December 2, 2012

Scripture and Commentary, Week of the First Sunday in Advent


Monday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 1, 3, Isaiah 1:1-9, Mark 1:1-13
Evening - Ps. 4, 8, Is. 1:10-20, Rev. 3:14-22

Commentary,  Revelation 3:14-22

Laodicea is the seventh church addressed in Revelation, and it is best known for being lukewarm (3:16).  Many modern readers believe this refers to a lack of devotion, as though the church is neither possessed of a burning devotion to Christ, nor totally devoid of devotion, but this raises the question of why Christ would rather them be hot or cold than lukewarm.  Surely He is not saying no devotion is better than lukewarm devotion?  Instead of this very popular view, our Lord probably compares the church to the hot and cold springs for which the area was known.  Believed to have medicinal benefits, water from them was drinkable very hot or very cold, but nauseating when lukewarm, causing people seeking cures to spit them out.  So the meaning of "lukewarm" is that the church of Laodicea is like the run off from the hot and cold springs after it has lost its heat or cold.  In contemporary language, they are completely lost.  Therefore the Lord will spit them out. 

The cause of their lukewarmness is their attachment to the things of the world, which causes them to neglect Christ.  They are "increased with goods" and believe they "have need of nothing" (3:17).  In reality they are spiritually poor and in desperate need of the true wealth that can only be received by grace through faith (3:18).  They need the eyes of their souls to be anointed with medicine so they can see Christ and be saved.  Thus, our Lord urges them to repent (3:19).

We are now brought to the well known words of verse 20, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock."  It must be noted that the words are addressed to the Church rather than the world, and that their call is to those who consider themselves Christians.  The call is to examine their lives and hearts to see if they are truly Christians as defined in Scripture rather than as defined by their own ideas of what a Christian is.  This kind of self examination is critical to the Church, for we must always compare what we believe and teach to Scripture, lest we, too, become lukewarm.

Verses 20-22 tell of the blessings of those who "open the door" to Christ, and remain faithful to Him through temptation and tribulation.  Like each previous letter, the one to Laodicea ends with the invitation to hear what the Lord is saying to the churches.  It is important to remember that the persecution which has put John in prison on Patmos and taken Antipas to a martyr's death is going to increase in scope and severity.  The churches will not be able to persevere through it if they are preoccupied with wealth, heresy, or division.  These things will entice the heart away from Christ, and, if faced with the choice of giving up their faith in Christ or their lives, they will give up Christ.  So Christ is calling them to a single minded faith that will see them through the fires and the crosses and the gladiators, and bring them safely to heaven.  This is the purpose and meaning of the letters to the seven churches.

Tuesday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 7, Is. 1:21-28, Mark 1:14-28
Evening - Ps. 11, 12, Is, 2:1-5, Rev. 4

Commentary, Revelation 4

The theme of Revelation 4 is the absolute glory of God.  He sits enthroned in glory (4:2-3).  He is surrounded by elders wearing golden crowns and sparkling white robes, and seated on thrones (4:4). Thunder and lightning and voices come from the throne, as do seven immense, burning lamps of fire that symbolise the perfection of the Holy Spirit (4:5).  He is worshiped and obeyed by great and powerful beings (4:6-8).  And when they give thanks and worship to God the elders fall down before Him in worship, saying, "Thou art worthy, O Lord" (4:10).

Everything about this chapter is intended to show the immeasurable power and glory of God.  Earthly empires wax and wane.  Kings and rulers "take counsel together against the Lord, and against his Anointed" (Ps. 2:2).  But God is so far above them He rules Heaven in perfect peace, as though the rebellious and unGodly on earth do not even exist.

The elders also exist in peace.  Probably representing Christians who have died in the persecution, they dwell under the "defense of the Most High," and abide "under the shadow of the Almighty" in the rich security of the presence of God, where none of their earthly tormentors can reach them.  "He shall call upon me, and I will hear him; yea, I am with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and bring him to honour, with long [eternal] life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation" (Ps 91:15 and 16). White robes were promised to those who overcome persecution by remaining faithful unto Christ (Rev. 2:10).

Verse 11 conveys an important message to those who remain in danger on earth.  This wonderful Being, adored by the creatures and enthroned in glory, is the Creator of all that is.  Everything exists by and for Him, including those who persecute His Church on earth.  Let not those who oppose His Church and kill His people think they are immune to His justice or able to deliver themselves from His wrath. Nothing can hide them from His all-seeing eyes, or save them from His hand.  The persecutors will fall, but He abides forever.

Wedesday 

Lectionary
                  
Morning - Ps. 9, Is. 2:6-19, Mk. 1:29-39
Evening - Ps. 15, 19, Is. 3:1-15, Rev. 5

Commentary, Revelation 5

Tonight's reading shows the Divinity of Christ.  He is worshiped by the four beasts, just as the Father is worshiped (5:8).  He is worshiped by the elders, just as the Father is worshiped. Prayers are offered to Him as unto God.  Comparing 4:11 and 5:9, we see that the same honour and praise offered to God is also offered to Christ, "Thou art worthy."  The Divinity of Christ is the conclusion verses 1-7 lead to.  No one is found worthy to open the book until Christ, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb that was slain, by whom the Holy Spirit is "sent forth into all the earth" (5:5-6) steps forward.  The beasts, the elders, and the angels are not worthy to open the book because they are created beings.  They are servants of God.  Christ is worthy because He is God.

Verses 9 and 10 recall what Christ has done for His Church through His sacrificial life, death, and resurrection.  Verses 11-14 show Christ worshiped and adored in Heaven equally with the Father.  But He is also worshiped because He has prevailed (5:5).  He kept the faith, even unto death on the cross, thus He prevailed over evil.  He died and rose again, thus He prevailed over death.  He has already endured what the churches of Asia Minor are enduring as John writes Revelation.  And He is worthy of all honour and praise.  As the One who is fully man, and has prevailed and overcome; and as the One who is fully and equally God, He alone is worthy to open the book.

Thursday 

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 10, Is.4:2, Mk. 1:40
Evening - Ps. 24, 30, Is. 5:1-7, Rev. 6:1-11

Commentary, Revelation 6:1-11

In chapter 6 we see the beginning of those "things which must shortly come to pass" (Rev. 1:1).  As Christ releases the seals of the book, He also unleashes incredible catastrophes upon the persecutors of His Church.  The book itself is the book of God's wrath upon the unGodly, and the deliverance of His people.  Verses 1-8 reveal what has become known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  The white horse (6:1-2) symbolises the pomp and power of the Roman Empire going forth "conquering and to conquer."  In His providence, God used Rome for His own purposes several times.  It was Rome that stabilised the world enough to allow the Gospel to be proclaimed throughout the Empire.  It was Rome that gave the Empire a common language by which the Gospel could be communicated, which is why the New Testament was written in the official language of the Roman Empire, Greek.  In the book of Revelation, Rome is being used by God to bring to fulfillment the prophecies of Christ in Matthew 23:38 and 24:2.  From chapter 6 to the 11th chapter, the Book of Revelation is about the fulfillment of Christ's words in Mt 23 and 24, which is the desolation of the house of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  This occurred in 70 A.D when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem.  Flavius Josephus' Wars of the Jews chronicles the fall of Jerusalem in detail.

The second beast speaks, and the second seal releases a red horse whose rider is given a great sword and power to take peace from the earth (3 & 4).  The Romans destroyed many Jewish settlements.  The battles were so fierce the Jews even turned upon one another in ways that sickened even the battle hardened Roman soldiers.

Verses 5 and 6 release the black horse of famine, which was so severe during the siege of Jerusalem cannibalism became common.  "A measure of wheat for a penny" (6:6) shows the impossibly exorbitant cost of even a tiny bit of grain in a city that once had great stores of food. According to Josephus, 11,000 Jews of Jerusalem died of starvation before the Romans even breeched the walls.

The fourth seal (7-8) sends forth death and Hell on a pale horse.  Before the Roman destruction ended nearly one and a half million Jews were killed throughout the Empire.  What a tragic loss of life and wanton waste.  How sad it is to think of the city of peace filled with death.  Yet, "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7), even Jerusalem (Mt. 23:38).
The fifth seal (9-11) does not release more trials on the persecutors of the Church.   Instead it presents a vision of Christians who have been murdered in the persecution (6:9).  Their cry to God is "How long?"  How long will God wait before He completes judgment on their oppressors?  How long before He ends the persecution?  These concerns are clearly stated in verse 10.  Truly the Church continuously sends this cry up to God.  Yet the answer from God is "rest yet for a little season" (6:11).  When God's purpose, and He has a purpose, even in the persecution of the Church, is fulfilled, He will bring His enemies to judgment.  That is an important message.  It is the task of the Church to be faithful.  When God is ready He will bring the world to its conclusion and bring His Kingdom into its complete fulness, but until then, we are to remain faithful, period.

Friday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 22, Is.5:8-30, Mk. 2:1-12
Evening - Ps.6, 13, Is. 6:1-11, Rev. 6:12-7:17

Commentary, Revelation 6:12-7:17

The sixth seal reduces the social structure of Jerusalem to ruble.  The earthquake symbolises the destruction of the foundation of the culture, while the celestial bodies going dark, turning to blood, or falling represent people (see Gen. 37:9-11 and Mat. 24:29-30), the officers and leaders of religion and government, having their authority and power removed and plunging the city into moral and social chaos.  The official powers actually did stop performing their functions during the siege of Jerusalem, and rival gangs of criminals fought each other for control of the dying city. Thus, Revelation 6:15-17 show the leaders of the people falling from their positions of power and attempting to flee for their lives.  They even prefer death to facing the judgment of God.

Chapter 7 brings a lull in the action while the angels mark 144,000 people as the servants of God (7:3).  The mark is not literally in their foreheads.  It is the inward mark of the renewed mind of a person saved by grace through faith.  This mark saves the people from the destruction and suffering God brings upon the other dwellers in Jerusalem.  It is similar to the mark of Jews God spared in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Ez. 9:1-7).  So the 144,000 are Christians, mostly Jewish Christians of the various tribes of Israel (7:4-8) who would not be allowed to perish with the others in Jerusalem.  Christ had warned that when the Christians saw the abomination of desolation in the holy place they were to flee to the mountains (Mt. 24:15-22).  The abomination of desolation refers to the sack of Jerusalem by Antiochus in 167 B.C. (Dan. 9:26-27), and likens the Romans to the Greeks.  The point is that when the Christians see the Romans preparing to attack Jerusalem, they are to get out.  The Christians followed this warning, and left the city before the attack began, thus, they were saved from that destruction.

The peace of the Church in Heaven is the subject of verses 9-17.  John sees a great multitude from every nation wearing white robes and worshiping God.  The fact that they are from "all nations" means they were mostly Gentiles who had died in the persecution of the Church.  They are now safe in Heaven where they can worship God without fear in a place where there is no sorrow or pain (16-17) and where they enjoy the full presence of God forever (7:15).  This is a picture of the peace enjoyed by the martyrs in the tribulation that is spreading across the Roman Empire.  It is a picture that inspires faith instead of fear.  It shows that the sufferings of this world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be given to them in Heaven (Rom. 8:18), where they will enjoy untold blessings, and God will wipe away all tears (Rev. 7:17).

Saturday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 28, 29, Is. 7:1-89, Mk. 2:13-22
Evening - Ps. 27, Is. 7:10-20, Rev. 10

Commentary, Revelation 10

In chapter 8 God responds to the prayers of His people with the trumpet blasts of the angels, bringing even more sorrows to the wicked. Reading the chapter we need to keep in mind that the sea represents lost humanity and the blood represents lives lost.  The falling star is a person of great influence in Jerusalem, probably the high priest or the civil ruler.  The celestial bodies represent people, being darkened probably represents death.

Chapter 9 shows the approaching army of Rome.  It is symbolised in the image of Babylon, which sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  The meaning is that, just as the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, so Rome will destroy it again, and for the same reason; as God's judgment for the sins of Israel.

In chapter 10 we see our Lord (the mighty angel) coming down from Heaven.  This is not the Second Coming.  This is a spiritual coming in wrath to Jerusalem.  He still holds the book, only now it is very small since most of the seals have been opened.  His voice is like a lion's roar, for He is the Lion of Judah. John is not allowed to write what the seven peals of thunder reveal but the Lord tells him the time of judgment is about to begin (remember, all of this is in the future for John).

In verses 8-10 John is commanded to eat the book, which tastes sweet as honey but makes his belly bitter.  The book, which contained the prophecies of wrath on the persecuting Jews seems sweet at first.  But then we consider that this is Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the Temple, the place where God has been worshiped for more than a thousand years.  How can one ponder this and not weep and pray for the Jewish people?  How can this book fail to make the belly bitter?

Chapter 10 ends with a call to keep prophesying.  The judgment of God does not end at the gate of Jerusalem.  Many people will fall under His displeasure, and John is to proclaim the coming wrath to those people too.  This will comfort the Church, and it will give the others a warning and an opportunity to repent.

Sermon, First Sunday of Advent


Person, not Chance
Psalm 50, Malachi 3:1-6 &4:4-6, Luke 1:5-25
First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012

I think people often miss the point of the Scriptures by focusing their attention on the people in the Bible instead of the God of the Bible.  I have, for example, heard many sermons on  Genesis 37:4, which have been about parenting and the evils of favouritism by parents.  Parental favouritism is a great evil, and the relationship between Jacob and Joseph and the rest of the sons of Jacob plainly show the devastation it can cause.  But that is not the point of Genesis 37:4.  The point is that God has a plan for Israel, and His plan includes getting Joseph into Egypt to provide for Israel during the coming famine.

I think people make the same mistake with the passage we just read in Luke.  They see a story about Zechariah and Elizabeth and John, but the passage is not really about them.  The passage is about God.  That's why it was designated  to be read on the First Sunday in Advent, when we begin to focus our attention on what we are to believe about God.

What does this passage teach us to believe about God?  First; God has a plan.  The birth of John the Baptist was no accident.  It was not through blind chance that Zechariah served at the table of incense that morning.  It was not through blind chance that Elizabeth was unable to conceive a child.  It was not through blind chance that she finally did conceive a child who was John the Baptist and did all of the wonderful things John did. God has a plan, and all of these events are part of the plan of God, to prepare the way of the Lord.

This means the birth of Christ was no accident.  We say, "of course not, for Christ's sacrifice was planned before the foundations of the earth were laid, and He had to be born before He could die."   True, but what about the timing and circumstances of His birth?   The Bible makes it clear they were part of God's plan, too.  God had been working in history to bring the world to the fullness of time when all things were prepared for the birth of the Saviour.  Jacob and Joseph were part of that plan.  Egypt was part of that plan.  Moses and the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery were part of that plan.  Ruth was part of it.  David was part of it.  Bathsheba was part of it. Babylon was part of it.  Even Greece and Rome were all part of God's plan, and each played its part exactly as God, the Planner, directed.

Part of God's plan is the calling and redeeming of a people to be His own unique Kingdom.  The citizens of His Kingdom are called out of many nations and backgrounds, but all are called out of sin and into righteousness.  They are forgiven of sin and dressed in the righteousness of God Himself, who died for their sins in Christ.  These people begin a new life in God's fellowship and blessings.  Israel was the foundation of that Kingdom in the Old Testament.  The Church of the New Testament is the continuation of that plan.  God's promises to Israel are being fulfilled in the Church.  We, who are in the Church live in the era in which God's promises are beginning to be fulfilled.  The Bible calls this era,  the "last days," meaning the last era before the return of Christ and the full completion of His plan.

But I want to move beyond the plan of God  to the God of the plan.  I want to know  what it means that God has a plan.  I'm going to make some statements here, and ask you to tell if  they are correct or not.

First, only a mind can make a plan.  If anything happens by blind chance, regardless of what happens, whether it be order or chaos, it is still only an accident.  It isn't meant to happen and it isn't meant not to happen because there isn't anyone to mean or not mean it.  Whatever happened was accidental, had no meaning or purpose, came from nothing and returns to nothing.  Of course, blind chance is impossible, for even chance requires something to exist before anything can happen to it, and existence comes from God on the basis of His purpose and direction.  So the existence of anything negates all possibility of blind chance. 

But, here is the point; if only a mind can make a plan, God is a mind.  God thinks.  God has purpose, intentionality, intelligence, and thoughts.  He is not a mere cosmic force.  He is a mind.

Second, only a personal being has a mind. A galaxy does not have a mind.  A planet does not have a mind.  Even that weed trimmer that won't start when we want it to does not have "a mind of its own."  A cosmic "Force" as portrayed in the Star Wars movies would not have a mind.  It would be simply a form of energy that can be used and controlled if you know the right tricks.  That's why even religions that believe in a cosmic force also can believe in personal gods, like Krishna and Kali.  Only a person can have a mind and only a mind can have a plan.

Third, God is a Person.  He is a Being.  In fact all personhood and being exist in Him.  The salient point of our reading in Luke is not just that John was no accident; it is that John is part of a master plan, formed in the Mind of a great Person and Being who is able to both make a plan and to make His plan work.

So this is the first thing we emphasise in what we are to believe about God:  He is a Person.  He "lives," He thinks, He makes plans.  He is a Being.

Second, God is able to make His plans work.  Imagine all the generations it took to produce Noah.  Then think of all the generations it took to produce Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Mary and Joseph.  All of these people existed and did what they did because God was working it all out in His own way and His own time.  Think of all the "coincidences" that brought Zacharias and Elizabeth into the world, brought them to marry one another, and remain childless.  Think of all the things that had to happen to get Zacharias into the Temple that morning and to serve at the incense altar.  They weren't coincidences.  They were all part of the plan of God working into place in His own time and His own way.  They didn't happen by chance; they happened because God made them happen.

There is much more I want to say, but it will have to keep for other sermons.  For now let me close with this point: God is able to make His plans reality.  Because He is able, we can trust His promises.  If He can cause John to be born at just the right moment in history, and cause Christ to be born at just the right moment in history, and even raise Him from the dead.  He can keep His promises to you, now and forever