Archive for the Faith Category

We tend to remember most experiences in life as either good or bad, but most experiences are both good and bad at the same time. The gospel is like that: good news for those who accept it, but bad news for those who do not; great hope for the future, but at the cost of leaving the past behind; the promise of a fantastic new community, but not all those you love may choose to join. John tells of a similar bittersweet experience in the 10th chapter of the Revelation:

The voice which I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, “Go and take the open scroll in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and the land.”I went up to the angel and asked him to give me the small scroll. He answered, “Take it, and eat it. It will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.” I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand, and ate it. It was as sweet as honey in my mouth. When I had eaten it, my stomach was bitter.

God does not promise that our journey with him will be free of pain or remorse. If we faithfully follow Paul’s example as a disciple, life might become very difficult indeed at times and we can expect to experience abuse, persecution and long periods of physical and mental hardship. What God does promise is that in the end it will all be worth it.

Humans are inherently conservative and resistant to change. We refuse to give up smoking, or poor eating habits, or a sedentary lifestyle, even when we know that such habits are killing us. Our sense of logic might tell us that changes are urgently required, but we continue to race ahead to our own destruction. Something like that occurs in the ninth chapter of the Revelation, when humans refused to heed the most obvious signs of the need to change their ways:

One third of humanity was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke, and sulphur, which came out of their mouths… The rest of humanity, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the things that they were doing. They kept worshipping demons, and idols made from gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which cannot see, and cannot hear, and cannot walk. They did not repent of their murdering, or witchcraft, or sexual immorality, or stealing.

There is something in the human spirit that craves being in control, doing our own thing, and going our own way, without interference from others or external circumstances. The problem is that our sense of being in control is just an illusion, our grip on life is fragile and fleeting, and our actions have consequences which will catch up with us. So we can choose to ignore reality, or we can choose to heed it.

Silence and tranquillity do not necessarily mean that no storm is coming. In life we often do our best to “live happily ever after”, but troubles in life are inevitable. Everyone encounters disappointments, disasters and ultimately death somewhere along the way, and yet we seem to spend a lot of effort in denying that those things exist or that they will ever happen to us. Chapter 8 of the Revelation describes a period of silence in heaven, and what happened thereafter:

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. I saw the seven angels who stand before God. Seven trumpets were given to them… The seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were thrown on the earth. One third of the earth, one third of the trees, and all green grass, were burnt…

One of the problems with our idea of a God who only does nice things to people is the fact that bad things inevitably happen to us, and we all get to experience death. Somehow our understanding of who God is has to embrace these realities. We have to recognise that God is the one who is in control of our lives, not us, and that what seems bad in our eyes may be good in God’s eyes.

Those of us who live in England, the US, Australia or New Zealand are naturally inclined to think that English is the universal language; after all, nearly all of the stuff that we get to see and care about on the Internet is in English. However, there are four or five other languages which have more native speakers than English, so it looks like English may not be the universal language of heaven. In the seventh chapter of the Revelation, John says:

After this I looked, and there was an enormous crowd of people, too many for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. They shouted with a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who sits on the throne, and from the Lamb!”

If heaven really is going to be filled with people from every nation, tribe, people and language, then perhaps we ought to be doing more than we are at present to get to know and appreciate people of different cultures and ethnicities, so that we can learn how to enjoy eternity with them. After all, we (that is, people from “our” culture) are going to be a small minority group in heaven (however you define “our” culture).

One of the difficulties in the Christian faith comes in trying to reconcile the loving nature of God as demonstrated through the character of Jesus in the gospels with the vengeance wrought on the world as described in Revelation. When the Lamb opens the seven seals, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are released to cause destruction, the stars fall from the sky, and terror sweeps the earth, as described in Revelation chapter 6:

The sky was removed like a scroll being rolled up. All the mountains and islands were moved out of their places. The kings of the earth, the statesmen, the commanders, the wealthy, the powerful, and all the slaves and free people, hid themselves in caves and behind rocks in the mountains. They said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the sight of the one who sits on the throne, and from the anger of the Lamb, because the great day of their anger has come, and who can survive?”

While the wholesale death, fear and destruction seem out of character for Jesus, it is important to recognise that death, loss and hardship are an important part of everybody’s life. An image of God in which God only ever does things that we think are nice is clearly out of touch with the obvious facts about the world. While our personal comfort and safety might be important values for us, they clearly do not rank highly on God’s agenda.

Many of the athletes currently competing in the Olympic games have devoted most of their lives over several years to improving their skills in the hope of winning a medal at the games. But only a small number of those who compete are considered worthy of medals, and an even smaller number are worthy of gold medals. As the fifth chapter of the Revelation shows, the standard of worthiness is even higher in heaven:

I saw a powerful angel shouting with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll, and to break its seals?” No one in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the scroll, or to look in it. And I wept bitterly, because no one could be found who was worthy to open the scroll, or to look in it. One of the leaders said to me, “Don’t weep. The Lion who comes from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed. He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Only someone who is perfect and who has prevailed against sin is worthy of opening the scroll, or of standing before God, or of even being in heaven. Perfection is not something that we can earn for ourselves, because all humans sin and fall short of God’s glory. But there is a way for us to become perfect: by accepting the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross, dying for our sins, instead of us, so that the effect of our sins has been cancelled.

In the fourth chapter of the Revelation to John, John describes a glimpse of the future. There is a throne in heaven, and the person sitting on it looks like jasper and sardius gemstones. Some 24 other thrones surround the first, with 24 leaders dressed in white sitting on them. Seven lamps are burning in front of the throne, being the seven Spirits of God. A sea of glass is in front of the throne, and there are four living animals:

The first animal was like a lion, the second animal was like a calf, the third animal had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living animals had six wings, and was covered with eyes all around. Day and night, they never stopped saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and is and will come!”

So is this a complete picture of what heaven is going to be like – strange animals, mysterious lamps, never-ending chants? If God is infinite and eternity lasts forever, then it clearly must be impossible to give a complete description of heaven, or even to attempt to imagine an accurate overview. I think that John has given just one view of heaven, but the reality will be far beyond what can be described in human words.

Most church-goers are mild-mannered people. They are good citizens who obey the laws, give some money to charity, act politely towards other people, dress and act in a conservative manner, and generally avoid causing trouble, making a nuisance of themselves, or behaving in an extreme manner. So it comes as something of a surprise to think that such people might not be pleasing to God. The letter to the mild-mannered Laodiceans in chapter 3 of the Revelation of John says:

I know what you are doing, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and do not need anything else,” and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire, to make you rich, and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover up your embarrassing nakedness, and eye drops to put in your eyes, to make you see.

The situation of the Laodiceans who receive such a stinging rebuke is disturbingly similar to the situation of typical Christians in developed countries today. We use our extensive financial resources to buffer our comfortable lifestyle instead of investing everything we are and have in the radical service of God’s kingdom, so that while we are wealthy in our own eyes, in God’s eyes we are poor, blind and naked.

Someone agrees with the correct theology about Jesus and does the sorts of things Christians are supposed to do, such as caring for the poor, and standing up against wrongdoers and liars, so surely such a person must be in God’s good books? Not necessarily. There are plenty of people who still say and do the right things, but the fire inside them has gone out. Such people are addressed in the second chapter of the Revelation to John:

I know the things you do, and your hard work and perseverance, and that you will not tolerate evil people, and have investigated those people who pretended to be apostles, but were not, and found them to be liars. You have persevered and endured for my sake, without getting tired. But I criticise you for this: you left your first love. Remember what you have fallen from, and turn back and do the things you first did. If you do not repent, I will come to you and move your lampstand out of its place.

Following Jesus is not about doing the right things or even agreeing to the correct beliefs. It is about having a relationship with Jesus. That does not necessarily mean the relationship has to be highly emotional; but it does mean that the relationship has to be real and continually growing. The things that a person does and believes might be evidence of the internal relationship, but the heart of discipleship is love for Jesus, not fulfilment of religious duties.

Although Greece is often thought of as the land south of Albania and Bulgaria bordering the Aegean Sea and including the cities of Athens and Thessalonica, a substantial part of the country consists of islands scattered throughout the Aegean Sea. Around 250km east-south-east of Athens there is a rugged island around 7 km in size from north to south and 4 km from east to west, with an area of 34 square kilometres. It is currently home to around 3000 people, and it is called Patmos.

On this island almost 2000 years ago the apostle John was imprisoned as punishment for preaching God’s word and talking about Jesus. The island has a cave which is now known as the Cave of the Apocalypse, and it is said to have been where John received his Revelation. The island name has several monasteries dedicated to the apostle John, and is frequently visited by Christian tourists. In the first chapter of his Revelation, John says:

I John, your brother and companion in adversity, and the Kingdom, and perseverance in Christ Jesus, was exiled on the island of Patmos because of preaching God’s Word and talking about Jesus Christ.

Although most followers of Jesus today do not experience the same degree of persecution and adversity as that experienced by John, we are still brothers and companions with him in the Kingdom and in perseverance in Christ Jesus, and the content of the Revelation is therefore still relevant to us.