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Archive for March, 2011


Recently I was watching MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on his show, The Last Word, when, in responding to a rival TV host who claimed that the Japanese earthquake and tsunami were evidence of the last days as depicted in the book of Revelation, he retorted, “The book of Revelation is a work of fiction that describes how a truly vicious God would bring about the end of the world. No half-smart religious person actually believes the book of Revelation anymore. Those people are certain that their God would never turn into a malicious torturer and mass murderer beyond Hitler’s wildest dreams.”

He went on to say that no “good and thoughtful Christian literally believes everything in the Bible,” citing such laws requiring the stoning to death of people who blasphemed the name of God, worked on the Sabbath, or disrespected a parent.

While there are many people who would express similar views, especially in a modern society that is becoming more secularized, there are also many “good and thoughtful Christians” on the right and the left who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that Revelation has something relevant to say to us. I count myself among them.

As a “half-smart” person who has traveled the world, lived in several countries, am moderate in my political and religious views, and hold undergrad and graduates degrees from both private conservative and public liberal universities, I am a committed follower of Jesus Christ and a serious student of the Bible. So here are my thoughts on the book of Revelation and some of the issues Lawrence cited:

* Revelation is a book of prophecies that, like many prophecies throughout the Bible, predict events that occur both within a short time of the prediction, as well as in some unspecified time in the distant future. Chapters 1-3 contain prophetic messages of warning and hope to Christians in seven churches in Asia, who were being persecuted by Emperor Domitian around A.D. 90-95 because they refused to worship him as a god. Chapters 4-22 contain prophecies about events that are yet to come, warning Christians about being seduced by the world, and encouraging them to stand firm and strong in their faith as they endure persecution and hardships.

* Revelation was written in an apocalyptic literary style that used a kaleidoscope of dramatic and symbolic imagery to convey a message of hope to persecuted Christians. It was a coded message designed to not only confuse the Roman persecutors who might get hold of this document, but also to be understood by the persecuted Christians for whom it was intended.  And it applies to Christians facing persecution in present and future times and places. While I don’t interpret the strange and startling imagery of Revelation literally, I accept as truth the central messages or themes that the book conveys. These themes include:

+    God is sovereign and is the greatest power in the universe. Rulers, empires, and religions will come and go, but despite the prevalence of evil and injustice throughout the history of the world, God is in control and will ultimately wipe away the powers of darkness and evil and unite true believers in his eternal kingdom.

+    Christ will return as the triumphant Ruler. The message is that no one knows the time of his return, but he will return and establish an eternal kingdom of peace, goodness, and security.

+    God’s people must remain faithful and devoted solely to Jesus. Each generation faces the temptation to give its allegiance to false gods, individuals, things, ideologies, wealth, fame, and more, but the call to remain faithful and devoted solely to Jesus rings out more than ever to God’s people, no matter in what era or under what circumstances we might live.

+    There will be a final Day of Judgment when the purveyors of evil and injustice will be punished and faithful believers rewarded with eternal life in God’s kingdom. Jesus confirms this in other books of the Bible, such as Matthew 16:27 and 25: 31-46.

 

+    Hope–in a resurrection from death to eternal life. Revelation and other books of the Bible reflect this theme, notably I Thessalonians 4: 13-18, where the apostle Paul describes how, on the day of Christ’s return, God will raise to life every person who has ever died—some to eternal reward, others to eternal punishment.

+    Hope—in a new heaven and a new earth. This theme is also in 2 Peter 3: 7-13 which describes how the heavens and the earth will be consumed by fire on that day of judgment and a new heaven and new earth will be revealed.

 

As for Lawrence’s references to the punishment of stoning people to death for such acts as child sacrifice, adultery, disrespecting parents, and blaspheming (Leviticus 20; Deuteronomy 22 and 27), we have to put them in their historical context to understand why God would command such severe measures.

Briefly stated, they were part of the covenant laws that God gave to the Jews after he led them out of slavery in Egypt and establish them as his holy nation to be the source of truth and salvation to all the world.  He gave them moral, civil, and ceremonial laws by which to live as a holy people, set apart from the pagan nations around them, and stressed to them, “You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Exodus 1-40; Leviticus1-27)

But the Jews failed to fulfill their calling as a holy nation, for they were constantly attracted to the lifestyles of surrounding pagan peoples, especially by the worship of fertility gods, temple prostitution, and loose morality. Time after time the Jews rebelled against the holy ways of God and followed the religions and lifestyles of their pagan neighbors, even practicing child sacrifice despite the eventual punishments that they would incur.

As Christians, we do not follow those laws that were meant for Jews going through a particular time in their history, because God has provided a new covenant of salvation for people of all nations and races to follow—a covenant of faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul, a devoted Jew and rabbi who persecuted Christians and watched as his people stoned Stephen to death for following Jesus Christ, saw the futility of the law after his own dramatic and powerful conversion to Jesus. Paul later wrote:

No one can be made right in God’s sight by doing what the law commands. For the more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it. (Romans 3:20)

Instead, Paul came to understand that God had provided a different way to please God:

We are made right in God’s sight when we trust Jesus to take away our sins. And we can all be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Jesus Christ, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us….Our acquittal is not based on our good deeds. It is based on our faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-25a, 27b-28, New Living Translation)

And it is with faith that Christians must approach the book of Revelation, for it was Jesus Christ who gave John, the writer of Revelation, a prophetic vision of events that would happen to Christians in the seven churches of Asia in the first century and to the Christian believers throughout history. (Revelation 1:1-2)

One might argue that prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled are essentially fiction, and therefore Revelation must be considered fiction.

However, the Bible contains over 2,500 prophecies of which about 2000 have already been fulfilled (http://www.reasons.org/fulfilled-prophecy-evidence-reliability-bible), especially Old Testament prophecies predicting things about Jesus hundreds of years before he was born. The following two websites provide examples of Old Testament prophecies that came true in Jesus–http://www.askapastor.org/proph.html and http://www.biblestudy.org/prophecy/old-testament-prophecies-jesus-fulfilled.html.

With over 80% of biblical prophecies already fulfilled, and 20% yet to be fulfilled in the future, I encourage readers to look past the strange imagery of Revelation and see the essential messages of truths that will be revealed.

***

“God blesses the one who reads this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to it and obey what it says. For the end is near when these things will happen” (Revelation. 1:3)

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It was 5 a.m. and dark outside when I left home for my daily walk one morning. It was cold and windy, but I was clothed warmly for the five-mile trek along a route that included a steep stretch of road into the hills above our neighborhood of Granada Hills, one of the towns in the San Fernando Valley, just outside Los Angeles.

I was eager to walk that morning, for I was deeply troubled about my life and needed to work off a lot of pent-up frustration. But even more importantly, I needed the time of solitude and privacy along those deserted and darkened roads to pray and seek God’s help and direction.

As I walked I poured out my frustrations to God. I told him how burdened and beaten down I felt, and how I had lost the passion, dream, and direction for my life.

Then somewhere along the walk, amidst my tears, weariness, self-pity, and complaints, the Lord reminded me of some verses from Isaiah 40, the words seemingly rushing back into my consciousness with each step that I took:

Why do you say, O Jacob,
And speak, O Israel:
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
And my just claim is passed over by my God”?
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The everlasting God, the Lord,
The Creator of the ends of the earth,
Neither faints nor is weary.
His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the weak,
And to those who have no might He increases strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall fall exhausted,
But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:27-31, New King James Version—NKJV)

I mulled those words over in my mind, especially, “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

A scene from the past flashed in my mind, one that I had seen many times from our church which sits atop one of the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

It was a scene of a high-flying bird—sometimes an eagle, sometimes a hawk—hovering or slowly gliding majestically above the slopes. Its wings would always be spread wide, almost motionless, as it circled above unhurriedly under the California sun, as if waiting patiently for something. Inevitably it would connect with that something—an unseen thermal draft—its outstretched wings catching the full force of the swift-rising column of hot air that would send it soaring effortlessly to greater heights with hardly a flap of its wings and no wasted energy.

As I walked up the steep hill in the dark that morning, I closed my eyes, spread out my arms eagle-like, and tried to imagine what it would be like to wait for those thermal drafts and soar like an eagle. The cold wind blew steadily on my face, chest, and outstretched arms, and I began to feel as if I were being lifted gently off the ground and borne aloft by the wind.

Though my feet continued to pound the ground in a steady walk up the hill, my imagination took me to another realm where I seemingly experienced the sensation of flying like an eagle high above the San Fernando Valley, with the city lights shimmering and sparkling below and the dawn’s faint light gently washing the eastern sky. I felt as if I were hovering in the wind, gliding, waiting, and then soaring as a thermal draft swept me upwards and effortlessly to higher levels of flight above the valley.

The sensation of flight was wonderful and thrilling, sending shivers through my body. But an even deeper sensation followed—an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and a feeling of total well-being. This was God’s touch of grace, his moment of blessing for one who was poor in spirit, and one who mourned (Matthew 5:3-4).

Later that day and in the following days as I thought about that transcendent experience, God communicated clearly and profoundly through various scripture passages how to reinvigorate our lives as Christian believers:

· Never give up and quit.

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed or broken. We are perplexed, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, New Living Translation—NLT)

· Wait patiently for God and he will restore our flagging strength and spirit.

Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. (Psalm 37:7, NLT)

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be astounded. They will put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3, NLT)

· Trust God completely to do what he promises in his Word.

…those who trust the Lord will possess the land. (Psalm 37:9b, NLT)

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NLT)

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and in his good time he will honor you. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about what happens to you. (I Peter 5:6-7, NLT)

· Rest quietly in him.

The Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says, “Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15, NLT)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)

· The Holy Spirit’s presence and will are to us what the thermal air currents are to the eagle or hawk.

But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31, NKJV)

I take joy in doing your will, my God, for your law is written on my heart. (Psalm 40:8, NLT)

Always be joyful. Keep praying. No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. Do not stifle the Holy Spirit.
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-19, NLT)

I’ve never been able to recapture that sensation of flying, but the lessons learned through that experience and those scripture passages have stayed with me, especially whenever I see one of those majestic creatures soaring over the slopes of our San Fernando Valley.

****

Prayer: Dear heavenly Father, sometimes we find ourselves tired, discouraged, and utterly burnt out on life. Thank you for assuring us through your holy Word that if we wait patiently on you and seek your guidance, you will renew our strength, reinvigorate our flagging spirits, restore us to our rightful minds, and empower us to soar to greater heights of living and serving. Teach us to wait patiently, for it is in quiet waiting that we experience you in your fullness and transforming power. Amen.

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