Thursday, May 31, 2012

Home-wrecking Atheists?

Revelation 2.8-11

This church has done nothing wrong. Besides the church in Philadelphia, Smyrna is the only church not to get their comeuppance from Christ. That’s saying something. Perhaps more than anything else, it tells me that it’s a good thing I wasn’t part of it. I would’ve ruined their perfect track record.

The story goes that the devout Jewish citizens of Smyrna were getting sick and tired of their Christian counterparts [1] growing so rapidly, and [2] riding on their Jewish, Imperial coattails (btw, special thanks to N.T. Wright for this little gem: “that the conflict between the early Christians and practicing Jews was essentially a conflict within Judaism…and not an early precedent for anti-Semitism”). So the Jewish congregants did their best to divorce their Christian cousins. With this separation came incredible amounts of trouble for the Christians; who, by the way, were already in incredible amounts of trouble. Christians had a horrible reputation in the Roman Empire. They were accused of cannibalism (because they “ate the flesh and drank the blood of Christ” during communion), having orgies (because their practice of loving one another <'agape-ing' & 'commun-ing' at Love Feasts> sounded suspiciously sexual to the Romans), destroying families (because families often disowned Christian converts), atheism (because they refused to worship Caesar), sedition (because they refused to say ‘Caesar is Lord’), and arson (because Christians [1] claimed God was a consuming fire, and [2] that the world would one day be purified by God).

In short, they saw us as cannibal, porn-star, home-wrecking atheists who hated the president and wanted the world to burn.


Well, at least Jesus didn’t find anything wrong with them.

Which is kind of the point.

We may suffer. We may be hated. We may be slandered. We may lose friends. We may be poor. We may go to prison. But that’s the test of life. And the church in Smyrna passed.

I hope I do, too.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Old Manhattan

Revelation 2.1-7

You can’t help but compare Ephesus to Manhattan—cultural center, sporting hub, beautiful architecture, crowded markets (in both senses of the word)…it was the most cosmopolitan city in Rome, the gateway to the Empire. The church in Ephesus was equally spectacular—founded by Paul, pastored by (first) Timothy (til he was murdered by the Romans), then John (the beloved disciple), home church to Jesus’ mother Mary, Priscilla, and Aquila, and the headquarters for Apollos (the first famed apologeticist).

I wish I lived there.


These days Ephesus looks like a big, crappy ditch. Everything is mucked up and trudged over, broken and indistinct. I guess that proves Christ was telling the truth, “if you don’t repent, I will remove your lampstand.” Well—as Tom Wright pointed out, there’s neither a lampstand (church) or pretty much of anything left standing.

Lesson learned.

Or was it?

What really was the lesson about losing your ‘first love?’

Lots and lots and lots and lots of biblical commentators suggest that the loss of first love was closely connected to the Ephesian commendation. The church was commended for their ability to discern truth from falsehood. They were heresy-hunters, BS-sniffer-out-ers, the officers of orthodoxy. By all accounts, it was their love for being right doctrinally that caused them to be so very wrong socially.

They hurt The Truth in their quest for truth.

Good thing no one does that anymore.

Thank God we’ve learned from their mistakes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mind - Consider Thyself Blown

Revelation 1.9-20

Three things blow me away about these few verses.

First, that John was “on Patmos” but still “in the Spirit,” a solid reminder that our present circumstances—however dire—ought not to deter us from experiencing the presence of God. “On Patmos” John was a political exile, a prisoner forced to work in chains in the local quarries under the mean whips of his masters. But that didn’t stop him from being “in the Spirit,” which is to say that he allowed the invisible world to penetrate the visible one, and him in the process as well.

Secondly, I find it fascinating that there is apparently some cooperation between suffering, the kingdom, and patient endurance. But how can this be? How can we suffer and yet experience the kingdom simultaneously? Did Christ promise us a kingdom of suffering? (Because, if so, I think I’d like to reevaluate the terms of my contract.) The truth is that the the only way to achieve victory is through suffering well. I’ll expand on this as our blog posts continue, but I think it’s one of the most often-missed themes in the Revelation: victory is achieved through suffering, not through strength of arms. Jesus suffered and died, and he intends that we win our victory in much the same way.

Third, and related to the second, it seems to me that the only way you can move from ‘suffering’ to ‘kingdom’ is through patient endurance. That word “patient” is probably better translated “persistent” or, even better, “conquering.” Meaning, if you want to win…don’t quit.

Don’t quit when you’re on Patmos.

Don’t quit when you’re suffering.

Don’t quit when the kingdom is still only a promise, a down payment, and seems a long way off in the future.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Prophecy | Apocalypse | Letter

Revelation 1.1-8

The Revelation was a prophecy, an apocalypse, and a letter. We have no idea what these things mean. Rather, I should say, what we typically think they mean is not what they meant to John and his readers. Prophecy, for example, does not mean “prediction”, not in the biblical vocabulary anyway. Oh, for sure, predicting the future is one aspect of prophecy, but it’s not the whole. Even “false” prophets accurately predicted the future. But in the Bible, a true prophet was one whose words lead people to faithfully follow God, and those ‘words’ were usually more about correcting the present than dictating what happened next . Prophecy was less about foretelling than it was about criticism, a sharp critique of the present rather than a horoscope for tomorrow’s events.

An apocalypse, likewise, was not a doomsday prediction about the end of the world. It was a literary genre with a relatively short life-span (c. 100BC-c. 200 AD). It was a kind of writing that utilized symbols to communicate truth. The closest approximations we have today are political cartoons and science-fiction novels. And, granted, sometimes apocalyptic literature did talk about the end of the world, but not always and certain not exclusively.

But what about a letter? Surely we know what that is, right?

Nope. Not really. These ‘letters’ weren’t like our emails or the little white envelopes our mother’s send us on holidays. These kind of letters were circular, meaning John wrote one letter that got passed around to several different churches in order to be read out loud. It’s the ‘reading out loud part’ that’s important here. Think of this “letter” as something like a decree, or a proclamation. At the end of this 6-week series on Revelation, we’re going to get together at the Winds and read Revelation out loud, have communion, and sing. June 24. Mark it on your calendar, ’cause I think that evening—probably more than anything else I say or teach—will help you understand the book. Which is the point, right? Understanding. Because, as we’ve just discovered, our understanding is somewhat lacking. We used to think we were reading a play-by- play breakdown concerning the end of the world written to a couple of pastors; but now, we realize we’re reading something different. This is a critique of the circumstances of the ancient world, using colorful language and metaphor to help shock hearers into embracing passionate truth. And it wasn’t just a message for a few yokels. It was meant to be broadcast to the world.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gathering Up Praises

The story of the Bible, according to biblical scholar N.T. Wright, is the plotline in which “obedient humans following the Obedient Human act as stewards over creation, bringing new creation to bear, and gathering up the praises of that creation to present them to its maker.”
Jesus was the one Obedient Human, and through the gift of his spirit, we experience restoration, becoming new people, stewards of the world. As stewards, we gather up praises for God in heaps.
These “praises” are experiences, emotions, vignettes, from everyday life that we authenticate as spirit-sponsored manifestations. For example, when a Christian person is moved charitably to feed a homeless man, we acknowledge that it is the spirit of God working in them, motivating them to be generous. And we say to God, “Thank you for the movement of your spirit in this person, and thank you for letting me witness this moment.”
This is praise.
We praise God for what he’s doing in others, and we praise God for his willingness to let us be a part of it. We gather these praises and give them to the father as evidence of new creation. As a result, God gets glory. When we do the things God wants us to do and live the way God designed us to live, not only do we give him glory, but his glory spills over onto us. There is a residual benefit for obedience, stewardship, and creativity. We experience abundance and prosperity as life’s conditions, relationships, and holism are improved.
In Hebrew the word that describes this good life is shalom. In Greek, it’s makarios. These words both mean “blessing.” They don’t mean happiness, per say, but happiness is included in the idea. Blessing is more comprehensive than happiness, less constrained by circumstances. Blessing is something we receive from God and cannot create for ourselves. It’s what occurs when God is at work both in and through our lives. As we experience blessing, God gets even more glory by virtue of our praise.
When I give my son a Lego set, it is a blessing. As he enjoys the gift, I enjoy his enjoyment, and I too, am blessed. When we build the Lego together, our blessing is deepened by our shared love and relationship.
Additionally, when Jacob goes off and imagines some new feat of Danish plastic engineering and returns to show it off, I am blessed by the application of his creativity, and he is blessed by my enthusiasm.
This is how blessing works.
This is how glory works.
I bless my son with a gift, and he blesses me by enjoying the gift and thanking me for it. God blesses me with the gift of my son, and is blessed by our acknowledgement that every good thing we have comes from him. He gets glory in even the simplest things, like Lego. The more we praise him for that which is simple, the more our lives overflow with blessing.
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.
–Ephesians 1.3

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Telos Is Glory

The Christian life is fundamentally shaped by the future. It’s a forward-looking faith, even while simultaneously being an historical faith, looking back to the time of the apostles and prophets. We need to continue along the trajectory, first begun in the garden, carried on through the prophets, locked in by Jesus, honed by the apostles, and carried forward by the Holy Spirit in us in anticipation of the new Creation. This new Creation started with Jesus. Death, the chief enemy of God, was undone and no longer holds any power to keep people locked down (Romans 6.9-11). Once Jesus returned from the dead, the fear of death was erased for those who follow him. What God did with Jesus he promises ultimately to do with us (Romans 8.23; 2 Corinthians 5.1-10).
This victory over death was never an abstract concept in the earliest churches. They believed that God was going to resurrect them from death into new physical bodies, just as he would “resurrect” the earth into new creation. They had the right idea. God works through us to heal the world. He uses us to bring new creation to bear.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’

And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.’ And he also said, ‘It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.’ Revelation 21.1-7

This section of scripture describes the goal, the telos—where God wants everything to end up. The Greek word telos is defined as “the end to which all things relate, the aim, or purpose.” 1 Corinthians 10.31 gives us a clear picture of God’s telos for the world. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
The telos is glory.
Telos can be conceptualized in two ways. One way is filling a coffee cup all the way to the brim so it spills over. The other is the Old Testament idea of raising up a bull from infancy to adulthood so it’s mature enough to be a sacrifice.
The goal of the Christian life is to be filled to overflowing with the glory of God and to be mature enough to live sacrificially in favor of what God wants and not what we want for ourselves. In either case, we fulfill our vocation as imago dei, cooperating with God to heal the world.
Somehow, over the centuries, we have misidentified the goal. Sometimes we mistakenly think the goal is going to heaven when we die. But the Christian vision of the future isn’t about us leaving earth to go to heaven; it’s about heaven interpenetrating earth in the new Creation.
Additionally, sometimes we think the goal is to be good people. But goodness is a means to an end. The end isn’t “being good.”
The end is giving God glory.
When Jesus says in Matthew 5.48 to “be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect,” he’s using a variation of telos, the word teleios. He’s saying we need to be goal-minded, to be consumed with the telos, just as our heavenly father is consumed with the telos.
Figure out where you’re going, and then work backwards to determine how you’re going to get there.
The goal for Christian people is new creation—a world in which everything comes from God and exists by his power and is intended for his glory (Romans 11.36).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Imago Dei

In Genesis 1.26-28, God says he will make man in his own image (imago dei). We’re like him, and we’re meant to do the things he does.
That’s absolutely central to biblical anthropology—the Christian understanding of personhood.
And what is God like?
He is a Creator creating creators to perpetuate Creation. Which means we are meant to cooperate with him and make the future present. We see this clearly represented in the long story of scripture, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. In the Beginning, God creates a garden. By the time we get to the End, that garden has flourished into a city.
Somehow, whether it takes a billion years or another fifty, God’s design for earth is to matriculate from botany to polis, from paradise (literally “garden”) to garden-city. That’s the trajectory of the biblical story, the goal (telos) of human cooperation in Creation.
Despite our noble conscription, we deviated from our calling. We abandoned our post. Instead of remaining obedient to God and cultivating his garden, Adam and Eve stepped outside of their divine responsibility and invited sin into the world through their disobedience. As a result, the image of God in us has cracked, becoming marred and ruined.
To help us recover that image, God appointed certain people certain tasks at certain moments in time.
He called Abraham to be the father of a new people (Genesis 12.1-3).
He called Moses to lead those same people out of slavery (Exodus 3).
He called Joshua to lead those people into a land of promise (Joshua 1.1-9).
These ancient heroes of faith demonstrated what it means to be godly human beings, cooperating with their Creator in the ways he first intended.
But they all failed. Their momentary successes were invariably overshadowed by their inability to restore the earth to paradise.
Abraham did father a new people, but those people were part of the problem.
Moses did lead them out of Egypt, but subsequently they enslaved themselves to pagan deities.
Joshua brought them into the promised land, but it was still polluted by their sin.
Time and time again, God hammered his people back into a right relationship with him. But God’s people were never as committed to righteousness as he was. In the end, God had to fix the problem more directly. God sent Jesus to fulfill the task of his ancient people. Jesus, on his own and through his death, did what Abraham, Moses, and Joshua could not (Romans 8.3).
He won the victory over sin and death.
As a result, Creation has been freed from bondage to decay, and death has lost its power (Romans 8.2). The people of God are no longer under condemnation (Romans 8.1), but look forward to the future, to the new heaven, to the new earth, to the new Jerusalem (2 Peter 3.13).
We long for a time when God’s Lego project is finished.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Playing Lego

My eight-year-old son Jacob loves to play Lego. Whenever we buy him a new set, he always builds that set precisely to the specifications. However, I would rather have him make something from scratch. I would rather have him take the new Lego set, incorporate it with all the other sets he has, and be perpetually creating.
It’s not that I object to him following directions; it’s that I object to him only following directions. I want him to expand on what he’s been given. I want him to extrapolate, intensify, and cooperate with the directions to craft something more robust, more complex, more representative of all he loves and all he can do.
That’s what God wants from us. God wants us to participate with him in his ongoing project of creation, much like I want my son to consider each new Lego set part of his ongoing process of creation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Project of Revelation

I've always wanted to teach on the Revelation, but been scared. Not scare that I didn't know enough, but scared that I wouldn't be competent enough to teach the book and avoid making crazy people crazier. But since NT Wright published his "Revelation for Everyone" commentary, I feel like I've got a fail-safe. That little book is the single-best resource on the Revelation I've ever come across.

And I've come across a lot.

I've read over 100 scholarly commentaries, easily 6+ dozen scholarly works pertaining to the 7 churches and the Roman Imperial cult, and hundreds and hundreds of articles and papers on related topics. But--dollar for dollar--Tom Wright's little gem is tough to beat.

So this Sunday I'll start a 6-week series, giving an overview of the Revelation. And--perhaps more interestingly--this past weeks some friends and I began a special blog-project on Revelation at . Each day for 46 days-in-a-row, we're blogging our thoughts on 1 of the sections Tom Wright has written on in his "Revelation for Everyone." We're not trying to be scholarly, just to give our devotional thoughts on his academic ones. It's been fun so far, and I think has the potential to be fantastically rewarding for anyone who makes this journey with us.

So feel free to use it as your daily devotional resource, over your morning coffee.

This may be your one chance to un-crazy the book of Revelation, to get your Bible back from 65 to 66 books, and to take all the fear out of the end of the world.