Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Danger of Drifting (Hebrews 2.1-4)

In my ministry, I have often had people tell me that I’m more of a teacher than I am a preacher.

Sometimes, people have told me this in a positive way, like, “I’ve been preached at all my life and told what to do and made to feel guilty and I like the way you present a more reasoned, thoughtful message.”

Other times, it’s a word of disappointment, like the man who once said to me, "You spend so long setting the table that by the time you bring out the food I'm not hungry anymore!" 

Actually, we use the words “preaching” and “teaching” differently than they are used in the Bible. We think of it as the difference between content and application – the teacher gives the content of the truth; the preacher makes an application of the truth to our lives - that's how we look at it. But, in the Bible, as far as I can tell, the word “preaching” refers to a person explaining and applying the gospel message; teaching is the process of informing and calling Christians to live out the gospel. So, we use it a bit differently than in the Bible.

But whatever weaknesses are when it comes to imparting the truth of the scriptures, we find out this morning that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews did not have that problem. He both explains and applies the text; he both informs his hearers and exhorts them… strongly!

The letter to the Hebrews is a written sermon – an exposition of various passages of the Old Testament that the writer both explains and applies. In fact, the writer sees the readers as being in great danger; so he’s not just explaining the Bible as an interesting historical relic. He’s not making (as one of the puritans said 300 years ago), “the drowsy request of someone who does not even seem to mean what he says.” He warns them of the danger they face.

The letter to the Hebrews contains five warning passages that grow in intensity through the first twelve chapters of the book. The writer’s approach is interesting – he first gives an exposition of a theme, based on Old Testament texts; then the makes a strong application warning the hearers of their danger; then, he turns back to exposition again of the same theme.

The book starts by underlining Jesus’ superiority to the angels in chapter one, quoting and explaining verses along the way. Then, we come to the first warning this morning in chapter 2.1–4. Then, he will turn back to same the subject of the superiority of Christ to the angels again in 2.5–18 before taking up a new subject in chapter three.

Essentially, up to this point, he has said that the angels are merely the servants of God. In fact, they are the servants of the people of God. Chapter 1 ends with these words: “Are they (the angels) not all ministering spirits sent out to the serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” The Son on the other hand is the agent of creation and the head of the people of God. The agent of creation is far superior to the mere servants of the created order.

And, having underlined this truth, the second chapter opens with the word, “Therefore,” or literally, “Because of this.” Because the Son is so superior to the angels, he says, “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”

He uses a nautical term that refers to the anchoring of a ship. You may have experienced this in a boat of any size, even a rowboat that you’re trying to secure to one spot so that you can do a little fishing. If the anchor doesn’t hold, the boat begins to drift away from where you want it to stay.

His image, however, is not a rowboat but a ship on the ocean that is not firmly anchored to the seabed so that it drifts. In the ancient world, few places had developed harbors that you could actually enter and dock at. Ships had to anchor offshore and then ferry people in smaller boats to the land. If the anchor didn’t hold firmly, the ship was in danger of drifting into the shoals, the shallow water close to land, or into the rocks at the shore where the ship would run aground and be broken up by the surf.

This is meant to be a vivid image to us of the danger of not firmly gripping the truth through careless negligence. And the writer’s insistence is that there is real danger of doing this. And the danger is stated clearly in the third verse: 
“How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” 
In other words, it is our very salvation – our deliverance from eternal hell – that is at stake in neglecting this message.

Our whole understanding salvation by grace comes into play here. Can I really have assurance of final salvation if I need to be warned against missing it? Is it possible for a person to only assume that he or she has this gift, but not yet have it? What exactly is the danger of the hearers? What is the nature of the warning? Unfortunately, that’s not the writer’s point yet – he’ll come to that later. But for now, we just need to hear the word of warning: Don’t drift! Hold fast!

Trace with me the writer’s thought to get us to the danger. What he does is compare two things – the old covenant, the Old Testament religion we might say, and the new covenant, the New Testament religion. The people of God under the law and the people of God under grace. The Old Testament system and the New Testament system.

Now, I know the common idea is that the Old Testament system was demanding and exact, it was based on the law that God gave for people to keep. The New Testament system is based on grace – and most people think that means it’s easier than the law. God is not exacting like under the law. He was demanding, intolerant and angry; now he’s tolerant and merciful and kind because of Jesus. I understand the feeling, but it’s not correct. The person who approaches the Bible in this way is in danger of misunderstanding both law and grace. A half-truth is no truth at all; that simple understanding of the distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament is not based on enough truth to carry you through a life of true discipleship. You need to fine-tune that understanding with some of what the writer to the Hebrews is teaching so that you have a full grasp on the truth of the gospel.

Here’s what he says:
2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb. 2.2–4)
The writer uses an argument common in the Old Testament and among the rabbis – it’s called “an argument from the lesser to the greater.”

I met my wife when we were 15 so we sort of grew up together. She has six siblings and sometimes when we’re all together they tell stories about growing up in their household. If their father disciplined one of the children – like you got sent to your room, or you couldn’t talk on the phone for a day, or whatever – if you cried, he would say, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” I’m sure no one else ever heard that!

That’s an argument from the lesser to greater. It means, “If you think that consequence is big, just wait until the next one comes along. That one will look like peanuts in comparison.”

Here, the writer compares the Old Testament message and the New Testament message.

First, the Old Testament message was binding: “Since the message proved to be reliable.” That means it was fixed, you could count on it, it had binding authority over your life. You were obligated to keep it.

How did you know that it was binding? Well, because, second, every violation brought an appropriate punishment: “every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution.”

But – though it was binding and its violation brought consequences – it was merely mediated by angels. When the law was first given you don’t have this fact underlined – there, in Exodus 20, you see it as just a transaction between Moses and God. But later in the Bible it becomes evident that angels were the mediators of the law to Moses. This is stated in the book of Deuteronomy which speaks of God coming to Sinai with myriads of his holy ones. It’s referred to in Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin before he is martyred in Acts 7. Paul makes a special point of it in Galatians 3. These all underline the special importance of the law; it was so significant that God used his special agents to carry the message to human beings.

The law was brought by angels and it was binding and it brought consequences. But then look at the New Testament message:
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb. 2.2–4)
If you thought the law was important, binding, authoritative, demanding of attention and careful obedience… think of the gospel.

There’s a common idea from the Old Testament, often repeated, that for a matter to be legally binding, there had to have two or three witnesses to confirm it. This made a murder conviction very difficult to obtain under the Old Testament system and it’s why we regard capital murder as requiring specific proof today - “Let every matter be confirmed by two or three witnesses.” Fingerprints on the murder weapon alone were not sufficient to convict someone of murder (using our modern terms); you had to have at least two and preferably three forms of testimony.

The gospel comes with three witnesses:
  • It was declared at first by the Lord – that is, Jesus himself;
  • It was attested to us by his eyewitnesses, some of whom at the point of writing are still living (though the writer is not one of them);
  • God also bore witness through the holy Spirit in visible ways.

Now, the sentence doesn’t even need to say that the gospel is the authoritative message from God and it demands punishment for rejecting it. That’s understood. That’s the argument from the lesser to the greater – the point is, how much greater than a message conveyed by angels is the message which came with such attestation, such testimony – Jesus, the eyewitnesses, and God through the Holy Spirit?
That's why the writer says: 
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, let we drift away from it” (Heb. 2.1).
So, apparently it is not a one-time acceptance of this message that matters. It is holding fast to this message; it is absorbing the meaning of the message – “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” To “drift” apparently, means to not be firmly anchored into the message, to have only a superficial grasp of it – like an anchor might be dropped into the mud bottom where it only rests until the slightest wind pulls it in away.

In American Christianity, we have this tendency to ask “What is the bare minimum that a person must believe in order to be saved?” We’ve come up with John 3.16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And it’s true! Whoever believes in Jesus as the only Son of God and Savior of sinners has eternal life! But that is not merely describing an experience that is in the past that is only represented by a memory – it is a promise made to a living faith that goes on; faith in Jesus as the Savior, willingness to listen to his word and respond to it.
  • Salvation is not a prayer you prayed with Mom at bedtime when you were six that she wrote in the front of your Bible. Thank God, your salvation may have commenced at that time but you only know that because it is a faith that continues – it doesn’t have to be reminded by looking in the front of the Bible. 
  • Salvation is not that list of sins that you threw in the bonfire in ninth grade. You can’t look back to that as though that were the reason God loves you. Thank God, your relationship may have begun at that point – or it may have been just a memory of childhood that you have but it didn’t continue to direct anything about your thinking or living after that.
  • You are not saved because you had an emotional experience at some kind of meeting in college, because you felt the presence of God, and heard what the speaker was saying and decided it was for you. If that has not resulted in a change of direction, a sense that things are different for you and you can’t just go on like everyone else doing whatever seems right to you or the people around you. Thank God it may have been a real experience – but you only know that because of what is going on now.

In other words, faith – true faith in Christ – is not merely an historical memory of an experience in the past. It is a living relationship with Jesus Christ. It is possible that such an experience was just a casting of the anchor overboard in real hopes of grasping the Savior of sinner – but it can’t hold in the mud-bottom o the human heart. The heart must be changed.
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, let we drift away from it” (Heb. 2.1).
Before we finish, let’s look at the last warning in the book of Hebrews. It is in chapter twelve. The writer again contrasts what we have in Jesus with what was found in the Old Testament, now in very graphic terms, beginning in verse 18. In the gospel, in God’s final word through his Son, you have something much greater than our ancestors had in the law. Then, he says in verse 25:
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12.25–29)
So, let’s be clear about what you are I are doing when we meet like this in this room on a Sunday morning, and the scriptures are opened and read, and I stand up to explain and apply them.

Well, I’m seeking to help you adopt and apply a certain mindset in life. What is that mindset? It is an approach to life that says, “This world is not my final, true home.” This world, in its present form, is part of God’s creation – it is important and to be valued. But, its present form is only temporary. That isn’t true only of the physical state of the world; it is even more true of the values and the standards and the behaviors that are connected with this world. All of those things are destined for the trash-heap of the universe – all the pomp of this world, all of the valuing of external appearance over internal substance, all of the vanity of life that concentrates on possessing things rather than loving people, all of the structures of the world that promote one class over another. It is all destined to change.

We’re all caught up in it – at least, if we’re left to ourselves. We’ll adopt those philosophies, and we’ll live by those standards, and we’ll behave in those ways. But I’m here, with this book, to tell you that God is calling us to a better world, a different world. In reality, it will be this world – made of the same material, but re-made, re-constituted, re-fashioned into new heavens and a new earth.
So, what I’m trying to do here is to convince you not to spend all of your time and attention on this world; not to be enticed by its trifling little decorations and not to be caught up in its supposed values. I’m trying to convince you to lay hold of that “kingdom that cannot be shaken” and to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Sunday, June 3, 2018

God's Final Word (Hebrews 1.1-4)

Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with God, but we have to admit that the relationship is like no other. It is a relationship with someone we have never seen and who many people don’t even believe exists! It is a relationship with someone who never speaks, at least in audible words; when we talk to him, he doesn’t come down and sit across from us and answer our questions. In short, a relationship with God is nothing like the relationships we enjoy in life with friends and co-workers, and neighbors. And, let’s face it, God would be exceeding difficult to be married to.

Let’s say a loved one is seriously sick and we ask God to heal her. We may comfort ourselves with the thought that, if he doesn’t heal her physically, he may grant her the ultimate healing by taking her home to be with himself. But it would be much easier if he would just say that! It’s the silence that hurts.

Or, when we’re making decisions, especially big decisions like marriage, we wish God would just speak to us and tell us, ‘This is the right one! Don’t let her go!’ But he doesn’t. We marry the one we feel is the ‘right one’ and she makes us so unhappy sometimes. Why didn’t he tell us she wasn’t the right one… or, perhaps, ‘the right one’ isn’t the right question.

In the big questions of life, especially life in a modern and fast-changing world, we just want God to speak to us. But he is strangely silent it seems.

What kind of ‘relationship’ is a ‘personal relationship’ with God?

The Bible describes the connection between God and human beings in relational terms – there is real communication, real emotion on both sides, and real activity that takes place in the relationship. So why is it that God doesn’t communicate with us in the way that we want? Why doesn’t he answer our questions and solve our problems – or, at least tell us why he isn’t!

It shouldn’t surprise us that, since this is such an important issue for us, God speaks to us. In fact, he speaks rather clearly about it in his word, particularly in this passage that was just read to us a few minutes ago. 

The letter to the Hebrews is a written sermon. At the end, the writer calls it “a brief word of exhortation” (Heb. 13.22). It is really an urgent appeal to his readers to hold on to Jesus through the storms of discouragement, community opposition, and personal difficulty that is coming upon them because of their faith in Jesus Christ. I can’t imagine a more relevant message to Christian people today.

The letter starts with these words,
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1.1–2).

These words both summarize the whole message of the book and introduces his first topic: God, he says, has reached out to us in the past. He spoke to our ancestors by the prophets – people like Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David, and others. He did this time and again. But now, in the last days in which we are living, God has spoken, finally and definitively, in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Everything that follows is simply an expansion on the words “his Son.” He expands on who this Jesus is in six ways. Look at your Bibles:
  • "whom he appointed the heir of all things”
  • “through whom also he created the world”
  • He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”
  • and he upholds the universe by the word of his power”
  • " he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high" after making purification for sins,
  • "he has inherited a more excellent name than the angels.

All of these phrases describe Jesus as God’s last word of to the human race. Now the Old Testament is a book that foreshadows, or prepares people, for the coming of God’s Son, the Messiah. And all of these phrases are drawn from the Old Testament. Now, there are three groups that stand out in the Old Testament because they act as representatives of God and they display a special relationship with God – those three are the prophets, the priests, and the kings. Those three offices required appointment by God and anointing with oil as a sign of possessing the Holy Spirit.

It is those three offices that are underlined in these few sentences as being the unique and special offices of the Son of God for us. The final Prophet. The final Priest. The final King.

Jesus is the final and definitive Prophet. Now, what was a prophet and how did they function?
Well, primarily a prophet was a spokesperson for God. Like the President’s “press secretary,” the prophet went out into the community and made clear to people the mind of God on specific matters. They didn’t do this by making it up as they went along; they spent time with God and he told them what to say. There were many prophets in the Old Testament; we know what we know because some of them (the writing prophets) wrote down what God told them and what they did with it.

We see this whole concept illustrated with Moses and his brother, Aaron. God calls Moses to lead the people out of bondage. Moses tells God, “I can’t speak no good. How can I tell Israel what to do?” “I’ll empower you,” God says.  Moses whines, “Awww, c’mon. Send somebody else!” So God says, “Okay, I’ll tell you what to say, and you tell Aaron, your brother, and he shall be your prophet” (4.15; 7.1). A prophet is someone who spoke for another; he made clear what God thought.
We see this underlined in two ways in Hebrews 1:
  • through whom also he created the world”
  • He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”

The special assignment of the prophet was to think with wisdom and to apply God’s word to the specific situation that people faced. God tells us this in a wonderful passage in Proverbs 8 – wisdom speaks in first person, as though it were a person, and says, “I was with God at the beginning when he created the world, guiding his thoughts and putting into action his will.” That wisdom was and is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the wisdom of God, the final prophet.

He is also the “radiance of the glory of God.” What a profound image this is of the Son who clearly reveals God and his will to people. Think of the sun in the sky: You can’t see the sun, to look at it directly is to destroy your retina because of its brilliance, its glory. But the sun reaches out to you with its rays – the rays come from the sun, without the sun they do not exist, without them, the sun has no influence. The rays of the sun are the felt expression of its warmth and power. So, the Son of God (S-O-N) is like that to us – the felt expression of his thoughts, his feelings, his will for us.  

“And” it goes on, “the exact imprint of his nature.” One commentator wrote, “he used this word, [translated ‘exact imprint’] to convey as emphatically as he could his conviction that in Jesus Christ there had been provided a perfect, visible expression of the reality of God.” Just as the rays of the sun cannot be separated from it but, in fact, radiate from it, in Jesus Christ we have the full revelation of God in human flesh.
  • Do you want to know how God feels about you? Look to Jesus Christ as he speaks in the gospels and hear what he says.
  • Do you want to know God’s will for you? Look to Jesus and hear his directions.

Jesus completely reveals God as the final prophet. All that the prophets pointed towards comes to its completion in him. Since that is true, we must listen to him as he speaks to us in the one authoritative record of his life and words, the Bible. Don’t turn away. Listen to him!

He is also the final priest. This introduces us also to one of the main themes of the whole book, that Jesus is better than Aaron, whose physical descendants made up the priesthood of the old covenant.
Now, the function of a priest was to mediate between God and people. Hebrews 5.1:
“For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.”
The Bible makes it clear that, ever since the fall into sin, we cannot approach God without a mediator who will act on our behalf in presenting us to God. In the Old Testament, there was a priesthood that did just that. But now, Christ has come as the final and definitive priest who can bring us to God.
How do we see that in these verses? Look at verse 3:
“After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
Jesus acts as the High Priest, the final mediator for sinners. They had to offer sacrifices for sins over and over, because both they and people sin over and over. But Jesus made “purification for sins.” His sacrifice was final and definitive. It does not ever have to be repeated. It only needs to be repeatedly applied to sinners.

Jesus Christ is not only the final prophet. He is the final mediator for sinners as the True Priest.
  • Do you want to know what God thinks of your sins? Look at Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross – God hates and abominates your sin, so much that he sent the True and final Priest to offer not just a sacrifice, but himself, in your place.
  • Do you want to know if God accepts you? Come to Jesus Christ and hear him say, “Come, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Look to him and know God’s forgiveness and grace and peace.

Because Jesus has come as the final priest, we must trust him, him only, for life with God.

And, Jesus is the final King. This clear in the passage in many ways:
whom he appointed the heir of all things”
and he upholds the universe by the word of his power”
These are things that can only be said of God – heir, the one who possesses all things; the one who sustains the universe by the word of his power.

But it is seen most clearly in the final words of verse 3:
he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high”
These words are an unmistakable allusion to Psalm 110, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’”

God’s original mandate to the human race – to rule the world under his leadership – is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even now, he sits at God’s right hand, ruling over all things for his purposes.
  • Jesus completely reveals God as the final Prophet.
  • Jesus is the ultimate mediator between God and people as the True Priest.
  • Jesus rules the universe as its rightful king.

What do we do with that? Well, we must listen to him, we must trust him, and we must submit to him.

What does it mean to submit our lives to Jesus? Well, for one thing, it means to stop demanding that he speak to us again, that he answer every question, and solve every problem in order for us to listen to him. He already has spoken the final word that requires no others.

I had one brother. In 2013, he found that he had cancer. One Sunday morning in 2014, I shared a memory of childhood and what I worried about my brother.

When I was maybe ten and my brother was fifteen years old, we went on a family vacation to the Bahamas. I know that sounds lavish, but it wasn’t quite as lavish as it may seem. It was to a small rocky island with a tiny town on one end and a few ramshackle cottages on the other. We landed at a bigger island with another family my parents knew, and we were to take two rowboats – maybe fifteen feet long – with outboard motors, from one island to the small island. It was perhaps one mile. We landed rather late in the day and after we took off in these rowboats the sun went down and it was pitch black. All we had to guide us was one 60-watt light bulb hanging at the end of a dock at our destination. My brother was with the other family and my parents and I and my two sisters were in the first boat. We soon lost sight of each other and I remember all of us frantically calling for him and for the others. But the noise of the ocean and the motors drowned out all speech. So, we just made our way for that shifting little light, in the distance. When finally we arrived, we found them there, to our great relief. My father once told me that was the stupidest thing he ever did to his family.

I used that story to say, that it represented how I felt about my brother having cancer. He did not confess faith in Christ, and nothing in his life indicated that he even believed in God in any personal way. I worried that we were heading to the true home, and like that night, I wasn’t sure he was going to make it.

Well, he died in February of 2015, angry and feeling cheated out of a long life, and I still didn’t know. Now, I don’t spend my time determining people’s eternal destiny – it’s beyond my pay-grade, and, it’s an intentional strategy of mine to deal with the fact that, as far as I know, I come from several generations of people without faith. I can’t spend my time dealing with things beyond my ability to discern at this point.

Here’s all I know. God spoke his final word in Jesus Christ – he has completely revealed God as the final Prophet;  he has offered the final sacrifice as the true mediating Priest; even now, he reigns at God’s right hand as the rightful King. He doesn’t have to speak to me and answer all my questions for his word to be true. Because he is God’s final word, I can trust him.
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8.332)

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Worthy is the Lord, Part Two (Revelation 5.1-14)

We are picking up and finishing a two-part series on Revelation chapters four and five that I began three weeks ago. In the book of Revelation chapter four, John the apostle is caught up into heaven and sees, as through an open door, the divine throne room. God is seated upon his throne in all of his majesty, justice, and his grace. Around the throne are four living creatures, evidently angelic beings, representing all of animate creation declaring his holiness and his right to determine history’s end. And there are twenty-four elders, representing all the redeemed of all ages, Old Testament and New Testament, who at the song of the living creatures, fall down and cast their crowns before him, and declare his worthiness as Creator to carry out his eternal purpose. And in front of the throne, John sees what looks like a sea of glass, representing the chaotic powers of the universe like the raging sea which, in the presence of the eternal God, are calm and subdued.

That scene offers us contemplation for several weeks, But I had to break off abruptly because, in fact, the scene does not end there. Chapter four flows right into chapter five in which something happens that disrupts, perhaps we should say, enhances, the constant worship of God as the Creator.

John notices that on the throne, God is holding in his right hand a scroll, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. As the following chapters will show, the seals represent various judgments of God that are poured out on the earth in preparation for the end. The scroll contains God’s plan for judgment and redemption and a mighty angel asks “Who is worthy” that is, who has authority to execute this divine plan.

No one is found worthy and John mourns because it appears that God’s plan will remain unfinished. Why does he mourn? John lives in the shadow of persecution, and he looks for the vindication, the exoneration of God’s faithful people. We too live in the shadow of persecution in this world, you know. But we rarely recognize it. We’ve been duped by generations of the casual acceptance of ‘religion’ to see how really offensive true faith is to the people of this world.

Then one of the elders says,
Rev. 5.5: Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.
Now, at this point I have to remind you of something. This is something very difficult for us to imagine or really enter into. John was a Jewish man brought up in ancient Palestine. The Jewish people were the people of the book – on Mount Sinai, God revealed his law to them in words, written down on a page. And he said, “You shall have no other gods – only me. Don’t make any images of me; any way of trying to reduce me to a picture, statue, image can only reduce my majesty which is eternal and unseen.” And because of that, the Jewish people didn’t become artists. They were not known in the ancient world for their paintings and statues, like the Greeks and Romans. They were known for their knowledge of the book. They were the only society in the ancient world that was largely literate – everyone could read! The rabbi in your town took you, boys and girls, from about age five, and taught you to read. And the only thing you had to read was the word of God.

There were no cell phones, no Netflix, no Face book or twitter...thank the Lord! The only songs were the psalms, the only stories were from the Bible – or those stories that came from the Bible. These people – including the twelve apostles – were immersed in the Bible, saturated with it, in a way we cannot really grasp today.

So, these two titles – the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the Root of David – mean nothing to us today. But to John, they were clear references from the Hebrew Bible on which he was nurtured to the coming Messiah.

“The Lion of the tribe of Judah” refers to Genesis chapter 49. Jacob gathered his twelve sons and gave to each a blessing appropriate to him. His blessings were effective; they were like foreshadows of what was to come in their unfolding history. And here were his words to Judah, his fourth-born son:
Gen. 49.9–10: Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion, and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
The promised Messiah is for the first time narrowed to one family – Judah. There will be kings among Judah’s descendants until the coming of the True Ruler to whom rule truly belongs. From this grew up the idea of the coming King-Messiah in Israel.

He is given a second title: “The Root of David” which comes from Isaiah chapter eleven.
Isaiah 11.1: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Jesse was King David’s father. It is as though his descendants have been cut down, leaving only a stump in the ground. This is what happened when Israel was exiled about 600 BC, and the line of kings was cut off. But a shoot will grow up out the very roots of the stump. And, the passage says he will be the true king – he will care for the afflicted and he will rule the nations. He will bring in the eternal kingdom of God. The “Root of David” means a towering tree that has grown up from the roots of a stump.

Here are some of the ideas in Isaiah 11 of what the Messiah will bring with his appearance: 
Isaiah 11.6, 9: The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
All of that when the Messiah reigns. And John is not surprised to hear, there on the threshold of the heavenly throne room. The King Messiah “has conquered” (verse 5), he is the winner and he is worthy to unfold the remainder of human history. The conquering King-Messiah can open the scroll! Don’t worry! Don’t be upset! God’s rule is secure

And he looks, and there is the throne room of God he sees another being he hasn’t noticed before. But his appearance is neither the Lion of Judah or the towering tree grown up out of the roots of the Davidic line. He sees in front of the throne “a Lamb standing as if it had been slain” (v 6). A lamb, standing up, obviously alive, but with the marks of slaughter – its throat opened to release all the blood.

This lamb has “seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Now, remember that this is a vision, and while we’re never sure how literally to understand things, we are certain that each element of the symbol has some literal significance. And these are clear. The number seven is the number of perfection – not just completeness; twelve might easily denote that (twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of Jesus). Seven is perfection, and the seven eyes are clearly indicating that this lamb has perfect knowledge, perfect insight into all things in the universe; the omniscience of God! And the seven spirits – or “seven-fold Spirit” as I mentioned last time, points to the fulness of the holy Spirit which was bestowed on the Messiah at his baptism.

That’s what he saw – not the Lion but the Lamb. The significance of this is beyond a minor and unimportant detail in Bible facts. This is central to the story of Jesus.

You see, the Jewish people in the time of Christ do not seem to have understood another passage in their Bible referred to the Messiah. That passage is Isaiah 53 – the suffering servant of the Lord who “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53.7). They knew the passage and they knew it was significant. But, in trying to put together the promises about the Messiah before his appearance, this was not one they included. You see, the Messiah was a conquering King – the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. The Messiah was not a suffering servant; they figured this suffering servant must refer to some other person, or perhaps, to the whole nation as they suffered in anticipation of the redemption the Messiah would bring.

And, just like Jesus Christ had done for all of the apostles in his life and death and resurrection, the host of heaven now reveal in a vision – Suffering Servant is the Conquering King.

Much of the message of early Christians was about this subject – the suffering servant is the same conquering king, he is the Messiah. “Was it not necessary,” Jesus said to the two people walking on the road to Emmaus the day after the empty tomb, “was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer and then enter into his glory?”

I know we think of Judaism and Christianity as two completely separate and distinct religions. The truth is that the Christian movement grew out of Judaism. The early Christians saw themselves as the legitimate heirs of the ancient religion of the Old Testament, the children of Abraham before the exile. In the early church, the Christian mission to the Jews was fruitful for over two whole centuries and more. And this vision shows us the essence of their claim: Isaiah’s suffering lamb is Jacob’s Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Messiah is both the suffering servant and the conquering king. He is a king but he is the servant-King. The first time, he came to suffer; he will come a second time to reign.
And, in his vision, John looks as the Lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of the one on the throne. He receives the right to rule over the nations. And when he does this, to coin a phrase, all heaven breaks loose.

For the rest of the chapter, picture it this way: Think of a huge stadium in which a football game is being played. On the field, in the center of the field, is the key player, the one on whom the game ultimately depends, the quarterback who calls the plays. He is surrounded by all the other players on the field. One sidelines are all of those who are assisting in the game – the other players not presently in the game, the officials, the coaches, even the waterboys. And in the stands are the cheering crowds.
That’s the image of this chapter. John sees, in concentric circles:
  • God and the Lamb on the throne.
  • The entourage of the throne room, described before, around them. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders.
  • But John’s insight widens and he sees on the sidelines, angels in uncounted numbers, who are the servants of the game.  
  • And, in the stands, all creation, every animate being in the universe.

And, when those on the field fall down in worship, the angels join in, and then all creation adds their little shout and roar and twitter and squeak.

And what do they worship the Lamb for? They say,
Rev. 5.9–10: Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth.
Why is he worshiped in heaven? Three reasons:
  • First, “you were slain” – that is, “slaughtered,” in the most cruel and unfair manner imaginable. That is a simple historical fact.
  • Second, “by your blood you purchased people for God from every part of the human race” – that is the divine interpretation of that simple historical fact.
  • Third, “you have made them a kingdom (corporately) and priests (individually) to our God” – that is the intended result of that fact.

They worship him in heaven because in Jesus Christ the Creator and Ruler of the universe became the Redeemer of the people of God.

You have undoubtedly heard the music of the famous rock opera from 1970, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It has had quite a revival in major cities of late. The story line is mostly from the perspective of Judas, who is portrayed rather sympathetically as a man bewildered by Jesus – he just can’t figure out who he is and why in the world he is doing the things he does. Let’s close by looking at the words of the theme song together.

Every time I look at you I don't understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned.
Why'd you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
Don't you get me wrong,
I only want to know.

(Chorus) Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop?
Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or
Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?
Don't you get me wrong.
I only want to know.

(Chorus) Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're what they say you are?

In many ways, those words express the attitudes and the feelings of those who are sitting in the stadium of this world watching the game of life unfold – but it’s not the same game being played in the stadium of heaven. They are mystified, bewildered, doubtful of who this Jesus is.
The fact is, on earth, they still don’t know who he is.

But, we know from Revelation chapter five, that in heaven, they know who he is and they worship him as the Redeemer of God’s people, the controller of history, the final judge.

When we celebrate communion, we walk out of the stadium of this world and we take our place in the stadium of God and we side with the worship of heaven.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Worthy is the Lord, Part One (Revelation 4.1-11)

In his twenties, one of my sons worked at a high-end restaurant in New Orleans for a time. One thing they did, which I was unaware is a common restaurant practice, is that they fed the employees before the restaurant opened. That way, all the wait staff have the opportunity, over a period of time, to taste everything on the menu.

In a similar way, I have found that the only way to teach the Bible well, is to first taste the food you are serving to others. If I enjoy a passage as I’m preparing, others will most likely enjoy it as well. And, if that is the case, then today is a good day because I feasted on this passage this week!

I had Mary Kay read both chapters four and five because it recounts the two parts of the beginning of the second vision in the book of Revelation. I titled this week ‘Part One’ because I plan to look at chapter five as ‘Part Two’ on the first Sunday in May when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
The book of Revelation contains a series of four visions which John the apostle saw when he was exiled to the island of Patmos, off the coast of western Turkey today, by the Roman government late in his life. Each vision is set apart by the words, “I was in the Spirit….” The first vision, beginning in 1.10, contained messages from Jesus for seven churches in western Turkey for which John was responsible. The letter to each church contains both approval and criticism about their church life. 

Most interpreters note that the letters are meant to give us the various spiritual states in which churches may be found throughout the entire period between Christ’s first coming and his return – what is usually called ‘the church age.’

Now, at the outset, it’s important to note that the message of the book of Revelation was given in pictorial form. This is told to us in the first verse of the book which says,
Rev. 1.1: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.
Both words translated ‘to show’ and the words “he made it known’ tell us something about the form in which the truths will be revealed – they both mean to reveal graphically. And throughout the book, the operative words of the writer are “I saw…” rather than “I heard….” Even where he says, “I heard…” it is connected with what he saw – he heard the whirring of angel’s wings, the voices of martyrs below the altar, and so forth. It is a pictorial revelation – each of the visions contain symbolic presentations of some important truth. But the symbols in the book are not just some kind of mystical or impenetrable thing that would make the book cryptic, like a puzzle that only the initiated could understand. Not at all, each symbol has a literal significance that a person can understand by studying the ways that symbol is found elsewhere in the Bible.

The second vision begins with these words:
Rev. 4.1–2a: After this (that is, after the letters to the seven churches) I looked and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet (in chapter one), said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.
Now, this vision will last until chapter 17. Much of it concerns the whole series of events that will surround the return of Christ and the setting up of his kingdom.

But the words, ‘I will show you what must take place after this’ do not mean everything he is going to reveal is about the distant future. ‘After this’ simply means ‘from this point forward.’ And most of those who read the book seriously and try to understand what it means for us acknowledge that what John first sees is the present, in fact, the constant scene in heaven.

Here – in symbolic form of a vision – John is ushered into the throne room of heaven and he sees and hears things. These things were not just for his spiritual edification; they were revealed for the sake of all Christians throughout the church age. As Toto pulled aside the curtain in the Wizard of Oz and revealed who really controlled things in OZ, so the Spirit opens the door of heaven and gives the apostle a clear line of sight into the eternal throne room of God.

The chapter divides into two simple parts: First, the scene in the heavenly throne room; second, the activity in the throne room.

It’s interesting to me how there is such an argument over whether these things are literal or figurative. In the throne room of God, are there actually twenty-four elders and four living creatures? Does an emerald rainbow really surround the throne? I can only say, those aren’t the most important questions. The most important questions are, ‘What do these things signify? What does the symbol mean? That’s what I want to focus on. After all, a person could win the argument that they are literal, but not have a clue about what they point to – in which case, he’s missed the point of the book.

What does John see? A throne. The one seated on the throne (evidently God) is not described. He is only said to have the appearance of two stones. These stones which are among those stones on the high priest’s breastplate in the Old Testament and also are listed in Revelation 21. They seem to point to the majesty and glory of God as the only ruler.

Around the throne is an emerald-colored rainbow. This one is easier. The rainbow in scripture always points back to the first rainbow in Genesis 9 after the flood when God made promise to all living things – the promise is that he would not destroy the earth again by a flood but, in fact, he will maintain the created order until the completion of his plan for the earth. The rainbow in the clouds tells us of the mercy and grace of God. His absolute majesty and glory are tempered by his mercy towards his creatures in withholding final judgment – all praise to God that he doesn’t ‘whack’ us each time we sin. He is longsuffering toward us to give us time to repent.

The center is the throne, and then, verse 4:
Verse 4: Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.
Here, encircling the throne are these beings – they are the heavenly entourage. As a king would have nobles who serve him in his throne room, here are twenty-four of them. His ‘posse.’ His ‘peeps.’ But what do they signify? Books have been written about the twenty-four elders. People fight exegetical wars about them. I will give you only in brief my own decision.

Later in the book, in chapter 21 John sees a vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem – we are told that there are gates on the four walls of the city corresponding to the four points of the compass and on the gates are inscribed the twelve tribes of Israel, three on each side. The wall also has twelve foundations and on the foundation stones are inscribed the names of the twelve apostles of Jesus. This points to all of the redeemed of the old covenant and the new covenant. Their white robes symbolize their purity as redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Their crowns point to the fact that they have overcome or conquered in the midst of difficulties – this points to the letters to the churches in the preceding two chapters which each end with the words, “to the one who conquers, I will give….”
I think they are angels but that’s not important – the point is, the Lord in his throne room is surrounded by all of the redeemed of all ages. All of redeemed humanity are represented before him – they rule with him (after all, they too sit on thrones).
Verse 5: From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder
These are the same as were seen on Mount Sinai when God came and give the law to Israel. They indicate God’s absolute justice which must always be kept in mind. Those who think of God as a kindly old grandfather who simply overlooks our transgressions have yet to understand the gospel! In saving fallen human beings, he does not give up one ounce of his justice. Again, 
Verse 5: …and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.
This can be understood from other uses of this image in the book, even in the next chapter. As seven is the number of perfection, the seven torches burning represent the abundant fullness of God’s Holy Spirit – the ‘sevenfold spirit’ some translate this – who is the presence of God. And the Spirit is also the presence of God at every point of his creation, even if, at least in this vision, he is localized in the throne room of heaven.
Verse 6: And before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
Three ideas could fit this from Scripture, each of which would end in a similar meaning. Let me just tell you most likely one: The basic image the sea has in scripture comes from Genesis chapter one. It represents the wild untamed forces of the universe in rebellion against the Lord of heaven – it later is represented by the Red Sea, which the Lord controlled so Israel could cross, and even later by the ‘bronze sea’ – the huge pool in the tabernacle which the priest used to bathe in. In the heavenly throne room, this sea – all of the untamed forces of nature which ravage us as humans – are all under the direct control of the Lord. In his presence, all is calm and at peace. There is no dissension.

One more thing: There are four living creatures, angelic beings similar to those in Old Testament visions. They have different appearance in verses 6–8: one of a man, one of a lion, one of an ox, and one of an eagle. These represent four orders of beings among animate creation. Each is the head of its category: Humans, wild animals, domesticated animals, and birds. So, as the twenty-four elders represent all of the redeemed, the four living creatures represent all of animate creation; all created things which have life.

So, what does John see? The heavenly throne room of God. God seated on the throne in majesty, glory, grace, and justice. All of the redeemed of all ages surrounding him in their purity having overcome the tribulations of this world. All of animate creation is represented as well – even the forces of rebellion are there, tamed and contrite.

That’s the scene. But what is going on in this scene? Two things: One is the activity of animate creation, and then there is the response by all of redeemed creation.
The four living creatures never cease to say,
Verse 8: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!
When it says they never cease to say this, it doesn’t mean that they don’t ever stop – after all, the next says, “Whenever they do this, the elders respond.” So, it means that they regularly do this – how often once, twice a day? Every hour? Who knows? But they continue to do it.

They declare his holiness – his absolute difference from everything he has made. His worthiness which is related to the fact of his eternal existence. All else comes and goes at distinct points in time. God alone has always been. Note the Old Testament title – the Lord God Almighty. This title underlines God’s transcendent control of history. You see, in the heavenly throne room, they acknowledge that whatever lies in the future is under the control of God.

And when they do this, the twenty-four elders respond: They get off their thrones and fall down in worship, they give the crowns they received for overcoming tribulation in life to God – acknowledging that divine and sovereign grace was the source even of their obedience. And if the living creatures extolled God’s right to control history, the elders take it a step further. They say,
Verse 11: Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
They praise God, not so much for being eternal, but for being the creator. This is basic to scripture — the creator has the right to control his creation. If this vision is going to unfold history from that time until the end, God alone has the right to do that. The creator has the right to determine and to work out the destiny of his creation. He is Lord of history and Lord of eternity.

Note the title they use: “Our Lord and God.” Do you know what is fascinating about that? Most interpreters conclude that John saw and wrote down these visions during the reign of Domitian who reigned from 81 – 96 AD. Domition was the one who gave himself the title in Latin, ‘dominus et deus noster’ meaning ‘our lord and god.’ This title is a direct contradiction of that. No earthly political ruler is lord and god. None have any real power. The only true Lord and God, the lord of history and eternity, is in heaven. He rules above all and always.

That’s the vision of John in Revelation 4:
  • The throne room of heaven,
  • God ruling in majesty and power,
  • signs of his justice and his grace before his throne,
  • All of animate creation is represented crying out his holiness and right to determine history
  • all the redeemed are represented casting their crowns before him and declaring his worthiness as Creator to carry out his eternal purpose for his creation.

That’s the scene we see at the point when the vision begins to unfold all of the events – of the present and the future – that will lead to the triumph of the lamb, the vindication of God’s people, the final defeat of evil, and the establishment of a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Now, what does this mean? What are we meant to draw from this? Well, how many directions can we go in? How long do we have to consider this? We could spend weeks of Sunday mornings just considering this one vision.

But let’s take two ideas from it and draw them out.

One of the things this vision shows us clearly is that the purpose of all creation is to acknowledge the worthiness of the creator. Remember our starting verse in worship this morning?
Psalm 19.1: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
God designed creation to do this. He so constructed the universe that everywhere we turn, we are confronted with the existence and power of God. In heaven, in the very presence of the eternal God, this is continually being acknowledged. Even now, unseen to us, as we make our way through this created world.

Now, most of animate creation does this by design. Consider the lion, in the vision, the lion – male and female – represents the greatest of the wild animals. The head of its category. Lions play, mate, make dens, drop their young and nourish them at the breast, and protect them from other predators. The lion kills other animals to feed on and to feed its young. And each thing that it does, each action, says, ‘The one who created me is infinitely great!’ The lion lives out the purpose of its existence – to give praise to the Creator by its very existence.

Now, we human beings have the same design: We, too, were created in order to display the power, wisdom, and majesty of the creator. But we were created for another purpose as well – the rule over the creation for the glory of the Lord. To be his image, his representative on the earth. So, we were granted something that the rest of animate creation has only in a rudimentary form – we alone have full consciousness and responsibility to choose to act for the glory of God.

Yet in this world, we do not do that consistently. That is the root of all sin – that failure to live for the glory of the eternal God. That is the reason that God the creator became God the redeemer in Christ as the next chapter will show.

Note how, in the vision, the animate creation declares the holiness of God and his right to rule and the redeemed creation (the twenty-four elders) respond to their call. We who by divine grace have been brought to trust in Christ are to respond to the created order by adding to their unconscious, ordered praise our own chosen praise. Note how we declare his worthiness, not just his fundamental holiness but his worthiness to be praised from the heart.

This is the purpose for which God made us. But even those who are not believers have this responsibility – if you are a human being, you are made in the image of God. And the reason you were created was to show forth the wisdom, the power, and the rights of your creator. To whatever degree you do not do that, you fall short of the reason you were made. Ultimately, that is what sin is! The refusal to give the creator his crown rights to rule over you. Even the atheist, at times looks up at the sky on a cloudless night and feels a sense of transcendent admiration for something far greater than himself – but what does he do? He thanks the blind and purposeless universe for its greatness. But something that great had to have a Creator.

The purpose of all creation is to acknowledge the worthiness of the creator. But, let’s go on a bit deeper.

This vision of John, which results in God’s unfolding of his eternal plan for the conclusion of the human story, shows us that at the center of all creation is the throne of God. The beings around his throne are acknowledging in worship his right to rule. This is going on continually – whatever follows may describe things that have not yet happened, but the starting point in the vision is the eternal throne room of God. 

Two nights ago, a coalition led by our president and nation and accompanied by England and France bombed locations in Syria because of the recent chemical weapons attack. This puts the whole world on edge – for myself, this is one of a handful of times in my life when I have felt the rumble of distant political events and wondered if that rumble will become an earthquake in my generation. We feel fear – we wonder what this will mean for ourselves, our children, and grandchildren, and the future of history. Things may improve as a result or they may deteriorate. Political problems in the Middle East may begin to progress from here to something better. Or, they may continue on the same. Or, they may get far worse. Who knows?

But know this: In the throne room of the Lord God, the water in the crystal sea before his throne remains as clear as crystal – not a ripple creased its surface. The wings of the four living creatures around his throne didn't miss a beat as they rose to declare his worthiness. At the appropriate time, they cried out ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord,’ and the elders cast their crowns before the throne.

And all of that is true not because God is simply removed from the serious concerns of our life on earth – as though his throne in heaven were in a different galaxy and he is just too great, too transcendent and otherworldly to take notice of our small problems. Oh no! It’s not because of that. It’s because he is in control – and he is weaving out of history a tapestry that will, in the end, tie off every loose end and complete every aspect of its images. He unfolds history.

The throne of God is the true center of the universe. This reminds us that at all times, God rules.  
When our lives are shaken by trouble and turmoil, God rules. Whether that trouble is inside of us – in depression or anxiety – or outside of us in life’s events, God rules. Whether it shakes the foundations of our family and marriage or upsets our job – God rules.  Whether our beloved country recovers its way through a revival of godliness or continue to decline into the dustbin of history in a slow and steady slide away from God and all that is right, God rules.

God rules. That’s what he reminds us today.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday: "Declared the Son of God in Power" (Romans 1.4)

I was raised in a vaguely Protestant home. Religion was important as sort of an historical relic of the past that we honored because it reminded us of our heritage. But, for any practical purpose in the present life, it was really worthless. Religion was much like my grandfather’s shaving cup and brush and razor that I have displayed here in front – these were given to him on his seventeenth Christmas in 1911. They are valuable to me, but only in an emotional, personal sense because they represent my past; but they have no real purpose or value for the future.

In college I came to believe that Jesus Christ was a living Savior, risen from the dead, and capable of invading people’s lives today. I remember when I shared this with my grandfather in his old age. And I’ll never forget what he said – in many ways his words have shaped the direction of my life. He said, ‘Tommy, why does it matter if Jesus actually rose from the dead? What if he just ‘rose’ in those people’s hearts who felt the power of his teaching?’

Later, I came to realize how widespread that belief was in my grandfather’s generation. You see, in the early 1900’s, there was a storm in the Christian churches called, ‘the modernist-fundamentalist controversy.’ Many pastors and teachers believed that in order to be acceptable to the modern world, Christianity was going to have to adapt. In the modern world, miracles are unknown, science explains all of the mysteries of life, and human happiness and fulfillment is the central concern. In such a world, the doctrines of Christianity must adjust to what people need and want. And one of the main things to be done away with is the resurrection of Christ. After all, as we have all been taught since the enlightenment in the 1700’s, we can only know what can be verified scientifically – and, as I knew a year later when I stood at the casket of my grandfather, dead people stay dead. They don’t come back to life.

But, you see, in his generation, those who had at least a sentimental attachment to Jesus and the Christian religion, advanced two ideas.
  • If they were either full-fledged materialists who believe there is nothing outside of what we can verify with our five senses, they said, ‘He rose in people’s hearts.’ This meant that he didn’t really rise from the dead but they still found his teachings important – especially those that fit in with our notions today.   
  • If they believed that there might be something about the human person beyond the material – a soul or spirit of some type – they suggested that Jesus was such an important person that when early Christians spoke of resurrection, they simply meant that ‘he went directly to heaven when he died.’ That’s not what the Bible means by resurrection, in fact, it’s not something any Jewish person at the time could have conceived of, but it means we can still find his teachings important – especially those that we find acceptable today.

Now, we are almost fifty years past my conversation with my grandfather. And it is evident that those who hold such ideas, about Jesus’ rising in people’s hearts and such, are a very small number. No one is writing books about that any more. And the reason is that such a Jesus would make no difference in the present world – such a Jesus is presently being abandoned by the descendants of my grandfather’s generation. Such a Jesus has no power. He may have taught some good things, but we don’t need him to have his teachings.

What does this word, ‘resurrection,’ really mean? What does it claim about Jesus? Why would it make any difference to you, today in 2018?

I’d like to draw your attention to the passage read to us just a few minutes ago – the opening paragraph of the letter to the Romans written by the apostle Paul, one of the initiators of the Christian movement. These seven verses are actually one, long, run-on sentence. Long sentences are not popular in our time but the modern Bible version on your seats, rather than breaking it up into several sentences has retained it. A run-on sentence is often hard to untangle but I’d like to show you that this one is quite simple. The paragraph is entitled “Greeting.” Paul (v 1) to all those in Rome who are loved by God” (v 7). That’s the reason for the paragraph. Paul asserts, verse one, that he is called to represent the gospel; this gospel concerns God’s Son, Jesus Christ; specifically, two things: 1) he was descended from David according to the flesh (v 3), and 2) he was declared to be the Son of God in power (v 4). Paul’s assigned task is to spread this gospel.

Now, this morning for a few minutes, I would like us only to focus on the second element of this gospel message, since it is relevant to what we think about on Easter Sunday. Verse 4: This Jesus
“was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”
Jesus’ resurrection qualified him to be declared – that is, identified publicly and openly, to be known widely from that point forward as, “the Son of God.” This is a well-known title of Jesus – even Muslims know it because it is the basic idea that they firmly reject. Every culture in which I have ever encountered Muslims and talked about God, they have told me, “God can not have a son!”
So, what does this mean, ‘declared the Son of God in power’? Instead of just giving our own ideas about what such a title might mean, it would be best to consider what people in Jesus’ time would have thought. There were two cultures, with two worlds of meaning, in Jesus’ day – they were the Jewish world and the Roman world. The Jewish world was made up of the concepts in the Old Testament; the Roman world was built on the basic elements of Greek philosophy. In both systems, ‘son of god’ had distinct ideas.

In the Jewish thought-world, ‘son of God’ had two interlocking meanings: 
  • First, Israel, the people of God, and 
  •  then, the king of Israel, and later, the Messiah, as the representative of Israel. 

Put that on one side: Israel and the Messiah.

      In the Roman thought-world, there were two meanings – a religious meaning and a political meaning. 
  • ‘Son of god’ could refer to many different characters in the family of gods – demigods, heroes, and so forth. Thus, Hercules was a ‘son of god,’ since he was born from a sexual relationship between Zeus (the chief god) and a mortal woman.
  • But also, politically, the Roman emperor could be called ‘son of god.’ This started with Augustus Caesar in this way: Augustus had his predecessor and uncle, the founder of the Empire, Julius Caesar, proclaimed by the senate after his death as a god; then Augustus began to use the title ‘son of god’ to refer to himself.

As the early Christians went out into both Jewish and Roman society, they proclaimed Jesus as ‘the Son of God.’ In the New Testament, this takes on three distinct meanings: one from the Old Testament/Jewish world; one from the Roman/Greek world; and one that uniquely developed among Christianity itself based on the person of Jesus. Let me suggest that these three tell us how we should understand that Jesus was ‘declared the Son of God in power.’

First, it might surprise you that early in the Old Testament, God calls the people of Israel his son. He tells Moses to go to Israel and tells the Pharaoh,
Exodus 4.22: ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.”’
So, later in their history, God says through the prophet Hosea,
Hosea 11.1: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
Israel, in the Old Testament, were the people of God. And God treated them as a father treats his unique, beloved child. But Israel was not an easy child to raise – they often rebelled. So, this image developed through their history in a specific way.

Once there was a king appointed by God, King David, he began to be called the Son of God. In the same way that David in his youth represented the whole nation when he encountered Goliath in battle so that his victory was a victory for the nation, the king represented the nation as God’s son. And the promise was that, one of David’s descendants would be the final, anointed king, the Messiah. And the Messiah was called son of God in the sense that he would represent the people of God before God by atoning for their sins.

That’s the first thing this means in Romans – ‘declared the son of God in power’ means that he was acknowledged by God to be the promised Messiah, the deliverer of the people of God. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised deliverer.

We need one who will represent us. The fact is, Israel as we read of them in the Old Testament were unfaithful to God. And that unfaithfulness is simply an indication that all people stand in the same condition before God – Israel, even with all of their privileges and blessings, did not obey. Certainly, those who do not share those privileges and blessings are in not going to be any different. No, Isaiah said,
Isaiah 53.6: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’
‘Declared to be the Son of God in power’ – that is, the Messiah, the representative substitute for sinful people. And what qualified him to own this title? He “was declared to be the son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” His resurrection was the stamp of approval that authenticated him as the representative of the people of God.

That idea came directly from the Old Testament. The second one came as a response to the common meaning of ‘son of God’ in the Roman empire at the time of Jesus life.

Just about a generation before Jesus, the Roman republic became the Roman Empire when Julius Caesar came to power. It was really his nephew, Octavias, who consolidated power and became known as Caesar Augustus. He had Julius declared a ‘god’ and part of the family of Roman gods and from that point forward, he called himself ‘the son of God.’ This became the practice of all the following rulers of Rome. The Latin words ‘divi filii’ – son of god – were minted on their coins.
In direct confrontation with the government of the Roman empire, the early Christians used the title ‘Son of God’ to refer to Jesus. They didn’t choose that title on the basis of pagan usage; the title was already theirs from the Old Testament title for the Messiah. But, there is no question that when early Christians used it, they meant it to stand in stark contrast with the prevailing attitudes of the day in their society.

The underlying reasoning for this was that, in Jewish thought out of which they grew, the early Christians knew the Messiah was the world’s true Lord. To them ‘Son of God’ meant ‘Lord of the World,’ the world’s rightful king. Caesar called himself ‘Lord of lords,’ but they knew that title only belonged to Jesus.

As a modern interpreter has written:
Calling Jesus ‘son of god’ within this wider circle of meaning constituted a refusal to retreat, a determination to keep Christian discipleship from turning into a private cult, a sect, a mystery religion. It launched a claim on the world: a claim at once absurd (a tiny group of nobodies [taking a potshot at] the might of Rome!) and very serious, so serious that within a couple of generations the might of Rome was trying, and failing, to stamp it out…. [Christians] refused to relinquish the world to the principalities and powers but claimed even them for allegiance to the Messiah who was now the [world’s true] lord. (N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 729).
‘Declared to be the Son of God in power’ means that those of us who acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God are saying that we are a collection of rebel cells within the political systems of this world, loyal to a different king and a different set of values.

And why is this important? Because we not only need one who will represent us; we need one who will guide us through this barren world.

These are difficult times in which we live, and there are siren voices speaking to us all around, calling us with authority to follow them:

·         On the one hand, those who belief in the inevitable ‘progress’ of this world. They are crying out that utopia is just around the corner – set free from subjection to religion and to authority outside of ourselves, we will find a world with personal freedom to do and be what we want unhindered by those who want to think there are some eternal values we must observe.

·         And, on the other hand, there are those who believe in ‘traditional values,’ are telling us that ‘the good old days’ of the past will return if we will only return to the practices of past generations. Then, we will find the utopia we long for – peace and prosperity and wealth.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ has designated him as the world’s true Lord – all others are only seeking to establish their own little kingdoms. Progress – real progress - can only be made in submission to him. And the past was no better: the Bible knows only one ‘golden age’ to which the human heart longs to return – that brief shining moment before the fall, described in Genesis one and two as the beginning of human history, before sin entered the world.

The Lordship of Christ calls us to a completely different way of thinking and living. And the truth is, we need a ‘lord.’ Our efforts at guiding ourselves only prove to be failures.

There is, however, a third meaning to the title, ‘Son of God’ which the early Christians applied to Jesus. This is not only that he is the promised Messiah, the representative of the people of God; and not only the Lord of the world, it’s rightful ruler, not yet but certainly to be acknowledged by the whole world. This title has to do with God himself. 

This one was not taken from either the Jews or the Romans – in fact, it was a firm belief that was rejected by both Judaism and paganism. The Old Testament said that the salvation of his people would be the work of God himself – what did the resurrection have to say about this? It meant Jesus had accomplished what the covenant God of Israel had promised to do by his own power – his ‘arm,’ his ‘hand’ would bring redemption! Reflected on, this could only mean that Jesus, as ‘Son of God,’ was God himself! Or, as the church later began to call him – ‘God the Son.’

So, Christians, led by the words of Jesus himself in his final commission, began to put the Father and Son and the Spirit together on the ‘divine’ side of the equation of salvation. This meant that Jesus was not simply the messenger of God’s love and grace, but the very embodiment of it. In Jesus, God has spoken personally, loudly, and clearly.

And, the fact is, we need such a God! One who represents us as Messiah; one who leads us, as Lord; but also one who personally redeems us by his power.
2 Corinthians 5.19: In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…’
A ‘world’ of lost sinners – a vast number from every tribe and people and nation, redeemed by the work of God in Christ. ‘Son of God’ means that he is able to redeem all who come to him by faith and trust him. And what is it we are to trust? That he has been ‘declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead!’

But what is this ‘power’? Why was it not enough to say, ‘declared to be the Son of God?’ Why add, ‘in power’?

Well, when he appeared and lived and died in Palestine long ago, he came in weakness. And these are the images we carry of him in our culture. Three common images:
  • The Madonna with child – the image of Jesus, as a helpless infant in the arms of his caring and protecting adult mother.
  • The Crucifix – the image of Jesus hanging limply on the cross in the agony of death, powerless to overcome those who hung him there.
  • The Pieta – image of the grieving Mary holding her dead son across her lap.

Those are all accurate images from the word of God… my issue with them is that they are not enough. They portray him in his weakness. But, though he died in weakness, he was raised from the dead. It wasn’t just his teaching that arose in their hearts. It wasn’t just that he was so godly that he went immediately to heaven when he died. That quality of life which uniquely belongs to God – eternal life – was restored to his physical body so that he was ‘displayed,’ ‘designated,’ ‘declared’ to be the Son of God in power.

If all you have is the Son of God in weakness, you are not a Christian – only the Son of God in power can save. Only the Messiah ‘Son of God’ who represented us on the cross, only the Lord ‘Son of God’ who is able to guide and lead us, only God the Son himself can save and keep you forever.