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Archive for the ‘Revelation’ Category

Last fall my church asked me if I would be willing to serve for the next three years as a deacon, one of approximately 60 deacons elected to “minister to those who are in need; to the sick; to the friendless; and to any who may be in distress” in our congregation. I agreed to do so, and began my term in January.

Recently I was reading Acts 6 about how the first seven deacons were chosen by the apostles to administer a food program in the rapidly growing church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. The seven men–Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch—were chosen because they were “well respected among fellow believers and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” Their task as Greek-speaking men was to administer the food and charity program to the Greek widows in the church so that the apostles could focus on spending time in prayer, preaching the Gospel, and teaching the word of God.

But although Stephen and Philip are featured in Acts (6:5 to 7:60; 8:4-40; 21:8-10), there is no mention of the remaining five deacons in other New Testament pages.

So I dug through my library and discovered from early church history and Byzantine art that Prochorus was the amanuensis or secretary to whom the apostle John dictated the Fourth Gospel around A.D. 80-85, and that he was also the bishop of Nicomedia.

I found no further information anywhere about Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas, and I assumed that these men went on to quietly and faithfully work and worship anonymously within the early life of the church.

But what I discovered about the seventh deacon—Nicolas of Antioch—surprised me.

One of the early church historians, Irenaeus, stated that Nicolas of Antioch founded the Nicolaitans, a heretical group that “lived lives of unrestrained indulgence” (Against Heresies, I.26.3; III.11.1). Another early historian, Hippolytus, added that Nicolas departed from the correct doctrine of the faith (Philosophoumena, VII.36) and “was in the habit of inculcating indifference to food and life” (Refutation of Heresies, 7.24).

Although some early historians believe that it was another Nicolas that influenced the Nicolaitan sect, many scholars tend to accept the statements of Irenaeus and Hippolytus.

So, it would seem that approximately 60 years after Nicolas of Antioch was first described as well respected and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, he and the Nicolaitans became known for leading believers astray by introducing into the churches pagan teachings and practices from Greek-Roman society, such as eating food sacrificed to idols and practising immoral sexual acts.

This led Christ to declare in Revelation 2 that he hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans who had infiltrated three of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation—Ephesus, Pergamum, and, by implication, Thyatira. The leaders at Ephesus had denounced the Nicolaitans in their midst, but the leaders of the Pergamum and Thyatira churches tolerated them, especially a self-styled prophetess espousing pleasure and self-indulgence.

Although the seven churches were facing persecution from the Roman emperor Nero, the greater danger was from within their midst—from the influences of the Nicolaitans who were corrupting the beliefs and practices of the church by including immoral elements of the Greek-Roman society.

They were leading believers astray—and Christ hated their deeds (Rev. 2:6). It wasn’t that Christ hated the Nicolaitans themselves, for he loved mankind enough to have sacrificed his life to save us (John 3:16). He hated what they were doing. He loved the sinners, but hated their sinning!

That’s why Christ showed patience and mercy when he told the church at Thyatira:

I know all the things you do—your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things. But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman—that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet—to lead my servants astray. She is encouraging them to worship idols, eat food offered to idols, and commit sexual sin. I gave her time to repent, but she would not turn away from her immorality. Therefore I will throw her upon a sick bed, and she will suffer greatly with all who commit adultery with her, unless they turn away from their evil deeds. (Rev. 2:19-21, New Living Translation)

As I reflected on this passage and on Nicolas and the Nicolaitans, I wondered about how this could have happened. If the Nicolaitans came into being because of Nicolas of Antioch—the deacon who was well respected by the believers and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom—what happened to change him? Why did he begin to introduce heretical beliefs and practices into the church and corrupt the teachings of Christ? How and when did he stop allowing the Holy Spirit to lead him in making wise choices?

And was it a gradual process—a “slight edge” descent into the dark erotic side where he could attract a growing number of followers with a popular message of religous freedom to experience God while indulging in the pleasures of culinary and sexual delights?

And why did some of the churches tolerate this growing subculture within their midst? Were their leaders afraid to speak up against what they were doing? Were they being swayed by arguments that the church needed to be less restrictive and more like the surrounding society in order to attract more followers?

However the changes came about in those years between A.D. 33 and A.D. 90-95, it was enough for Christ to reprimand those churches and to say that he hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans!

And what about us today?

Might the Risen Christ be saying the same to us today—“I love you, my church, but I hate what some of you are doing”?

Churches and denominations are facing dangers from within as we fight over attempts to blend the ways of God with the ways of a secular world.

We are being split apart by attempts to rebrand and redefine the Bible’s view of God and the person of Jesus Christ into images, beliefs, and way of life that are more compatible and acceptable to an increasingly secular society.

Are we leading people astray when we emphasize the prosperity gospel and fail to teach that the Kingdom of God also involves the cross—suffering, sacrifice, and servanthood? How many people turn away from God when the prosperity that preachers promise fail to materialize?

Are we inviting Christ’s reprimand and chastening upon ourselves when we stray from the biblical standard for marriage, sex, and ordination of the clergy in order to gain the approval of a rapidly changing and indulgent modern society?

As people of God, followers of Christ, and leaders in a variety of roles within our churches and our families, we are being called to choose on which side of these issues we will stand and what legacy we will leave behind.

May we choose wisely.

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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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Clicky

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