Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Justice of Hell

Revelation 20:10

"and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever."

This week David talked about the reality of Hell. Capitalized, proper noun, place- Hell. It doesn't get much discussion these days. It gets mentioned and hurriedly ignored as a negative we don't like to dwell on. In reality, we really shouldn't dwell on it, since scripture tells us to focus on things above, noble things, things that uplift. And so almost every time it is brought up in a sermon or blog this fact “that it is not discussed much” is highlighted.  My point being, it is rarely a thing we think about.

All that being said, Hell is extremely important. It is a place we don't want to go, obviously, but it is also a place we don't have the capacity to comprehend (eternal suffering doesn’t make sense). I particularly hate the idea of anyone going there but that doesn't mean no one does. People go there every day, and because billions are probably there already, Hell is a reality some are right now living. It's not a place they hear about occasionally in a sermon- it's a place they see, smell, taste and touch at all times.

You can think about Hell in the mild sense as "the place God allows people to go because they don't want to be with Him." This is the version that some have given to diminish the severity of its horror. When God is shown this way, as giving people what they want, it somehow makes Hell less of a problem. It’s a state of mind that you might get stuck in, but it’s almost no big deal; you’ll be fine since that’s what you wanted anyway. This is the vanilla Hell.

Hell is most popularly portrayed as “where you’ll party with all the fun people.” This brings to mind the line in Billy Joel’s song, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, ‘cause sinners are much more fun”. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that Hell would be an endlessly fun time where no one has to deal with that pesky “God” guy who spoils all the fun. This is the party Hell.

Then there’s the Hell of the Bible, which you would think would be the most believable! Jesus mentions Hell 46 times throughout the New Testament (some are repeats from different accounts of the same speech). He calls it a “lake of fire” (Revelation 21:7-8), “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12), a “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42), and a place where there’s “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).  All of these descriptions are of a place unlike the popular notion of Hell. This is the Biblical Hell.

The vanilla Hell is appealing because it tones down the punishment aspect of Hell. The party Hell is easy to popularize because who doesn’t like a party? The biblical Hell, however, couldn’t be further from these descriptions. Yes, you are separate from God, and yes, you are there because you chose to be away from Him. But you are certainly not enjoying your time, and if you do see others, it’s not a time of social bliss.

The reality of Hell is hard for us to justify, simply because our view of God is too small and because our focus is on ourselves.

First, think about creation from God’s perspective. He made creatures who started off perfect. They were given the option to disobey and did. He then covered that disobedience the only way He could, by punishing his son Jesus. Now people have the option, again, to disobey or reject that sacrifice. From that point on, what other option would you have God give? When we see this from God’s perspective, it’s easy to understand why God cannot be with those who have rejected His every advance.

Second, think about who God is and what it means to reject someone like Him. Think about it in terms of physics and Newton’s third law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” If you run into a brick wall and don’t hit it with much force, it won’t budge and all of that force will be pushed back on you. How much more if you run into a God-wall? The reaction to your rejection is equivalent to the object you’re rejecting. Since God is infinite, the rejection will be infinite. For mortal humanity that punishment seems severe, but we are not slighting a human here, this is the God who created all!

You may already believe that Hell is real, that the Hell described in the Bible is a real place. You may believe it is justified because God is infinite and this creation is about Him. But have you ever thought about it as not just a necessary and just thing, but actually as a good thing? I would posit that not only is it a good thing, but it makes Jesus’ death even more amazing.

Let me explain. Think about the worst humans in history. Now think about how you would feel if when they died, they simply ceased to exist, crossing into oblivion. Think about that and try to feel good about it. All the pain and suffering they caused others. All the atrocities they wrought, and when they met their end? Nothing. Not even a tiny slap on the wrist. They are let off scot-free. Without Hell, Justice is left unbalanced.  

Now, think about the pain and suffering that you might incur. The awful punishment that God might bring upon you if you die in your sins. Then remember that Jesus not only saved you from an eternity without God, but the punishment you would have endured while you were in Hell. He took away your sins and the ultimate effect of those sins. Though you may still experience the temporary consequences of your actions, He saved you from the end result of your sins- Hell. This thought also brings us even more joy when we realize that not only did He save us and bring us out of Hell, but He drops the awesomeness of HEAVEN on top of His mercy.

Our God is righteous, just, merciful, and good. He will punish injustice and reward those who choose to follow Him. He will give those who reject Him an equal punishment to what they’ve rejected and an amazingly unequal blessing for those who believe in Him.

1.     Why is it hard to believe Hell is justified (Romans 2:6-8)?
2.     When was the last time you talked about Hell? (Philippians 4:8 think about this verse in light of Jesus' death and how it saved you from Hell)
3.     How can we see God’s goodness in light of Hell? Can we see how it is ultimately good that those who reject God are sent away? (Revelation 21:8)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Winepress of God's Wrath

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.(Leviticus 17:11)

"So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God." (Revelation 14:19)

            In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a parable about how the kingdom of heaven is like a field of grain. When an enemy comes and plants weeds amongst the good seeds, the owner does not allow his servants to pull the weeds out just yet, or they might “uproot the wheat with them.” Instead, he instructs his servants to let the weeds and grain grow together “until the harvest,” at which point the weeds will be burned, and the wheat will be gathered in. In John 4:31-38, Jesus, again, talks about a harvest, where “the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together.” And in both Matthew 9:35-38 and Luke 10:2, Jesus tells his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”        

            We often refer to this last verse when we talk about evangelism, the sharing of the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. There are so many people out there that are willing and ready to hear more about God’s truth and God’s love, and have no one to tell them about it. But in this day and age, we often prefer NOT to think about the final harvest, the time of Jesus’ return when, as Revelation 14:19 tells us, the harvest of the grapes of the earth will be thrown into the great winepress of God’s wrath. There is something in this modern day and age that tells us that the God of love and mercy, the Jesus who forgives and heals the sinful and broken, can’t be a God of wrath- it just doesn’t compute for us. 

            This wasn’t always the case. Just take the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written at the beginning of the American Civil War, which in one verse talks of Christ dying to make men holy (grace and mercy) while in another it speaks of the “grapes of wrath” and the “fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” And God says of Himself that He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by NO MEANS clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

            David spoke about this question at length in his message on Sunday: “Is that kind of a God bipolar in some way?” I think that, in this generation, we have lost a lot of understanding of God’s character as a true and just God, and so, yes, we struggle to explain to others the seemingly bipolar nature of God. How is the law of the Old Testament compatible with the grace of the New Testament? How is the Jesus of the Gospels compatible with the Jesus who is going to release plagues and destruction at His second coming? And, more importantly, as David asked us: “Is this the kind of God you would want to worship and serve?” 

            Revelation is often, as David told us, seen as a book of doom and destruction. In this series, however, we have looked at it as a revelation of Jesus, of who God is. Revelation 15:3-4 declares that God’s ways are “just and true,” that He alone is holy, and that His acts are righteous. So if someone asks us, “Is the God you’re serving just and good in destroying the life of the wicked or the sinner?”, then our answer, according to Revelation, is yes. 

But it is a yes with the understanding that God’s wrath has already been poured out once before- onto His own son. Onto Jesus. His blood ran like wine, his body was broken like bread, and for what reason? That God’s wrath would be taken on His own shoulders, that the judgment of death for our evil deeds would be borne by Him, and not by us. 

This is the truth, then, that we so desperately need to understand: there is no mercy without wrath. There is no grace without judgment. There is no Jesus, the savior, without Jesus, the judge.

Because if we were not guilty, why would we need mercy?

Because if we were not condemned, why would we need a savior?

Because if we were not drowning and lost in darkness, if we were not weighted down with the lies and thefts and hateful things we have done to ourselves and one another, then why would we need a God of love and mercy in the first place?

“Is this the kind of God you would want to worship and serve?”

A God who sees my worst thoughts, my worst deeds, my anger and rage, my bitterness, my ugliness, knowing what I deserve for the hateful and spiteful ways I have acted towards others, and yet chooses to take that punishment for me, chooses to show me mercy when I have been merciless, chooses to show me kindness when I have been ruthless, chooses to be broken that I would be made whole- is that the kind of God I would want to worship and serve?


That is the kind of God I would want everyone to worship and serve. And one day, every knee will bow to Him.

At the beginning, I mentioned a parable Jesus told of weeds and wheat growing together until the harvest. This speaks to the other hard part of believing that God is just and true. If He is just and true, then why doesn’t He just come now? Why does He continue to allow sin and sadness, disease and destruction? Jesus Himself tells us why: Because the harvest isn’t ready yet. Because there are still hearts that He is planting seeds of faith in. Because He is slow to anger, and a merciful and forgiving God.
He is the just and true God who saw our sin, knew that it deserved death, and yet, in His love, took that death upon Himself. May we have the strength to understand how wide and high and deep is the grace and love of Christ (Ephesians 3:14-19).

 ---Reflection Points---
  1. In Revelation 15:2-4, John sees a vision of singers with harps next to the sea of glass (probably where we get our images of harp-playing angels in heaven), singing “the song of Moses.” Take a couple of hours to either read the story of Moses, as told via the Book of Exodus or to watch the film “The Prince of Egypt” (on or Amazon instant video), and reflect on how the story of Moses and Israel reveals both the justice and mercy of God. 
  2. David, towards the conclusion of his message, stated this: “I personally have come to the resolution that there is too much joy, too much love, too much work, and too much glory in partnering with Jesus to heal and redeem this world…to stop ministering over the partial answer we are given about the justice and trueness of God’s character.” Pray about where in the harvest YOU are needed to bring love and joy, and about whom God wants you to be ministering to.
  3. Beth Moore, in the introduction to her book Praying God’s Word, says this: “I’ve come to believe that God generally prioritizes one of two objectives: showing us His supremacy or teaching us His sufficiency.” I believe that this can be related to Revelation, in this way- until the day when God reigns in supremacy, we must live in the sufficiency of His grace. Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 and consider the ways that God has shown His sufficiency in your life, and the ways that He has shown His supremacy.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Soundtrack for Revelation

 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. Revelation 5:13-14

Guest Post by: Abigail McFarthing

If the person at the center of Revelation is Jesus, then the activity at the center is worship. Scenes of worship burst through the clouds of Revelation like sunset rays, illuminating and transforming even the ominous thunderheads of judgment and the hazy fog of "the end times" into things of beauty. What's more, this central activity of worship is something we get to be involved in. We may be waiting for many of the events of Revelation to be ultimately realized in the future, but the worshiping we'll be doing around God's throne has started now!

To help us meditate on the truths of Revelation and join in heaven's worship now, I've created a playlist (with some input from other worship leaders at City Church). Although worship is more than music, the worship of Revelation includes music. So I encourage you to use these songs to help you in your personal times of worship.

As I read Revelation and thought about these songs, several themes emerged which I hope can help guide our thinking as we worship:

  • God is holy (He's completely pure, transcendent, and other than us). More than any other theme, this one shines through the songs on the playlist. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty" sing the four living creatures (4:8), and we echo their song: see Agnus Dei plus any of the songs with "holy" in the title.
  • God is on the throne (He's the sovereign, reigning Lord of history). God's defining title in Revelation is "Him who sits on the throne" (5:13): "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne" (7:10). What a comforting truth for our chaotic lives! Songs that highlight this idea are Behold Our God, We Will Run/He Is Here, Our God Reigns, and Salvation Belongs to Our God, among others.  
  • Jesus is the Lamb (He's the atoning sacrifice for our sins). Thousands upon thousands of angels proclaim, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain" (5:12). Again, this is a key image from Revelation that shows up in worship song after worship song, including See the Lamb of God, Wounded One, Revelation Song, and Overcome.
  • Jesus is the Victorious Judge (He's the conquering ruler of the nations, to whom we'll give an account for our lives). This concept is a little more difficult for us to accept and rejoice in, but it's a major truth of Revelation. "Behold, I am coming soon," Jesus says, "bringing my recompense with me" (22:12). Jesus is not tame-- he's scary... yet he's good. Here are some songs that can help us internalize this aspect of Jesus (also known as "hardcore Jesus" songs... thank you, Val Tracy!*): See He Comes, Storm All Around You, Beautiful Rider, and The Eyes of the Lord.
  • Our response. In light of these great truths about who God is and what he has done, the multitudes of angels and people (and even animals, it would seem) respond with exuberant praise and deep reverence. In the words of our very own Esther Brown: "He is, and so we worship." Here are some of the best "response songs" on the list: Jesus at the Center, Adoration, We Fall Down, and Our God Reigns.
  • Heaven is going to be great! Just as Revelation paints a tantalizing picture of life in the New Heaven and the New Earth, I've added several songs (some of which aren't strictly worship songs) that engage our imaginations and whet our appetite for the worship of heaven: There Is a Day, Heaven Song, Endless Hallelujah, This Is Not the End, In Your City, I Will Rise, and Farther Along.

I encourage you to pick one or two of these themes to meditate on. You can use the Bible, journaling, and/or the songs I've highlighted as a jumping-off point to help you dig into, chew over, and rejoice in these truths about our glorious King.

*"By 'hardcore Jesus' I mean the Jesus that's coming on the fiery steed, and the Jesus who is the only one holy enough to open the seals, and the Jesus with the authority to Judge.  It's not that it's wrong to sing about the Jesus who loves us and forgives every mistake we make, and I'm glad we sing those songs early and often.  But for this series especially, and since we're trying to think of Jesus in a different way, I think it's good to worship the 'scary' Jesus who's coming to open a can of whoop-you-know-what alongside the loving and forgiving Jesus.
"I think there is something awe-inspiring and scary about the concept of 'Behold, the Lion of Judah!' and it's a slain lamb.  A sacrificial lamb is a bloody, violent image, and when I think of Jesus in that way it's weird and uncomfortable and pushes me out of my comfort zone.  But studying Revelation is about embracing the awkwardness of coming to face the Jesus you've built up in your mind and discovering that He's a lot more than you expected. Admitting that you don't quite understand and have zero control over the One who you love and who made you is discomfiting. It's not something that's easy to wrap your head around." - Val Tracy

Friday, May 1, 2015

Taking Back Our Rest

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:12-13)

This Sunday we were introduced to the second of two beasts described in Revelation 13 (Revelation 13:11). Together with the Dragon, who is identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9, and the first beast, these three gruesome beings form what Poythress in his guide The Returning King calls a ‘counterfeit’ or ‘unholy’ Trinity. They seek to be like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they consistently fall short. Nevertheless, their power is deceptive and enticing. The first beast alone is enough to make the whole world marvel (Revelation 13:3-4).
Essentially, the second beast acts like the Holy Spirit- it speaks like the dragon and exercises all the authority of the first beast (Revelation 13:11-12). It seeks to make the whole earth worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed (sound familiar?), and it performs signs and wonders to deceive the dwellers of earth (Revelation 13:14). And just as the followers of God received the Father’s name on their foreheads, so too, the beast likes to mark his followers on the forehead or the right hand (Revelation13:16). Yet, in the end, we are told that those who have the beast's mark are destined for eternal torment (Revelation 14:11). This second beast, then, is little more than a propagandist, a false prophet, promoting the devil's lies, supporting him in his bid to take people captive and keep them from God.
It all sounds kind of abstract, doesn’t it?  Dragons and beasts, marks on people’s foreheads, eternal torment... Perhaps John’s vision would have made more sense to his contemporaries. The ancient Near East had long been familiar with myths of sea monster gods producing chaos, and in first-century Asia Minor, priests promoted the worship of the emperor of the day by performing signs or ‘counterfeit miracles’. Those who didn’t worship the emperor could be at put to death for their disloyalty. In this context, then, the message would be clear- pledging allegiance to the emperor might save you in the short term, but from an eternal perspective, only allegiance to God could save.
But we also know that Revelation’s message is universal- it describes the state of all humankind. History repeats itself. We might confine our understanding of these passages regarding the counterfeit trinity to those living in countries today where Christianity is forbidden, where oppressive governments require people’s full commitment to their laws and ideologies, and where allegiance to a heavenly king is viewed as a threat to the government’s power. Yes, these places do exist, and the beast's propaganda is often more obviously at work in these places. But I would argue that even in countries where we enjoy comparative religious freedom, the beast's work is just as pervasive. The hard part is to identify where in our own lives we are falling prey to the beast's propaganda. 

On Sunday, we heard how one characteristic of the beast's worshippers is that they will never rest; whereas God seeks to give his people rest (Revelation 14:13), the beast's followers will know none (Revelation 14:11). So looking for the things that do not bring God’s peace in our lives, where we never rest, seems like a good starting place for identifying where the beast is at work. For me, the most obvious place is perhaps in my relationship with media, which is supported by increasingly sophisticated technology. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying that technology is the work of the devil or that we should abandon all progress in this area, but as I began to reflect on the message I started to reexamine my use of things like smartphones, facebook, and the internet and how they steal my rest and leave me feeling exhausted. Let me explain.
In March 2011 I got my first smart phone- it was love at first sight. So many things I could now do wherever I was, whenever I wanted. Look at maps, search google, email, call, or text people, take photos, share my photos with over a 100 friends at the mere tap of a button, read the news, check the weather forecast, play games, find out when the next bus was due to arrive, and the list goes on. I MARVELLED at it. My smartphone addiction had begun. Without being careful I could spend every spare moment (and not just the moments I have spare) on my phone. I carry it around the house. I reach for it when I’m bored. But what I’ve let into my life is a constant bombardment from the world about its preferences, its priorities, and its opinions.
Facebook is just one of the apps I regularly use- every time I scroll through I get deluged by everything from articles like ‘what my favorite (insert something here be it color, store, food, Disney character) says about me’ to announcements of births, deaths and marriages. I learn everything from what my friends (and distant acquaintances) ate for breakfast to their sometimes informed, and sometimes not, political opinions. I read this stuff when I want to rest, but most often I feel anything but refreshed after reading it. It’s not only exhausting, it’s worse than that. A friend who was considering leaving facebook recently expressed my sentiments exactly. She described the majority of time spent on facebook as depressing, empty, and disconnecting, and speaking more widely of the internet she said it made her feel alienated, frazzled, and ill.
Now like I said, I’m not waging a war on facebook or smartphones, I’m just using it as an example of something I personally struggle with. It’s just one of the many false propaganda I listen to, the noise that fills my head, which often prevents me from enjoying God’s rest. For others it might be the TV- Americans spend an estimated 4 hours watching TV per day. Or perhaps for you it is something else, like food, money, or sex.
The reason these things are so hard to kick is that they are so deceptive. Like my smartphone, they promise so much – the solution to all of life’s questions, solutions to our problems that will finally enable us to rest easy. Satan has a lot of practice, and he knows what he’s doing. Ultimately, though, we can come to rely on them so much that they become addicting; they can consume us and become exhausting. No sooner have I used my phone to solve my latest burning quest I find another reason to reach for it.
As followers of Christ, we do well to remember that we are a desert people like those in Exodus and the woman described in Revelation 12: we have been liberated from slavery and the Dragon's clutches, and we have the Promised Land ahead of us. But in order to enter it, we must trust God to be our source of nourishment in the wilderness of this world, and we must resist the false calls of Satan’s propaganda.

  1. What kind of things in your life, what activities and pursuits, currently keep you from enjoying God’s rest? In prayer, bring these things before God, asking Him to show you what you may need to lay down.
  2. Spend some time reflecting on the following verses, considering what they tell you about how to find rest in God: Proverbs 3:21-26,Hebrews 4:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30, Psalm 121
  3. Of Revelation 12:6, Poythress writes, ‘the woman [representative of the church] flies to the desert- an image that speaks of the powerful care exercised by God on behalf of his people. His people receive powerful protection, even in very difficult circumstances.’ Ask God to be your nourishment and a place of protection for the persecuted church.