This devotion is for Easter Sunday, the day when Christians around the globe celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It is also the final day of our 90-day reading journey. Hopefully, you have gained new insight into the story arc of redemptive history. As we close our devotional series, we will look at the last words of the Bible.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.
The closing words of Scripture are essentially a prayer. A prayer for Jesus to return. In his first advent (birth and life) he lived a righteous life and died the death that we deserve. Those who are united to him by faith participate in his death and resurrection. The resurrection power of the Spirit is at work in us now.
But we still live in a fallen world. The effects of sin and corruption darken God’s good created world. The worldly power of human rebellion continues to cause pain and suffering. The remaining power of sin casts a shadow across our own heart and twists our desires. So, we long for Jesus to return. We long for his second advent (2nd coming), in which he will defeat the enemies of sin, Satan, and death and make all things new. We are living in the story of God’s redemption. WE… are in the midst of redemptive history. On the other side of creation, the fall, and redemption, we are looking forward to full restoration when Jesus returns.
In this present life, there are good gifts that we receive from God and joy can be found in our spiritual journey. But life is often quite hard. We have been given a glimpse of the future glory of the New Heavens and the New Earth which shows only an outline of what that will be like. While we don’t know the details, and see only the broad outline of what that future restoration will be like, we know enough to look forward to that day. The rest of the Bible repeatedly urges us to direct our attention to this future victory. We are not people defined by our past, or the present struggles. Instead, we are people who are defined by a redemptive future that is ours in Christ.
The more we face disappointment in our present life, the more we learn to look forward to the hope of eternal life. This is not escapism. This is basic Christianity. “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Connect and Reflect: Peter urges us to set our minds on the future hope of the return of Christ. He calls the second coming of Christ “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” He is not referring to the book of Revelation, but to the concept found in the closing chapters of that book. At the end of time, Jesus will return. We are meant to look forward to that day with urgency. Though we don’t know when, we know that this is always just over the horizon. Jesus is coming soon. Set your hope fully on this grace.
I Peter 1:13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
[Note: an early version of the outline had a mistake that indicates the last verse is “25”, this should read 22:5 as the end of the reading for today.]
Throughout our sermon series on the story of scripture, we have often used the words “Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration” to summarize the story arc. The final word “restoration” refers to the way that God restores things through Jesus, but it finds its focus in the closing chapters of Revelation. In these two closing chapters we will get a glimpse of eternity after the final judgment, after evil is purged, and after death itself is destroyed. It is only a glimpse, but the hope of this future restoration in completion is a major Biblical theme.
In these closing chapters of the entire bible, the threads of redemption are brought together in a compelling picture of restoration. Let’s look at some of the ways that this is done as we reflect back on our journey through the history of the Bible.
I hope that you can see from these examples (and there are many more), the way in which the story of the entire Bible finds its completion in Revelation 21-22. The point of these images is not for us to try to form a picture in our heads of a literal city of the dimensions listed (it would be absurdly structured), or to try to determine if gold is really a good material for the surface of a road (sounds slippery.) Rather, the point of these prophetic images is to convey a sense of the grandeur and to show the links to the rest of the Bible.
Finally, we need to point out that the images are all linked to physical things. If we use the term “heaven” to refer to the spiritual rest our souls have in Christ after our death (see Rev. 6:9), we should recognize that heaven is not the end goal. The story arc of the Bible turns our attention to the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body and the physical reality of our perfected world in the “New Heavens and the New Earth.” Our glorious future is a physical reality, not just a spiritual one. The entirety of God's good creation, including humanity will be restored in the renewed earth. In summary, we see that God will “make all things new.”
Reflect and Connect: Christian burial is designed to celebrate the hope of the resurrection. The reason that we bury bodies is that this symbolizes the certainty that the body will be raised and renewed. The words of committal traditionally read at the graveside celebrate this future victory over death. How do these words shape your perspective on each day?
I Cor. 15:51-52 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
Today is the day that Christians remember the death of Christ. “Good Friday” may seem like a strange name to commemorate the death of the Messiah. Certainly, his first century followers did not see it as “good” when it was happening. The actual event was horrible. Jesus was beaten, rejected, abandoned, and crucified. Unlike modern forms of capital punishment, which seek to be as painless as possible, crucifixion was intended to be the most painful and humiliating death imaginable so as to be an effective deterrent. But, the day is good because we understand that Jesus was judged in our place. Though he was innocent of sin against God or against his fellow man, he stood in our place and received the just judgment of God on our behalf.
That is why we can read the closing chapters of the book of Revelation without being crushed by them. Chapters 18-20 show the judgment of God against the whole earth. First we see the destruction of Babylon (Rev 18), the quintessential “city of man.” Then we have an invitation to the wedding supper of the lamb – beautiful for those who are waiting for Jesus, but terrible for those who oppose him, becoming the feast for the vultures. Jesus arrives as the rider on a white horse and soundly defeats his enemies and they are thrown into the lake of fire. In chapter 20, we see the story of Satan’s defeat which culminates in a great battle and the complete victory of Jesus. At this point, all of the enemies of Jesus have been put under his feet (I Cor. 15:24-25.) Then the story shifts to the end of history. The dead are raised and every person stands before God in judgment. They give account for their deeds and words. Then judgment is enacted on all humans, and death itself is destroyed. In all of these things, we see the just judgment of God against evil. Removing evil from the earth is a good thing. But, how do we know that this judgment will not fall on us as well?
The good news in the final judgment is that for some people, their name is recorded in “the book of life” (Rev. 20:12.) The phrase “book of life” is used by Paul (Phil. 4:3), and was referenced earlier in Revelation in connection with the salvation of Jesus. Christians are those whose names have been “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” The reason that we have hope in the final judgment is because of Good Friday. If we were to stand before God on our own, and if the only record of our life was our own actions and words, then we would surely perish. But the salvation of God is extended to those who are connected to Jesus by faith. Their sins are forgiven, because their sins were already judged in Jesus. The gates of paradise are opened to the humble through the mercy of God. It is a “good” Friday.
Reflect: In one of the great songs of the church we sing, “It was my sin that held him there.” It is a powerful activity to personalize the cross and own this for ourselves.
Connect: This theme is central to our understanding of the gospel.
II Cor. 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
 There is considerable debate about the identity of “Babylon” in Revelation 18. Everyone agrees that it is used metaphorically to describe a wicked city. Those who hold a preterist view (see Excursus) would link this city to Rome or Jerusalem. Amillennial interpreters understand this to represent humanity in its assembled rebellion against God and not one particular city. It is therefore the counterpart to the “City of God”, which is present in partial form as the church gathers, but only fully realized at the end of history (Rev. 21).
 Returning to the topic of “when” this happens, the sequencing of chapters 18, 19, and 20 is particularly hard. One way of reading the text is to see the prophetic images of Revelation 18,19 and 20 as separate sequential events, following one after another. Preterist interpreters might see them as a sequence of events largely in the past, while Premillennial interpreters would see them as largely a future sequence of events. However, another way of reading the text is to see them NOT as things that happen one after another, in sequence. Instead, they can be viewed as different pictures of essentially the same thing. In that reading (Amillennial), the binding of Satan is a picture of something that happens at the beginning of the church age and is linked to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, this is not meant to be read in sequence as if it happens after the great battle with the rider in white. Instead, it may be intended to show the same great and final battle from a different perspective. In this reading, the rider in white who slays his enemies with a sword, and the fire from heaven which wipe out the enemies of God are different ways of looking at the same thing. All of this may connect to the “battle of Armageddon” (Rev. 16:16.) Either way, there is agreement that we expect final judgment to be proceeded by a great battle in which Jesus is victorious over his enemies. What that battle would actually look like in time and space… no one can know.
In the daily blog post I summarized the ways in which faithful Christian scholars interpret the middle section of the book differently. In regard to the section between the opening of the sealed scroll and the final defeat of Satan (Rev 6:1-20:6) I wrote, “Some say it all happened in the past, some say that it will all happen in the future, and some say that it is a picture of the judgment that is generally happening in the church age.” I will give more explanation of those various views here. This is not intended to have scholarly precision, but to try to introduce the reader to the interpretive disagreements.
The material under discussion is a series of judgments that are given in sets of seven. There are seven seals on the scroll, seven trumpets and seven bowls of wrath. All of these are pictures of judgment. In the middle of this are several pictures about the church wrestling with their spiritual enemies. Some scholars think that there are meant to be seven pictures, but they are not numbered in the text. These pictures include things like “The Woman and the Dragon”, and “The Beast.” Again, the question is when are these things are supposed to happen.
(1.) The first view, which we will label the preterist view, is that these events primarily describe a judgment that happened in the past. This view has been important in history, but is not as mainstream today. The preterist view of Revelation says that the sequences of judgment are meant to describe the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. (Others could hold this view and focus on another type of judgment which was experienced by the early church, such as the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire.) This view would still affirm that the closing section of Revelation remains in the future, but would place the primary emphasis on something that affected John’s original audience. It has the advantage of making sense of the admonition Jesus gave to those historic churches in chapters 2-3, “Behold, I am coming soon.” In summary, this first view places the focus on past events in history, and deemphasizes the connections to the final judgment.
Personally, I think that this view has some real merit. I am convinced that other NT prophecies function in this way, such as the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. This prophecy of Jesus is directly related to the destruction of the temple in the context of the Gospel of Matthew. At the same time, Jesus directs his disciples to turn their attention forward to “the end of the age” when he will return. However, I think that linking the judgments of Revelation too much to the destruction of Jerusalem also misses the historic context (churches in Asia Minor) and diminishes the conceptual link to the final judgment.
(2.) The second view, which we will label the premillennial view, is that these events primarily describe a judgment that has not yet happen and will happen at the end of history. This view was made famous in books like, “Left Behind” and it is probably what most people think about when they read Revelation. The premillennial view takes its name from the reference to a 1,000 year period in which Satan is bound and the church flourishes. They believe that this represents a future period of time which is after the return of Christ, but before the final judgment. During this time, some of the promises to Israel will be fulfilled in literal ways. This view is associated with a way of reading Scripture that tends to diminish the connection between Israel and the church and looks for a way for God to literally fulfill all OT promises about the land, the temple, the people, etc. By contrast, some Reformed Scholars take a modified approach (Historical Premillennial), but many favor the first of third options.
Personally, I think that this view misses the historic context of the letter and also strives too much to make Biblical prophecy have a literal fulfillment when that is not the purpose. By placing this book almost entirely in the future, it robs us from the comfort and challenge that it is meant to bring for us now. Instead, it tends to promote an unhealthy speculation about when Jesus will return as it looks to map the scrolls, trumpets, and bowls of wrath onto modern day events. Jesus, himself, said that no one knows the hour or the day, thus discouraging this sort of speculation.
(3.) The third view, which we will label the amillennial view holds that the scrolls, trumpets, picture stories, and bowls are not meant to map onto a single event in history, but are general descriptions of how God works throughout the church age. In this view, the beginning of the sequence (opening the first seal) is conceptually linked to the experience of the early church. They were living in a time in which the judgment activities of seals, trumpets, etc., had begun. God was shaking his church (Hebrews 12:28.) But, this will continue through various cycles of renewal throughout the entire age of the church and will culminate in the final defeat of Satan, some day in the future. The name “amillennial” comes also from the interpretation of Rev. 20:2 in which Satan is said to be bound for a 1,000 years. Instead, of looking for a 1,000-year period which will happen after Jesus returns, this view understands the number to be symbolic. That is, 1,000 years represents the entire age of the church. In this understanding, Satan is bound right now, therefore the church is able to grow and expand. But we anticipate some great climactic battle in which Satan attacks the church with full fury before being finally defeated.
Personally, I hold this view to be the most attractive. It allows us to use the judgments of chapters 6-20 as an interpretive grid that can fit any conflict in which the church finds herself engaged. In this sense, it really did apply to the early church and the original context as they wrestled with Roman persecutions. So, it is not surprising to see ways in which the various prophecies seem to relate to aspects of the Roman Empire. (See Greg Beale’s massive tome, The Book of Revelation, for more details.) However, the meaning of the text is not exhausted by the first century context. It continues to apply in every cycle of opposition and persecution that the church experiences. In this sense, we are not looking for one single, particular beast (though this may take particular from as we move toward the end of history). Rather, we are taught to recognize that there are always beastly and demonic powers at work in the midst of human persecution. There is more to the struggles of the church than meets the eye. Just as Jesus is present in the midst of his church (Rev 1:12), so too, Satan stands behind the dark sweep of human history. And yet, we can be assured of his certain and ultimate defeat. Therefore, we are encouraged to stand fast. “Blessed are those who overcome.”
 There are a whole lot of nuances to these views, I will try to be general. Furthermore, there are important distinctions within these views. For example, there are huge differences between the Historic Premillennial view and Dispensational Premillennial view. But I am trying to write a blog post, not a book. So, forgive me if I miss some things when I generalize this.
Beginning in chapter four, the perspective of Revelation shifts from earth to heaven. John makes this clear with the transition, “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven!” This turns our attention from the correction of real-world churches to a different set of concerns. A voice from heaven tells John that he will be shown in this vision, “what must take place after this” (v.4:1) Which leads us to the challenging question about the timing of the events in revelation. When is "after." When do we think these things were supposed to have occurred. This is an essential part of our understanding of church history, but it is offers a very difficult interpretive challenge.
As you might imagine, there are a bunch of different ways of reading this next section. I will try to write more about this in another post for those that are interested. But there are a few really important things that we can see which are not controversial to interpret and can be seen in the text without too much trouble.
First, Jesus is the one who opens the scroll. In Revelation chapter 4 we are invited into a visionary depiction of the throne room of heaven. It is full of worship and God is central. But, chapter five introduces a problem. There is a very important scroll and no one can be found to open it. The picture of a scroll is a common prophetic device to show “divine revelation associated with judgment” The fact that it is sealed shows that this revelation is concealed. But, it also seems to show that the events are prevented from happening. If the sealed scroll represents God’s redemptive plan for the world, it is not only concealed, but we seem to be waiting for something to trigger them and bring them into effect. (Notice how the breaking of each seal seems to cause something to happen.) The good news in all of this is that Jesus is worthy to open the scroll. The lamb who was slain is worthy and God’s plan of redemption will roll forward with Jesus as the center of the plan!
Second, this is about justice. This can be confusing for us, because we think of judgment mostly as negative. But the world is a messed up and broken place. Every time we say, “why did God let that happen?” we are essentially saying that we want God’s judgment to break in. Notice how the souls of the martyrs (v.6:9) are asking for this justice, “How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Because Jesus died for the sins of his people, we can be spared from that judgment. But events which unfold in chapters 6-20 are essentially about justice being enacted on the earth. That is a warning to those who oppose God, but it is good news for his people, and for those who are oppressed and downtrodden.
Third, we can all agree that the end of Revelation is about the final judgment and the end of history. The broad middle section of Revelation (6-20) is about God’s judgment in history. There is vast disagreement about when this judgment occurs. Some say it all happened in the past, some say that it will all happen in the future, some say that it is a picture of the judgment that is generally happening in the church age. (I hold that view, personally.) But one thing that everyone can agree on is that chapter twenty shows a final battle (v.20:7-10) in which Satan is defeated and Jesus gets the final victory. Then, the dead are raised and stand before God in a final judgment (v.20:11-15.) Then God renews everything! (chaps 21-22) We will explore those themes more in coming posts, and for those who want the details about the interpretations of Rev 6:1-20:6 look for a separate blog post titled “Excurses on Revelation and History.”
Reflect: One day we will all give account for what we have said and done. Though God often allows evil people to do evil things, they will be accountable in the end. This is both an encouragement to us and a warning.
Connect: Paul spoke of the final judgment to the Greek Philosophers on Mars Hill.
Acts 17:30-31 "[God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
 Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (The New International Greek Testament Commentary). See Ezekiel 2:10, and especially Isaiah 29:11 and Daniel 12:4 for scrolls that are sealed.
Well, we are starting into our final book in the 90-day series through church history. This final book will be the most unusual and the most difficult to understand. The book of Revelation is notoriously challenging, but it plays an essential role in understanding the flow of Biblical history. Part of what makes it hard to understand is that it covers history that has not yet happened. We get to see the arc of the Biblical story from God’s perspective because he reveals it to us. It is unlike any other history that we ever talk about – because it is history that has not yet happened. Only God can reveal it, because only God has the capacity to know future events. In the next post we will go into greater depth, but we want to begin by thinking about the original audience. We will ask, who was the book of Revelation written to and what was the original purpose? (While all of the Bible is for all of God’s people, each book or letter had an original audience. For the letter of Ephesians, it was the church in Ephesus. For I & II Chronicles it was the Jewish people after exile. For Titus it was… Titus as he ministered to the church. Keeping the original audience in mind, helps us to ground our interpretation.)
The book of Revelation describes a series of visions that John saw while on the Isle of Patmos. Traditionally, this was understood to be the Apostle John, who also wrote the Gospel of John and the letters of John I, II, & III. The letter doesn’t say this explicitly, but this was affirmed from the earliest periods of church history. The first vision is from Jesus Christ himself, who is (v.17) “the first and the last… the living one, [who] died and behold is alive forever more.” What we need to see about the vision is that Jesus is “in the midst of the lampstands” (v.13), which represent the church of Asia Minor. Jesus is standing in the middle of the church and he is working to build his kingdom even when the world opposes the gospel. Like the book of Acts, Revelation is a book about the continuing work of Jesus, in and through the church. (Again, the whole time frame thing, is going to get tricky, more on that tomorrow. But we need to build this insight as the foundation.)
Jesus brings an address for seven churches in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. These cities are all real places that existed in the first century and everything about the letter indicates that this is intended to be a prophetic word of correction and rebuke for each of these churches. The number seven is a biblical number of completion and is used figuratively throughout the book. It may be that John chose to list seven churches because they are representative of other churches and this was a way to show the totality of Jesus' interactions with the first century church. But, we can ground our interpretation in recognizing that the letter is addressed to actual people and interacts with their specific situation. From here, we will be given a scope of Biblical history that can apply to all of us, but it starts with a word that is personal and specific for particular people.
And what does Jesus say to the churches in Asia Minor? He brings encouragement and correction. This is not a surprise, because nearly every prophetic word in the Bible includes some combination of encouragement and correction. Jesus is speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15,19) to the church for their good and for their growth. We see a pattern for all seven churches in that Jesus acknowledges something specific about how they are doing. Then he gives a promise (“to the one who overcomes”) and in many cases he offers a warning, (“I have this against you”, and “if you don’t stop then there will be consequences.”) For the purpose of our study, we will have to draw back from looking at the details, but they are very interesting. When our reading program slows down, I would suggest going back and looking at each church – What does Jesus get concerned about here? What are his priorities? How can I learn from these rebukes and be encouraged by these promises?
Reflect: When we see that Jesus is offering a prophetic word of correction and encouragement to the people of God, we can understand that this book is fundamentally similar to the rest of the Bible. Just as the prophets came to bring encouragement and correction to the people of Israel, and just as the apostles wrote letters to encourage and correct the early church, John offers a prophetic word straight from Jesus to accomplish these purposes. The principle holds true for us. Every church needs to be reformed or it will go astray. We all need a cycle of renewal if we are going to stay spiritually vital.
Connect: The book of Hebrews shows that discipline and correction are an act of love from God toward his people.
Hebrews 12:5-7 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.
[Note: At this point, our survey of Biblical history will again pick up speed as we move quickly through the second half of the Book of Acts. Beginning in Acts 16, the rest of the book will focus on the missionary work of Paul. I have to admit that I regret skimming this entire section in one post, but I believe that many people are more familiar with these stories and we have (fairly recently) preached through the books of Acts as a congregation. At the least, I hope that this survey will not only help to give us a big picture of biblical history, but also stimulate interest to return and read some of these books more fully.]
After the early church settles the matter of Gentiles inclusion and the ceremonial law at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, the rest of the book focuses on Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Chapters 16-17 cover Paul’s second missionary journey (the first was before the Jerusalem council in Acts 13-14.) Chapters 18-20 will cover his third missionary journey. In chapter 21 Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and the remainder of the book follows his ministry while imprisoned. The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, but “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (Acts 28:31.)” What we can learn from these chapters is that Jesus is continuing to build his church as he empowers his followers to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth”. (Remember Acts 1:8.) As this happens, we see these two principle truths emerge. First, it is happening by the power of God. Second, Jesus is using people to do it.
Sometimes, the power of God shows up in such unexpected ways that we are reminded that this could never happen without him. In chapter 16 he calls Paul supernaturally to change direction, then a demon is cast out which causes opposition, then a church is planted after divine intervention in prison. At the close of the book, we pick up the story in chapter 28 after Paul is miraculously spared from a shipwreck and then he gains a hearing among the island people when God protects him from a snakebite. In all of these things, we can see God working through both blessing and suffering to build his church. The large pattern of the story is completely out of Paul’s control, but God is working none the less.
But, in the midst of it we see something else. Paul also makes plans and takes initiative. He develops strategies for his missionary journeys, he raises funds, and he sends reports to the churches. We should not think that Paul simply wakes up each day and “goes with the flow.” He has a plan and a strategy. When in doubt, he tries to go to places where the gospel is not yet known, and seems to target larger urban centers. He intentionally goes to synagogues and looks for Jewish people to reason with (17:2,10; 18:4,19.) He also goes to the Areopagus, where the Greek philosophers meet, and reasons with them (17:22.) In each case, he reasons with people in ways that they can understand. This is part of a clear missions strategy.
So, what do we make of this? We can clearly see that the mission that Jesus gives to his church is always accomplished in his power, but always through his people. We never see Jesus act without using a member of his church. On the other hand, we never see the church grow in fruitfulness without being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, the activity is through human initiative. That is, Paul makes plans and carries them out in the power of the Holy Spirit. Other times, it is completely a God thing. For example, we know that Paul wanted to go to Rome, but the way he reached Rome was as an imperial prisoner who appealed his case to Caesar. Furthermore, no one could have thought up the strategy of starting the Philippian church by getting arrested, then refusing to leave after an earthquake. Faithfulness in ministry means both human planning and dependence upon God’s power and leading. The gospel advances by any means necessary.
Reflect: What plans are you making in your personal life to minister to the people that God has put in your sphere of influence? Are you praying and seeking God’s power to accomplish this?
Connect: In his letter to the Philippian Church, Paul reminds them that they have a responsibility to act, but that they must rely on the power of God to do everything.
Phil. 2:13 “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Jesus had told his disciples that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8.) Reaching the ends of the earth would fulfill the promise that God had made to Abraham (Gen 15) to bless all nations through his descendent. Fulfilling this mission would mean that they had to cross geographical barriers like mountains and rivers as they went to the end of the earth. But it also meant crossing cultural barriers. All humans struggle to relate across cultural barriers, but the Law of Moses had erected cultural fences around the nation of Israel. The ceremonial laws restricted the way Jewish people could interact with the outside world. The foods they were allowed to eat and how they could eat them placed a particular barrier between them and outsiders. But especially, the practice of circumcision created a visible separation between Jewish people and the other people around them.
The word “gentiles” means the nations beyond Israel. Originally, these ceremonial laws were meant for the protection of Israel because the gentiles around them were knee-deep in idolatry and sin, and associating with them led to spiritual compromise. But now, after Pentecost, the situation is reversed. God is on the move with “infectious power.” Now, the spiritual cure is crossing the barriers that had previously been erected to prevent the infection of idolatry. (This is what is happening when Peter sees a vision which declares all animals unclean. It undoes the restrictions of the ceremonial law.) As a result, God removes the barriers provided by the ceremonial law. In doing this, he opens the door for gospel transmission and begins to form a church of all nations. God testified that this was his work by giving Peter a vision, then pouring out the Spirit on the gentile believers in the household of Cornelius. The early church interprets this as a sign from God that places both Jewish and Gentile Christians on the same footing in the church. Notice how they make the connection: “The Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15.)
But, old habits die hard and forming a new community out of people who had always been separated is not easy. No sooner had Peter been directed to welcome Cornelius than he was opposed by “the circumcision party.” (That does not sound like a party that I want to go to.) Then, the diverse church in Antioch is troubled by those people who push circumcision on the new Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-2). This requires the first church council to be called and the church gathered in Jerusalem to settle the matter. Their formal ruling (15:19-20) is to not apply the ceremonial laws to Gentile believers, but they do underscore the importance of avoid idols and sexual immorality for everyone (long recognized as a gentile problem.) They do seem to ask the Gentiles to also avoid meat that was straggled and blood – either because this was so closely associated with idolatry, or because it helped the Jewish people feel more at ease.
Reflect: What we learn in this passage is that God is deeply concerned about unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He goes out of his way to bring the gentiles in through a display of miraculous power, then the early church devoted an entire council to the issue. Our unity is important to God, it is grounded in our common experience of Christ, but it also requires our effort to live into it.
Connect: In Ephesians Paul rehearses the issue of church unity and tells us that Jewish and Gentile Christians share a lot in common, including their experience of the Holy Spirit. This is demonstrated in Acts 10-11. However, he also urges the church to invest effort in pursuing this unity. This is demonstrated in Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council. How is God calling you to live into the unity that you have with other Christians?
Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Rev. Matthew Koerber
Today is Palm Sunday. A reminder of how quickly Jesus would rise and fall in public opinion. On Sunday, he entered Jerusalem to a hero’s welcome and the fanfare of celebration. By Thursday, he was betrayed, abandoned, condemned. By Friday the crowds call out – “Crucify him!” And they did. When Jesus did not turn out to be the king they expected, their opinion changed in a hurry.
For Paul, the same sort of startling transformation happens in reverse. When we first meet Paul (“Saul” as he is called by his own people), he is observing the murder of Stephen, approving of the execution. But on the road to Damascus things change quickly. He set off on the journey to capture and persecute the church, but when Jesus revealed himself to Paul – he is knocked to the ground, stunned by the revelation of Jesus as the risen Lord. He had to change his mind in a hurry. Jesus was not the sort of king that Paul had been expecting. He didn’t expect the savior of the Jewish people to endure suffering and crucifixion. He didn’t expect a king who was willing to serve others sacrificially – at the cost of his own life. When Paul reoriented his understanding of the Messiah around the risen Lord Jesus his life would also change dramatically.
In conclusion, these three chapters are full of great confusion about the identity of Jesus. The crowd in Jerusalem rejects Christ’s messenger (Stephen) as the generations before them had rejected the other prophets. Simon the magician thinks Jesus is someone he can use to advance his own personal agenda. The Ethiopian eunuch can’t figure out how to interpret the suffering servant themes of Isaiah 53. And Paul (Saul) needs a heavenly correction to grasp the identity of Jesus. Notice, the role that the Holy Spirit plays in highlighting the identity of Jesus. (v.55) “[Stephen] full of the Holy spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The Bible does not tell us that this is literally how every person will be filled with the Spirit, but the difference in our experience from Stephen’s is only in degree. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would “glorify me” (v. 16:14). Like a spotlight that shines on the theater stage, the Holy Spirit works to magnify Jesus, the main character in God’s redemptive drama.
Reflect: Do you see Jesus as both the risen Lord and the suffering savior? Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit would open our eyes to see the glory of Christ!
Connect: Jesus explained the role of the Holy Spirit on his last night with the disciples.
John 16:14-15 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Rev. Matthew Koerber
In Acts 1-2 the church metaphorically “explodes” into existence. Three thousand people were converted on Pentecost, and the thriving church had “favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day, those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). And then God shakes things up some more. We might desire nice slow growth in the same positive direction, but that is not how kingdom expansion works. The world, the flesh and the devil resist God and the mission of the Church always faces opposition, eventually. The swift early growth of the church leads to swift opposition. When Peter and John heal a lame beggar, it creates an amazing opportunity for witness to Jesus Christ in Solomon’s Portico – the very outside wall of the temple. But the religious leaders are not excited about this new religious trend. So, Peter and John are hauled before the authorities and muzzled (or there is an “attempt” to muzzle them.)
Here is where the story gets challenging. Peter and John face a crisis in their ministry. Either they submit to the religious powers, or they complete their mission for Christ – they cannot do both. They express radical commitment to Christ with these words, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). When the apostles are released they join with others in prayer to God. They request boldness to speak with confidence when facing opposition, and God grants their request with thunderous power. Notice, the request however: they request boldness to keep doing the thing that gets them into trouble. God does not promise that we can complete the mission without opposition. Instead, he promises to give us strength to endure, while facing opposition. This trend continues into chapter 5 when the apostles are rearrested and beaten for speaking about Jesus. After being released, they “rejoice that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Their prayers had been answered – not a protection from suffering, but endurance to be faithful in suffering.
Reflect: It is not wrong to pray for deliverance from the evil one, after all Jesus directs that sort of prayer when he taught his disciples. But, the apostles model a perspective on ministry that emphasizes endurance in trials, rather than exclusion from trials. Where do you need endurance in trials?
Connect: Like the other apostles, Paul understood that the Christian life is not free from suffering, particularly if we are committed to the mission of our cross-carrying savior. What Paul saw as encouragement was that suffering as a Christian aligns us with the life experience of Jesus as we share in the fellowship of his suffering. Suffering “with Jesus” transforms our understanding of what it means to suffer.
Phil 3:10 (NIV) I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
This blog is part of the ministry of City Reformed Presbyterian Church. Unless otherwise noted, the entries are written by Matt Koerber. This is part of a project that our church is doing as we read through the narrative sections of Scripture between early January and Easter 2020. New entries will be scheduled to drop automatically at 5:00 am on the scheduled day.