice to say that I take a simple, as-face-value-as-I-can reading of Revelation, and that leads me to understand the millennium Kingdom as a real, historical future period of time, when our prayer “your Kingdom come” (Mat. 6:10; Luke 11:2) is actually fulfilled.

But is there anything else here other than information about the future? Is there a reason why the Lord told John to pass on this part of the Last Days vision?

Think of this: Paul wrote to Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), and even though Revelation came at least two decades later, the principle obviously still applies. I hope that when we approach the Word of God, we approach it with that great promise at hand, making sure that every word, phrase and chapter profits us like this.

So back to the Kingdom. What strikes me is that God has complete control over Satan. Although it is a frequent teaching of the Bible (think Gen. 3:14-15; Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-6), only here is so explicitly shown, because it is so final. This isn’t demons leaving a man and possessing pigs (Luke 8:26-34) or any other such event. This isn’t spiritual warfare; it’s a completely sovereign act of God.

Notice the language: there’s no struggle; no effort; no great war; no doubt that this will happen. The angel comes down, grabs Satan, binds him and locks him up for a predetermined time, and when he’s out again in v.7, it’s because he’s released, not because he escapes. It’s an event that takes place on God’s timing and schedule and even Satan himself can do nothing to prevent it.

Christianity is not Yin-Yang. God and Satan are not equal but polarised forces that hold the cosmos in balance. This isn’t about good vs. evil. This is God being God. This is God having control over absolutely everything and everyone and doing as He pleases (Ps. 115:3; 135:6). In fact, what else is the whole book of Revelation except a detailed witness to God’s sovereignty? It’s not a revelation of things that might or might not fully or partially take place, maybe, we’ll see (cf. Rev. 1:1). There’s no monkey-wrench in the cogs, nothing that can or will mess up even the slightest detail of God’s plans for mankind.

Try to think about this next time you watch the world news. We said it our study in Ecclesiastes, we’ll say it again: There is nothing – no event, no accident, no tragedy, no failure, no success, nothing – outside of God’s control. Every atom in our body is completely dependent on Him, but we’re too spiritually stupid to realise it. Thus, we burn our lives out as if we control the universe.

Here then, is why we learn about Satan’s removal in the future: It’s comforting to his enemies – those who, through Christ, are free from Satan’s grasp (cf. Eph. 2:2) but, this side of eternity, are in constant struggle with him, his ministers and his designs (1 Peter 5:8). By knowing Satan’s complete submission to God in the midst of our own battles, we can run even faster to our sovereign Father’s protection and know the tremendous joy and peace – yes, peace – of trusting in His hands that never fail when everything else seems to.

The end of all things

The book of Revelation must be, hands down, the most controversial book of the Bible. In here, the exiled apostle John – last of the apostles – receives an apocalypsis, a revelation from Jesus Christ concerning a period of time that we refer to as “last days” – a term that never appears in Revelation, but is mentioned three times elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; James 5:3).

The structure of the book is both simple and complex. It consists of two big parts: Chapters 1-3 include seven letters from Christ to seven churches located around what is now modern Turkey. Chapters 4-22 describe in a series of visions a sequence of events that represent the events that will precede the end of the world as we know it. In a whirlwind of vivid imagery, the last days are played out from the point of view of the spiritual world. Unprecedented natural disasters, diseases, collapse of the environment, global economy, cultural elements, world governments and societies mix with some clearly supernatural events and castigate the world as it suffers under the final manifestation of God’s wrath and judgment.

Frightening stuff. It’s no small wonder that Hollywood has made a multitude of (ridiculous for the most part) movies based on weird interpretations of Revelation as it has catered to our faddy obsession with the end of the world from time to time (I would love to see a film just going through Revelation visually. It would make the Exorcist look like a Disney kiddie flick).

But as many Christians, I love Revelation with a passion. Not because I am a vindictive self-righteous maniac, but because without it we’d have a very hard time being comforted as we go through our daily Christian walk.

Revelation is not simply an account of the last days. It is also the closing of the scriptural canon; the last piece of God’s revelation to humans, both chronologically (last book of the Bible) and thematically (end of this world and into the eternal state).

Now, there’s a ton of things to talk about in Revelation: Interpretations of the visions, the antichrist’s identity, views on the millennial kingdom and a whole host of other things that are often treated in various formats ranging from solid Bible commentaries to idiotic movie plots.

But we won’t.

What I want to do in the next few posts is look at the end of Revelation; specifically chapters 20-22. The reason is simply that they talk about a time in which we will exist a lot longer (forever) than our fleeting lives. They talk about your and my final destination, be that with or without Christ. They describe the wrapping up of all human history, in which the elements of our lives here on earth will suddenly fit with the big picture puzzle (also why a study of Revelation follows organically after Ecclesiastes). They describe the unimaginable horror of hell and the unimaginable glory of heaven.

And it is also my perennial humble opinion that we rarely teach, preach or discuss these chapters, especially 21-22. Why not? Christ deemed it necessary for us to know about these things in detail and I think the main reason is to give us something even more tangible than His promise in the gospels (cf. John 14:2), which can easily become remote and far-away in times of distress, persecution or in the midst of everyday routine and mundanity.

We need to know about this when we wonder about the apparent futility and randomness of our lives here on earth. We need to know that where we’re headed for is real – to rightly terrify us and to rightly comfort us.

Part 2

Left Behind?

Contrary to popular belief, I am still alive, and as busy as ever. My time got slightly more compressed recently because I have to prepare a talk for an upcoming research conference in London. 15 minutes of pain, shame and “fame”, at the Imperial College, July 1st, 14:45. We shall overcome.

I recently managed to watch the first film of the popular Left Behind series. For those who are not in the know, it is a series based on the Bible’s prophecies about the Last Days, beginning with what is called The Rapture (huh? what’s that?) (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), and continuing with the events (“The Great Tribulation”) described in the book of Revelation preceding the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

About the film, what can I say… it has its haunting moments, if you can put aside the cheesy acting (Kirk Cameron), over-acting (Clarence Gilyard and Jack Langedijk), annoying acting (Krista Bridges) and lack-of acting (Chelsea Noble). But I must admit, Gordon Currie’s UN head Nicolae Carpathia is probably the best Antichrist on film yet (beats Al Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate” anyway – oh, and the Bad Kid in “The Omen”). The film keeps the interest up by presenting a plausible, albeit fictional, senario of how the Bible’s prophecies might unfold. And behind the peplum of Cheddar, the reality of what it tries to describe is chilling.

The Rapture is not exactly the most-known doctrine of the Christian faith. In fact, I’ve met Christians who know close to zero about it, while others almost dismiss it because they think it doesn’t make sense. The Catholics have wrongly interpreted it as death (which is not surprising if one considers their notion of the Gospel) while most people are “left behind” exactly like the characters of the titular film: Confused and suspicious.

In short, according to 1 Thes. 4:15-17, the Rapture is a future event when all those who believe in Jesus Christ will be “caught up together with [the risen dead] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”. The reason for this – which so eludes many – is simply because of God’s coming judgement of the world (2 Peter 3:7), of which those who belong to Christ will be spared (Rom. 8:1).

There is another reason, mentioned in 2 Thes. 2:6-8. Jesus Himself called those who followed Him “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), which refers to preservation. The idea is that Christians are what preserves a decaying, rotting world from expiring completely (or, in other words, from completely turning its back to God). But when that time comes, when God finally judges the world for it’s rebellion against Him, those who believed in Christ and where saved (Mark 16:16; Rom. 10:9), the preservative salt, must be removed, so that sin can run its full course and end up, inevitably, in judgment.

This is the part where people shake their heads: “and he’s such a sensible guy”; “I can’t believe he’s doing a PhD in Science”; “Bible-bashing rubbish”; “give us a break”. A good twelve years ago, I would say the same things. But the problem is that everything else the Bible predicted has come precisely true, so why not these things too? The apostle Paul wrote that these things are nonsense to those who do not believe (1 Cor. 1:18-19; 22-24; 2:14) – it’s a question of faith, and faith requires trust, and trust requires humbleness, and humbleness is not exaclty what TV preaches today (free thinkers indeed).

Look. The reason people hate hearing about all this is because people hate hearing that they are wrong. That’s it. It’s also known as “Pride”, our Original Sin (Gen. 3:4-5). Essentially, we want to do things our way even though we don’t seem to manage very well.

But there comes a time – and I believe that everyone goes through it at least once – when we come face-to-face with God. It is a moment when all the tired philosophy and analysis falls away and what is left is the simplicity of God’s indescribable love aching for a response, eager to save, to bless, to give all the riches of heaven (Eph. 1:3). If you haven’t experienced it, it is very hard to describe; the Bible calls those who take this step of faith and trust in God “new creations (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), which I think beats any lame term I could come up with. It is the moment when God touches a person, a moment that can define where that person will spend Eternity.

The “Left Behind” series: Cheesy? Sure. Badly acted? Definitely. Has a valid point? Well… I’d like to say just wait and see, but it might be too late then.

“Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” – Acts 17:29-31

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” – Revelation 7:9-12

“These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:14b-17

Tick-tock

Yeah... I was just doodling one day... y' know, drawing on the wall. Came out pretty decent.

While waiting for my Western blot to run (huh? what’s that?), I spent some time mulling over the news covering the recent release of more photographs showing the torture that went on at the Abu-Ghraib prison (Iraq) in 2003. And, of course, timing could not have been better, what with the ongoing uproar from that stupid cartoon incident. Something about fans and flames comes readily to mind.

But what was far more worrying was to read some of the responses of readers across the world to all this. It seems, my friends, that we have finally done it: Everyone is pissed off at everyone else. It’s the East vs the West, the Liberals vs the Conservatives and the hippies vs pretty much everyone.

I’m not going to get political, mostly because I’m not qualified. But man, that’s some bad vibes going around the globe right now and it’s a hard knot of conspiracy theories to untie. Everyone has an opinion, uninformed or misinformed as they might be, and everyone wants to talk but not listen (I hope it’s clear that I’m not just talking about the Abu-Ghraib issue). It is, in fact, like a Greek TV talk show.

And all this admittedly makes me thankful that I can trust in a God who can see everything far better than any of us. It’s reassuring to know that He has all of History in His hands and everything ultimately works out according to His plans. It’s been happening for a while now – before the time when “while” and “time” meant anything. And when I read and hear about all this, I can’t help but think about the book of Revelation (last book in the Bible), and it’s startling accuracy, even in the most symbolic of its passages. And I am surprised that, over the centuries, Christians have treated Revelation just like they have treated social issues: either become obsessed with it or all but ignore it altogether.

And yet, it’s an amazing, unparalleled text. It begins with seven letters (“epistles”) of Christ to seven churches (that represent all the others) and then launches into a dazzling, no-nonsense, hands-on narrative of the end of the world. Frightening? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. Shocking? No, unless you’ve lived all your life on a deserted island (in which case, HOW ARE YOU READING THIS?).

It surprises me that every kind of worldview, mythology, philosophy and religion has something to say about the end of the world as we know it, and yet we live as if we’re going to be here forever. Even Science, in its almighty pants, admits and even attempts to calculate The End by extrapolating and projecting current phenomena and fiddling around with the laws of Thermodynamics (especially Entropy – huh? what’s that?) and Chaos Theory (huh? what’s – never mind). I guess it’s the one thing mankind pretty much agrees on: Somewhere, there’s a clock ticking and we’re not listening.

Many – Christians and non – have agreed that Revelation has a very different character from any other End Times text, be it ancient or modern. The reason, I believe (other than that it is God’s word, which you may think is subjective) is because it outlines future events in a very authoritative and assured manner. This isn’t Nostradamus’s “bird hits twin towers and empire falls” multi-interpreted riddles. It’s not foggy Valhalla or the Scandinavian Wolf. You don’t believe me? Then ask yourself why you feel so uncomfortable when Revelation is mentioned. Because, if anything else, it rings disturbingly true.

I better leave it there. It went a long way from where I started, but I think that it’s important to bring such sensitive issues up, not to frighten people or to Bible-bash them, but because above all this is the remarkable hope, peace and security that Christians find in Jesus Christ, and the truth that God is as loving as He is wrathful, and a Father as He is a Judge.

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Matthew 24:5-10

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:1-5