Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Introduction

The kingdom of God, or the equivalent kingdom of heaven, describe the spiritual reign of Christ that began with his incarnation, was prepared for by his ministry on earth, including his teaching, death and resurrection, and became actualized on the Day of Pentecost. The kingdom of God encompasses all people who have been forgiven of their sins (made righteous before God the Father) through faith that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. It includes both those who are now alive and those that “sleep” in Christ. It is thus expresses the rule of Christ both on earth and in heaven.

The purpose of this series of posts is to show the present and very useful reality of the kingdom of God.

Electronic Christianity Three

My most humble apologies to any who may have read my post “Electronic Christianity Two” and thought I was trying to base eChristianity on the Nicene Creed. That was not my purpose at all. What I was trying to accomplish was to show there was something solid at the core of Christianity. What I wanted to point out was that just as there is a reality underlying mathematics, physics, and all other kinds of science so there is a reality to Christianity that cannot be ignored. Please forgive me if I was unclear.

Perhaps I should have used the concept of “mere Christianity” that was used by C.S. Lewis to describe his idea of the root reality of Christianity. In any case, at the heart of our belief is the actual reality of a new life that will endure forever. This is the sure promise and the ultimate certainty yet it is not all there is for us in Christianity. Although most of us have probably had our lives greatly changed through the work of the Godhead in us, what also matters is that we are a part of the body of Christ and the body needs all of us parts to be truly whole. This is why I thought up eChristianity. It is conceived as a way to bring together the many of us who are one-person churches; people who have never found their “fit” in conventional churches and provide us a unity with each other.

I am not sure how eChristianity will work but I think it can use what the Internet has made possible. It is meant to enable the coming together of many parts of the body of Christ so Christianity can better withstand the forces operating to reduce its influence in the world and in people’s lives.

Please let me know what you think.

Electronic Christianity Two

I think that eChristianity needs a solid foundation to build on. After all, Jesus told us we were to build on rock and not sand. The Nicene Creed is possibly the rock we should build on. It has stood as a basic statement of Christian belief for about fifteen centuries and during that time has withstood the assaults of many, many alternative opinions. A version from a contemporary prayer book follows.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

 

It is appropriate that the majority of the creed focuses on the person of Jesus Christ since he should be the center of all Christian expressions. In addition to giving due respect to the person of the Son of God, there are other things about the creed that we should note. It is meant to be a creed for all of Christianity. This, I think, includes eChristianity. It is sufficient. It is all we need to believe to count ourselves Christians.

We should also think some about what is not there. It speaks of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins but says nothing about how, when or for whom. The Lord’s Supper/Communion/Holy Eucharist (for this sacrament we do not have a common name and yet we all, presumably, participate) is not mentioned.

The creed also says nothing about our human attributes. What counts in the creed is our “We believe” so we can be part of the eternal world to come. It is good it is this way because just as none of us are in the same place physically, none of us are in the same place spiritually. Each of us has our own spiritual “About” yet we can be united in a common faith as presented in the creed.

Creation: Its Causes, Essence and End

“For myself I wanted to know nature after another fashion in its causes, in its essence, in its end.” (Cited in review of We Have Been Friends Together & Adventures in Grace by Raїssa Maritain, First Things, May 2016, p. 63)

What we call nature is the creation of God but only part of his creative activity. If we are to broaden the six days of creation to six stages, as it takes the complete Bible to tell us, we might say these are: (1) Conception of existence, (2) Physical creation, (3) Creation of minds, (4) Creation of human spirits, (5) Regeneration of our spirits (rebirth) and, (6) Re-creation of human bodies (resurrection). And then God presumably rests from creation for eternity, although there may be room in eternity for types of creation we have not been told about.

Causes of Creation

Creation is a product of both the mind and the power of an infinite being. It is so complex in its six manifestations that it requires not only an infinite deity to accomplish it but one that has three persons. The Father is the source of all creation. The Son is the active agent who serves the purposes of the Father and who both shapes creation and takes into own being a human person. The Holy Spirit accomplishes the spiritual parts of creation in accordance with the purposes of the Father and the Son.

Essence of Creation

The essence of creation is the bringing into existence of something that did not exist before. When we think about physical creation these can be objects as large as the universe or as small as the Higgs boson. We can note that none of these physical entities has either mind or spirit. This fact escapes the minds of the materialists who think their thoughts and everything else can be explained by what is only one part of creation.

Before there was any physical creation there was a planning session in heaven. This brought into being a literally cosmic plan for something that had never existed before. After physical creation came the creation of minds. This, of course, required the coming into existence of something else that was new—life.

There are various opinions about the role of the twenty-four elders described in the book of Revelation. They appear to be rather robotic but one of them does impart wisdom to John during one of his experiences in heaven. My own opinion is that they were created to advise the Trinity on what it is like to be finite. Before the Incarnation none of the Godhead had any experience with the limits of finite being. This may be why there appear to be some “kinks’ in the timeline of creation.

The wisdom of the elders is shown by their continual praise of the Father and Son. This is what our kind of finite beings would be doing if we were wise enough.

Back to our own reality, when our ancestors reached a certain level of physical and mental development they were ready to be given a living soul. This is something that had not existed before. It did not come from physical creation although its existence was part of God’s planning of creation. Since our souls are not part of physical creation they cannot be detected by physical means. This inability to be detected means that belief in their existence requires what is called faith. In other words, an action of our minds not our bodies.

End of Creation

The end of creation is not when the space-time continuum tears and time and space no longer exist. The ultimate end, meaning its defining purpose, is in the vast number of glorified humans who are to live with and praise their Creator forever. The end of creation would have been at the conclusion of a far straighter train of events if God had not introduced contingency and probability into his creative efforts. As it is, all the stages of creation involve vast complexities that continue to challenge the best of our human understanding.

The Woman at the Well

Amazing isn’t it. You know from the title what person I am going to write about. So did the Bible Gateway search engine, although the woman is not identified that way in the Bible. Further astounding is the fact that there were thousands of women in Palestine at wells on the day Jesus talked to a woman from the Samaritan village of Sychar but this is the only one we know about.

There is something else about Sychar that we should know. Jesus did not have to go there. When the Pharisees increased their opposition to his ministry in Judea Jesus decided to return to Galilee.  Now note this, John 4:4 (NIV) informs us, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” It is true that Samaria lies on a straight line between Judea and Galilee but that did not make it necessary for Jesus go through Samaria.  There was a route east of the Jordan River that Jesus used at other times to travel between the Jewish areas of Galilee and Judea and that was the preferred way to travel precisely because it avoided going through Samaria. The necessity for Jesus to travel as he did was that he would meet a woman at Jacob’s well.

The encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well was not related to the fact that the well was thought to have been dug by the patriarch Jacob. Jesus had to meet the woman at a well because he was going to tell her of a metaphorical spring of water that would come to her though her faith in him and bring her to eternal life (John 4:10-15). We all know that water is essential for our physical life and that we have to drink it daily to maintain our bodies. Jesus was connecting our spiritual lives with what he called living water. This is the work of the Holy Spirit within us. When we are filled by this living water we no longer thirst for the presence of God but experience it as a certainty.

Much is made in the retelling by preachers and Sunday school teachers of the story that the woman was at the well in midday. And there is no reason to doubt the woman was of ill repute in the village. After all, she had been through a bunch of husbands and now had not even bothered to go through the formalities of marriage with her present mate.

It is even not too surprising that Jesus revealed to her he was the Messiah and gave her to believe that she had been forgiven of her sins. Other people, like Matthew, who were pariahs in their own towns received the same kind of blessings from their encounter with their Savior. What seems so remarkable to me was that the people of the village listened to her and believed her when she told them of her experience.  They, too, became believers in Jesus and “said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42, NIV).

Perhaps it takes people to whom God has personally spoken to have such a certainty of their encounter with him that they are able to open others to the reality that Jesus is the Savior for whom they have been seeking. Then these people go on to read the “book” and have their own personal experience of the fact that Christ is Lord of all.

Jesus Weeps

It was a sad day in the village of Bethany. Four days earlier a popular young man named Lazarus died an untimely death and had been placed in his tomb. The mourning for him was still continuing, including even Jews from Jerusalem who had come to comfort Mary and Martha.

When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived at Bethany, she went out to meet him. This was not to invite him to come to the wake at her home but to find out why he had not come sooner when he could have healed Lazarus. At this point in the story we should stop and consider Martha’s faith in Jesus. Personally, I find it mind boggling considering the probable limits to her understanding of who Jesus was.

First, she believed that Jesus could have healed her brother had he been there. Second, she knew that Jesus would receive whatever he asked of God. Third, she believed her brother would come to life again at the resurrection that would take place on the last day. Finally, she said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world” (John 11:27, English Standard Version).

After this conversation, Martha went to tell Mary that Jesus was there. When Martha returned to Jesus with Mary, she said what Martha had said about Jesus not being there to heal Lazarus and then fell at his feet weeping. It was then that Jesus wept, being deeply touched by their grief and that of the other mourners. In addition to his sympathy for the sisters, there was another reason Jesus experienced deep sorrow.

Martha and Mary were right. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death. However, Lazarus’ death had to happen so Jesus would be glorified by his return to life (11:4). Another reason for the event was that the disciples might learn that someone could rise from the dead (11:15). Last, it would, as Thomas rightly understood, lead to Jesus’ death (11:16).

There are several reasons for Jesus’ grief. Perhaps the deepest motivation for Jesus’ tears was the understanding that doing his Father’s will would hurt the friends he loved. Jesus also had to foresee that his agony at Gethsemane and his death on the Cross would cause enormous pain to him and to those who had believed in him. However, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, his grief then turned into great joy.

In order to obey what God has intended for us to do, it may also be required of us to hurt the people we love. If that happens, let us remember Jesus weeping with his friends and then rejoicing with them, and so be able to both obey and then find hope in the larger purposes of God. Like Jesus, we too must place the Father’s will above all personal desires and yet remember, as we are faithful, the short term may be hard but the long term is eternal glory.

 

What Did the Disciples Doubt?

Matthew 28:16-20 tells us of Jesus giving the eleven disciples what we call the Great Commission. It is a familiar and much cited passage and yet there is something in it that our adult Sunday school discussion class skipped over that seemed to me of interest. This was the phrase in verse 17 “but some doubted.”

The complete verse 17 (NIV) reads “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Apparently Matthew was the only gospel writer to make this statement as no cross references are given in the NIV for this verse nor does the Oxford Study Bible provide any. As far as commenting on it, the Life Application Study Bible does not refer to it. This is not an extensive survey of possible aids to understanding what Matthew had in mind but it seems our class was not the only people willing to just let it sit there without attempting to understand how it could be true.

Another Matthew, Matthew Henry did not omit a comment on this verse. He writes “All that see the Lord Jesus with an eye of faith will worship him. Yet the faith of the sincere may be very weak and wavering. But Christ gave such convincing proofs of his resurrection, as made their faith to triumph over doubts.” What Henry writes is true in the large view but does not deal with why there were doubts among the disciples, on that mountain, on that day, with the risen Jesus present with them.

The doubt may have arisen from the fact that it was evident by then that the messianic kingdom of Jewish anticipation was not what Jesus had described when he spoke to them in his prior teaching of the kingdom of God/heaven. What was it to be and what was their role in it going to be? This seems to me at the root of their uncertainty and why it can be said that some doubted.

Jesus, as always, was aware of their concerns and, as was typical, gave them a task they had not foreseen. They were to use his kingly authority on earth to make disciples from all nations. They were to make them citizens of the kingdom of God by baptizing them in the names of the Trinity. Then they were to teach them be good subjects of their Lord, that is they would be shown how to obey the commandments Jesus had taught the disciples, love God and love your neighbor.

The disciples were only the first of many Christians who have had uncertainty about the nature of the kingdom of God and their participation in it. These doubts have often been resolved by placing the kingdom in another time or place and envisioning Christians as reigning in it. This is another version of the Jewish expectation and not at all what Jesus taught the eleven disciples gathered that day on a mountain.

Christians have also been distracted from the focus on the kingdom of God that was central the Christ’s teaching by confusing the church with the kingdom. It is clear, though, that the kingdom of God exists both on earth and in heaven while the church is an institution whose purpose is to support the spread of the kingdom and the growth in maturity of all believers. The church is both flawed and temporary, as are all the things of earth. At the end of time it will cease to exist while the kingdom of heaven, and those who belong to it, will endure forever.

The Ladder to Love

The apostle Peter in his second letter, in the context of what divine power has provided us Christians, gives us what might be called a ladder to love (2 Peter 1:5-11). The purpose of his instruction is that we might “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4 NIV).

Faith is the first rung on the ladder, as we might expect. Everything given to us in Christ is based on our belief in him and the Father.

Next, we are told to add goodness to our faith. It is a great help to us in our lives if we both be good and do good.

Knowledge comes after goodness. We might think the order here should be reversed. However, if we waited until we had great knowledge of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit we would be postponing the exercise of the knowledge we already have about things that are good to do.

After knowledge comes self-control. One of the things we will learn through increasing our knowledge ourselves is how difficult self-control is and on how many occasions it will be tested.

Perseverance is required of us because none of the steps on the ladder are easy and there are many times our feet will slip off the rungs. Without perseverance the ultimate promises given to us in Christ cannot be fulfilled.

When we think of godliness, we should think of the ability that is given to us to become more like Christ as we mature in our Christianity. We will not be perfected while still on the earth but we can hope to be markedly improved in being an image of God.

Kindness is of the nature of Christ. The Gospels tell of many instances when Jesus was kind to people who did not expect it, did not deserve it, did not understand it, and sometimes did not even thank him for it. As we come to be more like him, we will be kind just as he was to those he encountered.

When we come to the final rung, love, we are reaching what is the essence of the Trinity. Their love for us is what puts us at the foot of the ladder of love and provides the grace we need to ascend it. When we return the love given us by them, and love the people around us, we are as we were meant to be when we were envisioned before the creation of the earth.

Peter tells us that climbing the ladder of love will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then he adds a warning that if we do not seek to acquire the qualities described we are nearsighted and blind and are forgetting our cleansing from our sins.

He then goes on to tell us we should be eager to make our position in Christ sure as having these qualities will keep us from falling [into the corruption caused by evil desires?] and insure our welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 1:8-11).

Fair Warning

I am always impressed by how well the English use their language. For example, American auctioneers typically say “Going once, going twice, sold!” The English say “Fair warning!” In both cases when the gavel comes down the transaction is settled. The warning given at an English auction says two things. One is that no further offers will be accepted. The other is that the highest bid must be paid.

The Bible contains many instances of God giving people fair warning. Prophecies of destruction tell that a time will come when the cup of God’s wrath will be filled with peoples’ iniquities and it will be too late for people to repent. There are also descriptions of the heavy price that must be paid when people reject God and his standards for human behavior.

Applying this idea to present-day American society is too easy and has been done too often by “premature prophets” for it to have any traction in our culture. Where it has not been applied is to American Christianity. Christians fail to remember that what was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 was religious practices that had their origins in the desert of Sinai at the direct expression of God’s will. What happened there was no less powerful than what happened in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Yet what had been founded in the very presence of the glory of God had become so corrupt that God destroyed it without a chance for repentance and without remedy.

The first three chapters of the book of Revelation give fair warning to the churches of the United States. If their various corruptions are not remedied they will cease to exist in their present form just as the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom John wrote have long since ceased to define the nature of Turkish culture. What are these defects that must be remedied of Christianity is to remain a shaper of American values.

My analysis of our present situation will take the form of descriptions of conceptual churches. These churches are not defined by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

The first and perhaps the largest conceptual church is the cultural church. It comes in several very different expressions. Its characteristic is that its members poll on social issues almost exactly the same as the general population. This means that its attitudes and behaviors are indistinguishable from society in general. The cultural church, by some sort of paradox, tends towards attendance in traditional (mainstream and Roman Catholic) churches and in mega-churches. It exists in traditional churches because they are part of the culture. The mega-churches tend to fit the culture because their purpose is to attract as many people as possible, so they avoid, as much as they can, anything like an emphasis on doctrine that might offend anybody or cause controversy.

The pseudo-Christian church is an expression of ideological liberalism. Like secular liberals it assumes it is the reality and other expressions of Christianity are deviants that can be labeled evangelical or fundamentalist or some such. The pseudo-Christian church is where religion becomes an expression of rationalism. Everything in traditional Christian belief that requires the supernatural is removed as a reality but is given a spiritual significance. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur but it signifies something we can have good feelings about.

The pseudo-Christian church closely follows the secular spirit. Thus its big concern now is homosexual rights, before this it was sexual liberation, feminism, environmentalism, world peace, and other liberal causes. It accepts the theory of evolution and whatever else falls into the realm of the popular. You might ask why the pseudo-Christian church continues to affiliate itself with Christianity. The answer is simple, Christianity provides them with tenured professorships, social respect, sources of funding, and keeps them able to think they are something they are not.

The hyper-Christian church ignores the warning C.S. Lewis gave us in The Screwtape Letters about adding things to Christianity. The pseudo-Christian church believes too little, the hyper-Christian church believes too much. It adds worship of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and miracles as essential elements of the Christian life. It can be given some applause for bringing some fire and spirit, through the charismatic movement, to parts of the cultural church. However, in “amping up” Christianity it raises expectations higher than can be maintained thus causing disillusionment among some of its adherents.

The social-activist church should have longevity as there is a never-ending list of things needing to be done to make people’s lives better. One problem with this church is that it became a social-critique church and many of its members went from seeking to relieve poverty to criticizing the acquisition of wealth. A more serious problem from a spiritual standpoint is a conceit: If we were in charge of the world we could set everything right. The pride revealed in this mode of thinking shows up particularly in the peace and justice part of this church. The foundation of Christianity, for Christ and all believers, is humbleness before the purposes of God the Father.

The self-centered church comes directly from our self-centered society. The core of the self-centered church is an inward-looking view of what Christianity is meant to be. In this church what matters is that God thinks of them highly and lovingly. Their songs contain a lot of I, me, and my instead of second and third person pronouns such as you, he, and his. Their self-centeredness can go as far as to think that God’s happiness depends on their performance as a Christian. They think a lot about their time, their possessions, their safety and their personal peace. Obviously this church does not think much of others except in what way helping them might increase their own self-esteem.

The self-made church has two denominations. One branch believes that we can make Christianity be what we want it to be. Thomas Jefferson, who edited the New Testament to make it say what he wanted to believe, was not the founder of the first denomination but he is a good example of its members. The members of the this branch of the self-made church “cut out” the parts of Christianity that do not suit them or are not in accordance with their lifestyle or social beliefs.

The second denomination of the self-made church seems, at first, to be very unlike the first. Its members generally take the Scriptures very seriously and do their best to follow them. Where they are like the others is that they believe their Christian life and practice have to come from their own efforts. They have to make a choice, sometimes in conjunction with the saying of a prayer, to become a Christian. They are told in this part of their church there are many things they must do as a Christian in their own efforts. These directions, such as reading the Bible, praying, and doing good works, may seem good. However, this do-it-yourself sanctity can prove exceedingly difficult, often leading to the rejection of their Christianity. Or if they are successful in following the directions they are given for leading a Christian life, they can be led into self-righteousness. You can see that participation in either denomination of the self-made church is hazardous for people hoping to find completion in Christ.

There are two other churches that relate to modern philosophy. There is the rationalist church that believes that reason can create a form of Christianity compatible with modern philosophy. The literalist church began as a defense against modern philosophy by trying to make its interpretation of the Bible “scientific.” There will undoubtedly come into being, if one does not already exist, a post-modern church.

There is, as there has been since the first century, a heretical church. The length of time this church has been in existence makes it hard for it to create new heresies but its members keep trying. There is the new deist Church that seeks to allow the compatibility of Christianity and both Judaism and Islam by removing faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and eliminating the Holy Spirit. There is the new-age church that melds Christianity with both new and old forms of spirituality.

I will end my rather long list of churches with the miscellaneous church. This is the place of worship for people who withdraw from society or other Christians, people whose beliefs are so far from normal Christianity that they are a church unto themselves. Their problem is that, and the members of the other churches described here share in it, is that they violate the unity of the one church of which all Christians are meant to be members.

At this point you may be wondering why I left out the good church—the one like your local congregation—from my list. It is a principle of Christian sanctity if we think we are good enough, we are not. If you think your particular body of believers does not need reformation, it most likely does.

What all the churches on my list have in common is they have, in one way or another, turned Christianity upside down. They have made Christianity about people—church leaders, poor people, oppressed people, us, and so forth—rather than about Jesus Christ. We have come to think that it is God’s job to supply the seed, fertilizer and water so we can cultivate our own gardens. We find this much more to our liking than the idea we should be servants in the Lord’s garden.

The second problem with these churches is that those who still believe in the kingdom of God in some way misunderstand its meaning. They are much like the religious rulers Jesus spoke to. They want, and expect, a political kingdom. Someone said something like “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and what we got was churches.” And we do have a multitude of churches. What we do not have is an understanding of the proper role of these churches The function of churches is to serve the body of Christ by evangelism, exhortation, comfort and many other things not to be the be-all and end-all of Christianity. They were intended to be way stations, outposts, hospices and so forth for Christians so they could be fully equipped to live in the kingdom of God.

I do not think there can be a remaking of American society on Christian principles unless there is a return of American Christianity to the truth of Scripture. That will not occur until many, many members of most of the churches are turned right-side-up. That is, they become focused on Jesus and his kingdom as the object of their faith, love and learning rather than anything else.

If the regeneration of a significant part of American Christianity occurs, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit. What we who see the need for this change can do is allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to work in us so we know quite certainly that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As that happens, we will be freed of our illusions, delusions and ignorance so we can see what is upside-down in American Christianity and rightly work and pray for its becoming as Christ would have it. Thus, if the Holy Spirit choses to honor our efforts, and if Christ’s purposes include a reformation at this time, we will be participants in, and celebrants of, a great revival of Christian belief, and be able to rejoice in the righting of what has gone wrong.

Otherwise, let what I wrote constitute “Fair Warning.”

Revelation: A Short Version

This post was first published September 9, 2013.

Revelation: A Short Version

Revelation is a difficult book to understand. It is an apocalypse which means it is, in contemporary terms, like a fantasy. Apocalyptic and fantasy writings feature unnatural characters in unreal settings. Fantasy books contain one or more story lines in a given setting. Revelation has its two story lines in different settings and separate sections of the book although the story lines overlap to a certain extent.

The first story line begins with the author of the book, John, on the island of Patmos in approximately AD 95 and ends with the second coming of Christ at, as you can be sure, an unspecified time. The second one begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai sometime around 1450 BC. This is symbolized in chapter 13 by the descent of a beautiful woman. This second story line never ends.

The setting of the first part of the book (1:1 to 11:18) contains letters to seven churches, Christ as the Lamb worthy to open the seven seals, and the blowing of seven trumpets. These are all related to human history and happenings on earth. The second part of the book is set in heaven. John sees events featuring angels, beasts coming up out of the earth and the sea, and so forth; in other words, he is seeing spiritual events invisible to human eyes.

Revelation was written to encourage Christians to overcome the adversities of this world. These include dysfunctional churches, wars, famines, diseases, death, natural disasters, cosmic disasters, persecution, worldly ideologies, and oppressive governments. Christians have had to endure these things for almost 2,000 years. However, there are seven encouraging promises in chapters 2 and 3 for those who are victorious and continue to believe Christ’s promises.

As any attempt at researching Revelation will show you, there are many questions about every aspect of the book and many different understandings of what Revelation means. This post is not based on any one of the common interpretations of Revelation. It approaches the book as if it were any of the other books of the New Testament. This means it looks at what the book says, considers what it meant to the people who first read it, tries to understand what it says to us, and attempts to see how we can apply it to our lives to come closer to what we should be as Christians.

Story Line One: From About AD 95 to the Second Coming

We are told early in Revelation that the knowledge in the book was given to “his servant John” by sending spiritual messengers in visions to communicate “what soon must take place…for the time is near.” (1:1–3) “Soon” might present a problem to us if we think of Revelation as an end-times prophecy. However, if we think about “to show his servants” (1:1) we can see that the content of the book applies to the first readers of it, the last readers of it, and all of us who are somewhere in the middle. “Near” does not mean that John thought the second coming of Christ was about to arrive but that the history described in Revelation was about to begin.

            The first readers of Revelation were embedded in the first-century Roman Empire. About twenty-five years before Revelation was written the Romans had captured and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and scattered or enslaved the Jewish people living in Israel. The readers were subjects of a powerful, confident, and wealthy government that had a certain amount of hostility to their religion. It is hardly necessary to draw the parallel to our own time.

The first eleven chapters of Revelation provide us with an overview of what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen in the period of history from John’s life until Christ returns. As the threats to our peace and prosperity increase, we are as much in need of assurance that Christ is in charge of history as were the first readers of Revelation, and of reminders that we must remain faithful to him.

The first three chapters of Revelation might be thought the easy part of the book since the imagery is relatively clear (though not everyone agrees as to its meaning) and the basic structure revolves around the situations of seven, most likely existing, churches. The message of these three chapters is that we are to persevere in our faith in Jesus, regardless of difficulties or attractive distractions, so we will receive rewards in the life to come.

Chapters 4 through 6 begin with a throne room scene that is used to establish Christ’s worthiness to be in charge of history, and then they provide us a history lesson. Why would we need one? Because we would like to think we can make a heaven on earth out of a world in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).

The breaking of the first four seals reveals the most familiar images in the Bible—the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Most interpretations of Revelation have placed the horsemen somewhere other than in our time and place, generally at the end of the Roman Empire or in an end-times future. However, with our knowledge of history we can see that the horsemen have ridden from John’s time until the present time and most likely will continue to ride until history ends.

The opening of the fifth seal tells us of the martyrdom of Christians that continues even now. It might seem un-Christian for martyrs to complain about delayed justice and the lack of vengeance. Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). However, they are not told to forgive their persecutors but are given white robes and harps as a reward for their righteousness.

John’s vision following the opening of the sixth seal apparently includes both geological and astronomical phenomena. Perhaps it foretells the near miss of an asteroid whose gravitational pull triggers a great earthquake. Its breakup produces a meteor shower. The stresses on the earth trigger volcanoes producing dust clouds. This may be what John was seeing.

Chapter 7 gives us images of two groups of people who are removed from the hazards of history. One group, the 144,000 Jews, is given a temporary respite from the troubles of the world in order to find salvation in Jesus Christ. The list of tribes (verses 5–8) does not correspond to any list of the twelve tribes in the Old Testament. This indicates that this passage does not tell us of a formal restoration of Judaism but possibly speaks of Jews as being individually sealed.

The other people are the great number of Christian casualties of history who “are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). These are rewarded by being given white robes and palm branches, and the privilege of participating in the heavenly worship of God and the Lamb. The Greek word for tribulation, thlipsis, appears only here in Revelation in the NIV translation.

The opening of the seventh seal at the beginning of chapter 8 produces a rather surprising half-hour of silence in heaven. This may tell us there will be times when heaven is closed and prayers will go unanswered, prophecy will be unavailable, and Christians then must continue to believe in Christ by faith, holding on to the Word and the sacraments. Following the silence, there is the sounding of seven trumpets that bring disasters upon people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 contain many mysteries that, if nothing else, have tested the ingenuity of Bible commentators. We may not want to think about judgments from God because too many times we have been accused of worshipping a wrathful God. Yet, Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:18–32) appears to speak of God’s wrath as coming upon godless and wicked people and this not just at some final judgment.

At the end of chapter 11 the seventh trumpet sounds. This is the third and final woe to those who have refused to accept God’s righteousness, as it ushers in the time of judgment. It is the Second Coming for those who have remained faithful to Christ. It is also the end of John’s account of history from an earthly standpoint. As Revelation continues we are going to look at the happenings on earth and in heaven from the standpoint of spiritual beings. We are entering a section of Scripture that will need a different kind of thinking, one that may be entirely unfamiliar to us. We need to go to this new method of thinking so we can truly know more of the things of God.

Story Line Two: From the Formation of the Nation of Israel to the New Jerusalem

The second section of Revelation extends from time into eternity. It begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and extends beyond time to when and where believers live happily forever in the New Jerusalem. It seems odd that the two story lines of Revelation have different starting places, but that is because they each tell a different story. The first part is about Christians in the world. The second is about the spiritual lives of believers.

Chapter 12 begins with a glorious woman descending from heaven. This describes how God sees the nation of Israel and why the Old Testament is full of expressions of God’s love for her. Satan, pictured as a dragon, goes to war with the woman and eventually drives her into exile. The dispersion of the Jews is depicted by the woman flying like an eagle to live among other peoples. The chapter ends with the frustrated dragon turning his anger from the Jews to the Christians.

Chapter 13 shows us two beasts. The first comes out of the sea and may represent the values and power of the Roman Empire. John’s first readers struggled to maintain their Christian witness and values in a culture opposed to them. We need Revelation to remind us we are not the first, nor will we be the last, Christians to face antagonism, marginalization, and persecution.

It is the nature of the second beast to deceive humanity (13:14). His deceptions may encompass rationalism, materialism, scientism, socialism, communism, postmodernism—in short, all the isms that surround us. The second beast disguises his deceptions by giving them the appearance of good, but we should recognize that all the isms of the secular worldview are fundamentally hostile to Christianity.

The fourteenth chapter begins a series of episodes all of which show us the value of remaining faithful to Christ and the judgments that come to those who reject him. It starts with a group of 144,000 people (vs. 1–5) who have God’s name, then moves on to the second section (6–13) where the people on earth receive a last call for salvation, and next shows the beginning of the separation between those who hear the call of God and those who worship the beast or bear the mark of his name. The third part (vs. 14–20) shows the results of the separation between believers and unbelievers when the end-times arrive.

We are entering the part of Revelation where the accounts are definitely not chronological. For instance, in 14:8 an angel announces, “Fallen! Fallen! is Babylon the Great.” This same pronouncement is made in 18:2 and then elaborated upon. This repetition does not require any critical agonizing. Revelation is not a timeline. It is a vivid depiction of spiritual reality, and how could it be spiritual if it is just like what happens in the material world.

The wrath of God, symbolized by the contents of seven bowls, is poured out on non-Christians in chapters 15 and 16. These seven plagues are said to be the last ones. The results are various forms of spiritual suffering but the unbelievers still continue to reject the rule of God, while their attempt at self-rule is destroyed at Armageddon (16:16).

Chapters 17 and 18 are full of imagery and serve as another challenge to interpreters. The Great Prostitute, whatever she may represent, drinks the blood of the saints but is destroyed by the beast she rides. This is described in 18:4–8 as God giving back to the prostitute the evil she has put into the world and paying her back double for the spiritual blood she has caused to be shed.

Chapter 19 begins with a celebration of the destruction of the Great Prostitute/Babylon and ends with the death of the second beast and the prophet, and those who were deceived by them. In between these two events we get a foreshadowing of the marriage feast of the Lamb and a picture of Christ as a victorious warrior. We are comforted here by seeing the end of the times of evil and knowing we are closer to our final blessing.

In chapter 20, the earth comes to an end. The present earth is not a suitable habitat for those whose names are written in the book of life, and there is no remedy for its defects except destruction. We should note that there is no battle at the gathering of Gog and Magog. Fire simply comes down from heaven and devours the multitude (20:9). Satan is returned to the lake of burning sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were thrown (20:10).

In chapter 21 we come to Christ’s judgment of humanity. The result of his righteous judgment is either a second life or a second death (21:6–8). The second life is given to those who overcome; the second death is for those who are “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars (21:8). It is for all those who reject ultimately the righteousness of God. The second death can be people ceasing to exist. This would be eternal but it would also demonstrate God’s mercy in two ways. It would be short in duration and satisfy those who claim to welcome nonexistence after this life.

Conclusion

We might wonder why so many people risk the second death instead of choosing the eternal life available in Christ. However, we who have chosen life are told in Revelation how hard this choice may become. As for Revelation, we are told to keep its words in our lives so as to do the things it tells us to do. The two different story lines of Revelation, the historical and spiritual, supply the balance we need in our lives as we seek to mature in our Christianity.